Sunday, October 15, 2006

Milan Kundera -- The Art of the Novel

After just writing about Walter Kirn's fumblings and rumblings on how the novel can handle the "new" nature of our lives in our global, tech-connected village, it was refreshing to read Milan Kundera's essay "What Is a Novelist" in the October 9 New Yorker (no link to the article is available, unfortunately).

Kundera provides a stern and unflinching definition of a great novelist, much akin to his thoughts in his book The Art of the Novel, published in 1986. Instead of beginning with the challenge of how to represent the external world, as Kirn does, Kundera focuses solely on the personal characteristics a successful novelist must possess.

Quoting Hegel, Kundera posits that novelists are born as lyric poets, giving voice "to his inner world so as to stir in his audience the feelings, the states, of mind he experiences"--even if the subject is supposedly the objective world.

But Kundera, who admires the novel as a form because of its ability to represent polyphony (hint, hint Walter Kirn), details how a great writer much move beyond this lyrically self-abosorbed state. Flaubert is the great example when he dropped his "romantic flights" at the urgings of his friends and wrote Madame Bovary.

A critic mentions that Flaubert wrote Bovary "without pleasure," but it was this workmanlike discipline that allowed him to go beyond himself and write with a perspectivist sensibility. Kundera describes the territory of the novel as "the prose of life," which is perhaps misleading since it implies the mundane as opposed to the romantic. "The prose of life" in this case, though, means all that makes us human, flights of fancy and Madame Bovary's daily drudgery (imagine what a novel it would be if she had email!)

Kundera presents moments like Flaubert's as "conversion stories," much in the religious sense. It's an apt metaphor since it's not easy to literally move out of your skin and see yourself as others might see you--not as a hero, but perhaps as an asshole or a boor or just an ordinary person (hence comedy and tragedy).

"The anti-lyric conversion is a fundamental experience in the curriculum vitae of the novelist: separated from himself, he suddenly sees that self from a distance, astonished to find that he is not the person he thought he was. After that experience, he will know that nobody is the person he thinks he is, that his misapprehension is universal, elementary, and taht it casts on people . . . the soft gleam of the comical."

It's an artistic position so distant than Kirn's grappling with "the age of networked everything." Kirn writes, "I'm thrown by this new world, both as a novelist and as a person. These two confusions are one confusion. They come down to the fact that I still think (and can't help but read and write) in linear terms, but I find myself living in infinity loops. Too much happens each day, it happens all at once, and yet, in some ways, nothing happens at all. A day that's spent processing electronic signals like a sort of lonely arctic radar station (my day, your day, a lot of ours) is hard to dramatize."

The obvious advice for Kirn is to log off of his computer from time to time (there is still life beyond e-mail, Walter). But more important, Walter should reassess his stance as novelist. He might find that if he gets outside of the "lonely arctic radar station" of himself, he'll discover all of the perspectives and techniques necessary to capture the "networked everything."

More on Kundera:

Friday, October 13, 2006

The Future of the Future of Fiction

I wonder if someone should write a book of criticisim on the plethora of articles that have appeared in the last few years on the future of fiction (Slate has published the latest piece). The future of fiction just might rely on these future-of-fiction pieces, which usually combine doses of eschatological alarmism with breathy eulogies and condescension of anything truly new.

It's too bad that all of the good writing out there has to suffer from the ongoing simmer of editors trying to create an inferno of the novel's demise--or trying to raise the novel from its supposed ashes.

Consider this snippet of Walter Kirn's "correspondence" (well-paid, faux correspondence, that is) to Gary Shteyngart in Slate:

"Can written narratives represent this world? Can they convey what it feels like to inhabit it? The movies, of course, have given up trying. The best they can do in order to travel the hidden channels through which fate conducts itself these days is cut back and forth between shots of people on phones or show someone typing on a keyboard and then display what's appearing on the monitor. Novelists, with their access to the invisible, ought to be positioned to do better. How, though? I have a suspicion—that's all it is now—that the answer lies in the form's origins. I'm thinking of epistolary novels such as Richardson's Clarissa. That was the revolutionary mode once, when novels broke out of being mere prose 'romances' and started to grapple with subjectivity. It's also when they discovered the modern fact that we communicate in stylized bursts and through specific technologies. That's truer than ever now. E-mails, phone calls, Web sites, videos. They're still all letters, basically, and they've come to outnumber old-fashioned conversations. They are the conversation now."

Let me see what I think of that? Um, duh. How to represent a world dominated by email, text messaging, and Internet connections? Through text itself! Just like an epistolary novel!! Ta da!

Walter has a way of writing over-the-top, self-important prose. It's a good trait to have if you're going to write articles like this.

I must note that this series is wittily called "The Novel, 2.0" to riff smartly on the phrase Web 2.0. The problem is that Web 2.0 actually means something in terms of new spaces created by new technologies. This is only a headline meant to make readers think that the novel is also being transported into new terrains that are beyond the page.

As Kirn's observation reveals, however, the novel isn't 2.0. It goes back and forth between a variety of techniques (e.g., the epistolary novel becomes new again). The elements of a story stay somewhat the same even as the world around us changes.

That's what is quite beautiful about the novel, and human existence itself. Despite the hype of technology, we still live and love and die in ways that are similar to our distant ancestors. Shakespeare could just as easily write a good tragedy about George Bush or Bill Clinton as he did Macbeth or Richard II. Hubris happens now, even if it happens on Rep. Mark Foley's cell phone screen.

I do take comfort that magazines will pay big $ for this sort of debate for all of eternity. I can't wait until Web 3.0--hence Novel 3.0--with the hope that Slate will come looking for my sorry ass.

That said, it is nice to know that Slate cares about fiction to dedicate a week of commentary to it. It's always nice to know that somebody cares.