kundera’s style reminds me of the work of montaigne, the man who contemplated and developed his opinions of what interested him into what, thanks to him, has become known as the essay. to begin with a thought, to jot down an insight while it’s fresh, there’s a rawness about that, ripeness is not always all. with their kafkaesque sensibility and more accessible than nietzsche’s aphorisms, kundera’s brief pieces do share such company.
born in czechoslovakia, as a writer kundera experienced his country invaded by the soviets in 1968, a shock to the western world who watched the advent of some of the new art scene in 1964 at the world’s fair in new york at the czechoslovakian pavilion. a published novelist, kundera settled in exile in france in 1975 where he continues to write. he purports to be a french writer writing of czech experiences. the thought central to his essays is the encounter of two cultures to form an identity or solidarity.
in discussing the right of writers to choose their own forms, here are some of the authors, novels and observations subject of his essays: the spirit of the odd novel by rabelais is more meaningful in translation to czech readers than to contemporary french readers; the anti-novel, written by carlos fuentes and curzio malaparte, which kundera champions as the arch-novel; an insightful placing the fiction of philip roth, who continues to remind the press he is an american novelist who writes of jews and not a jewish novelist, within the literary history of sex and love in the novel; aime cesaire and other martinique born artists and the important encounter which occurred between them and the artists of the french surrealist movement; and of laughter, the different forms of laughter in a work by dostoievski and the right of the artist to depict laughter in a work under a harsh regime. other writings highlight musicians, beethoven, schoenberg, and xenakis, among them, and a psychological observation of a painting by francis bacon with a reflection of an incident told by kundera of an encounter with a friend, a woman, interrogated in czechoslovakia.
his devotion to the freedom of the artist and defense of artistic form outside traditionally accepted notions of what a novel, in general, is expected to be, plot driven with characters engaged, is best expressed in his description of modernism as he refers to the novels by malaparte: ‘…there are many great novels that, at their birth, are unlike the commonly held idea of the novel. And so? Isn’t a great novel great precisely because it does not repeat what already existed? … And I find it significant that everything about THE SKIN’S form that seems to contradict the very idea of the novel should also reflect the new climate in the aesthetic of the novel as it took shape in the twentieth century, in contrast to its norms in the century before. For instance: all the great modern novelists had a somewhat distant relation to story in a novel, no longer considering it to be the indispensable basis for ensuring unity in a work. So the striking feature of THE SKIN’s form is that the composition does not rely on a story, on any causal sequence of actions.’
through his essays, kundera offers an overview of authors of fiction who have treated the novel as novel, and tells us of places where the reception of works by those with power can destroy what does not meet their approval, and silence, imprison, exile and kill the artists.