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  • Theme and VariationMilan Kundera, Denis Diderot, and the Art of the Novel
  • Gillian B. Pierce

Eh bien! je dirai comme un poète français, qui avait fait une assez bonne épigramme, disait à quelqu’un qui se l’attribuait en sa présence: «Pourquoi monsieur ne l’aurait-il pas faite? je l’ai bien faite, moi . . .»1

(Diderot, Jacques le fataliste 141)

L’Europe des Temps modernes n’est plus là. Celle dans laquelle nous vivons ne cherche plus son identité dans le miroir de sa philosophie et de ses arts. Mais où est donc le miroir. Où aller chercher notre visage?2

(Kundera, Le Rideau 187)

In the Le Rideau (2005), Milan Kundera claims that transforming a novel into a play reduces it to its plot and decomposes form. Should we read this assertion as a renunciation of the only play Kundera himself has composed, his rewriting of Diderot’s novel in Jacques et son maître?3 Before any such appraisal, we might first wish to assess Kundera’s statement in light of his thoughts on the history of the novel itself and the privileged place that Diderot holds within that history. For Kundera, the novelistic tradition begun by Cervantes, developed by Rabelais, and further elaborated by Sterne and Diderot rests largely unexplored, although it remains central to the spirit of the novel he outlined in L’Art du roman. It is my thesis that, having already witnessed the death of the novel in the guise of the totalitarian usurpation of eastern Europe, Kundera hopes to animate a possible alternate history for the novel in his rewriting of Jacques le fataliste. Furthermore, he hopes to base this alternate history for the novel on the libertinage de pensée exemplified by Diderot.

In Le Rideau, Kundera reflects on the past, present, and future of the novel as he writes,

Quand, un jour, l’histoire du roman sera terminée, quel sort attendra les grands romans qui resteront après elle? Certains sont irracontables et, donc, inadaptables (comme Pantagruel, comme Tristram Shandy, comme Jacques le fataliste, [End Page 132] comme Ulysse). Ils surviveront ou disparaîtront tels qu’ils sont. D’autres, grâce à la “story” qu’ils contiennent, semblent racontables (comme Anna Karénine, comme L’Idiot, comme Le Procès) et, donc, adaptables pour le cinéma, pour la télévision, pour le théâtre, pour des bandes dessinées. Mais cette “immortalité” est une chimère! Car pour faire d’un roman une pièce de théâtre ou un film, il faut d’abord décomposer sa composition; le réduire à sa simple “story”; renoncer à sa forme. Mais que reste-t-il d’une oeuvre d’art si on la prive de sa forme?

(Le Rideau 181–82)

(“When, one day, the novel’s history will have ended, what fate will await the great novels left after that? Some are unrecountable, and thus inadaptable (like Pantagruel, like Tristram Shandy, like Jacques the Fatalist, like Ulysses). They will either survive or disappear as they are. Others, thanks to the ‘story’ they contain, do seem recountable (like Anna Karenina, The Idiot, The Trial) and therefore adaptable to film, to television, to theater, to cartoon strip. But that immortality is a chimera! For turning a novel into a theater piece or film requires first decomposing the composition; reducing it to its ‘story’; renouncing its form. But what is left of a work of art once it’s stripped of its form?”

[The Curtain 154])

This passage is striking for several reasons. Not only does Kundera imagine here again the end of the novel, but he seems to suggest that there is little that is “immortal” in the novel and that its “immortality” does not lie in its story. Indeed, for Kundera, it is precisely the “irracontable” and “inadaptable” novels that form the essential core of the novel’s legacy. A mere “adaptation” does not capture what is essential, since the novel’s form (its récit as opposed to the histoire) is irreducible.

How, then, does Kundera justify a réécriture4 of Diderot’s Jacques le fataliste? Like his character Jacques, “qui avait en aversion...


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