Friday, February 16, 2007

"Novel of Ideas"

nice interview of Milan Kundera...

LO: You have provoked many discussions about Central Europe, All of your fiction takes place in Czechoslovakia and even in your theoretical work, The Art of the Novel, Central Europe is very important. Would you mind clarifying just what this notion of Central Europe represents for you, just what its real perimeters are?

MK: Let's simplify the problem, an enormous one, and limit ourselves to the novel. There are four great novelists: Kafka, Broch, Musil, Gombrowicz. I call them the "pleiad" of Central Europe's great novelists. Since Proust, I can't see anyone of greater importance in the history of the novel. Without knowing them, not much of the modern novel can be understood. Briefly, these authors are modernists, which is to say that they are impassioned by a search for new forms. At the same time, however, they are completely devoid of any avant-garde ideology (faith in progress, in revolution, and so on), whence another vision of the history of art and of the novel: They never speak of the necessity of a radical break; they don't consider the formal possibilities of the novel to be exhausted; they only want to radically enlarge them.

From this as well there derives another rapport with the novel's past. There is no disdain in these writers for "tradition," but another choice of tradition: they are all fascinated by the novel preceding the nineteenth century. I call this era the first "half-time" of the history of the novel. This era and its aesthetic were almost forgotten, obscured, during the nineteenth century. The "betrayal" of this first half-time deprived the novel of its play essence (so striking in Rabelais, Cervantes, Sterne, Diderot) and diminished the role of what I call "novelistic meditation." Novelistic meditation--let's avoid any misunderstanding here: I'm not thinking of the so-called "philosophical novel" that really means a subordination of the novel to philosophy, the novelistic illustration of ideas. This is Sartre. And even more so Camus. La Peste. This moralizing novel is almost the model of what I don't like. The intent of a Musil or a Broch is entirely different: it is not to serve philosophy but, on the contrary, to get hold of a domain that, until then, philosophy had kept for itself There are metaphysical problems, problems of human existence, that philosophy has never known how to grasp in all their concreteness and that only the novel can seize. This said, these novelists (particularly Broch and Musil) made of the novel a supreme poetic and intellectual synthesis and accorded it a preeminent place in the cultural totality.

These authors are relatively little known in America, which I have always considered an intellectual scandal. But really it is a matter of an aesthetic misunderstanding that is quite comprehensible when one considers the particular tradition of the American novel. In the first place, America didn't live through the first half-time of the history of the novel. In the second, at the same time that the great Central Europeans were writing their masterpieces, America herself had her own great "pleiad," one which would influence the entire world and which was that of Hemingway, Faulkner and Dos Passos. But its aesthetic was entirely opposed to that of a Musil! For example: a meditative intervention of the author into the narrative thread of his novel appears in this aesthetic as a displaced intellectualism, as something foreign to the very essence of the novel. A personal recollection: The New Yorker published the first three parts of The Unbearable Lightness of Being--but they eliminated the passages on Nietzsche's eternal return! Yet, in my eyes, what I say about Nietzsche's eternal return has nothing to do with a philosophic discourse; it is a continuity of paradoxes that are no less novelistic (that is to say, they answer no less to the essence of what the novel is) than a description of the action or a dialogue.


Cheshire Cat said...

Hmmm. Kundera is against the novel of ideas, and uses Musil to illustrate his point!

Alok said...

He is against a special kind of novel of ideas, those which use novelistic form for illustration of ideas, like Camus or Sartre. He thinks that Musil and Proust are different from these types. I don't know anything about Broch or Gombrowicz.

Cheshire Cat said...

Yeah, I believe the "novel of ideas" category is meaningful, I just don't believe it's useful. For instance, Richard Powers, J.M.Coetzee, Michel Houellebecq and Krasznahorkai are all in some sense "novelists of ideas", but they have virtually nothing else in common.

Kafka is pretty clearly not a novelist of ideas. And Gombrowicz equally clearly is, he's one of the purest examples. I don't know much about Broch, except that reading him takes a lot of patience.

antonia said...

and how can he pit Faulkner against Musil? ?? ??
(I have to admit I never really understood the admiration for Kundera)

Gombrowicz's diaries are pure delight.

novelist of ideas.... in philosophy I am doin history of ideas and the only rule about this term is that there is no rule. again I agree with cheshire. just names to make up some rough superficial categories, like huge cupboards in which you throw stuff and you open them twice a year and you see the only thing all the things in the cupboard have in common is that they are 'stuff'. And we know from kant that categories itself are not enough and you again need rules in order to apply those categories...

"There are metaphysical problems, problems of human existence, that philosophy has never known how to grasp in all their concreteness and that only the novel can seize. This said, these novelists (particularly Broch and Musil) made of the novel a supreme poetic and intellectual synthesis and accorded it a preeminent place in the cultural totality."

one zillion philosophers are fully aware of that. I don't like saying that but here Heidegger deserves some credit for making this problem visible in some very good essays he wrote around 1935 on the origin of art. Isaiah Berlin was someone who also was only too aware of that - and in whose oeuvre we find both, reflections on books and on freedom (for instance) or - not to forget Gadamer.and not to forget all those who worked since then on the problem.

Alok said...

I agree with both of you. This label might be too broad to be really useful (that cupboard analogy is very good) but i still think it is a handy way to distinguish certain kind of novel... a kind which we don't see many of these days, specially in the anglo-american world. most of them are extremely conservative in both form and content and even if you come across something experimental, it is more often than not, frivolous and lacks any seriousness of intent. i am of course generalizing but that's my impression.