Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The ruins of his lyrical world

While I don't always agree with Milan Kundera (he has too little time for Proust, none at all for Virginia Woolf, and too much, perhaps, for Salman Rushdie), in his several books of essays, I enjoy the way he defends with passion and wit the form which he keeps insisting on calling the novel rather than the modernist or post-modernist or traditional or any other kind of novel: a form, which he sees as the most precious remnant of the European modern era - a modern Europe that miraculously spans continents, oceans and even centuries - more a Europe of the mind, and one in constant danger of being lost or forgotten or overwhelmed by foes.

In all his essays he holds firmly to his sense of what the novel can do - its raison d'être, as he calls it, which is to say 'only what novels can say.' He lists the chief foes of the novel: people with no sense of humour (he uses the term Rabelais coined, agélastes), kitsch, which he defines in his Jerusalem Address as 'the translation of the stupidity of received ideas into the language of beauty and feeling' rather than the way it is generally used by Anglophone speakers (which is to describe a kind of tinselly bad taste) and lyricism. In fact, in his so-called essay in seven parts, his penultimate book, The Curtain, he writes:

If I imagine the genesis of a novelist in the form of an exemplary tale, a 'myth,' that genesis looks to me like a conversion story: Saul becoming Paul; the novelist being born from the ruins of his lyrical world.

However, ironically, this image has a little too much of what Kundera says he detests because, although the biblical story tells of someone at last getting to see clearly, the curtain torn, what is this sense of the world that Paul now sees without hindrance? In Paul, Saul has entered what Kundera elsewhere calls the Lyrical Age.

Perhaps one day Kundera will also write of the moment when Paul, through yet another curtain (or is it in fact the same?), becomes once more the Saul that he has always been.


  1. In defining kitsch as 'the translation of the stupidity of received ideas into the language of beauty and feeling' (love the definition) Kundera is echoing Flaubert, precisely the point of Madame Bovary and his .

  2. Where did the end of that sentence go? It should say 'and his Dictionary of Accepted Ideas'.

  3. Yes, very odd. The sentence just ended there.

    Yes, Kundera has quite a lot to say about Flaubert in The Curtain. He cites Sainte-Beuve - who by all accounts seems to have been off the mark on most of what was going on around him - his complaint that in Madame Bovary 'goodness is too much absent.' Kundera's point is that there is plenty of goodness in MB - so much so in Charles Bovary that it overflows in every direction - but as Kundera writes:

    'the hitch is something else: that stupidity is too much present. This is the reason Charles cannot be used as the "uplifting picture" Sainte-Beuve would have liked to see. But Flaubert does not want to produce "uplifting pictures"; he wants to reach into "the soul of things." [here quoting Flaubert] And in the soul of things, in the soul of all things human, everywhere, he sees it dancing, the sweet fairy of stupidity. That unobtrusive fairy adapts marvelously to both good and evil, to both learning and ignorance, to Emma as well as to Charles, to you as to me. Flaubert brought her to the ball of the great enigmas of existence.'

    Flaubert always had a particular sensitivity to stupidity. In the earliest letter I have of his in a collection of his letters (Faber and Faber, vol 1), he writes, age 9, to his friend Ernest Chevalier:

    'You are right in saying that New Year's Day is stupid.[...]If you'd like us to work together at writing, I'll write comedies and you can write your dreams, and since there's a lady who comes to see papa and always says stupid things I'll write them too.'

  4. Brilliant Kundera quotation, I must read The Curtain.

    In a similar vein Josipovici quotes Kierkegaard, "If one wants to compare running astray in possibility with the child's use of vowels, then lacking possibility is like being dumb. The necessary is as though there were only consonants, but to utter them there has to be possibility." Elsewhere Josipovici refers to "necessity's despair is the lack of possibility." He adds, "Does this not provide us with a way of grasping the mixture of silence, confusion and despair evident in so many of the greatest nineteenth-century novels - Michael Kohlhaas, Madame Bovary, The Devils?"

  5. Ah,yes. That would be a very interesting thing to do - to reread Madame Bovary and The Devils (I haven't yet read Michael Kolhaas) alongside Kierkegaard.