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AN INTRODUCTION TO A VARIATION

By Milan Kundera, January 6, 1985 (translated by Michael Henry Heim)
 

When in 1968 the Russians occupied my small country, all my books were banned and I suddenly lost all legal means of earning a living. A number of people tried to help me; one day a director came and proposed that I write a stage adaptation, under his name, of Dostoyevsky's ''The Idiot.''

So I reread ''The Idiot'' and realized that even if I were starving, I could not do the job. Dostoyevsky's universe of overblown gestures, murky depths and aggressive sentimentality repelled me. All at once I felt an inexplicable pang of nostalgia for ''Jacques le Fataliste.''

''Wouldn't you prefer Diderot to Dostoyevsky?''

No, he would not. I, on the other hand, could not shake off my strange desire; to remain in the company of Jacques and his master as long as possible, I began to picture them as characters in a play of my own.

2

Why the sudden aversion to Dostoyevsky?

Was it the anti-Russian reflex of a Czech traumatized by the occupation of his country? No, because I never stopped loving Chekhov. Was it doubts about the esthetic value of the work? No, because my aversion had taken me by surprise and made no claims to objectivity.

What irritated me about Dostoyevsky was the climate of his novels: a universe where everything turns into feeling; in other words, where feelings are promoted to the rank of value and of truth.

On the third day of the occupation, I was driving from Prague to Budejovice (the town where Camus set his play ''Le Malentendu'' - ''The Misunderstanding''). All along the roads, in the fields, in the woods, everywhere, there were encampments of Russian infantrymen. At one point they stopped my car. Three soldiers began searching it. Once the operation was over, the officer who had ordered it asked me in Russian, '' Kak chuvstvuyetyes? '' - that is, ''How do you feel? What are your feelings?'' His question was not meant to be malicious or ironic. On the contrary. ''It's all a big misunderstanding,'' he continued, ''but it will straighten itself out. You must realize we love the Czechs. We love you!''

The countryside ravaged by thousands of tanks, the future of the country compromised for centuries, Czech Government leaders arrested and abducted, and an officer of the occupying army makes you a declaration of love. Please understand me: he had no desire to condemn the invasion, not in the least. They all spoke more or less as he did, their attitude based not on the sadistic pleasure of the ravisher but on quite a different archetype: unrequited love. Why do these Czechs (whom we love so!) refuse to live with us the way we live? What a pity we're forced to use tanks to teach them what it means to love!

3

Man cannot do without feelings, but the moment they are considered values in themselves, criteria of truth, justifications for kinds of behavior, they become frightening. The noblest of national sentiments stand ready to justify the greatest of horrors, and man, his breast swelling with lyric fervor, commits atrocities in the sacred name of love.

When feelings supplant rational thought, they become the basis for an absence of understanding, for intolerance; they become, as Carl Jung has put it, ''the superstructure of brutality.''

The elevation of sentiment to the rank of a value dates back quite far, perhaps even to the moment when Christianity broke off from Judaism. ''Love God and do as you will,'' said Saint Augustine. The famous saying is revealing: it shifts the criterion for truth from the outside inward, into the arbitrary sphere of the subjective. A vague feeling of love (''Love God!'' - the Christian imperative) supplants the clarity of the Law (the imperative of Judaism) to become the rather hazy criterion of morality.

The history of Christian society is an age-old school of feelings: Jesus on the cross taught us to cherish suffering; chivalric verse discovered love; the bourgeois family made us nostalgic for domestic life; political demagoguery has managed to ''sentimentalize'' the will to power. It is this long history that has fashioned the wealth, strength and beauty of our feelings.

But from the Renaissance on, this Western sensibility has been balanced by a complementary spirit: that of reason and doubt, of play and the relativity of human affairs. It was then that the West truly came into its own.

In his celebrated Harvard speech, Solzhenitsyn places the starting point of the current crisis of the West squarely in the Renaissance. It is Russia - Russia as a separate civilization - that is explained and revealed by his assessment, for Russia's history differs from the history of the West precisely in its lack of a Renaissance and of the spirit that resulted. That is why the Russian mentality maintains a different balance between rationality and sentiment; in this other balance (or imbalance) we find the famous mystery of the Russian soul (its profundity as well as its brutality).

