This interview is a product of several encounters with Milan Kundera in Paris in the fall of 1983. Our meetings took place in his attic apartment near Montparnasse. We worked in the small room that Kundera uses as his office. With its shelves full of books on philosophy and musicology, an old-fashioned typewriter and a table, it looks more like a student’s room than like the study of a world-famous author. On one of the walls, two photographs hang side by side: one of his father, a pianist, the other of Leoš Janácek, a Czech composer whom he greatly admires.
We held several free and lengthy discussions in French; instead of a tape recorder, we used a typewriter, scissors, and glue. Gradually, amid discarded scraps of paper and after several revisions, this text emerged.
This interview was conducted soon after Kundera’s most recent book, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, had become an immediate best-seller. Sudden fame makes him uncomfortable; Kundera would surely agree with Malcolm Lowry that “success is like a horrible disaster, worse than a fire in one’s home. Fame consumes the home of the soul.” Once, when I asked him about some of the comments on his novel that were appearing in the press, he replied, “I’ve had an overdose of myself!”
Kundera’s wish not to talk about himself seems to be an instinctive reaction against the tendency of most critics to study the writer, and the writer’s personality, politics, and private life, instead of the writer’s works. “Disgust at having to talk about oneself is what distinguishes novelistic talent from lyric talent,” Kundera told Le Nouvel Observateur.
Refusing to talk about oneself is therefore a way of placing literary works and forms squarely at the center of attention, and of focusing on the novel itself. That is the purpose of this discussion on the art of composition.
You have said that you feel closer to the Viennese novelists Robert Musil and Hermann Broch than to any other authors in modern literature. Broch thought—as you do—that the age of the psychological novel had come to an end. He believed, instead, in what he called the “polyhistorical” novel.
Musil and Broch saddled the novel with enormous responsibilities. They saw it as the supreme intellectual synthesis, the last place where man could still question the world as a whole. They were convinced that the novel had tremendous synthetic power, that it could be poetry, fantasy, philosophy, aphorism, and essay all rolled into one. In his letters, Broch makes some profound observations on this issue. However, it seems to me that he obscures his own intentions by using the ill-chosen term “polyhistorical novel.” It was in fact Broch’s compatriot, Adalbert Stifter, a classic of Austrian prose, who created a truly polyhistorical novel in his Der Nachsommer [Indian Summer], published in 1857. The novel is famous: Nietzsche considered it to be one of the four greatest works of German literature. Today, it is unreadable. It’s packed with information about geology, botany, zoology, the crafts, painting, and architecture; but this gigantic, uplifting encyclopedia virtually leaves out man himself, and his situation. Precisely because it is polyhistorical, Der Nachsommer totally lacks what makes the novel special. This is not the case with Broch. On the contrary! He strove to discover “that which the novel alone can discover.” The specific object of what Broch liked to call “novelistic knowledge” is existence. In my view, the word “polyhistorical” must be defined as “that which brings together every device and every form of knowledge in order to shed light on existence.” Yes, I do feel close to such an approach.
A long essay you published in the magazine Le Nouvel Observateur caused the French to rediscover Broch. You speak highly of him, and yet you are also critical. At the end of the essay, you write: “All great works (just because they are great) are partly incomplete.”
Broch is an inspiration to us not only because of what he accomplished, but also because of all that he aimed at and could not attain. The very incompleteness of his work can help us understand the need for new art forms, including: (1) a radical stripping away of unessentials (in order to capture the complexity of existence in the modern world without a loss of architectonic clarity); (2) “novelistic counterpoint” (to unite philosophy, narrative, and dream into a single music); (3) the specifically novelistic essay (in other words, instead of claiming to convey some apodictic message, remaining hypothetical, playful, or ironic).
These three points seem to capture your entire artistic program.
In order to make the novel into a polyhistorical illumination of existence, you need to master the technique of ellipsis, the art of condensation. Otherwise, you fall into the trap of endless length. Musil’s The Man Without Qualities is one of the two or three novels that I love most. But don’t ask me to admire its gigantic unfinished expanse! Imagine a castle so huge that the eye cannot take it all in at a glance. Imagine a string quartet that lasts nine hours. There are anthropological limits—human proportions—that should not be breached, such as the limits of memory. When you have finished reading, you should still be able to remember the beginning. If not, the novel loses its shape, its “architectonic clarity” becomes murky.
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is made up of seven parts. If you had dealt with them in a less elliptical fashion, you could have written seven different full-length novels.
But if I had written seven independent novels, I would have lost the most important thing: I wouldn’t have been able to capture the “complexity of human existence in the modern world” in a single book. The art of ellipsis is absolutely essential. It requires that one always go directly to the heart of things. In this connection, I always think of a Czech composer I have passionately admired since childhood: Leoš JanáÄek. He is one of the greatest masters of modern music. His determination to strip music to its essentials was revolutionary. Of course, every musical composition involves a great deal of technique: exposition of the themes, their development, variations, polyphonic work (often very automatic), filling in the orchestration, the transitions, et cetera. Today one can compose music with a computer, but the computer always existed in composers’ heads—if they had to, composers could write sonatas without a single original idea, just by “cybernetically” expanding on the rules of composition. JanáÄek’s purpose was to destroy this computer! Brutal juxtaposition instead of transitions; repetition instead of variation—and always straight to the heart of things: only the note with something essential to say is entitled to exist. It is nearly the same with the novel; it too is encumbered by “technique,” by rules that do the author’s work for him: present a character, describe a milieu, bring the action into its historical setting, fill up the lifetime of the characters with useless episodes. Every change of scene requires new expositions, descriptions, explanations. My purpose is like JanáÄek’s: to rid the novel of the automatism of novelistic technique, of novelistic word-spinning.