In the first few moments of Milan Kundera’s play Jacques and His Master—which had its American premiere this season at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge under the directorship of Susan Sontag— two men in eighteenth-century garb walk out onstage. One of them, on catching sight of the audience, gapes in uncomfortable surprise. “Sir,” whispers the servant, gesturing toward the audience, “Why are they staring at us?” And the master, who seems to be made no less uncomfortable by the circumstances, offers some sound theatrical advice: “Pretend there’s no one there,” he says.

It is a cute opening and, if the American Repertory Theatre had not cluttered up the actors' entrance by having them haul onstage a lot of unnecessary and distracting props, it might have been as effective as the self-consciously theatrical opening usually is in the many contemporary plays that use it. Unfortunately, it was precisely the wrong opening for this particular play.

Jacques le fataliste has the distinction of being possibly the only novel more wayward and rambunctious than Tristram Shandy.

Jacques and His Master is loosely based on or, at any rate, inspired by Denis Diderot’s eighteenth-century novel Jacques le fataliste. The Diderot novel is one that is particularly dear to Kundera’s heart and he has, on more than one occasion, discussed it thoughtfully as an important anomaly in the context of European literature. In his introduction to the American edition of the play (published last month by Harper & Row), Kundera makes it clear that he does not consider Jacques and His Master an adaptation of Diderot’s novel. He calls his play alternately “a variation” on a theme by Diderot and an “homage” to him. It is clear, however, that apart from invidious comparisons with Diderot’s work, Kundera expects his play to succeed on some level on its own terms. Actually, there isn’t much to Jacques and His Master: it is really more of a divertissement or bagatelle than a variation. Moreover, it is hard to see what sort of “homage” Kundera thought he was offering to Diderot, for in transcribing Diderot’s themes for another instrument—the stage rather than the printed word—Kundera has rendered the notes almost unrecognizable.

Jacques le fataliste has the distinction of being possibly the only novel more wayward and rambunctious than Tristram Shandy. It is, like Tristram Shandy, a tour de force effected by the author’s consistent refusal to take the form of the novel seriously. But Diderot goes one better than Sterne. Tristram Shandy plays merry hell with its reader by rendering completely arbitrary both the events narrated and the order in which they are told. Sterne tells us what he likes when he likes with a Peck’s Bad Boy insouciance calculated to rob the reader of any faith he might have had in the novel form, let alone in the author’s sanity. And, of course, suggesting the limitations of the novel is part of Sterne’s game.

But for all his jokes and messing around at the expense of the novel form, there is one novelistic convention to which Laurence Sterne does, in fact, adhere: the supposition that the story he is telling is true. As we read the episodes and anecdotes that make up the lives of Walter Shandy and Dr. Slop, Uncle Toby and Corporal Trim, we are never for a moment expected to doubt the fact that the story proceeds as it does (i.e., that things are said to have happened) because events occurred in a certain way. We are, in other words, being asked to play along in the little game that fiction, by its very nature, requires of the reader, the private, unconscious, and instinctive pretense of belief.

No so in Diderot. What Diderot wants first and foremost in Jaques le fataliste is to undermine the whole assumption on which storytelling is based: the feigned gullibility on the part of the reader, the silent compact with the author—into which every reader enters willingly the moment he opens a novel—to pretend to believe (on some emotional level) that the story he is about to read is true. The biggest running gag in Jacques le fataliste is Diderot’s constant appeal to the arbitrariness of the narrative form. With the very first sentence, he robs the reader of his right to know the most rudimentary facts about the story he is about to hear.

How had they met? By chance, like most people. What were their names? What’s that to you? Where had they come from? From where they'd been just before. Where were they going? Does anyone ever know where he’s going? What were they saying? The Master wasn’t saying much of anything; and Jacques was saying ….

With the single detail of Jacques’ remark— something to the effect that “Everything good or bad that happens on earth is written so on high”—Diderot has pretty well set forth the themes he means to play with as well as the rules of composition.

