ENCOUNTER: ESSAYS Milan Kundera
Two years ago, a Czech newsweekly announced that in 1950, a young Milan Kundera had informed the Communist authorities about the presence of a Western agent in the country, leading to the latter’s arrest and incarceration. Kundera, however, termed the report “an assassination attempt”, denying it completely. The incursion of the past into the present; of one identity into another; and of the political into the personal: the episode had some of the hallmarks of Kundera’s own fiction.
The nature of fiction, its role and development and the responsibility of the artist have, as a matter of fact, been subjects that have pre-occupied the Czech émigré of late, evident from his non-fiction work such as The Art of the Novel, Testaments Betrayed and Curtain.
With his latest, Encounter, he continues these speculations. This comprises a collection of pieces of varying lengths written over the years – some disappointingly short, some not; some revised, some not. Here, there are musings on modernity, on novelists close to his heart, and on artists and musicians that he feels ought to be better known. Those who are familiar with Kundera’s novels will find many of the same themes that are present there, such as the nature of nostalgia, questions of representation and selfhood, and the role of comedy at a time when humour is the last thing that one would expect.
A dominant and important strand of thought in Encounter is the view of the novel as “a completely necessary investigation” into society and the individual’s role within it. In particular, Kundera says, “the art of non-seriousness” is one of the unexplored alleyways of the novel, with Rabelais as one of its chief exemplars. He rues the drowning out of the 18th century writer’s narrative voice – puckish, individual, and colloquial – by the more formal rhythms of the 19th century novelist, a theme he had also written about in Testaments Betrayed.
When it comes to more recent changes in the novel’s form, Kundera says that it was after World War One that the sheer size and externality of events had the potential to transform human beings as much as, if not more than, changes from within – and it’s the novelist’s job to understand and reflect this.
There are many scraps, gleanings and observations on novels that have struck him over time, and he unlocks their art by using unconventional keyholes. For example, Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude has him musing on how most protagonists of great novels do not have children, or his riff on the role that nostalgia plays in Philip Roth’s Kepesh books. (As for the former observation, one could offer Roth’s own Swede Levov from American Pastoral as a rebuttal.)
Kundera is, of course, steeped in the European avant garde and there are several references throughout to writers and artists of that movement – some familiar, many not. He also shines a searchlight on novelists that he feels should have a wider audience. There are, for instance, two lengthy essays dealing with the 19th century Frenchman of letters Anatole France and his The Gods Must Be Thirsty, and the 20th century Italian writer Curzio Malaparte and his The Skin.
Music and art also feature in these pages, with Kundera analyzing the essence of Francis Bacon’s paintings – comparing him with Beckett in being modern in a world that is wearying of the modern. Then, there’s a meditation on the operatic works of Czech composer Leos Janacek and his status as a European anti-romantic standing against kitsch. Both of which once again remind one of Kundera’s own work.
Though for most of the time Kundera wears his learning and opinions lightly, there are also moments of despair, such as in a 1995 piece written to commemorate 100 years of cinema. Here, he says that film as technology nowadays is “the principal agent of stupidity…and of worldwide indiscretion.” He continues: “We have come to the era of post-art, in a world where art is dying because the need for art, the sensitivity and the love for it, is dying”. At least we still have those such as Milan Kundera to remind us that absolute fidelity to the novel and to art is not only important, but vital.