also, this is really tiny cus of tumblr stuff. there’s a bigger one over here!
Milan Kundera is my favorite writer, so I appreciate your quest to find more writers like him!
Have you read his non-fiction? It is just as insightful and wonderful as his fiction, particularly if you’re interested in the theory of the novel. His ideas about novels and about art in general is very interesting: Euro-centric, but convincingly so. The main point is that the novelistic tradition, like the “classical music” tradition, started in Europe under certain ideals and then spread across the globe, finding new ways to explore the questions of humanity without ever assertively answering them. A novel, then, is important insofar as it helps explore these territories. Novels are worthless that merely reinforce old tropes (genre fiction, political fiction, etc.).
Musil, Broch, and Nietzsche were probably his biggest influences.
However, I must say personally, there are two writers I love in the same regard, and I often compare and contrast the two with Kundera.
The first is David Foster Wallace. Stylistically they are VERY VERY different, Kundera not being one for verbal fireworks, and where David Foster Wallace is juvenile and neurotic Kundera is elegant and erotic, but hey, here are the similarities:
Brutal honesty of male sexuality and male/female relationships
Thought-driven rather than plot-driven
A deep fascination with kitsch (David Foster Wallace attempted to seek meaning in it, Kundera loathed it and ridiculed it)
Extremely insightful honesty into their own artistic impulse (read their nonfiction about their fiction! it is amazing.)
A tasteful entrance, when necessary, into “meta-fiction.” (David Foster Wallace actually talks about Milan Kundera doing this - he refers to his description of proper meta-fiction as the author “dancing” - meaning it is always to be lighthearted and joyful in nature, never heavy-handed and serious.)
The second is Vladimir Nabokov. Read what Nabokov wrote about “poshlust” and then what Kundera wrote about “kitsch” and you’ll see a striking similarity! The two also loathed their translators and had a similar kind of cultural snobbery. Kundera hated rock music, and Nabokov - well, all English majors know what he hated, because he was so damn vocal about it.
However, as much as they agreed, they viewed literature completely differently! Kundera considered the timing of the work to be absolutely essential: when each chapter occurred, how long each chapter was, how long it took to read, and where it was composed in the history of time. In fact, he was so bold as to say that the value of literature was worthless without the temporal component, and used a very apt metaphor to describe this!
Imagine, for example, someone nowadays were to compose an exactly similar piece of music to a Beethoven sonata. It had the same stylistic flourishes, the same quality of music, down to every note. Would it have the same aesthetic value? No, says Kundera, it would not. In fact, such a work would be laughable, insignificant. The value of a work is bound against WHEN it was created, just as a scientific or mathematic discovery is only important when it is first discovered.
Nabokov did not care at all about time. He wrote his novels on individual index cards, then pieced them all together at the end. He thought reading a book should be about breaking it apart in little pieces and examining each one very very carefully. And he didn’t care about the “history” of the novel at all! He valued detailed intricate works: Ulysses being his most admired novel.
Nabokov was known for his extremely beautiful, poetic prose. Kundera, on the other hand, loathed purple prose and any sort of poetic stylings.
But opposites often reach each other, just as two ends of a circle meet, and while the two authors are quite opposite, I find them pleasant to read together. When Nabokov gets too overblown and over-styled, Kundera is refreshing. When Kundera gets a little too boring, Nabokov’s prose-poetry is exhilarating."
Nabokov was a bit of a grump about a lot of things. And not just literature. For example: he resisted quite stubbornly the classification of insects by genetics, insisting on the old style of classification by close examination under a microscope. One of his collections of non-fiction is aptly titled “Strong Opinions”.
Nabokov was also vocal about the writers he loathed and put a lot of this in his own fiction. Notice how he makes fun of T.S. Eliot in the poem near the end of Lolita. Well, after Freud, who he hated most, who he couldn’t help but mention time and time again, his favorite writer to knock down a peg was Dostoevsky. He hated his clumsy, inaccurate prose style and what he saw to be sentimental platitudes in his characters.
“Non-Russian readers do not realize two things: that not all Russians love Dostoevski as much as Americans do, and that most of those Russians who do, venerate him as a mystic and not as an artist. He was a prophet, a claptrap journalist and a slapdash comedian. I admit that some of his scenes, some of his tremendous, farcical rows are extraordinarily amusing. But his sensitive murderers and soulful prostitutes are not to be endured for one moment— by this reader anyway.
Richard Pevear, one of the most acclaimed translators of Dostoevsky, argues in the preface of The Brothers Karamazov that his prose style was under-appreciated. The aesthetic quality of his style was how MUSICAL it was, Pevear argued, how close to human speech and how natural and careful the rhythm of it was. And I would agree: I think Dostoevsky’s stylistic strength was in his monologues, the “soloing” of human speech. Even his third-person narration sounded like a monologue from somebody. He really had an ear for that sort of thing.
Also interesting to note: Nabokov had amusia. Music was little more than noise to him. He describes in his memoir Speak, Memory going to a concert and being more interested in the details of the musicians clothes, the sweat beading on their foreheads, their gestures, etc., than the music itself. So he was completely mystified why anyone would enjoy Dostoevsky - because he couldn’t hear it!
Kundera, on the other hand, was a classical composer until his mid twenties (around then I think, can’t remember exactly), and he thought deliberately about the musical quality of his writing. But Kundera was interested in atonal or post-tonal work, and had no taste for the romantic and the sentimental, so he was an entirely different writer than Dostoevsky. Kundera however appreciated the human questions Dostoevsky explored, and was very interested in his work. I believe he saw Dostoevsky as an important 19th century writer helping to move literature past realism and into psychological realism, which meant moving us a little closer into the depths of human consciousness. Kundera argues that this movement reached its end with Ulysses: a 1000 page microscope into a single day’s worth of consciousness.
Again, such an interpretation - looking at literature as this advancing exploration through time - would seem ridiculous to Nabokov. When Nabokov discusses Dostoevsky, he makes fun of his sentimental characters and bad style. And when Nabokov discusses Joyce, he is in awe, and told his studies, when he was teaching Ulysses, to ignore all “literary” interpretations and general analysis and find out exactly what’s going on - where in Dublin is Bloom, what’s actually happening, what are all the details - to simply enjoy this work of art for what it is in all its exquisite detail."