Diderot’s concerns in Jacques le fataliste are essentially three. He is marginally interested in the debate between free will and determinism—in a jokey sort of way; he is piqued by the question of how we are to judge complex human behavior by the standards of a makeshift and simplistic morality; and he is fascinated by the phenomenon of the novel itself, the question of its validity as a realistic literary genre. In the service of this question Diderot has written a novel that, like Tristram Shandy, is essentially about nothing. In Jacques le fataliste two virtually anonymous figures, a master and a servant, journey from nowhere in particular to a place that is only very vaguely someplace else. They ride and walk and stop for rest and nourishment and bad weather, and on their way they tell each other stories. Scarcely anything happens to them on their journey (until the very end) except that sometimes, when the weather is particularly bad, they are obliged to put up at an inn where they may encounter other storytellers. This comes as a welcome relief to the reader, to be quite frank, for the primary story we are meant to be attending to—the great love of Jacques’ life—rarely gets anywhere. The Master is constantly interrupting Jacques; and when he isn’t interruptiing, the narrator is.

In addition to the story of Jacques’ amours, there are four major narratives. Toward the end of the novel Jacques exchanges the complex and ribald history of his virginity for a story from the Master about how he was first gulled by his best friend into losing his mistress and then trapped into paying child support for his mistress’s baby by the villainous dear friend. In the middle of the novel there is a brilliant pair of tales that serve as companion pieces. The landlady of the inn where the Master and Jacques have to put up for a day tells of Madame de La Pommeraye, an honest and virtuous widow, and the loving, painstaking revenge she wreaks on a nobleman who has tired of her favors. The next morning, setting out on their journey again, Jacques and the Master are treated by that very nobleman to a story about an extraordinarily appealing corrupt abbot whose genius for evasion thwarts all efforts toward punishment or reform.

Scarcely a page goes by without Diderot interrupting either himself or someone else.

Admittedly, for all the entertainment value shored up in these inner narrations and for all their capacity to amuse, what they add up to is shockingly little to have happen in a novel of three hundred pages. But Diderot’s narrative virtues lean more toward form than content and what keeps Jacques le fatalists consistently intriguing—as well as making it genuinely laugh-out-loud funny (in the way that Fielding’s Shamela and Sterne’s Tristram Shandy are funny) is the form Diderot uses to debunk the novel. In addition to the dialogue form (in which much of the novel is written) and the normal direct discourse of conventional fiction, Diderot invents a third narrative mode in which to tell the story of Philosophical John: the Mode of Interruption.

The most unusual feature of Jacques le fataliste is the way in which Diderot is forever interrupting whichever narrator happens to have the floor, and suspending the action of whatever story is being told. Scarcely a page goes by without Diderot interrupting either himself or someone else for the purpose of making a point about the nature of the novel. In Diderot’s favorite disruptive device, he breaks into an imaginary dialogue with the reader—very much like the dialogue that begins the novel— usually about some aspect of the story itself and almost always heated. The narrator’s mock relationship with the reader, in fact, deteriorates markedly as the novel progresses until, toward the end, Diderot becomes openly abusive, haranguing the reader, calling him names, and sulking.

Put yourself in the reader’s shoes. Imagine it: there you are, Joe Reader, happily buzzing along in your book and, if not eager then certainly willing to learn what happens next; when suddenly, for no reason at all, the narrator interrupts the story and attributes to you certain aggressively clever or provocative remarks, some criticism of his narrative judgment or conjecture about where the story will tend. Diderot answers the objection (or confounds the guess) and immediately answers himself back on your behalf until a sort of row breaks out on some weird meta-fictional plane between artifice and imagination. Thus, for example, Diderot interrupting poor Jacques in mid-speech:

At that moment, from a little way off, they heard a clamor of shouts and cries behind them. Turning their heads, they made out a band of men armed with pikes and pitchforks advancing on them at foil speed.

It is an exciting moment. But Diderot goes on:

You will think it was the men from the inn, the brigands whom we just left and their lackeys .... You will think this little army fell on Jacques and his master and that a bloody skirmish ensued, blows exchanged, pistols fired; and it’s entirely up to me whether that happened or not….

But, Diderot continues, if it did then that would be the end of “la verité d’histoire” as well as the end of the story of Jacques' amours. So the little army of men just disappears.

