Unbearable stardom

Profile - Adam Thirwell on Milan Kundera's escape from moral chic

"Stardom", wrote the critic Louis Menand in the New Yorker, "is the intersection of personality with history, a perfect congruence of the way the world happens to be and the way the star is." It is the period in the long career of a star of "inevitability", when the star cannot fail the public, because all the public wants is that star. But the "Iron Law of Stardom" means that "stardom cannot extend for a period greater than three years". You go on being a star, but your stardom is over.

Milan Kundera's stardom in Britain is easily located. In 1984, he published The Unbearable Lightness of Being. In 1986, he brought out The Art of the Novel (English translation, 1988). There it was - his stardom: an existential novel with its European theory. Kundera's stardom, though, came through misinterpretation. He was misread as the sexy dissident in exile. He exuded moral chic - witness Granta's blurb to its Kundera issue in spring 1984: "What is Milan Kundera's work about? Sexual conquest and Russian tanks, arousal and totalitarian repression, infidelity and political betrayal, desire and the quiet tragedy of Europe."

Five books later, his stardom has died away. Instead, Kundera is a great novelist - precisely because he is incongruent with history. His novels are exemplary for their opposition to the mass abstractions of history and politics. History, for Kundera, is retrospective partial judgement. It is not objective, it is inseparable from the strategies of politics. The novel's aesthetic, however, is committed to accuracy. It suspends readers in the present moment. "The meaning of an art's history is opposed to the meaning of history itself," Kundera writes in Testaments Betrayed. "Because of its personal nature, the history of an art is a revenge by man against the impersonality of the history of humanity." There is no grand universal narrative. There are only narratives: constructed, opposing, complicating.

Charmingly frivolous, Louis Menand states that even T S Eliot is "tied to the same law as Hugh Grant, Arsenio Hall and Meat Loaf". But there is an opposite to stardom: beauty. Stardom signifies fashion, the vagaries of ideology. Whereas beauty signifies value. And value is permanent. Value is aesthetic. History, then, creates stardom. The history of an art creates beauty. We should not confuse the two, but instead acknowledge Kundera's permanent innovations, now that Faber is reviving his stardom by reissuing his novels with new covers designed by Kundera himself.

Born in 1929 in Brno, Czechoslovakia, gradually censored to the point of a total ban by the Communists, Kundera left to live in France in 1975, teaching first in Rennes and then Paris. He was co-opted to the type of the noble exile, synonymous with moral gravitas. Exile is a concept automatically tainted with a sense of sentimental melodrama. Kundera's own sceptical analysis of exile, however, forms part of his aesthetic project, part of the novel's investigation - beginning with Cervantes's Don Quixote - of emotion and, in particular, of emotion's history of self-deception.

His early novel Life is Elsewhere was completed in Czechoslovakia in 1969, first published in French in 1973, translated into English in 1986 (and now republished in a new translation, in collaboration with Kundera, by Aaron Asher). It tells the story of Jaromil, a poet, of his revolutionary fervour, his love affairs, his mother, his death from pneumonia. In its sidelines, it also tells the story of Lermontov and Rimbaud, of Shelley and Mayakovsky. Through this multiple perspective it analyses the words "lyric" and "revolution" and "youth". The novel's original title was The Lyric Age. This is Kundera's first innovation: narrative becomes a hybrid machine for the dissection of concepts. It ironises concepts. Kundera exploits what he calls "a conspiracy of details". Details conspire against ideas. Ideas, as it were, are the stories people invent to explain themselves, enhance themselves - in retrospect. In Kundera's novel, kitsch abstractions of the characters are brought into conflict with detail.

For instance: Jaromil the poet is about to be left alone by an "old poet" with a beautiful, lusting woman. Kundera the narrator pauses indulgently: "The story of two people who are on the verge of becoming lovers is so eternal that we can almost forget the era in which it is taking place." But in "Jaromil's country in [that] era", men's underwear consisted of "wide shorts that came down to the knees and had the amenity of a comical opening at the crotch". Jaromil, consequently, "wore a pair of hideously ugly, bulky, threadbare, dirty gray undershorts". He is too embarrassed to strip: "Looking at the wonderful dark eyes, his heart breaking, he retreated toward the door." He leaves with the "old poet", lying that "he loved his girlfriend, who was madly in love with him". Instead of the comic truth, a lofty fidelity.

Then the poet knelt before Jaromil on the cobblestones and kissed his hand: "My friend, I pay homage to your youth! My age pays homage to your youth, because only youth will save the world!" He was silent for a moment, and then, his bare head touching Jaromil's knees, he added in a very melancholy voice: "And I pay homage to your great love."

