Sunday, September 19, 2010

An "Encounter" with Milan Kundera's new book of Essays

Milan Kundera writes frequently about classical music. Detailed references to specific works are woven throughout his writing. In "Immortality," the character Paul is speaking to a character who has written the novel "Life is Elsewhere." Paul is talking to a semi-fictional Kundera about Mahler's seventh symphony:

"Everything is worked through, thought through, felt through, nothing has been left to chance," explains Paul to Kundera in the novel, "but that enormous perfection overwhelms us, it surpasses the capacity of our memory, our ability to concentrate, so that even the most fanatically attentive listener will grasp no more than one-hundredth of the symphony, and certainly it will be this one-hundredth that Mahler cared about the least."

"I don't deny those symphonies their perfection," continued Paul, "I only deny the importance of that perfection. [...] we exaggerated their significance. [...] Europe reduced Europe to fifty works of genius that it never understood."

Even in dismantling Paul, Kundera is both insightful and funny.

His new book, "Encounter," seems in dialog with his writing of the past, and is often in dialog with the past itself.

In "The Total Rejection of Heritage, or Iannis Xenakis." Kundera is in dialog with an essay that he wrote in 1980. He interrupts his earlier text with comments written in 2008. "I found consolation in Xenakis's music," wrote Kundera in 1980, "I learned to love it during the darkest time of my life, and that of my homeland." In 2008 he comments; "His music reconciled me to the inevitability of endings."

The music of Leoš Janáček has been "indelibly written" into his "aesthetic genes." Janáček "lived his whole life in Brno," wrote Kundera, "like my father who, as a young pianist, was a member of the enchanted (and isolated) circle of the composer's connoisseurs and defenders. [...] from my earliest childhood, I would hear his music played daily on the piano by my father or by his students; at my father's funeral in 1971, during that sombre period of the Russian occupation, I forbade any orations; only at the crematorium, four musician friends played Janáček's Second String Quartet."

There is also a lovely essay on "The Cunning little Vixen," which Kundera calls "The Most Nostalgic Opera" in the essay's title.

"The final passage of the opera begins with a scene that seems insignificant but that always grips my heart," writes Kundera. "I know of no other opera scene so utterly banal in its dialogue; or any scene of sadness more poignant, more real."

"Janáček has managed to say what only an opera can say: the unbearable nostalgia of insignificant talk at an inn cannot be expressed any other way than by an opera: the music becomes the fourth dimension of a situation which without it would remain anodyne, unnoticed, mute."

There is an essay called "forgetting Schoenberg," which is a plea to hear the "fearsome grandeur" of "A Survivor from Warsaw." There are references to Milhaud, the late piano fugues of Beethoven as a "dream of total heritage," and anecdotes about Adorno, Stravinsky, Saint-Saëns.

Any encounter with Kundera promises lightness, farewell waltzes, laughter and forgetting; his work is familiar but it remains fresh.

"Encounter" is welcome.

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