“That life is a trap we’ve always known: we are born without having asked to be, locked in a body we never chose, and destined to die.” – Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel
I am currently reading Milan Kundera’s L’arte du roman (The Art of the Novel in English), a collection of Kundera’s views of the novel & its history, from the perspective of a practitioner and not a theorist. Kundera is extremely insightful about the history of the novel and its different phases so this book really is a must-read for anyone who cares even remotely about the novel as a form and how it historically developed in Europe. Kundera seems to have read everything (but then, most great authors seem to have read almost everything: great works are begotten by not one but all their forefathers, and still less by their authors, I feel).
L’arte du roman was first published in 1968: the very configuration of these numbers is of course symbolically loaded and culturally significant, being the year in which protests swept the world, in which radical theories and philosophies were born (sous les pavés la plage!) – and all that. Et cetera. So this little collection comes within a context (although it is a collection, so one must not contextualize too much – each little segment of the book probably has its own unique circumstantial birth), a zeitgeist in which modernity and society were both held up to scrutiny and questioning (and sometimes even rejection). Nonetheless, I feel that much of what he says is still worth keeping in mind, today – our own times of mechanical and technical reproduction are not so very different to the concerns voiced by Kundera here, even if his pessimism about the ‘death’ of the novel seems now, to us, who live in the times of writers as great as J. M. Coetzee, who live in times when the novel has come to have histories – as opposed to the monolithic ‘European’ history Kundera focuses on in this text – somewhat hyperbolic.
“The novel’s spirit is the spirit of continuity: each work is an answer to preceding ones, each work contains all the previous experience of the novel. But the spirit of our time is firmly focused on a present that is so expansive and profuse that it shoves the past off our horizon and reduces time to the present moment only. Within this system the novel is no longer a work (a thing made to last, to connect the past with the future) but one current event among many, a gesture with no tomorrow.”
Nonetheless, it is worth taking away this point from Kundera’s reservations: his accusation that the “spirit of the time….reduces time to the present moment only” points at (to me, anyways) the flaws in the expectations some people have of novels. I cannot stop thinking about Coetzee’s Foe, and the accusations it drew from people – that it was irrelevant to the South African situation at that time. I quote from Michael Marais’s essay, ‘Death and the Space of the Response to the Other in JM Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg‘ (long postmodernist title is long!):
“During the Apartheid era in South Africa, for instance, a form of criticism developed that took for granted the status of history as an a priori system in its relation to the literary text…..this mode of historical criticism values those literary texts that unambiguously addressed the substantive issue of racial oppression. Quite understandably, in this climate Coetzee’s writing was found wanting – one remembers, for example, the acrimony, even dismay, with which the publication of Foe in 1986 was met…“
A novel’s refusal to engage directly with the politics of its context do not detract from its aesthetic merits: the novel is first and foremost a work of art, one which was born from and serves the function of (more often than not) of representing experience, the self, time, etc – all of those things. But it is not a newspaper article, or a feature in a magazine, for it to engage in an explicit way with whatever is going on the world. It has no obligation to live in the ‘present’ moment; its obligations to ‘discovery’, identified by Kundera as the overriding raison d’etre of the novel form, sometimes necessarily demand a transcending of ‘the present’.
The sort of historical criticism described by Marais above is hardly a thing of the past. Book reviews left and right look for relevance, for the direct addressing of political issues (not realising, or emphasizing, perhaps, that all novels will be inherently politicized anyways, in a number of ways? Foe to me has such relevance for not only the South African situation of the 1980s, but for oppressed peoples and oppressive situations all over the world, given what it has to say about silence, stories and voices – I find it astonishing that people expected something more ‘direct’). This is not to say that a sort of journalistic novel would be bad or wrong on any level: the very roots of the English novel lie in its relationship to the news, and Defoe did wonderful things with it. All I am saying is that we shouldn’t force our expectations for this sort of writing onto novels which choose very consciously to diverge from it. I find it irksome that people expect authors to address specific social contexts all the time, when (a) they probably do, in subtle ways and (b) their works are perfectly good enough without having to do so.
This spawned into a much bigger rant than it was intended to be – so now, as usual, a climb-down to my original intentions: I was going to post a couple of quotes from the Kundera book and exhort people interested in theories of the novel to read it (people interested in more can look here!). It is not a ‘theory’, strictly speaking – it is more of a collection of views, from one of the best ‘practitioners’ of our time, and possibly also (I think) one of the most interesting readers of our time.
“The novel’s spirit is the spirit of complexity. Every novel says to the reader: ‘Things are not as simple as you think.’ That is the novel’s eternal truth, but it grows steadily harder to hear amid the din of easy quick answers that come faster than the question and block it off. In the spirit of our time, it’s either Anna or Karenin who is right, and the ancient wisdom of Cervantes, telling us about the difficulty of knowing and the elusiveness of truth, seems cumbersome and useless.”