[From the archives: 2013] The Art of the Novel – Milan Kundera

While carrying out a recent laptop ‘spring clean’, I stumbled on a file containing a load of book reviews that I never posted. Not sure how I managed that. Although I’m genuinely intrigued as to what else I might find languishing on my hard drive – perhaps I DID write that novel and just don’t remember doing it… Anyway, I thought I’d post a forgotten review up every once in a while; a kind of ‘from the archives’. Today, we’re going back to November 2013.

Do you ever pick up a book because it’s so cerebral that you imagine it will have some kind of profound effect on your intellectual abilities? Or get suddenly nostalgic about those challenging books you ploughed through in your university library while feeling utterly numb-of-brain and yet terribly worthy?

This is that book.

I found it in the library and the little voice in my head told me that I never really ‘challenge’ myself anymore and should read more widely.

The truth is, this was a really difficult read. I can’t hand on heart say that I understood even 60% of it. I’m not widely read enough to have picked up half the books that Kundera writes about (by authors like Husserl, Heidegger and Descartes). I’m not even widely read enough to fully appreciate Kundera’s backlist – making essays like ‘Sixty three words’, in which he expands on core themes from his novels as a response to unsatisfactory translations of his work, more of an introduction than a consolidation.

But all that said, I still feel this was worth the effort. I felt rewarded for my decision to read it more slowly and carefully than my normal habit allows. Feeling the cogs turning and the scraping of rust in areas of my brain long left idle was a good reminder that I really do need to challenge myself more but it’s ok if I don’t achieve Donne-like levels of reading know-how overnight.

In summary, The Art of the Novel is a collection of essays about the art, design and purpose of the European novel. Going any deeper than that would risk a clumsy paraphrase of Kundera’s thesis. I’d suggest this is a good book for those who bristle at the idea that someone might consider time with a book to be wasted or misspent. It’s for those who find that the act of reading, the joy of stories or words, brings them escapist pleasure and a deep, almost transcendent fulfilment. Kundera skilfully elevates the novelist and, by extension, the readers to sit alongside the great philosophers and I was left feeling the novel might really just save us all. Take this for example:

‘Beauty in art: the suddenly kindled light of the never-before-said. This light that radiates from the great novels time can never dim for human existence is perpetually being forgotten by man, and thus the novelist’s discoveries, however old they may be, will never cease to astonish us.’

Or this:

‘The novel is the imaginary paradise of individuals. It is the territory where no one possesses the truth…but where everyone has the right to be understood…’           

Of course, I didn’t agree with Kundera on everything. That’s the fun part of reading literary criticism – the counter-argument. I often found myself wondering ‘where are all the female writers?’ And I objected to the idea that truly great ‘moral’ novels – those that manage to avoid the dreaded ‘kitsch’ about which Kundera writes at length – are restricted to those that he himself cites (particularly when he leaves out every female writer of note). For me, the wonder of the novel lies in its fluidity of interpretation. If a novel reveals a ‘hitherto unknown segment of existence’ to me but not to you, or vice versa, then I think that novel has still fulfilled its purpose. If, as he says, novels ‘hold the “world of life” under a permanent light’ I think we must allow for the possibility that your world is not the same as mine, or Kundera’s for that matter. Life is too contradictory, sprawling and questioning to be so neatly defined. Which means that any book can be great to someone, somewhere. And that’s a comforting thought.

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