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A TALK WITH MILAN KUNDERA

Interview with Milan Kundera by Olga Carlisle (1985) HIS FACE IS SHADOWED BY THE DEEPENING PARIS twilight; only the eyes stand out, an intense blue. He speaks slowly, in cultivated French, with a strong Slavic accent. ''Only a literary work that reveals an unknown fragment of human existence has a reason for being,'' he says in the extended question-and-answer interview that follows. ''To be a writer does not mean to preach a truth, it means to discover a truth.'' In the 1980's, Milan Kundera, now 56, has done for his native Czechoslovakia what Gabriel Garcia Marquez did for Latin America in the 1960's and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn did for Russia in the 1970's. He has brought Eastern Europe to the attention of the Western reading public, and he has done so with insights that are universal in their appeal. His call for truth and the inner freedom without which truth cannot be recognized, his realization that in seeking truth we must be prepared to come to terms with death - these are the themes that have earned him critical acclaim, including the Jerusalem Prize for Literature on the Freedom of Man in Society that he was awarded two weeks ago. Kundera's most recent novels, ''The Book of Laughter and Forgetting'' (1980) and last year's ''The Unbearable Lightness of Being,'' deal with the death of culture in our time. Implicit in the feeling of menace is the danger of nuclear war. Kundera deals with this danger allegorically, with an irrepressible sense of the grotesque. Like his compatriot Milos Forman, the Academy Award-winning director who has adapted to exile and has thrived in the West, Kundera, who has lived in France since 1975, has been prolific enough to dispel the popular notion that writers uprooted from their native soil lose their inspiration. In book after versatile book, the reader finds passion, playfulness and a strong measure of eroticism. Kundera has succeeded in turning the Czechoslovakia of his youth into a vivid, mythical, erotic land. The nature of his achievement may explain in part why Kundera is so fiercely protective of his privacy. No myth maker or mystifier wants to be revealed. In a recent interview, the novelist Philip Roth quoted Kundera as having told him: ''When I was a little boy in short pants, I dreamed about a miraculous ointment that would make me invisible. Then I became an adult, began to write, and wanted to be successful. Now I'm successful and would like to have the ointment that would make me invisible.''

Predictably, there was a lack of enthusiasm in Kundera's voice when I called him in his Paris apartment from San Francisco, asking for an interview. Help came from an unexpected quarter - the memory of my grandfather, the turn-of-thecentury Russian playwright Leonid Andreyev. Warned by mutual friends that the Soviet subjugation of his country had made Kundera mistrustful of Russians - all Russians - I felt I should mention my Russian origin. Kundera replied that, in his youth, he had read and admired my grandfather's work. The ice was broken, and a date was set. But in a letter I received from him soon afterward, he wrote: ''I must warn you of my bad disposition. I am incapable of speaking of myself and of my life and the states of my soul, I am discreet to an almost pathological degree, and there is nothing I can do against that. If this is possible for you, I'd like to speak of literature.'' MILAN KUNDERA AND HIS WIFE, VERA, LIVE ON ONE of the quiet sidestreets of Montparnasse; their small apartment is a remodeled garret with a view of dove-gray Parisian roofs. What gives the living room its character are the modern, surrealistic pictures on the walls. Some are by Czechoslovak artists; the others are by Kundera himself - multicolored outsized heads and long-fingered hands, like Kundera's own. Vera Kundera is a pretty brunette, hair cut short, slender in blue jeans. She serves us wine, and artfully peels kiwi fruit for us. As we chat, I am struck by my hosts' appreciation of the festive side of Parisian life - the ease of shopping in the nearby Bon Marche, the exotic fruit at the corner store, the art exhibitions throughout the year. But during the interview that follows, Vera is busy in the next room, typing and answering long-distance calls. Celebrity has caught up with Kundera, and it is she who has to deal with the requests that come from European television, theater and movie directors. Tall and lean, wearing an old blue sweater, Kundera slouches in an armchair. Here, clearly, is a man who is at ease with himself - bien dans sa peau, to use the French expression he ex-plored at some length in ''The Unbearable Lightness of Being.'' Encouraged by his questions, I tell him a little about my emigre childhood in Paris. My fascination with Prague goes back to those days, when the Russian emigre poet Marina Tsvetayeva used to visit us in the evenings and recite her verses in her slightly guttural voice. One poem I never forgot was addressed to one of the statues, on a bridge over the river Vltava, a knight who keeps watch over Prague: Pale Knight, you are the guardian Of the splashing river, Of the passing years, Watching rings and treaties Smashed against the stone Embankment. There have been so many broken In the last Four hundred years.

That was in 1936 or 1937, and, even then, Prague was too close to Nazi Germany - and to Communist Russia as well. The hugeness of the forthcoming betrayals and broken promises was impossible to imagine. Kundera was part of the Prague Spring of 1968, the promise of Socialism with a human face that was smashed under the treads of Soviet tanks. Publication in Prague of his first novel, ''The Joke,'' was one of that interlude's major events. Tightly written, elaborately constructed, ''The Joke'' was an indictment of the bleak absurdity of life under Communism - but also of life anywhere, when betrayal and revenge are allowed to corrode the soul. The manuscript made its way to the Paris publishing house of Editions Gallimard -and, very quickly, to international acclaim. After the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Kundera lost his position as a professor at the Institute for Advanced Cinematographic Studies in Prague, and his books were banned. Little by little, life was made unbearable for him, and he was hounded out of his native country. The books that burst on the Western reading public in the following years traced an intellectual and emotional journey. ''Life Is Elsewhere,'' published in the United States in 1974, was a grimly ironic exploration of the ultimate consequences of revolutionary and poetic zeal. ''Laughable Loves'' (1974) and ''The Farewell Party'' (1976) celebrated erotic love, and mingled hilarity with compassion. And in ''The Farewell Party,'' a new note was struck. When one of its main characters, Jakob, elects to leave his invaded homeland, he enters new, unexplored territory, the land of exile. This, of course, was the vista that stretched before Kundera himself when he left Czechoslovakia in 1975, and it was the first thing I asked him about in our interview. FOR NEARLY 10 years, ever since the age of 46, you have lived in France. Do you feel like an emigre, a Frenchman, a Czech, or just a European without specific nationality? When the German intellectuals left their country for America in the 1930's, they were certain they would return one day to Germany. They considered their stay abroad temporary. I, on the other hand, have no hope whatever of returning. My stay in France is final, and, therefore, I am not an emigre. France is my only real homeland now. Nor do I feel uprooted. For a thousand years, Czechoslovakia was part of the West. Today, it is part of the empire to the east. I would feel a great deal more uprooted in Prague than in Paris. But you still write in Czech? I write my essays in French, but my novels in Czech, because my life experiences and my imagination are anchored in Bohemia, in Prague. It was Milos Forman, even before you, who made Czechoslovakia known to a wide public in the West, through films such as ''The Firemen's Ball.''

Indeed, he is the incarnation of what I call the spirit of Prague - he and the other Czech moviemakers, Ivan Passer and Jan Nemec. When Milos comes to Paris, everyone is shocked and dazzled. How is it possible that a famous moviemaker can be so free of snobbery? In Paris, where even a salesgirl at the Galeries Lafayette does not know how to behave naturally, Forman's simplicity acts like a provocation. How would you define the ''spirit of Prague''? Kafka's ''The Castle'' and Jaroslav Hasek's ''The Good Soldier Schweik'' are filled with that spirit. An extraordinary sense of the real. The common man's point of view. History seen from below. A provocative simplicity. A genius for the absurd. Humor with infinite pessimism. For instance, a Czech requests a visa to emigrate. The official asks him, ''Where do you want to go?'' ''It doesn't matter,'' the man replies. He is given a globe. ''Please, choose.'' The man looks at the globe, turns it slowly and says, ''Don't you have another globe?'' In addition to your roots in Prague, what other literary loves have shaped you? First, the French novelists Rabelais and Diderot. For me, the real founder, the king of French literature is Rabelais. And Diderot's ''Jacques le Fataliste'' carried the spirit of Rabelais into the 18th century. Don't be misled by the fact that Diderot was a philosopher. This novel cannot be reduced to a philo-sophical discourse. It is a play of irony. The freest novel ever written. Freedom turned into a novel. I have recently done a theatrical adaptation of it. It was staged by Susan Sontag in Cambridge, Mass., as ''Jacques and His Master.'' [The play was presented by the American Repertory Theater in January.] . Your other roots? The Central European novel of our century. Kafka, Robert Musil, Hermann Broch, Witold Gombrovicz. These novelists are marvelously distrustful of what Andre Malraux called the ''lyric illusions.'' Distrustful of the illusions concerning progress, distrustful of the kitsch of hope. I share their sorrow about the Western twilight. Not a sentimental sorrow. An ironic one. And my third root: modern Czech poetry. For me, it was a great schooling of the imagination. Was Jaroslav Seifert among the modern poets who inspired you? Did he deserve the Nobel Prize he received in 1984? He certainly did. It has been said that he was first proposed for the Nobel Prize in 1968, but the jury was prudent; it feared that a prize given to him would be considered as a gesture of sympathy for a recently occupied country.

