An Essay in Nine Parts
“an emigres artistic problem: the numerically equal blocks of a lifetime are unequal in weight, depending on whether they comprise young or adult years. The adult years may be richer and more important for life and for creative activity both, but the subconscious, memory, language, all the under structure of creativity, are formed very early; for a doctor, that won't make problems, but for a novelist or a composer, leaving the place to which his imagination, his obsessions, and thus his fundamental themes are bound could make for a kind of ripping apart. He must mobilize all his powers, all his artists wiles, to turn the disadvantages of that situation to benefits. [...] Only returning to the native land after a long absence can reveal the substantial strangeness of the world and of existence.” ― Milan Kundera, Testaments Betrayed: An Essay in Nine Parts
Kundera begins with a riff on Rabelais and leads us on a wild tour of European literature from Cervantes to Gombrowicz, with special attention to authors that I love including Musil and Broch. I found his continual focus on the ideas of literature attractive enough; but he assays music as well including a wonderful chapter on Janacek.
In part 1, “The Day Panurge No Longer Makes People Laugh,” Kundera speaks of the importance of humor in the novel. He loves the fact that the early novelists, such as François Rabelais and Miguel Cervantes, reveled in humor and delighted in allowing their characters to make fools of themselves. He also writes that the history of humor is closely connected to the history of the novel.
Perhaps more interesting to this reader was his thought-provoking discussion of Stravinsky's place in European music, “Improvisation in Homage to Stravinsky,”. In this section, part 3 of nine-parts, Kundera writes about Igor Stravinsky’s émigré status: “having understood that no country could replace it [his homeland], he finds his only homeland in music; this is not just a nice lyrical conceit of mine, I think it in an absolutely concrete way.” Kundera’s situation is similar to that of Stravinsky and to those of Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov, about whom Kundera also writes. Kundera, the most famous Czech writer, left Czechoslovakia in 1975 to live in Paris. He has continued to write fiction in Czech, but The Art of the Novel (1986; English translation, 1988) and Testaments Betrayed were written in French. As Stravinsky inhabited the world of music and served as one of its most important citizens and statesmen, so does Kundera inhabit the world of the novel, communicate in its unique language, and serve as a spokesman for its worldview and its practitioners.
Kundera’s main area of interest is specifically the European novel, by which he means “not only novels created in Europe by Europeans but novels that belong to a history that began with the dawn of the Modern Era in Europe.” For Kundera the history of the European novel is transnational; he believes that it is a mistake to view the novel in terms of national literary traditions. At one point, Kundera mentions the reaction of the Austrian novelist Hermann Broch to his publisher’s suggestion that Broch be compared to the Central European writers Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Italo Svevo. Broch proposed that he be compared instead to James Joyce and André Gide. Broch, like Kundera, believed that his realm was the macrocosm of the European novel, not the microcosm of Austrian fiction.
For Kundera, the novel is far more than a literary genre. It is a way of viewing the world which, when it is practiced by a great novelist, leads readers to think in fresh ways, to question some of their assumptions, to put aside their prejudices. In one interesting passage, Kundera speaks of the ways in which lyricism has been used in the service of totalitarianism. He mentions as an example the great Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, a true artist who placed his verse at the service of the Russian Revolution. Kundera writes, “Lyricism, lyricization, lyrical talk, lyrical enthusiasm are an integrating part of what is called the totalitarian world; that world is not the gulag as such; it’s a gulag that has poems plastering its outside walls and people dancing before them.” In the world of the true novel, such lyricism is anathema, the enemy of clear thought. Repelled by the totalitarian lyricism he saw around him in the communist Czechoslovakia of his youth, Kundera turned to the novel.
Kundera wishes to be identified with no political position, no country, no rigid philosophical point of view; he wishes to view and to be viewed purely as a novelist. And with this in mind he includes embedded references to literature, great literature, and his own work, most of which I've yet to read. And did I mention his exceptional essay on Kafka. This is a relatively short book, but one of great depth and breadth. It is simultaneously brilliant music criticism, elegant literary criticism, commentary on the art of writing and translation, and a guide to the great literature of modern Europe. With this book, a loaf of bread and some wine (along with dozens of other texts) one could while away a year or two.