Discussion of three essays taken from Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel (1986)

September 29th, 2014 § 0 comments

Below are three articles that I wrote in June 2010 in response to three essays in Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel.  In light of continuing discussions in social media on points related to these, I thought I would present all three together in order for them to serve as a meditation on these issues that continue to generate discussion as to what constitutes “art” and “the novel.”

“The Depreciated Legacy of Cervantes” and a refutation of “there are no good nor bad books”


At the suggestion of Zoran Živković, I have begun reading Milan Kundera’s collection of essays, The Art of the Novel.  I plan on writing seven essays [ended up being only three] based on something that I read within each of his essays.  First up is the opening essay, “The Depreciated Legacy of Cervantes.”  It is fitting that I read this essay today, considering certain comments I’ve read on Twitter and various blogs, including one by author Mark Charan Newton, that have claimed that “there are no good nor bad books.”  This argument, misguided and wrong-headed as I believe it to be, actually fits in well with some of Kundera’s points about the “depreciated” role of the novel.

Kundera devotes much of his first essay to outlining the history of the European novel from Cervante’s seminal Don Quijote to the late 20th century.  In particular, he focuses on how the limns of adventure and wonder within the novel have shrunk over time, until the notion of “adventure” has come to contain almost as many pejorative aspects as it did wondrous ones.  Also, the issue of “time” has become more and more regulated due to the rise of History as this conjured agent of delimitation.  Here Kundera explains this:

Half a century after Diderot, in Balzac, the distant horizon has disappeared like a landscape behind those modern structures, the social institutions:  the police, the law, the world of money and crime, the army, the State.  In Balzac’s world, time no longer idles happily by as it does for Cervantes and Diderot.  It has set forth on the train called History.  The train is easy to board, hard to leave.  But it isn’t at all fearsome yet, it even has its appeal; it promises adventure to every passenger, and with it fame and fortune.

Later still, for Emma Bovary, the horizon shrinks to the point of seeming a barrier.  Adventure lies beyond it, and the longing becomes intolerable.  Within the monotony of the quotidian, dreams and daydreams take on importance.  The lost infinity of the outside world is replaced by the infinity of the soul.  The great illusion of the irreplaceable uniqueness of the individual – one of Europe’s finest illusions – blossoms forth. (p. 8)

It is in this shrinking horizon, where the imaginative yearnings have been directed inward until a point is reached where the fantastical has been internalized to where even fancy has become something “mental,” that Kundera explores in the middle sections of his essay.  He notes that with these changes have come calls for the “death of the novel.”  From the Futurists to the Surrealists and to all avant-gardes in-between, they have seen the novel, Kundera argues, as being a historical relic; it has “dropped off the road of progress.”  But the novel is much more resilient than that.  Whether it be the inner fragility of the movements, political and artistic alike, that have proclaimed the “death” of the novel (or of History or of Politics), the novel form has survived to the present day, albeit in a different form over the past two centuries’ span.  How does Kundera explain the novel’s persistence?

But hasn’t the novel come to the end of the road by its own internal logic?  Hasn’t it already mined all its possibilities, all its knowledge, and all its forms?  I’ve heard the history of the novel compared to a seam of coal long since exhausted.  But isn’t it more like a cemetery of missed opportunities, of unheard appeals?  There are four appeals to which I am especially responsive. (p. 15)

Kundera discusses four appeals:  the appeals of play, dream, thought, and time.  Before novelists shackled themselves to the empty throne of Realism, there were more “light” and “playful” novels, novels such as Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and Diderot’s Jacques le Fataliste that contained possibilities that the later Realist novels failed to capitalize.  Although Kundera does not discuss the separate “fantasy” offshoot that developed in reaction to this shift toward Realism, there could be a corollary to his first “appeal” referring to how a byproduct of this desire for “play” was the rise of settings in which both the author and reader alike have explicitly accepted to be irreal and impossible.  The appeal of “dream” is also associated with this missed opportunity by some writers to combine the irreal and the real to create a state where reality and dream intermingle and influence each other.

