Clarifications, Elucidations: An Interview with Milan Kundera
By Lois Oppenheim

from The Review of Contemporary Fiction 9 (1989)


     I came to what was to be the first of several meetings with Milan Kundera eager to confirm that the great popularity of one of Europe's most important novelists was due, at least in part, to something less rational, less self-conscious than that which, at times, appeared to direct his highly intelligent art. I came seeking to discover the imaginative forces that have given extraordinary linguistic and imagistic shape to the most fundamental principles, the most delicate if essential intimacies of human interaction. The advantages of the personal encounter were immediately apparent. While it is not often that one has the opportunity to meet with an artist whose work one particularly admires, it is indeed more rare to have validated on such occasions one's intuition of the artist through his work. To esteem an artist is to esteem his art, not his person. The two may or may not be related. All too often they are not, and one is deceived. Any possibility for disillusionment in this case was at once eliminated as the author revealed--both through the modesty of his responses (often questions in themselves) and the steadfast refusal to ever, even momentarily, take refuge behind any sort of facile rhetoric--the congruence of his person with the integrity of his art, an art whose significance lies precisely in the meditative appropriation of the most ordinary metaphysical problems and existential situations into unique socio-historical contexts.
     Despite his reverence for privacy, Kundera was willing to discuss a variety of topics throughout our meetings. The scope and purpose of the interview ultimately derived from our conversations were refined, however, by a mutual interest in particularizing, in clarifying a number of concrete, and not necessarily related, points of interest. What follows is such a collage.

Lois Oppenheim: I would like to take advantage of these meetings with you to clarify a number of more or less concrete points. To begin, in The Art of the Novel you very explicitly condemn the interview as it is traditionally practiced and, in a rather forceful manner, you reiterate your decision to not grant any more interviews unless they are accompanied by your copyright. I understand your frustration with journalists who, in utter disregard of the possible ramifications, deprive the interviewee of any opportunity to review his remarks prior to their publication. And I appreciate your distinction between dialogue, where there is a real give and take, a sincere sharing of thoughts on issues of mutual interest, and inter-view, where only those questions of interest to the interviewer are posed and only those answers that serve his purpose are reproduced--and all too often in a context different from that which inspired them in the first place. Nevertheless, I wonder if you are not somehow depriving your public in restricting the interviews you grant to those that you will co-edit?

Milan Kundera: Interviews, such as they appear in the press, are merely approximate transcriptions of what the interviewee said. This wouldn't be quite so serious if your words weren't quoted by everyone, even by academics and critics, as though it were really a matter of your formulations, your wording. All exactitude is lost in approximation. Once, I was made to relate not only inaccuracies in an interview, but ideas that were not at all mine. I protested. The answer: The journalist is retaining the quote. I understood one very simple thing: An author, once quoted by a journalist, is no longer master of his word; he loses the author's rights to what he says. And this, of course, is unacceptable. The solution, however, is easy and, I hope, agreeable to you: We have met, you and I; we have spoken at length; we have agreed to the subjects that interest us; you have composed the questions; I have composed the answers and we are adding at the end a copyright. This way, everything is okay, everything is fair play.

LO: This seems entirely reasonable to me. In fact, I can't see what more could be wanted than the guarantee of authenticity that the copyright provides. You have provoked many discussions about Central Europe, All of your fiction takes place in Czechoslovakia and even in your theoretical work, The Art of the Novel, Central Europe is very important. Would you mind clarifying just what this notion of Central Europe represents for you, just what its real perimeters are?

MK: Let's simplify the problem, an enormous one, and limit ourselves to the novel. There are four great novelists: Kafka, Broch, Musil, Gombrowicz. I call them the "pleiad" of Central Europe's great novelists. Since Proust, I can't see anyone of greater importance in the history of the novel. Without knowing them, not much of the modern novel can be understood. Briefly, these authors are modernists, which is to say that they are impassioned by a search for new forms. At the same time, however, they are completely devoid of any avant-garde ideology (faith in progress, in revolution, and so on), whence another vision of the history of art and of the novel: They never speak of the necessity of a radical break; they don't consider the formal possibilities of the novel to be exhausted; they only want to radically enlarge them.
     From this as well there derives another rapport with the novel's past. There is no disdain in these writers for "tradition," but another choice of tradition: they are all fascinated by the novel preceding the nineteenth century. I call this era the first "half-time" of the history of the novel. This era and its aesthetic were almost forgotten, obscured, during the nineteenth century. The "betrayal" of this first half-time deprived the novel of its play essence (so striking in Rabelais, Cervantes, Sterne, Diderot) and diminished the role of what I call "novelistic meditation." Novelistic meditation--let's avoid any misunderstanding here: I'm not thinking of the so-called "philosophical novel" that really means a subordination of the novel to philosophy, the novelistic illustration of ideas. This is Sartre. And even more so Camus. La Peste. This moralizing novel is almost the model of what I don't like. The intent of a Musil or a Broch is entirely different: it is not to serve philosophy but, on the contrary, to get hold of a domain that, until then, philosophy had kept for itself There are metaphysical problems, problems of human existence, that philosophy has never known how to grasp in all their concreteness and that only the novel can seize. This said, these novelists (particularly Broch and Musil) made of the novel a supreme poetic and intellectual synthesis and accorded it a preeminent place in the cultural totality.