When this weight of rational irrationality fell on my country, I felt an instinctive need to breathe deeply of the spirit of the post-Renaissance West. And that spirit seemed nowhere more concentrated than in the feast of intelligence, humor and fantasy that is ''Jacques le Fataliste.''

4

If I had to define myself, I would say I am a hedonist trapped in a world politicized in the extreme. Such is the situation I depict in ''Laughable Loves,'' the book of mine I am fondest of because it reflects the happiest period of my life. A strange coincidence: I completed the last of the stories for the book (after working on them all through the 60's) three days before the Russians arrived.

When the French edition appeared in 1970, critics placed it in the tradition of the Enlightenment. Moved by the comparison, I was somewhat childishly eager to confirm that I did in fact love the 18th century as I do Diderot. And to be more frank, I love his novels. And to be exact, I love ''Jacques le Fataliste.''

Such a perception of Diderot's oeuvre may be excessively personal, but it is not, perhaps, unjustified. We can do without Diderot the playwright; we can, if we must, understand the history of philosophy without reading the essays of the great encyclopedist; but - and here I insist - the history of the novel would be incomplete and incomprehensible without ''Jacques le Fataliste.'' I might go so far as to say that this work benefits from being examined not just as part of the Diderot canon but rather in the context of the world novel; its true grandeur becomes apparent only in the company of ''Don Quixote'' or ''Tom Jones,'' ''Ulysses'' or ''Ferdydurke'' (the latter a work by the Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz, one of the great novelists of our century; I gather that he is not, unfortunately, sufficiently known in America).

But by comparison with Diderot's other activities, wasn't ''Jacques le Fataliste'' merely an entertainment? And wasn't he strongly influenced by his great model, Laurence Sterne's ''Tristram Shandy''?

5

I often hear it said that the novel has exhausted all its possibilities. I have the opposite impression: during its 400-year history, the novel has missed many of its possibilities; it has left many great opportunities unexplored, many paths forgotten, calls unheard.

''Tristram Shandy'' is one of those great lost opportunities. The novel has made the most of the example of Samuel Richardson, who discovered its psychological possibilities in the epistolary form. It has paid, on the other hand, scant attention to the perspective contained in Sterne's enterprise.

''Tristram Shandy'' is a game novel. Sterne dwells at length on the days of his hero's conception and birth only to abandon him shamelessly and all but permanently the moment he comes into the world; he banters with his reader and loses his way in endless digressions; he starts an episode and never finishes it; he inserts the dedication and preface in the middle of the book, and so on and so forth.

In short: Sterne does not construct his story according to the unity of action principle, which has, as a matter of course, been considered intrinsic to the very idea of the novel. For him, the novel, that great game of invented characters, means unlimited liberty of formal invention.

In Sterne's defense an American critic has written: '' 'Tristram Shandy,' although it is a comedy, is a serious work, and it is serious throughout.'' What in heaven's name is a serious comedy and what is a comedy that is not? Although the sentence I have quoted is void of sense, it is a perfect example of the panic that grips literary criticism whenever it must face something that does not appear to be serious.

Let me state categorically: no novel worthy of the name takes the world seriously. Moreover, what does it mean ''to take the world seriously''? It certainly means this: believing what the world would have us believe. From ''Don Quixote'' to ''Ulysses,'' the novel has challenged what the world would have us believe.

But one might reply: a novel can refuse to believe in what the world would have us believe while keeping faith with its own truth; it need not take the world seriously to be serious itself.

Then I must ask: but what does it mean ''to be serious''? A person is serious if he believes in what he would have others believe.

And that is just what ''Tristram Shandy'' does not do. ''Tristram Shandy'' is unserious throughout; it does not make us believe in anything: not in the truth of its characters, nor in the truth of its author, nor in the truth of the novel as a literary genre. Everything is called into question, everything exposed to doubt; everything is entertainment (entertainment without shame) - with everything which that implies for the form of the novel.

Sterne discovered the immense possibilities for playfulness inherent in the novel, thereby opening a new path for its evolution. But no one heeded his '' invitation au voyage. '' No one followed him. No one but Diderot.

