The OF Blog: "Dialogue on the Art of the Novel" and other related dialogues

Friday, June 18, 2010

"Dialogue on the Art of the Novel" and other related dialogues

The dialogue perhaps is one of the most important forms of communication available to humans.  With it, differences in views, understandings of the world and its inhabitants, or strategies to approaching the wonders and mysteries of this planet are bridged.  This is not to say that those who engage in dialogue end up with a homogeneous viewpoint; this should never be the sole aim of the dialogue, even in those situations where viewpoints become aligned.  No, the dialogue allows its participants and those contemplating those participants the ability to converse about matters that otherwise might be outside the purview of any single person.

In regards to literature, dialogue is extremely important.  Not just within the plot of a story when characters are conversing back and forth, revealing information and thoughts for the reader to process, but on other, perhaps deeper levels.  In his dialogue with Christian Salmon, Czech writer Milan Kundera delves into the various dialogues one can have with the novel at hand.  It is important to note that this third essay is actually the first part of a two-part edited conversation (or rather, dialogue, as the author prefers) on matters of novel interpretation and understanding.  In another of his essays, "Sixty-three Words," Kundera mentions how much he hates the tyranny that is the edited interview.  I withheld discussing that point in my second essay on his essays precisely because I wanted to shift it to discussing the second essay in Kundera's The Art of the Novel.

A dialogue is a two-way street; there is sharing and there is absorption of ideas and viewpoints.  Over the course of the past six years, I have come to know several authors.  But I have always wondered why it was that for those whom I conversed with more frequently via email before interviewing them, those interviews felt a bit "flat" to me and that the questions and answers felt a bit stiff and unnatural in places.  I do not believe it is due to the Q&A nature of email interviews; I suspect much the same would have occurred if it had been a magazine-style edited phone or in-person interview.  But the real issue, I suspect and which Kundera's comments have reinforced, is that the traditional interview formats do not allow for much dialogue; the interviewer controls the pace and flow, as s/he asks the questions and the interviewee is mostly relegated to reacting to those questions.  There is little of the back-and-forth that is found in true conversations and dialogues.

The same could often be said of reviews.  The average reviewer, whether it be an online or print reviewer, often does not enter into a dialogue with his/her subject.  The Text is something to be drained of information and spat forth upon the printed/electronic page to be consumed by that review's readers.  In the case of complex, multi-layered texts, such a review approach is tantamount to strip mining; the textual landscape of that novel is devastated by the ripping out of a few choice quotes or passages, with no integration of the whole into the review narrative.  There is no dialogue that occurs in those novels; the reviewer just plunders the surface of the Text and moves on.

But there is so much more to a Text than just the reading of it for content.  Salmon and Kundera delve deeper, exploring just how important dialogue is in the crafting of the art of the novel.  Below is one key element of this delving, beginning with Salmon's questioning of Kundera's concept of the novel:

C.S.:  Your conception of the novel, then, could be defined as a poetic meditation on existence.  Yet your novels have not always been understood in that way.  They contain many political events that have provoked sociological, historical, or ideological interpretations.  How do you reconcile your interest in social history with your conviction that a novel examines primarily the enigma of existence?