The prize came too late. Too late for the Czech people, who had been humiliated. Too late for Czech poetry, whose great epoch had ended long ago. Too late for Seifert, who is 83 years old. It is said that when the Swedish Ambassador came to his bedside at the hospital to tell him of the honor, Seifert looked at him for a long time. At last he said sadly, ''But what will I do now with all this money?'' What about Russian literature? Does it still touch you, or have the political events of 1968 made it distasteful to you? I like Tolstoy very much. He is much more modern than Dostoyevsky. Tolstoy was the first, perhaps, to grasp the role of the irrational in human behavior. The role played by stupidity - but mostly by the unaccountability of human actions guided by a subconscious that is both uncontrolled and uncontrollable. Reread the passages preceding Anna Karenina's death. Why did she kill herself without really wanting to? How was her decision born? To capture these reasons, which are irrational and elusive, Tolstoy photographs Anna's stream of consciousness. She is in a carriage; the images of the street mix in her head with her illogical, fragmented thoughts. The first creator of the interior monologue was not Joyce but Tolstoy, in these few pages of ''Anna Karenina.'' That is seldom recognized. Because Tolstoy is badly translated. I once read a French translation of this passage. I was amazed. What in the original text is illogical and fragmented becomes logical and rational in the French translation. As if the last chapter of Joyce's ''Ulysses'' were rewritten - Molly Bloom's long mono-logue given logical, conventional punctuation. Alas, our translators betray us. They do not dare translate the unusual in our texts - the uncommon, the original. They fear that the critics will accuse them of translating badly. To protect themselves, they trivialize us. You have no idea how much time and energy I have lost correcting the translations of my books. You speak with affection about your father in ''The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.'' My father was a pianist. He had a passion for modern music - for Stravinsky, Bartok, Schoenberg, Janacek. He fought very hard for Leos Janacek's recognition as an artist. Janacek is a fascinating modern composer, incomparable, impossible to classify. His opera, ''From the House of the Dead,'' about hard-labor camps, based on Dostoyevsky's novel, is one of the great, prophetic works of our century, like Kafka's ''The Trial,'' or Picasso's ''Guernica.'' This difficult music my father performed in concert halls that were almost empty. As a small boy, I hated the public that refused to listen to Stravinsky and applauded Tchaikovsky or Mozart. I have retained a passion for modern art; this is my fidelity to my father. But I refused to take on his profession of musician. I

liked music but I did not like musicians. I gagged at the thought of spending my life among musicians. When my wife and I left Czechoslovakia, we could take only a very few books with us. Among them was John Updike's ''The Centaur,'' a book that touched something deep in me - an agonizing love for the humiliated, defeated father. In ''The Book of Laughter and Forgetting,'' you link the memory of your father with a tale about Tamina, who lives on an island where there are only children. This tale is a dream, a dream image that obsesses me. Imagine being forced for the rest of your days to remain surrounded by children, without ever being able to speak to an adult. A nightmare. Where does this image come from? I don't know. I don't like to analyze my dreams, I prefer to turn them into tales. Children occupy a strange place in your books. In ''The Unbearable Lightness of Being,'' children torture a crow, and Tereza suddenly says to Tomas, ''I am grateful to you for not having wanted children.'' On the other hand, one finds in your books a tenderness toward animals. In the last one, a pig becomes a likable character. Isn't this view of animals a bit kitschy? I don't think so. Kitsch is a desire to please at all costs. To speak well of animals and look skeptically at children can't please the public very much. It might even irritate it slightly. Not that I have anything against children. But the kitsch of childhood annoys me. Here in France, before the elections, all the political parties had their posters. Everywhere the same slogans about a better future, and everywhere photos of children who smile, run about and play. Alas, our human future is not childhood but old age. The true humanism of society is revealed through its attitude toward old age. But old age, the only future that each of us faces, will never be shown on any propaganda posters. Neither on the left or on the right. I see that the quarrel between right and left does not excite you very much. The danger that threatens us is the totalitarian empire. Khomeini, Mao, Stalin are they left or right? Totalitarianism is neither left nor right, and within its empire both will perish. I was never a believer, but after seeing Czech Catholics persecuted during the Stalinist terror, I felt the deepest solidarity with them. What separated us, the belief in God, was secondary to what united us. In Prague, they hanged the Socialists and the priests. Thus a fraternity of the hanged was born.

This is why the stubborn struggle between left and right seems to me obsolete and quite provincial. I hate to participate in political life, although politics fascinates me as a show. A tragic, deathly show in the empire to the east; an intellectually sterile but amusing one in the West. It is sometimes said that, paradoxically, oppression gives more seriousness and vitality to art and literature. Let us not be romantic. When oppression is lasting, it may destroy a culture completely. Culture needs a public life, the free exchange of ideas; it needs publications, exhibits, debates and open borders. Yet, for a time, culture can survive in very difficult circumstances. After the Russian invasion in 1968, almost all Czech literature was banned, and circulated only in manuscript. Open public cultural life was destroyed. Nonetheless, the Czech literature of the 1970's was magnificent. The prose of Hrabal, Grusa, Skvorecky. It was then, at the most perilous time of its existence, that Czech literature gained its international reputation. But how long can it survive in the underground? No one knows. Europe has never experienced such situations before. When it comes to the misfortune of nations, we must not forget the dimension of time. In a fascist, dictatorial state, everyone knows that it will end one day. Everyone looks to the end of the tunnel. In the empire to the east, the tunnel is without end. Without end, at least, from the point of view of a human life. This is why I don't like it when people compare Poland with, say, Chile. Yes, the torture, the suffering are the same. But the tunnels are of very different lengths. And this changes everything. Political oppression presents yet another danger, which - especially for the novel - is even worse than censorship and the police. I mean moralism. Oppression creates an all-too-clear boundary between good and evil, and the writer easily gives in to the temptation of preaching. From a human point of view, this may be quite appealing, but for literature it is deadly. Hermann Broch, the Austrian novelist whom I love above all, has said, ''The only morality for a writer is knowledge.'' Only a literary work that reveals an unknown fragment of human existence has a reason for being. To be a writer does not mean to preach a truth; it means to discover a truth. But isn't it possible that societies experiencing oppression offer more occasions for the writer to discover ''an unknown fragment of existence'' than those that lead peaceful lives? Perhaps. If you think about Central Europe, what a prodigious laboratory of history! In a period of 60 years, we have lived through the fall of an empire, the

rebirth of small nations, democracy, Fascism, the German occupation with its massacres, the Russian occupation with its deportations, the hope of Socialism, Stalinist terror, emigration. . . . I have always been astounded by how people around me comported themselves in this situation. Man has become enigmatic. He stands as a question. And it is out of that astonishment that the passion to write a novel is born. My skepticism in relation to certain values that are almost totally unassailable is rooted in my Central European experience. For instance, youth is usually referred to not as a phase but as a value in itself. When they utter this word, politicians always have a silly grin on their faces. But I, when I was young, lived in a period of terror. And it was the young who supported terror, in great numbers, through inexperience, immaturity, their all-ornothing morality, their lyric sense. The most skeptical of all among my novels is ''Life Is Elsewhere.'' Its subject is youth and poetry. The adventure of poetry during the Stalinist terror. Poetry's smile. The bloody smile of innocence. Poetry is another of those values unassailable in our society. I was shocked when, in 1950, the great French Communist poet Paul Eluard publicly approved the hanging of his friend, the Prague writer, Zavis Kalandra. When Brezhnev sends tanks to massacre the Afghans, it is terrible, but it is, so to say, normal - it is to be expected. When a great poet praises an execution, it is a blow that shatters our whole image of the world. Does a life rich in experience make your novels autobiographical? No character in my novels is a self-portrait, nor are any of my characters the portrait of a living person. I don't like disguised autobiogaphies. I hate writers' indiscretions. For me, indiscretion is a capital sin. Anyone who reveals someone else's intimate life deserves to be whipped. We live in an age when private life is being destroyed. The police destroy it in Communist countries, journalists threaten it in democratic countries, and little by little the people themselves lose their taste for private life and their sense of it. Life when one can't hide from the eyes of others - that is hell. Those who have lived in totalitarian countries know it, but that system only brings out, like a magnifying glass, the tendencies of all modern society. The devastation of nature; the decline of thinking and of art; bureaucratization, depersonalization; lack of respect before personal life. Without secrecy, nothing is possible - not love, not friendship. IT IS QUITE LATE WHEN the interview ends, and Kundera walks me back to my hotel, a short stroll in the moist Parisian night. A day or two later, the Kunderas

invite me to a lunch of quail in juniper berry sauce, cooked in the Czech style. Kundera is whimsical and lighthearted. He says he reads less and less because French publishers are putting out books in smaller and smaller type. He will not consider the possibility that it is not a French plot and that he needs new glasses. He shows the true writer's evasiveness when asked what fiction he is working on now. But he speaks willingly about his current collaboration on a ''metaphysical farce'' with the French movie director Alain Resnais. Kundera is writing the script, and he casts about for a title. Should it be ''Three Husbands and Two Lovers'' or ''Two Husbands and Three Lovers''? The need for secretiveness is undone by a sense of mischief. This is the Milan Kundera whom his friends of 1968 remember happily, the carefree Kundera of ''Laughable Loves,'' the book he likes best of all his work, because it is linked to the gayest period of his life

