TESTAMENTS BETRAYED An Essay in Nine Parts By MilanKundera Translated by Linda Asher. 280 pages. HarperCollins. $24.
One of the points that the Czech novelist MilanKundera insists on most strenuously in his stimulating new nonfiction work, "Testaments Betrayed: An Essay in Nine Parts," is Nietzsche's injunction that we should neither "corrupt the actual way our thoughts come to us" nor, in Mr. Kundera's paraphrase, "turn one's ideas into a system."
So instead of summing up what Mr. Kundera has to say in "Testaments Betrayed," one should begin by emphasizing that it is improvisational criticism. It treats many of the same subjects the author took up in his earlier work of criticism, "The Art of the Novel" (which was also written in French), that is, the autonomy of art, the importance of modernism and the pre-eminence of such modern artists as Stravinsky, Kafka, Robert Musil, Hermann Broch, Witold Gombrowicz and the Czech composer Leos Janacek ("The Cunning Little Vixen," "From the House of the Dead"). But it plays with them almost musically, in keeping with the author's childhood training as a pianist.
Indeed, the chapter with the most virtuosity is "Part Three: Improvisation in Homage to Stravinsky." Here Mr. Kundera is at play in the field of esthetics, describing a feeling he "cannot shake" that both music and the novel in Europe "developed in rhythms resembling, so to speak, two halves of a soccer game."
He explains: "The caesuras, or halftime breaks . . . do not coincide. In the history of music, the break stretches over a big part of the 18th century (the symbolic apogee of the first half occurring in Bach's 'The Art of the Fugue,' and the start of second half in the works of the earliest Classical composers); the break in the history of the novel comes a little later: between the 18th and the 19th centuries -- that is, between Laclos and Sterne on the one side and, on the other, Scott and Balzac."
One of the points he is getting at here is that modernism has been a "third (or overtime) period," in which the greatest works of fiction have tried to rehabilitate the first half by, among other things, refusing "any obligation to give the reader the illusion of reality: an obligation that reigned supreme throughout the novel's second half." One way modernists have done this has been through what Mr. Kundera calls "playful transcription." Kafka, in his novel "Amerika," rewrote Dickens. Mr. Kundera, in his play "Jacques and His Master," rewrote Diderot. Stravinsky playfully transcribed the entire history of music and made it his home.
In such a manner, Mr. Kundera circles and digresses, continually surprising the reader with unexpected connections. What may sound leaden in summary is effervescent in the reading. Still, one must summarize to convey what he is driving at. As we learn in the final essay, the title of this book refers specifically to Max Brod's betrayal of Kafka's reputed request that his writing be destroyed after his death, although in fact, as Mr. Kundera points out, Kafka's testament mentioned only certain of his writings. In Mr. Kundera's view, Brod betrayed Kafka further by creating the myth of the suffering saint whose novels describe, in Brod's words, "the horrible punishments in store for those who . . . do not follow the paths of righteousness."
Yet Mr. Kundera's title also refers to the many diverse things that can betray art as a testament. He includes, for instance, the translators who have failed to respect Kafka's use of word repetition and who insist on showing off their skills by exercising "the synonymizing reflex -- a reflex of nearly all translators." He includes critics who in reading works of literature drag in irrelevant judgments of their authors. He means readers in general "who look for a position (political, philosophical, religious, whatever) in a work of art rather than searching it for an effort to know, to understand, to grasp this or that aspect of reality." Anything that violates the autonomy of art.
The excitement of reading Mr. Kundera is that he unpredictably touches down almost everywhere, on rock music and on how characters are defined in fiction, on the nature of Josef K.'s guilt in "The Trial" and on Chopin's attraction to shorter forms. Best of all, his sallies lead to fresh readings of such diverse writers as Rabelais, Cervantes, Tolstoy, Mann, Hemingway, Faulkner, Musil, Kafka and Salman Rushdie.
Certain of his points may seem provocative. He defends the right of artists to explore the horrifying or profane, as Stravinsky does in "Le Sacre du Printemps" or as Mr. Rushdie does in "The Satanic Verses." He calls a roll of those "great artists of the century" who became what he calls defendants: Celine, Marinetti, Pound, Brecht, among many others. He asks, "How is it possible that the Soviet Russian chauvinist, the maker of versified propaganda, he whom Stalin himself called 'the greatest poet of our epoch' -- how is it possible that Mayakovsky is nevertheless a tremendous poet, one of the greatest?"
Yet his concern is not so much with the freedom of artists as with the autonomy of what they create. In considering the threats to freedom in our time, he eventually arrives at the idea of shame. "Shame is one of the key notions of the Modern Era," he writes, "the individualistic period that is imperceptibly receding from us these days; shame: an epidermal instinct to defend one's personal life; to require a curtain over the window; to insist that a letter addressed to A not be read by B."
Again, this brings him back to Kafka: his right to have had certain of his papers destroyed, but more important the experience of Josef K. in "The Trial." Mr. Kundera, clearing away more of the detritus that Max Brod piled on Kafka's work, calls this experience essentially one of shame. " 'Like a dog!' " Mr. Kundera quotes K. as saying when he is dying of his stab wound; "it was as if the shame of it must outlive him." Mr. Kundera comments: "The last noun in 'The Trial': 'shame.' Its last image: the faces of two strangers, close by his own face, almost touching it, watching K.'s most intimate state, his death throes. In that last noun, in that last image, is concentrated the entire novel's fundamental situation. . . . This transformation of a man from subject to object is experienced as shame."
As Mr. Kundera sees it, shameful objectification is what threatens all of us in the near future. But his playful optimism fights back. As he illustrates so expressively in "Testaments Betrayed," the weapon of fiction is there to defend us. So long as we don't betray it.
Testaments Betrayed: An Essay in Nine Parts
Release date: 09/01/1995