He alone was receptive to this call of the new. It would therefore be absurd to discredit his originality. No one contests the originality of a Rousseau, a Laclos or a Goethe on the grounds that they owe a great deal (they and the evolution of the novel in general) to naive old Richardson. If the similarity between Sterne and Diderot is so striking, it is only because their common enterprise has remained isolated in the history of the novel.

6

The differences between ''Tristram Shandy'' and ''Jacques le Fataliste'' are no less important than the similarities.

First there is a difference in temperament : Sterne is slow; his method is one of deceleration; his perspective is that of the microscope (he can stop time and isolate a single second of life, as Joyce later did).

Diderot is fast; his method is one of acceleration; his perspective is that of the telescope (I know of no opening of a novel more fascinating than the first pages of ''Jacques le Fataliste'': the vituoso alternation of registers, the sense of rhythm, the prestissimo of the initial sentences).

Then there is a difference in structure : ''Tristram Shandy'' is the monologue of a single narrator, Tristram himself. Sterne meticulously follows the slightest whim of his bizarre train of thought.

Diderot uses five narrators, who interrupt one another to tell the novel's stories: the author himself (in dialogue with his reader), the master (in dialogue with Jacques), Jacques (in dialogue with his master), the innkeeper (in dialogue with her guests) and the Marquis des Arcis. The dominant device of all these individual stories is dialogue (of unequaled virtuosity). But since the narrators tell their dialogues in dialogue (dialogues that fit into other dialogues), the novel as a whole is nothing but a big, noisy conversation.

There is also a difference in spirit : Parson Sterne's book is a compromise between the spirit of freethinking and the spirit of sentimentality, a nostalgic memory of Rabelaisian revelry in the antechamber of Victorian modesty.

Diderot's novel is an explosion of impertinent freedom without self-censorship, of eroticism without sentimental alibis.

Finally there is a difference in the degree of realistic illusion : Sterne disrupts chronology, but anchors events firmly in time and place. His characters are odd, but fitted out with everything necessary to make us believe in their actual existence.

Diderot creates a space never before seen in the history of the novel: a stage without scenery. Where do the characters come from? We do not know. What are their names? That is none of our business. How old are they? No, Diderot does nothing to make us believe that his characters actually exist at a given moment. In all the history of the novel, ''Jacques le Fataliste'' represents the most radical rejection of realistic illusion and of the esthetic of the ''psychological'' novel.

7

The digest approach is a faithful reflection of deep-seated tendencies of our time. It makes me think that one day all past culture will be completely rewritten and completely forgotten behind the rewrite. Adaptations of great novels for the screen and stage are nothing more than a kind of Reader's Digest.

My point is not to defend the sacrosanct virginity of works of art. Even Shakespeare rewrote works created by others. He did not, however, make adaptations; he used a work as a theme for his own variations, of which he was then sole and sovereign author. Diderot borrowed from Sterne the entire story of Jacques's being wounded in the knee, taken away in a cart and cared for by a beautiful woman. But in so doing he neither imitated nor adapted him. He wrote a variation on a theme by Sterne.

On the other hand, the reworkings of ''Anna Karenina'' one sees on the stage or screen are adaptations, that is, reductions. The more the adapter tries to remain discreetly hidden behind the novel, the more he betrays it. By reducing it, he deprives it not only of its charm but also of its meaning.

Tolstoy, to go no further, posed the issue of human action in a manner radically new in the history of the novel; he discovered the fatal importance of rationally elusive causes in decision making. Why does Anna commit suicide? Tolstoy goes so far as to use an almost Joycean interior monologue to delineate the network of irrational motivations which drives his heroine to it. Every adaptation of this novel must, by the very nature of the digest approach, attempt to make the causes of Anna's behavior clear and logical, to rationalize them; the adaptation thus becomes the negation, pure and simple, of the novel's originality.

And conversely: if the meaning of a novel survives the rewriting process, it is indirect proof of the novel's mediocrity. In all literature there are two novels that are absolutely irreducible, totally unrewritable: ''Tristram Shandy'' and ''Jacques le Fataliste.'' How can one simplify such brilliant disorder and be left with anything? What would be left?

