How important is Milan Kundera today?

On the first page of Milan Kundera’s new novel published in France last year when its author was 85 a man is walking down a Parisian street in June, just as “the morning sun was emerging from the clouds”. His name is Alain. We don’t know his age, or what he looks like, but we know that he is an intellectual because the sight of the exposed navels of the young women he passes in the street inspires him to a series of reflections, each one an attempt to “describe and define the particularity” of different “erotic orientations”.

Who else could the writer of this passage be than Milan Kundera? Two of the main tropes of his novels are present and correct, in the first page and a half: first of all, the primacy of the male gaze, fixed on the female body, “captivated” by it, and spinning an elaborate theory on the basis of what it sees there. Second, the lofty reach of that theory, which homes in on “the centre of female seductive power” as perceived not just by “a man” but “an era”: testifying to the ambition of a novelist who has made it his life’s work to forge connections between the individual consciousness and the shifting currents of history and politics.

The Festival of Insignificance, then, is certainly typical Kundera, if not classic Kundera. It is an old man’s book and, while there are flickering signs of a mellow and playful wisdom, it would be surprising if there were not something autumnal about it. A glance at the back covers of Kundera’s novels in the Faber editions reveals a raft of quotes from the likes of Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie and Carlos Fuentes, most of them more than 30 years old, reminding us that his reputation was at its zenith in the 1980s, the decade when everbody was reading The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

Why did those books seem so urgent, so indispensable at the time? Was it because they coincided fleetingly with the zeitgeist, or do they embody something more robust and enduring? How will history judge them? His reputation will rest, it seems fair to say, on the three great “middle period” novels: The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Immortality. Before these, we have a triptych of serio-comic novels – The Joke, Life Is Elsewhere and Farewell Waltz – vividly evoking the milieu of postwar and communist-era Czechosolovakia without staking out a claim to the formal originality that would become Kundera’s hallmark. Afterwards, we have the trio of terse, slender novellas – Slowness, Identity and Ignorance – whose very titles announce their philosophical leanings as much as their status as fictions.

The middle-period books, however, are the ones that saw Kundera finding not just his distinctive literary voice but his perfect form. They are novels of exile, written in exile. He left Czechoslovakia in 1975, having by then been dismissed from his teaching position, deprived of the right to work, and seen his novels banned from public libraries. His arrival in Paris coincided with a significant change of literary direction. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting eschews traditional linear narrative and unfolds, instead, as a nest of interconnected stories, held together in part by a handful of recurring characters but more firmly by recurring themes, words, motifs. It was as if weighing the anchor of his homeland meant that Kundera had also freed himself from the bonds of formal convention. The novel had an incredible fluidity, an enviable relaxed ease in its transitions from storytelling to essay-writing and back again.

The inseparability of form and content: this is the one of the things Kundera’s work teaches us. Writing in the novella Slowness about the most famous book of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, Kundera observes: “The epistolary form of Les Liaisons dangereuses is not merely a technical procedure that could easily be replaced by another. The form is eloquent in itself and it tells us that, whatever the characters have undergone, they have undergone for the sake of telling about it, for transmitting, communicating, confessing, writing it. In such a world, where everything gets told, the weapon that is both most readily available and most deadly is disclosure.”

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