The craft of kundera

Essay by jinjiwang March 2005

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One of max Beerbohm's cartoons shows Mrs.Humphry Ward as a very little girl,saying to a sardonically smiling Matthew Arnold:"Uncle Matthew ,oh why will you not be always wholly serious?"The question arises unbidden in the novels of Milan kundera. The mind behind the novels is essentially serious,and yet they are very funny,sometimes farcical. Our puzzlement is not wholly laid to rest in Kundera's new book,The Art of The Novel. The title evokes the methodological solemnity of Henry James;but the book is in fact a rather short collection of essays which have already been published separately. It is ture that kundera affirms that he "conceived" this "seven-part essay"with the idea that they would someday be linked together in "one book-essay setting out my thoughts on the art of the novel."But this sounds rather like a publisher's poly to turn a miscellany into a unity;The contents were conceived of as a "unified whole"and must therefore compose one.

In form,they do not make that impression-three essays,two interviews,a public address,and a dictionary of 62 words. Yet the mind in the book is certainly consistent. The first essay is entitled"The Depreciated Legacy of Cervantes,"earlier published as "The Novel And Europe."Both title are apt. Kundera begins with lecture,given in Vienna and Prague,on the crisis in the humanities,by Edmund Husserl."By"European,"Husserl meant that "passion to know"which began in Greece,and which has since characterized the Western philosophic tradition. It began its modern secular trejectory when Galileo and Descartes narrowed the emphasis of thought to what could be demonstrated scientifically;they wholly neglected the Lebenswelt,Heidegger's"beautiful and almost magical pharse,"for the concrete experience of living in the world. Cervantes founded another vital modern tradition:the novel with its chosen concentration on being. Cervantes took up the problem of adventure;and there followed him other writers who"discovered other dimensions of existence one by one."there was...