Reflections on Milan Kundera’s “The Art of the Novel”

Admittedly, I am not particularly familiar with the novels by Milan Kundera. Nonetheless, I read through a significant portion of Milan Kundera’s book The Art of the Novel because it was mentioned in footnote from a professor whose work I follow. In my reading, there are a few points which stood out to me. As such, I want to briefly present and discuss them in this blog post.

First, Part Four: Dialogue on the Art of Composition, includes some helpful terms and methods for describing novels and other literature. Kundera deems one category of description “lighting of the characters.” This is the mathematical structure of how the speech is divided throughout the novel. For example, Kundera describes his novel The Joke, for which he describes the lighting of the characters: “Ludvik’s monologue takes up 2/3 of the book; the monologues of the other three together take up 1/3 (Jarslav 1/6, Kostka 1/9, Helena 1/18)” (86). Such an approach to any literary text can be productive, inasmuch as describing the lighting of characters throughout a biblical text can help in precisely describing the text. After all, “Each character is lighted at a different intensity and in a different way” (86). By systematically and numerically tracking the lighting of characters, the data can help in comparing distinct biblical texts and their thematic thrusts. More generally, by noting possible similarities in terms of the lighting of characters, we can get a better sense of how scribes employ particular linguistic conventions by forming texts in certain ways.

Second, Kundera describes some types of narrative, not simply suggesting that narrative is a singular thing. Here are few examples of types of narratives presented by Kundera: continuous narrative which shows a causal connection between chapters; oneiric narrative; discontinuous narrative which does not show causal connection between chapters; and polyphonic narrative (87). Though somebody may have already done it, it would be interesting to consider how these types of narratives, or narrative modes, may be re-deployed for describing biblical texts. Alternatively, different narrative modes should be sought after by describing narrative in the biblical texts themselves.

Third, Kundera has some helpful comments on tempo: “Because tempo is further determined by something else: the relation between the length of a part and the “real” time of the event it describes” (88). Of course, some scholars have already begun to explore the issue of tempo and time in biblical texts. In particular, I think to Liane M. Felman’s recent dissertation on the priestly source, wherein she explores the tempo of the Priestly Source: “In a composition notable for its brevity, the sheer verbosity of this single eight-day episode raises many questions. Why does the pace of the storytelling grind to such a halt at Sinai? What is the function of the extended divine speeches containing ritual instructions? How do these instructions relate to the rest of the story, if at all?” (“Story and Sacrifice” by Liane Feldman). In other words, one of her main concerns is the purpose for the tempo change in the Priestly Source. This, I think, is a productive way to think about any literary text.

Fourth, and finally, is the interaction between the text of a novel and the reader: “the reader’s imagination automatically completes the writer’s” (34). That is to say, though the novel presents a story, aspects of the story are filled in by the imagination of the reader. This is akin to Barbara Smith’s discussion about literature and linguistics, wherein she suggests that the power of poetry, or perhaps more broadly the power of literature, is the fact that the reader must fill in aspects of it with imagination. Without the imagination, the poetry, or literature, becomes meaningless. Though I can appreciate this description of the relationship between text and reader, I do struggle with the implications of it: when a critical scholar describes the ways that a text works, namely the way it is structured and employs distinct linguistic conventions, what should our orientation be? Is our goal to find the base meaning of the text by interrogating the “true” meaning? Or is our goal to open up texts in new ways so that reader’s can re-imagine them with new understandings about the text’s history and composition? I have no answer. Though, I want to think through these things as I move forward.