PART SIX. Works and Spiders
After 1948, through the years of Communist revolution in my native country, I saw the eminent role played by lyrical blindness in a time of Terror, which for me was the period when "the poet reigned along with the executioner" (Life Is Elsewhere). I would think about Mayakovsky then; his genius was as indispensable to the Russian Revolution as Dzherzhinsky's police. Lyricism, lyricization, lyrical talk, lyrical enthusiasm are an integrating part of what is called the totalitarian world; that world is not the gulag as such; it's a gulag that has poems plastering its outside walls and people dancing before them.
More than the Terror, the lyricization of the Terror was a trauma for me. It immunized me for good against all lyrical temptations. The only thing I deeply, avidly, wanted was a lucid, unillusioned eye. I finally found it in the art of the novel. This is why for me being a novelist was more than just working in one "literary genre" rather than another; it was an outlook, a wisdom, a position; a position that would rule out identification with any politics, any religion, any ideology, any moral doctrine, any group; a considered, stubborn, furious nonidentification, conceived not as evasion or passivity but as resistance, defiance, rebellion. I wound up having some odd conversations: "Are you a Communist, Mr. Kundera?" "No, I'm a novelist." "Are you a dissident?" "No, I'm a novelist." "Are you on the left or the right?" "Neither. I'm a novelist."
Already in my early stories, by instinct, I avoided naming the characters. In Life Is Elsewhere, the hero has only a first name, his mother is known only by the term "Maman," his girlfriend as "the redhead," and her lover as "the middle-aged man." Was that mannerism? At the time, I was operating with a total spontaneity whose meaning I understood only later: I was obeying the aesthetic of the "third (or overtime) period": I did not want to make readers think my characters are real and have an official family record.
Mann and Musil. Despite the closeness of their birth dates, their aesthetics belong to two different eras in the novels history. Both are novelists of immense intellectuality. In the Mann novel, the intellectuality shows mainly in the dialogues about ideas carried on before the backdrop of adescriptive novel. In The Man Without Qualities, the intellectuality is manifest at every instant, thoroughgoing; as against Mann's descriptive novel, Musil's is a thinking novel.
When I finished The Farewell Party, at the very start of the 1970s, I considered my career as a writer over. It was under the Russian occupation and my wife and I had other worries. It wasn't until we had been in France a year (and thanks to France) that, after six years of a total interruption, I began without passion to write again. Feeling intimidated, and to regain my footing, I decided to tie into something I had already done: to write a kind of second volume of Laughable Loves. What a regression! Those short stories had started me on my way as a writer twenty years before. Fortunately, after drafting two or three of these "Laughable Loves II," I saw that I was writing an entirely different thing: not a story collection but a novel (later entitled The Book of Laughter and Forgetting), a novel in seven parts that were independent yet so closely bound that any one of them read by itself would lose much of its meaning.
At once, whatever mistrust I still harbored toward the art of the novel disappeared: by giving each part the nature of a short story, I made unnecessary the whole seemingly unavoidable technique of large-scale novel composition.
This sequential exploration of themes has a logic, and it determines the linkage of the parts. For example: Part One ("Lost Letters') introduces the theme of man and history in its basic version: man collides with history and it crushes him. In Part Two ("Mama") this theme is turned around: for Mama, the arrival of the Russian tanks is a small matter compared to the pears in her garden ("tanks are perishable, pears are eternal"). Part Six ("The Angels"), in which the heroine, Tamina, drowns, would seem to be the tragic conclusion of the novel; yet the novel doesn't end there but ends in the next part, which is neither poignant nor dramatic nor tragic; it recounts the erotic life of a new character, Jan. The history theme appears here briefly and for the last time: "Jan had friends who like him had left their old homeland and who devoted all their time to the struggle for its lost freedom. All of them had sometimes felt that the bond tying them to their country was just an illusion and that only enduring habit kept them prepared to die for something they did not care about"; this touches on that metaphysical border (border: another theme worked out in the course of the novel) beyond which everything loses its meaning. The island where Tamina's tragic life ends is dominated by the laughter (another theme) of the angels, while Part Seven echoes with the "laughter of the devil," which turns everything (everything: history, sex, tragedies) into smoke. Only then does the trail of themes draw toward an end, and the book can close.
As Nietzsche brought philosophy closer to the novel, so Musil brought the novel toward philosophy. This rapprochement doesn't mean that Musil is less a novelist than other novelists. Just as Nietzsche is no less a philosopher than other philosophers.
Musil's thinking novel too brought about an unprecedented broadening of theme; nothing that can be thought about is henceforth excluded from the art of the novel.
When I was thirteen or fourteen years old, I used to take lessons in musical composition. Not because I was a child prodigy but because of my father's quiet tact. It was during the war, and a friend of his, a Jewish composer, was required to wear the yellow star; people had begun to avoid him. Not knowing how to declare his solidarity, my father thought of asking him just then to give me lessons. They were confiscating Jewish apartments, and the composer kept having to move on to smaller and smaller places, ending up, just before he left for Theresienstadt, in a little flat where many people were camping, crammed, in every room. All along, he had held on to the small piano on which I would play my harmony or counterpoint exercises while strangers went about their business around us.
Of all this I retain only my admiration for him, and three or four images. Especially this one: seeing me out after a lesson, he stopped by the door and suddenly said to me: "There are many surprisingly weak passages in Beethoven. But it is the weak passages that bring out the strong ones. It's like a lawn-if it weren't there, we couldn't enjoy the beautiful tree growing on it."
A peculiar idea. That it has stayed in my memory is even more peculiar. Maybe I felt honored at getting to hear a confidential admission from the teacher, a secret, a great trick of the trade that only the initiated are permitted to know.
Whatever it was, that brief remark from my teacher of the time has haunted me all my life (I've defended it, I've fought it, I've never finished with it); without it, this text could very certainly not have been written.
But dearer to me than that remark in itself is the image of a man who, a while before his hideous journey, stood thinking aloud, in front of a child, about the problem of composing a work of art.
Testaments Betrayed (1993) - An Essay in Nine Parts By Milan Kundera
Translated by Linda Asher
Friday, July 15, 2016
PART SIX. Works and Spiders