Milan Kundera’s new book on the art of the novel begins with an essay on the art of painting. The essay is about Francis Bacon, and it was written in 1995—when Kundera had been living in France for twenty years, following his emigration from Communist Prague. It opens with him recalling how in fact he first wrote on Bacon soon after leaving Czechoslovakia: “still obsessed by recollections of the country which I had just left and which still remained in my memory as a land of interrogations and surveillance.”
So Encounter begins with a memoir of Prague in 1972, when Kundera was forty-three.:
I met with a girl in a Prague suburb, in a borrowed apartment. Two days earlier, over an entire day, she had been interrogated by the police about me. Now she wanted to meet with me secretly (she feared that she was constantly followed) to tell me what questions they had asked her and how she had answered them. If they were to interrogate me, my answers should match hers.
Five years earlier, he had published his first novel, The Joke, and a year later, in 1968, he put out the third and final installment of stories that became his collection Laughable Loves. But after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in September of that year and the installation of Gustáv Husák’s government of “normalization,” Kundera was dismissed from his post—he taught at the Prague Film Academy—and his books were withdrawn from bookshops and libraries. Officially, he had become a nonperson. His next two novels—Life Is Elsewhere and Farewell Waltz—would not be published in Czechoslovakia but by the émigré publishing house 68 Publishers, founded in Toronto in 1971 by the Czech novelist Josef Škvorecký and his wife Zdena, who had emigrated soon after the Russian occupation.
This experience of invisibility is the background of Kundera’s dark story from 1972. The girl was very young, he writes, and she was terrified. Their anxious conversation was embarrassingly interrupted by her recurrent visits to the toilet. Until then, writes Kundera, he had known only this girl’s composure: she had always been reserved. Yet “suddenly, like a great knife, fear had laid her open. She was gaping wide before me like the split carcass of a heifer hanging from a meat hook.” With this savage metaphor, the story’s deep meaning begins to emerge—it is not about politics, but about what happens between a man and a woman in a room, and it closes on a horrific confession:
The noise of the water refilling the toilet tank practically never let up, and I suddenly had the urge to rape her…. I wanted to bring my hand down brutally on her face and in one swift instant take her completely….
And it’s only here, at this endpoint of black self-exposure, that Kundera finally emerges into his meditation on the art of Francis Bacon:
Uncalled for and unconscionable, that desire was nonetheless real. I cannot disavow it, and when I look at Francis Bacon’s portrait-triptych [of Henrietta Moraes] it’s as if I recall it. The painter’s gaze comes down on the face like a brutal hand trying to seize hold of her essence….
A totalitarian memoir—told with a brutal candor—has become a reflection on how the body can betray the self. For the body, writes Kundera, as revealed by Bacon’s portraits, is pure contingency: “an accident that could as easily have been put together some other way—for instance, I don’t know—with three hands, or with the eyes set in the knees.” Which Kundera himself discovered, by observing his terrified friend in a borrowed apartment:
For that young Prague woman it was no longer the police that she had to face up to but her own belly, and if someone was presiding invisibly over that little horror scene, it was no policeman, or apparatchik, or executioner, it was a God—or an Anti-God, the cruel God of the Gnostics, a Demiurge, a Creator, the one who has us trapped forever by that “accident” of the body he cobbled together in his workshop and of which, for a while, we are forced to become the soul.
To begin a book on the art of the novel with an essay on Francis Bacon might seem, I suppose, elusive: it might seem a digression. But Encounter—like Kundera’s previous collections of essays, The Art of the Novel, Testaments Betrayed, and The Curtain—has its own particular form. Although its material, all written between 1980 and 2008, consists of uncollected essays, introductions, texts for catalogs, reviews, and articles for newspapers, it is not a simple collection of picked-up pieces.
The book covers a zigzagging range of art forms, eras, and countries: not only the painting of Francis Bacon but the music of Iannis Xenakis and the novels of Rabelais, Patrick Chamoiseau, and Josef Škvorecký. These multiple elements are all variations on a fugitive central theme. Of the book’s nine parts, four consist of a single long essay; the others contain varying numbers of smaller pieces. Through this syncopated rhythm, where high-speed juxtapositions suddenly slow and then accelerate again, Kundera obliquely explores his grand subject: to define his personal idea of the art of the novel, in an era when “history, imperative and avid, rears up before a man and seizes hold of him.”
