Agnes's Final Afternoon: An Essay on the Work of Milan Kunderaby Francois Ricard
Agnès's Final Afternoon imitates the protagonist of Milan Kundera's novel Immortality on the last afternoon of her life. Like all readers of fiction, Agnès steps out of the world of planned routes, responsibilities, and social self and gives herself up to the discovery of a new landscape, an experience that will transform her. François/b>/b>
Agnès's Final Afternoon imitates the protagonist of Milan Kundera's novel Immortality on the last afternoon of her life. Like all readers of fiction, Agnès steps out of the world of planned routes, responsibilities, and social self and gives herself up to the discovery of a new landscape, an experience that will transform her. François Ricard's essay enters into the writings of Milan Kundera in much the same way. The landscape he explores includes a chain of ten novels, composed between 1959 and 1999, and two books containing one of the most lucid reflections on the novel.
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Agnes's Final AfternoonAn Essay on the Work of Milan Kundera
By Francois Ricard
Harper Collins PublishersCopyright © 2003 Francois Ricard All right reserved. ISBN: 0060005645
When she was little, her father taught her to play chess. She was fascinated by one move, technically called castling: . . . the enemy concentrates all his effort on attacking the king, and the king suddenly disappears before his eyes; he moves away. All her life she dreamed about that move, and the more exhausted she felt, the more she dreamed it.
- Milan Kundera
Before we turn, along with her, toward the spectacle of the mountains, let's linger a little longer over that very first moment, when Agnès leaves her car and gazes at the landscape. A metaphor for reading and a lesson in criticism, this gesture has all the more force and accuracy in that we can also see it as a more generic metaphor: that of the Kunderian novel itself, or at least one of its essential characteristics.
The Novel of Fighting
To understand this characteristic, one might look to Hegel's classic definition of modern fiction: "As individuals with their subjective ends of love, honour, and ambition, or with their ideals of world-reform, [the heroes of modern fiction] stand opposed to [the] substantial order and the prose of actuality whichputs difficulties in their way on all sides. Therefore, in this opposition, subjective wishes and demands are screwed up to immeasurable heights; for each man finds before him an enchanted and quite alien worldhe must fight because it obstructs him and its inflexible firmness does not give way to his passions ... Now the thing is to breach this order of things, to change the world, to improve it, or at least in spite of it to carve out of it a heaven upon earth." The engine of the novelistic imagination would thus be conflict or, rather, the confrontation "between the poetry of the heart and the opposing prose of circumstances"; that is, between the desire of the individual thirsting for meaning and fulfillment and the degraded world into which he has been cast, a conflict summarized by Georg Lukács in a well-known phrase: "The novel is the epic of a world that has been abandoned by God." "Epic," meaning war, struggle, and the relationship, both problematic and polemical, between a hero and the reality facing him.
Still according to Hegel's definition, such confrontation can lead only to the elimination of one of the two antagonists: either the hero relinquishes his aspirations and resigns himself to reality as it is, or he turns away from reality and forever shuts himself off into his desires. In other words, either he discovers the prose of the world and forges into it (Rastignac), or he sticks to his poetry and no longer has a place in the world (Werther). But in both instances the end of the conflict means the end of the novel. Above all else, the novel is the story of the exertions or setbacks of the hero, that "modern knight" (says Hegel) and his tribulations, whether they lead him ultimately to triumph or failure, will appear as so many milestones in the pursuit of that constant fighting - now apprenticeship, now rebellion - that is his novelistic destiny.
Bound to this model of the "novel of fighting" are such elements of novelistic form as suspense, sudden turns, dramatic progression, temporal linearity, and so on. Since it has older roots (Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe) and takes shape in exemplary fashion in the so-called Bildungsroman or the adventure novel, and later on in the thriller, we might say that it is globally valid (with few exceptions) for all of what Kundera, in Testaments Betrayed, calls the "second half" of the novel's history - that is, the nineteenth century and even beyond. The typical novel in the modern imagination, a bit like the tale in the folkloric imagination, is above all the story of the transformation (positive or negative) of an individual or of a world; its logic and organization are those of a quest (or conquest or inquest) - the enactment of a desire (for glory, love, wealth, happiness, truth); and its central character, no matter whether he triumphs or is crushed, is always in some way, "a hero," a person on the move, someone doing battle. In this respect Zola is not much different from Hugo or Dumas, or Malraux from Melville or Balzac, or even Proust from Stendhal and Dostoevsky. That is probably the main way in which the novel is so profoundly in harmony with the modern sensibility, for which history and existence are inconceivable apart from movement, from the march forward, and from fighting.
The power - and at once the terrible weight - of this model may appear most clearly in Kafka's work, which reveals it even as it perverts and thus exhausts it. Indeed, in the pre-Kafka novel, the hero's fight was based on a fundamentally "optimistic" vision of the world in which he had to live and battle. A world without gods, deprived of transcendental necessity and fallen into instability, was a world that seemed to be malleable, perfectible material, and thus - in principle - open to the transforming (or destructive) actions of the hero, whose victory, however arduous and uncertain it seemed, stood on the horizon of the possible and from there exercised an appeal that justified, supported, and ceaselessly resumed the battle. Rastignac, Julien Sorel, Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, even Proust's Marcel in À la recherche du temps perdu, can at least think that their aspirations have some chance of being fulfilled and that the world might yield to their desire. Their fight thus has a meaning, and even if they lose, they can expect to pull through with what the military of old called an honorable defeat.
Now, in Kafka this kind of assurance, which used to surround the heroes of novels, is no longer in practice. Represented by the invisible tribunal that has convicted Josef K. or by the equally invisible authorities who forbid the surveyor's access to the castle, the horizon here is permanently blocked ...
Excerpted from Agnes's Final Afternoon by Francois Ricard
Copyright © 2003 by Francois Ricard
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Meet the Author
François Ricard has been a professor of French literature at McGill University since 1971. His collection of essays on contemporary literature, La littérature contre elle-même, won the Governor General's Award in Canada. His writing about the work of Milan Kundera has been published in literary periodicals in the United States, France, Italy, and Canada. Agnès's Final Afternoon, already published in France, will also appear in Great Britain, the Netherlands, and China.
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