A Polyphonic Spree: Notes on Milan Kundera's The Art of the Novel

A MILAN KUNDERA LEXICON #22: “Value”

The structuralism of the sixties made the question of value parenthetical. And yet the founder of structuralist aesthetics says: “Only the assumption of objective aesthetic value gives meaning to the historical evolution of art” (Jan Mukarovsky: Function, Norm, and Aesthetic Value as Social Facts, Prague, 1934). To examine an aesthetic value means: to try to demarcate and give name to the discoveries, the innovations, the new light that a work casts on the human world. Only the work acknowledged as value (the work whose newness has been apprehended and named) can become part of the “historical evolution of art,” which is not a mere succession of events but an intentional pursuit of values. If we reject the question of value and settle for a description (thematic, sociological, formalist) of a work (of a historical period, culture, etc.); if we equate all cultures and all cultural activities (Bach and rock, comic strips and Proust); if the criticism of art (meditation on value) can no longer find room for expression, then the “historical evolution of art” will lose its meaning, will crumble, will turn into a vast and absurd storehouse of works.

From Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel. 

Look for an essay on this book on my blog in the next few days.

A MILAN KUNDERA LEXICON #21: “UGLY”

After so many of her husband’s infidelities, so many troubles with the cops, Tereza says: “Prague has become ugly.” Some translators want to replace the word “ugly” with the words “horrible” or “intolerable.” They find it illogical to react to a moral situation with an aesthetic judgment. But the word “ugly” is irreplaceable: the omnipresent ugliness of the modern world is mercifully veiled by routine, but it breaks through harshly the moment we run into the slightest trouble.

From Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel. 

Look for an essay on this book on my blog in the next few days.

A MILAN KUNDERA LEXICON #20: “TEMPS MODERNES (Modern Era)”

The coming of les Temps modernes. The key moment of European history. In the seventeenth century, God becomes Deus absconditus and man the ground of all things. European individualism is born, and with it a new situation for art, for culture, for science. I run into problems with this term in the United States. The literal translation, “modern times” (and even the more comprehensive “Modern Era”), an American takes to mean the contemporary moment, our century. The absence in America of the notion of les Temps modernes reveals the great chasm between the two continents. In Europe, we are living the end of the Modern Era: the end of individualism; the end of art conceived as an irreplaceable expression of personal originality; the end that heralds an era of unparalleled uniformity. This sense of ending America does not feel, for America did not live through the birth of the Modern Era and has only come along lately to inherit it. America has other criteria for beginnings and endings.

From Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel. 

Look for an essay on this book on my blog in the next few days.

A MILAN KUNDERA LEXICON #19: “RHYTHM”

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I hate to hear the beat of my heart; it is a relentless reminder that the minutes of my life are numbered. So I have always seen something macabre in the bar lines that measure out a musical score. But the greatest masters of rhythm know how to silence that monotonous and predictable regularity and transform their music into a little enclave of “time outside time.” The masters of polyphony: contrapuntal, horizontal thinking weakens the importance of the measure. In late Beethoven, the rhythm is so complicated, especially in the slow movements, that we can barely make out the bar lines […]

From Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel. 

Look for an essay on this book on my blog in the next few days.

A MILAN KUNDERA LEXICON #18: “REPETITIONS”

Nabokov points out that at the beginning of the Russian text of Anna Karenina the word “house” occurs eight times in six sentences and that the repetition is a deliberate tactic on the author’s part. Yet the word “house” appears only once in the French translation of the passage, and no more than twice in the Czech. In that same book: where Tolstoy repeatedly writes skazal (“said”), the French translation uses “remarked,” “retorted,” “responded,” “cried,” “stated,” etc. Translators are crazy about synonyms. (I reject the very notion of synonym: each word has its own meaning and is semantically irreplaceable.) Pascal: “When words are repeated in a text and in trying to replace them we find them so apt that doing so ” would spoil the text, they should be left in, they are the benchmark of the piece.”

From Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel. 

Look for an essay on this book on my blog in the next few days.

A MILAN KUNDERA LEXICON #17: “OPUS”

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The excellent custom of composers. They give opus numbers only to works they see as “valid.” They do not number works written in their immature period, or occasional pieces, or technical exercises [ … ] The least an author can do for his works: sweep up around them.

From Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel. 

Look for an essay on this book on my blog in the next few days.

A MILAN KUNDERA LEXICON #16: “NOVELIST (and writer)”

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I reread Sartre’s short essay “What Is Writing?” Not once does he use the words “novel” or “novelist.” He only speaks of the “prose writer.” A proper distinction. The writer has original ideas and an inimitable voice. He may use any form (including the novel), and whatever he writes—being marked by his thought, borne by his voice—is part of his work. Rousseau, Goethe, Chateaubriand, Gide, Malraux, Camus, Montherlant.

The novelist makes no great issue of his ideas. He is an explorer feeling his way in an effort to reveal some unknown aspect of existence. He is fascinated not by his voice but by a form he is seeking, and only those forms that meet the demands of his dream become part of his work. Fielding, Sterne, Flaubert, Proust, Faulkner, Celine, Calvino.

 The writer inscribes himself on the spiritual map of his time, of his country, on the map of the history of ideas.

 The only context for grasping a novel’s worth is the history of the European novel. The novelist need answer to no one but Cervantes.

From Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel. 

Look for an essay on this book on my blog in the next few days.

A MILAN KUNDERA LEXICON #15: “NOVEL (European)”

The history (the integrated and continuous evolution) of the novel (of everything we call the novel) does not exist. There are only histories of the novel: of the Chinese novel, the Greco-Roman, the Japanese, the medieval novel, and so on. The novel I term European takes form in Southern Europe at the dawn of the Modern Era and in itself represents a historic entity that will go on to expand its territory beyond geographic Europe (most notably into both Americas). In the richness of its forms, the dizzyingly concentrated intensity of its evolution, and its social role, the European novel (like European music) has no equal in any other civilization.

From Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel. 

Look for an essay on this book on my blog in the next few days.

A MILAN KUNDERA LEXICON #14: “Novel”

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The great prose form in which an author thoroughly explores, by means of experimental selves (characters), some great themes of existence.

 NOVEL (and poetry).1857: the greatest year of the century.

Les Fleurs du mal: lyric poetry discovers its rightful territory, its essence.

Madame Bovary: for the first time, a novel is ready to take on the highest requirements of poetry (the determination to “seek beauty above all”; the importance of each particular word; the intense melody of the text; the imperative of originality applied to every detail).

From 1857 on, the history of the novel will be that of the “novel become poetry.” But to take on the requirements of poetry is quite another thing from lyricizing the novel (forgoing its essential irony, turning away from the outside world, transforming the novel into personal confession, weighing it down with ornament). The greatest of the “novelists become poets” are violently antilyrical: Flaubert, Joyce, Kafka, Gombrowicz. Novel = antilyrical poetry.

From Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel. 

Look for an essay on this book on my blog in the next few days.

A MILAN KUNDERA LEXICON #13: “MODERN (being modern)”

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"New, new, new is the star of Communism, and there is no modernity outside it," wrote the great Czech avant-garde novelist Vladislav Vancura around 1920. His whole generation rushed to the Communist Party so as not to miss out on being modern. The historical decline of the Communist Party was sealed once it fell everywhere "outside modernity." Because, as Rimbaud commanded, "it is necessary to be absolutely modern." The desire to be modern is an archetype, that is, an irrational imperative, anchored deeply within us, a persistent form whose content is changeable and indeterminate: what is modern is what declares itself modern and is accepted as such [… ]

From Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel. 

Look for an essay on this book on my blog in the next few days.

A MILAN KUNDERA LEXICON #12: “MODERN” (modern art; modern world)

There is the modern art that, in lyrical ecstasy, identifies with the modern world. Apollinaire. Glorification of the technical, fascination with the future. Along with and after him: Mayakovsky, Leger, the Futurists, the various avant-gardes. But opposite Apollinaire is Kafka: the modern world seen as a labyrinth where man loses his way. The modernism that is antilyrical, antiroman-tic, skeptical, critical. With Kafka and after him: Musil, Broch, Gombrowicz, Beckett, Ionesco, Fellini… . The further we advance into the future, the greater becomes this legacy of “antimodern modernism.”

From Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel. 

Look for an essay on this book on my blog in the next few days.

A Milan Kundera Lexicon #11: “Misomusist”

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To be without a feeling for art is no disaster. A person can live in peace without reading Proust or listening to Schubert. But the misomusist does not live in peace. He feels humiliated by the existence of something that is beyond him, and he hates it. There is a popular misomusy just as there is a popular anti-Semitism. The fascist and Communist regimes made use of it when they declared war on modern art. But there is an intellectual, sophisticated misomusy as well: it takes revenge on art by forcing it to a purpose beyond the aesthetic. The doctrine of engagé art: art as an instrument of politics.

From Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel. 

Look for an essay on this book on my blog in the next few days.

A Milan Kundera Lexicon #10: “Meditation”

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Three elementary possibilities for the novelist: he tells a story (Fielding), he describes a story (Flaubert), he thinks a story (Musil). The nineteenth-century novel of description was in harmony with the (positivist, scientific) spirit of the time. To base a novel on a sustained meditation goes against the spirit of the twentieth century, which no longer likes to think at all.

From Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel. 

Look for an essay on this book on my blog in the next few days.

A Milan Kundera Lexicon #9: “Kitsch”

[…] In the French version of Hermann Broch’s celebrated essay, the word “kitsch” is translated as “junk art” (art de pacotille). A misinterpretation, for Broch demonstrates that kitsch is something other than simply a work in poor taste. There is a kitsch attitude. Kitsch behavior. The kitsch-man’s (Kitschmensch) need for kitsch: it is the need to gaze into the mirror of the beautifying lie and to be moved to tears of gratification at one’s own reflection […]

From Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel. 

Look for an essay on this book on my blog in the next few days.