Kundera’s Words

Milan Kundera’s ‘The Art of the Novel’ popped into a discussion I was having recently with a novelist about the scope and aspirations of the novel. That discussion itself was in the context of a discussion about the critical writing of creative writers. These discussions do not happen every day or by chance but when you do get to talk writing with other writers the rewards can be huge. This was one of those days.

I am not a novelist, so in some ways Kundera’s thoughts on the novel might be seen as slightly peripheral to my thinking about my writing, but that isn’t how it feels. It feels as if his ideas about form and structure could apply easily to my work. I think there are several reasons for this. One is that he talks so explicitly about the relationship of form to content which is one of my preoccupations.

‘To bring together the extreme gravity of the question and the extreme lightness of the form –
that has always been my ambition.’, he says in “Dialogue on the Art of Composition” , one part of ‘The Art of the Novel’.

The juxtaposition here, presented baldly with no description of method nearby, opens the door to a lot of questions. What is a ‘light’ form, for instance? Is it space, brevity,segmentation? I don’t think brevity should be under-rated as an instrument of communication. Think of Echinoz, and how he is able to make a book about two men and World War One in about a hundred and fifty pages, and yet the work feels entirely sufficient to the topic.

My attention is always engaged when an artist owns right up to seriousness of purpose. In New Zealand saying something like this would be seen as arrogance, and not many writers would talk in these terms, but for a famous writer from Central Europe, living in France, it is perfectly reasonable to claim some serious territory quite explicitly.

So I was pottering along, enjoying the questions going off in my mind and special moments like the statement that Kafka provides beauty, not hope. Beauty, Kundera says, is the last refuge of a person without hope.It’s always interesting what people say about Kafka. But it was the attention Kundera focuses on individual words that made me stop reading, tear out pieces of the morning paper to use as bookmarks, and write this blog.

The intensity of Kundera’s attention to words is perhaps similar to a poet’s, but I’m not sure in the end whether the nature of his attention, or his purposes, are the same or different. It seems to me as if the words are one of his tools, and he wants to use them in every way possible for his creative ends. That is exactly like a poet. Words aren’t his only tool, of course. He has structural devices like the use of the magical number seven, narrative devices like abstaining from interior monologues and unusual punctuation and sentence structure. But as a writer who has changed languages and who communicates to his audience mostly in the form of translations, the actual individual words matter. Words are everything, he says in the forward to “Sixty Three Words”. (His italics.)

Kundera explains that while writing ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ he realised that the ‘existential code’ of his characters is made up of ‘certain key words’. For one character these are body, soul, vertigo, weakness, idyll and Paradise. For another, lightness and weight. For a relationship between two characters the words were woman, fidelity, betrayal, music, darkness, light, parades, beauty, country, cemetery and strength. The existential code is not explored abstractly. It is explored in action, in the situations of the novel.Here he seems to have taken off into some territory that is his own.

In “Dialogue on the Art of Composition” Kundera talks about ‘themes’, which are also closely related to individual words.

‘A theme is an existential enquiry. And increasingly I realise that such an enquiry is, finally, the examination of certain words, theme-words. Which leads me to emphasise: A novel is based primarily on certain fundamental words. It is like Schoenberg’s “tone-row”. In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting the row goes: forgetting, laughter, angels, litost, border. Over the course of the novel those five principal words are analysed, studied, defined, redefined, and thus transformed into Categories of existence. The novel is built on those few categories the way a house is built on its pillars.’

(For those who do not speak Czech, ‘litost’ is a feeling that happens to Czech people, and may happen to others too but in English we don’t have a word for it.“Litost is a state of torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery,” says Kundera in ‘The Book of Laughter and Forgetting’.)

A motif is different from a theme. It is a theme or element of the story that appears several times in the book, in different contexts. A Beethoven quartet, for example, begins in one character’s life and moves into another’s.

The penultimate section of ‘The Art of the Novel’ is “Sixty Three Words”. There Kundera has assembled a list of words that are a sort of ‘personal dictionary’ as a friend described it when he challenged Kundera to make the list. “Put down your key words, your problem words, the words you love…” the friend said. And he did.

Reading these words and their definitions straight after reading about existential codes and themes, I felt obliged to think about what it meant to have sixty three words connected with a person. I thought perhaps these words defined ‘Kundera’ rather as if he were the biggest character of all in his work, or perhaps they were the themes of any book about his life as a writer. He even links the words to actions he has taken in his writing, as if all his writing was one novel.

In my PhD thesis I made an Index, in which I hoped to hide the most important words in the text amongst a forest of straightforward names and other details. Mine was a failed artistic experiment, but I think if I had read ‘The Art of the Novel’ first, and not been in such a PhD funk, I might have done better.

[With thanks to the writer who mentioned Milan Kundera’s 1968 book ‘The Art of the Novel’ to me, to the sparks of pink light that appeared at that moment and told me to read that book right now, to the writer-friend who was wise enough to have bought the book when Wellington City Library disposed of it and to the books and events of the last thirty years that have left me old enough to read this book now.]