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Kundera on the novel

From review of one of my favorite contemporary author’s new book:

According to Milan Kundera’s similar literary theory of “the curtain,” we grow up with cultural preconceptions that “pre-interpret” the world and close off various aspects of experience. He writes that “a magic curtain, woven of legends, hung before the world. Cervantes sent Don Quixote journeying and tore through the curtain. The world opened before the knight errant in all the comical nakedness of its prose.” Ever since, the true novelist’s ambition “is not to do something better than his predecessors but to see what they did not see, say what they did not say.”

In the first of Kundera’s seven chapters, he stresses that the novel explores human nature. In contrast to the high-mindedness of ancient epic and tragedy, fiction’s prosy emphasis is on “the concrete, everyday, corporeal nature of life.” After their battles, Homer’s heroes never wonder if they still have all their teeth. “But for Don Quixote and Sancho [Panza] teeth are a perpetual concern — hurting teeth, missing teeth. ‘You must know, Sancho, that no diamond is so precious as a tooth.’ ” While heroes always demand our admiration, he adds, the characters in novels only ask to be understood.

In his second chapter, Kundera emphasizes that “cultural diversity is the great European value,” then goes on to analyze provincialism — an over-emphasis on one’s own national art and literature just because it’s American or Czech or French. “Indifference to aesthetic value inevitably shifts the whole culture back into provincialism.” His third chapter explores the “soul” of the novel, in particular how 20th-century writers turned fiction away from “fascination with the psychological (the exploration of character) and brought it toward existential analysis (the analysis of situations that shed light on major aspects of the human condition).” In The Trial, we learn almost nothing about Joseph K.’s childhood, love affairs or emotional past, for Kafka doesn’t need to make his protagonist seem three-dimensional. The only thing that matters is that he be appropriate to the existential situation, the horrible tangle, he finds himself in.

“Every novel created with real passion aspires quite naturally to a lasting aesthetic value, meaning to a value capable of surviving its author. To write without having that ambition is cynicism: a mediocre plumber may be useful to people, but a mediocre novelist who consciously produced books that are ephemeral, commonplace, conventional — thus non-useful, thus burdensome, thus noxious — is contemptible. This is the novelist’s curse: his honesty is bound to the vile stake of his megalomania.”

“Every reader, as he reads, is actually the reader of himself. The writer’s work is only a kind of optical instrument he provides the reader so he can discern what he might never have seen in himself without this book. The reader’s recognition in himself of what the book says is the proof of the book’s truth.”

“Against our real world, which, by its very nature, is fleeting and worthy of forgetting, works of art stand as a different world, a world that is ideal, solid, where every detail has its importance, its meaning, where everything in it — every word, every phrase — deserves to be unforgettable and was conceived to be such.”

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