Milan Kundera on Not Liking Dostoevskij

Caryl Emerson, Princeton University

While everyone, it seems, worships the writing talents of Leo Tolstoj, there is a small group of world-class writers from Eastern and Central Europe who have gone out of their way to denigrate Dostoevskij. That distinguished company includes Vladimir Nabokov, Joseph Conrad, Karel Chapek, and Milan Kundera. This paper will consider Kundera's antipathy in light of his own theory of the novel—which, at first glance, seems to share so much ground with the theories of Dostoevskij's most famous twentieth-century champion, Mixail Baxtin.

In the Introduction to his tribute to Diderot and the eighteenth century, the play Jacques et son maîum;tre (1981), Kundera asks himself why, having re-read The Idiot, "Dostoevsky's universe of overblown gestures, murky depths, and aggressive sentimentality" so repels him. The reasons he provides are eloquent, but not entirely satisfactory. In subsequent essays and interviews on novelistic fiction (collected in The Art of the Novel (1986 French / 1988 English) and Testaments Betrayed (1993 / 1995), Kundera expands on this prose aesthetic, but circuitously, with rich digressions on our obligations to history and to music. Whereas history is treated harshly, the structure and discipline of music turn out to lie at the base of Kundera's theories of art. He prides himself on the "polyphony" of variations in his own work. That this polyphony and its orchestration are very distant from what Baxtin celebrates in Dostoevskij should come as no surprise.

The paper speculates on the implications of these two very different uses of a musical-verbal metaphor for a theory of the novel, and how Dostoevskij's art can be the supreme exemplar in one, a vilified and cacophonous subtext in the other.