The appeals of “thought” and “time” are harder to put into words.  Kundera posits that if novelists were to “marshal around the story all the means – rational and irrational, narrative and contemplative – that could illuminate man’s being; could make of the novel the supreme intellectual synthesis (p. 16).”  What truly is revealed in most novels about our favorite topic, our own selves?  As for “time,” Kundera argues that narrative “time” has become too constricted and that perhaps it would be for the best if “time” could be broadened or dilated out, to where it is not a weighty millstone tied around the narrative’s neck.

However, it is in the final two parts of Kundera’s essay where I find counterarguments to claims made that it is “impossible” to judge if a novel is “good” or bad.”  Those who usually make this argument tend to note that so much depends upon the vantage point of the observer and how there are too many subjectives involved for there to be any true “objective” rationale for sorting through the qualities of each word.  That is a facile argument.  It is too easy to abdicate the ability to judge and measure, all in the name of fearing that one is “wrong” or that someone is “biased.”  It is, as Kundera notes, a “reduction” in which “Husserl’s ‘world of life’ is fatally obscured and being is forgotten. (p. 17)”  Kundera goes on to argue:

Now, if the novel’s raison d’être is to keep “the world of life” under a permanent light and to protect us from “the forgetting of being,” is it not more than ever necessary today that the novel should exist?

Yes, so it seems to me.  But alas, the novel too is ravaged by the termites of reduction, which reduce not only the meaning of the world but also the meaning of works of art.  Like all of culture, the novel is more and more in the hands of the mass media; as agents of the unification of the planet’s history, the media amplify and channel the reduction process; they distribute throughout the world the same simplifications and stereotypes easily acceptable by the greatest number, by everyone, by all mankind.


This common spirit of the mass media, camouflaged by political diversity, is the spirit of our time.  And this spirit seems to me contrary to the spirit of the novel.

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.  (pp. 17-18)

This is a key point he makes here.  Today, it is too easy to say it’s an “either and/or” situation and leave it at that.  There is no wrestling that takes place; all is shrugged off with “well, it’s a good or bad book, depending upon how you look at it.”  Such an attitude is meant to absolve the reader of any responsibility, but when responsibility on the part of the reader is abdicated, then the remaining two legs of the Author-Text-Reader tripod threaten to topple.  Truth, whether it be some commonly-held universal or individual particles based on received fact and acquired analysis, is not the same as a truism that is passively and blithely passed around like a joint.  Here, Kundera harkens back to Cervantes’ famous phrase on history in the first part of Don Quijote to make the counter-argument that truth (and by extension, the ability to discern good from bad, quality from crap), cumbersome and useless as it may be, is something that is worth wrestling with and fighting over.  As for the issue of perspective, Kundera continues:

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. (pp. 18-19)

Too often, people want to made an immediate, snap decision.  There is little confrontation with the idea that the novel says many things to many people at the same time.  Sure, this multiplicity of viewpoints may be taken, upon first glance, as being ammunition for the notion that one cannot judge if a novel is “good” or “bad,” but a deeper delving reveals the opposite.  It is through individuals’ processing of what is contained within the novel and the realization that there is more than just a single take on it that forces the Reader to realize that there are not just other Readers out there, but that the Text is a dynamic entity that can yield varying levels of information about itself, its world, the reader, and the reader’s world.  A good text allows for more levels of interaction, with as few impediments as possible.  A poor text, on the other hand, will either yield up all of its secrets upon a cursory glance or it will be so opaque in its mechanics as to prevent a diligent reader from being able to harvest its crop of knowledge.

Doubtless, there are those who are going to argue that works such as Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun might fall under this “poor novel” category because of the perceived difficulty in harvesting all of its treasure troves of theme and plot.  To that I would counter by noting that such a novel is constructed in a form upon which it can be interpreted on multiple levels; there is more for those who wish to delve deeper and to ask further questions of this text.  Instead of the text impeding the reader, perhaps the argument could be made that there are readers who are so inclined to take the surface for the bedrock that they have impeded themselves from considering further the novel’s purposes and potential meanings.

