Sunday, March 13, 2011

Encounter : Essays - Milan Kundera

"the sense that we have come to the era of post-art, in a world where art is dying because the need for art, the sensitivity and the love for it, is dying."

My initial enthusiasm of this writer ( during the 80s and early nineties) after reading "Life is Elsewhere", "Unbearable lightness of being" , "The joke" etc were taken a beating towards the end of the century. I did not particularly like Slowness, Ignorance or Identity. It is during this time that his non-fiction books started attracting my attention. All of them from the Art of the Novel to the Curtain were brilliant, explaining the aesthetics of art he is an expert. His new release, "Encounter" also treads the same path of his earlier non-fiction works. A collection of essays written and published over a period of last 20 years.

It is interesting to learn about one writer's understanding and views about other novels of the same era and genre, and especially by some one like Kundera. In his earlier essays, he was looking at some of the classics, and trend setting novels prior to 20th century. In this, he had given us the glimpses of some of the major 20th century novels albeit in very short essays. Its one single theme, or an observation or a paragraph that he writes about. Like, " I was reading One hundred years of Solitude when a strange idea occurred to me; most protagonists of great novels do not have children" or the observation of sexualities in the work of Philip Roth and and the second half of 20th century in general, post D H Lawrence era. He also examines the works of Juan Goytisolo, Luis Ferdinant Celine and Dostoevsky.

The homage to Anatole France based on the "The Gods are Thirsty" is an outstanding piece. A writer whom "people managed to keep the name on the blacklist" has a new life here. Explaining why the Gods are Thirsty is understood outside France than within it, Kundera's hypothesis can be applied to any historical fiction in general.
This explains why historical novels have always been better understood outside its own country than within it. For such is the fate of any novel whose action is too tightly bound to a narrow historical period: fellow citizens automatically look for a document of what they themselves experienced or passionately debated; they look to see if the novel's image of history matches their own; they try to work out the author's political stances, impatient to judge them. The surest way to spoil a novel."
In a letter to Carlos Fuentes, he observed the constellation off great writers in the eastern Europe , who changed the landscape of novel during the early decades of 20th century. He cites the names of Kafka, Musil, Broch, Gombrowicz . Similarly, in the sixties and seventies another great constellation of writers from Latin America " continued transforming the aesthetic of the novel; Jaun Rulfo, Carpentier, Sabato, Marquez and others. The modern avant Garde writers, he says, "
proclaim their own modernism for the novel, they did it in a purely negative way; a novel with no characters, no plot, no story, if possible no punctuation: a novel that came to be called the anti-novel." But he prefer to call " not as an anti-novel but an arch-novel. The arch novel would, primo, focus on what only the novel can say; and secundo, would revive all the neglected and forgotten possibilities the art had accumulated over the four centuries of its history."
In another billiant homage to the Martiniquan poet Cesaire, he discusses the possibilities of using multi lingual or bilingual use of language. Mixing Creole with French, the way Brazilian writer's liberty with Portuguese or Spanish American writers with Spanish. Another essay looks at the now forgotten writer Curzio Malaparte, of Italy and his novel the "Skin". I haven't read any of these, hence can only judge from his take on these books.

Other important essays includes few on the music of Leo Janacek, Xenakis and Schoenberg. He also dedicate one chapter on the lives of exile in " Elsewhere", and started the book with an essay on Francis Bacon, with a discussion on his induced deformity on the paintings he created. Inspite of the weak initial pages, this book is another profound study from one of this brilliant writer and intellect of the current era. I said weak because the essays are short ( often 3 to 4 pages) and have the potential to develop into a full fledged essays on their own. Being a random collection of essays ( unlike 'the curtain' or 'art of the novel'), there is no continuity or progression from one chapter to other. But his intelligence, analysis and insights are a treasure to the reader.
Encounter : Essays ( 2009)

Milan kundera ( translated by Linda Asher 2010)

Faber & Faber

178 Pages
Other Reviews : NY Times, Guardian

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