Testaments Betrayed Essay

It's the Story, Stupid : Milan Kundera delivers a powerful attack upon deconstruction and other fashionable cults : TESTAMENTS BETRAYED: An Essay in Nine Parts, By Milan Kundera . Translated from the French by Linda Asher (HarperCollins: $24; 320 pp.)

October 22, 1995|Thomas Mallon | Thomas Mallon's most recent novel, " Henry and Clara, " has just been published in paperback (Picador USA)

He prefers the humor and moral ambiguity of these novelists and their modern heirs (Kafka, Fuentes, Rushdie) to the opinionated sentimentality of Dickens or the grinding naturalism of Zola. So loudly does he decry ideological writing and reading--"I have always deeply, violently, detested those who look for a position (political, philosophical, religious, whatever) in a work of art"--and so clearly does he regard curiosity as the chief thing a novel should teach, that one realizes he would not consider some of one's own cherished moralizers (let's say George Eliot) to be novelists at all: "Suspending moral judgment is not the immorality of the novel; it is its morality."

He is equally averse to lyricism. It is too connected to the cheap emotions of totalitarian sloganeering: "That world is not the gulag as such; it's a gulag that has poems plastering its outside walls and people dancing before them." Readers of "The Unbearable Lightness" will recall its narrator's denunciation of reductive, faith-based art: "Kitsch is the aesthetic ideal of all politicians and all political parties and movements. . . . Since opinions vary, there are various kitsches: Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, communist, fascist, democratic, feminist, European, American, national, international." In "Testaments Betrayed," Kundera can oppose even a classic of anti-totalitarianism for falling into the totalitarian trap: "The pernicious influence of Orwell's novel ['1984'] resides in its implacable reduction of a reality to its political dimension alone."

Socialist realism was the particular kitsch fed to the young Kundera in Soviet-dominated Czechoslovakia. His revulsion from it made possible his own imaginative fiction as well as his alertness to culture's current schizophrenia. We are Puritans wallowing in trash, in thrall to both politically correct thinking and out-of-control behavior, and no writer has better captured the contradiction than Kundera does in Part 8 of his essay, "Paths in the Fog": "While freedom of thought--freedom of words, of attitudes, of jokes, of reflection, of dangerous ideas, of intellectual provocations--shrinks, under surveillance as it is by the vigilance of the tribunal of general conformism, the freedom of drives grows even greater. They are preaching severity against sins of thought; they are preaching forgiveness for crimes committed in emotional ecstasy."

After their creative woes, the novelist and composer endure mistreatment (well-intentioned or otherwise) by posterity. Kundera is buoyantly belligerent about the "sublime stupidity" of the editor who nearly destroyed Kafka in order to save him: Max Brod began the posthumous process by which Kafka's art was reduced to mere expression of ideology or neurosis: "The author whom readers know by the name Kafka is no longer Kafka but the Kafkologized Kafka." Part 4 ("A Sentence") of "Testaments Betrayed" is a detailed look at how that author has suffered at the hands of overly lyrical translators who mistake deliberate repetitions for clumsiness.

Readers of Milan Kundera's new argument about the interpretive abuses committed against modern art--principally the novel, but also music--will find that it bears a structural and vocal resemblance to his best-known novel, "The Unbearable Lightness of Being." Just as in that novel he felt no hesitation about repeating certain events from different narrative standpoints ("When Tereza unexpectedly came to visit Tomas in Prague, he made love to her, as I pointed out in Part One, that very day . . ."), in this "essay in nine parts," Kundera keeps returning to the same themes from different angles of attack. We are again listening to the voice of an enthusiastic teacher, combative and epigrammatic, who will even begin sentences with a slyly companionable sigh: "Ah, it's so easy to disobey a dead person."

While reading Kundera fiction, one is at first inclined to view the blend of storytelling and didacticism, of made-up event and commentary, as belonging to the 19th Century, but "Testaments Betrayed" convinces us that an even older fiction commands his heart and instructs his technique. Kundera's imagination resides less with Dickens and Tolstoy than with the comic epics of Cervantes, Rabelais and Fielding: "Their freedom of composition set me dreaming: of writing without fabricating suspense, without constructing a plot and working up its plausibility, of writing without describing a period, a milieu, a city. . . . The novelist would never be forced--for the sake of form and its dictates--to stray by even a single line from what he cares about, what fascinates him."

 Like a literary knight errant, Czech novelist Kundera (The Unbearable Lightness of Being, 1984; Immortality, 1991; etc.) rescues the novel, admired novelists, and composers from the distortions and betrayals of critics, translators, and friends while simultaneously offering provocative insights into the musical and literary arts. The essay, like the musical compositions Kundera discusses, is divided into complementary parts, in this case, nine. And within these divisions, writers and composers appear and reappear like characters in a novel who strut their stuff and endure the perfidy of friend and foe before taking their allotted place in Kundera's pantheon of seminal artistsa pantheon that, given Kundera's background, is Eurocentric, though Hemingway, Salman Rushdie, and Garc°a M†rquez are included. But the writers that primarily preoccupy him are Rabelais, who wrote one of the first novels because ``he created a realm where moral judgment is suspended'' and introduced what Octavio Paz called ``the greatest invention of the modern spirit,'' humor; and Kafka, who, while showing ``that it's possible to write another way . . . to both apprehend it [the real world] and at the same time engage in an enchanting game of fantasy,'' has been ill-served by translators and biographers. Kundera also vigorously defends Stravinsky, whose detractors accusr him of ``poverty of heart'' but didn't themselves ``have heart enough to understand the wounded feelings that lay behind his vagabondage through the history of music''; and composer Leos Jan†cek, though disdained for his innovative ``expressive clarity,'' is perhaps, Kundera contends, Czechoslovakia's greatest artist. A wide and engagingly erudite plea for keeping the faith and honoring the wishes of the illustrious dead, rather than insisting on our own self-serving agendas. Vintage Kundera. (First serial to New York Review of Books; $35,000 ad/promo)

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