The Most Original Book of the Season


Philip Roth interviews Milan Kundera (30/11/1980) This interview is condensed from two conversations Philip Roth had with Milan Kundera after reading a translated manuscript of his "Book of Laughter and Forgetting"--one conversation while he was visiting london for the first time, the other when he was on his first visit to the United States. He took these trips from France; since 1975 he and his wife have been living as migrs, in Reenes, where he taught at the University, and now in Paris. During the conversations, Kundera spoke sporadically in French, but mostly in Czech, and his wife Vera served as his translator. A final Czech text was translated into English by Peter Kussi. PR: Do you think the destruction of the world is coming soon? MK: That depends on what you mean by the word "soon." PR: Tomorrow or the day after. MK: The feeling that the world is rushing to ruin is an ancient one. PR: So then we have nothing to worry about. MK: On the contrary. If a fear has been present in the human mind for ages, there must be something to it. PR: In any event, it seems to me that this concern is the background against which all the stories in your latest book take place, even those that are of a decidedly humorous nature. MK: If someone had told me as a boy: One day you will see your nation vanish from the world, I would have considered it nonsense, something I couldn't possibly imagine. A man knows he is mortal, but he takes it for granted that his nation possesses a kind of eternal life. But after the Russian invasion of 1968, every Czech was confronted with the thought that his nation could be quietly erased from Europe, just as over the past five decades 40 million Ukrainians have been quietly vanishing from the world without the world paying any heed. Or Lithuanians. Do you know that in the 17th century, Lithuania was a powerful European nation? Today the Russians keep Lithuanians on their reservation like a half-extinct tribe; they are sealed off from the visitors to prevent knowledge about their existence from reaching the outside. I don't know what the future holds for my nation. It is certain that the Russians will do everything they can to dissolve it gradually into their own civilization. Nobody knows whether they will succeed. But the possibility is here. And the sudden realization that such a

possibility exists is enough to change one's whole sense of life. Nowadays I even see Europe as fragile, mortal. PR: And yet, are not the fates of Eastern Europe and Western Europe radically different matters? MK: As a concept of cultural history, Eastern Europe is Russia, with its quite specific history anchored in the Byzantine world. Bohemia, Poland, Hungary, just like Austria have never been part of Eastern Europe. From the very beginning they have taken part in the great adventure of Western civilization, with its Gothic, its Renaissance, its Reformation--a movement which has its cradle precisely in this region. It was here, in Central Europe, that modern culture found its greatest impulses; psychoanalysis, structuralism, dodecaphony, Bartk's music, Kafka's and Musil's new esthetics of the novel. The postwar annexation of Central Europe (or at least its major part) by Russian civilization caused Western culture to lose its vital center of gravity. It is the most significant event in the history of the West in our century, and we cannot dismiss the possibility that the end of Central Europe marked the beginning of the end for Europe as a whole. PR: During the Prague Spring, your novel "The Joke" and your stories "Laughable Loves" were published in editions of 150,000. After the Russian invasion you were dismissed from your teaching post at the film academy and all your books were removed from the shelves of public libraries. Seven years later you and your wife tossed a few books and some clothes in the back of your car and drove off to France, where you've become one of the most widely read foreign authors. How do you feel as an migr? MK: For a writer, the experience of living in a number of countries is an enormous boon. You can only understand the world if you see it from several sides. My latest book, which came into being in France, unfolds in a special geographic space: Those events which take place in Prague are seen through West European eyes, while what happens in France is seen through the eyes of Prague. It is an encounter of two worlds. On one side, my native country: In the course of a mere half- century, it experienced democracy, fascism, revolution, Stalinist terror as well as the disintegration of Stalinism, German and Russian occupation, mass deportations, the death of the West in its own land. It is thus sinking under the weight of history, and looks at the world with immense skepticism. On the other side, France: For centuries it was the center of the world and nowadays it is suffering from the lack of great historic events. This is why it revels in radical ideologic postures. It is the lyrical, neurotic expectation of some great deed of its own which however is not coming, and will never come. PR: Are you living in France as a strange or do you feel culturally at home? MK: I am enormously fond of French culture and I am greatly indebted to it. Especially to the older literature. Rebelais is dearest to me of all writers. And

Diderot. I love his "Jacques le fataliste" as much as I do Laurence Sterne. Those were the greatest experimenters of all time in the form of the novel. And their experiments were, so to say, amusing, full of happiness and joy, which have by now vanished from French literature and without which everything in art loses its significance. Sterne and Diderot understand the novel as a great game . They discovered the humor of the novelistic form. When I hear learned arguments that the novel has exhausted its possibilities, I have precisely the opposite feeling: In the course of its history the novel missed many of its possibilities. For example, impulses for the development of the novel hidden in Sterne and Diderot have not been picked up by any successors. PR: Your latest book is not called a novel, and yet in the text you declare: This book is a novel in the form of variations. So then--is it a novel or not? MK: As far as my own quite personal esthetic judgment goes, it really is a novel, but I have no wish to force this opinion on anyone. There is enormous freedom latent within the novelistic form. It is a mistake to regard a certain stereotyped structure as the inviolable essence of the novel. PR: Yet surely there is something which makes a novel a novel, and which limits this freedom. MK: A novel is a long piece of synthetic prose based on play with invented characters. These are the only limits. By the term synthetic I have in mind the novelist's desire to grasp his subject from all sides and in the fullest possible completeness. Ironic essay, novelistic narrative, autobiographical fragment, historic fact, flight of fantasy: The synthetic power of the novel is capable of combining everything into a unified whole like the voices of polyphonic music. The unity of a book need not stem from the plot, but can be provided by the theme. In my latest book, there are two such themes: laughter and forgetting. PR: Laughter has always been close to you. Your books provoke laughter through humor or irony. When your characters come to grief it is because they bump against a world that has lost its sense of humor. MK: I learned the value of humor during the time of Stalinist terror. I was 20 then. I could always recognize a person who was not a Stalinist, a person whom I needn't fear, by the way he smiled. A sense of humor was a trustworthy sign of recognition. Ever since, I have been terrified by a world that is losing its sense of humor. PR: In your last book, though, something else is involved. In a little parable you compare the laughter of angels with the laughter of the devil. The devil laughs because God's world seems senseless to him; the angels laugh with joy because everything in God's world has its meaning.

MK: Yes, man uses the same physiologic manifestations--laughter--to express two different metaphysical attitudes. Someone's hat drops on a coffin in a freshly dug grave, the funeral loses its meaning and laughter is born. Two lovers race through the meadow, holding hands, laughing. Their laughter has nothing to do with jokes or humor, it is the serious laughter of angels expressing their joy of being. Both kinds of laughter belong among life's pleasures, but when it also denotes a dual apocalypse: the enthusiastic laughter of angel-fanatics, who are so convinced of their world's significance that they are ready to hang anyone not sharing their joy. And the other laughter, sounding from the opposite side, which proclaims that everything has become meaningless, that even funerals are ridiculous and group sex a mere comical pantomime. Human life is bounded by two chasms: fanaticism on one side, absolute skepticism on the other. PR: What you now call the laughter of angels is a new term for the "lyrical attitude to life" of your previous novels. In one of your books you characterize the era of Stalinist terror as the reign of the hangman and the poet. MK: Totalitarianism is not only hell, but also the dream of paradise--the age old drama of a world where everybody would live in harmony, united by a single common will and faith, without secrets from one another. Andr Breton, too, dreamed of this paradise when he talked about the glass house in which he longed to live. If totalitarianism did not exploit these archetypes, which are deep inside us all and rooted deep in all religions, it could never attract so many people, especially during the early phases of its existence. Once the dream of paradise starts to turn into reality, however, here and there people begin to crop up who stand in its way, and so the rulers of paradise must build a little gulag on the side of Eden. In the course of time this gulag grows ever bigger and more perfect, while the adjoining paradise gets ever smaller and poorer. PR: In your book, the great French poet Eluard soars over paradise and gulag, singing. Is this bit of history which you mention in the book authentic? MK: After the war, Paul Eluard abandoned surrealism and became the greatest exponent of what I might call the "poesy of totalitarianism." He sang for brotherhood, peace, justice, better tomorrows, he sang for comradeship and against isolation, for joy and against gloom, for innocence and against cynicism. When in 1950 the rulers of paradise sentenced Eluard's Prague friend, the surrealist Zalvis Kalandra, to death by hanging, Eluard suppressed his personal feelings of friendship for the sake of supra-personal ideals, and publicly declared his approval of his comrade's execution. The hangman killed while the poet sang. And not just the poet. The whole period of Stalinist terror was a period of collective lyrical delirium. This has by now been completely forgotten but it is the crux of the matter. People like to say: Revolution is beautiful, it is only the terror arising from it which is evil. But this is not true. The evil is already present in the beautiful, hell is already contained in the dream of paradise and if we wish to

understand the essence of hell we must examine the essence of the paradise from which it originated. It is extremely easy to condemn gulags, but to reject the totalitarianism poesy which leads to the gulag, by way of paradise is as difficult as ever. Nowadays, people all over the world unequivocally reject the idea of gulags, yet they are still willing to let themselves be hypnotized by totalitarian poesy and to march to new gulags to the tune of the same lyrical song piped by Eluard when he soared over Prague like the great archangel of the lyre, while the smoke of Kalandra's body rose to the sky from the crematory chimney. PR: What is so characteristic of your prose is the constant confrontation of the private and the public. But not in the sense that private stories take place against a political backdrop, nor that political events encroach on private lives. Rather, you continually show that political events are governed by the same laws as private happenings, so that your prose is a kind of psychoanalysis of politics. MK: The metaphysics of man is the same in the private sphere as in the public one. Take the other theme of the book, forgetting. This is the great private problem of man: death as the loss of the self. But what is this self? It is the sum of everything we remember. Thus what terrifies us about death is not the loss of the past. Forgetting is a form of death ever present within life. This is the problem of my heroine, in desperately trying to preserve the vanishing memories of her beloved dead husband. But forgetting is also the great problem of politics. When a big power wants to deprive a small country of its national consciousness it uses the method of organized forgetting. This is what is currently happening in Bohemia. Contemporary Czech literature, insofar as it has any value at all, has not been printed for 12 years; 200 Czech writers have been proscribed, including the dead Franz Kafka; 145 Czech historians have been dismissed from their posts, history has been rewritten, monuments demolished. A nation which loses awareness of its past gradually loses its self. And so the political situation has brutally illuminated the ordinary metaphysical problem of forgetting that we face all the time, every day, without paying any attention. Politics unmasks the metaphysics of private life, private life unmasks the metaphysics of politics. PR: In the sixth part of your book of variations the main heroine, Tamina, reaches an island where there are only children. In the end they hound her to death. Is this a dream, a fairy tale, an allegory? MK: Nothing is more foreign to me than allegory, a story invented by the author in order to illustrate some thesis. Events, whether realistic or imaginary, must be significant in themselves, and the reader is meant to be naively seduced by their power and poetry. I have always been haunted by this image, and during one period of my life it kept recurring in my dreams: A person finds himself in a world of children, from which he cannot escape. And suddenly childhood, which we all lyricize and adore, reveals itself as pure horror. As a trap. This story is not allegory. But my book is a polyphony in which various stories mutually explain, illumine, complement each other. The basic event of the book is the story of

totalitarianism, which deprives people of memory and thus retools them into a nation of children. All totalitarianisms do this. And perhaps our entire technical age does this, with its cult of the future, its indifference to the past and mistrust of thought. In the midst of a relentlessly juvenile society, an adult equipped with memory and irony feels like Tamina on the isle of children. PR: Almost all your novels, in fact all the individual parts of your latest book, find their denouement in great scenes of coitus. Even that part which goes by the innocent name of "Mother" is but one long scene of three-way sex, with a prologue and epilogue. What does sex mean to you as a novelist? MK: These days, when sexuality is no longer taboo, mere description, mere sexual confession, has become noticeably boring. How dated Lawrence seems, or even Henry Miller, with his lyricism of obscenity! And yet certain erotic passages of George Bataille have made a lasting impression on me. Perhaps it is because they are not lyrical but philosophic. You are right that, with me everything ends in great erotic scenes. I have the feeling that a scene of physical love generates an extremely sharp light which suddenly reveals the essence of characters and sums up their life situation. Hugo makes love to Tamina while she is desperately trying to think about lost vacations with her dead husband. The erotic scene is the focus where all the themes of the story converge and where its deepest secrets are located. PR: The last part, the seventh, actually deals with nothing but sexuality. Why does this part close the book rather than another, such as the much more dramatic sixth party in which the heroine dies? MK: Tamina dies, metaphorically speaking, amid the laughter of angels. Through the last section of the book, on the other hand, resounds the contrary kind of laugh, the kind heard when things lose their meaning. There is a certain imaginary dividing line beyond which things appear senseless and ridiculous. A person asks himself: Isn't it nonsensical for me to get up in the morning? to go to work? to strive for anything? to belong to a nation just because I was born that way? Man lives in close proximity to this boundary, and can easily find himself on the other side. That boundary exists everywhere, in all areas of human life and even in the deepest, most biological of all: sexuality. And precisely because it is the deepest region of life the question posed to sexuality is the deepest question. This is why my book of variations can end with no variation but this. PR: Is this, then, the furthest point you have reached in your pessimism? MK: I am wary of the words pessimism and optimism. A novel does not assert anything; a novel searches and poses questions. I don't know whether my nation will perish and I don't know which of my characters is right. I invent stories, confront one with another, and by this means I ask questions. The stupidity of people comes from having a question for everything. When Don Quixote went

out in the world, that world turned into a mystery before his eyes. That is the legacy of the first European novel to the entire subsequent history of the novel. The novelist teaches the reader to comprehend the world as a question. There is wisdom and tolerance in that attitude. In a world built on sacrosanct certainties the novel is dead. The totalitarian world, whether founded on Marx, Islam or anything else, is a world of answers rather than questions. There, the novel has no place. In any case, it seems to me that all over the world people nowadays prefer to judge rather than to understand, to answer rather than ask, so that the voice of the novel can hardly be heard over the noisy foolishness of human certainties

This interview is a product of several encounters with Milan Kundera in Paris in the fall of 1983. Our meetings took place in his attic apartment near Montparnasse. We worked in the small room that Kundera uses as his office. With its shelves full of books on philosophy and musicology, an old-fashioned typewriter and a table, it looks more like a students room than like the study of a world-famous author. On one of the walls, two photographs hang side by side: one of his father, a pianist, the other of Leo Jancek, a Czech composer whom he greatly admires. We held several free and lengthy discussions in French; instead of a tape recorder, we used a typewriter, scissors, and glue. Gradually, amid discarded scraps of paper and after several revisions, this text emerged. This interview was conducted soon after Kunderas most recent book, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, had become an immediate best-seller. Sudden fame makes him uncomfortable; Kundera would surely agree with Malcolm Lowry that success is like a horrible disaster, worse than a fire in ones home. Fame consumes the home of the soul. Once, when I asked him about some of the comments on his novel that were appearing in the press, he replied, Ive had an overdose of myself! Kunderas wish not to talk about himself seems to be an instinctive reaction against the tendency of most critics to study the writer, and the writers personality, politics, and private life, instead of the writers works. Disgust at having to talk about oneself is what distinguishes novelistic talent from lyric talent, Kundera told Le Nouvel Observateur. Refusing to talk about oneself is therefore a way of placing literary works and forms squarely at the center of attention, and of focusing on the novel itself. That is the purpose of this discussion on the art of composition.

INTERVIEWER You have said that you feel closer to the Viennese novelists Robert Musil and Hermann Broch than to any other authors in modern literature. Broch thoughtas you dothat the age of the psychological novel had come to an end. He believed, instead, in what he called the polyhistorical novel. MILAN KUNDERA Musil and Broch saddled the novel with enormous responsibilities. They saw it as the supreme intellectual synthesis, the last place where man could still question the world as a whole. They were convinced that the novel had tremendous synthetic power, that it could be poetry, fantasy, philosophy, aphorism, and essay all rolled into one. In his letters, Broch makes some profound observations on this issue. However, it seems to me that he obscures his own intentions by using the ill-chosen term polyhistorical novel. It was in fact Brochs compatriot, Adalbert Stifter, a classic of Austrian prose, who created a truly polyhistorical novel in his Der Nachsommer [Indian Summer], published in 1857. The novel is famous: Nietzsche considered it to be one of the four greatest works of German literature. Today, it is unreadable. Its packed with information about geology, botany, zoology, the crafts, painting, and architecture; but this gigantic, uplifting encyclopedia virtually leaves out man himself, and his situation. Precisely because it is polyhistorical, Der Nachsommer totally lacks what makes the novel special. This is not the case with Broch. On the contrary! He strove to discover that which the novel alone can discover. The specific object of what Broch liked to call novelistic knowledge is existence. In my view, the word polyhistorical must be defined as that which brings together every device and every form of knowledge in order to shed light on existence. Yes, I do feel close to such an approach. INTERVIEWER A long essay you published in the magazine Le Nouvel Observateur caused the French to rediscover Broch. You speak highly of him, and yet you are also critical. At the end of the essay, you write: All great works (just because they are great) are partly incomplete. KUNDERA Broch is an inspiration to us not only because of what he accomplished, but also because of all that he aimed at and could not attain. The very incompleteness of his work can help us understand the need for new art forms, including: (1) a radical stripping away of unessentials (in order to capture the complexity of existence in the modern world without a loss of architectonic clarity); (2) novelistic counterpoint (to