And if Diderot interrupts Jacques, he interrupts himself just as often: so that when a peasant with a pretty girl riding pillion behind him comes up alongside of the two companions, “What could this episode not grow into in my hands,” Diderot exclaims, “if I took it into my head to drive you wild!”

I would make this woman an important character, a niece of the curate in the next village. ... Why shouldn’t Jacques fall in love a second time? Why shouldn’t he once again become his master’s rival and even triumph over him?—Is that in fact what had already happened once?—Questions, always questions! So you don’t want Jacques to go on with the story of his amours? Once and for all: make up your mind. Is that what you want or isn’t it? If so….

And almost like a movie-maker running the film backward, Diderot has the girl and her peasant get back up on their horse and ride out of the narrative picture.

There would seem to be no limit to Diderot’s capacity for playing silly games at the expense of the novel form. Things only seem to happen in the outer story of the journey in order to give the narrator a chance to interrupt Jacques; and if the narrator does interrupt Jacques with an event occurring in the outer story of the journey, it is simply to prove that he can do it and the event—as often as not—comes to nothing. If he deigns to give a character analysis it is only to annoy us with a pause at an exciting moment. He imagines a reader clamoring for a digressive anecdote and eager to have another put aside. Then he sulks and says he'll tell the story however he likes: it’s his story, and whether we like it or not is the least of his concerns; he’s perfectly happy to talk to himself! He refuses to tell us where Jacques and the Master are headed, tells us anyway, takes it back and forgets that he has changed his mind, comes up with another idea and pretends that he has only just remembered the exact circumstances. He gives the reader a choice of two alternative endings to an episode. He even gets himself mixed up in the narrative.

It was late; the city gates were shut and they were obliged to spend the night on the outskirts of town. Suddenly, I hear a noise . . .—You hear a noise? You weren’t there; how do you come into it?—You’re right! Okay, Jacques ... his master . . . they hear this tremendous racket. I see two men .. .-—You don’t see anything! This isn’t about you; you weren’t there.—You’re right ….

And so forth.

Diderot’s silly games, however, are not pure perversity. Or if they are, then the whole novel must be regarded as a “game” because it isn’t really about the fortunes of Jacques and his Master. Nor is it even about what happens in the stories that Jacques, the Master, the landlady, and the Marquis des Arcis respectively tell, so much as it is about the nature of storytelling itself and how it either is or is not governed by the same forces that dictate and shape our lives. The debate between determinism and free will is not a serious debate, of course: neither Jacque’ thinking nor the Master’s is really probing enough to be very instructive or very energetic; and the question about moral judgments remains just that, a question. But the philosophical content of Jacques le fataliste becomes interesting by virtue of its application to the literary questions that Diderot is raising. If, as Jacques maintains, “Everything ... is written on high,” obviating a need to seek out moral causes, what then about what is written here below? What motivates the nature of the tale?

Diderot keeps denying that his book is a novel. His favorite argument on this point is that things don’t happen in his book as they would in a novel. In a novel, he argues, the girl with the peasant would have become a major love-interest, the band of brigands would have attacked our heroes. The implication seems to be that his book is more “realistic” than a novel, but we have seen far too much of the mind behind the fiction to be expected to believe that certain events are being recounted because that is how they happened. We know that events m Jacques le fataliste occur or don’t occur entirely in accordance with Diderot’s whim and how the fancy takes him. He’s told us so himself and demonstrated the fact.

Throughout Jacques le fataliste there seems to be an odd connection between what is happening in the debate about determinism and free will and what is happening in the main story of the journey. Sometimes an event, by occurring or failing to occur, bears Jacques out on a philosophical point or refutes him. In some places Diderot’s reasoning even seems to echo Jacques' and vice versa. Jacques, for instance, explaining why a particular turn of events was never even a possibility—"Because it didn’t happen”— sounds an awful lot like Diderot explaining why the story couldn’t have taken a particular turn; because “adieu la verité d’histoire” if it had! Finally, toward the end of the novel there is a sort of philosophical showdown. Jacques sabotages his Master’s riding gear and laughs at him provocatively when he falls off his horse. Having infuriated his Master to the point of violence, Jacques makes a clean breast of it and tells him the truth about having rigged both the accident and the fight, claiming the episode as proof positive that the Master’s actions proceed from something other than his own will. The Master is convinced. But, of course, Jacques’ “proof” is really a kind of dramatized sophistry; the cause of the incident has not been fate or what was written in what Jacques calls “the great scroll in the sky.” The whole episode has been the result of Jacques' own will—or his whim, rather, just as the episodes in the rest of the novel have been the result of Diderot’s. That Diderot’s joke has made the forces governing fiction and life equally random seems clear; but whether the point is that actual life has been shown to be as irrational and arbitrary as fiction or that fiction has proven as arbitrary and irrational as the events in human life is beyond me to say.

It is, however, this aspect of narrative horseplay applied to the notion of causality that Kundera tries to replace in Jacques and His Master with the self-conscious theatricality that informs the opening sequence in the play. Where Diderot has used the device of the self-conscious narrator in order to make a point about moral and narrative causes (questions about why what happens happens), Kundera has peppered his characters' dialogue with little jokes about the form of theater, about the dangers of literary adaptations and about the inconveniences of being a character in a play. Toward the end of Act I, for example, the following exchange occurs:

MASTER (testily): ... We’ve still got a long way to go ... Wait a minute, damn it! Why is it we have no horses?
JACQUES: You forget that we’re on stage.
You can’t have horses on stage!
MASTER: You mean I have to walk because of a ridiculous play? The master who invented us meant us to have horses.
JACQUES: That’s a risk you take when you’re invented by too many masters.
MASTER: You know, I’ve often wondered whether or not we’re good inventions. What do you think, Jacques? Are we well invented?

The answer to Jacques’ master’s question, I think, (whichever way you choose to read it) is, “yes and no.” Denis Diderot was a splendid dialogist; Milan Kundera is not; moreover, as the precious exchange above suggests, his translator, Michael Henry Heim, has not an ear for either naturalistic or stylized conversation. But the real problem with Jacques and His Master lies deeper than that, below the surface of the words delivered onstage.

If, as Jacques maintains, “Everything ... is written on high,” what motivates the nature of the tale?

Self-conscious narrative and self-conscious theatricality are not at all the same thing. They have entirely different uses and functions. Each can be used to make a variety of points, but the eloquence of each is limited to a particular aspect of human experience. Shakespeare, Farquhar, and Tom Stoppard, for example, all call attention to the form of theater, to the notion of playacting and to the phenomenon of projecting an illusion of reality. They may be trying to make different points in doing so, but all of them are using the idea of theater figuratively in order to comment on the role of “pretense” in human relations, its purpose or its limitations. Similarly, Homer, Chaucer, and Philip Roth, for example, all call attention to the act of storytelling, the process of creating fiction, and the phenomenon of projecting an illusion of truth. They may be trying to make different points in doing so, but all of them are primarily interested in the relationship between the teller and the tale. Both devices explore the fact of man’s innate gullibility and the role of artifice in our lives; but theater, because of its nature and formal properties, looks at questions of why we pretend to be other than we are, whereas narrative looks at why we tell lies.

Sometimes, in plays, self-conscious theatricality can take the form of narrative, just as it can take the form of oratory. Characters in the plays of Beckett or David Mamet, for instance, sometimes tell one another stories in a fashion that becomes a form of theater: they are giving a performance or creating something. But even so, this “self-conscious theatricality” is calling attention to the act of creating or performing, not to the question of why the “story” takes the form it does. There is, on the other hand (to give an example of self-conscious narrative outside of the context of Diderot), a particular tradition of medieval verse—the dream poem —in which an unidentified narrator or “speaker” tells the story of a dream he once had or a book he once read. The justification for the telling of the dream or story is already there, implicit in the convention of the genre; and yet the greatest poems coming out of this tradition—Chaucer’s “Book of the Duchess,” for instance, and Henryson’s “Testament of Cresseid”—are all self-conscious narratives to the extent that they direct the reader’s attention toward the question of why we happen to hear the dream or story in the form we do. It is the difference between examining the impulse toward art and examining the mystery behind why the work takes the shape it does.

