The second half of the past century has made everyone extremely sensitive to the fate of people forced out of their homelands. This compassionate sensitivity has befogged the problem of exile with a tear-stained moralism, and obscured the actual nature of life for the exile, who according to Linhartova has often managed to transform his banishment into a liberating launch “toward another place, an elsewhere, by definition unknown and open to all sorts of possibilities.” Of course she is right a thousand times over! Otherwise how are we to understand the fact that after the end of Communism, almost none of the great émigré artists hurried back to their home countries? Why was that? Did the end of Communism not spur them to celebrate the “Great Return” in their native lands? And even if, despite the disappointment of their audience, that return was not what they wanted, wasn’t it their moral obligation? Said Linhartova: “The writer is above all a free person, and the obligation to preserve his independence against all constraints comes before any other consideration. And I mean not only the insane constraints imposed by an abusive political power, but the restrictions—all the harder to evade because they are well-intentioned—that cite a sense of duty to one’s country.” In fact, people chew over clichés about human rights, and at the same time persist in considering the individual to be the property of his nation. (“Exile as Liberation According to Vera Linhartova”)
When I was twenty-four years old, Franco-Czech novelist and critic Milan Kundera’s novel Immortality (1990) changed my life. I’m not even sure if I could articulate how, despite having read it a couple of times since. Sure, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984) was an impressive book, an impressive movie, and I’ve gone on to read just about everything he’s written, but somehow, everything Kundera achieved in previous works was tenfold in Immortality. Might we have another novel soon?
Thanks to a gift card over Christmas, I was able to pick up a paperback of Encounter: essays (HarperCollins, 2010), his fourth non-fiction title after The Art of the Novel (1986), Testaments Betrayed: An Essay in Nine Parts (HarperCollins, 1995) and The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts (HarperCollins, 2007). I’ve long been fascinated by his perspective, having spent the past few decades in France, since an exile from his homeland that began in 1975, caused in large part to the “Prague Spring,” to the point that he has moved from composing in Czech to the language of his adopted homeland, French. How does the shift in language alter a shift in writing, or consciousness itself? Still, what I have long admired about his fiction I admire in his essays, a perspective that considers politic and sexuality with equal weight and attention, and his sheer clarity of language. Encounter: essays includes pieces on visual art, writing and politics, from Francis Bacon, Philip Roth’s The Professor of Desire, Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, Beethoven, Carlos Fuentes, Anatole France, Oscar Milosz and a number of others, including the above excerpt from a piece on Vera Linhartova. One could argue that much of Kundera’s writing is about brutality, truth and beauty, whether the collision of the three, or simply the exploration of how the three can’t help but meet, and Encounter: essays moves through much the same sorts of explorations, through the work of others. The piece on Linhartova is a prime example, given Kundera’s knowledge of and interest in the idea of exile, one that comes up repeatedly throughout this work.
I could put it differently: Bacon’s portraits are an interrogation on the limits of the self. Up to what degree of distortion does an individual still remain himself? To what degree of distortion does a beloved person still remain a beloved person? For how long does a cherished face growing remote through illness, through madness, through hatred, through death still remain recognizable? Where is the border beyond which a self ceases to be a self? (“The Painter’s Brutal Gesture: On Francis Bacon”)
His work, one could argue, is an argument for and defense of the worthiness and essential qualities of life and art both, while also exploring the worst aspects of both. The novel is obviously Kundera’s best thinking form, and his essays exist as extensions of his main body of work, allowing light into some of the corners of his writing. Who else would write an essay on One Hundred Years of Solitude titled “The Novel and Procreation”? It begins:
I was rereading One Hundred Years of Solitude when a strange idea occurred to me: most protagonists of great novels do not have children. Scarcely 1 percent of the world’s population are childless, but at least 50 percent of the great literary characters exit the book without having reproduced. Neither Pantagruel, nor Panurge, nor Quixote have any progeny. Not Valmont, not the Marquise de Merteuil, nor the virtuous Presidente in Dangerous Liasons. Not Tom Jones, Fielding’s most famous hero. Not Werther. All Stenhal’s protagonists are childless, as are many of Balzac’s; and Dostoyevsky’s; and in the century just past, Marcel, the narrator of In Search of Lost Time, and of course all of Musil’s major characters: Ulrich, his sister Agathe, Walter, his wife, Clarisse, and Diotima; and Schweik; and Kafka’s protagonists, except for the very young Karl Rossmann, who did not impregnate a maidservant, but that is the very reason—to erase the infant from his life—that he flees to America and the novel can be born. This infertility is not due to a conscious purpose of the novelists; it is the spirit of the art of the novel (or its subconscious) that spurns procreation.