unite philosophy, narrative, and dream into a single music); (3) the specifically novelistic essay (in other words, instead of claiming to convey some apodictic message, remaining hypothetical, playful, or ironic). INTERVIEWER These three points seem to capture your entire artistic program. KUNDERA In order to make the novel into a polyhistorical illumination of existence, you need to master the technique of ellipsis, the art of condensation. Otherwise, you fall into the trap of endless length. Musils The Man Without Qualities is one of the two or three novels that I love most. But dont ask me to admire its gigantic unfinished expanse! Imagine a castle so huge that the eye cannot take it all in at a glance. Imagine a string quartet that lasts nine hours. There are anthropological limitshuman proportionsthat should not be breached, such as the limits of memory. When you have finished reading, you should still be able to remember the beginning. If not, the novel loses its shape, its architectonic clarity becomes murky. INTERVIEWER The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is made up of seven parts. If you had dealt with them in a less elliptical fashion, you could have written seven different full-length novels. KUNDERA But if I had written seven independent novels, I would have lost the most important thing: I wouldnt have been able to capture the complexity of human existence in the modern world in a single book. The art of ellipsis is absolutely essential. It requires that one always go directly to the heart of things. In this connection, I always think of a Czech composer I have passionately admired since childhood: Leo Janek. He is one of the greatest masters of modern music. His determination to strip music to its essentials was revolutionary. Of course, every musical composition involves a great deal of technique: exposition of the themes, their development, variations, polyphonic work (often very automatic), filling in the orchestration, the transitions, et cetera. Today one can compose music with a computer, but the computer always existed in composers headsif they had to, composers could write sonatas without a single original idea, just by cybernetically expanding on the rules of composition. Janeks purpose was to destroy this computer! Brutal juxtaposition instead of transitions; repetition instead of variationand always straight to the heart of things: only the note with something essential to say is entitled to exist. It is nearly the same with the novel; it too is encumbered by technique, by rules that do the authors work for him: present a character, describe a milieu, bring the action into its historical setting, fill up the lifetime of the characters with useless episodes. Every change of scene requires new expositions, descriptions, explanations. My purpose is like Janeks: to rid the novel of the automatism of novelistic technique, of novelistic word-spinning. INTERVIEWER The second art form you mentioned was novelistic counterpoint. KUNDERA The idea of the novel as a great intellectual synthesis almost automatically raises the problem of polyphony. This problem still has to be resolved. Take the third part of Brochs novel The Sleepwalkers; it is made up of five heterogeneous elements: (1) novelistic narrative based on the three main characters: Pasenow, Esch, Huguenau; (2) the personal story of Hanna Wendling; (3) factual description of life in a military hospital; (4) a narrative (partly in verse) of a Salvation Army girl; (5) a philosophical essay (written in scientific language) on the debasement of values. Each part is magnificent. Yet despite the fact that they are all dealt with simultaneously, in constant alternation (in other words, in a polyphonic manner), the five elements remain disunitedin other words, they do not constitute a true polyphony. INTERVIEWER By using the metaphor of polyphony and applying it to literature, do you not in fact make demands on the novel that it cannot possibly live up to? KUNDERA

The novel can incorporate outside elements in two ways. In the course of his travels, Don Quixote meets various characters who tell him their tales. In this way, independent stories are inserted into the whole, fitted into the frame of the novel. This type of composition is often found in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century novels. Broch, however, instead of fitting the story of Hanna Wendling into the main story of Esch and Huguenau, lets both unfold simultaneously. Sartre (in The Reprieve), and Dos Passos before him, also used this technique of simultaneity. Their aim, however, was to bring together different novelistic stories, in other words, homogeneous rather than heterogeneous elements as in the case of Broch. Moreover, their use of this technique strikes me as too mechanical and devoid of poetry. I cannot think of better terms than polyphony or counterpoint to describe this form of composition and, furthermore, the musical analogy is a useful one. For instance, the first thing that bothers me about the third part of The Sleepwalkers is that the five elements are not all equal. Whereas the equality of all the voices in musical counterpoint is the basic ground rule, the sine qua non. In Brochs work, the first element (the novelistic narrative of Esch and Huguenau) takes up much more physical space than the other elements, and, even more important, it is privileged insofar as it is linked to the two preceding parts of the novel and therefore assumes the task of unifying it. It therefore attracts more attention and threatens to turn the other elements into mere accompaniment. The second thing that bothers me is that though a fugue by Bach cannot do without any one of its voices, the story of Hanna Wendling or the essay on the decline of values could very well stand alone as an independent work. Taken separately, they would lose nothing of their meaning or of their quality. In my view, the basic requirements of novelistic counterpoint are: (1) the equality of the various elements; (2) the indivisibility of the whole. I remember that the day I finished The Angels, part three of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, I was terribly proud of myself. I was sure that I had discovered the key to a new way of putting together a narrative. The text was made up of the following elements: (1) an anecdote about two female students and their levitation; (2) an autobiographical narrative; (3) a critical essay on a feminist book; (4) a fable about an angel and the devil; (5) a dream-narrative of Paul Eluard flying over Prague. None of these elements could exist without the others, each one illuminates and explains the others as they all explore a single theme and ask a single question: What is an angel? Part six, also entitled The Angels, is made up of: (1) a dream-narrative of Taminas death; (2) an autobiographical narrative of my fathers death; (3) musicological reflections; (4) reflections on the epidemic of forgetting that is devastating Prague. What is the link between my father and the torturing of Tamina by children? It is the meeting of a sewing machine and an umbrella on the table of one theme, to borrow Lautramonts famous image. Novelistic polyphony is poetry much more than technique. I can find no example of such polyphonic poetry elsewhere in literature, but I have been very astonished by Alain Resnaiss latest films. His use of the art of counterpoint is admirable. INTERVIEWER Counterpoint is less apparent in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. KUNDERA That was my aim. There, I wanted dream, narrative, and reflection to flow together in an indivisible and totally natural stream. But the polyphonic character of the novel is very striking in part six: the story of Stalins son, theological reflections, a political event in Asia, Franzs death in Bangkok, and Tomass funeral in Bohemia are all linked by the same everlasting question: What is kitsch? This polyphonic passage is the pillar that supports the entire structure of the novel. It is the key to the secret of its architecture. INTERVIEWER By calling for a specifically novelistic essay, you expressed several reservations about the essay on the debasement of values which appeared in The Sleepwalkers. KUNDERA It is a terrific essay! INTERVIEWER You have doubts about the way it is incorporated into the novel. Broch relinquishes none of his scientific language, he expresses his views in a straightforward way without hiding behind one of his charactersthe way Mann or Musil would do. Isnt that Brochs real contribution, his new challenge? KUNDERA

That is true, and he was well aware of his own courage. But there is also a risk: his essay can be read and understood as the ideological key to the novel, as its Truth, and that could transform the rest of the novel into a mere illustration of a thought. Then the novels equilibrium is upset; the truth of the essay becomes too heavy and the novels subtle architecture is in danger of collapsing. A novel that had no intention of expounding a philosophical thesis (Broch loathed that type of novel!) may wind up being read in exactly that way. How does one incorporate an essay into the novel? It is important to have one basic fact in mind: the very essence of reflection changes the minute it is included in the body of a novel. Outside of the novel, one is in the realm of assertions: everyone's philosopher, politician, conciergeis sure of what he says. The novel, however, is a territory where one does not make assertions; it is a territory of play and of hypotheses. Reflection within the novel is hypothetical by its very essence. INTERVIEWER But why would a novelist want to deprive himself of the right to express his philosophy overtly and assertively in his novel? KUNDERA Because he has none! People often talk about Chekhovs philosophy, or Kafkas, or Musils. But just try to find a coherent philosophy in their writings! Even when they express their ideas in their notebooks, the ideas amount to intellectual exercises, playing with paradoxes, or improvisations rather than to assertions of a philosophy. And philosophers who write novels are nothing but pseudonovelists who use the form of the novel in order to illustrate their ideas. Neither Voltaire nor Camus ever discovered that which the novel alone can discover. I know of only one exception, and that is the Diderot of Jacques le fataliste. What a miracle! Having crossed over the boundary of the novel, the serious philosopher becomes a playful thinker. There is not one serious sentence in the noveleverything in it is play. Thats why this novel is outrageously underrated in France. Indeed, Jacques le fataliste contains everything that France has lost and refuses to recover. In France, ideas are preferred to works. Jacques le fataliste cannot be translated into the language of ideas, and therefore it cannot be understood in the homeland of ideas. INTERVIEWER In The Joke, it is Jaroslav who develops a musicological theory. The hypothetical character of his thinking is thus apparent. But the musicological meditations in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting are the authors, your own. How am I then to understand whether they are hypothetical or assertive? KUNDERA It all depends on the tone. From the very first words, my intention is to give these reflections a playful, ironic, provocative, experimental, or questioning tone. All of part six of The Unbearable Lightness of Being (The Grand March) is an essay on kitsch which expounds one main thesis: kitsch is the absolute denial of the existence of shit. This meditation on kitsch is of vital importance to me. It is based on a great deal of thought, experience, study, and even passion. Yet the tone is never serious; it is provocative. This essay is unthinkable outside of the novel, it is a purely novelistic meditation. INTERVIEWER The polyphony of your novels also includes another element, dream-narrative. It takes up the entire second part of Life Is Elsewhere, it is the basis of the sixth part of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, and it runs through The Unbearable Lightness of Being by way of Terezas dreams. KUNDERA These passages are also the easiest ones to misunderstand, because people want to find some symbolic message in them. There is nothing to decipher in Terezas dreams. They are poems about death. Their meaning lies in their beauty, which hypnotizes Tereza. By the way, do you realize that people dont know how to read Kafka simply because they want to decipher him? Instead of letting themselves be carried away by his unequaled imagination, they look for allegories and come up with nothing but clichs: life is absurd (or it is not absurd), God is beyond reach (or within reach), et cetera. You can understand nothing about art, particularly modern art, if you do not understand that imagination is a value in itself. Novalis knew that when he praised dreams. They protect us against lifes monotony, he said, they liberate us from seriousness by the delight of their games. He was the first to understand the role that dreams and a dreamlike imagination could play in the novel. He planned to write the second volume of his Heinrich von Ofterdingen as a narrative in which dream and reality would be so intertwined that one would no longer be able to tell them apart. Unfortunately, all that remains of that second volume are the notes in which Novalis described his aesthetic intention. One hundred years later, his ambition was fulfilled by Kafka.

Kafkas novels are a fusion of dream and reality; that is, they are neither dream nor reality. More than anything, Kafka brought about an aesthetic revolution. An aesthetic miracle. Of course, no one can repeat what he did. But I share with him, and with Novalis, the desire to bring dreams, and the imagination of dreams, into the novel. My way of doing so is by polyphonic confrontation rather than by a fusion of dream and reality. Dream-narrative is one of the elements of counterpoint. INTERVIEWER There is nothing polyphonic about the last part of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, and yet that is probably the most interesting part of the book. It is made up of fourteen chapters that recount erotic situations in the life of one manJan. KUNDERA Another musical term: this narrative is a theme with variations. The theme is the border beyond which things lose their meaning. Our life unfolds in the immediate vicinity of that border, and we risk crossing it at any moment. The fourteen chapters are fourteen variations of the same situation's eroticism at the border between meaning and meaninglessness. INTERVIEWER You have described The Book of Laughter and Forgetting as a novel in the form of variations. But is it still a novel? KUNDERA There is no unity of action, which is why it does not look like a novel. People cant imagine a novel without that unity. Even the experiments of the nouveau roman were based on unity of action (or of nonaction). Sterne and Diderot had amused themselves by making the unity extremely fragile. The journey of Jacques and his master takes up the lesser part of Jacques le fataliste; its nothing more than a comic pretext in which to fit anecdotes, stories, thoughts. Nevertheless, this pretext, this frame, is necessary to make the novel feel like a novel. In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting there is no longer any such pretext. Its the unity of the themes and their variations that gives coherence to the whole. Is it a novel? Yes. A novel is a meditation on existence, seen through imaginary characters. The form is unlimited freedom. Throughout its history, the novel has never known how to take advantage of its endless possibilities. It missed its chance. INTERVIEWER But except for The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, your novels are also based on unity of action, although it is indeed of a much looser variety in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. KUNDERA Yes, but other more important sorts of unity complete them: the unity of the same metaphysical questions, of the same motifs and then variations (the motif of paternity in The Farewell Party, for instance). But I would like to stress above all that the novel is primarily built on a number of fundamental words, like Schoenbergs series of notes. In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, the series is the following: forgetting, laughter, angels, litost, the border. In the course of the novel these five key words are analyzed, studied, defined, redefined, and thus transformed into categories of existence. It is built on these few categories in the same way as a house is built on its beams. The beams of The Unbearable Lightness of Being are: weight, lightness, the soul, the body, the Grand March, shit, kitsch, compassion, vertigo, strength, and weakness. Because of their categorical character, these words cannot be replaced by synonyms. This always has to be explained over and over again to translators, whoin their concern for good styleseek to avoid repetition. INTERVIEWER Regarding the architectural clarity, I was struck by the fact that all of your novels, except for one, are divided into seven parts. KUNDERA When I had finished my first novel, The Joke, there was no reason to be surprised that it had seven parts. Then I wrote Life Is Elsewhere. The novel was almost finished and it had six parts. I didnt feel satisfied. Suddenly I had the idea of including a story that takes place three years after the heros deathin other words, outside the time frame of the novel. This now became the sixth part of seven,

entitled The Middle-Aged Man. Immediately, the novels architecture had become perfect. Later on, I realized that this sixth part was oddly analogous to the sixth part of The Joke (Kostka), which also introduces an outside character, and also opens a secret window in the novels wall. Laughable Loves started out as ten short stories. Putting together the final version, I eliminated three of them. The collection had become very coherent, foreshadowing the composition of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. One character, Doctor Havel, ties the fourth and sixth stories together. In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, the fourth and sixth parts are also linked by the same person: Tamina. When I wrote The Unbearable Lightness of Being, I was determined to break the spell of the number of seven. I had long since decided on a six-part outline. But the first part always struck me as shapeless. Finally, I understood that it was really made up of two parts. Like Siamese twins, they had to be separated by delicate surgery. The only reason I mention all this is to show that I am not indulging in some superstitious affectation about magic numbers, nor making a rational calculation. Rather, I am driven by a deep, unconscious, incomprehensible need, a formal archetype from which I cannot escape. All of my novels are variants of an architecture based on the number seven. INTERVIEWER The use of seven neatly divided parts is certainly linked to your goal of synthesizing the most heterogeneous elements into a unified whole. Each part of your novel is always a world of its own, and is distinct from the others because of its special form. But if the novel is divided into numbered parts, why must the parts themselves also be divided into numbered chapters? KUNDERA The chapters themselves must also create a little world of their own; they must be relatively independent. That is why I keep pestering my publishers to make sure that the numbers are clearly visible and that the chapters are well separated. The chapters are like the measures of a musical score! There are parts where the measures (chapters) are long, others where they are short, still others where they are of irregular length. Each part could have a musical tempo indication: moderato, presto, andante, et cetera. Part six of Life Is Elsewhere is andante: in a calm, melancholy manner, it tells of the brief encounter between a middle-aged man and a young girl who has just been released from prison. The last part is prestissimo; it is written in very short chapters, and jumps from the dying Jaromil to Rimbaud, Lermontov, and Pushkin. I first thought of The Unbearable Lightness of Being in a musical way. I knew that the last part had to be pianissimo and lento: it focuses on a rather short, uneventful period, in a single location, and the tone is quiet. I also knew that this part had to be preceded by a prestissimo: that is the part entitled The Grand March. INTERVIEWER There is an exception to the rule of the number seven. There are only five parts to The Farewell Party. KUNDERA The Farewell Party is based on another formal archetype: it is absolutely homogeneous, deals with one subject, is told in one tempo; it is very theatrical, stylized, and derives its form from the farce. In Laughable Loves, the story entitled The Symposium is built exactly the same waya farce in five acts. INTERVIEWER What do you mean by farce? KUNDERA I mean the emphasis on plot and on all its trappings of unexpected and incredible coincidences. Nothing has become as suspect, ridiculous, old-fashioned, trite, and tasteless in a novel as plot and its farcical exaggerations. From Flaubert on, novelists have tried to do away with the artifices of plot. And so the novel has become duller than the dullest of lives. Yet there is another way to get around the suspect and worn-out aspect of the plot, and that is to free it from the requirement of likelihood. You tell an unlikely story that chooses to be unlikely! Thats exactly how Kafka conceived Amerika. The way Karl meets his uncle in the first chapter is through a series of the most unlikely coincidences. Kafka entered into his first sur-real universe, into his first fusion of dream and reality, with a parody of the plot through the door of farce. INTERVIEWER But why did you choose the farce form for a novel that is not at all meant to be an entertainment?

