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Defending The Novel

In a difficult book, Kundera asserts the primacy of fiction

Defending The Novel
Testments Betrayed:An Essay In Nine Parts
By Milan Kundera
Faber &Faber Rs:317;Pages:280
AMONG the major living novelists, Milan Kundera is the most cerebral. Ideas spill out of his fictionalised episodes, so that the novel some-times seems in his hands a wonderfully disguised philosophical monologue or illustrated meditation. In fact, it is only because the word 'novelist' implies a multitude of prose forms that Kundera falls within that category. Reading his novels, you have the feeling that their author could be an essayist, cultural critic, polemicist, psychoanalyst, Nietzschean, pedagogue, musicologist.

In this new book, Kundera is all these other things. The perceptive analysis of ordinary experiences (pleasure, humour, reading, listening to music) is carried over from his novels into these reflections on the fictional and musical traditions of Europe. The centre points of analysis are Franz Kafka and the Moravian composer Leos Janacek, both originally championed by the first Kafkologist, Max Brod.

Kundera argues that the Kafka and Janacek created by their early propagandists are falsifications or caricatures. His deconstruction rescues Kafka's comic sexuality and playful surrealism from ideologues who interpreted Kafka-land only as an allegory of psychological mechanisation and political nightmare. Kafka's uses of the comic, the ironic, the poetic, the ambiguous and the playful make him a novelist, says Kundera, whereas it is the absence of such devices in Orwell's 1984 which makes that book merely a political tract.

This ties with some of the arguments of this book, namely that playfulness and ambiguity lie at the heart of the novel, that the novel is the unacknowledged pillar of western civilisation and creative dissidence, and that the West's failure to adequately defend novelists such as Rushdie represents a failure to defend its own unique creation.

No one would have dreamt of espousing the cultural value of fiction in this way even 50 years ago, when music, drama and art had supposedly richer pedigrees than their poor cousin, the novel. But today, for Kundera, the novel is what poetry was for Matthew Arnold a century ago—the new holy grail of the secular world.

He reveals a long genealogy of dissidence which has given shape to this genre and suggests why totalitarian states are so viscerally opposed to subversive fiction: "The condemnation of Rushdie can be seen not as a chance event, an aberration, but as the most profound conflict between two eras: theocracy goes to war against the Modern Era and targets its most representative creation: the Novel. For Rushdie did not blaspheme. He did not attack Islam. He wrote a novel. But that, for a theocratic mind, is worse than an attack: if a religion is attacked (by blasphemy or heresy) the guardians of a temple can easily defend it on their own ground, with their own language, but the novel is a different planet for them..."

For Kundera the novel is a Bakhtinian carnival of topsy-turviness. Its defence is now central to all of modern civilisation because the European novel has been fertilised by the 'Novels of the South'. From this perspective Rushdie's rampant creativity is a throwback to Rabelais' unfettered rumble-tumble. Kundera is historicising the novel afresh, minus the hifalutin prose of post-colonial theorists.

Something similar is proposed for the great tradition of Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Bartok, Stravinsky, Janacek: musical forms, like novels, are not shaped within political boundaries. Equally interestingly, the hints of Kundera's immersion in musical form within his own fictions are here amplified, even if much of the analysis is too arcane even for the averagely well-read. Janacek, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Shostakovich and Adorno, around whom these essays revolve, are distant from us even as names. It requires exceptional learning to empathise with Kundera's detailed scholastic interpretations of them.

But beyond the detail lies Kundera's central purpose, which is to explore the two forms which interest him most: the comic novel and modern music. His historicisations of these are done with panache and throwaway apercu. There are polemically aphoristic comments on Chopin's preference for short compositions, Hemingway's use of the short-story form, and how short-stories can grow into full-length fiction. It also comes to mind after reading this book that the form for Kundera's own idea-laden stories is an ingenious adaptation from western music of the 'Air and Variations' mode. Bach's Goldberg, Beethoven's Diabelli, Brahms' Haydn and Rachmaninov's Paganini Variations are examples of this genre, in which an 'air' presented in the first section is later repeated with new material. The major surprise in Kundera's new book, given how closely he relates the deployment of words with musical notes, is the absence of discussion on the composer who went furthest in that direction, Wagner.

This is a difficult book, and not at all like a novel (as the blurb would have us believe). It will interest all admirers of Kundera. It theorises some of Kundera's own practices and takes us on a bewildering journey through the eccentric contours of his stuffed, yet completely unstuffy, mind.

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