Monday, November 9, 2015

Milan Kundera Remains a Pleasure to Read



Milan Kundera is a writer of moments, of fleeting experiences or even further sub division or an interpretation of that emotion. He likes to call his method or style as ‘meditative interrogation’ or ‘interrogative meditation’. However, those delightfully ponderous and long meditation are almost always about a moment as said above, a fleeting one. It can be about an old lady waving goodbye or a rather disgruntled look at the female midriff. Fleeting or momentary this might be but Kundera weaves lifetimes out of it.
Old masters, here I am talking in terms of age, tend to acquire a telegraphic leanness in their output. In case of writing, often, paragraphs start looking something like formulae- Condensed and distilled – expressing core truth with the benefit of commentary. This can go either way. It might strike as a whiplash of understanding or leave the trail of unsatisfied craving for understanding sometimes.
Autumnal output by master authors swings in one more direction. The author sleepwalks through the product. Due to innate greatness or ‘muscular memory’, broad parameters of the products are usually in place and it has some signature flashes of genius. But this work fades in comparison to earlier works which were less of products of practice but of genuine inspiration supported by indefatigable craftsmanship. Soul simply does not shine through. Admirers of the artist get into nostalgia mode and start celebrating diminished sparks that remind them of the original fire – their own and that of the artist. But, as I mentioned somewhere else, nostalgia has both its utility and futility. ‘Festival of insignificance’ Milan Kundera’s first novel in this millennium, a 115 page telegraph of a novel, exemplifies all the facets of aging maestros discussed above. But, a fan, like yours truly can’t but be thrilled by the offering.
‘Festival of Insignificance’ is a sparse stark reminder of Kundera’s core capability of analysing a moment/feeling/situation/concept and see how that can pervade the much larger canvas of life despite seemingly niche quality. Kundera has great powers of perception to grasp underlying ingredient of a situation and deploys his meditative interrogation with great success on that. Here, he dwells on insignificance as the leitmotif of human existence and has developed an enjoyable book. The novel, despite its sparse bulk, is able to cater to the ruminative cravings of the reader. However, one can’t shake the feeling that Kundera is playing like a retired or retiring player. He has retained his key capabilities but the novel needs more. However, the fact remains that the Master always delivers, at least to the basic minimum level, even when he is sleepwalking.
It has given rise to voices in many quarters doubting the continued significance of Milan Kundera. In a recent article titled ‘How important is Milan Kundera today? in the Guardian Jonathan Coe writes  “The Festival of Insignificance, then, is certainly typical Kundera, if not classic Kundera. It is an old man’s book and, while there are flickering signs of a mellow and playful wisdom, it would be surprising if there were not something autumnal about it. A glance at the back covers of Kundera’s novels in the Faber editions reveals a raft of quotes from the likes of Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie and Carlos Fuentes, most of them more than 30 years old, reminding us that his reputation was at its zenith in the 1980s, the decade when everybody was reading The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” Another article in Atlantic Monthly ‘Does Milan Kundera Still Matter?’ says “Reading Kundera in the ’80s was like watching Mad Men with the conviction that smoking, drinking, and grabbing the secretary’s ass were bold assertions of individual autonomy in the face of a cruelly repressive state.
Czech Communism collapsed 25 years ago. Kundera, who is 86, has lived in France for 40 years and written in French for more than two decades. The Festival of Insignificance—his first novel in 13 years—is an excellent opportunity to ask what happens to his fiction once the backdrop of Soviet oppression no longer throws his dark jokes, nihilism, and naughty interludes into bright relief.’
Such observation may be valid and writing in Kundera style may no longer be having its novelty kick but that does not take away much from his importance. He is a great novelist and a pioneer for his style which he himself confesses is in the tradition of great European novelists. His key works stand the test of time and resonate with brilliance that appeals to human concerns beyond a certain epochs. His best works contain the intellectual and emotional pleasure of an examined life. His capabilities of “forging connections between the individual consciousness and the shifting currents of history and politics” has the thrum of operatic proportion and never fails to elate. This sophistication of feelings which hovers in the no man land of psycho-philosophical fiction.
He has mastered the art of deploying the tool of novelistic inquiry to issues of his choosing and that has often led to a hugely satisfactory literary pay off.  His key works of the so called middle period are the foundation of his reputation. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Immortality will find place in any pantheon of great novels for the intensity of their inquiry, their amusement at the complication that grim realities of life throw at us. Despite their playfulness, irony and ponderous meditation these novels were and remain urgent due to their evident connection with the zeitgeist.
One of the qualities of great literature is that its esoteric highbrow abstraction does not affect its accessibility. Kundera seemingly obtuse phenomenological (a term that he politely refuses) inquiries are illuminated with the easy recognition. Reader never feels distant from the text despite ‘interiority’ of the material.
Kundera has achieved a unique voice in his books. A playful wisdom that abhors seriousness. He may look formidable due to his erudition and European sensibilities but he is never serious. The twinkling naughtiness of his voice, that impish tone is sure shot antidote to dogma. This is also a protective armour that saves the scepticism from being fossilised into dogma of his own. With these voices he confidently ‘pursues the lost possibilities’.
This pursuit is essentially interrogative. Frequency of questions in his text is only overtaken by the open refusal to subscribe unambiguously to any point or belief. Even the most extensive enquiries yield answers that have an air of work-in-progress. This is not tentativeness on his part, simply an acknowledgement of the logic of evolution that human issues don’t lend themselves to final answers.
Much of requiem for Kundera’s relevance centres around the fact that his strengths like taste for irony, philosophical gravitas, essayistic style has been either equalled or overtaken by later writers like Julian Barnes and Alain de Botton to Slavoj Žižek. This should be seen as another instance of his greatness if he is able to inspire greatness. As an original he retains his primacy. If he discovered a genre or a style that is still relevant enough to attract great talent, credit is all his.

-Dhiraj Singh

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