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Milan Kundera: the unbearable search for a decent coffee

Milan Kundera: the unbearable lightness of having drunk far too much coffee.

‘Novel = heightened story.’ (Philip Larkin in Selected Letters of Philip Larkin, 1941)

‘There are four ‘appeals’ of the novel: (1) the appeal of play; (2) the appeal of dream; (2) the appeal of thought; (4) the appeal of time.’ (Milan Kundera in The Art of the Novel, 1986)

‘I think that novels tend to fail not when the characters are not vivid or deep enough, but when the novel in question has failed to teach us how to adapt to its conventions, has failed to manage a specific hunger for its own characters, its own reality-level.  In such cases, our appetite is quickly disappointed, and surges wildly in excess of what we are provided, and we tend to blame the author for not giving us enough – the characters, we complain, are not alive or round or free enough.  Yet we would not dream of accusing Sebold or Woolf or Roth – none of whom is especially interested in creating character in the solid, old-fashioned nineteenth-century sense – of letting us down in this way, because they have so finely tutored us in their own conventions, their own expansive limitations, to be satisfied with just what they give us.’  (James Wood in How Fiction Works, 2008)

‘If it is the job of the novelist in part to document an era, to define what is ‘novel’ about their time and to interpret in new ways that which they see, then it makes sense that the best novels are the ones that work hardest at tearing up the foundations of the world as we know it, shifting away from convention, spotlighting the marginalised, and imagining and re-imagining this life and the world.’  (Slightly paraphrased from a review titled ‘Unpicking the Universe’ by Louise Swinn, Overland Issue 189, 2007)

‘[Here are the] inviolable standards: (1) a writer must give the maximum amount of information about a character: about his physical experience, his way of speaking and behaving; (2) he must let the reader know a character’s past, because that is where the motives are present and the behaviours are born; and (3) the character must have complete independence; that is to say , the author with his own considerations must disappear so as not to disturb the reader who wants to give himself over to illusion, and take fiction for reality.’ (Milan Kundera in The Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera, 1986)

‘Literature that’s worth reading should tell you something that you didn’t know, and at the same time make that knowledge indispensable.’  (Dorothy Johnston in The Canberra Times, 19 July, 2008)

‘Novels are always about time.’  (Margaret Atwood)

Virginia Woolf’s writing room

‘Find the place where passion and precision are one.’  (Yeats)

‘Making a character ‘alive’ means getting to the bottom of his existential problem, which in turn means getting to the bottom of some situations, some motifs, even some words that shape him.  Nothing more.’  (Milan Kundera in The Art of the Novel, 1986)

‘Ford and Conrad loved a sentence from a Maupassant story, ‘La Reine Hortense’: ‘He was a gentleman with red whiskers who always went first through a doorway.’  Ford comments: ‘that gentleman is so sufficiently got in that you need no more of him to understand how he will act.  He has been “got in” and can get to work at once.’’ (James Wood in How Fiction Works, 2007

‘Care about writing because it matters.  Ache over every detail.  Be involved in the painful and intolerable wrestle with words and meaning.’  (Mem Fox in Radical Reflections: Passionate Opinions on Teaching, Learning and Living, 1993)

‘Writers have one great responsibility: to write beautifully, which is to say write well.  Within this responsibility is that of being truthful.  To charm, to amuse, to enchant, to take us out of ourselves, these are all part of beauty.  But there is a parallel responsibility: and that is to sing a little about the realities of the age, to leave some sort of magical record of what they saw and dreamt (because they can’t really do it the same way when dead) and to bear witness in their unique manner to the beauties, the ordinariness, and the horrors of their times.’  (Ben Okri in A Way of Being Free, 1997)

‘Go boldly forward and write the email to Australia and the world that says, ‘Your position is not sustainable.  You cannot keep going in this direction.  Something is going to give: it may be your relationships, it may be your infrastructure, it may be your children, or it may be you.’  (John Marsden, from his Colin Simpson Lecture to the Australian Society of Authors, 2005)

‘When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, “I am going to produce a work of art.”  I write it because there is a lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.  Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.  One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.’  George Orwell in his essay Why I Write, 1946)

‘Write it only for yourself, not for publication, not to show anyone, but full out, all you feel, for yourself, alone… And then sooner or later I daresay someone will talk you into publishing it somewhere.’ (correspondence from Douglas Stewart to David Campbell in Letters Lifted into Poetry, 2006)

‘To compose a novel is to set different emotional spaces side by side – and that, to me, is the writer’s subtlest craft.’  (Milan Kundera in The Art of the Novel, 1986)

‘There is only one recipe – to care a great deal about the cookery.’
Henry James

Like many people I’m reading a number of books at the moment.  One of mine is Reading Like a Writer – A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose (her real name, would you believe).  It’s brilliant, one to rival the spectacular How Fiction Works by James Wood.  Where in my teenage years I may have looked to religion for guidance on how to live a good life, I now look to books about writing, as if writing’s the only activity that matters, and perhaps it is.  But this isn’t exactly what’s occupying my mind right now; what’s occupying my mind is a certain paragraph in Prose’s book.

She remembers a young writer telling her how he was taken to dinner by a highly successful and powerful agent.  The agent asked the young writer about what sort of things he was interested in and the writer replied by saying that he was only interested in creating great sentences.  The agent sighed and then asked him to promise that he would ‘never, ever’ repeat that to an American publisher.  Prose goes on to say that despite the poignancy of the young writer’s response, and the dig at the publishing industry, it was refreshing to hear of someone so dedicated to the art of sentences.

But this isn’t really what’s occupying my mind either.

What’s really occupying my mind is theme, the point of that agent’s question.  For me theme is always the idea of home.  I’ve written about home before in this column, but that’s okay, because it may well take a lifetime of reading, and writing, and living to understand, to know.  But what is so mysterious, so captivating, about the idea of home?  My 1904 copy of Soule’s Synonyms offers some leads.  ‘Home’ as a noun: domicile, dwelling, residence.  As an adverb: closely, pointedly.  As an adjective: internal.  And then Soule’s heads into such wonderful terrain as ‘homeliness’ and ‘homespun’ before coming to grief in ‘homicide’.  All of this only raises more questions about why home is so intriguing.

A quick story.  Fifteen years ago I donned a backpack, as is the Down Under way, and headed to the United Kingdom amongst other places.  Being from English-Irish (and convict) stock, I was warned that I would probably have a ‘homecoming’ moment when landing at Gatwick.  I had nothing of the sort – I felt as alien in England as I had felt when in Canada and the United States.

But then I caught the ferry from Wales to Dublin.  And it was in Dublin, a fantastic Irish city (and ‘fantastic’ is the word), that it seemed like I had come home.  It was in the forever fighting faces, the soulful swooning of the Uilleann pipes played on street corners, in the soaking weather, the living-room-like pubs, and the pure distaste of authority.  Six weeks later, now with more than a hint of Irishness in my accent, I left Eire, and, via Thailand, returned to Australia, to Canberra, where day in day out I think about, write about, try to get a handle on, what home means.

Frankly I have no idea what it means.  If it is anything, it’s a desire, and a rush.

As is creating the great sentence.

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, June 13 2009)

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The past