Essayist Rises To Defense Of Our Betrayed Art Forms

"Testaments Betrayed: An Essay in Nine Parts" by Milan Kundera HarperCollins, $24

The extent to which Milan Kundera's second book of essays, "Testaments Betrayed," picks up where he left off with his first, "The Art of the Novel," is evinced by how often the new book uses the older book's title as a catch phrase: some 15 times by my unscientific calculations.

The subjects, too, are hand-me-downs from Kundera's previous work: translators, kitsch, the tyranny of public opinion, the overlapping of private and public lives.

Does this repetition make "Testament Betrayed" a dull read for Kundera's many fans? Please. His insights prove deeper, his connections more daring and profound, the book itself more cohesive as Kundera illuminates in essay after essay the betrayed testaments of music and literature.

What are these testaments? Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses" is one - betrayed not so much by Khomeini's death sentence on the author as by a literary world that, in its rush to defend free speech, ignored and even disparaged the book. The work of Czech composer Leos Janacek is another. Two of his operas were changed - one posthumously - to placate conventional wisdom.

And then there's Kafka. Literary legend has it that on his deathbed he told his friend Max Brod to burn all his unpublished manuscripts. Brod not only ignored this request but published the texts and for decades touted Kafka before the international literary community.

Does Kundera consider this a betrayal? Not really. Only a madman would deny the world "The Trial" and "The Castle." What Kundera objects to is that Brod published everything: unfinished stories, letters, diaries, you name it. This in turn allowed Kafka's work to be equated with Kafka's life, and in some cases the latter even superseded the former. But the betrayals of Kafka do not end there. In the essay "A Sentence," Kundera compares three translations of one Kafka sentence, demonstrating how each translator infused it not only with his personal style but, worse, the conventional version of his own language.

"That is the error," writes Kundera. "(E)very author of some value transgresses against `good style,' and in that transgression lies the originality (and hence the raison d'etre) of his art. The translator's primary effort should be to understand that transgression."

Some readers may wish that Kundera, in broadly American terms, would lighten up. But this weight of passion - from the author of "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" - is exactly what I love about Kundera.

At a time when everyone proclaims the death of the novel, he argues for its originality and necessity as an art form. In an era made dumb from the vibrations of rock 'n' roll, he demonstrates vast knowledge of the history and aesthetics of music.

And in an age of celebrity, he champions not so much the artist as the art: the testament which, through carelessness, sentimentality or even love, can be betrayed.

Erik Lundegaard is a Seattle writer.