So while it is easy to make the argument that it just depends upon where one stands if a work is “good” or “bad,” in reality such assertions are a fallacy; discernment is not just an individual’s tool, but also a societal one.  After all, since individual members of a society are influenced by their relationships with their native cultures and to any other cultures to which they may have been exposed, how we value ideas, especially those expressed in novel form, is a much more critical issue than just “well, your mileage may vary on this book.”  It is through individuals wrestling with how to discern what is quality and what is not that a rough consensus is formed.  It is not a perfect, immutable consensus; people, after all, are too flighty for that.  Instead, it is a portrait of the Reader as a global unit that serves to illuminate just how that Reader (singular and group entity alike) has come to process and to sort which works will endure and which will be relegated to the dustbins.  To argue that relative judgment is absolute ignores the evidence that in the aggregate, there are works that are enduring and those that are not.  The issue of the novel, beyond that of its good/bad qualities, resides not in the future, but in our pasts and presents.  After all, as Kundera notes, the future can be a horrible judge.


“Sixty-three Words” and the transformative power of words in translations


Growing up, a traditional retort to namecalling was “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me.”  Nearly thirty years later, it has become evident that there is something key being left unsaid in that ditty.  Whether or not words may “harm” someone, the fact is that words serve to transform people, or at least their surroundings and their relationships with those surroundings.  Words form bonds that shape our subjective existence and if a word is misapplied or misunderstood, great changes can occur.

Nowhere is the transformative power of words more evident than in translation.  In his sixth essay in The Art of the Novel and in his Author’s Note to The Joke, Czech author Milan Kundera discusses how translations can affect the reading and processing of a work.  Flaubert famously declared that he sought le seul mot juste when writing.  Translators (taking into account the Latin translatio, which roughly means “transference”) are expected to transfer or bring across (delving further into the semantics of the Latin original) into a new language as much of the syntax and semantics of the original as possible, to find that single just or good word.  It is a noble goal, but oh is it a Sisyphean task!

Kundera regales the reader (in French for this tale, despite the novels at hand originally being written in Czech) with horror stories of translators that reordered his novels’ chapters, of deleted scenes, of the style being made more ornate in the translated tongue than what Kundera had intended, and even of sentences being chopped up and puréed to suit the fancies of the translators rather than the aims of the author.  Traduttore tradittore indeed.

This is a very sensitive issue for writer, translator, and reader alike.  Personally, this topic has been weighing on my head more and more in recent months.  Although I have blogged about translations before and have provided samples of how I would have translated passages differently from the published translations, I no longer speak as an amateur translator, for I have already cashed a check in payment for a translation which is scheduled to be published later this year [that was my translation of Augusto Monterroso’s “Mister Taylor,” which appeared in the World Fantasy-winning anthology, The Weird, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer].  This is a very serious matter.  After all, Kundera says:

…translations are everything

The writer who determines to supervise the translations of his books finds himself chasing after hordes of words like a shepherd after a flock of wild sheep – a sorry figure to himself, a laughable one to others. (pp. 121-122)

For the translator, the task is different but equally risible for those who have not undertaken such a task.  As flexible as English is in some aspect (look at all of the names we have for shades of color), in other aspects it is a rigid language, locked into a pattern where in declarative sentences the subject ought to come before the verb and that multiple layers of dependent clauses are frowned upon, if not actively discouraged.  But in other languages, nouns and adjectives can pile one atop the other, with direct and indirect objects indicated by case endings, with the verb packing its punch at the end, or sometimes the middle or even the beginning, depending upon the effect that the author aimed to achieve by the placement of one word after another in order to create an aural tapestry that pleases and instructs the reader as to the author’s intentions.

Now take that sentence and imagine how it might look like in another language.  Say, for example, Spanish.  Would I choose to have everything in the indicative mood, or could I alter the intent somewhat by recasting it as a contrary-to-fact subjective mood?  Would the ordering of the clauses be the same, or would there be the need to shift them around in order to create a different effect?  And if so, how much would the meanings change with the syntax?

This reordering in translation is very evident to me as I am currently re-reading (and yet reading anew) Serbian author Goran Petrović’s Ситничарница Код спрћне пуке in the Serbian original (for the first time) and re-reading the Spanish translation, La Mano de la Buena Fortuna.  Although my Serbian is very rudimentary to say the least, I understand enough now to see quite clearly that his translator, Dubravka Sužnjević, had to invert clauses and to reconstruct several multi-clausal sentences in order to approximate what Petrović had crafted in the original Serbian.  A reader of this story in Spanish would in no sense get the same story as would a Serbian writer – the emphasis on certain words would have shifted necessarily in order to accommodate what that Spanish-reading reader might expect.

