Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Kundera's Genius Part 2 of Several

My poet friend Rauan Klassnik often asks me to look at other poets' verse and reviews of their colleagues. They're almost always examples of the reflexive, lyrically deluded work that's so common in the contemporary verse world. Rauan does this out of perplexity, I think, at their publication.

Kundera has a lot to say about lyrical delusion in his novel Life is Elsewhere, about a young poet in Communist Czechoslovakia, and in his essays. Below he's asked about the subject (sort of) in a 1980 interview by Philip Roth.

What Kundera points at throughout his career but never says directly is that interrogation of our metaphors, of our prose and verse and political and social poetics, is the central task of the writer. Because our undefined terms dominate us, and delude us, their definition and renovation is my aim as a writer.

PR: In your novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, the great French poet Eluard soars over paradise and gulag, singing. Is this bit of history which you mention in the book authentic?

MK: After the war, Paul Eluard abandoned surrealism and became the greatest exponent of what I might call the "poesy of totalitarianism." He sang for brotherhood, peace, justice, better tomorrows, he sang for comradeship and against isolation, for joy and against gloom, for innocence and against cynicism. When in 1950 the rulers of paradise sentenced Eluard's Prague friend, the surrealist Zalvis Kalandra, to death by hanging, Eluard suppressed his personal feelings of friendship for the sake of supra-personal ideals, and publicly declared his approval of his comrade's execution. The hangman killed while the poet sang.

And not just the poet. The whole period of Stalinist terror was a period of collective lyrical delirium. This has by now been completely forgotten but it is the crux of the matter. People like to say: Revolution is beautiful, it is only the terror arising from it which is evil. But this is not true. The evil is already present in the beautiful, hell is already contained in the dream of paradise and if we wish to understand the essence of hell we must examine the essence of the paradise from which it originated. It is extremely easy to condemn gulags, but to reject the totalitarianism poesy which leads to the gulag, by way of paradise is as difficult as ever. Nowadays, people all over the world unequivocally reject the idea of gulags, yet they are still willing to let themselves be hypnotized by totalitarian poesy and to march to new gulags to the tune of the same lyrical song piped by Eluard when he soared over Prague like the great archangel of the lyre, while the smoke of Kalandra's body rose to the sky from the crematory chimney.

Later in the interview Kundera draws parallels between "totalitarian poesies" of Marx and Mohammed, implying that other systems and religions are equally susceptible to the poetics of power. This is his most important point, which is obscured a bit by his use of the word totalitarian. The poetics of kitsch, which apply in both "free" systems like ours and in totalitarian ones, are equal opportunity destroyers of clarity, creators of delusion.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Kundera's Genius Part 1 of Several

Milan Kundera is my favorite author right now. He has been a favorite for a long time, but my appreciation of him has deepened in the last year.

While I detest his male chauvanism, I find his formal invention dazzling. And his scope and depth are amazing on many subjects. I would argue that one interview with him holds more observation of life and literature than whole novels, books of poems, and essay collections by others writing today.

To wit this interview of Kundera conducted by Philip Roth:

ROTH: The last part of your novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, the seventh part, actually deals with nothing but sexuality. Why does this part close the book rather than another, such as the much more dramatic sixth part in which the heroine dies?

KUNDERA: Tamina dies, metaphorically speaking, amid the laughter of angels. Through the last section of the book, on the other hand, resounds the contrary kind of laugh, the kind heard when things lose their meaning. There is a certain imaginary dividing line beyond which things appear senseless and ridiculous. A person asks himself: Isn't it nonsensical for me to get up in the morning? to go to work? to strive for anything? to belong to a nation just because I was born that way? Man lives in close proximity to this boundary, and can easily find himself on the other side. That boundary exists everywhere, in all areas of human life and even in the deepest, most biological of all: sexuality. And precisely because it is the deepest region of life the question posed to sexuality is the deepest question. This is why my book of variations can end with no variation but this.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Metaphor and the Novel

I'd say that Milan Kundera has produced the best, most complete testimonial on the craft of novel writing among any of our contemporaries. Recently my favorite of his essays was The Curtain. But in his brilliant The Art of the Novel, he indicates that metaphors should be used sparingly in fiction. Those metaphors that are used should be of the utmost power, and of central importance to the book.

For a long time I disagreed with him, but now I see his point. As I shop my first novel Love Song of Zero and One to agents and independent presses, I have begun writing my next called Alchemy of Air. I'm not claiming to be extremely discreet about my use of metaphor in this book, but I have attempted to answer Kundera's call for caution, and respond to his championship of the novelistic essay in Alchemy.

Also, Kundera's "nonfiction" books should be considered by anyone who loves the Art of... series by Graywolf, a great edition of which by Dean Young called The Art of Recklessness I reviewed here awhile back.