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Showing posts with label Milan Kundera L'Art du Roman. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Milan Kundera L'Art du Roman. Show all posts

Sunday 9 June 2019

Review: Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead

I bought this book because I had read and enjoyed Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights, reviewed on this Blog on 4 August 2018. In contrast to that other book, this one has a more conventional structure, with a single first-person narrator telling her story and a whodunnit? story about a series of events (murders) in the isolated area where she lives. It is fascinating.

It perfectly illustrates Milan Kundera’s claim in his L’Art du Roman (reviewed here on 5 November 2014) that the novelist is someone who works with  imaginary people, personnages (characters), and develops their characteristics as far as they are able and with  a view to engaging the reader with the particularities, the specificity of the character.

Tokarczuk chooses to create a character who has to be credible as an educated, older single woman living alone in an isolated rural area - though as a recluse, she is really a rather sociable one -  whose affection for her dogs (her Little Girls) is such that she turns serial and  brutal killer.  The pivot to murder occurs when she realises(from a chance encounter with a hunter’s trophy photograph) that her dogs have been shot by local hunters who find them a nuisance. The credibility is built by making her someone who is very unwell in her body, who prefers dogs to the disappointment of human beings, whose eccentric mind is obsessively choc a bloc with astrological knowledge (which will be of more interest to readers in a similar state than this one), but who is also enamoured of William Blake, quotations from whose work provide chapter epigraphs and book title. Blake also provides the narrator with her eccentric orthography: she Capitalises in eighteenth century Fashion, a Peculiarity which also contributes to our appreciation of the Comic aspects of the narration. The book is, indeed, really very funny - but that the narrator makes us laugh is often enough because her judgments and priorities are cock-eyed, creating that space in which it is credible that she should end up  thinking  herself entitled to murder.

Tokarczuk does not sit her narrator in a prison cell to write  her story, allowing her to escape that fate; had she done the prison version then I would have been tempted to make comparisons with such narratives as those of Pierre Rivière (non-fiction) and Humbert Humbert (fictional).  

I felt confident that the translator knew what she was doing, and only once queried what I was reading, but I don’t have a Polish original here so I can’t extend that remark. The book is produced to the high standard typical of Fitzcarraldo editions - nice paper, print size, good editing, and so on.

Friday 12 April 2019

Booklaunch London

Click  on Image to Enlarge

In the April 2019 issue of Booklaunch you can read a long extract from my Prose Improvements where I discuss Milan Kundera's Art of the Novel.

The website is at 

Saturday 29 November 2014

Review: Jane Austen

A year or so ago, the publisher Carmen Callil resigned as a judge for the Man Booker International prize, which was shortly thereafter awarded to Philip Roth. She complained that all his books were the same. I wonder what she would say about Jane Austen.

I've just read three: Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion, in that order. I've bought Emma so no doubt I will read that too and, of course, a couple more and then I will have read all of mature / completed Jane Austen. I'll soon be an expert. Much easier than Shakespeare.

Jane Austen is, I understand, best known in England as the inventor of romantic country house costume dramas for television. I don't watch television but I can imagine that it's great fun for the Costumes department and hard work for the Props department, oiling all those doors to permit the constant Entries stage right and Exits stage left. Anyway, it's enough to get Jane Austen's portrait onto English banknotes. I do hope Caroline Herschel and Ada Lovelace are in the queue, even though they didn't write romantic novels.

Jane Austen got onto University reading lists probably thanks to F.R.Leavis, who didn't think she wrote romantic novels but was instead a writer inspired by Serious Moral Purpose, unlike people like Charles Dickens ("an entertainer") and Laurence Sterne ("a trifler") - see Leavis's moralising tract The Great Tradition for the epithets.

Anyway, I am not entirely convinced my Miss Austen's novels. I thought Sense and Sensibility plodding and, as a result of reading editorial Introductions, discover that this is a common enough view. And in Persuasion, where you pretty soon figure out what has to happen and wish she would get on with it, there is an awful chapter IX in volume II where Mrs Smith is allowed a very long monologue (pages of it) to trash the character of Mr William Elliot and knock him out of any possible contention, leaving the way clear for the return of the gallant Captain Wentworth. It is laying it on with a trowel. I guess they have to abridge these things on TV.

