Kundera devotes much of his first essay to outlining the history of the European novel from Cervante's seminal Don Quijote to the late 20th century. In particular, he focuses on how the limns of adventure and wonder within the novel have shrunk over time, until the notion of "adventure" has come to contain almost as many pejorative aspects as it did wondrous ones. Also, the issue of "time" has become more and more regulated due to the rise of History as this conjured agent of delimitation. Here Kundera explains this:
Half a century after Diderot, in Balzac, the distant horizon has disappeared like a landscape behind those modern structures, the social institutions: the police, the law, the world of money and crime, the army, the State. In Balzac's world, time no longer idles happily by as it does for Cervantes and Diderot. It has set forth on the train called History. The train is easy to board, hard to leave. But it isn't at all fearsome yet, it even has its appeal; it promises adventure to every passenger, and with it fame and fortune.It is in this shrinking horizon, where the imaginative yearnings have been directed inward until a point is reached where the fantastical has been internalized to where even fancy has become something "mental," that Kundera explores in the middle sections of his essay. He notes that with these changes have come calls for the "death of the novel." From the Futurists to the Surrealists and to all avant-gardes in-between, they have seen the novel, Kundera argues, as being a historical relic; it has "dropped off the road of progress." But the novel is much more resilient than that. Whether it be the inner fragility of the movements, political and artistic alike, that have proclaimed the "death" of the novel (or of History or of Politics), the novel form has survived to the present day, albeit in a different form over the past two centuries' span. How does Kundera explain the novel's persistence?
Later still, for Emma Bovary, the horizon shrinks to the point of seeming a barrier. Adventure lies beyond it, and the longing becomes intolerable. Within the monotony of the quotidian, dreams and daydreams take on importance. The lost infinity of the outside world is replaced by the infinity of the soul. The great illusion of the irreplaceable uniqueness of the individual - one of Europe's finest illusions - blossoms forth. (p. 8)
But hasn't the novel come to the end of the road by its own internal logic? Hasn't it already mined all its possibilities, all its knowledge, and all its forms? I've heard the history of the novel compared to a seam of coal long since exhausted. But isn't it more like a cemetery of missed opportunities, of unheard appeals? There are four appeals to which I am especially responsive. (p. 15)Kundera discusses four appeals: the appeals of play, dream, thought, and time. Before novelists shackled themselves to the empty throne of Realism, there were more "light" and "playful" novels, novels such as Sterne's Tristram Shandy and Diderot's Jacques le Fataliste that contained possibilities that the later Realist novels failed to capitalize. Although Kundera does not discuss the separate "fantasy" offshoot that developed in reaction to this shift toward Realism, there could be a corollary to his first "appeal" referring to how a byproduct of this desire for "play" was the rise of settings in which both the author and reader alike have explicitly accepted to be irreal and impossible. The appeal of "dream" is also associated with this missed opportunity by some writers to combine the irreal and the real to create a state where reality and dream intermingle and influence each other.
The appeals of "thought" and "time" are harder to put into words. Kundera posits that if novelists were to "marshal around the story all the means - rational and irrational, narrative and contemplative - that could illuminate man's being; could make of the novel the supreme intellectual synthesis (p. 16)." What truly is revealed in most novels about our favorite topic, our own selves? As for "time," Kundera argues that narrative "time" has become too constricted and that perhaps it would be for the best if "time" could be broadened or dilated out, to where it is not a weighty millstone tied around the narrative's neck.
