Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Elsewhere: Translingual Kundera

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Elsewhere: Translingual Kundera

Article excerpt

While other translingual writers have seemed to blossom into a new, and often revelatory, aesthetic connected to their embrace of a second language, Milan Kundera's novels have become shorter, more circumspect, and less obviously new in their form and aesthetic as he has moved into a second language. The urgency of his middle period--with the critically acclaimed and bestselling novels Kniha smichu a zapomneni / The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Nesnesitelnd lehkost byti/ The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and Nesmrtelnost/Immortality--seems to have petered out into small, novella-like diversions that seem to display an unremarkable encounter with the second language he has embraced: no obvious shaving of words down to their core like Beckett, or capacious playfulness like Nabokov. Has the translingual Kundera been disappointing, or is there more to his embrace of the French language than meets the eye?

Kundera went into exile in France in 1975, and for the first twenty years wrote his novels in Czech knowing that the vast majority of his readers would only read him, because of Czechoslovak censorship of his work, in translation; translation, he wrote, was everything. According to one of his translators, Peter Kussi, his awareness of a non-Czech readership made him self-conscious about his Czech language. Kundera worried that he was overly clarifying his language, "that he washed out his [Czech] tongue to be absolutely crystal clear" (Kussi 1999). Yet Kussi also pointed out that Kundera's Czech was already "clear, formal, what you might call normal Czech," unlike the great Czech stylists he admired such as Vladislav VanCura, Bohumil Hrabal, even (in his use of street Czech) Jaroslav Hasek--a clarity possibly connected to Kundera's love of classic French literature (Kussi 1999). That love is apparent; from his first prose piece, "Ja, truchlivy buh" (1958), Kundera has kept returning, for instance, to Rostand's Cyrano in order to underline a central trope in his own work of misunderstanding and our tragicomic belief in language and symbols to overcome it.

Have Kundera's French novels been misunderstood, too? Or, more precisely, have Kundera's linguistic aesthetics been misunderstood paradoxically because of the apparent clarity, or straightforwardness, of his prose? French critics, such as Francois Ricard, have characterized Kundera's language as being solely instrumental: "simple," "classic," and only "entirely dedicated to the meaning it must transmit" (Ricard 165). In attributing a "classic" prose style to Kundera's work, critics like Ricard imply that Kundera was always, in spirit, a French writer; his translingualism is normalized into a certain tradition of French prose. After Kundera's work received one of the ultimate French literary accolades by being published as a two-volume Pleiade edition in 2011, Mohammed Aissaoui marveled at the "stylistic unity" of Kundera's Czech and French work. Aissaoui noted that "Kundera's translated French has the same traits of economy, precision and clarity as the French written directly by him" because "Kundera's natural diction, in Czech and in French, has always been in harmony with our classic prose."

In this article, however, 1 want to suggest that Kundera's French novels are in fact linguistically and thematically disruptive (in terms of French norms in language, national culture, and tradition). As a Czech writer in exile, intimately attuned to discrepancies in language and its untranslatability, Kundera became interested in what language does and how it works (and does not work). While retranslating the French translations of his Czech novels, he became cognizant of the trajectory of his aesthetics, and particularly how he used language. He articulates this discovery in his first French essays, published as L'art du roman (1986) and Les testaments trahis (1993), arguing that great writers have their own "style personnel de l'auteur" / "author's personal style" that transgresses the norms of their own language whether or not their personal style is obviously disruptive (Testaments trahis 134; Testaments 110). …

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