KUNDERA But it is an entertainment! I dont understand the contempt that the French have for entertainment, why they are so ashamed of the word divertissement. They run less risk of being entertaining than of being boring. And they also run the risk of falling for kitsch, that sweetish, lying embellishment of things, the rose-colored light that bathes even such modernist works as Eluards poetry or Ettore Scolas recent film Le Bal, whose subtitle could be: French history as kitsch. Yes, kitsch, not entertainment, is the real aesthetic disease! The great European novel started out as entertainment, and every true novelist is nostalgic for it. In fact, the themes of those great entertainments are terribly seriousthink of Cervantes! In The Farewell Party, the question is, does man deserve to live on this earth? Shouldnt one free the planet from mans clutches? My lifetime ambition has been to unite the utmost seriousness of question with the utmost lightness of form. Nor is this purely an artistic ambition. The combination of a frivolous form and a serious subject immediately unmasks the truth about our dramas (those that occur in our beds as well as those that we play out on the great stage of History) and their awful insignificance. We experience the unbearable lightness of being. INTERVIEWER So you could just as well have used the title of your latest novel for The Farewell Party? KUNDERA Every one of my novels could be entitled The Unbearable Lightness of Being or The Joke or Laughable Loves; the titles are interchangeable, they reflect the small number of themes that obsess me, define me, and, unfortunately, restrict me. Beyond these themes, I have nothing else to say or to write. INTERVIEWER There are, then, two formal archetypes of composition in your novels: (1) polyphony, which unites heterogeneous elements into an architecture based on the number seven; (2) farce, which is homogeneous, theatrical, and skirts the unlikely. Could there be a Kundera outside of these two archetypes? KUNDERA I always dream of some great unexpected infidelity. But I have not yet been able to escape my bigamous state.

Clarifications, Elucidations: An Interview with Milan Kundera By Lois Oppenheim from The Review of Contemporary Fiction 9 (1989) I came to what was to be the first of several meetings with Milan Kundera eager to confirm that the great popularity of one of Europe's most important novelists was due, at least in part, to something less rational, less self-conscious than that which, at times, appeared to direct his highly intelligent art. I came seeking to discover the imaginative forces that have given extraordinary linguistic and imagistic shape to the most fundamental principles, the most delicate if essential intimacies of human interaction. The advantages of the personal encounter were immediately apparent. While it is not often that one has the opportunity to meet with an artist whose work one particularly admires, it is indeed more rare to have validated on such occasions one's intuition of the artist through his work. To esteem an artist is to esteem his art, not his person. The two may or may not be related. All too often they are not, and one is deceived. Any possibility for disillusionment in this case was at once eliminated as the author revealed-both through the modesty of his responses (often questions in themselves) and the steadfast refusal to ever, even momentarily, take refuge behind any sort of facile rhetoric--the congruence of his person with the integrity of his art, an art whose significance lies precisely in the meditative appropriation of the most ordinary metaphysical problems and existential situations into unique socio-historical contexts. Despite his reverence for privacy, Kundera was willing to discuss a variety of topics throughout our meetings. The scope and purpose of the interview ultimately derived from our conversations were refined, however, by a mutual interest in particularizing, in clarifying a number of concrete, and not necessarily related, points of interest. What follows is such a collage. Lois Oppenheim: I would like to take advantage of these meetings with you to clarify a number of more or less concrete points. To begin, in The Art of the Novel you very explicitly condemn the interview as it is traditionally practiced and, in a rather forceful manner, you reiterate your decision to not grant any more interviews unless they are accompanied by your copyright. I understand your frustration with journalists who, in utter disregard of the possible ramifications, deprive the interviewee of any opportunity to review his remarks prior to their publication. And I appreciate your distinction between dialogue, where there is a real give and take, a sincere sharing of thoughts on issues of mutual interest, and inter-view, where only those questions of interest to the interviewer are posed and only those answers that serve his purpose are reproduced--and all too often in a context different from that which inspired them in the first place. Nevertheless, I wonder if you are not somehow depriving your public in restricting the interviews you grant to those that you will co-edit? Milan Kundera: Interviews, such as they appear in the press, are merely approximate transcriptions of what the interviewee said. This wouldn't be quite so serious if your words weren't quoted by everyone, even by academics and critics, as though it were really a matter of your formulations, your wording. All exactitude is lost in approximation. Once, I was made to relate not only inaccuracies in an interview, but

ideas that were not at all mine. I protested. The answer: The journalist is retaining the quote. I understood one very simple thing: An author, once quoted by a journalist, is no longer master of his word; he loses the author's rights to what he says. And this, of course, is unacceptable. The solution, however, is easy and, I hope, agreeable to you: We have met, you and I; we have spoken at length; we have agreed to the subjects that interest us; you have composed the questions; I have composed the answers and we are adding at the end a copyright. This way, everything is okay, everything is fair play. LO: This seems entirely reasonable to me. In fact, I can't see what more could be wanted than the guarantee of authenticity that the copyright provides. You have provoked many discussions about Central Europe, All of your fiction takes place in Czechoslovakia and even in your theoretical work, The Art of the Novel, Central Europe is very important. Would you mind clarifying just what this notion of Central Europe represents for you, just what its real perimeters are? MK: Let's simplify the problem, an enormous one, and limit ourselves to the novel. There are four great novelists: Kafka, Broch, Musil, Gombrowicz. I call them the "pleiad" of Central Europe's great novelists. Since Proust, I can't see anyone of greater importance in the history of the novel. Without knowing them, not much of the modern novel can be understood. Briefly, these authors are modernists, which is to say that they are impassioned by a search for new forms. At the same time, however, they are completely devoid of any avant-garde ideology (faith in progress, in revolution, and so on), whence another vision of the history of art and of the novel: They never speak of the necessity of a radical break; they don't consider the formal possibilities of the novel to be exhausted; they only want to radically enlarge them. From this as well there derives another rapport with the novel's past. There is no disdain in these writers for "tradition," but another choice of tradition: they are all fascinated by the novel preceding the nineteenth century. I call this era the first "halftime" of the history of the novel. This era and its aesthetic were almost forgotten, obscured, during the nineteenth century. The "betrayal" of this first half-time deprived the novel of its play essence (so striking in Rabelais, Cervantes, Sterne, Diderot) and diminished the role of what I call "novelistic meditation." Novelistic meditation--let's avoid any misunderstanding here: I'm not thinking of the so-called "philosophical novel" that really means a subordination of the novel to philosophy, the novelistic illustration of ideas. This is Sartre. And even more so Camus. La Peste. This moralizing novel is almost the model of what I don't like. The intent of a Musil or a Broch is entirely different: it is not to serve philosophy but, on the contrary, to get hold of a domain that, until then, philosophy had kept for itself There are metaphysical problems, problems of human existence, that philosophy has never known how to grasp in all their concreteness and that only the novel can seize. This said, these novelists (particularly Broch and Musil) made of the novel a supreme poetic and intellectual synthesis and accorded it a preeminent place in the cultural totality. These authors are relatively little known in America, which I have always considered an intellectual scandal. But really it is a matter of an aesthetic misunderstanding that is quite comprehensible when one considers the particular tradition of the American novel. In the first place, America didn't live through the first half-time of the history of the

novel. In the second, at the same time that the great Central Europeans were writing their masterpieces, America herself had her own great "pleiad," one which would influence the entire world and which was that of Hemingway, Faulkner and Dos Passos. But its aesthetic was entirely opposed to that of a Musil! For example: a meditative intervention of the author into the narrative thread of his novel appears in this aesthetic as a displaced intellectualism, as something foreign to the very essence of the novel. A personal recollection: The New Yorker published the first three parts of The Unbearable Lightness of Being--but they eliminated the passages on Nietzsche's eternal return! Yet, in my eyes, what I say about Nietzsche's eternal return has nothing to do with a philosophic discourse; it is a continuity of paradoxes that are no less novelistic (that is to say, they answer no less to the essence of what the novel is) than a description of the action or a dialogue. LO: Would you say that these writers have influenced you in any concrete way? MK: Influenced me? No. It's something else: I exist under the same aesthetic roof that they do. Not under the roof of a Proust or a Joyce. Not under the roof of a Hemingway (despite all my admiration for him). The writers I'm speaking about weren't influenced by each other either. They didn't even like each other. Broch was very critical of Musil, Musil nasty about Broch, Gombrowicz didn't like Kafka and he never spoke of either Broch or Musil and was himself probably unknown by the three others. Perhaps if they knew that I grouped them together they would be furious with me. And perhaps rightly so. Perhaps I've invented this pleiad to be able to see a roof over my head. LO: How does your concept of Central Europe relate to that of the "Slavic world," of "Slavic culture"? MK: There is, of course, a linguistic unity of the Slavic languages. But there doesn't exist any Slavic cultural unity. "Slavic literature" doesn't exist. If my books were situated in a "Slavic" context, I wouldn't recognize myself. This is an artificial and false context. The Central European context (which, linguistically, is Germano-Slavo-Hungarian) is, for my books, a more accurate context. But even this context will not amount to much if we want to grasp the meaning and value of a novel. I'll never stop repeating that the only context that can reveal the meaning and value of a novelistic work is the context of the history of European novel. LO: You refer constantly to the European novel. Is this to say that for you the American novel is generally less significant? MK: You are right to mention this. It really bothers me to not be able to find the right term. If I say "Western novel," it will be said that I am forgetting the Russian novel. If I say "world novel," I am concealing the fact that the novel I am speaking of is the one historically linked to Europe. That is why I say "European novel"; but I understand this adjective in the Husserlian sense: not as a geographical term, but a "spiritual" one which takes in both America and, for example, Israel. What I call the "European novel" is the

