It is just about conceivable that writers can continue to amaze at an advanced age, even up until they die. It's much more common for one of two things to happen: after a certain point, either they disappoint – because there is an obvious falling off or because we realise we are getting fed more and more of the same – or they are taken for granted.
Occasionally, both can happen, in which case (Philip Roth's, for example) we take our disappointment for granted and just wait for him or her to shut up. Milan Kundera is an extreme case in that we take our amazement for granted. Think back to whenever it was that you first read The Book of Laughter and Forgetting or The Unbearable Lightness of Being and remember how exciting these "novels in the form of variations" seemed in terms of conception, content and orchestration. It wasn't just a question of technical novelty: the idea of fiction was recalibrated to create forms of new knowledge.
We may subsequently have become a little weary of the conventionally novelistic sections of these books – one remembers them in terms of randy doctors Benny Hillishly chasing nurses in their panties – but with Testaments Betrayed Kundera dispensed with characters, stories and situations while retaining his signature technique of "meditative interrogation" to construct a book entirely of novelistic essays. To say he became an influence (in the way that Martin Amis is influential) is to understate matters. Kundera's distinctive, pioneering software became available for download and has been used by, among others, Adam Thirlwell (precociously) in Politics and Craig Raine (bit lame at his age) in Heartbreak.
The man himself, meanwhile, had switched from Czech to French (pretty amazing in itself), producing three shortish novels and another stimulating essay in the form of variations, The Curtain. The opposite of a curtain-raiser, Encounter is a curtain lowerer or encore: a linked collection of pieces originally written in French, some from 20 years ago, modestly offering themselves as "reflections and recollections" on "old themes (existential and aesthetic) and… old loves".
It is a tribute to Kundera's ability to weave his essayistic spell that my interest was undiminished by the fact that I am either wholly ignorant of many of the composers and writers discussed (Iannis Xenakis, Marek Bienczyk, Gudbergur Bergsson) correct or am familiar with them only through Kundera's earlier books. In any case, Kundera's subjects are mirrors, offering variously distorted reflections on his own work and situation. As he says with reference to a remark by Francis Bacon about Beckett: "When one artist is talking about another, he is always talking (indirectly, in a roundabout way) of himself, and that is what's valuable in his judgment."
Inevitably, some of the insights – into others and therefore about himself – are familiar. The Kafka who crossed "the frontier to the implausible" in The Curtain or "cut a breach in the wall of plausibility" in Testaments Betrayed is, in Encounter, the creator of a world in which "the improbable is supported by description". More common are new slants on familiar themes. Testaments Betrayed begins with a discussion of Rabelais (a perennial favourite) and "the invention of humour". This time around, Kundera notices that the characters who laugh most in Dostoevsky's The Idiot are the ones who have no sense of humour. The flipside of this slyly penetrating remark might be Zadie Smith's observation that, in Hollywood: "Jokes are not met with laughter but with the statement, 'That's hilarious. That is so funny.'" I don't want to get above myself but this association – of Smith and Dostoevsky, Los Angeles and tsarist Russia – is somewhat Kunderaesque.
What Kundera said more than 15 years ago, in Testaments Betrayed, about his work as a novelist also holds good for the creative criticism in Encounter: namely that he is "partway along a road, in dialogue with those who preceded me and even perhaps (but less so) with those still to come". There is nothing archaeological or archival about Kundera's absorption in the literature of the past: it is more that his sense of what is contemporary has the deepest possible roots.
Which is not the same thing at all as saying that literature is timeless. On the contrary. Kundera has always been alert to the ways in which different historical periods bury or exhume authors of the past according to their changing ideological and cultural needs. Something similar occurs in the lives of individual readers. Hence the most frequent encounter in Encounter is between Kundera as he felt about something (the music of Janacek, say, or the writings of Anatole France) back in the mid-1960s, in Prague, when he believed he was living in "a crumbling dictatorship", or when he moved to Paris after 1968 (when the dictatorship did the opposite of crumble), and how he feels now (in the wake of the collapse of that dictatorship). The more carefully he is able to define the historical specificity of experiences (his reading, needless to say, is an inseparable part of those experiences), the freer he is to articulate the enduring and non-specific lessons to be drawn from them.
The book kicks off with a particularly outrageous example as he reflects on and reprints a piece from the 1970s. In 1972, in an apartment in Prague, he met a demure young woman he knew well who had been interrogated for several days by the authorities. The trauma had upset her bowels so badly that every few minutes she had to rush off to the lavatory. "The noise of the water refilling the toilet tank practically never let up and I suddenly had the urge to rape her."
"Unconscionable" though this desire was, Kundera cannot disavow it; it forms the basis of his understanding of "the brutal gesture" – the "hand movement that roughs up another person's face in hopes of finding, in it and behind it, something that is hidden there" – of Francis Bacon's art. This may not be art history as understood by Kenneth Clark but it shoves us into a horrible confrontation with Bacon's art. The standard art-critical habit is to comment on the horror without conveying it so that we look and listen quite comfortably.
Gentler variants of this approach to other episodes in his life enable us to view our own, very different formation and circumstances in an entirely new way. Thinking of "a dinner in Paris more than 20 years ago", Kundera remembers a smart young fellow denouncing the latest Fellini film. At that moment, "I experienced for the first time a sensation I never felt in Czechoslovakia, even in the worst Stalinist years: the sense that we have come to the era of post-art, in a world where art is dying because the need for art, the sensitivity and the love for it, is dying".
Kundera's opinion of Fellini might be of purely local interest, but this premonition of a "post-art" world serves, like so many of Kundera's ideas, as a form of provocative kindling. Could it be that the art-world boom of the last 20 years and London's swaggering status as an art capital might be the opposite of what they appear: not so much the death throes as a post-death flourish? Impossible, of course. But also weirdly plausible.