In Jacques and His Master Kundera has kept all the basic elements of Diderot’s novel except one. Like Jacques le fataliste, it is made up of stories. The same anonymous master-and-servant pair journey between the same two unspecified points, chatting, philosophizing, and telling each other stories. They stop at the same inn they find shelter at in Diderot’s novel, encounter the same innkeeper there and listen to the same history of Madame de La Pommeraye. As in the novel, Jacques relates how he lost his virginity in an attic with his best friend’s girl and the Master tells of being duped by a disingenuous dear friend. (“Our adventures, Master, seem strangely similar,” says Jacques.) The events being narrated are acted but for the benefit of the audience and the storyteller himself (in the tradition of Story Theater) goes back and forth between telling the tale and helping to act it out, while other characters sit by and “listen.” And the listeners, for their part, interrupt them with a Diderot-like regularity that inflates the three stories into a full evening of theater.

But because there is no narrator, no single, controlling intelligence directing the shape of events, Kundera’s attempts to approximate the narrative experience of stories-within-stories doesn’t come off. In Diderot’s novel there were two parallel creative movements going on—the story Diderot was telling us about Jacques and his Master, and the stories that Jacques and his Master heard themselves—and by having his two parallel storylines descant on one another, Diderot was able to demonstrate something about the creative process. But in Jacques and His Master, although someone is putting on a play for us (the American Repertory Theatre), no one is in any literal or figurative sense putting on a play for any of the characters. The scenes we see enacted are purely for our benefit: they are simply Kundera’s theatrical expression of the act of storytelling, giving us something to look at as we sit in the auditorium of the Loeb Drama Center. So the little playlets we see have no formal function at all. Again, in his novel, Diderot used the narrator’s habit of unceremoniously interrupting his own characters in order to suggest jokingly that the natural universe and fiction might be governed by the same rudely disruptive force. But Kundera, in his play, by having various characters interrupt one another, is able to suggest a little more than that life is made up of interruptions. Starting, perhaps, from an assumption as to which literary devices are and are not theatrical, the first thing Kundera has done has been to rid himself of that unpredictable and eccentric fellow the narrator. Unfortunately, as well as being the most entertaining character in Jacques le fataliste, the narrator is also the whole point.

Kundera has chosen, in fact, exactly the wrong form for adapting Diderot’s novel; and the form of theater turns out to be his greatest liability. Kundera’s own strengths of course are narrative, not dramatic: his own characters tend not to be defined by word and action so much as by psychology and exegesis, and when they are finely drawn it is not because of what they do and say but because of why they do and say it. It is neither action nor language but motivation that concerns him. But drama is made up of language and action. In the play that Kundera has written we get no real sense of Jacques—the irrepressible, self-assured fellow who sulks when he cannot have the floor and can’t hold down a job because he talks too much—or any sense of the nature of his “fatalism.” Diderot’s dialogue vividly depicts the plight of the would-be rationalist who cannot rid himself of human feeling:

JACQUES: Sir, we have no way of knowing, in this life, when to rejoice and when to grieve. Good brings on evil and evil brings on good. We walk in darkness underneath whatever is written on high, equally blind in our hopes, our joys and our miseries. Often when I weep I realize I’m being an ass.
MASTER: And when you laugh?
JACQUES: I’m being an ass then, too. All the same, I can’t keep myself from laughing and crying—that’s what infuriates me so! A hundred times, I’ve tried to ... well... so, anyway, that whole night I didn’t shut my eyes once ...
MASTER: No, no. Don’t stop. Tell me what you’ve tried to do.
JACQUES: To make a joke of everything. Oh, if only I’d been able to manage it!
MASTER: Why! What good would it have done?
JACQUES: I wouldn’t have had to care about anything; I wouldn’t have had to need anything; I’d have gained complete mastery over myself; I'd have considered myself just as well off sleeping with my head on a stone, on some street corner, as sleeping on a down pillow. Sometimes I can do it, but the hell of it is that it doesn’t last and that no matter how firm and rock-like I am in a crisis, there’s always some little thing, some petty nothing that throws me off. I could smack myself! So I’ve given up on it. I’ve decided to just accept the way I am; and the odd thing I’ve noticed—just when I happen to be thinking about it, which isn’t often—is that it almost comes to the same thing when you say to yourself: “Who cares about the way we are?” It’s the same kind of resignation—only easier and more convenient.
MASTER: More convenient, that’s for sure!

