Sunday, 16 September 2018

Book Review - The Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera

The Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera

London: Faber & Faber, 1990           ISBN 0571142222

I've never read any of Milan Kundera's novels, so it might seem strange that I start my relationship with him with this book. In some ways I'm glad I did, as it gives a great insight into Kundera's view of the role of the novel - particularly in Europe - and what he is trying to do with it.

This book is a compilation of pieces written in other contexts, for other reasons: some have been manipulated to make this work hang together a bit better.

Kundera's theme in this book is to show how the novel developed from Cervantes through to the end of the twentieth century, how the modern world had circumscribed the novel with ideas of realism and notions of the absurd that have come to limit what writers do with the form these days. Kundera, a composer as well as a writer, strongly believes in the connexion between the two arts, and that a book is written much as a sonata or other multi-part opus may have been written.

Kundera's view that the novel is an exploration of the human condition, and as such finds the biographical impulse of critics and so-on repulsive. He is a firm believer of novelists not speaking other than in their novels, and notes with satisfaction that Debussy destroyed all the works he felt he didn't want to leave behind.

The irony is that one of Kundera's favourite novelists is Kafka, who famously told Max Brod to burn his works after he died. The section of this book that deals with Kafka should be required reading by every faculty member who dissects his work. What they do is actually destroy what Kafka was trying to achieve. Kundera, a fellow Czech, who also grew up in a system that Kafka in some ways prefigured, shows a deep understanding of Kafka's understanding of human nature, and of modern life.

He also warns us of the dangers of translation, and why one must be very careful when reading a work not in it's initial language...anecdotes of translators of his works that can't read Czech are both funny and disturbing at the same time.

In  this book, published in 1986, Kundera flags the death of the novel as he knows it, in the rise of mass media and the loss of privacy. Some of his comments are prescient. In an age where it has never been easier to access great literature, it has never mattered less, in academia in particular.

This is a book of parts, but some of the parts are well worth reading.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

Book Review - The Coming of the Third Reich by Richard J. Evans

The Coming of the Third Reich by Richard J. Evans

London: Penguin, 2005              ISBN 0143034693

Richard Evans' three volume history of the Third Reich is set to become a classic of history. Having read the third volume, The Third Reich at War, I've come to this first volume with some idea of Evans' style and approach to the subject. This volume doesn't disappoint.

Evans begins his book with a quick overview of the Bismarkian period of German history, and how that era both set the stage for World War One, and in some ways for the reaction to Germany's loss in that war. In fact the Nazi Party is not mentioned until the reader is almost half-way through this volume, with Evans giving a comprehensive coverage of the Weimar period that led up to the Nazi takeover.

He describes a country ravaged not only economically and physically by her experience of war, but politically as well. The country was almost evenly divided between those on the left, who saw aristocracy and Capital as the reasons Germany suffered catastrophe, and those of the Nationalistic right, who longed for the re-instatement of the the old forms, and who felt that it was the socialistic left who gave the army the "stab in the back" that led to ultimate defeat. These two sides of the debate had almost equal support in the body politic of Germany, until the Depression.

The fact that it was mostly the left of politics who held the reins in Germany in the 1920s ironically assisted the Nazi rise to power after the Depression hit, as it was the left that took the blame for what happened, even though to a great extent it was external forces that brought the German economy to its knees. The Nazis took advantage of the chaos, with their brown-shirted SA men fomenting much of the violence that scared the middle-classes, while Hitler espoused a mantra of stability and rebirth that the same middle-classes found attractive.

Evans clearly describes how the Nazis were very much a modern phenomenon, not so much a party as a movement, with a myriad organisations and groups under their banner, covering every aspect of life. Their ceaseless energy also made an impression on the German people.

This energy and organisation meant that when the chance came they were ready to take the country by the throat. Hitler had enough brains to know that he should only throw his lot in with the traditional Nationalist parties when they offered him the top job, and when they did, the Nazis went into action, using their structure to quickly infiltrate every part of German political and cultural life. The chaos that the country found itself in lent credence to the claim of emergency powers, but what Evans shows is how quickly the Nazis used "legal" means to begin their repression and re-organisation of society.

While they never got over 50% of the vote, the Nazis did garner most of the vote of the right, and the middle just wanted the chaos over and done with. The left's big mistake was not to fight fire with fire and bring on a confrontation on the street. They had their reasons for not trying this, but it was to be their downfall: by the time the Social Democrats and Communists realised that the Nazi "government" was a dictatorship by thuggery, their parties and organisations had been smashed, and many of their members jailed, or cowed into submission.

The Nazis themselves had various factions within the party - those who were more socialist, those who thrived on violence, those who wanted a revival of Germany, and those who wanted the Jews dealt with. Evans shows how Nazi propaganda, driven by Goebbels, promoted various parts of their ideas to different parts of German society, depending on what would resonate with that particular group. This part of the book is fascinating, as Evans shows that the Nazis were the first of the modern political parties, targeting their constituencies with the appropriate information, and toning down what they mightn't want to hear. Where anti-semitism went well they pushed that, where "blood and soil" was popular that was what they ran with, and so on. These sections of the book can, in this day and age, be a depressing read, as it reflects the current level of politics, in this country at least.

Evans has aimed this trilogy at a reader who is not familiar with the Third Reich and the Nazis, and on that basis this is a wonderfully comprehensive and up-to-date coverage of the topic. Highly recommended.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell