Thursday, August 11, 2005
What you think about this book depends largely on why you have decided to read it. The only people who would pick up "The Art of the Novel" by Milan Kundera are literature grad students doing a thesis about Kundera's writing or writers searching for inspiration.
Although I was enjoying my time between its pages, I knew this book was not for the masses when I tried to discuss it at an afternoon barbecue Sunday.
I heard myself saying something like, "Kundera said that novels should be a writer's examination of the human experience through the medium of imagined characters."
My only response was an embarrassed look that seemed to say, "What the hell are you talking about?" and "How do I get away from this conversation?"
It's that kind of book.
Kundera's examination of the novel is not an easy to read "how to write" book such as Ray Bradbury's "Zen in the Art of Writing" or "Writing Down the Bones" by Natalie Goldberg. Instead, it's a slow dissection of the history of the novel.
To Kundera, best known for his novel "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" and "Life is Elsewhere," the traditional European novel died after Cervantes Don Quixote. After that, the way novels are written have changed and should continue to change with the times.
He offers that the concept of plot as it is taught in fiction writing class is insipid and contrived.
Instead, writers should focus on theme, and that theme should be carried throughout the book even if the events or characters are tied together in no other way.
He also preached the idea of tempo in a novel. Kundera began his adult life as a classical musician and he still thinks like one. Passages should vary in rhythm measured by patches of short chapters and long ones to keep the reader's interest.
"Art of the Novel" first and foremost is a textbook for classes on "What Kundera thinks about fiction writing." It may be a little heavy for most living rooms and nightstands and also should be kept far from casual dinner parties full of non-grad students.