Encounter Review

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Encounter ReviewMilan Kundera's newest foray into the essay, "Encounter," continues his critical engagement with the history and aesthetic of the European novel and the place and importance of art today. It contains four longer essays (fifteen to twenty pages each) on, respectively, the art of Francis Bacon, an "homage" to Anatole France, the artistic sensibilities of particular Martinican poets (Aime Cesair among them), and Curzio Malaparte's novel "The Skin." Most of these essays, however, are occasional pieces which rarely exceed four or five pages in length. Because of their length, they are almost necessarily underdeveloped. Many of these shorter pieces should have been made more substantial and elaborated upon. Kundera's insight and coolly analytical approach would have greatly benefitted the ideas they were lavished upon, as in the longer essays. If anything, that would be the one thing that I would change about this collection.
That having been said, there are a great many things of particular interest in this book. In his first substantial essay - the one on Bacon - he states a distinct paradox that all artists confront in the pursuit of their craft (see below for the extent to which one of the main concerns of this text is paradox): how does one capture the essence of a human (in this case, the work in question is Bacon's triptych of Henrietta Moraes) whose very essence is accidental? Kundera's answer is that Bacon distorts and contorts the images of people to see to what someone can have this done to them, but still maintain their identity; Kundera calls this Bacon's "brutal gesture."
One of the most fascinating pieces is "The Comical Absence of the Comical" in which he discusses how our mundane understanding of the word "comic" as "provoked by something amusing or comical" is sadly incomplete. He examines several instances in the novels of Dostoyevsky in which characters laugh in the most awkward and tragic of circumstances, as when Prince Mishkin is castigated by Aglaia by a "severe laughter" for having the bad taste to fall asleep while waiting for her. This is not a laughter whose provenance is in the human sense of the comic, but rather one that punishes, de-situates and reorganizes our response to this scene.

The extended essay on the work of Anatole France, while thematically disorganized and rather discursive, is largely an account of certain aspects of France's novel "The Gods Are Thirsty." The essay also incorporates a Surrealist critique of France, spearheaded by Paul Valery, who would later fill France's chair at the Academie Francaise upon the novelist's death. Andre Breton's critique impugned France for his "skepticism, realism, and heartlessness," though Kundera makes an intelligent argument for France's "cohabitation of unbearably dramatic history with unbearable, banal dailiness, a cohabitation that sparkles with irony." These interesting juxtapositions, as mentioned above, perennially interest Kundera throughout the collection as when, in a highly thoughtful essay on the work of Leos Janacek, Kundera concludes that "Janacek has managed to say what only an opera can say: the unbearable nostalgia of insignificant talk at an inn [he is referencing a scene from Janacek's "Cunning Little Vixen"] cannot be expressed any other way than by opera: the music becomes the fourth dimension of a situation which without it would remain anodyne, unnoticed, mute."
In the last paragraph of the entire book, Kundera ties together two of the themes that have informed not just this collection of his essays, but his entire body of work: the history of Europe and the perceived profound ordinariness of truth. "The war's closing moments bring out a truth that is both fundamental and banal, both eternal and disregarded: compared with the living, the dead have an overwhelming numerical superiority, not just the dead of this war's end but all the dead of all times, the dead of the past, the dead of the future; confident in their superiority, they mock us, they mock this little island of time we live on, this tiny time of the new Europe, they force us to grasp all its insignificance, all its transience."
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