The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2011

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MAY 2011 Issue

Letters to Posterity

Milan Kundera
Encounter (translated from French by Linda Asher)
(Harper, 2010)

“I go by books, not by authors,” Nabokov averred. But there’s something important to be said for Milan Kundera. If he had asked for permission, it may never have been granted. Like Keanu Reeves, he bolts from a moving car. Like Orpheus, he is elusive, preferring to sing to cattle and score his bohemian rhapsodies into tree bark. If, in the middle of the night, Milan Kundera receives a telephone call, is it not Philip Roth on the other end, clarifying the wassail recipe? Indeed, to Milan Kundera, let us raise our glass.

Then what is literary discourse, since he brings it up?How ought we speak to one another? What is the task of the novelist? What is the right relationship between aesthetics and politics? Qu’est-ce que c’est, la beauté?

These are the considerations assembled in Encounter, a book whose precious sands the author packs into a timeless castle mold. Kundera, qua literary historian, exhibits a novelist’s ease with discours indirect libre—that is, the unmasked beckoning of voice and perception across a span of paragraphs. Kundera’s critical writing milks honey from the hive. His readings surprise and refresh like country lemonade. How are we to excerpt him, then, so adrift in the brilliance of self-generated inflection and innuendo? Of course, we’re not supposed to do: We should hold him close to our chests. And yet, we cannot resist sharing him across the café table, as he writes in contemplation of Roth’s The Professor of Desire:

The acceleration of history has profoundly transformed individual lives that, in centuries past, used to proceed from birth to death within a single historical period...nowadays it is history that moves fast, it tears ahead, it slips from a man’s grasp, and the continuity, the identity, of a life is in danger of cracking apart.

Kundera’s divertimentos on another reviled prophet of secular scripture, Anatole France, sometimes begin with the salvos, “When I was nineteen,” or “When I was a young man”—these lines lead his paragraphs in a humanist liturgy, offering frequent exegesis of his chosen art. In critical prose, Kundera’s philosophical prowess is free to stalk the nighttime jungle of imaginative literature unburdened by the two cardinal restrictions of the fictive realm; verisimilitude and narrative consistency. The theoretical trappings and suits we’re used to seeing worn on the author’s occasionally macaroni creative prose are absorbed in Encounter by a pair of Kundera’s core pursuits: expositing the endowments of our civilization, and mining all literature for its diamonds. On the subject of blacklists, or shifts in tastemaking, Kundera is clever and brash. On his beloved authors, he cultivates a handsome sentimentality. On “blacklisted” novelist Anatole France:

When I was a young man, trying to find my way in a world sliding toward the abyss of a dictatorship whose reality no one had foreseen, desired, imagined, especially not the people who had desired and celebrated its arrival, the only book that managed to tell me anything lucid about that unknown world was The Gods Are Thirsty.

Bergson, Bacon, Milosz, and Stravinsky: cut these artists and you can still release the quick of life. Anecdotally—as much memoir writing as it is explication by example—Kundera argues against the “blacklisters,” the salon ministers, the Stevensian burghers of petty death; and perhaps also against the ordinary mind.

The existential enigma has disappeared behind political certitude, and certitudes don’t give a damn about enigmas. This is why, despite the wealth of their lived experiences, people emerge from a historic ordeal still just as stupid as they were when they went into it.

Kundera is a correspondent novelist, embedded in the St. Elsewhere of Old Europe, whose adoption of the French language (and, to a lesser extent, its paysage moralisé) has coincided with a late-in-life shift in his literary repertoire. One notes the momentous, if secular, conversion from titles such as The Unbearable Lightness of Being and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting— both written in Czech—to the succession of French titles such as Ignorance, Slowness,and Encounter, pleasantly dilating the gross and scope of his later career. It would be merely reductive to attribute this change to a lack of facility in a new language, though that is doubtless true; but the change feels systemic, and anyway, these books are often read in translation. We may find a number of Kundera’s novels downright harrowing, but rarely will we find them prescriptive or didactic, and the same might be said of his critical work. Tomas and Teresa step into the pickup truck and take their final drive together. Irena continues to hide her ear under an outmoded hairstyle. Encounter, meanwhile, shares a few of Kundera’s elective affinities, plating them with grape leaves and rice. Harold Rosenberg once commented that, “An artist is a person who has invented an artist.” And it must follow as the night the day. We’re lucky to have these letters to posterity, enclosed in the chapters of Encounter. And when we open its pages, we find ourselves again at daybreak, closer to dawn and its richer lighting arrangements, while the author stands in the doorway with an armful of his anniversary wampum.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2011

All Issues