I’ve liked Milan Kundera for awhile, but reading his novel Immortality sealed the deal for me. Now I am a full-blown fan, and think he’s a wonderfully brilliant writer — not just as a craftsman of prose, though that would be enough — but as a builder of novels that are stunningly well put together.
Since I’m a Kundera groupie, I was glad to see an excerpt from his latest, The Curtain on The Guardian recently. There are many things in this article I could write about (and if I tried to write about all the thought-provoking items in it at once this would be the longest Litkicks post of all time), so I’ve chosen to focus on a couple of Kundera’s points. But I want you to know that even though it’s long, the entire excerpt is worth the time to read, especially if you like to think about things like being a writer and the writer’s relationship to his/her work.
In the past, I’ve touched on the issue of a writer’s personal relics becoming part of the whole of that person’s work, and whether or not that was a bad thing. As a reader, I’m often interested in the lives of writers I admire, and want to read as much about and by them as I can. But as a writer, I find the notion of having people read anything other than the writing I want them to read a little bit — for lack of a better word — creepy. While I doubt that I’m ever going to be studied by scholars years after my death, let’s just say for the purposes of this paragraph that it could happen. I’m really bothered by the idea that everything outside of my intended body of work might be fair game. Everything. My unfinished drafts unfit for anyone to see, my e-mails, letters, saved birthday cards, journals, notes, my book collection, my CD collection — all of these things could be dissected by scholars to give a better picture of the writer behind the work. And not only that, but connections could be made between all the stuff I have and the writing I do. Certainly, my writing (such as it is) is a product of my life and experiences, but I’m a big fan of making things up (not a fan of autobiography), and I don’t think it’s necessary for people to know that I had braces twice to understand where my writing comes from. (Except I just told you. I had braces. Twice. Analyze that.)
Bardeche sums up his verdict on Madame Bovary: “Flaubert missed his calling as a writer! And is that not basically the judgment of so many Flaubert admirers who end up telling you, ‘Oh, but if you read his correspondence, what a masterwork, what an exciting man it reveals!'”
I, too, often reread Flaubert’s letters, eager to know what he thought about his art and that of other writers. Still, fascinating as the correspondence can be, it is neither a masterwork nor a work. Because “the work”, l’oeuvre, is not simply everything a novelist writes – notebooks, diaries, articles. It is the end result of long labour on an aesthetic project
I will go still further: “the work” is what the writer will approve in his own final assessment. For life is short, reading is long, and literature is in the process of killing itself off through an insane proliferation. Every novelist, starting with his own work, should eliminate whatever is secondary, lay out for himself and for everyone else the ethic of the essential.
It’s pretty clear what side Kundera is on here. In the same section he writes, “The ethic of the essential has given way to the ethic of the archive. (The archive’s ideal: the sweet equality that reigns in an enormous common grave.)” I think this is a fascinating way of looking at it. I mean, as a writer, how would you feel if something you scribbled quickly in a journal was given the same weight by your audience as something you spent a long time working on and perfecting?
Earlier in the article, Kundera quotes Gustave Flaubert: “The artist must make posterity believe he never lived.” Kundera was writing about how he felt when he learned that Proust’s Albertine was based on a man, and that, no matter how much he didn’t want that to affect his picture of the character, his perception couldn’t help but change. But beyond that, it’s an important point: I believe very strongly that a writer’s life and ephemera should be secondary to (or, in an ideal world, completely irrelevant to) the writing. Like I wrote earlier, I’m a proponent of making things up, but even if every character I ever created was based (heavily or loosely) on people in my life, it shouldn’t matter. My experiences as a writer shouldn’t diminish yours as a reader. Certainly, writers should be in control of their work, which of course means what’s considered their work, yet once a reader interacts with it, it’s largely out of the writer’s hands. Going back to the purely hypothetical notion of my writing being widely read, I think I’d like for readers to be able to enjoy the work without having to assign significance to the fact that I had braces twice. My perspective shapes the work — it’s the material from which it’s created (sort of… there’s that whole “making things up” issue) — but even so, my own personal life is not and should not be the key to understanding it.
There’s so much more I could touch on, but I’m going to leave it there. (And seriously, go read Kundera’s excerpt.) How important is knowledge of a writer’s life, experiences, loves, or orthodontic adventures to the understanding and/or enjoyment of the work? As a reader, does knowing more about the writers you read enhance your experience of their writing? As a writer, do you think it’s okay for readers to know all of your business?