This is a collection of essays by the renowned Czech novelist about the literary novel, and particularly the European literary novel. That said, the pieces gather nicely into this collection without seeming disparate. Points and themes carry across the essays such that the book has a life as a whole. Also, the there is food for thought in this book even if one isn’t particularly interested in literary novels. There are ideas that could be of interest to any story crafters or writers.
There are seven parts (essays) in the book. The first and third part take specific novels as their focal point: Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” and Hermann Broch’s “Sleepwalkers,” respectively. That said, the feel isn’t greatly varied from the more general chapters of 2, 4, and 5. That is, Kundera uses critique of those novels (as well as others) to make general points about what is more or less effective, artistically speaking, in the novel. Besides those two novels, not surprisingly given Kundera’s heritage, he also repeatedly uses the novels of Franz Kafka and “The Good Soldier Svejk” by Jaroslav Hasek as examples. That said, many well-known novels come up in the discussion including those of Tolstoy, Musil, and even Faulkner (I say “even” because he’s clearly not a European novelist.)
The sixth and seventh parts are both a bit different. Part six is entitled, “Sixty-Three Words,” and it’s Kundera’s discussion of words that he believes are misconstrued. In some cases, they are words prominent in his own works, and in other cases they are of interest regarding novels more generally. Like many writers, Kundera takes a strict approach to words, arguing that synonyms don’t exist because if meanings were truly identical one of the words should die. The last piece is from an address that he made about the novel as a European artform.
While I read this with interest as a writer, I found that the discussion that most intrigued me did so on the level of a jnana yogi. That is, what interested me was his discussion of what constitutes a person – fictional or not. Kundera speaks in considerable detail about this issue. He’s writing about fictional selves, but some questions carry over. What makes a character and what is superfluous information – i.e. the illusion of a self? What is necessary and beneficial to convey to reader? Kundera criticizes the modern novel for getting bogged down in describing physical attributes and background information. On the other hand, Kundera praises novels in which one learns little about the character beyond what they do in the novel. His objection is that this denies the reader the opportunity to mentally build the character, him or herself. However, it also raises the question of whether those characteristics are really the relevant information.
I learned a few things from this book. It’s short and surprisingly readable given the topic-at-hand’s potential to become arty and pompous. If you’re a writer (particularly if you’re interested in the novel as an artform) this book is worth a read.