Kundera’s Man of Feeling

Michael Wood

  • Immortality by Milan Kundera, translated by Peter Kussi
    Faber, 387 pp, £14.99, May 1991, ISBN 0 571 14455 1
  • Storm 2: New Writing from East and West edited by Joanna Labon
    93 pp, £5.00, April 1991, ISBN 0 00 961513 X

Milan Kundera writes novels, but are they philosophy or fiction? Kundera himself (in an interview collected in The Art of Novel) finds the comparison with philosophy ‘inappropriate’: ‘Philosophy develops its thought in an abstract realm, without characters, without situations.’ That is what a certain tradition of philosophy does. But when Richard Rorty describes philosophy as turning to narrative and the imagination, pointing us towards solidarity through ‘the imaginative ability to see strange people as fellow sufferers’, we seem close to Kundera’s work, and to much traditional thinking about what fiction will do for us.

Conversely (and like many modern philosophers), Kundera examines particular words (‘tenderness’, ‘vertigo’), turns them over, defines them in relation to his characters. Tenderness is ‘the fear instilled by adulthood’, the creation of ‘a tiny artificial space in which it is mutually agreed that we would treat others as children’; vertigo is ‘the intoxication of the weak’. He calls this business of investigating words (and characters and situations) ‘meditative interrogation’ or ‘interrogative meditation’, which sounds more like Descartes than Dickens. Kundera goes on to say his narrative/verbal ‘definitions’ are ‘neither sociological nor aesthetic nor psychological’. His interviewer proposes ‘phenomenological’ as a possibility, which Kundera courteously says is not bad, but refuses.

We are left, I think, with fiction which must be philosophical in some sense, but won’t call itself that. Kundera attributes to Hermann Broch ‘a new art of the specifically novelistic essay ... hypothetical, playful or ironic’ (Kundera’s italics). Tone is very important in this context – Kundera calls his own tone playful and ironic, like Broch’s, and adds ‘provocative, experimental, or inquiring’. His essay on Kitsch in the sixth section of The Unbearable Lightness of Being is, he says, not only part of the novel but ‘unthinkable’ outside of a novel: ‘there is a great deal of reflection, experience, study, even passion behind it, but the tone is never serious. What is seriousness? It is, Kundera suggests in his introduction to his play Jacques and his Master, what literary critics can’t do without, the ingredient whose absence drives them to panic. ‘Serious is what someone is who believes what he makes others believe.’ A novelist who was serious in this sense would be in bad shape. The appeal and the challenge, as Kundera says, thinking of Broch and Musil, is ‘not to transform the novel into philosophy’ but to bring to the novel ‘a sovereign and radiant intelligence’.

Immortality is rather too winsome at times and dips too often into pop sociology, but it is also an extraordinarily rich and elegant and engaging work, a proof that novelists can afford (even analytic) intelligence, that they don’t need to keep secrets from themselves. Or that self-consciousness doesn’t have to be crippling, opposed to an awareness of the world.

Characters in Kundera acquire psychologies and histories, but they start out and continue to function chiefly as images, provocations: a man staring at a wall, or repeating a phrase; a woman arguing, putting on her glasses, shaking her head; a girl sitting in the middle of a major road amidst rushing traffic. These images are not illustrations of pre-formed thoughts, but they are not simply pieces of novelistic behaviour either. They are meetings between persons and notions, or more precisely, written, re-created, invented records of such meetings. ‘I have been thinking about Tomas for many years. But only, in the light of these reflections did I see him clearly. I saw him standing at the window of his flat ...’ An elderly woman leaving a swimming-pool makes a young woman’s gesture of goodbye:

  Her arm rose with bewitching ease. It was as if she were playfully tossing a brightly coloured ball to her lover ... The instant she turned, smiled and waved ... she was unaware of her age. The essence of her charm, independent of time, revealed itself for a second in that gesture and dazzled me. I was strangely moved. And then the word Agnes entered my mind. Agnes. I had never known a woman by that name.

Who are Agnes and Tomas? Who is ‘I’? Agnes and Tomas are independent (albeit imaginary) persons, not mere projections of Kundera, in spite of his saying that the characters in his novels are his own ‘unrealised possibilities’. They are sympathetic guesses at other minds and lives, combinations of wish, observation, extrapolation. They resemble people we have met, and better still, people we have yet to meet. ‘I’ is a textual version of Milan Kundera, author of the novel we are reading, and (in Immortality) of other, mentioned novels, Life is elsewhere, for example. He is not of course writing before our very eyes, and he is not exactly reporting on the way he writes. He is miming the art of the novel, producing a picture of the sort of interest a character has for him; not unravelling fictions but showing us how they get ravelled.

