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BOOK REVIEW / Tinkering with creation

Milan Kundera's acrobatic celebration of Western fiction is a masterpiece. By Gilbert Adair; Testaments Betrayed by Milan Kundera Faber, pounds 16.99
It is not immediately obvious to the reader of Milan Kundera's new book why he chose to call it Testaments Betrayed. Nor, for that matter, is it immediately obvious what the book itself is actually "about''. Its subtitle defines it as "an essay in nine parts'', which seems fair enough, given that the same diverse subjects of reference - Kafka, Cervantes, Rabelais, Janacek, Hemingway, Stravinsky - flit from essay to essay like the characters of a novel. If I had to give it a sub-title, though, it would be the Zen-like "Variations Without A Theme''; for, although its nine sections do eventually coalesce around a thematic core, the latter is left latent throughout and is never stated in its ungarnished form as it would be in a set of musical variations. Equally, and unhesitatingly, I would call it a masterpiece. Certainly, not since Auden's The Dyer's Hand have I read a collection of essays with which I personally feel so intimate an affinity.

Even as a writer of fiction, Kundera has always tended towards the discursive, and his novels are as close to being essays as novels can be while never ceasing to be novels. Testaments Betrayed, too, in this light, can be read as a novel, a novel whose subject happens to be its own genre and whose protagonist happens to be its author.

It's a celebration, not merely of the history and destiny of western fiction, from Rabelais to Rushdie, but also, and above all, a study of the process by which what were once primarily aesthetic agendas have been more and more insidiously co-opted into the service of parasitical discourses - psychoanalytical, biographical, ideological, metaphysical - that are designed to intercept the need or desire for any direct confrontation with the text, with the very matter and materiality of literature. It's a book about what culture truly is, and could be once more, when emancipated from the vulgarisation, the creeping tabloidisation of the culture industry.

For Kundera, the most dangerous vulgarisers have always been the artist's closest friends and partisans, the keepers of his flame. It is their betrayal of his legacy which may have an enduring impact on his posterity. He is a fervent champion of the creator's moral rights as creator and thus of the currently unfashionable principle that his wishes and intentions be respected absolutely.

Consider Stravinsky. Adorno attacked the music of The Rite of Spring because it "does not identify with the victim, but rather with the destructive element'', prompting Kundera to ask "How does Adorno know whether Stravinsky is identifying with something or not?'' It's an elementary, almost stupid, question, but it needed asking. When the conductor Ernest Ansermet insisted on making a handful of "minor'' cuts from the same composer's Jeu de Cartes, an exasperated Stravinsky replied (giving Kundera a title for one of his sections) "You're not in your own house here, my dear fellow". If Ansermet was an early and frequent performer of Stravinsky's music, he was nevertheless not its co-composer: he had no right to make himself at home in it and rearrange its furniture.

Similarly, and now the title's meaning comes into sharper focus, Kundera conceals neither his admiration for Max Brod, the defender of both Janacek and Kafka (and the latter's literary executor) nor his vexation at the way Brod imagined he knew better than either. As the very first Kafkologist (Kundera's coinage), Brod endeavoured to invest his hero with a mystico- religious pathos that could scarcely have been further from Kafka's mind (and certainly was encouraged by nothing in his work), and so contrived to influence the writer's image for decades to come. He tried to perform a similar service for Janacek, until the dying composer rebelled against his fidgety tinkerings.

In another section, bringing his magnifying glass ever closer to the subject, Kundera summarises the narrative of a five-page short story by Hemingway, then exposes, line by damingly obtuse line, how its "interpretation'' by one of the novelist's several biographers transforms a beautiful, subtle, psychology-free fiction into a slab of pseudo-biographical kitsch. He examines a single sentence from The Castle and compares the original against three amazingly unfaithful French translations. And there is a truly fabulous passage on the nitty-gritty of writing as a practical exercise, on repetition, metaphor, typography and the systematic "sodonymising'' (as he puts it) of translators. "I write `author', says a bemused Kundera "and the translator translates it `writer'; I write `writer' and he translates it `novelist'; I write `novelist' and he translates it `author'. When I read that, I rushed to inspect my own occasional translations and I cannot tell a lie: guilty as charged (but I mean to go straight from now on).

Ultimately, Testaments Betrayed is a defence and illustration of culture now under seige from all the blithe laxities of postmodern relativism and if it works as well as it does, it is perhaps because it confronts that blitheness with its own songful brand of grace, with a fine quicksilvery intelligence and utterly without hysteria. In an age like ours, when everyone, to gain attention, walks on his hands, the individual who stands on his own two feet will be taken for an acrobat. Milan Kundera is just such an acrobat.