Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Everything changes with age

To admit that initially I thought I was disappointed with Milan Kundera's most recent book of essays, Encounter, is also to admit that I missed something that seemed to be absent from the first pieces: a certain light, epigrammatic urgency, where short enumerated sections follow one another with such assurance that, as much as you might disagree with some of what is said, you find your thoughts moving quicker -- your own direction, to your surprise, cleared for a moment, or just more clearly marked out.

In the first essay, 'The Painter's Brutal Gesture: On Francis Bacon', the numbered sections are, somehow, looser than I expected; the whole piece is darkened by a slower pace and ends, to the surprise of the seasoned Kundera reader, with a section of verse. Here he also trials something which he uses elsewhere in this volume, most notably in 'The Total Rejection of Heritage, or Iannis Xenakis': where he includes sections of much earlier writings (1980) to juxtapose more recent pieces (2008), from which to build his reflections.

In 'The Total Rejection of Heritage, or Iannis Xenakis', he writes that reading his old text he feels 'a spontaneous urge to obliterate' certain sections which, in hindsight, seem 'absurd', and yet this very urge to destroy them disturbs him and engenders more questions. Throughout the book of essays, familiar ideas about the 'birth' and the 'apotheosis' of and the 'farewell to the age of the novel', and 'first' and 'second' periods are undercut in a footnote where Kundera announces, for the first time to my knowledge, that these designations are an '(entirely personal) idea of periodization in the history of the novel (and the history of music as well)'; these ideas of seemingly confidently delineated periods in the history of art being 'strictly my own'. Here is Kundera modifying himself.

In his previous books of essays, when Kundera invoked such ideas as the dark possibility of 'when Panurge no longer makes people laugh' (Testaments Betrayed), and when 'the novel's history will have ended' (The Curtain), the energy of his writing has always triumphed; we read such lines as these final ones in The Curtain --'For the history of art is perishable. The babble of art is eternal' -- and somehow, perversely, we are refreshed: Milan Kundera is sounding off. All is right in the world.

This more vulnerable Kundera, in Encounter, disconcerts.

The honesty and the quieter pace of the essays here, however, builds into a more intimate experience of reading. There is a section in his piece on Anatole France which reminds me of Gerald Murnane in Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs -- when he talks about the 'vague memories' that reading can leave:

We all talk about the history of literature, we claim connection to it, convinced we know it, but what, concretely, is the history of literature in the common memory? A patchwork of fragmentary images that, by pure chance, each of thousands of readers has stitched together for himself.

Still, there are the characteristic sharp observations by which we know Kundera is still alive and watching, such as his short piece about 'The Comical Absence of the Comical', which ends with the description of this 'world of humorless laughter, where we are condemned to live'. His pieces on Anatole France and Janáček are strong (even as the latter includes characteristic, irritable asides); the final essay, 'The Skin: Malaparte's Arch-Novel', fiercely sad, its end an echo of 'the "senseless accident" that is life' that concludes the opening piece on Francis Bacon.

In 'The Secret of the Ages of Life (Gudbergur Bergsson: The Swan)', Kundera observes:

Increasingly I think (a truth so obvious and yet it constantly eludes us) that man exists only in his specific, concrete, age, and everything changes with age. To understand another person is to understand his current age. The enigma of age -- one of those themes only a novel can illuminate.

He is now in his early eighties and it is over ten years since he has published a novel -- that seemingly innocent term, which means so much to him. In Encounter we see how Milan Kundera has at last had the strength to turn his irony on himself and, while it is strange sometimes, the resonance is long.

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