Kundera, or ‘Kundera’, expounds a theory about character in Immortality suitably wrapped in irony and questionable context, but powerful all the same. He distinguishes between the Latin notion of reason (ratio, raison, ragione) as inescapable rationality and the German Grund (ground, basis). We have reasons for our actions, Kundera is suggesting, we inspect motives and causes, but we also have grounds, deeper, irrational inscriptions governing much of our behaviour. A Freudian would wonder why Kundera was avoiding the notion of the unconscious, and various jokes about Jacques Lacan in this novel suggest the evasion is deliberate. The answer, I think, is that a ground could be intuitively understood – in a fiction, for example – while analysis might never take us beyond reasons, however buried they initially seemed. ‘I am trying,’ Kundera the novelist says in this novel, ‘to grasp the Grund hidden at the bottom of each of my characters and I am convinced more and more that it has the nature of a metaphor.’ His companion, the portly and eccentric Professor Avenarius, says, ‘Your idea escapes me,’ and Kundera replies: ‘Too bad. It is the most important thought that ever occurred to me.’

The tactic here is the double bluff, with complications. This is not the most important thought that has ever occurred to Kundera, or even to ‘Kundera’, and it is in any case absurd to speak of your own thought as important, especially when it doesn’t look better than a bright idea, isn’t even sketchily worked out. The dramatised implication, though, is not that the idea isn’t important but that Kundera, quite properly, doesn’t know how important it is. Metaphors, in this argument, are means of comprehension rather than decoration or escape – perhaps the only means we have. This is a self-interested claim for a novelist to make, a defence of the trade, but it is not a self-absorbed claim. It states, I think rightly, that if we can’t imagine others, if we are not in some modest way novelists in our daily lives (historical novelists perhaps), we shall not understand much of anything.

Kundera pictures the girl sitting in the middle of the road, for example, as having felt herself unheard by others, become anxious to assert her presence in a world which has refused to acknowledge her.

  Or another image: she is at the dentist’s, sitting in a crowded waiting-room; a new patient enters, walks to the couch where she is seated and sits down on her lap; he didn’t do it intentionally, he simply saw an empty seat on the couch; she protests and tries to push him away, shouting: ‘Sir! Can’t you see? This seat is taken! I am sitting here!’ but the old man doesn’t hear her, he sits comfortably on top of her and cheerfully chats with another waiting patient.

Such a project of imaginative understanding is a generous, even an ‘important’ one. But we have to see, as Kundera so clearly sees, how flimsy it is. Better to guess at the girl’s feelings than to have no feeling for her. But what if we learn that she felt nothing of the kind? Some writers of fiction will say it doesn’t matter, but most will try another metaphor.

Tomas is a character in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Agnes in Immortality. There is a strong connection between the two novels, spoofed in the new work in a brilliant, multi-storeyed joke. Kundera tells Avenarius he is writing a new novel (this novel), and announces what will happen (what does happen) in the next section. Avenarius thinks the promised novel sounds pretty boring, but he wants to be polite, and asks ‘in a kindly voice’ what it is called. Kundera doesn’t hesitate.

‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being.’

‘I think someone has already written that.’

I did! But I was wrong about the title then. That title was supposed to belong to the novel I’m writing right now.’

In the earlier novel Kundera invited us to wonder, with Nietzsche, how we would behave if everything we did were to be repeated, were loaded with the weight of return. Here we are to think of gestures prolonged into immortality. Would we do it all again? What wouldn’t we do again? Would we – here is the hard question – wish to stay even with the people we love? Could we admit that we might not wish to? Agnes loves her husband Paul and her daughter Brigitte but not as much as she loves the memory of her dead father and the peace she finds in certain places away from her job and family and ordinary life. She is not unhappy with marriage, or France in the l980s, but she wouldn’t want them for eternity.

One of the most poignant and ambiguously beautiful moments in the novel records Agnes’s death, a compound of horror, waste and a kind of grace. Agnes has been fatally injured in a car crash (caused by the girl sitting in the middle of the road, who herself walked away uninjured). Her husband, desperate to be at her bedside, has been delayed by an absurdist twist in the apparently absent plot: Avenarius, given to randomly slashing tyres at night as a gesture against the drift of the world towards order and repression, has disabled Paul’s car. Paul arrives too late, finds his grief baffled by an ‘unknown smile’ on Agnes’ dead face: ‘it was meant for someone he did not know and it said something he did not understand.’ It was meant for no one. Agnes had not wanted anyone to see her dying, or to die into anyone’s world. She had longed for a realm without faces, and believes she has found such a realm as she dies. Her smile reflects her gratitude or her illusion; a happy end, unhappy only for the excluded Paul.

Others who worry about immortality in this novel are Goethe and Bettina von Arnim, whose relationship is fancifully re-created and analysed; Napoleon, posing for posterity as if our cameramen were already there; Beethoven, refusing to doff his hat for an empress; and above all a series of fictional characters in contemporary Paris, Agnes and Paul, Agnes’s sister Laura and her lover Bernard, a fashionable and insecure radio interviewer, Agnes’s lover Rubens, whose nickname mocks his abandoned artistic ambitions. The central and most interesting figures are Agnes and Laura, affectionate, intelligent, often distraught women who are alike and unalike, and both born of the old lady’s young gesture as she leaves the swimming-pool.

