James bought me this, along with Kafka's Amerika, as a birthday present. It's a good combination because Kafka figures prominently in this seven-part essay. Kundera examines artists whose wishes have been betrayed by their friends, usually, but not always, after their death.
Central to this is Max Brod's 'betrayal' of Kafka by ignoring his friend's wish that most of his writing be destroyed. Instead Brod published the lot, including Kafka's private correspondence.
Kundera ties himself in knots on this one. He thinks Brod should have obeyed Kafka's wishes but knows that if he had the world would be without some great novels.
Kundera says that he would have ignored Kafka's wishes for the novels but destroyed his personal correspondence. Somewhat unconvincingly he believes this gives him the moral high ground.
It's an argument that undermines his belief that an artist's wishes should be paramount when it comes to the treatment of their work, even after death.
I think Kundera is wrong. An author is not always the best judge of his or her work and the fact that Kundera would have ignored some of Kafka's wishes shows that he knows this too. He wants to have his cake and eat it here.
I suspect that Kundera's damning verdict on Brod is motivated by his belief that Brod utterly misunderstood Kafka's work and, in doing so, laid the foundations for a long series of misinterpretations of Kafka by scholars ever since. He lets his displeasure cloud the fact that Brod rescued some magnificent literary works.
In this, as in everything, Kundera is staunchly certain in his opinions. James warned that I may find him arrogant but in fact it was fun to read someone so opinionated.
Kundera possesses an extraordinary intellect and a vast understanding of the art of the novel and it's a treat to read his views, even if I don't always agree with them.
Among the other kinds of betrayals Kundera examines are poor translations and the treatment of Stravinsky by his friend Ansermet. A substantial portion of the book deals with the intricacies of classical music, which remains a mystery to me, but my lack of knowledge there didn't spoil my enjoyment of the book.
The ideas come in such quick succession that it's often exhausting trying to keep up.
There are enough ideas here to sustain two or three readings. It's a fascinating book and, though I don't think it says as much about the novel as Calvino's sublime If On A Winter's Night A Traveller, it's highly recommended.