The Paradox of Action: Milan Kundera on The Art of the Novel

I would like to thank Jamelah Earle for hipping me to writer Milan Kundera. Here are a couple of excerpts from his book, The Art of the Novel. This is good stuff, and these quotes only scratch the surface of Kundera’s rich insights!    

“The novel’s spirit is the spirit of continuity: each work is an answer to preceding ones, each work contains all the previous experience of the novel. But the spirit of our time is firmly focused on a present that is so expansive and profuse that it shoves the past off our horizon and reduces time to the present moment only. Within this system the novel is no longer a work (a thing made to last, to connect the past with the future) but one current event among many, a gesture with no tomorrow.”

“. . . all novels, of every age, are concerned with the enigma of the self. As soon as you create an imaginary being, a character, you are automatically confronted by the question: What is the self? . . . If you wanted, you could distinguish different tendencies, and perhaps different periods, in the history of the novel. The psychological approach wasn’t even known to the first European storytellers. Boccaccio simply tells about actions and adventures. Still, behind all those amusing tales, we can make this conviction: It is through action that man steps forth from the repetitive universe . . . and becomes an individual. Dante said as much: ‘In any act, the primary intention of him who acts is to reveal his own image.’ At the outset, action is thus seen as the self-portrait of him who acts. Four centuries after Boccaccio, Diderot is more skeptical: his Jacques le Fataliste seduces his friend’s girl, he gets happily drunk, his father wallops him, a regiment marches by, out of spite he signs up, in his first battle he gets a bullet in the knee, and he limps till the day of his death. He thought he was starting an amorous adventure, and instead he was setting forth toward his infirmity. He could never recognize himself in his action. Between the act and himself, a chasm opens. Man hopes to reveal his own image through his act, but that image bears no resemblance to him. The paradoxical nature of action is one of action is one of the novel’s great discoveries. But if the self is not to be grasped through action, then where and how are we to grasp it? So the time came when the novel, in its quest for the self, was forced to turn away from the visible world of action and examine instead the invisible interior life. In the middle of the eighteenth century, Richardson discovers the form of the epistolary novel in which the characters confess their thoughts and their feelings . . .

“Richardson set the novel on its way to the exploration of man’s interior life. We know his great successors: the Goethe of Werther, Laclos, Constant, then Stendhal . . . the apogee of that evolution is to be found, it seems to me, in Proust and in Joyce. Joyce analyzes something still more ungraspable than Proust’s “lost time”: the present moment. There would seem to be nothing more obvious, more tangible and palpable, than the present moment. And yet it eludes us completely. All the sadness of life lies in that fact.  In the course of a single second, our senses of sight, of hearing, of smell, register (knowingly or nor) a swarm of events, and a parade of sensations and ideas passes through our heads. Each instant represents a little universe, irrevocably forgotten in the next instant. Now, Joyce’s great microscope manages to stop, to seize, that fleeting instant and make us see it. But the quest for the self ends, yet again, in a paradox: The more powerful the lens of the microscope observing the self, the more the self and uniqueness elude us . . .”


2 responses to “The Paradox of Action: Milan Kundera on The Art of the Novel”

  1. Okay, so I finished reading this. And it’s right up my genre – writing about writing. Now the next step would be for Mr. Ectric to write a summary that I could read on Litkicks, and garner all or most of Kundera’s central points.

  2. This is brilliant, Bill. But I only read the first part because I’m in the middle of writing a new novel and don’t want to…start imitating Kundera’s ideas while I’m working.

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