by Perry Meisel
The Art of the Novel. By Milan Kundera. Translated by Linda Asher. 165 pp. New York: Grove Press. $16.95.
Milan Kundera has charmed the world with his sonorous fictions - five novels, a play and a volume of stories - although it is formalist rigor as much as charm that distinguishes his first book of nonfiction, The Art of the Novel. A collection of five essays and two dialogues published over the last decade, The Art of the Novel recommends self-effacement as a precept of writing and dooms purveyors of dogma in either literature or criticism. Whatever moral arrangements the Czechoslovak subjects of his narratives might suggest to us, Mr. Kundera as critic is little inclined to dwell upon them. Instead, he dispassionately explains - and with singular instructiveness, as he ranges from Cervantes and Richardson to Kafka, Joyce and Hermann Broch -how novels are made and why; how the novel and its history constitute a specific form of knowledge not to be confused with philosophy, politics or psychology; and why novels are and should be written at all. Linda Asher's translation from the French deftly conveys the lucidity of Mr. Kundera's prose.
The emphasis on the formal aspects of fiction in The Art of the Novel is accompanied by an overt disavowal of any political agenda. Disingenuous as such a claim may sound coming from an Eastern European writer living in exile in Paris, it is nonetheless the first of three working principles in The Art of the Novel. Mr. Kundera bases it on his belief in ''the radical autonomy of the novel'' as a form, as he puts it in his essay on Kafka, ''Somewhere Behind.''
The second principle is derived from the first, and it is the rejection of kitsch. Not simply bad or laughable art, kitsch is, in Mr. Kundera's definition from ''Sixty-three Words'' (his dictionary of the terms and categories that organize his imagination), ''the need to gaze into the mirror of the beautifying lie and to be moved to tears of gratification at one's own reflection.''
Mr. Kundera's most recent novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, gives us examples of Communist kitsch, American kitsch, fascist kitsch, feminist kitsch - even artistic kitsch. The ''Jerusalem Address'' in The Art of the Novel bluntly describes the last as ''the translation of the stupidity of received ideas into the language of beauty and feeling.'' The ''either-or'' mentality of kitsch, as Mr. Kundera phrases it in ''The Depreciated Legacy of Cervantes,'' is, in the final analysis, the result of ''an inability to tolerate the essential relativity of things human, an inability to look squarely at the absence of the Supreme Judge.''
Hence the novel's distinctive value as a form. Good novels are not kitsch because they do not take sides in the situations they imagine. The point is perfectly documented in Mr. Kundera's own fiction, and especially in his frequent satirizing of the well-intentioned delusions of Communists and Western individualists alike.
One antidote to kitsch is to write novels according to Mr. Kundera's third principle - what he refers to throughout The Art of the Novel as ''novelistic counterpoint'' or ''polyphony.'' ''Counterpoint,'' or ''polyphony,'' is, strictly speaking, the play among different kinds of writing - essay, dream, narrative - in a single text. Mr. Kundera's own version of counterpoint, however, has a temporal dimension, in contrast to some of his relatively static models, such as Broch's neglected masterpiece of 1930-32, The Sleepwalkers. The technique also has its roots deep in the history of the novel. With Cervantes, Mr. Kundera argues, the novel discovered multiple perspective; with Richardson, he argues again in ''Dialogue on the Art of the Novel,'' it discovered the ''interior life.'' To these formal discoveries, Mr. Kundera has himself added ''chronologic displacement,'' a term he coins in the book's richest piece, ''Dialogue on the Art of Composition.''
By means of ''chronologic displacement,'' the novelist can tell crossing or intersecting stories, not only from the alternating perspectives of the relevant characters, but in staggered chronology as well. The yield of this technical innovation is emotionally astonishing. It enlarges the reader's vision by producing resonances and relations among a series of lives that no one individual is in a position to apprehend. Mr. Kundera's polyphonic novels provide this mode of seeing, what he calls a ''suprapersonal wisdom.''
The Joke, Mr. Kundera's first novel, is a polyphonic tour de farce, although the last two sections of The Unbearable Lightness of Being are probably the most remarkable illustration of polyphony in his work. There the deaths of Tomas and Tereza are mentioned in passing in the novel's sixth section, which is told from the point of view of the novel's other lovers, Franz and Sabina; the seventh section goes back in time to tell the story of Tomas and Tereza's happy retreat to the Bohemian countryside, stopping just short of the accident that takes their lives. Our foreknowledge of their end - and the novel's refusal to allow us to witness it - is unashamedly compelling.
Mr. Kundera's polyphonic novels are, among other things, nothing less than strategies for surmounting one's sense of entrapment in events outside one's control or even awareness - thus the enormous importance he places on Kafka in ''Somewhere Behind'' and ''Notes Inspired by 'The Sleepwalkers.' '' The quality of the ''Kafkan,'' as Mr. Kundera calls it, is the best precedent for understanding his own fictional world, since it provides an uncannily elegant rehearsal of life as it has recently become in Kafka's very own Prague - that is, Mr. Kundera's.
While it is traditional to view Kafka as an absurdist, for Mr. Kundera such a view is mistaken. To him, Kafka does not represent the breakdown of writing, but a possibility of real existence on which the novel can draw. The Kafkan is an acute sense of ''the trap the world has become.'' It even pressures Mr. Kundera's prose into epigrammatic concision, as though, like Kafka's Joseph K., he were running out of time: ''The world according to Kafka: the bureaucratized universe. The office not merely as one kind of social phenomenon among many but as the essence of the world.'' In fact, Mr. Kundera implies the Kafkan is the characteristic state of the West as well as the East. Unlike the obvious coerciveness of the ''police apparatus,'' however, Western bureaucratization uses milder, more covert ideological instruments such as ''the mass media apparatus.''
To see Mr. Kundera in the light of this reading of Kafka makes it clear why his essays promise a future for the novel. Instead of tracing novelistic invention by way of the exhausted legacy of Joyce (or ''establishment modernism''), Mr. Kundera, through his heightened sense of the Kafkan, suggests that the novel still has unlimited sources of inquiry in the ''bureaucratic''; it also has great power, by virtue of the formal devices available to it, over the sense of confinement bureaucracies and kitsch engender. Mr. Kundera transforms the Kafkan by locating its vision in decidedly realist settings, and by imagining a means of ''suprapersonal'' escape from the claustrophobic universe common to East and West alike.
Originally published in The New York Times Book Review, April 10, 1988