The Unbearable Heaviness of Serious Novels?

Wendy James recently posted a piece called “Shlock Horror!“, about best-selling horror novelist Stephen King’s being awarded a lifetime literary achievement award. By coincidence or otherwise, I’m currently reading Immortality, a work by Milan Kundera of Unbearable Lightness of Being fame. Kundera is perhaps the perfect antithesis of Stephen King: post-modern, deeply philosophical in tone and orientation, intent on examining the individual motivations of his characters and pursuing great existential themes and dilemmas while carefully eschewing plot or suspense in any conventional sense.

In the following passage Kundera converses over dinner with his friend Professor Avenarius (no doubt named to evoke the 19th century Swiss philosopher of that name), and muses about the novel and why he writes as he does. The passage occurs after Kundera recounts the story of an unknown young woman who tried to commit suicide by sitting down on a multi-lane highway at night with her back to the traffic, only to survive after a succession of vehicles swerved to avoid her and crashed in flames killing numerous people including the novel’s principal heroine Agnes (but not the would-be suicide):

“… In all languages derived from Latin, the word “reason” (ratio, raison, ragione) has a double meaning: first, it designates the ability to think, and only second, the cause. Therefore reason in the sense of a cause is always understood as something rational. A reason the rationality of which is not transparent would seem to be incapable of causing an effect. But in German, a reason in the sense of a cause is called Grund, a word having nothing to do with the Latin ratio and originally meaning “soil” and later “basis”. From the viewpoint of the Latin ratio, the girl’s behaviour, sitting down on the highway, seems absurd, inappropriate, irrational, and yet it has its reason, its basis, its ground, Grund. Such a Grund is inscribed deep in all of us, it is the ever-present cause of our actions, it is the soil from which our fate grows. I am trying to grasp the Grund hidden at the bottom of each of my characters and I am convinced more and more that it has the nature of a metaphor.”

“Your idea escapes me,” said Avenarius.

“Too bad. It is the most important thought that has ever occurred to me.”

At that point the waiter brought us our duck. It smelled delicious and made us forget the preceding conversation completely.

At last, Avenarius broke the silence: “What are you writing about these days, anyway?”

“That’s impossible to recount.”

“What a pity.”

“Not at all. An advantage. The present era grabs everything that was ever written in order to transform it into films, TV programmes; or cartoons. What is essential in a novel is precisely what can only be expressed in a novel, and so every adaptation contains nothing but the non-essential. If a person is still crazy enough to write novels nowadays and wants to protect them, he has to write them in such a way that they cannot be adapted, in other words in such a way that they cannot be retold.”

He disagreed: “I can retell the story of The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas with the greatest of pleasure, any time you ask me, from beginning to end!”

“I feel the same way, and I love Alexandre Dumas,” I said. “All the same, I regret that almost all novels ever written are much too obedient to the rules of unity of action. What I mean to say is that at their core is one single chain of causally related acts and events. These novels are like a narrow street along which someone drives his characters with a whip. Dramatic tension is the real curse of the novel, because it transforms everything, even the most beautiful pages, even the most surprising scenes and observations merely into steps leading to the final resolution, in which the meaning of everything that preceded it is concentrated. The novel is consumed in the fire of its own tension like a bale of straw.”

“When I hear you,” Professor Avenarius said uneasily, “I just hope that your novel won’t turn out to be a bore.”

“Do you think that everything that is not a mad chase after a final resolution is a bore? As you eat this wonderful duck, are you bored? Are you rushing towards a goal? On the contrary, you want to duck to enter into you as slowly as possible and you never want its taste to end. A novel shouldn’t be like a bicycle race but a feast of many courses. I am really looking forward to Part Six. A completely new character will enter the novel. And at the end of that part he will disappear without trace. He causes nothing and leaves no effects. That is precisely what I like about him. Part Six will be a novel within a novel, as well as the saddest erotic story I have ever written. It will make you sad, too.”

Avenarius lapsed into a perplexed silence. After a while, he asked me in a kindly voice: “And what will your novel be called?”

“The Unbearable Lightness of Being.”

“I think somebody has already written that.”

“I did! But I was wrong about the title then. The title was supposed to belong to the novel I’m writing now.” …

Ironically, Kundera’s principal theme, as the book’s title suggests, is immortality and the futility of its pursuit, whether through great wealth, great deeds or artistic creation. But arguably Kundera’s own mannered pursuit of a quirky, unique novelistic style, impossible to retell or adapt into any other form, represents his own irresistible tilt at immortality. That he understands the paradox, and the evanescence of fame, is shown by Kundera’s having his close friend, the erudite Avenarius, unable even to recall that he was the author of his own best-known novel.

Stephen King, on the other hand, has achieved vastly greater wealth and popular fame than Kundera by writing well in the much more accessible, conventionally-plotted horror/suspense genre. Unlike those of Kundera, his works are eminently capable of adaptation, as evidenced by the number that have been turned into films. King as author disappears in the time-honoured art of story-telling, in a way the self-consciously ever-present Kundera refuses to do in his own works. Does King nevertheless seek vicarious immortality through courting authorial wealth and fame? Who knows? Who cares? Maybe Kundera is just a pretentious intellectual poseur. But for me there’s much more to him than that (just as for Sophie Masson there’s much more to Stephen King). Take this later passage, where Kundera also muses about aspects of narrative style in a way that resonates powerfully with an armadillo in seemingly permanent midlife crisis:

The hands on the dial of a clock turn in a circle. The zodiac, as drawn by an astrologer, also resembles a dial. A horoscope is a clock. Whether we believe in the predictions of astrology or not, a horoscope is a metaphor of life that conceals great wisdom.

How does an astrologer draw your horoscope? He makes a circle, an image of the heavenly sphere, and divides it into twelve parts representing the individual signs: the ram, the bull, twins, and so on. Into this zodiac-circle he then places symbols representing the sun, moon and seven planets exactly where these stars stood at the moment of your birth. It is as if he took a clock dial regularly divided into twelve hours, and added nine more numbers, irregularly distributed. Nine hands turn on the dial: they are the sun, moon and planets as they move through the universe in the course of your life. Each planet-hand is constantly forming ever-new relationships with the planet-numbers, the fixed signs of your horoscope.

The unrepeatable configuration of the stars at the moment of your birth forms the permanent theme of your life, its algebraic definition, the thumbprint of your personality; the stars immobilised on your horoscope form angles with respect to one another whose dimensions, expressed in degrees, have various meanings (negative, positive, neutral): imagine that your amorous Venus is in conflict with your aggressive Mars; that the Sun representing your social personality is strengthened by a conjunction with energetic, adventurous Uranus; that your sexuality symbolised by Luna is connected with dreamy Neptune, and so on. But in the course of their motions the hands of the moving stars will touch the fixed points of the horoscope and put into play (weaken, support, threaten) various elements of your life’s theme. And that’s life: it does not resemble a picaresque novel in which from one chapter to the next the hero is continually being surprised by new events that have no common denominator. It resembles a composition which musicians call: a theme with variations….

Supposedly, astrology teaches us fatalism: you won’t escape your fate! But in my view, astrology (please understand, astrology as a metaphor of life) says something far more subtle: you won’t escape your life’s theme! From this it follows, for example, that it is sheer illusion to want to start all over again, to begin “a new life” that does not resemble the preceding one, to begin, so to speak, from zero. Your life will always be built from the same materials, the same bricks, the same problems, and what will seem to you at first “a new life” will soon turn out to be just a variation of your old existence….

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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2024 years ago

The term ‘novel of ideas’ usually suggest a book light on narrative interest, in which abnormally articulate characters bat philosophical questions back and forth between themselves, with brief intervals for eating, drinking & flirtation. it is a venerable tradition which goes back to Plato’s Dialogues, but it has a high rate of obsolescence. In the 19th century for example, hundreds of novels were published in which the rival claims of [christian denominations] were expounded…with a dash of melodrama thrown in for the sake of the circulating libraries, and most of them are utterly & deservedly forgotten. The ideas no longer interest, and their exposition has deprived the characters and action of any life….The novel of ideas, whether it has a specific thesis or is more broadly speculative and dialelectical, has always seemed more at home in Continental European literature than in English….Of course any novel worth more than a cursory glance contains ideas, and can be discussed in terms of ideas. But by ‘a novel of ideas’ one means to denote a novel in which ideas seem to be the source of the work’s energy, originating and shaping and maintaining its narrative momentum – rather than, say emotions, moral choice, personal relationships, or the mutations of human fortune. – English critic David Lodge on ‘Ideas”

I think that Kundera, in TULOB, manages somehow to mesh the lot. When I think of that novel I do think of the existential & political ideas that are so important to it , but I think of the characters -Tomas & Tereza & Sabina – first. It feels like the ideas are coming from the narrative in an organic way : life is like this, and so I think this rather than the other way round. As it should be. Utterly brilliant. Funnily enough, considering what his Immortality character says about film, I think the dramatisation of TULOB, even drained of all inessentials , & ‘cursed by dramatic tension’ is fantastic, too.

2024 years ago

Kundera a poseur? Sacrilege! :)

But thanks for reminding me how much I adore him.

2024 years ago

I just have this vision of a bouncing rural NSW baby called “Milan”. Go Gianna! Its even a cultural riff..

2024 years ago

ONe of my lecturers talks about Kundera a bit. He assured our class that local libraries always have Milan Kundera books. Seriously. His exact words were, I believe, “All local libraries have on the shelves are cook books and Milan Kundera novels”. Weird. Anyway, I’ve been meaning to test my local library for a while…I guess it’s about time, now I’m into the holidays.