27 April, 2009Issue 9.1EuropeLiteratureWriters

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Of Dogs and Death

Trevor Cribben Merrill

Une RencontreMilan Kundera
Une Recontre (An Encounter)
Gallimard, 2009
203 pages
ISBN 978-2070122844

In 1968, Soviet tanks rumbled into Prague, putting an end to a decade-long political thaw that Milan Kundera would later describe as the happiest period of his life. Having had his books banned, and having been reduced to writing pseudonymous plays and an astrology column, the author of The Joke (1967) and Laughable Loves (1968) left for France with his wife Vera seven years later in 1975.

The French welcomed Kundera with open arms, thinking him a model anti-Stalinist, never mind that the novelist had and would continue to reject political interpretations of his work. Kundera’s aversion to what he calls “political kitsch” has not always been understood in a country so deeply attached to its revolutionary heritage, a heritage Kundera regards with skepticism. When his novel The Joke was praised as a major indictment of Stalinism, Kundera replied: “Spare me your Stalinism, please. The Joke is a love story!” But for all his frustration with this tendency to idealize rebellion, Kundera is a staunch defender of French culture. As he wrote in a text entitled “There’s Such a Thing as Francophobia”:

My experiences and tastes are those of a Central European… But in the middle of my life, my wife and I emigrated to France. This is the most decisive event of my entire existence, and it is the key to my work and of my life.

He wrote the works for which he is most famous, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1979) and The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), in what he calls his “second homeland”. Written in his adopted tongue, Kundera’s “French Cycle” — the novels Slowness (1995), Identity (1998) and Ignorance (2003) — disappointed those who preferred their author wreathed in the pathos of the émigré, but they also demonstrated an exquisite formal mastery and an increasingly sure French style.

Born in the provincial city of Brno in 1929, Kundera began as a student of music composition and took his first steps in literature as a poet. But his “conversion” to the novel, as he describes it in his essay, “The Curtain” (2005), made him skeptical of the lyric bard’s self-centeredness. Yet his novelistic prose has its roots in poetic, surrealist imagery. We need only think of the levitating circle dancers in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting or of the dream-like encounter between the 18th century and our own era in the underrated comic novel, Slowness, to see that Kundera has not forgotten the lessons he learned in his youth from Mayakovsky and Apollinaire. For Kundera, the novel is not the opposite of poetry. Rather, the novel’s specific form of poetry is anti-romantic, anti-lyrical. Like Kafka before him, Kundera seeks a poetic form that combines the unbridled fantasy of a Breton or an Aragon with the lucid analysis of life in all its concreteness.

Beginning with The Joke, his first large-scale work, Kundera set about divesting the novel of its conventional trappings — a tightly woven plot, detailed description of place and character — while holding the reader’s interest with surprising juxtapositions and close observation. His essays, meanwhile, are impassioned defenses of the art of the novel: he praises the genre for its ability to grasp the truth about politics “beyond politics”, as he put it in a 1989 radio discussion with French thinker René Girard. Think of Kundera’s epic Life is Elsewhere, in which revolutionary violence and politically committed poetry spring from the same youthful resentment. Or again of Slowness, in which Kundera examines politicians as “dancers” who are pushed onto the stage of history by the aesthetic (rather than political) imperative to transform their lives into works of art.

Kundera’s most recent essay, Une rencontre (An Encounter), was issued by French publisher Gallimard to considerable critical fanfare. The release date coincided with the writer’s 80th birthday this month and came in the wake of the so-called “Kundera Affair”, which generated a slew of press in October 2008. On the basis of a signed deposition unearthed in Communist archives, the author was accused of having collaborated with Czech police in his youth. Many journalists and editors seemed to forget about the presumption of innocence (Norman Manea’s article in The New Republic was subtitled “A great writer’s complicity in the face of Stalinism”), but others came to Kundera’s defense, and the brouhaha has died away for lack of first-hand witnesses or further proof. “L’homme c’est rien, l’oeuvre c’est tout,” (“The man is nothing; the work is everything”) wrote Flaubert in a letter to George Sand. As in previous political scandals involving writers (Gunter Grass’s revelations about his Waffen SS past in 2006, for instance), the question of Kundera’s guilt threatens to thrust his books into the background. The irony, of course, is that Kundera has become a victim of the very tendencies he denounces in his novels and essays: obsessive focus on the personal lives of authors, the over-politicization of art, and the public’s love of scandal, exacerbated by a media indifferent to the individual’s right to privacy.

Gossip-mongers expecting the current essay to address the “Affair” will be disappointed to find no mention of the scandal in An Encounter, but admirers of Kundera’s previous nonfiction works will welcome this collage of anecdotes, polemics, memories, and loves. More loosely structured than his three earlier essays, it incorporates several previously published articles, though in many instances Kundera has revisited this material to make valuable additions. In particular, An Encounter reflects the author’s devotion to modern art, which, as the surrealist dictum about the “encounter of the umbrella and the sewing machine on the operating table” would have it, aims to fuse dream and reality in order to generate poetic intensity.

Many of the artists — Francis Bacon, Anatole France, Curzio Malaparte — evoked in these new pages have remained in the wings of Kundera’s previous essays and now take center stage for the first time. Celine is a notable example. In the second part of the essay “Novels as Existential Sounds”, Kundera turns to an episode from Celine’s Castle to Castle: “the story of a bitch; she comes from the glacial countries of Denmark where she was in the habit of running free in the forests. When she comes to France with Celine, no more runs. Then one day, cancer.” From Celine’s account of the dog’s agony (the most “beautiful, discreet, and loyal” he had ever seen), Kundera draws a meditation on human vanity. While human beings are always on stage, acting out a part for their fellows, the death of an animal is free of all such posturing. It illuminates by contrast the “ineradicable” nature of human pomp and circumstance. As is often the case with Kundera, the observation flirts with banality, but the author’s sober style, his knack for coming at big questions from an unexpected angle, and above all our suspicion that he is grappling with his own mortality, transform seemingly superficial questions into universal ones, familiar ideas into something far more poignant.

In reading these passages on Celine, one cannot help recalling the seventh and final section of Kundera’s magnum opus, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Though they are on the brink of death (a fact to which the reader has been alerted earlier in the novel), the protagonists, Tomas and Tereza, have at last found peace and contentment in a remote country town, surrounded by friendly villagers and animals. The reader feels this mixture of sadness and joy most intensely when the couple’s dog, Karenin, dies with a smile on his lips. Here, the death of the dog appears as a sort of “subjective correlative” (to paraphrase T.S. Eliot’s notion of the objective correlative) to the couple’s relationship. Their exile from the city puts an end to the back-and-forth of infidelity and jealousy that characterized their marriage. It is a symbolic death, incarnated in the dog’s agony.

We find yet another dog in the final section of An Encounter. The section’s focus is Curzio Malaparte, the Italian journalist and novelist best remembered for his powerful descriptions of World War II. In La Peau (The Skin), Malaparte writes of his beloved dog, Febo. Kidnapped by doctors for a medical experiment, “lying on his back with his stomach open, a medical instrument plunged into his liver”, Febo cannot even whimper, for the doctors have cut his vocal cords. “Death is everywhere in this chapter,” writes Kundera. “Death and man’s attitude toward death, an attitude that is at once cowardly, hypocritical, ignorant, powerless, embarrassed, disarmed.”

Man’s uneasy relationship with death is everywhere in Kundera’s oeuvre as well. In Lightness, the long meditation on “kitsch” posits that political movements of all kinds and totalitarianism in particular are governed by an innate human desire to deny what is most unpleasant about existence: the sentimental, syrupy kitsch aesthetic of Soviet cinema, for example, acts like a “screen set up to dissimulate death”. But, as one character observes, it is not that totalitarianism fails to realize utopia that is most disturbing, but that this project might one day succeed. The grim reality of totalitarianism, with its bread lines and political persecutions, is far preferable to the ideal it aims for: a world full of “grinning idiots” without the slightest sense of humor.

Kundera describes Malaparte as a novelist who in writing “hurts himself and hurts others… Not a politically committed writer. A Poet.” This may be a self-portrait of the artist as an old man. An Encounter is thus the most personal of Kundera’s essays. At once improbably heterogeneous, ranging across the history of music, painting, and literature, and journeying from the icy reaches of Northern Europe to the islands of the Caribbean, it draws together in its 200-odd pages the author’s familiar themes — the mortality of European culture and the existential wisdom of the novel — with a new cast of characters and a probing, intimate tone. And over the whole hangs a presentiment of death that makes the reader suspect (though we hope it is not so) that this encounter may be our last with the Franco-Czech master.

Trevor Cribben Merrill is a PhD student in French literature at UCLA. He lives in Paris.