However, it is in the final two parts of Kundera's essay where I find counterarguments to claims made that it is "impossible" to judge if a novel is "good" or bad." Those who usually make this argument tend to note that so much depends upon the vantage point of the observer and how there are too many subjectives involved for there to be any true "objective" rationale for sorting through the qualities of each word. That is a facile argument. It is too easy to abdicate the ability to judge and measure, all in the name of fearing that one is "wrong" or that someone is "biased." It is, as Kundera notes, a "reduction" in which "Husserl's 'world of life' is fatally obscured and being is forgotten. (p. 17)" Kundera goes on to argue:
Now, if the novel's raison d'être is to keep "the world of life" under a permanent light and to protect us from "the forgetting of being," is it not more than ever necessary today that the novel should exist?This is a key point he makes here. Today, it is too easy to say it's an "either and/or" situation and leave it at that. There is no wrestling that takes place; all is shrugged off with "well, it's a good or bad book, depending upon how you look at it." Such an attitude is meant to absolve the reader of any responsibility, but when responsibility on the part of the reader is abdicated, then the remaining two legs of the Author-Text-Reader tripod threaten to topple. Truth, whether it be some commonly-held universal or individual particles based on received fact and acquired analysis, is not the same as a truism that is passively and blithely passed around like a joint. Here, Kundera harkens back to Cervantes' famous phrase on history in the first part of Don Quijote to make the counter-argument that truth (and by extension, the ability to discern good from bad, quality from crap), cumbersome and useless as it may be, is something that is worth wrestling with and fighting over. As for the issue of perspective, Kundera continues:
Yes, so it seems to me. But alas, the novel too is ravaged by the termites of reduction, which reduce not only the meaning of the world but also the meaning of works of art. Like all of culture, the novel is more and more in the hands of the mass media; as agents of the unification of the planet's history, the media amplify and channel the reduction process; they distribute throughout the world the same simplifications and stereotypes easily acceptable by the greatest number, by everyone, by all mankind.
This common spirit of the mass media, camouflaged by political diversity, is the spirit of our time. And this spirit seems to me contrary to the spirit of the novel.
The novel's spirit is the spirit of complexity. Every novel says to the reader: "Things are not as simple as you think." That is the novel's eternal truth, but it grows steadily harder to hear amid the din of easy, quick answers that come faster than the question and block it off. In the spirit of our time, it's either Anna or Karenin who is right, and the ancient wisdom of Cervantes, telling us about the difficulty of knowing and the elusiveness of truth, seems cumbersome and useless. (pp. 17-18)
The novel's spirit is the spirit of continuity: each work is an answer to preceding ones, each work contains all the previous experience of the novel. But the spirit of our time is firmly focused on a present that is so expansive and profuse that it shoves the past off our horizon and reduces time to the present moment only. Within this system the novel is no longer a work (a thing made to last, to connect the past with the future) but one current event among many, a gesture with no tomorrow. (pp. 18-19)Too often, people want to made an immediate, snap decision. There is little confrontation with the idea that the novel says many things to many people at the same time. Sure, this multiplicity of viewpoints may be taken, upon first glance, as being ammunition for the notion that one cannot judge if a novel is "good" or "bad," but a deeper delving reveals the opposite. It is through individuals' processing of what is contained within the novel and the realization that there is more than just a single take on it that forces the Reader to realize that there are not just other Readers out there, but that the Text is a dynamic entity that can yield varying levels of information about itself, its world, the reader, and the reader's world. A good text allows for more levels of interaction, with as few impediments as possible. A poor text, on the other hand, will either yield up all of its secrets upon a cursory glance or it will be so opaque in its mechanics as to prevent a diligent reader from being able to harvest its crop of knowledge.
Doubtless, there are those who are going to argue that works such as Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun might fall under this "poor novel" category because of the perceived difficulty in harvesting all of its treasure troves of theme and plot. To that I would counter by noting that such a novel is constructed in a form upon which it can be interpreted on multiple levels; there is more for those who wish to delve deeper and to ask further questions of this text. Instead of the text impeding the reader, perhaps the argument could be made that there are readers who are so inclined to take the surface for the bedrock that they have impeded themselves from considering further the novel's purposes and potential meanings.
So while it is easy to make the argument that it just depends upon where one stands if a work is "good" or "bad," in reality such assertions are a fallacy; discernment is not just an individual's tool, but also a societal one. After all, since individual members of a society are influenced by their relationships with their native cultures and to any other cultures to which they may have been exposed, how we value ideas, especially those expressed in novel form, is a much more critical issue than just "well, your mileage may vary on this book." It is through individuals wrestling with how to discern what is quality and what is not that a rough consensus is formed. It is not a perfect, immutable consensus; people, after all, are too flighty for that. Instead, it is a portrait of the Reader as a global unit that serves to illuminate just how that Reader (singular and group entity alike) has come to process and to sort which works will endure and which will be relegated to the dustbins. To argue that relative judgment is absolute ignores the evidence that in the aggregate, there are works that are enduring and those that are not. The issue of the novel, beyond that of its good/bad qualities, resides not in the future, but in our pasts and presents. After all, as Kundera notes, the future can be a horrible judge.