On Milan Kundera’s Art of the Novel and The Festival of Insignificance: An Essay in Seven Parts

On Milan Kundera's Art of the Novel and The Festival of Insignificance: An Essay in Seven Parts

What does it mean to read and understand a novel? Camus pointed out that we get into the habit of living before acquiring the habit of thinking. In our world of now, the habit of thought has been infected by the termites of shallowness: our joys and our sufferings have come to the surface of the vast ocean within us; we keep experiencing the waves crashing within ourselves — our restless minds — but our capacity to delve deep within — to feel the deep currents — is perhaps vanishing. Hence, how to read a novel has also been forgotten. We are too overtly concerned with our likes and dislikes, too much reduced by our conditioning and pre-conceptions, so eager to react quickly — offer alleluia or spite — that we have forgotten to travel into the world of the novel, with a blank mind freed of our own self.

The few true novels amidst the cacophony of “literary fiction” do make a demand to forget our being — to abandon ourselves briefly. Without that forgetting, the novel loses its power to penetrate deep within us, and show us, what it has to offer. The seeing suffers because of our lack of inner stillness. Understanding suffers because of our instinct to pronounce judgement. We need to get out of the way, when we are reading, and yet commit our deepest awareness that lies within us — beyond our reactions and thoughts. Allow the literature to form us in a new way, allow its life to get into us. Then only literature starts to do its magic and transforms our way of seeing, feeling and understanding.
In other words, true literature — that has layers within it, offers many ambiguous trails to invisible treasures, pulsates with the possibility of diverse meanings and contains hidden stories within the story — demands that we forget of our being, so that it can reveal to us, the truths of our being.
To make a case for the existence of terminal paradoxes in life, a term coined by Kundera, I just made a new paradoxical interpretation of the phrase “forgetting of being” — in a different context — a poetic phrase that was coined by Heidegger, who was Husserl’s pupil. These two philosophers have influenced Kundera’s understanding of the novel. Kundera writes that “the novel has accompanied man uninterruptedly and faithfully since the beginning of the Modern Era. It was then that the ‘passion to know’, which Husserl considered the essence of European spirituality, seized the novel and led it to scrutinize man’s concrete life and protect it against ‘the forgetting of being’; to hold ‘world of life’ under a permanent light. That is the sense in which I understand and share Hermann Broch’s insistence in repeating: The sole raison d’être of a novel is to discover what only the novel can discover. A novel that does not discover a hitherto unknown segment of existence is immoral. Knowledge is the novel’s only morality.”
What is Digression?
One of the most recurring elements within Kundera’s method of composing a novel is digression — which he defines as “abandoning the story for a moment”.
Kundera reveals that he has always constructed his novels “on two levels: on the first, I compose the novel’s story; over that, I develop the themes”. He defines theme as an existential enquiry that is “finally the examination of certain words, theme words”. He goes on to say, “The themes are worked out steadily within and by the story. Whenever a novel abandons its themes and settles for just telling the story, it goes flat.”
Kundera says that digression can only enhance the composition as long it stays within the arc of the theme — and can take place outside the story of the novel.
I must also digress in this part of the essay. (But this digression is not random like it might seem at the beginning; there is a subtle continuity or link to the first paragraph of this part, and eventually this digression will link up with the title of this part to justify its presence in this section and the overall theme of this essay).
I begin by picking up a single word or a motif from the first paragraph of this part — European — and wish to speak of a variation of the motif.
Kundera says “the novel is Europe’s creation; its discoveries, though made in various languages, belong to the whole of Europe.”

In a surprising twist, Kundera doesn’t use the word “Europe” as a geographical location, but uses the word only to denote a spirit of origin that is now global, and beyond the geographical limits of Europe.
For Kundera, the modern novel began in 1605 with The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha. And he declared, “I am attached to nothing but the depreciated legacy of Cervantes.”
But whether the novel is Europe’s creation is a contentious issue. Borges, in The Dialogues of Ascetic and King, called Milinda Panha (The Questions of Milinda), dating back to 100 BCE, “a novel of doctrinal intent”.
The Tale of Genji, published before 1021 by the Japanese noble woman Murasaki Shikibu, is already called in Wikipedia: “The world’s first novel, the first modern novel, the first psychological novel or the first novel still to be considered a classic.”
But perhaps more than actual history which never remains static but gets re-interpreted in time — through new revelations and removal of conscious or unconscious neglect and prejudices — what is important is the historical perception of a certain history that influences a certain individual at a certain moment of time; that for him or her is a truth. One can call it a falsified truth or a distorted truth. But it is better to call it a relative truth that is derived through one’s perception, experience, belief and understanding that is relative to one’s exposure, opportunity to know, inclinations and nature of self.
We are full of relative truths than actual truths; it is one of our existential enigmas.
Hence, “Knowledge is the Novel’s only Morality” becomes such an important dictum, ideated by Broch, that inspires Kundera.
The novel has to explore life to gather knowledge, discover a hitherto unknown segment of existence and make an attempt to take us closer to actual truths through the maze of relative truths. This is the raison d’être of the novel — the most profound reason for its existence.

We live in a time that Kundera describes as “a period of repetition in which the novel keeps duplicating its form, emptied of its spirit”. The spirit of the novel that he talks about is related to the sequence of discoveries, something previously unachieved.
For Kundera, the striving for the unachieved, instead of duplicating existent forms, is the marker of great literature.
“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 inquires into the nature of adventure; with Richardson, it begins to examine ‘what happens inside’, to unmask the secret life of feelings; with Balzac, it discovers man’s rootedness in history; with Flaubert, it explores the terra previously incognita of the everyday; with Tolstoy, it focuses on the intrusion of the irrational into human behaviour 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.”
Kundera tells us that the novels which seek and discover the unachieved is part of the history of the novel, and novels which don’t are outside the long history that began with Cervantes, and nothing more than “graphomania — the mania to write books (to have a public of unknown readers); not to create a form but to impose one’s self on others”. That he calls, “the most grotesque version of the will to power”.
Kundera sees form as the hallmark of originality, not only the writing. He sees the “exceptional importance of composition” as “one of the genetic markers of the art of the novel.
Kundera says, “…the beauty of a novel is inseparable from its architecture; I say ‘beauty’ because the composition is not merely a technical skill; it carries within it an author’s originality of style (all Dostoyevsky’s novels are based on the same compositional principle); and it is the identifying mark of each particular novel (inside this common principle; each of Dostoyevsky’s novels has its own inimitable architecture).”

Kundera writes, “Anna Karenina is made up of two narrative lines: Anna’s (the drama of the adultery and the suicide) and Levin’s (the life of a fairly happy couple). At the end of the seventh part, Anna kills herself. There follows the last part, the eighth, devoted exclusively to the Levin line. This is a very sharp violation of convention, because for any reader the heroine’s death is the only possible ending to a novel.” He goes on to praise Tolstoy and the composition of Anna Karenina. “…in that eighth part, the heroine is no longer onstage; all that remains of her story is a trailing echo, the light tread of a memory growing faint; and it is lovely; and it is truthful.”
With such a profound gaze upon the beauty of form and the beauty of composition, Kundera achieves the unachieved in the most splendid form of his artistic vision in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. A novel that is a fusion of stories, memoir, meditations, novelistic essay, fable, jokes and anecdotes, where the novel is held together by a theme; and even a chapter — divided in several unrelated parts — is held together by a common question!
The same characters, or even a protagonist, are no longer required to be present in all the chapters of the novel. The theme or a question can be the thread that holds diverse elements together. He discovers a new way, forges a fresh path and makes a major contribution to our knowledge about the novel.
Kundera demonstrates what he seeks in a novel: to achieve something previously unachieved; and assures his place within the history of the novel.

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