That leaves Pride and Prejudice as the best of the three, with some very funny moments and a livelier style. But all three novels are weighed down by a cast of minor characters who no doubt fill up the background on TV but who contribute very little to the narrative, yet whose names must be remembered.

I am not saying I Rest My Case. I will proceed to Emma and think some more. But I now have an explanation for something which puzzled me. A few Blogs ago I reviewed Milan Kundera's L'Art du Roman. I was surprised by the virtual absence of English writers from his history of the European novel. He has good words for Fielding and Sterne and that's about it. He doesn't mention Jane Austen. Now I think I can see why. I think it is the illustrative moralising which sticks in his throat.

Postscript 8 December 2014: I have now read Emma and even though I had 'flu while reading it, I think it is the best so far. The outcome of the story isn't so obvious, though you can still guess  it as you go along. More importantly, there is more subtle character development. It's still terribly judgemental - or, at least, peopled by characters who spend their lives Judging - but there is more psychological insight. I haven't read the critics but it occurs to me to doubt that many of them will dwell on Mr Knightley as the Good Father figure who has loved Emma, faults and all, since she was, er, 13 and who is loved in return precisely because of that willingness to love her, faults and all.

Postscript 18 December 2014: It gets worse. In Mansfield Park, where amateur theatricals are condemned but living off the labour of slaves is not, Edmund Bartram marries his first cousin Fanny, who he has loved, guided and protected  "since her being ten years old" (page 436).

Wednesday 5 November 2014

Review: Milan Kundera, L'Art du Roman

This is a book of great clarity, a virtue linked (as Roland Barthes once observed) to the desire to persuade. It is also a book which charmingly conveys the commitments, the enthusiasms and the excitement of the author. This is especially true of the two long interviews which comprise the second and fourth chapters of this seven part book of essays, first published in 1986 and which I used to assign in its English translation for the "theoretical" part of a course in Creative Writing on which I once taught.

Kundera sees himself as a novelist (romancier), not a writer (écrivain). His job is to say or express in the novel form what can only be said or expressed in that form:

“la seule raison d’être du roman est de dire ce que seul le roman peut dire” (page 54)

This makes him specifically hostile to those who use the novel form to illustrate ideas which they have already formulated and which could have been written out in ordinary prose. For this reason, and despite sharing totalitarianism as a common enemy, he clearly dislikes the works of George Orwell. These are “romans de vulgarisation” which translate a non-novelistic understanding into the language of the novel (page 54)

The novel of which he writes is the European novel and it has a (great) Tradition which starts with Cervantes. The would-be novelist needs to familiarise himself with this Tradition, to learn the novelistic possibilities which exist and which have been explored. In this the apprentice novelist is just like the apprentice painter. That is me writing, not Kundera, and a me who has read T S Eliot and F R Leavis and Harold Bloom, none of whom figure in Kundera’s text.

In fact, the novel in English figures in Kundera’s Pantheon only in the names of Fielding and Sterne – a characteristically European choice: for Leavis, Sterne is no more than an annoying “trifler”. Austen, Eliot, Hardy, Henry James and the awful D H Lawrence (another Orwell-type writer) go unmentioned. 

Kundera instead names and discusses the great writers in French and in German and in Russian: Flaubert, Kafka, Tolstoy and many others including notably Hermann Broch to whom the third essay is devoted and which I skipped because I have not read Broch.

At the end of it all, Kundera formulates a definition of the novel:

“La grande forme de la prose où l’auteur, à travers des egos expérimentaux (personnages), examine jusqu’au bout quelques grandes thèmes de l’existence » ( page 179)

This is, of course, written not without irony but it does identify the Things Good To Think With ( les choses bonnes à penser – Lévi-Strauss) with which the novelist specifically works: characters.
One might say (and I tried to say this in the lectures on aesthetics which I gave in the 1980s and 1990s – see that each of the traditional and great art forms has its own specific things “good to think with” or perhaps more accurately “good to express with”. For the potter, it is clay. For the sculptor, stone or metal. For the composer, sound and silence. And so on. 

When the novelist works with characters, he or she has the chance to discover and bring into focus ways of human being and possibilities of existence which would have eluded discovery in mere prose.

Added 9 June 2019: For examples of novels which work with characters in the way Kundera describes, see - for example - Otessa Moshfegh Eileen (reviewed here on 28 July 2017) and Olga Tokarczuk Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead ( reviewed 9 June 2019)