The specific objects may change but the effect remains the same

In Tereza’s eyes, books were the emblems of a secret brotherhood. For she had but a single weapon against the world of crudity surrounding her: the books she took out of the municipal library. . . . They not only offered the possibility of an imaginary escape from a life she found unsatisfying; they also had a meaning for her as physical objects: she loved to walk down the street with a book under her arm. It had the same significance for her as an elegant cane for the dandy a century ago. It differentiated her from others.

(Comparing the book to the elegant cane of the dandy is not absolutely precise. A dandy’s cane did more than make him different; it made him modern and up to date. The book made Tereza different, but old-fashioned. Of course, she was too young to see how old-fashioned she looked to others. The young men walking by with transistor radios pressed to their ears seemed silly to her. It never occurred to her that they were modern.)

The specific objects may change but the effect remains the same. Replace “transistor radio” with “iPhone” or similar. The Unbearable Lightness of Being was first published in English in 1984. I think some version of the clerisy will always exist, and, fortunately, membership is not restricted to the degreed; it is open to anyone who wishes to read and think.

Briefly noted: The Festival of Insignificance — Milan Kundera

The Festival of Insignificance is out and I don’t know what to make of it. It’s nice enough I suppose but it feels . . . Insubstantial? Disconnected? Do I not get it? Hard to say. Characters or figures appear, are observed or make a speech, then leave. Consider this, from page 110, just 5 pages from the end:

In the broad walk that stretches into the park from l’avenue de l’Obsesrvatoire, a man of about fifty with a mustache, wearing an old worn parka with a long hunting rifle slung from his shoulder, runs toward the circle of the great marble ladies of France. He is shouting and waving his arms. All around, people stop and watch, startled and sympathetic. Yes, sympathetic, for that mustachioed face has an easy quality that freshens the atmosphere in the garden with an idyllic breath of times gone by. It calls up the image of a ladies’ man, a village rake, an adventurer who’s more likable for already being a little older and seasoned. Won over by his country charm, his virile goodness, his folkloric look, the crowd sends him smiles and he responds, pleasing and ingratiating.

Now what? The passage is on its own fine, and maybe it connects in obscure ways to other passages that I haven’t adequately noticed. The odd thing about this passage is that, like many of the scenes, it doesn’t really seem to connect with the rest of the novella. The adjective “Hegelian” appears, which is rarely a good sign. Some passages are witty and perhaps true:

When Ramon had described his theory about observation posts standing each on a different point in history, from which people talk together unable to understand one another, Alain had immediately thought of his girlfriend, because, thanks to her, he knew that even the dialogue between true lovers, if their birth dates are too far apart, is only the intertwining of two monologues, each holding for the other much that is not understood.

Kundera_FestivalThe observation posts are works of art or artists, with the people being the public or possibly other artists: no one understands anyone else because contextual changes make the art feel different to the observer. The lover faces a similar challenge, and it’s one that I know in a different context: teaching. In school I’d listen to out-of-it teachers casually reference TV shows or other phenomena from decades before my time and then watch them be bewildered that something so vital to them and their generation could be a void to ours. Now I’m on the other side of the desk and sense the same thing. Very little culture transcends the time it was produced, and what does transcend that time often does so only through great effort. Ramon senses this intellectually and Alain erotically. Maybe.

But, again, so what? And what of the first-person narrator who speaks as the or a writer? I don’t know, which may be the point of the novella, if there is one.

Art is of course insignificant and significant at the same time. Its role as insignificant is well known, and its significance can be inferred by the ceaseless efforts of religions, governments, and parents to censor it. If art weren’t significant, all that effort into controlling art wouldn’t occur. Political art may be legal in the U.S., but just try writing a political satire of the Chinese government in China. Perhaps the point is that in the West we’ve evolved to a stage where virtually all art is legal and none of it matters, leaving artists and art consumers / experiencers to ask, “What now?”

