Milan Kundera & the Unbearable Lightness of Wankery

The 9 Oct New Yorker features an article by Milan Kundera called “What is a Novelist: How great writers are made”. And, um, I really, really hope it was written with tongue firmly in cheek cause otherwise these are the pearls of wisdom Mr Kundera offers:

    Novelists are like lyric poets except that youth is the lyrical age and novelists are old.

    To be a novelist you must tear away your lyrical chyrsalis.

    We are always wearing make-up.

    The novelist must tear through the curtain of pre-interpretation.

    Girl characters are actually based on boy characters.

    Readers don’t read novels they read themselves reading novels.

    We must all embrace the Whole.

    Beat your grandmother.

To which I can only say, “Innit!”1

  1. “Innit” is the one word in the entire world that has the magical property of instantly undoing the pretentiousness of anything previously said. I imagine Mr Kundera must have to use it A LOT. []


  1. Alexandra on #

    Jesus, who writes this pretentious shit?

  2. Justine on #

    Mr Kundera does. I’m sad there’s no link to the actual article. It has to be read to be believed.

    Perhaps it really is a joke.

  3. Dave Schwartz on #

    I can’t say I’m surprised. I enjoyed Unbearable Lightness, but Immortality was nothing BUT wank.

  4. Christopher Barzak on #

    I can’t help but imagine it’s intentionally absurd. I mean, really. I don’t think Kundera would write, “Beat your grandmother,” and mean it. The rest also sounds suspiciously aimed at getting a chuckle.

    I enjoyed The Unbearable Lightness of Being, too, but haven’t read Immortality yet, though Nathan Ballingrud just recommended it to me. I hope the wank isn’t too wanky. Err, you know what I mean. 😉

  5. marrije on #

    my internet friend maciej has a healthy dislike of old kundera, and makes me giggle.

  6. David Moles on #

    I dunno, I still think The Art of the Novel was pretty good.

    Though I also think when Kundera says “novel” he means something a lot more specific than most of us do.

  7. David Moles on #

    (Marrije, thanks for the link — hilarious! It’d be worth it for the “Also replaces” alone.)

  8. marrije on #

    david moles, maciej’s whole blog is great. i think he should write books – he sticks to this weird notion that he should paint in stead. silly man 🙂

  9. Justine on #

    I adored Kundera when I was kid (slightly after my Flowers in the Attic stage). The book that did it for me was Life is Elsewhere which spoke to this Aussie girl who at the time wanted to be anywhere but Australia. It’s way better than Lightness or Immortality.

    Chris: It’s either a joke that isn’t funny or it’s a wank. The article’s main sin is that it’s really really really boring as well as nonsensical. Just to be clear though what I wrote isn’t quotes but mocking paraphrase.

    Marrije: That’s awesome! Tell your friend I must shake his hand.

    Moles: Do me a favour and read the article then you’ll see what I mean. C’mon, I have a phd in semiotics it’s not like I am against profound thought on any number of topics, innit. This article reads like he got drunk and then just typed and thought it’d be a lark if he could get the New Yorker to publish his random typery.

    When he says “novelist” he appears to mean a handful of dead white guys. Some of whom I admire excessively and yet not striking me as a very useful deployment of the term.

  10. Lauren on #

    Wow. That sounds like the dumbest pile of wank I’ve never read. Thanks for the warning, Justine.

  11. Blondie on #

    Hrm. Perhaps the same person who works the subtitle machine for Japanese monster movies moonlights as Kundera’s translator? If not, then I am truly bummed.

  12. matthew on #

    justine, i’ve just stumbled across your blog today. i thoroughly enjoy what i’ve read so far, though i do have to express rather stark disagreement with this post. you seem smarter than someone who would so simplify the thrust of kundera’s essay in order to mock it.

    it seems to me kundera is merely presenting a type for the novelist. the age of 30 is simply a rather arbitrary age at which kundera feels authors are likely, having already hit a stride of sorts, outrun their lyric ideals. he is defining the novel as a medium through which authors discard a pre-interpreted view reality and install a fresh vantage point in its place. the reader is naturally forced by such writing to see the world in a new way, to see other people in a new way, and by extension see him/herself in a new way. surely this is not so much “wank” as you seem to think…

    all silliness aside, do think about writing what you actually think about the essay, because you cannot possibly believe that kundera wants anyone to beat their grandmother 🙂

    all that aside, i honestly love the humor in your writing – you’ve got a style the intelligence of which much of what one finds in the blogosphere does not begin to attain. i will certainly be back here again.

  13. Justine on #

    Matthew: I’m very pleased you’re enjoying my blog. Music to my ears.

    We’re going to have to agree to not agree on the Kundera piece though. Yes, I’m aware he’s not advocating grandmother beating, but that piece was no more coherent nor less banal than my parody of it. I read it a bunch of times and it did not improve on re-reading. I’m still hoping it was a joke or a bad translation.

    Fortunately, I don’t hold bad critical writing against primarily fiction writers (or vice versa). If I did I’d have to stop reading some of my favourite novelists. (Nope, I’m not going to name them!) Life is Elsewhere will always be important to me.

  14. matthew on #

    “We’re going to have to agree to not agree on the Kundera piece though.”

    sounds like a plan, stan.

    seriously, keep up the wonderfully sharp posting, justine. you do that, and i’ll try to always wear something presentable when i read your blog 🙂

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