Milan Kundera: A “Second Reading”

Central European literature is one of the literatures that fascinated me briefly- a short stopover as it were, on the journey from Russian classics to contemporary South American literature that continues to mesmerize.

What did appeal then was Good Soldier Svejk and Franz Kafka but not the contemporary writers- one reason possibly was what I perceived was their anti- socialist underpinnings. A believer in “existing socialism” then, I gave up reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being after a hundred pages or so.

Jiri Travnickek’s “second reading” of the novel makes me consider a “second reading” myself. At that time, I was dismissive of its departure from social realism. Hopefully wiser, perhaps I am less likely to do so now.

A further realization I made at the time was that a novel had to be narrated in a manner that simultaneously generates illusions and breaks them down. Through The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kundera equipped us with the conviction that you can’t tell a love story any old way, even if it is integrated into major historical events. You have to make your narrative method one of the themes of the narrative itself

…As a novelist, however, he never accepted the radical narrative techniques of Broch’s The Sleepwalkers or The Death of Virgil. He never managed to be as uncompromisingly ascetic and story-defying as the Austrian novelist. Where Broch decided to serve experimentation and nothing else, Kundera remains more moderate, more compromising in his narrative. If Broch is obsessed with composition and style, Kundera manages to pay more attention to story and characters. While Broch puts himself wholly at the service of the modern novel (with an emphasis on the word modern), Kundera’s writing remains more in the service of the novel as such. And The Unbearable Lightness of Being reveals that the novel cannot be ordered around from the outside, that it has its own needs, tradition, methods of establishing contact with its readers. In other words: its own wisdom. Aesthetic imperatives belong to programmes; to the novel belongs a search for the centre, for balance – between narrator and characters, story and composition, narration and thought.

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3 Replies to “Milan Kundera: A “Second Reading””

  1. East European Fictions are all of the same type. I guess they might have suffered so much under the communist regime , Including Milan Kundera. I have read all the books published by him ( or translated to English to be more precise) and all his fiction works are similar in nature. “Life is Elsewhere” , and “Unbearable lightness of being “(what a name for a book) would be the best among them. But his non-fictions are very good ( like Art of the novel, and the nee “the curtain”).

    However, the pre-world war literature from that world are very very good.

    I, however prefer, latin american writers to the european.

  2. Though not related to this post, an interesting view point about the disintegration of socialism in eastern europe by Slavoj zizek:

    Why is the West so fascinated by the recent events in Eastern Europe? The answer seems obvious: what fascinates the Western gaze is the re-invention of democracy. [*] It is as if democracy, which in the West shows increasing signs of decay and crisis, lost in bureaucratic routine and publicity-style election campaigns, is being rediscovered in Eastern Europe in all its freshness and novelty. The function of this fascination is thus purely ideological: in Eastern Europe the West looks for its own lost origins, for the authentic experience of ‘democratic invention’. In other words, Eastern Europe functions for the West as its Ego-Ideal: the point from which the West sees itself in a likeable, idealized form, as worthy of love. The real object of fascination for the West is thus the gaze, namely the supposedly naive gaze by means of which Eastern Europe stares back at the West, fascinated by its democracy. It is as if the Eastern gaze is still able to perceive in Western societies its agalma, the treasure that causes democratic enthusiasm and which the West has long lost the taste of.

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