Music, Translation

The Verbal Harmony of Milan Kundera (Translation)

His father, Ludvik Kundera, was a musician, and Milan learned to play during his early childhood as a result of a certain infectious harmony: Ludvik had studied music with Leos Janacek, the great Czech composer, and from there came the essential concepts that would influence his later writing. For the first twenty-five years of his life, Milan Kundera was fixated on music, including a composition for quartet that he had written under the influence of one essential concept, polyphony. Analyzing the structure of both Beethoven and Janacek, he learned the intention and pace of movements in a piece of music. In his early years, he studied musical composition and musicology, and only afterwards did he settle into giving himself completely to literature.

Nevertheless, you are what you are and as a musician, that never changes. Kundera would apply everything he had learned throughout his musical education to the formation of concepts he had already found in authors such as Hermann Broch and Robert Musil, but with a more complete mastery over language, the novel, time, and theme. He knew that Broch had adopted a system of diverse voicings and genres in one of his novels, Sleepwalkers: A Trilogy; he knew that the importance of this experiment lay more with the theme that brought together those heterogeneous elements than with the tangible interplay of the characters and the unity of the action in the story. He also knew that something was missing from it. And maybe his aim was to surpass this viewpoint, this inspiring failure that had resulted from Broch’s intentions. Generally speaking, failure is more encouraging than success.

Kundera found in this tendency for experimentation the sum of his musical intentions: the novel, he said in one of his recent interviews, “has never known how to take advantage of its endless possibilities. It missed its chance.” From then onwards, he had a clear understanding of everything that would serve his own writing: music converted itself into a form of poetry and a global structure for the text that surpassed the mere scope of technique. That’s to say, music would determine the settings, the conceptual forms of the characters, and the themes that he decided on from that point, born in a country dominated by the Soviet Union, to explore until they were exhausted. Kundera said in an interview with the Paris Review, “Of course, every musical composition involves a great deal of technique: exposition of the themes, their development, variations, polyphonic work (often very automatic), filling in the orchestration, the transitions, et cetera. Today one can compose music with a computer, but the computer always existed in composers’ heads—if they had to, composers could write sonatas without a single original idea, just by “cybernetically” expanding on the rules of composition. Janacek’s purpose was to destroy this computer! Brutal juxtaposition instead of transitions; repetition instead of variation—and always straight to the heart of things (…) It is nearly the same with the novel; it too is encumbered by “technique,” by rules that do the author’s work for him (…) My purpose is like Janacek’s: to rid the novel of the automatism of novelistic technique, of novelistic word-spinning.”

The novels of Kundera break with the supremacy of descriptions and the placement of his characters into a historic setting, replacing them with extensive reflections that at times, take on the tone of an essay, a genre that Kundera includes in his texts as one of the narrative devices, or that he wants, sobering and violent according to his desire, the reader to accept as a narrative device. The influence of music in his work not only has its own decorative hue: it’s a mathematical reality. In that interview, Kundera recalls the chapters of Life is Elsewhere, his third novel, and realized that, for example, the first part has 11 chapters in 71 pages, and the second, 14 chapters in 31 pages. This difference between the number of chapters and the number of pages allows Kundera to think of his novels with the same intentions as a sonata or a quartet piece: to propose musical instructions, tempos, and emotional atmospheres. In effect, Life is Elsewhere could be described in terms of harmonic force: moderato, allegretto, allegro, prestissimo. Many of his novels are also divided in seven parts, like a kind of perfect harmony. Each corresponding part has its own distinct velocity, at the same time, dictated by the duration of the facts being presented and the utilization of an ellipsis. Both elements, clearly, are born from the ambitions of Janacek: the dissolution of conventional forms, of the facts (the musical notes) that are left over and only serve to disrupt the final interpretation of the work.

“Every passage of a musical composition acts upon us, like it or not, through an emotional expression”–said Kundera. “The order of the movements for a symphony or a sonata remain fixed, always, by rule, unwritten, of the change between slow movements and fast movements, which almost automatically signify sad movements or cheerful movements (…) To compose a novel is to juxtapose different emotional spaces and in this lies, in my opinion, the most subtle art of the novelist.”

On one occasion, the then director of the magazine Le Débat, Pierre Nora, asked Kundera to complete a dictionary of his own personal words, the words that he considered essential, and would define using his experience as a writer. So he wrote:

“Litany: Repetition: beginning of a musical composition. Litany: word converted into music. I want the novel, in its reflexive passages, to find itself singing every so often.”

–by Juan David Torres Duarte

–With translation by N. David Pastor

–This piece originally appeared as part of El Espectador’s ‘Artes cruzadas‘ series exploring the influence of music on famous writers and their work.