Maybe there is a stylistic quality to The Festival of Insignificance evident in French that didn’t make it to English. It is always dangerous to assume too much about a translated novel. Maybe too the only good criticism of art is other art, and little conventional criticism rises to the level of art.

Here is Jonathan Rosen writing about it, and ignore the stupid, cliché title, which probably wasn’t his. Too many reviewers are obsessed with the writer instead of the book.

Kundera, Horace Engdahl, and the Nobel Prize

Swedish Academy Permanent Secretary Horace Engdahl ought to read Milan Kundera, who is as European cosmopolitan as anyone, anywhere. This recommendation comes in response to Engdahl’s recent and much discussed statement:

Speaking generally about American literature, however, he said U.S. writers are “too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture,” dragging down the quality of their work.

“The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature,” Engdahl said. “That ignorance is restraining.”

The line of reasoning has been adequately debunked elsewhere—see Slate for a representative sample—I’m still fascinated by the ignorance of or, much more probably, hostility toward what is, for good or ill, still the world’s largest unified cultural force. What’s most amusing, however, is its relationship to what Milan Kundera called “The Provincialism of Small Nations” and “The Provincialism of Large Nations” in The Curtain. He diagnoses:

How to define “provincialism?” As the inability (or the refusal) to see one’s own culture in the large context. The large nations resist the Goethean idea of “world literature” because their own literature seems to them sufficiently rich that they need take no interest in what people write elsewhere […]

Small nations are reticent toward the large context for the exact opposite reasons: they hold world culture in high esteem but feel it to be something alien, a sky above their heads, distant, inaccessible, an ideal reality with little connection to their national literature.

What’s so bizarre is that Engdahl essentially accomplishes both at once: he resists the idea of the United States’ literature because he thinks European literature is enough, while at the same time he feels the United States literature is somehow alien, despite its self-evident place that would seem obvious to anyone with even passing familiarity with it. Engdahl is essentially implying that a) American literature is somehow guilty by association with worldwide pop culture, b) isn’t real literature in the first place, c) he’s unhappy about American hegemony culturally or otherwise, or, d) he’s unhappy at Europe relative decline in cultural and economic importance, which is likely to accelerate as India, in particular, rises (see Farheed Zakaria’s The Post-American World for more).

If the Nobel committee really wanted to regain some of its aesthetic and literary credentials, it would award the prize to Umberto Eco—a European—and Philip Roth, probably in that order. But, alas, the prizes over the last ten years have tended to go more for anti-Americanism or for writers being esoteric for the sake of being esoteric than for any other virtue. It would seem the Swedish Academy is isolated and mistakes its isolation for connection, like a remote abbey whose residents imagine themselves intimately familiar with the wider culture they ignore.

Engdahl also gives assertions as implausible as Sarah Palin’s claims to foreign policy expertise in quotes like this one:

But Horace Engdahl, the academy’s permanent secretary, rejected the notion that politics has anything to do with Nobel decisions.

“One doesn’t read literature with the same part of the brain as one votes for a political party,” he told The Associated Press.

The second doesn’t have anything to do with the first and might not be true anyway. But politics cannot be wholly separated from literature, though it can be minimized, and the pattern of recent winners indicates that, although correlation is not causation, there is a suspiciously strong correlation between winners and anti-Americanism that bears further investigation. That Engdahl would deny that too only furthers the impression of not occupying the same literary, intellectual, or social sphere the rest of us do. If he doesn’t want to, that’s fine; what’s galling is the pretense.

The Art of the Novel and The Curtain — Milan Kundera

Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel and The Curtain cover ideas big and small, moving from erudite generalizations to tiny examples drawn from generalizations of other authors’ work and back. But do they work as a whole? Yes and no: to agree with Kundera is easy, for his imperiousness makes one want to submit for the power of his assertions in comparison to the uncertainty and hedging that characterizes most criticism, and yet interrogating his ideas makes one begin to wonder: is “The desire to reconcile erotic adventures and idyll […] the very essence of hedonism—and the reason why man cannot attain the hedonist ideal[?]” Maybe, and maybe not. Is his opposition to outright philosophy or history in novel form correct? Again, at this level one could argue either way, and perhaps it is Kundera’s gift to raise the issues for others to argue. Uncertainty begins to appeal more.

If there is an art of the novel, is there also an art of writing about the art of the novel? Francine Prose did, as did James Wood, and Stephen King. The practice began long ago: E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel has become virtually a standard reference in essays like this one, while Edith Wharton’s speculations have become less read over time. Kundera has trod this ground thrice, the middle and weakest effort being Testaments Betrayed. The two end books are quite separate, but with wide enough overlap that this essay treats them, unfairly, as similar enough to shoehorn into one place. If you were to only read one, I would say read The Curtain, which supersedes The Art of the Novel with its own art and density and shows Kundera’s growth.

There are various tracks writers about the art of writing can follow can follow: some write about novels in the sense of how the author intends them, society understands them, or their sheer constructedness. Some write about writing them as largely a craft born of reading them; some say that reading and experience must mix; some say experience predominates. All express a theory of the novel bound up in their discussion of the practice of it, and as a corrective to academic theory, they’re much appreciated, especially the recent pair by Wood and Smiley. Kundera is less “how-to,” closer to academic theory, and more expressive in his demands of the novel as autonomous from other arts, cultures, personalities; he says in The Curtain:

The novelist is not a valet to historians; History may fascinate him, but because it is a kind of searchlight circling around human existence and throwing light onto it, onto its unexpected possibilities, which, in peaceable times, when History stands still, do not come to the fore but remain unseen and unknown.

Maybe: but the novelist is also part of history and historical development merely by writing a “novel,” and sets his work in some manner of time and place that is a sub-product or sub-creation of his own time and place. So what again is the relation of the novelist to history? I’m still not sure. This is why, I suspect, critics like the word “provocative” in relation to Kundera’s essays on the novel. They are not so much provocative, however, as the product of a strong aversion to all ideologies exception the ideology of aversion to ideology, an incredibly recursive view of the novel, and views that come together in startling ways that attempt to subvert other theories. The best thing I can say of Kundera’s works is that their tendency to acknowledge and even revel in paradox is a more definitive statement of the novel and its place than virtually anything he explicitly says.

Kundera’s nonfiction is written like his novels, but without characters anchoring them, in that they’re high on assertion and low on specific detail, assuming the reader will perceive what “To base a novel on a sustained meditation goes against the spirit of the twentieth century, which no longer likes to think at all” or “A theme is an existential inquiry,” both from The Art of the Novel, mean. The former doesn’t mean anything: the twentieth century isn’t one of any less or lesser quality thinking than any other century, and by virtually any objective measure that could be imagined for thinking it no doubt contains more. To defend his statement, Kundera would have to retreat to subjective or imaginary measures; but it is his method, like Foucault, to assert and leave the base scrambling of truth or falsehood to defenders and detractors. Perhaps he would argue, as he does in The Art of the Novel, that living in the United States has made me immune to the bureaucratic idiocies of the Soviet Union, as he does at one point regarding those who regard his novels as thought experiments versus those who understand him to be describing life in books like The Joke.

In spite of his apparent lofty abstraction, Kundera discusses and discards numerical maybe-coincidences in his novels: the tendency to divide them in seven parts, for example, and the meaning or lack thereof in that tendency. For him, they’re analogous to classical music, as he thought himself a musician or composer until he was 25. He uses precise language regarding classical music, which is dense with allusion to composers, just as his work is dense with allusions to authors. These books are not for average readers: they are ethereal, demanding, filled with koan-like statements that can only be evaluated if one is familiar with a wide range of work, thus enabling one to consider the veracity of Kundera’s beliefs. He tends to draw historical comparisons of uncertain provenance, as when he says Don Quixote’s violations of verisimilitude are acceptable because of its historical moment, implying they should still be acceptable now because they were then. Maybe—a word I’ve used frequently— or maybe a more technologic view of the novel, not necessarily as a form representing progress, per se, but as a form whose motion from space to space is, if not a progression, then at least worthy of more consideration for works that have absorbed all that came before and then created something new, is more appropriate. Kundera might not disagree with that assertion, and one could bring quotes about the novel’s progress to support it, or one could bring quotes about the power of some older novels to attack it. Like the Bible, much of his commentary could be used to attack or support many divergent readings.

For this reason, as well as for his own considerable and unusual works in the form, The Art of the Novel and The Curtain are unusual in their self-select audience. Nonetheless, the language itself is accessible, one major virtue is their brevity: both works, in part because of their tendency to assume rather than pedantically explain, can be read in an afternoon and savored for long after. In “In Search of Present Time” from The Curtain, Kundera writes: “By definition, what a narrator recounts is a thing that has happened. But each little event, as it becomes the past, loses its concrete nature and turns into an outline.” So too with each little observation Kundera makes, each grand point, until we have lost the thread of the novel’s art and must grope in the darkness for it again. He is at his best when he pronounces: “the novel remains to use the last observatory from which we can embrace human life as a whole.”

Yes: but there is a more metaphorical statement that toward the end of The Art of the Novel that summarizes both his point in his essays and his thoughts regarding the place of the novel in knowledge that is worth using to end this piece:

In the third book of Gargantua and Pantagruel, Panurge, the first great novelistic character that Europe beheld, is tormented by the question: Should he marry or not? He consults doctors, seers, professors, poets, philosophers, who each in turn quotes Hippocrates, Aristotle, Homer, Heraclitus, Plato. But after all this enormous, erudite research, which takes up the whole book, Panurge still does not know whether he should marry or not. And we, the readers, do not know either—but on the other hand, we have explored from every possible angle the situation, as comical as it is elemental, of the person who does not know whether he should marry or not.

Literature and science fiction redux, with taste as a bonus

Science Fiction, literature, and the haters spawned great comments and e-mails, including responses from both the agents I referenced. The one who gave a minimum word count said that the agency he and a partner founded is relatively new, and the advice regarding word count and sequels comes from editors, and until they have more experience, they’re hewing to those guidelines. The other agent said that calling Pearle Transit “too literary” was a poor choice of words and that, although he admired aspects of it, the novel didn’t get him excited. Both replies, in other words, were reasonable and show that the agents care. Other would-be authors might want to take note: rejection is rarely as personal as it might seem. In addition, I’m reminded of this passage from Orwell, who discussed the problems with book reviewing:

[…] the chances are that eleven out of the twelve books will fail to rouse in [the reviewer] the faintest spark of interest. They are not more than ordinarily bad, they are merely neutral, lifeless, and pointless. If he were not paid to do so he would never read a line of any of them, and in nearly every care the only truthful review he could write would be: “This book inspires in me no thoughts whatever.”

Most agents probably feel like that about most books. I just wrote a post expressing how Doctor Faustus roused nothing it me, though I perceive its technical merits. The latter can’t even be said of A Confederacy of Dunces, though it’s widely admired.

In other reactions, several people, including Big Dumb Object and agent Colleen Lindsay, pointed out the Clarke Awards shortlists. Thanks for the tip, and I’ll be reading some of them, although 2008 winner Richard Morgan’s first book, Altered Carbon, embodied some of the negative qualities discussed in my post. Still, very few authors write first books that are their best, and Thirteen is in my queue. I also noticed that Cryptonomicon was on the shortlist for 2000, but it’s not really science fiction.

One other thing I noted was the absence of any correspondents who said, “This is a great book that deserves a spot in the literary pantheon.” Likewise, I’d hoped for citations or links to essays that get deep inside great books. Where is the James Wood (see here too) of science fiction? Perhaps he already exists in Stanislaw Lem—his book Microworlds should arrive soon—but if the genre has as much material as some of the commenters and e-mailers say, it should also have its great critics. To paraphrase Saul Bellow without his racial connotations, I’d love to read them.

One commenter went in the opposite direction and said: “The reason as I see it that almost all science fiction writing falls short of literary merit is that its audience wants it that way.” I’m not convinced: although I pointed out a general trend toward the lack of literary merit in science fiction, it’s a law, and if it is, I’m wary of making correlation into causation. Furthermore, plenty of bad literary fiction exists, just like bad science fiction—but the literary canon pushes the upper bounds of knowledge and language in ways and volumes that science fiction hasn’t, at least to my knowledge so far. That’s in part why I’m writing these posts: it’s a process of searching, and I’m trying not to assume the very opinions I’m asking about it.

A few correspondents wrote that I had no idea what I was talking about and, implicitly, that there is no such thing as literary merit. I suppose both are possible, but they seem highly improbable; stating that there is an element of opinion in every artistic judgment is not the same as believing that every opinion is the same, and I also referred those writers to the “big three” books I’d mentioned about art and writing, which are the best reflections on what makes great literature and what makes great literature great I’ve found. Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel belongs there too. Alas, there is no short checklist that can be easily explained, and so the stack of reading necessary to really enter this conversation is intimidatingly high, and many of the accusers do not appear to have done it; such correspondents might not see the river because they’re in a valley and don’t have the fortitude to climb the mountain. Granted, at the top of the mountain they might look in the opposite direction I do, in which case I’d like to hear their opinions. Along these “everything is relative” lines, I once argued to a professor that Shakespeare and Joyce were way overrated and only read for historical reasons and because other people had read them.

Oh, how I want to take that back.

In Richard Feynman’s hilarious Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, he writes about his lessons in art and his visit to the Sistine Chapel, when he recognizes the masterpieces and the lesser works without a guide:

This was a terrific excitement to me, that I also could tell the difference between a beautiful work of art and one that’s not, without being able to define it. As a scientist you always think you know what you’re doing, so you tend to distrust the artist who says, “It’s great,” or “It’s no good,” and then is not able to explain why, as Jerry did with those drawings I took him. But here I was, sunk: I could do it too!*

To be sure, there is an element of opinion in virtually any form of art and criticism, and just as there is in some fields more scientific: in economics, should we value making the resource pie larger through public policy like lower tax rates and flatter tax rates, or should we try and distribute what we have more evenly? Nonetheless, some people simply know much more about the trade-offs involved, and by the same token, some know far more about books and literature than others. The closer you get to hard sciences that are describing rather than interpreting the world—math, physics, chemistry, and the like—the farther you get from pure opinion, but as soon as you reach the application phase, judgment calls arise again: what would be more useful to sell—product derived from X or from Y? What would be a more useful use of physicists during World War II: having them build mechanical calculators and the like, or having them work on the atomic bomb? Someone had to make those decisions, and they’re closer in some respects to artistic choices than to ones regarding proof and experimentation.

In art and literature, there aren’t experiments, but taste exists. Not everyone’s is the same but not everyone’s is equal, either. Mine is well-developed enough to have some opinions of at least some validity, I hope, and I’m looking for others who can say the same, and who know something of science fiction—hence my appreciation of those who pointed out the Clarke Awards and made other suggestions. If I read through the Clarke books and decide I’m wrong, you’ll probably hear about it in a year or two. Although I’m not a scientist, I do have interest in all intellectually honest fields and all intellectually honest practitioners in those fields, and so I turn again to Feynman, who described what he wants to instill in Caltech grads and what they should inculcate in themselves: “It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty—a kind of leaning over backwards.” Literary critics should hold themselves to the same standards, and I strive to. How well I succeed I will leave to others to argue.


* Although I quote poetry sometimes, I almost never analyze it here because I’m like the person without a real sense of what great visual art is: not having read widely and deeply enough in poetry to have developed my sense for what makes it bad, mediocre, good, and great poetry, I’m mostly silent, though appreciative.


EDIT: Added Feynman quote to the last paragraph.

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