Tuesday, 17 October 2006

New Yorker, Oct. 9, 2006Review: 'What is a Novelist? How Great Writers are Made,' Milan Kundera; The New Yorker, October 9, 2006; pp. 40 - 45

What makes Milan Kundera tick? What makes a famous author thrill with pleasure? "Let's try to sharpen the terminology," Kundera writes:

a man becomes famous when the number of people who know him is markedly greater than the number he knows.

That's so modest of him. But Kundera is a natural at this kind of thing and, presumably, a natural at French, since that is the language this piece was translated from. It is an appeal to our better natures, a sort of common-sense primer to appreciating great art. In this post-modern age, anything that can cut through the river of sub-standard fare we are daily accustomed to seeing and reading and hearing about, must be a Good Thing. One story Kundera tells is worth quoting in it's entirety:

  I was nineteen when, in my home town, a young academic gave a public lecture; it was during the first months of the Communist revolution, and, bowing to the spirit of the time, he talked about the social responsibility of art. After the conference, there was a discussion; what I remember is the poet Josef Kainar (a man of Blatny's generation [Ivan Blatny was "Ten years older" than Kundera and "the poet [he] most admired when [he] was fourteen"], also dead now), who, in response to the scholar's talk, told this anecdote: A little boy takes his blind grandmother for a walk. They are strolling down a street, and from time to time the little boy says, "Grandma, watch out—a root!" Thinking she is on a forest trail, the old woman keeps jumping. Passersby scold the little boy: "Son, you're treating your grandmother so badly!" And the boy says, "She's my grandma! I'll treat her any way I want!" And Kainar finishes, "That's me, that's how I am about my poetry."
  I'll never forget that demonstration of an author's rights proclaimed under the mistrustful gaze of the young revolution.

He also talks about how Cervantes took back control of the Don Quixote franchise after a rival author appropriated it following the success of the first of the famous novels. "Cervantes reacted at the time the way a novelist would react today: with rage."
He attacked the plagiarist violently and proudly proclaimed, "Don Quixote was born for me alone, and I for him. He knew about action, I about writing. He and I are simply one single entity."

Kundera also tells us about what he thinks of humanities academics who thumb their way through a writer's produce and proclaim 'variants' of a great text:
Every novelist, starting with his own work, should eliminate whatever is secondary, lay out for himself and for everyone else the ethic of the essential!

(Italics are his.) But, he goes on:

The ethic of the essential has given way to the ethic of the archive. (The archive's ideal: the sweet equality that reigns in an enormous common grave.)

(Again, his italics.) Like Nabokov, Kundera has STRONG OPINIONS and is most willing to voice them. In this case, via The New Yorker, he has given us all pause. Surrounded by the pungent and penetrating effluvia of his common sense, we can rest easy, and enjoy with pleasure and no sense of guilt, the great literature that surrounds us.


Lena said...

Great post - thanks for the info! If you please I'd like to translate it in Russian & post in my LiveJournal or Kundera devoted community, may I (with link to the original post)? ;)

Dean said...

Go ahead!

Lena said...