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.

Barney’s Version — Mordecai Richler

Barney’s Version isn’t always clear or pretty, whether he’s portraying himself, his friends, his quasi-loves—whether Barney genuinely loved anyone aside from himself is uncertain, with claims otherwise of dubious merit—and his enemies. These categories blend into one another with alarming and realistic regularity. The novel is also seriously fun rather than funnily serious, in the tradition of excessive, bombastic, narcissistic personalities too eccentric for politics but otherwise cut out for that field, like the narrators of Martin Amis’ Money and many of Saul Bellow’s novels, but most notable Seize the Day and Herzog.

Social impropriety binds those characters together and is abundant in Barney’s Version. In a rare moment, Barney Charnofsky is “Bingeing on respectability, I was not determined to prove to Clara’s ghost that I could play the nice middle-class Jewish boy better than she had ever dreamed.” He fails, and trying to prove anything to a ghost is ridiculous, but I love the inversion of the typical mode of bingeing as negative, recalling Richard Feynman’s comment, “So I have developed a very powerful sense of social irresponsibility […] It’s made me a very happy man ever since.”

One character says to Barney, “Now will you please be quiet and stop making an exhibition of yourself.” He doesn’t, of course, since he’s spent his entire life making an exhibition of himself, perhaps explaining the irritation verging on envy that he feels toward a successful acquittance. Barney says of him, “But, after all these years as a flunk, my old friend and latter-day nemesis has acquired a small but vociferous following, CanLit apparatchiks to the fore.” I wonder what he would think of me becoming such an apparatchik by way of coming to Barney’s Version through the 2nd Canadian Book Challenge, Eh?. Nonetheless, publicity, however minor, on my part gives Barney more of a chance to make an exhibit of himself.

He doesn’t do so in a simple manner, either. Chapter four begins by saying, “What follows appears to be yet another digression.” The whole novel is a digression—this post mimics its structure—which makes a certain amount of sense because most people’s entire lives are one long digression, or a series of them, and the narrative cohesion usually given to them by biography and the like is more an effort to impose order on chaos, like selecting a line to fit to a series of data points regardless of whether the line has any meaning.* For such a novel to work, it must nonetheless tell a story with some kind of beginning, middle, and end, even if those elements aren’t in their usual order, and Barney’s Version succeeds as a novel despite and because of its narrator’s protestations.

We’re also not sure when to trust Barney, especially because a would-be editor keeps inserting footnotes. Elsewhere, Miriam, the perhaps love of Barney’s life, says “I believe you,” when Barney denies killing his somewhat friend who might’ve slept with his second wife and might’ve been set-up to do so by Barney himself as a way of getting Barney a divorce (got all that?). He says, ” ‘I’ll be out of here in a week,’ […] hoping that saying it aloud would render it true.” Many of his hopes are improbably rendered true, and his belief in his own belief is somewhat perplexing. As for Miriam, believing a liar might also not be a great idea, but then Miriam might not know Barney’s a liar, or she merely expressing optimism to a man she doubts. It’s not clear what. A lot of Barney’s Version is humorously unclear. In other words, you get a lot of narrative play and epistemological complexity among your laughs. If there’s a better way to get said fiber, I’m not sure of it, and I like mine with sugar much more than vinegar. Life, after all, is pretty funny, and seeing that reflected in books is a relief. Mild offense sometimes blends into hilarious social commentary, as when lawyers are “[…] perhaps mollified because parents of the accused had promised to endow a chair of visible-minority social studies at the college.” That could be a line from Francine Prose’s Blue Angel. Later, we find in Barney’s Version:

I don’t hold with shamans, witch doctors, or psychiatrists. Shakespeare, Tolstoy, or even Dickens understood more about the human condition than ever occurred to any of you.

Usually the third in that opening series isn’t placed with the other two, but the structure is an effective way to express Barney’s low opinion of someone trying to help him. Fortunately, the psychiatrist doesn’t take much offense, as Barney has low opinions of many people, places, and professions, as well as, at times, himself. He also demonstrates obvious allusions in a novel filled with them, some subtle and some not, and his ability to go from hockey to Shakespeare and back impresses. Speaking of hockey, at one point a long-winded girlfriend causes him to start reading about sport in lieu of her, a feeling I remember well, as when I found myself in such a similar low-signal-to-noise-ratio circumstance, the New Yorker was my outlet of preference, causing a roommate to remark once, “I could tell you were on the phone with her because normally I hear you talking.”

I’m tempted to go on about Barney’s Version—there’s a murder plot, an unreliably unreliable narrator, jokes from fading memory, an intrusive editor, family squabbles, drinking problems/solutions, none of which have been fully discussed in this sketch of a sketch—and the more I consider it, the more I realize its easily missed depth and the more I’m inclined to recommend it, given its paradoxical ability to be both light and heavy at the same time, like a character who’s finally reconciled The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Barney’s Version has the magic of a novel that wiggles out of description with such finesse that I barely realize what’s happened, and I’m not reading about the world, but Barney’s version of it.

* Alain de Botton’s fabulous Kiss & Tell is the most successful mockery of biography I’ve read. It also comes with the sanction of the American lit apparatchiks, who put it on my senior year AP English test.

Orhan Pamuk interview

Orahn Pamuk gives a fantastic interview at the Brooklyn Rail. A sample:

The novel, beginning in the 18th century, began to take over all the previous literary forms. In fact, we can even say it was the early form of globalization. The world, in so many ways, is so culturally globalized that our ways of seeing it are very similar to the post-Renaissance, let’s say from the invention of perspective in Italian and Dutch painting to the invention of photography and thereafter; we still see the world in a similar manner. We are likewise all globalized in our literary imagination, in the forms that we use, and I would say the literary globalization of the world had been completed years ago, when nobody was talking about globalization.

This resonates with Milan Kundera’s The Curtain, a book that deals much with the inherent internationalism in literature. I’m especially prone to such arguments because I’ve been reading so much in translation lately: a post on The Name of the Rose is due tomorrow, I finished Pamuk’s My Name is Red not long ago, right after that I finished Madame Bovary, The Curtain itself was originally written in French by a Czech author, and I’ve even finished books I didn’t especially like translated from Spanish: The Bad Girl and The Savage Detectives. And I began Doctor Faustus a few days ago, though I fear I will have to put it aside for a time so I can work on an academic project. Nonetheless, given the above, what Pamuk says about the globalization of literature is well-taken.

(Link stolen, as usual, from TEV.)


“Thus the poets were quite familiar with the questions audiences posted, they knew that they were repeated with the stupefying regularity of statistical probability. They knew that someone was certainly going to ask: Comrade, how did you first start to write? They knew that someone else would ask: How old were you when you wrote you[r] first poem?”

—Milan Kundera, Life is Elsewhere

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