Milan Kundera on Writing and the Key to Great Storytelling – Brain Pickings

by Joseph K. Clark

This might be the most transcendent capacity of consciousness and the most terrifying: that in the world of the mind, we can construct models of the natural world built upon theories of exquisite internal consistency, that those theories can have zero external validity when tested against reality; and that we rarely get to try them, or wish to test them. Just ask Ptolemy.

In its clinical manifestation, we call this tendency delusion. In its creative expression, we call it art — the novel, the story, the poem, the song are each a model, an imagistic impression of the world not as it is but as the maker pictures it to be, inviting us to step into this imaginary world to better understand the real, including ourselves.

Because we are always partly opaque to ourselves, even at our most self-aware, fiction and real life have something extraordinary in common, wonderful and disorienting: the ability to surprise even the author — of the story or the energy.

Both are a form of walking through the half-mapped territory of being, real or imagined, making the path by walking and revising the map with each step.

In both, we can set out for one destination and arrive at another or another. In both, we are propelled partly by our directional intentionality and partly by something else, something ineffable yet commanding that draws its momentum from the energy of uncertainty.

The great Czech-French novelist Milan Kundera articulates this something else with uncommon clarity in The Art of the Novel (public library), published two years after The Unbearable Lightness of Being. This 1984 classic might be read as one long elegiac entreaty for embracing the uncertainties of love and life, challenging Nietzsche’s notion of “the eternal return.

With an eye to storytellers’ ability to surprise themselves in the telling as the story crosses the terrain of imagined existence under its self-generated momentum, Kundera writes:

Milan Kundera

When Tolstoy sketched the first draft of Anna Karenina, Anna was a most unsympathetic woman, and her tragic end was entirely deserved and justified. The final version of the novel is very different, but I do not believe that Tolstoy had revised his moral ideas in the meantime; I would say, rather, that in the course of writing, he was listening to another voice than that of his moral conviction. He was listening to what I would call the novel’s wisdom. Every true novelist listens for that suprapersonal wisdom, which explains why great stories are always slightly more intelligent than their authors. Novelists smarter than their books should go into another line of work.

Kundera locates that suprapersonal wisdom in “the wisdom of uncertainty” — something his poet-compatriot Wisława Szymborska named as the crucible of all creativity in her superb Nobel Prize acceptance speech. In a sentiment evocative of physicist Richard Feynman’s astute observation that uncertainty is the prerequisite for truth and morality in science as in life, Kundera writes:

The novel is the imaginary paradise of individuals. It is the territory where no one possesses the truth, neither Anna nor Karenin, but where everyone has the right to be understood, both Anna and Karenin.

Great storytelling, then, deals in the illumination of complexity — sometimes surprising, sometimes disquieting, constantly enlarging our understanding and self-understanding as we see the opaque parts of ourselves from a new angle, in a new light. Kundera writes:

Every novel says to the reader, “Things are not as simple as they seem.” 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.

So understood, storytelling becomes a way of walking with uncertainty and sitting with nuance, which is, in turn, a way of broadening the possibilities of existence in each of our lives. Echoing Adrienne Rich’s notion that all forms of literary imagination are “the arts of the possible,” Kundera writes:

A novel examines not reality but existence. And existence is not what has occurred; existence is the realm of human possibilities, everything that man* can become, everything he’s capable of. Novelists draw up the map of existence by discovering this or that human possibility. But… to exist means “being in the world.” Thus both the character and his world must be understood as possibilities… [Novels] thereby make us see what we are and are capable of.

A quarter century earlier, James Baldwin had captured this in his lovely notion that the artist’s, writer’s, and storyteller’s roles are “to make you realize the doom and glory of knowing who you are and what you are.

Complement this portion of Kundera’s altogether illuminating The Art of the Novel with Iris Murdoch on storytelling as resistance, Toni Morrison on storytelling as a sacrament to beauty, Susan Sontag storytelling as moral calibration, and Ursula K. Le Guin on storytelling as transformation, then revisit poet Naomi Shihab Nye’s advice on writing, Anton Chekhov’s six rules for a great story, and psychologist Jerome Bruner on the psychology of what makes a great story.

Related Posts