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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Encounter’
By Milan Kundera
Harper, $23.99 178 pages
The latest book by Milan Kundera is a set of mini-essays about other artists. The three earlier critical works by Mr. Kundera were “The Curtain,” “The Art of the Novel” and “Testaments Betrayed.” Mr. Kundera is, of course, the celebrated Czech novelist who wrote “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting,” “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” and the somewhat less well-known but especially lovable “Immortality,” along with seven other works of fiction and one play, “Jacques and His Master,” a reworking of Diderot’s “Jacques the Fatalist.”
Though Mr. Kundera was an avowed communist early on in Czechoslovakia, he later became persona non grata after the Soviet takeover of his country in the autumn of 1968. He has been in exile in France for 35 years.
All his works are notable for being intelligent and learned, qualities that he not only illustrates, but strongly and persistently advocates for. It is partly because of his emphasis on the novelist as thinker that it is natural for him to write criticism as well as fiction. The artist should know what he is doing, have a clear sense of the history of his genre and of his place in that narrative. A true novelist has a “passion to know,” but also a passion to transcend ideology.
If this emphasis on the artist with a deeply literate understanding of his medium has been more characteristic of authors and artists in continental Europe than in England or America, it has been still more so in the case of central-Europeans, a point driven home by Mr. Kundera in his earlier studies of Mann, Kafka and Hermann Broch, among the many others whom he has considered.
Perhaps this geographical difference is less marked these days because of work of younger American writers such as Jonathan Safran Foer and William Vollmann, author of “Europe Central.”
“Encounter” isn’t for me as importantly life-changing as were “The Art of the Novel” and “Testaments Betrayed,” but it does, as did they, introduce a number of artists who may be unknown to readers, including the Italian novelist Curzio Malaparte, the Czech composer Iannes Xenakis and a novelist from Martinique, Patrick Chamoiseau.
There are also tributes to writers whom, Mr. Kundera thinks have been blacklisted, or otherwise ignored, misunderstood or undervalued, including Celine, Heidegger and the now largely unread 19th-century French novelist Anatole France, whom Proust also celebrated. Some pages are devoted to the English painter Francis Bacon, and Kundera adds to what he has already written on behalf of the Czech composer Leos Janacek.
The title “Encounter” is a good word to designate a main value of the experience of art for Mr. Kundera; namely, a meeting with something new and different. Our best gains in literacy - in any medium - tend to occur along what Emerson called “the stairway of surprise.” As Mr. Kundera declares, “Only the marvelous is beautiful.” It is the moment of discovery or radical change of mind that matters most. Doubtless this is why Mr. Kundera’s essays tend to be very short, especially so in this latest work.
All of Mr. Kundera’s works are infused with a sense of the sway of change in our lives. As is indicated in a backward way by the title, the novel “Immortality” is pitted against the denial of death. A major formal model for Mr. Kundera is the musical fugue. A fugue is made up of very different bits that undergo radical reshaping and recombination. In folk music, modern composers like Bartok, Janacek and Stravinsky “discovered forgotten tonalities, unfamiliar rhythms. A harshness and immediacy that concert-hall music had long since lost.”
Mr. Kundera praises the “initial freedom” of motion and direction in Rabelais’ “Gargantua and Pantagruel,” its opening out in manifest anticipation of the things that could happen in the medium of the novel when it first appeared, before the sense of what the novel could and could not do began to narrow and solidify.
Similarly, “Encounter” unfolds through a series of heterogeneous pieces. Twenty-two pages are given to Malaparte. Beethoven’s last piano sonata, Opus 110, and Dostoyevsky’s “The Idiot” each gets three pages. There are also other formal variations. The essay on Xenakis consists of a text written in 1980 interposed here and there with afterthoughts from 2008. Some pages on Rabelais are taken from an interview with Guy Scarpetta. Another piece consists of a letter from Mr. Kundera to Carlos Fuentes. The focus widens to include not only the making of artworks but also, as in Proust, acts in which they are apprehended, judged and performed.
A Kundera novel doesn’t stick to a single linear plot line but alternates one story with one or more others; and each story is interrupted by commentary from the novelist or real or imagined discussions on a related theme by persons from either in or outside the stories. The sequences of events are episodic. Dream sequences often take over, in which there is a shift from the normal cause-and-effect chain to the improbable and even the impossible.
The best art evokes and enacts - rather than covers over - life’s disruptions caused by chance and change. In one of Francis Bacon’s paintings, for instance, “an accidental splotch of color … abruptly changes the very subject of the picture,” moving through the chaotic in order to get beyond it. Thus the amazing third movement of Beethoven’s Opus 110 “is notable for its extraordinary heterogeneity of emotion and form; yet the listener does not realize this because the complexity seems so natural and simple.”
Mr. Kundera offers the typically rather insular American readership a wealth of revealing particulars drawn from many places and times and from a number of different kinds of art. I know from personal experience that this expansion of range constitutes the best sort of preparation for managing our kaleidoscopic, confused and confusing mental scene. The best way out is always through.
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