The opening essay on Bacon, therefore, is a small study in his larger technique. It is an allegory. After all, “when one artist talks about another,” writes Kundera, “he is always talking (indirectly, in a roundabout way) of himself, and that is what’s valuable in his judgment.” In Kundera’s portrait, Bacon was a melancholy artist. He thought that he was painting at the end of painting’s long history. And this melancholy, in Kundera’s analysis, explains the stripped-down savagery of Bacon’s work; in such a state of last things, it was the only meth od possible:
Living through the end of a civilization…, the ultimate brutal confrontation is not with a society, with a state, with a politics, but with the physiological materiality of man.
Yes, the essay is really a self-portrait; for it was Kundera who, in occupied Prague in the early 1970s, believed that he was living through the end of a civilization—and whose art was therefore skeptical of society, or the state, or politics. When the Prague Spring was crushed, it seemed to him, history had been revealed as catastrophe. Or, as Václav Havel once noted, Kundera believes “that amnesia rules history and that history is an inexhaustible source of cruel jokes.” For Havel, this was pure exaggeration—“an excessive extrapolation of [Kundera’s] own disillusionment.” Havel responded to the Soviet-style repressions of Husák’s government with political activity—essays, petitions, committees—culminating in the publication of Charter 77.
But Kundera did not share the optimism underlying Havel’s politics. His disillusion was indelible. In Encounter, he writes how he had observed “a world sliding toward the abyss of a dictatorship whose reality no one had foreseen, desired, imagined, especially not the people who had desired and celebrated its arrival.” His conclusion was a refusal to trust ever again in “a collectivity that blinds us with its dreams, its excitements, its projects, its illusions, its struggles, its causes, its religions, its ideologies, its passions.” Instead, his only fidelity, he decided, would be to the art of the novel—the experimental art that began with Don Quixote:
If the future is not a value for me, then to what am I attached? To God? Country? The people? The individual?
My answer is as ridiculous as it is sincere: I am attached to nothing but the depreciated legacy of Cervantes.
It is a moment of dandyism, true: but a considered, elegiac dandyism—scratched out against a black background of historical disaster.
In his collections of essays, Kundera has offered a sustained defense and clarification of this attachment. And now, twenty-five years after The Art of the Novel came out in English, Encounter represents his most intimate attempt at exposition, interrupted by memoirs of Prague and of his emigration: “an encounter with my reflections and my recollections, my old themes (existential and aesthetic) and my old loves….” Outlined against the forgetting of history, Kundera traces his sense of a fragile avant-garde tradition: a hyper-novel that invents and preserves a panoply of formal possibilties, as it conducts its exuberant philosophical experiments.
Or, in Kundera’s initial grand definition, novels are “existential soundings.”
What this might mean is sketched out in the second and third parts of Encounter. First, there is a staccato series of brief pieces, often little more than two pages long, on disparate novels—from Dostoevsky and Céline through to Philip Roth, Juan Goytisolo, and Gabriel García Márquez; there then follows a longer essay on Anatole France’s historical novel of French revolution and counterrevolution, The Gods Are Thirsty. In these essays, Kundera tries to offer an account of each novel’s particular intuition about the world. Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, he writes, uncovers the “comical absence of the comical“; while Philip Roth’s The Professor of Desire discovers how, in the era of the “acceleration of history,” a life can straddle more than one historical period. So even a love affair, writes Kundera, is now lived in the nostalgic glow of other, outmoded forms of love.
The novel is for him a laboratory for essential experiments. “For in a novelist the passion to know is not aimed at politics or history,” he writes in the essay on Anatole France: instead, the novelist is an examiner of mysteries. France’s The Gods Are Thirsty might look like a novel ironizing the passions of the French Revolution—but its true interest is more fundamental, in the more abstract discovery of the form of France’s narrative: the “cohabitation of unbearably dramatic history with unbearably banal dailiness.” For France’s novel, in Kundera’s description, is not just about 1789. It can be read as a diagram of every revolution.
These essays are startling for their barbed, swift acuity but they are also only preludes: they are notes toward a larger subject. Kundera’s real theme is more elusive, and it becomes clearer in the brief, mercurial elements that make up a new section, “The Dream of Total Heritage.” It contains a series of apparently unrelated pieces, including a dialogue on Rabelais; an essay imagining that Beethoven wrote his sonatas dreaming as “heir to the whole of European music since its beginnings”; and a final piece on Xenakis’s rejection of the entire tradition of music. Through the darting movement of these pieces, a sharper silhouette of Kundera’s ideal form emerges—the arch-novel: the most novelistic literary object possible.
The first description of this ideally inventive novel—a novel that exploits all possible resources of the novel’s history—is offered in Kundera’s dialogue on Rabelais. Céline once praised Rabelais for the profusion of his language: “All the rest (imagination, creative power, the comical, and so on), none of that interests me.” Kundera, however, is impatient with this “reduction of the aesthetic to the linguistic.” He finds in Rabelais not just linguistic abundance but a “profusion of forms: virtuosic, exuberant, playful, euphoric, and highly artificial.”
Rabelais’s formal multiplicity allowed Kundera to resolve a dilemma that haunted him as a novelist, which he summarizes in an open letter to Carlos Fuentes. He felt a fidelity to both the modernist revolution in art and also the novel as a form, but these fidelities, according to the strictures of a certain Parisian purity—the attack on the novel as a form in Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto, or later in Roland Barthes’s Writing Degree Zero—were not always convergent. Or as Kundera describes it, with an aphoristic exaggeration, “the avant-garde (the ideologized version of modern art) has always relegated the novel to a position outside modernism.” And when, in the 1950s and 1960s, the nouveaux romanciers invented their version of the avant-garde novel, “they did it in a purely negative way: a novel with no characters, no plot, no story, if possible no punctuation: a novel that came to be called the anti-novel.” It isn’t that Kundera dislikes the anti-novel’s deep philosophical uncertainty: its refusal of psychology, its distrust of plot, its emphasis on surface. He simply questions its corresponding formal monotony. And so, as Kundera writes to Fuentes, his solution to the avant-garde novel was different: he imagined
the modern novel not as an anti-novel but an arch-novel. The arch-novel would, primo, focus on what only the novel can say; and secundo, it would revive all the neglected and forgotten possibilities the art had accumulated over the four centuries of its history.
In the long essay that follows, “Beautiful Like a Multiple Encounter”—an account of the shimmering novels by the Martiniquan novelist Patrick Chamoiseau—these themes rapidly recirculate and reform. Chamoiseau’s dreamlike, prancing style—based on rapid episodes, on the suspension of ordinary probability—derives from another experimental tradition that was suspicious of the novel as a form: the Surrealist avant-garde. For Chamoiseau’s mentor was the great Martiniquan Surrealist, the poet Aimé Césaire. But his true fidelity, writes Kundera—inventing a transparent bridge between sixteenth-century France and twentieth-century Martinique—is to Rabelais, whose experimental presence is audible in the garrulity with which Chamoiseau tells his tall stories. In the novels of Chamoiseau and Rabelais, “the improbable comes from nothing but the raconteur’s offhand style.”
Formally original, delightedly mindful of its history, the arch-novel is reckless in its pursuit of the truths hidden within the everyday. In disrupting the usual accounts of the world—whether through the skeptical irony of Roth and Anatole France or the fantastical imagination of Rabelais and Chamoiseau—Kundera’s arch-novelists are committed to a philosophical freedom. The nonserious is the homeland of the arch-novel. Each one extends the range of the comical into unthinkable areas, as Anatole France did with revolutionary Terror and Chamoiseau did with colonial struggle. And this nonserious spirit, writes Kundera, means that the arch-novel can never accommodate a respect for the political. It represents instead “the humor of people who are far from power, make no claim to power, and see history as a blind old witch whose moral verdicts make them laugh.”
It’s only a sketch, this grand claim: and in his essay on two novels by his friend and sometime publisher Josef Škvorecký—in “Elsewhere,” the section that follows his essay on Chamoiseau—Kundera offers a slow-motion demonstration. In The Cowards and Miracle in Bohemia, both set in Communist Czechoslovakia, Škvorecký “sets his skeptical gaze not only on the stupidity of the ruling power but also on the protesters,” and that double irony is what Kundera admires. In The Art of the Novel, he once called it “the wisdom of uncertainty.” Here, he is spikier: “impolitely nonideological,” he writes, Škvorecký’s prose, marked by “the omnipresence of humor, of inconvenient humor,” dismantles the authority of history.
The final essay in “The Dream of Total Heritage” takes up the music of Iannis Xenakis. It begins with a recollection of the early 1970s, “two or three years after the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia,” when Kundera “fell in love with the music of Edgard Varèse and Iannis Xenakis.” In this essay, written in 1980, Kundera describes feeling that his country had received “a death sentence.” The Russian invasion was a “catastrophe,” he added, “whose consequences will be felt for centuries.” Reprinting this essay in Encounter, Kundera notes his embarrassment at these dated phrases. But then he pauses:
Still, I and my friends did experience that episode as a hopeless catastrophe. And if we forget our state of mind back then, there is no way to understand anything, neither the feel of that time nor its consequences.
