Saturday, March 03, 2007

Kundera on the Novel and Novelty

This essay by Milan Kundera in The Guardian is a bit scattered, but it's lovely and filled with interesting ideas. Read it, but not simply for what it tells us about the novel. Some morsels of nourishment:
"A minute." In that precise unit of time there is the whole enormity of the scene. He lingers, he gazes, finds himself handsome. For a whole minute. Without budging. He is in love, but he is not thinking about the woman he loves, so dazzled is he by his own self. He gazes at the mirror. But he does not see himself looking into the mirror (as Flaubert sees him). He is enclosed in his lyric self and is unaware that the soft gleam of the comical has settled over him and his love.

The anti-lyric conversion is a fundamental experience in the curriculum vitae of the novelist: separated from himself, he suddenly sees that self from a distance, astonished to find that he is not the person he thought he was. After that experience, he will know that nobody is the person he thinks he is, that this misapprehension is universal, elementary, and that it casts on people (for instance, on Frédéric, standing there at the mirror) the soft gleam of the comical. (That gleam of the comical, suddenly discovered, is the silent, precious reward for the novelist's conversion.)

Toward the end of her story, Emma Bovary, after being turned away by her bankers and abandoned by Léon, climbs into a coach. At its open door a beggar "emitted a sort of muffled howl". She instantly "flung him a five-franc coin over her shoulder. It was her whole fortune. She thought it quite fine, tossing the coin like that."

It really was her whole fortune. She was coming to the end. But the last sentence, which I put in italics, reveals what Flaubert saw very well but Emma was unaware of: she did not merely make a generous gesture; she was pleased with herself for making it - even in that moment of genuine despair, she did not miss the chance to display her gesture, innocently, wishing to look fine for her own sake. A gleam of tender irony will never leave her, even as she progresses toward the death that is already so near...

Artists' fame is the most monstrous of all, for it implies the idea of immortality. And that is a diabolical snare, because the grotesquely megalomaniac ambition to survive one's death is inseparably bound to the artist's probity. Every novel created with real passion aspires quite naturally to a lasting aesthetic value, meaning to a value capable of surviving its author. To write without having that ambition is cynicism: a mediocre plumber may be useful to people, but a mediocre novelist who consciously produces books that are ephemeral, commonplace, conventional - thus not useful, thus burdensome, thus noxious - is contemptible. This is the novelist's curse: his honesty is bound to the vile stake of his megalomania...

Alas, miracles do not endure for long. What takes flight will one day come to earth. In anguish I imagine a time when art shall cease to seek out the never-said and will go docilely back into the service of the collective life that requires it to render repetition beautiful and help the individual merge, at peace and with joy, into the uniformity of being.

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