Readers of Milan Kundera's new argument about the interpretive abuses committed against modern art--principally the novel, but also music--will find that it bears a structural and vocal resemblance to his best-known novel, "The Unbearable Lightness of Being." Just as in that novel he felt no hesitation about repeating certain events from different narrative standpoints ("When Tereza unexpectedly came to visit Tomas in Prague, he made love to her, as I pointed out in Part One, that very day . . ."), in this "essay in nine parts," Kundera keeps returning to the same themes from different angles of attack. We are again listening to the voice of an enthusiastic teacher, combative and epigrammatic, who will even begin sentences with a slyly companionable sigh: "Ah, it's so easy to disobey a dead person."
While reading Kundera fiction, one is at first inclined to view the blend of storytelling and didacticism, of made-up event and commentary, as belonging to the 19th Century, but "Testaments Betrayed" convinces us that an even older fiction commands his heart and instructs his technique. Kundera's imagination resides less with Dickens and Tolstoy than with the comic epics of Cervantes, Rabelais and Fielding: "Their freedom of composition set me dreaming: of writing without fabricating suspense, without constructing a plot and working up its plausibility, of writing without describing a period, a milieu, a city. . . . The novelist would never be forced--for the sake of form and its dictates--to stray by even a single line from what he cares about, what fascinates him."
He prefers the humor and moral ambiguity of these novelists and their modern heirs (Kafka, Fuentes, Rushdie) to the opinionated sentimentality of Dickens or the grinding naturalism of Zola. So loudly does he decry ideological writing and reading--"I have always deeply, violently, detested those who look for a position (political, philosophical, religious, whatever) in a work of art"--and so clearly does he regard curiosity as the chief thing a novel should teach, that one realizes he would not consider some of one's own cherished moralizers (let's say George Eliot) to be novelists at all: "Suspending moral judgment is not the immorality of the novel; it is its morality."
He is equally averse to lyricism. It is too connected to the cheap emotions of totalitarian sloganeering: "That world is not the gulag as such; it's a gulag that has poems plastering its outside walls and people dancing before them." Readers of "The Unbearable Lightness" will recall its narrator's denunciation of reductive, faith-based art: "Kitsch is the aesthetic ideal of all politicians and all political parties and movements. . . . Since opinions vary, there are various kitsches: Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, communist, fascist, democratic, feminist, European, American, national, international." In "Testaments Betrayed," Kundera can oppose even a classic of anti-totalitarianism for falling into the totalitarian trap: "The pernicious influence of Orwell's novel ['1984'] resides in its implacable reduction of a reality to its political dimension alone."
Socialist realism was the particular kitsch fed to the young Kundera in Soviet-dominated Czechoslovakia. His revulsion from it made possible his own imaginative fiction as well as his alertness to culture's current schizophrenia. We are Puritans wallowing in trash, in thrall to both politically correct thinking and out-of-control behavior, and no writer has better captured the contradiction than Kundera does in Part 8 of his essay, "Paths in the Fog": "While freedom of thought--freedom of words, of attitudes, of jokes, of reflection, of dangerous ideas, of intellectual provocations--shrinks, under surveillance as it is by the vigilance of the tribunal of general conformism, the freedom of drives grows even greater. They are preaching severity against sins of thought; they are preaching forgiveness for crimes committed in emotional ecstasy."
After their creative woes, the novelist and composer endure mistreatment (well-intentioned or otherwise) by posterity. Kundera is buoyantly belligerent about the "sublime stupidity" of the editor who nearly destroyed Kafka in order to save him: Max Brod began the posthumous process by which Kafka's art was reduced to mere expression of ideology or neurosis: "The author whom readers know by the name Kafka is no longer Kafka but the Kafkologized Kafka." Part 4 ("A Sentence") of "Testaments Betrayed" is a detailed look at how that author has suffered at the hands of overly lyrical translators who mistake deliberate repetitions for clumsiness.
Kundera reserves a special, delicious scorn for literary biographers, those popular parasites who wind up being more widely read than the writers they write about. They "know nothing about the intimate sex lives of their own wives, but they think they know all about Stendhal's or Faulkner's." His demolition of Jeffrey Meyers' reading of the Hemingway story "Hills Like White Elephants" is as funny as it is brutal.
As Kundera sees it, aesthetic considerations have been swept aside not only by cheaper and easier forms of explication (the moralistic, the autobiographical) but also by academic mentality that insists, in the name of art, upon excavating every last scrap of a writer's work, no matter how strongly that writer wished to see it remain unpublished or even preserved. There is an inverse repression at work here--"publishing what the author deleted is the same act of rape as censoring what he decided to retain"--and Kundera launches his book's most impassioned jeremiad against it.
With its respect for authorial intentions and historical context, "Testaments Betrayed" adds up to a powerful attack upon deconstruction and other fashionable university cults. The author admits to a hatred of all history but the aesthetic kind, the evolution of genres that come about from individual artists being forced to respond to "the ever new historical situations" imposed upon them. History itself may be a bloody, unappealing business, but the history of art is a crafty, even heroic matter; it is folly for critics--let alone artists--to think that art can flourish by ignoring it. "To my mind," writes Kundera, "great works can only be born within the history of their art and as participants in that history." Even those pre-19th-Century novels he so loves had their roots in verse epics. An emigre himself, Kundera writes that Igor Stravinsky's "only home . . . was music, all of music by all musicians, the very history of music. . . . There he ultimately found his only compatriots, his only intimates, his only neighbors, from Perotin to Webern: It is with them that he began a long conversation, which ended only with his death."
Kundera is hardly free from wrongheadedness; forgiving Ezra Pound his political sins because of his artistic achievements is only another sort of kitsch, an aesthetic one. He can also contradict himself. In "The Unbearable Lightness" he insisted that "Human life occurs only once, and the reason we cannot determine which of our decisions are good and which bad is that in a given situation we can make only one decision: We are not granted a second, third or fourth life in which to compare various decisions." Now, in "Testaments Betrayed," he argues that "the individual cannot do otherwise than imitate what has already happened; sincere as he may be, he is only a reincarnation." Still, fluidity and contradiction are Kundera's earned professional prerogatives. He took up writing fiction because it offered him a "furious non-identification" with any ideology, religion or mass-produced outlook. He survived his nation's history by embracing his genre's. Asked, "Are you a Communist, Mr. Kundera?," he long ago replied, "No, I'm a novelist."