The Art of the Novel, 21 years later

(All quotes are from:  Kundera, Milan.  The Art of the Novel.  Trans. Linda Asher.  New York: HarperCollins, 2003.  Print.)

21 years ago, I was in England for a semester abroad. My college had a sister school in Grantham, and every semester they sent a bunch of kids over to drink a lot, travel, and learn stuff (well, okay, that first one was probably not part of the college’s plan, but hey). Not ever being a drinker, I mostly traveled and learned stuff.[1]

Anyway, as I recall, my friend and favorite travel companion, Robyn [2], needed to go to an actual University library to do research (she was a history major, they do stuff like that), and being a library girl even then, I tagged along.

I don’t remember if I found Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel at that library, or if I’d found it in the tiny little library at Harlaxton and brought it with me, but I remember sitting in this alcove full of books devouring it while Robyn did her work.

And that, seriously, is all I remember. I don’t remember if I liked it or not–I think I did? I probably did; I was a big Kundera fan when I was in my 20s. One of Scott’s (ahem) moves was loaning me his copy of The Unbearable Lightness of Being (which, if you’ve read the book and know my husband, is both entirely unsurprising and kind of hilarious). [3]

Anyway. Recently, while shifting books around at work, I came across The Art of the Novel on the shelf, and I didn’t have the same sense of Nope! that I get when I see a copy of something I’ve tried to forget.[4] And I thought, I ought to read that again.

So I checked it out, and I read it.


Some observations, 21 years on:

1. Wow, man, I am so not the same sort of writer as Milan Kundera.

2.  Holy cats, I actually just compared myself to Milan Kundera.  That wouldn’t have happened 21 years ago.

3. Dude, there are some awesome quotes in this book, though.

Like:

“What is action? — the eternal question of the novel, its constitutive question, so to speak. How is a decision born? How is it transformed into act, and how do acts connect to make an adventure?”  (p 57)

or:

“… perhaps all novelists ever do is write a kind of theme (the first novel) and variations.” (p 137)

or:

“The end is not an apocalyptic explosion. There may be nothing so quiet as the end.”  (p 42)

 

I have pages of quotes in my super-enormous writing notebook. And notes. And arguments. Which leads to …

4. The main difference, I think, between me reading this at 19 and me reading it at 41 (and this sort of falls in with #2, above) is how much I’m arguing with the text, and also how much of the text I’m willing to apply to stuff I’m pretty sure Kundera wasn’t thinking about … I mean, I love this:

“Unity of mankind means: No escape for anyone anywhere.” (p 11)

But I’m not sure that my spec fic way of reading it is exactly Kundera’s.[5] The first quote I have, about action? My first thought when reading it was about Because You Left, which is fanfiction, but that can be boiled down to (among other things) the decisions people make and the actions they take after making them.

5. There’s a long quote about uniforms and the passage of time and loss of self that I really want to pair with a screenshot of Santana and Quinn from Glee in their Cheerios uniforms.

6. Kafka’s got a lot to answer for, y’all, as do Cervantes and Tolstory, but I love this quote:  “I do not feel qualified to debate those who blame Voltaire for the gulag.” (p 160)


When it gets down to it, I suppose I’ve never loved Milan Kundera as much as I love Gabriel García Márquez or Salman Rushdie, both of whom I discovered at roughly the same time and therefore always link with Kundera in my head.  There’s an intellectualism to Kundera, something less epic, maybe, that just doesn’t hold me the same way.  But they all work with the idea of decay, of loss, of the forgotten parts of history, and I love that, even if Kundera is possibly more enamored with the thought-experiment of it all than the story of it.

Still, anyone who tells you he left a publisher because they kept changing his semi-colons (p 129) is going to have a place on my book shelf.

(My next foray into literary nostalgia is my current re-read of Trying to Save Piggy Sneed, by John Irving.  I actually remember loving this book when I read it the first time, and I’m not arguing quite so much–to be fair, the first chunk is a memoir, so it’s not really something you can argue with–although I forgot how mannered Irving can be.)


1 [back]I took Shakespeare (and got to see the RSC’s production of Hamlet with Kenneth Branagh), and British History, and a class called something like Contemporary British Issues (wherein the professor told us that what we called erasers, they called rubbers, and between that and kids named ‘Randy,’ the locals really enjoyed having us Americans around).

2 [back]Speaking of travel, Robyn is the reason I have been to every important landmark in the life of John Wesley, despite my not being Methodist. Or really religious at all. I’m still kind of oddly proud of this.

3[back]Other moves involved heavy flirtation and elbow sex during The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a number of mix tapes, a strategically-placed vinyl copy of Floodland by the Sisters of Mercy, unabashed use of chocolate, and the canny deployment of comic books.

Reader, I married him.

4[back]cough!–Billy Budd–cough!

5[back]I won’t lie, though–probably one of the reasons why I love Kundera is his dystopian view of history, and I think in that regard, I read that quote exactly how he meant it.

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