M.K.:  Heidegger characterizes existence by an extremely well-known formulation:  in-der-Welt-sein, being-in-the-world.  Man does not relate to the world as subject to object, as eye to painting; not even as actor to stage set.  Man and the world are bound together like the snail to its shell:  the world is part of man, it is his dimension, and as the world changes, existence (in-der-Welt-sein) changes as well.  Since Balzac, the world of our being has a historical nature, and characters' lives unfold in a realm of time marked by dates.  The novel can never rid itself of that legacy from Balzac.  Even Gombrowicz, who invents fantastical, improbable stories, who violates all the rules of verisimilitude, cannot escape it. His novels take place in a time that has a date and is thoroughly historical.  But two things should not be confused:  there is on the one hand the novel that examines the historical dimension of human existence, and on the other the novel that is the illustration of a historical situation, the description of a society at a given moment, a novelized historiography.  You're familiar with all those novels about the French Revolution, about Marie Antoinette, or about the year 1914, about collectivization in the USSR (for or against it), or about the year 1984; all those are popularizations that translate non-novelistic knowledge into the language of the novel.  Well, I'll never tire of repeating:  The novel's sole raison d'être is to say what only the novel can say. (pp. 35-36)
But there are other dialogues as well, namely that of Reader and Author, Author and Text, as well as Reader and Text.  Kundera's view on dialogue with the novel is a very active one, almost too aggressively so.  In discussing his stories, he phrases the dialogues he has had with his texts in ways that almost seem to be that of declaring the dictatorship of the Author in determining the interactions with the Text.  But in this particular passage, I want to engage with Kundera's words in a way perhaps different from what he intended or maybe what he believes.  While I do agree that verisimilitude has bound novel forms ever tighter to those constraints found in Histories, I cannot help but wonder if in this particular dialogue Kundera may have overlooked just how authors can free themselves from the expectations created by the received truths found in dates and time.

Some of the best writers I have read have overcome the strictures that Kundera notes that bound even the likes of Gombrowicz by simply eliminating the ties that bind.  Poe's fictions never contained a single solid date; this allowed for more freedom in manipulating the time of fictional events.  Saramago's fictions never contain character names, only descriptions assigned to characters, in addition to the unmooring of the narrative from a real or imagined date or "past."  Readers confronting these narratives which are divorced from time/space/nomenclature either have to enter into a dialogue with that novel, trying to understand what the Text is saying, how it is saying it, and why the Author perhaps chose to construct that Text that way.

Authors perhaps view the primary dialogue as being between them and their Texts.  To some extent, there is some truth to it.  There may be allusions contained within the text to events which only the Author or those close to the Author may understand.  However vigorous Authors may claim that they conceived their Texts with themselves as being the principal Audience, once a Text is made visible to others, the Text then can be free to be entered into dialogues which may diminish or even exclude the Author. For example, take Harper Lee's classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.  Whenever I re-read it, as I am currently doing for the first time in several years, I like to engage myself with the Text, taking not just Lee's portrayals of Southern life in the mid-1930s as being a reflection of cruel, capricious realities then, but also as a narrative on elements in my own life that have largely disappeared in my lifetime.  Perhaps Lee wrote the novel in part to reflect these shifts that have taken place in Southern societies over the past century, but I would suspect that such a reading, complementary but not wholly subservient to the primary narrative on Race, might not jibe completely with her; she is, after all, two generations older than me, and our memories of vanishing youth contain different milestones.

But yet dialogues like mine are what make the Novel so important.  If the Author-Text dialogue were to be the only primary dialogue occurring, then there would not be as much conversation, as the Author would be dictating the Text to the Reader.  However, if a Reader enters into a dialogue with a Text and thus comes into fleeting contact with the Author and seeks to understand more about both Text and Author, this opens up possibilities for the Text to be interpreted and reinterpreted in numerous, exciting, and illuminating fashions long after the Author is buried and the Text's first edition is a relic.  For as long as there are readers seeking to find more than just content (the strip mining of the novel) and instead seek to open themselves up for possible change through the course of entering into a dialogue with a Text, the art of Reading (itself a component in the composition of the Art of the Novel) will flourish.


Harry Markov said...

As with every thing we do, reading can be developed into an art form. I am not sure whether I've experienced such a dialogue with a novel in the way you have described it.

I work with simpler terms such as empathy and having a click with a novel, which reverbrates within me and means something without declaring any details whatsoever as to why. Perhaps, I am getting there or perhaps I am talking of something different.

Harry Markov said...

Crap, I misspelled reverberate...

Elena said...

You make an excellent argument for why Darren Aranofsky's refusal to discuss what The Fountain "meant" is better than Copola's putting the meaning of "koyaanisquatsi" at the end of that film.

I personally dislike reading about what an author meant with a given work, because that takes away my ability to project my experiences and biases and beliefs onto it, and either find common ground or something that challenges those aspects of my mental landscape. When I know "what it means" then that's often all it CAN mean to me.

Fascinating set of essays you're writing, by the way.

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