Kundera, Milan: Europe and the Novel

Speech delivered on the receipt of the Jerusalem Prize at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in the spring of 1985. Reprinted in The Art of the Novel, London, Faber & Faber, 1988.

kunderaThat Israel’s most important prize is awarded to international literature is not, to my mind, a matter of chance but of a long tradition. Indeed, exiled from their land of origin and thus lifted above nationalist passions, the great Jewish figures have always shown an exceptional feeling for a supranational Europe – a Europe conceived not as territory but as culture. If the Jews, even after Europe so tragically failed them, nonetheless kept faith with that European cosmopolitanism, Israel, their little homeland finally regained, strikes me as the true heart of Europe – a peculiar heart located outside the body.

It is with profound emotion that I receive today the prize that bears the name of Jerusalem and the mark of that great cosmopolitan Jewish spirit. It is as a novelist that I accept it. I say novelist, not writer. The novelist is one who, according to Flaubert, seeks to disappear behind his work. To disappear behind his work, that is, to renounce the role of public figure. This is not easy these days, when anything of the slightest importance must step into the intolerable glare of the mass media, which, contrary to Flaubert’s precept, cause the work to disappear behind the image of its author. In such a situation, which no one can entirely escape, Flaubert’s remark seems to me a kind of warning: in lending himself to the role of public figure, the novelist endangers his work; it risks being considered a mere appendage to his actions, to his declarations, to his statements of position. Now, not only is the novelist nobody’s spokesman, but I would go so far as to say he is not even the spokesman for his own ideas. When Tolstoy sketched the first draft of Anna Karenina, Anna was a most unsympathetic woman, and her tragic end was entirely deserved and justified. The final version of the novel is very different, but I do not believe that Tolstoy had revised his moral ideas in the meantime; I would say, rather, that in the course of writing, he was listening to another voice than that of his personal moral conviction. He was listening to what I would like to call the wisdom of the novel. Every true novelist listens for that suprapersonal wisdom, which explains why great novels are always a little more intelligent than their authors. Novelists who are more intelligent than their books should go into another line of work.

But what is that wisdom, what is the novel? There is a fine Jewish proverb: Man thinks, God laughs. Inspired by that adage, I like to imagine that François Rabelais heard God’s laughter one day, and thus was born the idea of the first great European novel. It pleases me to think that the art of the novel came into the world as the echo of God’s laughter.

But why does God laugh at the sight of man thinking? Because man thinks and the truth escapes him. Because the more men think, the more one man’s thought diverges from another’s. And finally, because man is never what he thinks he is. The dawn of the Modern Era revealed this fundamental situation of man as he emerged from the Middle Ages: Don Quixote thinks, Sancho thinks, and not only the world’s truth but also the truth of their own selves slips away from them. The first European novelists saw, and grasped, that new situation of man, and on it they built the new art, the art of the novel.

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