True, one might remove the story of Mme. de La Pommeraye and turn it into a play or film; indeed, it has been done. But all that comes of it is a banal anecdote completely lacking in charm. For the beauty of the tale is inseparable from the manner in which Diderot tells it: (1) a woman of the people relates a series of events that take place in a social setting beyond her ken; (2) all possibility of melodramatic identification with the characters is thwarted by the fact that the tale is repeatedly and incongruously interrupted by other anecdotes and remarks and (3) constantly reviewed, analyzed, discussed; but (4) each of the commentators draws a different conclusion from it, since Mme. de La Pommeraye's tale is an anti-morality.

Why go into all this? Because I wish to cry out with Jacques's master, ''Death to all who dare rewrite what has been written! . . . Castrate them and cut off their ears!''

8

And, of course, to state that ''Jacques and His Master'' is not an adaptation; it is my own play, my own ''variation on Diderot,'' or, since it was conceived in admiration, my ''homage to Diderot.''

This ''variation-homage'' represents a multiple encounter: an encounter of two writers but also of two centuries. And of the novel and the theater. The form of a dramatic work has always been a good deal more rigid and normative than that of the novel. The theater has never had its Laurence Sterne. By trying to endow my comedy with the formal freedom that Diderot the novelist discovered and Diderot the playwright never knew, I have written not only a ''homage to Diderot'' but also a ''homage to the novel.''

This is its architecture: on the fragile base of the journey of Jacques and his master rest three love stories: of the master, of Jacques and of Mme. de La Pommeraye. While the first two are loosely (the second only very loosely) connected with the outcome of the journey, the third, which takes up the entire second act, is from the technical standpoint purely and simply an episode (unintegrated as it is into the main action); it is an obvious infringement on the ''laws'' of dramatic structure. But that was where I made my wager:

Renouncing strict unity of action, I sought to create a coherent whole by more subtle means: by the technique of polyphony (the three stories are intermingled rather than told consecutively) and the technique of variation (each of the three stories is in fact a variation on the others). (And so this play, which is a ''variation on Diderot,'' is simultaneously a ''homage to the technique of variation,'' as was, seven years later, my novel ''The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.'')

9

For a Czech writer in the 1970's, it was odd to think that ''Jacques le Fataliste'' (also written in the 70's) was never published during its author's lifetime and that it circulated among a private and restricted audience in manuscript only. What in Diderot's day was an exception has, in Prague 200 years later, become the lot of all important Czech writers, who, banned from the presses, can see their works only in typescript. It began with the Russian invasion, it has continued to the present and, by the look of things, is here to stay.

I wrote ''Jacques and His Master'' for my private pleasure and perhaps with the vague idea that it could one day be put on in a Czech theater under an assumed name. By way of a signature I dotted the text (another game, another variation!) with several mementos of my previous works: Jacques and his master are reminiscent of the two friends in ''The Golden Apple of Eternal Desire'' (''Laughable Loves''); there is an allusion to ''Life Is Elsewhere'' and another to ''The Farewell Party.'' Yes, they were mementos; the entire play was a farewell to my life as a writer, a ''farewell in the form of an entertainment.'' ''The Farewell Party,'' the novel I completed at approximately the same time, was to have been my last novel. Yet I lived out that period without the bitter taste of personal defeat, my private farewell merging completely with another, immensely greater one, one that went far beyond me:

Faced with the eternity of the Russian night, I had experienced in Prague the violent end of Western culture such as it was conceived at the dawn of the modern age, based on the individual and his reason, on pluralism of thought and on tolerance. In a small Western country I experienced the end of the West. That was the grand farewell.

10

With an illiterate peasant for a servant, Don Quixote set off one day to do battle with his enemies. One hundred and fifty years later, Toby Shandy turned his garden into a great mock-up of a battlefield; there he devoted his time to reminiscing about his youth in the military, faithfully attended by his man, Corporal Trim. Trim walked with a limp, much like Jacques, who 10 years later entertained his master on their journey. He was as garrulous and obstinate as the soldier Svejk, who, 150 years later, in the Austro-Hungarian Army, so amused and horrified his master, Lieutenant Lukac. Thirty years after that, waiting for Godot, Vladimir and Estragon are alone on the empty stage of the world. The journey is over.

Servant and master have made their way across all the modern history of the West. In Prague, city of the grand farewell, I heard their fading laughter. With love and anguish, I clung to that laughter as one clings to fragile, perishable things, things that have been condemned.