The importance of a single word, placed just so, is even more apparent when a reader such as myself is reading two non-native languages and finds himself thinking about the passages in a third, remotely-related language.  We are often so careless with our expressions, barely regarding just how we say and why we say what we say.  Writers and translators have to hone their words, creating an artistic tapestry that a reader can interpret and translate as s/he sees fit.

Kundera became quite frustrated in having to pore through the various translations to see if his intent was borne across relatively intact.  At a French editor/friend’s urging, he undertook writing down a list of sixty-three words that encapsulated the semantic battles being fought in his novels.  While I will not list those sixty-three words or those “definitions” that Kundera supplied for them, I will pose this question:  When faced with the barely definable, how do you reach out and grasp it?  For example, how do you represent “being” and “beauty?”  Do you shade their meanings, leaving it up to the reader to decide how the author intends for these to be examined, or do you, if you are a translator, try to capture as much of the essence and power of those words in a translation that reflects not on the translator’s understanding of the words, but on those of the original author?

Words have a great power.  The difference between “shit” and “manure” is not one of smell, but in how each is viewed in relation to other words surrounding them.  So too is the relationship between a faithful and unfaithful translation.  Something may be lost in all translations, but just what and how and why that is so important is what lies at the heart of the matter.  Words, especially those in translation, do transform how we view the situation, n’est-ce pas?


“Dialogue on the Art of the Novel” and other related dialogues


The dialogue perhaps is one of the most important forms of communication available to humans.  With it, differences in views, understandings of the world and its inhabitants, or strategies to approaching the wonders and mysteries of this planet are bridged.  This is not to say that those who engage in dialogue end up with a homogeneous viewpoint; this should never be the sole aim of the dialogue, even in those situations where viewpoints become aligned.  No, the dialogue allows its participants and those contemplating those participants the ability to converse about matters that otherwise might be outside the purview of any single person.

In regards to literature, dialogue is extremely important.  Not just within the plot of a story when characters are conversing back and forth, revealing information and thoughts for the reader to process, but on other, perhaps deeper levels.  In his dialogue with Christian Salmon, Czech writer Milan Kundera delves into the various dialogues one can have with the novel at hand.  It is important to note that this third essay is actually the first part of a two-part edited conversation (or rather, dialogue, as the author prefers) on matters of novel interpretation and understanding.  In another of his essays, “Sixty-three Words,” Kundera mentions how much he hates the tyranny that is the edited interview.  I withheld discussing that point in my second essay on his essays precisely because I wanted to shift it to discussing the second essay in Kundera’s The Art of the Novel.

A dialogue is a two-way street; there is sharing and there is absorption of ideas and viewpoints.  Over the course of the past six years, I have come to know several authors.  But I have always wondered why it was that for those whom I conversed with more frequently via email before interviewing them, those interviews felt a bit “flat” to me and that the questions and answers felt a bit stiff and unnatural in places.  I do not believe it is due to the Q&A nature of email interviews; I suspect much the same would have occurred if it had been a magazine-style edited phone or in-person interview.  But the real issue, I suspect and which Kundera’s comments have reinforced, is that the traditional interview formats do not allow for much dialogue; the interviewer controls the pace and flow, as s/he asks the questions and the interviewee is mostly relegated to reacting to those questions.  There is little of the back-and-forth that is found in true conversations and dialogues.

The same could often be said of reviews.  The average reviewer, whether it be an online or print reviewer, often does not enter into a dialogue with his/her subject.  The Text is something to be drained of information and spat forth upon the printed/electronic page to be consumed by that review’s readers.  In the case of complex, multi-layered texts, such a review approach is tantamount to strip mining; the textual landscape of that novel is devastated by the ripping out of a few choice quotes or passages, with no integration of the whole into the review narrative.  There is no dialogue that occurs in those novels; the reviewer just plunders the surface of the Text and moves on.

