The Book of, uh, something and something else

I was too darn busy this weekend to write about that final Montaigne essay, and this week’s going to be pretty rough at the office, but I don’t want to leave you guys in the literary lurch. So here’s the closing passage from Philip Roth’s 1980 interview with Milan Kundera.

It’s not that I’ve been poring over Kundera lately, or contemplating this interview. Rather, an acquaintance sent out a request for someone to dig this interview up and provide him with the passage for something he’s writing. It initially ran at the end of Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, but Roth included it in his Shop Talk collection of interviews & essays. I typed it up for him, then decided to share it with you:

Roth: Is this [novel], then, the furthest point you have reached in your pessimism?

Kundera: I am wary of the words pessimism and optimism. A novel does not assert anything; a novel searches and poses questions. I don’t know whether my nation will perish and I don’t know which of my characters is right. I invent stories, confront one with another, and by this means I ask questions. The stupidity of people comes from having an answer for everything. The wisdom of the novel comes from having a question for everything. When Don Quixote went out into the world, that world turned into a mystery before his eyes. That is the legacy of the first European novel to the entire subsequent history of the novel. The novelist teaches the reader to comprehend the world as a question. There is wisdom and tolerance in that attitude. In a world built on sacrosanct certainties the novel is dead. The totalitarian novel, whether founded on Marx, Islam, or anything else, is a world of answers rather than questions. There the novel has no place. In any case, it seems to me that all over the world people nowadays prefer to judge rather than to understand, to answer rather than to ask, so that the voice of the novel can hardly be heard over the noisy foolishness of human certainties.

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