Sunday, October 31, 2010

Where there is nothing but foreground

Perhaps there are simply two ways to write a novel. In the section 'Works and Spiders' in his second book of essays, Testaments Betrayed, Kundera compares Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain with Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities, which were both set just before the 1914 war in Europe, and whose authors, who were near contemporaries, published their works only six years apart (the publication for the ultimately unfinished Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften, however, being only for the first two parts).

Kundera describes how in The Magic Mountain, Mann develops his themes through reference to a wide body of research, as if to convince his reader by its carefully amassed body of information:

Mann makes use of every means offered by the various branches of knowledge - sociology, political science, medicine, physics, chemistry - to illustrate this or that theme; as though he hoped by this popularization of knowledge to create a solid didactic base for analyzing themes;

And yet all this is a distraction, Kundera argues: 'to my mind, too often and for overlong stretches, this diverts his novel from the essential - for let us remember, the essential for a novel is what only a novel can say.'

For, as he continues:

In Musil, theme analysis is another matter: first, it has nothing multidisciplinary to it; the novelist doesn't set up as a scholar, a doctor, a sociologist, a historian [...] Second, as opposed to Mann, in Musil everything becomes theme (existential questioning). If everything becomes theme, the background disappears and, as in a cubist painting, there is nothing but foreground. It is this abolition of the background that I consider to be the structural revolution Musil brought about.

While we might argue with Kundera about Musil heading this 'structural revolution' - there must be many earlier novels that could be described as works where 'everything becomes theme' (the last volume of À La Recherche du Temps Perdu, for example, had been published three years before the first two parts of Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften), there is something entrancing in the notion of works where 'the background disappears', where 'there is nothing but foreground.'

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