Refreshing…that was the word I used at the end of the last post – but as I did so I felt I was copping out. OK. OK. Kundera’s first essay does provide a useful – and, dare I say it, perceptive – overview. Sadly the other essays, transcripts of interviews and speeches add nothing. Here and there an interesting aside, a detail – but nothing substantive – except that collectively they say, loud and clear: I, Milan Kundera, am an intellectual.
The day after posting, I was again browsing in the bookshops and for £3 acquired four books: The Pelican Guide to English Literature vol 7 (I could have got the entire set but frankly that would have been too heavy an intellectual load – but I did particularly want to see what they said on Forster. Published in 1961, the Modern Age has Sylvia Plath as its most modern figure – no Ted Hughes – literary dissection studies, only dead pigs need apply); Gulliver’s Travels and two books by Leonard Cottrell on the ancient pharoahs. Which would have been a worthy deal had I not gone in to browse the more expensive shelves – and there was a Kundera I had not read when it first came out: Ignorance. So five books for £5.95 it was.
Ah! Milan! How the mighty are fallen. I loved The Joke. You say that Laughable Loves is among your favourites – but Ignorance…well, let’s approach this from another angle.
The thing about a novel, that makes it a novel, is that, at its base there is a story. If that’s all there is then perhaps we can say it is a negligible thing. Then there are the characters – flat or round, it doesn’t matter (necessarily!) – but rich in their characterisation. And then there may be so many other things that can be added to the mix. But one thing that does not work too well (and this is the fault of Ignorance) is the addition of a serious intellectual narrator eviscerating an experience. What happens then is that the story ceases to be a story and becomes simply an illustration, a cartoon. Kundera wants to explain the complexities of returning to the homeland after a couple of decades of exile. And the complexities are interesting – but the novel isn’t. We simply don’t buy the characters because they are only there to illustrate. Kundera has become a narrative essayist – and frankly it’s a bit of a bore.
Maugham (or someone else) famously said: “There are three rules when it comes to writing a novel – but no-one knows what they are.” But I think one of those three rules is that the characters have to be real to the reader – and here, in this book, they aren’t.
Kundera is too aware of Literature (capital ‘L’) and his possible place in the progression of Great Writers – and this is a destructive knowledge. This book is a warning to all of us who wish to write: do not take yourself too seriously – indeed, best to get out of the way and let the story tell what it has to tell.
One interesting detail (this from his The Art of the Novel) is that Kundera has a number obsession: his number is 7. This is the number of essays in this book and the number of sections in each of his novels (I’m taking his word for this). Even Lo Kuan-Chung’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms is constructed on a number basis. Each of the two volumes has exactly 60 chapters. Volume one is the rise of the heroes; volume two describes their slow eclipse. These are two life cycles. Sixty is for the Chinese, the cycle of time. The problem the Chinese had in terms of putting their finger on ‘time’ was that they didn’t, as we do, have a virtual Year Zero (actually not quite true as the year before 1AD is 1BC) – but the Chinese had no point of beginning. Their time was attached to Emperors or an endlessness of sixty-year cycles. Each year has a name composed of two characters (words), one progresses in a series of ten and the other in a series of twelve. So each year has a different name during the cycle of 60 years and then the names repeat themselves. So no coincidence then that The Romance of the Three Kingdoms has two cycles of sixty chapters.
Nice to know I’m not alone in my obsessions with number.