history that goes from Cervantes to Faulkner. LO: It occurs to me that among the writers you are citing as being of greatest importance to the history of the novel, and among those that you cite elsewhere in connection with the development of the novel and its relation to any given cultural history, there are no women. Correct me if I am wrong, but there is never any mention of women writers either in your essays or interviews. Can you explain this? MK: It is the sex of the novels and not that of their authors that must interest us. All great novels, all true novels are bisexual. This is to say that they express both a feminine and a masculine vision of the world. The sex of the authors as physical people is their private affair. LO: All of your novels vividly document the Czech experience. I wonder if you feel able at this point to create a fiction within another socio-historical context, like that of the French, for example, given that you are so at home in Paris. MK: We'll see. For the moment, I will say only this: I lived in Czechoslovakia until I was forty five. Given that my real career as a writer began when I was thirty, I can say that the larger part of my creative life is taking place and will take place in France. I am much more tied to France than is thought. LO: Your Art of the Novel is certainly a fascinating personal testimony. I think that, to a great extent, its appeal is due precisely to the fact that, over and above the insight it offers into the universal dimensions of aesthetic experience, and this is considerable, it offers a very personal theory of the novel. MK: It's not even a theory. It's a confession of a practitioner. Personally, I very much like listening to practitioners of art. Olivier Messiaen's Technique de mon language musical interests me a thousand times more than Adorno's Philosophy of Modern Music. Perhaps I've erred in choosing a title that could, by its generality, evoke a treatise on theoretical ambitions. Aaron Asher, my American editor, proposed a title taken from the last part of the book: Man Thinks, God Laughs. Today I see that that would have been better. But I retained the title The Art of the Novel for a personal, almost sentimental reason: When I was twenty-seven or twenty-eight years old, I wrote a book on a Czech novelist that I deeply cared for, Vladislav Vancura. The book was entitled The Art of the Novel. This book, at once likable (thanks to Vancura) and immature, will never again be reissued and I wanted to at least keep the title as a memory of years past. LO: Finally, do you see any major turning points in the evolution of your thinking on literature, on its relation to the world, to culture, to the individual? Do you see the evolution of your thinking in terms of a strictly linear progression or can you pinpoint any moments of significant change in the development of your aesthetic? MK: Until I was thirty I wrote many things: music, above all, but also poetry and even a play. I was working in many different directions--looking for my voice, my style and

myself. With the first story of Laughable Loves (I wrote it in 1959), I was certain of having "found myself." I became a prose writer, a novelist, and I am nothing else. Since then, my aesthetic has known no transformations; it evolves, to use your word, linearly.

World Literature Assignment 2b


Interview with Milan Kundera

Interviewer: Mr. Kundera, congratulations on your latest work, The Joke, it is truly a magnificent piece of work, where it has touched many people and made them aware of the world that they live in. Kundera: Thank you very much Interviewer: However, there are many requests of people for you to explain to them how the theme betrayal plays such an important role? Kundera: Well basically, betrayal plays such an important role, because it is always constantly going on in the world, even right now as we speak, someone is being/feeling betrayed. Sometimes one feels betrayed so badly, that he sees that there is no reason for him to go on so he commits suicide or starts betraying as well. In the case of Ludvik, he is seen as a traitor in the view of the party, because he wrote: OPTIMISM IS THE OPIUM OF THE PEOPLE! THE HEALTHY ATMOSPHERE STINKS! LONG LIVE TROTSKY. However, the reason he did this, was as a joke and that he was wearing one of these multiple masks that he possesses. Ludvik also feels betrayed, because he sees that the girl he had a crush on (Marketa) betrayed him when she was asked if she thinks that he should still be a member of the university and she replied NO! Also, another person Ludvik feels betrayed by is Pavel Zemanek, who expelled him from the party and the university. The reason the he feels betrayed, is that Ludvik had known Pavel quite well. Another reason why Ludvik feels betrayed by Pavel is that he had promised to back Ludvik up. However during Ludviks interrogation, Pavel certainly did not keep his promise, instead he was attacking Ludvik and ripping his arguments to pieces. So what does Ludvik do, he simply decides to take revenge on those that have ruined his life. He does this for example in the case of Helena where he lies to her and tells her that he loves her, just so that he can have sex with her and so feel avenged from Pavel Zemanek who betrayed him. However, that is not all, because Ludvik also betrayed somebody without knowing it. That someone was his best friend, Jaroslav, by telling him folk music is an extinct type of music that cannot be brought back to life.

We must not also forget that the time this novel was set in was when the communist movement had just started and gained much support by the people. We also must not forget that the movement made many people believe in it, that they were willing to back it up blindly, which is what led to Ludviks feeling of betrayal. Interviewer: You seem to be so sure about betrayal going on in the world. Could we say/conclude that this theme of betrayal that you introduced in the novel is out of your own personal experience, and that you have tried to develop it and show what one feels? Kundera: Well in a sort of way you could, because as I said before, it is always constantly going on in the world. However just because Ludvik seems to resemble me in certain aspects, does not mean that the betrayal Ludvik faces is out of my own personal experiences. On the other hand, you can say that I am putting a bit of my own personal experience, because betrayal can take place in many sorts of ways; such as betrayal of friendship (Ludvik and Jaroslav), or betrayal of the closest people to you like your family in the case of Jaroslav. Interviewer: Could you try to explain to us, what you were trying to achieve, by having multiple narrators? Kundera: What I was trying to do with the aid of multiple narrators was to form an overall view of everyones own personal experience in life about a certain situation and it is intertwined with betrayal, folklore and friendship. I also wanted to show how it is truly a small world, by having everybody being at the ride of the king, (whether they knew it or not), so that at the end of the day everything is well again. This was achieved by writing in different styles. An example of this is when I was writing for Helena, I was writing it in an emotional style, because she is an emotional type of person. Another example is when I was writing for Kostka, I was writing it in a spiritual style, because he is a spiritual type of person. Interviewer: But doesnt the effect of having multiple narrators cause confusion and misunderstanding sometimes, especially when the person that you thought was narrating ends up being introduced by someone else; in which the same event is repeated again?

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Kundera: Yes, it can be a disadvantage, but the advantage is that it creates an overall view from all the characters, about certain events. You could say it creates different perspectives. Interviewer: Despite the tough army experience, the pageantry of ancient folk-rite, the number of sexual encounters and the comical suicide attempt from Helena, can we call it a tragedy?

Kundera: Yes definitely, we can call it a tragic work. The reason for this is that Ludvik (who seems as the protagonist) is brought low by a flaw in his character (which is by having too many masks, which made him lose his true identity). We could say that the reasons that he had too many masks were due to the society, and the way the communist movement changed and affected everybody. Interviewer: What were you trying to achieve with this book? Kundera: I wanted to show that through Ludvik, a more abstract interpretation of the situation since many people were involved in the injustice of the 1950s. I also wanted to make one reach the conclusion of: We must not blame ourselves (humans) for the crimes, but history. The reason for this is because now the joke no longer belongs to Ludvik, but to history, and how can one escape or avoid history? The reason for this is that if you think about it, you will see that history is always repeating itself. This makes the crimes that took place during the 1950s a responsibility of history and not of mankind. Interviewer: Thank you very much Mr. Kundera for sparing us some of your precious time for this interview. Kundera: No problem, I am always there for my audience. Whom without, I would be nothing at all.

Statement of intent:

For this World Literature assignment, I wrote an interview with the author of the novel called The Joke. What I wanted to try to achieve through this assignment, was to try to explain how betrayal is intertwined so much with all the characters, as well as with all the people in the world. I also wanted to try to explain the use of multiple narrators and emphasise how good this technique is. The reason for this is that it creates an overall view of the novel and the theme, which seemed to be the main one (at least for me) betrayal. I also wanted to try to explain that Ludvik\'s acts of betrayal were out of revenge, because he always puts anybody he meets in the situation: whether or not they would have agreed of his expulsion at the party. Another aspect that I wanted to emphasise on was the fact that this novel is a tragedy. The reason for this is that Ludvik is a flawed character as well as having no clear identity. Due to these two facts, Ludvik becomes a tragic hero and therefore the novel becomes a tragedy. The final thing that I also wanted to try to emphasise, was the fact that the title has a much deeper meaning than it suggests, because not only did Ludvik play a joke, history also played a joke. History did this, by repeating itself.

However there are also disadvantages in reading this book. The disadvantage is the fact the book was translated which makes it quiet unreliable. The reason for this is because for all we know some of the passages were translated badly and therefore they altered the meaning of the book. Also maybe due to the translation, my perceptions of the issues are not true or good because they were affected by the translation.