     These authors are relatively little known in America, which I have always considered an intellectual scandal. But really it is a matter of an aesthetic misunderstanding that is quite comprehensible when one considers the particular tradition of the American novel. In the first place, America didn't live through the first half-time of the history of the novel. In the second, at the same time that the great Central Europeans were writing their masterpieces, America herself had her own great "pleiad," one which would influence the entire world and which was that of Hemingway, Faulkner and Dos Passos. But its aesthetic was entirely opposed to that of a Musil! For example: a meditative intervention of the author into the narrative thread of his novel appears in this aesthetic as a displaced intellectualism, as something foreign to the very essence of the novel. A personal recollection: The New Yorker published the first three parts of The Unbearable Lightness of Being--but they eliminated the passages on Nietzsche's eternal return! Yet, in my eyes, what I say about Nietzsche's eternal return has nothing to do with a philosophic discourse; it is a continuity of paradoxes that are no less novelistic (that is to say, they answer no less to the essence of what the novel is) than a description of the action or a dialogue.

LO: Would you say that these writers have influenced you in any concrete way?

MK: Influenced me? No. It's something else: I exist under the same aesthetic roof that they do. Not under the roof of a Proust or a Joyce. Not under the roof of a Hemingway (despite all my admiration for him). The writers I'm speaking about weren't influenced by each other either. They didn't even like each other. Broch was very critical of Musil, Musil nasty about Broch, Gombrowicz didn't like Kafka and he never spoke of either Broch or Musil and was himself probably unknown by the three others. Perhaps if they knew that I grouped them together they would be furious with me. And perhaps rightly so. Perhaps I've invented this pleiad to be able to see a roof over my head.

LO: How does your concept of Central Europe relate to that of the "Slavic world," of "Slavic culture"?

MK: There is, of course, a linguistic unity of the Slavic languages. But there doesn't exist any Slavic cultural unity. "Slavic literature" doesn't exist. If my books were situated in a "Slavic" context, I wouldn't recognize myself. This is an artificial and false context. The Central European context (which, linguistically, is Germano-Slavo-Hungarian) is, for my books, a more accurate context. But even this context will not amount to much if we want to grasp the meaning and value of a novel. I'll never stop repeating that the only context that can reveal the meaning and value of a novelistic work is the context of the history of European novel.

LO: You refer constantly to the European novel. Is this to say that for you the American novel is generally less significant?

MK: You are right to mention this. It really bothers me to not be able to find the right term. If I say "Western novel," it will be said that I am forgetting the Russian novel. If I say "world novel," I am concealing the fact that the novel I am speaking of is the one historically linked to Europe. That is why I say "European novel"; but I understand this adjective in the Husserlian sense: not as a geographical term, but a "spiritual" one which takes in both America and, for example, Israel. What I call the "European novel" is the history that goes from Cervantes to Faulkner.

LO: It occurs to me that among the writers you are citing as being of greatest importance to the history of the novel, and among those that you cite elsewhere in connection with the development of the novel and its relation to any given cultural history, there are no women. Correct me if I am wrong, but there is never any mention of women writers either in your essays or interviews. Can you explain this?

MK: It is the sex of the novels and not that of their authors that must interest us. All great novels, all true novels are bisexual. This is to say that they express both a feminine and a masculine vision of the world. The sex of the authors as physical people is their private affair.

LO: All of your novels vividly document the Czech experience. I wonder if you feel able at this point to create a fiction within another socio-historical context, like that of the French, for example, given that you are so at home in Paris.

MK: We'll see. For the moment, I will say only this: I lived in Czechoslovakia until I was forty five. Given that my real career as a writer began when I was thirty, I can say that the larger part of my creative life is taking place and will take place in France. I am much more tied to France than is thought.

LO: Your Art of the Novel is certainly a fascinating personal testimony. I think that, to a great extent, its appeal is due precisely to the fact that, over and above the insight it offers into the universal dimensions of aesthetic experience, and this is considerable, it offers a very personal theory of the novel.

MK: It's not even a theory. It's a confession of a practitioner. Personally, I very much like listening to practitioners of art. Olivier Messiaen's Technique de mon language musical interests me a thousand times more than Adorno's Philosophy of Modern Music. Perhaps I've erred in choosing a title that could, by its generality, evoke a treatise on theoretical ambitions. Aaron Asher, my American editor, proposed a title taken from the last part of the book: Man Thinks, God Laughs. Today I see that that would have been better. But I retained the title The Art of the Novel for a personal, almost sentimental reason: When I was twenty-seven or twenty-eight years old, I wrote a book on a Czech novelist that I deeply cared for, Vladislav Vancura. The book was entitled The Art of the Novel. This book, at once likable (thanks to Vancura) and immature, will never again be reissued and I wanted to at least keep the title as a memory of years past.

LO: Finally, do you see any major turning points in the evolution of your thinking on literature, on its relation to the world, to culture, to the individual? Do you see the evolution of your thinking in terms of a strictly linear progression or can you pinpoint any moments of significant change in the development of your aesthetic?

MK: Until I was thirty I wrote many things: music, above all, but also poetry and even a play. I was working in many different directions--looking for my voice, my style and myself. With the first story of Laughable Loves (I wrote it in 1959), I was certain of having "found myself." I became a prose writer, a novelist, and I am nothing else. Since then, my aesthetic has known no transformations; it evolves, to use your word, linearly.