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: