After Forster, the obvious book to extract from my heaving shelves was Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel. Immediately we are treading different waters. Where Forster dissects the novel like a pig, Kundera communes with its deeper significance. He sees it as a rare flower that could, at any moment, become extinct. Under Communist Russia this was nearly its fate. Naturally, for Kundera, we are not talking simply of a story of a certain length. We are talking rather about an existential communication between existential being and existential being.
There were aeons of human existence before the novel came into being. Then, in Japan, 1,000 years ago, came The Tale of Genji. Sometime later – probably during the C14th – an unknown author, (said to be one Lo Kuan Chung), wrote the wonderful, mature, Chinese historical novel: The Tale of the Three Kingdoms (if you intend to read this book, I strongly recommend Brewitt-Taylor’s masterly two volume 1925 translation re-published in 1959 by Kelly & Walsh of Hong Kong). I have read this novel – all 1,300 pages – twice and could read it again.
But Kundera is not interested in these or indeed in anything that is not European. For him the great ancestor of the novel is Cervantes’ Don Quixote. It is Cervantes who first takes an individual on an adventure – on a journey to discover. It is this that marks for Kundera the start of ‘The Modern Era’ that is defined by “a passion to know”. A journey that anyone can take who has this desire to know.
And the novel too has been on its own journey: “In its own way, through its own logic, the novel discovered the various dimensions of existence one by one: with Cervantes and his contemporaries, it enquires into the nature of adventure; with Richardson, it begins to examine ‘what happens inside’, to unmask the secret life of the feelings; with Balzac, it discovers mans rootedness in history; with Flaubert, it explores the terra previously incognita of the everyday; with Tolstoy, it focuses on the intrusions of the irrational in human behavious and decisions. It probes time: the elusive past with Proust, the elusive present with Joyce. With Thomas Mann, it examines the role of the myths from the remote past that control our present actions. Et cetera, et cetera.” He goes on. “A novel that does not discover a hitherto unknown segment of existence is immoral.”
These quotes are from the first, most interesting, of the seven essays that make up this book. Kundera is writing from a central European perspective and only once – with Faulkner mentioned very much in passing – does he refer to any novel that was not European in the continental sense. He talks at length about a novelist that most English readers will be unfamiliar with: Broch, as well as one with which we should all be much more aware of than most of us are: Kafka. But he does not include the American novels and therein lies a deep parochialism.
Nevertheless this first essay is interesting – the novel moves in time; the novel is concerned about individual people and their horizons. Kundera has a lovely passage on how there is no sense of borders in Cervantes but decade on decade the fictional horizon becomes fore-shortened. But if we look at the major American writers we see something of the same journeys. It would be interesting to compare Kerouac’s On the Road to Don Quixote; Faulkner with Flaubert; Yossarian with Schweik. Who would we pair Hemingway with? Scott Fitzgerald? Lowry? (and what nationality shall we give Lowry: born and died in Britain but lived all his adult life in Mexico and Canada)
Kundera is also interesting on the gradual elimination of playfulness from the mainstream of the novel. It’s true the 1001 Nights is not strictly a novel but there is the extraordinary playfulness there in which stories emerge from other stories through the keyhole of dreams, as tangents, and this is a device that has never taken hold in the European or American novel.
There is also the narrative playfulness – in which the narrator talks directly to the reader unmediated by his characters – as in Tristram Shandy, Spike Milligan and dare I say it, the new comic genius on the block: yours truly – in Dreams of Gold (Ed: No! No! No! This is too much! Have you no shame? The lengths you go to in your vile self-promotion is utterly disgusting.) Et cetera, et cetera.
So, for Kundera the history of the Novel is the history of great books. Most novels (lower case) are merely pandering to an urge for narrative but say nothing about the great questions of the individual in the world. He disregards these novels utterly. He is not rude; he simply ignores them.
This is the perspective of a Man of Culture. It is a perspective that in itself is at odds with the more demotic perspectives of the English-speaking world. But it is a refreshing perspective – and I for one will be looking to renew my acquaintance with Kafka sooner rather than later. And here I should note that Kundera is masterly – as well he should be – on Kafka.