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[Readings]

Terms of Art

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From “A Short Lexicon of Milan Kundera,” an essay published in Revue des deux mondes in March to mark Kundera’s ninetieth birthday. Noiville is a novelist and a staff writer for Le Monde.

“a” is for architect

Kundera remains first of all the father of a form. Far from being exhausted or moribund, the novel in his hands is still capable of taking in everything at once—past and present, poetry and prose, fiction and essay, reality and dream—all with the most impressive fluidity. This novel—full of life, capable of knowing all and doing all—which defies limits and language, Kundera calls the “archi-novel.” Only he could have created it.

“b” is for bohemian

“Czechoslovakia”: I have hardly ever heard this word from Kundera’s mouth to designate the country where he and his wife, Vera, lived until 1975. Vera speaks always of “Czecho”—more as a shorthand, I think, than to distance herself from her Slovak neighbors. As for Milan, he never uses the term, especially not in his novels, which are so often set in that place. “The word is too young; it has neither beauty nor history,” he told me one day. And he was right: born in 1918, the name died before its time, in 1992, not yet eighty years old. Words too have to prove themselves, and this one had not shown that it could be counted on. “Even if one could build a state on such a flimsy word, one can’t build a novel on one,” Kundera remarks in The Art of the Novel. This is why he always uses the word “Bohemia.” Are he and his characters Bohemians? “From the standpoint of political geography, the term is not perfect (my translators often correct me), but from the standpoint of poetry, it’s the only possible denomination.”

“c” is for comic

Or for the absence of the comic—the two go together in Kundera’s world. In his study of laughter, published in Encounter, he provides an anthology of laughs drawn from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. In it, he shows that the people who laugh the most are often those with the least sense of humor. He finds the same in the TV show he describes later in the text: “There were hosts, actors, celebrities, writers, singers, models, politicians, politicians’ wives, all reacting to any remark at all by opening wide their mouths, letting out loud noises, making exaggerated motions—in other words: they laughed.”

How sad, but also funny, is this artificial laughter, entirely lacking any source in humor. “The Comic Absence of the Comic,” is the title of Kundera’s study. In it, he imagines Pavlovich, the Dostoevskian hero, watching this pathetic performance. He is at first frozen, then he lets out a great burst of laughter. The laughers take him for one of their own. Welcome to “this world of laughter without humor in which we’re condemned to live,” Kundera concludes. In this phrase, Kundera shows us a tragic vision of life, one that is completed by laughter. One can lean on it like a cane when one is embarrassed by misplaced laughter, uncomfortable with vulgar society or with oneself on account of a word or a laugh that one regrets. Kundera: a moralist who helps us to live.


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April 2020