Milan Kundera and the Invisible Writer

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.)

Kundera writes:

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?

16 Responses

  1. Gonzo, the writing &
    Gonzo, the writing & author

    I liked Hunter S. Thompson’s article about the hippies in Collier’s yearbook and his book on the Hell’s Angels but when he threw it all away on Gonzo, I stopped being a fan. But for a writer to interject himself into a story square, like Kerouac did in The Dharma Bums is OK with me as long as it works, and Dharma Bums does work as a novel, but you got to have characters for a real novel otherwise you’ll never be drawn into it.
    I wish it was easy to make people up.
    When I first read Camus, I read everything I could about him, but I read other books and never research the authors. I rarely read the blurbs that authors write about themslves because they are in 2 categories: a list of their work or a list of their jobs, but if I do read the same author again and again, I want to read interviews.
    I think of Edmund’s remark in Long day’s Journey into Night: “I got the smoking habit but none of the makings [paper and tobacco] for a cigarette.” He was comparing his writing to smoking. I’m grinding out something now as fast as I can and I identify with the remark because I long for a mystical delivery of an idea for a decent novel.
    Anyone not bent on identify theft is welcome to all the research they want on me. This world is so big and I’ve seen it and know how big my role is in its affairs. The nice thing about anonymity is never having to worry about meeting the same demise as John Lennon.

  2. unpublished worksJamelah, I
    unpublished works

    Jamelah, I have a simple answer to Kundera’s question. If a famous writer really wants his or her manuscripts to remain unpublished, the writer can easily arrange this by truly destroying the manuscripts, or by entrusting them to a functionary (say, a literature-blind lawyer) who will carry out the writer’s instructions.

    If the writer doesn’t do this, I have no problem with the writer’s estate publishing posthumous editions of the unpublished work. The most famous example is Kafka’s “The Castle”, which Kafka told Max Brod to destroy. It’s a telling fact that Kafka gave this instruction not to a lawyer or a banker but to a literary friend who loved his work. Kafka must have known that this admirer of his work would do no such thing.

    Granted, in the computer age it’s a lot harder to get rid of documents. I would object to scrounging in a great writer’s hard drive for deleted documents to publish. But I wouldn’t object to publishing a complete manuscript found in a folder on the writer’s desktop called “Manuscripts”.

  3. Feel free to scrounge up all
    Feel free to scrounge up all my old shit when I’m gone.

  4. The mystical delivery comes
    The mystical delivery comes when you are not looking too hard for it.

  5. braces, eh?Now we know how
    braces, eh?

    Now we know how Jamelah got that dazzling smile.

  6. glad it wasn’t meAs a James
    glad it wasn’t me

    As a James Joyce junkie, this is a particularly difficult question for me. I read Ellmann’s 50,000-page bio (one of the best literary bios ever written, or at least one of the longest), and loved geeking out on all of the passing Joyce associates in the bio who, to my obsessive mind, seemed obvious inspirations for passing characters in Ulysses. And for a writer as elliptically autobiographical as Joyce, that sort of curiosity felt natural. But there were certain moments when I got a little nauseous; what business is it of mine to read the obscene letters he sent to his wife? There’s no insight to be gleaned from this, the man was just horny, leave him alone. How is this any different from reading Us Weekly? In a way, I felt I was somehow betraying Joyce’s trust. He gives me Ulysses, and I respond by spying on him in the shower.

    Kundera seems to be touching on something similar to Eliot’s “gradual extinguishing of personality.” But in both cases, that’s a bit suspect. Kundera imposes more authorial asides than any other modern writer, and his novels are all the better for it. Eliot, on the other hand, had good reason to try to extinguish his personality, and it’s too bad he didn’t do a better job of it. (If only we’d left Eliot’s junk-heap unexcavated, we wouldn’t have to contend with his racism and overwhelming prickishness.)

    In general though, I’m glad unpublished works become fair game as soon as authors are safely dead. (If we were to have honored Auden’s wishes, none of us would have ever read Spain, which for my money is his greatest poem. And then there’s the biggie – Virgil wanted the Aeneid destroyed. The fucking Aeneid.) For writers (and I presume there are few non-writers who would be too terribly interested in scouring through James Baldwin’s high school notebooks), there’s something extremely valuable to attain by observing the process of our forebears. I often find solace in the fact that my heroes wrote crap, too; they just had the good sense to scrap it. And sometimes the differences between an unpublished dud and a published masterpiece are so incredibly minor, that studying the subtle alterations can be just as helpful as an MFA.

    That said, if anyone ever got hold of my abandoned stories and letters, I think I’d die on the spot. Out of convenience, mostly.

  7. I’m opposed to writers having
    I’m opposed to writers having orthodontic work. Martin Amis just hasn’t been the same without the teeth.

  8. Further thoughts on thisIt’s
    Further thoughts on this

    It’s not that I’m not weirded out by the idea of people reading stuff that I don’t want them to read, because I am. (And I think there’s no real way of destroying stuff before death — how can I say when I’m going to die? Could be today or it could be 70 years from now, though my guess is that it’ll be somewhere in the middle.)

    Anyway, yeah. I am weirded out by the idea of other people reading my stuff, but that’s not the issue so much as it’s this:

    When I’m dead, go on and read my journal if you have to. Fine. I understand that after I’m dead I’m not really going to care all that much, seeing as how I’ll be busy being dead. But it’s that my work is my work. Not the journals or the e-mails or the letters. I’m not meticulous with e-mail or my journal. I am meticulous with my stories. They’re different. So read them if you have to (but I don’t think they’re necessary at all to anyone other than me), but don’t give them the same weight as the other. I know my work better than you do, and in the end, I should be the only real judge of what my actual artistic output is.


  9. I see what you mean. It’s
    I see what you mean. It’s like, if I built fine furniture out of wood, but propped up the window of my workshop with an old broken broom handle, I wouldn’t want future historians to say, “The discovery of Bill’s ragged-ass broom handle prop reveals an underlying shoddiness that may have overlapped into his better known rocking chairs. Dr. Cameron Thurman-Asher admitted that whenever he sits in a Bill Ectric rocking chair, he can’t help but notice, with some trepidation, the creaking in the runners and the roughness of the underside of the seat.”

  10. After I die, I just hope
    After I die, I just hope someday somebody will look at the old LitKicks archive.

  11. Bill,I couldn’t possibly

    I couldn’t possibly devise a stranger or more oddly evocative metaphor than that. Kudos.

  12. Someone will, Levi, if for no
    Someone will, Levi, if for no other reason because their are so many people represented there.

    Thanks for the lift, Milton.

  13. I do regular ritualized
    I do regular ritualized burnings of old, incomplete manuscripts. Prior to that, I mine them for nuggets of precious literary metals, which I mount in small pieces that adorn my computer. The rest is dross, barely fit for the cleansing purity of fire.

    Kafka knew what he was doing.

  14. I need to know where is that
    I need to know where is that article by Kundera where the quote on the correspondence and the project of the oeuvre comes. Please I am writing an essay on letters… here in Montevideo, Uruguay… thanks… I enjoyed your comments too as I ve recently published a rare very special book on and by a poet who is a artful correspondant and journal writer… and there is about a discussion in te press whether we did well publishing this diary she is still alive, but 87. bye, ana.Please send your response to:

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