But there is so much more to a Text than just the reading of it for content.  Salmon and Kundera delve deeper, exploring just how important dialogue is in the crafting of the art of the novel.  Below is one key element of this delving, beginning with Salmon’s questioning of Kundera’s concept of the novel:

C.S.:  Your conception of the novel, then, could be defined as a poetic meditation on existence.  Yet your novels have not always been understood in that way.  They contain many political events that have provoked sociological, historical, or ideological interpretations.  How do you reconcile your interest in social history with your conviction that a novel examines primarily the enigma of existence?
M.K.:  Heidegger characterizes existence by an extremely well-known formulation:  in-der-Welt-sein, being-in-the-world.  Man does not relate to the world as subject to object, as eye to painting; not even as actor to stage set.  Man and the world are bound together like the snail to its shell:  the world is part of man, it is his dimension, and as the world changes, existence (in-der-Welt-sein) changes as well.  Since Balzac, the world of our being has a historical nature, and characters’ lives unfold in a realm of time marked by dates.  The novel can never rid itself of that legacy from Balzac.  Even Gombrowicz, who invents fantastical, improbable stories, who violates all the rules of verisimilitude, cannot escape it. His novels take place in a time that has a date and is thoroughly historical.  But two things should not be confused:  there is on the one hand the novel that examines the historical dimension of human existence, and on the other the novel that is the illustration of a historical situation, the description of a society at a given moment, a novelized historiography.  You’re familiar with all those novels about the French Revolution, about Marie Antoinette, or about the year 1914, about collectivization in the USSR (for or against it), or about the year 1984; all those are popularizations that translate non-novelistic knowledge into the language of the novel.  Well, I’ll never tire of repeating:  The novel’s sole raison d’être is to say what only the novel can say. (pp. 35-36)

But there are other dialogues as well, namely that of Reader and Author, Author and Text, as well as Reader and Text.  Kundera’s view on dialogue with the novel is a very active one, almost too aggressively so.  In discussing his stories, he phrases the dialogues he has had with his texts in ways that almost seem to be that of declaring the dictatorship of the Author in determining the interactions with the Text.  But in this particular passage, I want to engage with Kundera’s words in a way perhaps different from what he intended or maybe what he believes.  While I do agree that verisimilitude has bound novel forms ever tighter to those constraints found in Histories, I cannot help but wonder if in this particular dialogue Kundera may have overlooked just how authors can free themselves from the expectations created by the received truths found in dates and time.

Some of the best writers I have read have overcome the strictures that Kundera notes that bound even the likes of Gombrowicz by simply eliminating the ties that bind.  Poe’s fictions never contained a single solid date; this allowed for more freedom in manipulating the time of fictional events.  Saramago’s fictions never contain character names, only descriptions assigned to characters, in addition to the unmooring of the narrative from a real or imagined date or “past.”  Readers confronting these narratives which are divorced from time/space/nomenclature either have to enter into a dialogue with that novel, trying to understand what the Text is saying, how it is saying it, and why the Author perhaps chose to construct that Text that way.

Authors perhaps view the primary dialogue as being between them and their Texts.  To some extent, there is some truth to it.  There may be allusions contained within the text to events which only the Author or those close to the Author may understand.  However vigorous Authors may claim that they conceived their Texts with themselves as being the principal Audience, once a Text is made visible to others, the Text then can be free to be entered into dialogues which may diminish or even exclude the Author. For example, take Harper Lee’s classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.  Whenever I re-read it, as I am currently doing for the first time in several years, I like to engage myself with the Text, taking not just Lee’s portrayals of Southern life in the mid-1930s as being a reflection of cruel, capricious realities then, but also as a narrative on elements in my own life that have largely disappeared in my lifetime.  Perhaps Lee wrote the novel in part to reflect these shifts that have taken place in Southern societies over the past century, but I would suspect that such a reading, complementary but not wholly subservient to the primary narrative on Race, might not jibe completely with her; she is, after all, two generations older than me, and our memories of vanishing youth contain different milestones.

But yet dialogues like mine are what make the Novel so important.  If the Author-Text dialogue were to be the only primary dialogue occurring, then there would not be as much conversation, as the Author would be dictating the Text to the Reader.  However, if a Reader enters into a dialogue with a Text and thus comes into fleeting contact with the Author and seeks to understand more about both Text and Author, this opens up possibilities for the Text to be interpreted and reinterpreted in numerous, exciting, and illuminating fashions long after the Author is buried and the Text’s first edition is a relic.  For as long as there are readers seeking to find more than just content (the strip mining of the novel) and instead seek to open themselves up for possible change through the course of entering into a dialogue with a Text, the art of Reading (itself a component in the composition of the Art of the Novel) will flourish.

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