The Russian occupation of Czech culture, writes Kundera, taught him a new existential truth: “I realized the obvious fact (the astoundingly obvious fact): that the Czech nation is not immortal; that it…could cease to exist.” Xenakis’s avant-garde incorporation of the objective world of noise, rejecting the history of music, echoed Kundera’s catastrophic thought—“that everything that exists (nation, thought, music) can also not exist.”
This idea shadows each tender analysis in Encounter of the novels he loves. It allows him to write with surprisingly equal pathos on Céline, who, having been tried in absentia for collaboration with the Nazis, lived on “in history’s trash heap, guilty among the guilty,” as on Anatole France, whose fashionably urbane tone was rendered unreadably unfashionable by the Surrealists. For Kundera, the trash heap of history is omnivorous, oblivious to moral or aesthetic values—and he knew this trash heap intimately. After the Prague Spring was crushed by the Soviet invasion, he witnessed his own invisibility. And this autobiographical pathos is the painful origin of Kundera’s book.
In his short essay where he writes on Škvorecký, Kundera compares two versions of the political avant-garde in 1968, the Paris May événements and the Prague Spring: “Paris’s May, brought about primarily by the initiative of the young, was marked by revolutionary lyricism. The Prague Spring was inspired by the postrevolutionary skepticism of adults.” And he praises the Prague Spring in a paragraph that is remarkable, in an otherwise finely ironic book, for its lyric fervor: “the end of the secret police’s power, the end of political persecutions, the freedom to write without censorship, and consequently the blooming of literature, art, thought, journals.” That this moment passed was, for Kundera, a tragedy. And it confirmed for him the painful distinctions we find in Encounter, in which a history of the art of the novel is seen against the random cruelties of politics.
With melancholic optimism, Kundera ends Encounter with a homage to the Italian novelist Curzio Malaparte, whose life was a study in political reversals. Initially left-wing, Malaparte then maintained a fractious relationship with Mussolini’s Fascist party; by the time he died, he was flirting with Maoism. But what interests Kundera above all is Malaparte’s great novel, The Skin, published in 1969, and its engagement with history and the novel as a form.
Set in Italy following the Allied liberation and describing the desolate aftermath of World War II, The Skin is a novel that mimics a memoir, and this is only the beginning of its formal virtuosity. It is marked by its “extraordinary heterogeneity (of places, of times, of situations, of memories, of characters),” where unity is created by “themes that return as repetitions, variations, responses”; by its “withdrawal from psychology”—an impatience with the very idea of character; and also by its spirit of dreamlike improbability, inscribed in the novel’s first sentence: “The plague broke out in Naples on the first of October 1943, the very day when the Allied armies entered that unhappy city as liberators.”
The Skin’s inventive composition, in Kundera’s final reading, reveals a truth that is “both fundamental and banal”:
Compared with the living, the dead have an overwhelming numerical superiority…; confident in their superiority, they mock us, they mock this little island of time we live in, this tiny time of the new Europe, they force us to grasp all its insignificance, all its transience….
On this vision of absolute precariousness, discovered by Malaparte, the themes of Encounter end.
Kundera has always been intent on defining the novel’s history as European, as “supranational.” In Encounter, the international is symbolized by a miniature constellation of writers who performed a linguistic migration into French—like the Polish-Lithuanian poet Oscar Milosz, or the Czech poet Věra Linhartová, who came to Paris after the Soviet occupation and began to write in French. In Kundera’s essay on Linhartová there is a poignant, triumphant pause: “When Linhartova writes in French, is she still a Czech writer? No. Does she become a French writer? No, not that either. She is elsewhere.” Once more, he is describing himself.
The translations and retranslations of his novels and essays, predominately by Aaron and Linda Asher, have attained such fluidity and continuity between books that it is easy for the English-speaking reader to forget that, now, Kundera no longer writes in his original language. Encounter, like all his essays on the art of the novel, is written in French, not Czech. Without his emigration, this gradual switch to French would not have happened, just as his emigration would not have happened without the invasion of his country. The history of both decisions is etched with loss; they are minor effects of history’s more comprehensively destructive movement.
But it’s also possible to ask: Why should a novelist be limited to a single language? Perhaps the final stylistic experiment of Kundera’s ideal novelist is this gesture of freedom—to abandon one language, and calmly choose another.