Milan Kundera was one of the first authors - along with George Orwell - that had a major impact on me. It was some time in the mid 1980s when I picked up “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting” from the now defunct Colosseum Books on 57th Street (one of my all time favorite bookstores while growing up). I remember being dazzled by it, the uniqueness of it, the heady mixture of fiction, history, essay, surrealism and philosophy. At the time, I hadn’t read a novel, or a novelist, quite like him and not only did that particular novel lead me to his others but they also led me to other writers from Eastern & Central Europe. These writers always had a unique way of expressing themselves and telling their stories. I always felt as if I were witness to a dream, a peek inside a part of world history that one doesn’t normally learn about in the U.S. These books also represented for me the infinite possibilities that lie ahead in a world that was rapidly changing as well and they stand as a sort of testament to a particular time and place in my life.
So it was a great joy to read Kundera’s “The Art of the Novel”, although the title is something of a misnomer because this isn’t a “book on writing” in the way one would imagine. It’s more a document on how Kundera approaches his writing and his novels and his ideas on what a novel is. He has much to say about his influences: Kafka, Cervantes, Rabelais, Sterne, Diderot, Flaubert, Tolstoy and Musil (not to mention a dose of existential philosophy and surrealism) but what interested me more than anything else was his writing process, his ideas about what constitutes the novels he chooses to write. It was key to having a better understanding of his work and fans of his would be well advised to read this short book. As for writing advice, there isn’t much, but that doesn’t take away anything from this thoughtful collection of essays, interviews, lists, thoughts, etc. It is a glimpse inside a very creative mind and into the work of one of the twentieth century’s greatest novelists. Highly recommended.