from “Behind the curtain”
an essay by Milan Kundera
published in The Guardian Saturday March 3, 2007
The Novel as Utopia of a World That Has No Forgetting in It
The perpetual activity of forgetting gives our every act a ghostly, unreal, hazy quality. What did we have for lunch the day before yesterday? What did my friend tell me yesterday? And even: What was I thinking about, three seconds ago? All of that is forgotten and (what's a thousand times worse!) it deserves no better. Against our real world, which, by its very nature, is fleeting and worthy of forgetting, works of art stand as a different world, a world that is ideal, solid, where every detail has its importance, its meaning, where everything in it - every word, every phrase - deserves to be unforgettable and was conceived to be such.
Still, the perception of art does not escape the force of forgetting either. Though it should be said that each art has a different relation to forgetting. From that standpoint, poetry is privileged. A person reading a Baudelaire sonnet cannot skip a single word. If he loves it he will read it several times and perhaps aloud. If he adores it, he will learn it by heart. Lyric poetry is a fortress of memory.
The novel, on the other hand, is a very poorly fortified castle. If I take an hour to read 20 pages, a novel of 400 pages will take me 20 hours, thus about a week. Rarely do we have a whole week free. It is more likely that, between sessions of reading, intervals of several days will occur, during which forgetting will immediately set up its worksite. But it is not only in the intervals that forgetting does its work; it participates in the reading continuously, with never a moment's lapse; turning the page, I already forget what I just read; I retain only a kind of summary indispensable for understanding what is to follow, but all the details, the small observations, the admirable phrasings are already gone. Erased. Someday, years later, I will start to talk about this novel to a friend, and we will find that our memories have retained only a few shreds of the text and have reconstructed very different books for each of us.
And yet the novelist writes his novel as if he were writing a sonnet. Look at him! He is amazed at the composition he sees taking shape before him: the least detail is important to him, he makes it into a motif and will bring it back in dozens of repetitions, variations, allusions, like a fugue. And so he is sure that the second half of his novel will be even finer, stronger, than the first; for the farther one progresses through the castle's halls, the more the echoes of phrases already pronounced, themes already set out, will multiply and, brought together into chords, they will resonate from all sides.
What should the novelist do in the face of that destructive forgetting? Snap his fingers at it and build his novel as an indestructible castle of the unforgettable, even though he knows that his reader will only ramble through it distractedly, rapidly, forgetfully, and never inhabit it.