Geoff Dyer's book of essays, Working the Room, will be published by Canongate in November. To order Encounter: Essays for £10.99 with free UK p&p, go to observer.co.uk/bookshop or call 0330 333 6847
Milan Kundera (who writes these days in French) is perhaps the best, certainly the best-known, Czech fiction writer since Kafka (who was arguably more German than Czech anyway). This is his third book-length meditation on the novel, all three translated with precision and grace by Linda Asher. And while there is a fair amount of overlap and repetition in “The Curtain,” “The Art of the Novel” (1988) and “Testaments Betrayed” (1995), it’s due more to the consistency of Kundera’s approach to reading and writing fiction and the persistence of certain literary preferences and prejudices — his literary values — than to an inability to move on. It’s also due to his belief that reading and writing novels, from Cervantes to Rushdie, is a way of thinking that is essential for a coherent moral understanding of human nature and circumstance.
“The Curtain” is constructed much the same as its predecessors: a loose sequence of separately titled, more or less topically focused reflections that are each in turn broken into smaller segments with titles like “The Multiple Meanings of the Word ‘History’ ” and “Maximum Diversity in Minimum Space.” There is no formal argument to it, no narrative or plot, no overt organizing principle tying the segments and sequences together.
In Kundera’s hands, however, the bagginess of the form is appropriate. The book’s aphoristic, often flatly declarative style (Kundera has strong opinions on everything, from E. M. Cioran’s youthful flirtation with fascism to the difference between foolishness and stupidity) allows for an elegant, personalized integration of anecdote, analysis, scholarship, memory and speculation. This is not strictly or even loosely speaking literary criticism; nor on the other hand is it merely a meander through the mind of a philosophically inclined novelist. Kundera himself tells us how to read his book: “A novelist talking about the art of the novel is not a professor giving a discourse from his podium. Imagine him rather as a painter welcoming you into his studio, where you are surrounded by his canvases staring at you from where they lean against the walls. He will talk about himself, but even more about other people, about novels of theirs that he loves and that have a secret presence in his own work. According to his criteria of values, he will again trace out for you the whole past of the novel’s history, and in so doing will give you some sense of his own poetics of the novel.”
Not surprisingly, then, reading “The Curtain” is like spending a long desultory afternoon into the evening sitting over coffee and cigarettes in a pleasant cafe listening to Milan Kundera hold forth on history, literature, music, politics, large countries versus small, East versus West, the lyric versus the novelistic, Paris versus Prague and so on into the night. One has the impression that Kundera, at least on the page, is a fabulous talker and not an especially good listener. But he is 78 now, and he has lived through the military occupation and liberation of his country twice and has endured more than three decades of exile; he has written at least three of the most admired novels of our time, “The Joke,” “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting” and “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” plus another half-dozen books of fiction. Kundera’s opinions, reflections, memories and desires are well worth listening to.
Besides, he is one of the most erudite novelists on the planet. Not since Henry James, perhaps, has a fiction writer examined the process of writing with such insight, authority and range of reference and allusion. For instance, while analyzing Tolstoy’s description of Anna Karenina’s suicide, he notes in a tossed-off, parenthetical aside: “Stendhal likes to cut off the sound in the middle of a scene; we stop hearing dialogue and start to follow a character’s secret thinking,” which leads him to speak of Anna’s last thoughts: “Here Tolstoy is anticipating what Joyce will do 50 years later, far more systematically, in ‘Ulysses’ — what will be called ‘interior monologue’ or ‘stream of consciousness.’ ” Which in turn leads him to observe that “with his interior monologue, Tolstoy examines not, as Joyce will do later, an ordinary, banal day, but instead the decisive moments of his heroine’s life. And that is much harder, for the more dramatic, unusual, grave a situation is, the more the person describing it tends to minimize its concrete qualities. ... Tolstoy’s examination of the prose of a suicide is therefore a great achievement, a ‘discovery’ that has no parallel in the history of the novel and never will have.” End of parenthesis.
In Kundera’s somewhat Eurocentric view, the novel is uniquely able to express a highly ironic “antimodern modernism,” a mode of disillusioned thinking that was fathered by Cervantes, who with Rabelais, Fielding, Sterne and Diderot established a lineage that is “suspicious of tragedy: of its cult of grandeur; of its theatrical origins; of its blindness to the prose of life.” Thus he finds more significant traces of Cervantes’s DNA in Fielding than in Balzac, and in Tolstoy more than Dostoyevsky. He finds it mainly in the works of four 20th-century Central European writers whom he calls his “Pleiades” — Kafka, Musil, Broch and Gombrowicz — and more recently in the works of Grass, Fuentes, García Márquez, Goytisolo, Chamoiseau and Rushdie, as if there were among contemporary novelists a deliberate return to the source.
“The novel alone,” he says, “could reveal the immense, mysterious power of the pointless,” in opposition to the “pre-interpretation” of reality. The novel, in Kundera’s view, is not a genre; it’s a way of busting through the myriad lies regarding human nature and our collective and individual fates, lies that serve the purposes of bureaucracy and greed and the joyless quest for power. The “pre-interpretation” of reality is the curtain referred to by the book’s title, “a magic curtain, woven of legends ... already made-up, masked, reinterpreted. ... It is by tearing through the curtain of pre-interpretation that Cervantes set the new art going; his destructive act echoes and extends to every novel worthy of the name; it is the identifying sign of the art of the novel.” (The italics are Kundera’s. He is in fact rather fond of italics, giving to his words a sureness they might otherwise lack.)Continue reading the main story