May 30, 2008

The Existential Situation (More Kundera)

Can't get enough of this guy. Has to be one of the best books on writing I've ever read. Note to self: read his actual novels--and be shamed.

According to Kundera, the protagonist's fundamental existential situation unfolds as follows:
1) Man acts BUT...
2) His action slip out of control, ceases to obey him. THEREFORE...
3) He does his utmost to subdue and capture the disobedient act, BUT IN VAIN.
4) Once out of our hands, out of our control, an act can never be recovered.

Place this in context with your typical three-act screenplay, or the expected character arc of a protagonist (or antagonist--any significant character really) and the result is a texture not always present in contemporary writing. The resolution seems not to lie in "correcting a wrong" but in dealing with the consequences of the human condition. It is imperative to bring these to light. If I understand Kundera correctly, he implies that great novels require this lack of recovery. They reveal something deeply human about that futile scramble to regain control. And this does not have to mimic the "real world" per se.

"A novel examines not reality but existence. And existence is not what has occurred, existence is the realm of human possibilities, everything that man can become, everything he's capable of. But again, to exist means: 'being in the world'. Thus both the character and his world must be understood as possibilities."

In other words, reality is secondary in importance to the creation of "possible".

Easier said than done, yes?

7 comments:

harpoon said...

Unbearable Lightness of Being has been my fave book for yonks now. He's a genius, strangely underrated though.

Harry Tournemille said...

Yeah, that's the one I want to read. I hear the film is pretty damn good too.

harpoon said...

film is so-so, I have it somewhere. Walter Murch cut it but it's more Talented Mr Ripley in its pace than Apocalypse Now.

ULOB is so good, there's bits I would write in a separate notebook to separate from the context of the book to think about. It's boss.

Harry Tournemille said...

That sounds similar to what I'm reading now. I keep jotting down things, to ruminate over, and subsequently blog about. The man is genius. He doesn't get into the whole "creative process" kitsch, but tackles what's at the heart of the great novel, what makes it uniquely human.

Sam said...

The Joke was amazing.

Keith said...

Book of Laughter and Forgetting is another great...
Here in Czech he is begrudgingly respected with literary awards but more often he is the author they love to hate. He was a communist party member, then kicked out (The Joke), then he rejoined, and then left the country without continuing the artistic dissidence of the Prague Spring (like Vaclav Havel did). I think the final insult for Czechs is that he started and continued to write in French even after communism fell and he was free to come back (some themes of which are touched on in Ignorance). Many of his books aren't even available in his native language.

When I read his books, I see so much more depth to his characters now after living with the Czech psyche and understanding more of what makes a Czech a Czech. Czechs are incredibly complex so my question is this - how can a reader get the full intent of the author without understanding where that author and his characters are coming from? Especially when the characters shouldn’t be “some universal principle for all of humanity” as you mentioned in the previous post…?

Harry Tournemille said...

Superior question, Keefer. My gut response is to say one can't really ever "get the full intent" as you put it. That sort of understanding is ongoing, never fully realized. I think Kundera's universal principle comment is sort of related to this. Weak writing boils down to the reiteration of universal cliche--which to Kundera could mean the death of the novel.

It makes sense that you'd understand more than the average joe, given your immersion in Czech culture. I think it's the same way with foreign films with English subtitles. We understand the immediate, the necessity of the situation. But something gets lost in the translation as well, in that gap between languages (and in this case cultures).