Kundera himself must be anxious about the test of eternity – would he want to spend it writing novels, or writing these novels? – and amusingly gets his characters to bite back at him. He invents Agnes and Paul and then, much later, meets Paul, drunk and mildly abusive, a disappointment but not now dismissible. Professor Avenarius circulates freely between worlds, has lunch with Kundera but also (probably) sleeps with Laura. The girl who sits down in the roadway has a similar double life: she appears as a news item on Kundera’s radio (and possibly on ours) and is then incorporated into the novel he is writing and we are reading. She is in a sense the most important figure in the book: the one we understand least and who causes the most havoc, an image for the limits of reason. She is coincidence itself, a figure whose loneliness and distress cause the deaths of three sets of people quite unrelated to her. This is exactly what we mean by an accident. Taken up into a novel, though, such an accident becomes a metaphor: a Grund not for character but for the way we experience the order and disorder of our lives, the instrument of a crazed, disreputable, modern form of fate.

Some of Kundera’s best pages, here and in earlier work, are dedicated to the dry, grimly comic deconstruction of what he calls homo sentimentalis. ‘Homo sentimentalis cannot be defined as a man with feelings (for we all have feelings), but as a man who has raised feelings to a category of value.’ This is the world of Kitsch, the world where we worship emotion, and then worship our worship of it, charmed by the delicacy of our own tears. Dostoyevsky is Kundera’s touchstone in this respect, the great, perilous teacher of the authority of suffering; and Mahler is the last great European composer who ‘naively and directly’ wanted to move us.

I think therefore I am is the statement of an intellectual who underrates toothaches. I feel therefore I am is a truth much more universally valid ... Suffering is the university of egocentrism.

This austere joke is quite complicated. Kundera is asking us to think not about the dignity or reality of suffering but about the way we abase ourselves before it. Descartes, in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, is attacked for denying that animals have souls, and Nietzsche, embracing a whipped horse in Turin before his last madness descended on him, is memorably said to be ‘trying to apologise to the horse for Descartes’. In Immortality Descartes’s presumed ignoring of toothaches seems not only cerebral but stylish, a moment of light before Europe plunged itself into an orgy of boastful suffering. The shift nicely illustrates Kundera’s claim that philosophy is necessarily playful in novels, that dogma must become hypothesis. Philosophers themselves become characters with changing roles: ‘Descartes’ here is not René Descartes the person, and not the corpus or reach of Descartes’s philosophical work; not even Descartes’s general reputation. He is a pair of famous remarks, and the images they evoke; a miniature colleague of Agnes and Tomas.

Kundera’s humour in Immortality is often so ascetic as to be scarcely visible. As with Borges, it wouldn’t be hard to mistake his games with philosophy for an unreconstructed philosophy itself, and we can already imagine the scholarly works which will re-literalise his speculations, smudge their contexts and mislay their irony. At other times, as if to compensate for the austerity and slyness of the jokes, Kundera becomes both coy and lumbering.

The translation, by Peter Kussi, reads fluently but seems a bit brutal here and there. I can compare it only with the French version published last year, but that serves, Kundera says, as an original text alongside the Czech. Thus I’m not sure that we get quite the right feeling about Laura and her change of lovers when we are told that she ‘went through many men’, or that the mock solemnity of chez les époux Goethe quite comes across in ‘at Goethe’s’. I mention these things not to carp but to recall the importance of translation and to suggest there must be a lighter Kundera tone we need to guess at. It seems admirably caught here in the terrible casualness of a phrase about ‘our century of optimism and massacres’.

‘Coincidence is the best form of intention,’ a character says in a story published in Storm 2, the second number of an attractive new publishing venture, a magazine in paperback book form, and the riddling thought seems to translate Kundera’s Western world back into the East. Elsewhere in the same story – ‘The Land at the Next Table’, by the Romanian Herta Müller – there are paths in fields which are ‘so broken that only madness crawled over the skin and the land’. We get really interested in coincidence, perhaps, in places where madness and reality are hard to tell apart. The volume also contains a haunting extract from The Book of Numbers, a novel by the Polish writer Pawel Huelle, in which mysterious things happen in a house in (I think) Gdansk, a young man traces East European history through his father’s interest in short-wave radio, and memorably practices an awkward smile for his trip to America: ‘Crossing the threshold of the New World imposed certain obligations, and even with the best will in the world, Piotr could not rid himself of the suspicion that the grimace was simply a reflection of all the mental baggage he was taking with him. It was the naive, ridiculous grimace of the East European Man, whether Pole, Czech or Hungarian, the grimace which always gave them away at first glance, like an empty wallet or a badly cut suit ...’ There is no such grimace. What there is, what reaches us quietly across this wry self-mockery, is a darkly comic vision of a newly hesitant culture: the Decline of the East.