"Great love": in reality, a way of disguising embarrassment, and a maudlin consolation for old age. But such deflationary definitions are - crucially - provisional. Characters and concepts are never static in Kundera's novels. They are predicated on irony - the capacity for contradiction, refusal of intellectual stability. Kundera isn't fazed by the necessary contradictory aesthetics. Life is Elsewhere is imbued with formal promiscuity, moving between the lyric, the essay, the narrative and dialogue. It ends with Jaromil's death which, in Kundera's version, is written in an ironic prose poetry, at once poignant and touched with comedy:

" . . . he thought he was stretched out over a well and seeing the reflection of his own image.

"No, no sign of fire. He was going to die by water.

"He looked at his face on the surface of the water. Suddenly he saw great fear on that face. And that was the last thing he saw."

We are, of course, moved. But Kundera also wants us to be darkly amused. After a life of inextinguishable self-regard, the face Jaromil mistakes for his own reflection is his mother's face leaning over him, his imminent death refracted in her facial expression, its fear. Kundera is careful to include Jaromil's lifelong narcissism as part of his tragically young death. Irony in Kundera does not mean that the characters are wrong: it means that nothing is ever true.

Kundera's talent, therefore, is for ambiguity. He is happy for ambiguity to relax into contradiction. Kundera the narrator backtracks, interpolates, teases, apologises. His greatness as a novelist is consonant with his greatness as an essayist. His essays are exceptional for their moral accuracy. Testaments Betrayed is perhaps his greatest work so far - because it is elegantly at odds with itself, benignly restless. Published here in 1996, it is "an essay in nine parts": an essay that develops themes, in which themes take over as characters. It defends the novel as "a realm where moral judgment is suspended". The novel provides instead an alternative morality of form.

The novel refuses systematic thought. Then follows a characteristic Kunderan counter-move. A "person who thinks is automatically prompted to systematise; it is his eternal temptation (mine too, even in writing this book)". Kundera's solution is the agility of relativity. His prose works through juxtaposition. He offers this anecdote about a Jewish composer, later sent to the concentration camp Theresienstadt, who taught Kundera musical composition:

"[S]eeing me out after a lesson, he stopped by the door and suddenly said to me: "There are many surprisingly weak passages in Beethoven. But it is the weak passages that bring out the strong ones. It's like a lawn - if it weren't there, we couldn't enjoy the beautiful tree growing on it."

Kundera adds simply: "that brief remark . . . has haunted me all my life". What does it mean - this "image of a man who, a while before his hideous journey [to Theresienstadt], stood thinking aloud, in front of a child, about the problem of composing a work of art"? On the one hand, the aesthetic is affirmed as a transcendent value. On the other, history - Theresienstadt - manifestly wasn't transcended. Contradiction constantly emerges.

Art has to be prised away from politics. It is not naturally separate. "Beauty is difficult," as Ezra Pound wrote. The self is constantly domesticated, compromised. It is a tussle that ramifies, lastly, in one of his best novels, Slowness, written in French and published in 1995, translated by Linda Asher in 1996. It is his shortest novel - 131 pages. It presents stories within stories that one gradually realises are happening concurrently. And this overlapping functions minutely. Just as stories embed stories, events embed consequences, constant ironic reversals.

One story concerns an entomology conference. Milling around before it starts, we find a dissident Czech scientist, a survivor of the regime who, post-velvet revolution, is able to study again. The first complication ensues: his "research" is irrevocably out of date. Then this moral example is ignored - his name misspelt, without its proper accents. "A melancholy pride: this would describe the Czech scientist." He becomes a figure of moral pathos. Then comes the next reversal. The reader discovers that his dissidence was not moral. He agreed to a request of "a dozen notorious opponents of the regime" out of "timorousness". It is only in retrospect, historically, that he has become proud; that he has come to see his action as "a voluntary, free act, the expression of his personal revolt against the hated regime". He has reconstructed himself in compliance with a cliched narrative, the innate nobility of the oppressed.

So now, as he prepares to deliver his paper to the conference, he is sincerely touched by his new freedom. He gives a moving speech of thanks. And again Kundera recomplicates. The scientist feels himself about to cry, hesitates, then "says to himself, why not let go for once: these people should feel honoured by his emotion, which he proffers them like a little gift from Prague". He revels in the moral grandeur of historical accident, offers a sample of communist chic. Which, in turn, complicates matters for the conference delegates, unsure how long they should applaud this impromptu, half-absurd display of emotion. And then the scientist sits down. The conference looks suddenly uncomfortable. He has forgotten to deliver his paper.

"Whatever aspects of existence the novel discovers," Kundera writes in The Art of the Novel, "it discovers as the beautiful." He discovers hypocrisy, discovers it as beautiful. He gives it its form. The novel's intricate plotting derives from farce. Its multiple stories converge on each other within about 12 hours. Each character is trapped into deflation. (He is a great comic novelist.) Slowness epitomises the marriage of moral and formal flair in Kundera - who is, perhaps, not so much a star as a virtuoso.

Milan Kundera's The Joke, Immortality, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Life is Elsewhere and Laughable Loves have recently been reissued by Faber & Faber

This article first appeared in the 23 October 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Why Brown should hold his nerve