Kundera does not avail himself of Diderot’s dialogue, and unfortunately, his own dialogue leaves Jacques’ character and that of his Master unrealized. But without their characters their personal histories are virtually meaningless: for what is interesting about the story of how Jacques “lost his virginity” on three separate occasions, about how the Master wound up caring for his best friend’s bastard and about the great love of Jacques’ life has less to do with what they did and suffered than with what their own accounts of the past indicate to us about their relations with the rest of mankind.

One of my favorite moments in contemporary criticism occurred some years back in The New York Times daily television listings when a review of John Houston’s 1966 film adaptation of The Bible read simply: “The book is better.”

There is, admittedly, only a limited value in making unfavorable comparisons between literary adaptations and the great novels on which they are based: in most cases, the point scarcely needs to be made. If in this case I seem to have dwelt too lovingly on the specific ways in which Jacques and His Master does scant justice to Diderot’s novel, that is largely because the most interesting aspect of Kundera’s play is the reason that it fails. And Kundera himself is a little slippery on the subject, to be perfectly honest. He does, of course, protest at great length in his introductory essay that his play is not an adaptation. He also discusses the formal problems of the phenomenon of generic adaptation in some particularity—but with reference to Anna Karenina. He suggests that the idea of trying to “adapt” Jacques le fataliste would be ludicrous and even gives a list of reasons why. Nowhere, however, does he mention the crucial point. He talks of form and of failure but does not connect the two, does not seem to be aware that what makes the idea of adapting Jacques le fataliste technically ludicrous is the fact that its form is one for which theater has no equivalent and that its concerns are such as theater cannot explore.

Kundera’s own strengths of course are narrative, not dramatic.

And yet it would be strange indeed were Kundera not aware of Diderot’s concerns in Jacques le fataliste—not because Kundera loves the novel but because that technique and those concerns are so similar to his own. Kundera’s play apparently dates from the end of a period of writing that was followed by a silence of several years (a silence that Kundera alludes to in his essay, but does not explain). To be sure, the play itself seems to have no connection with Diderot on any but the most superficial level. But it would be wrong to dismiss the play without pointing out that the novel that broke Kundera’s silence, and with which he really made his appearance on the American literary scene—The Book of Laughter and Forgetting—actually does. It bears an extraordinary resemblance to Jacques le fataliste, in fact, most obviously in the curious quality of narrative self-consciousness that characterizes the novel.

Like Diderot in Jacques le fataliste, Kundera uses three distinct voices in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Sometimes he is the omniscient narrator hiding behind the veil of fiction; sometimes he becomes the essayist juxtaposing moments from his own life with moments from recent history. Sometimes, though, these two voices seem to meet and blend, becoming a sort of “middle” voice: that of a man telling a story and at the same time stepping back to watch himself in the act of telling a story, commenting on the movements of his pen. Thus Kundera can suddenly “just picture” one of his characters at a particular moment, or ask himself why he pictures another in a certain way. He can be unconvinced by one explanation for a character’s feelings (as though we were having an argument), or, like Diderot, tell us we have to “put up with” the way he tells the story. He can “watch” a group of his own characters “from a distance of two thousand kilometers” (where he sits in voluntary exile in Western Europe, writing) and “see them against the night lights of Prague the way it was fifteen years ago . .. .” Or announce that the lone figure of another character is “out there somewhere” if only he could find her. It is, of course, Diderot’s narrative mode played in a lyrical rather than a bumptious melody; but when Kundera uses it his Mirek and his Zdena, his Karel, Marketa, and Eva, his Tamina and his poets and students all become dwellers in that metafictional place between artifice and imagination that Jacques and His Master first claimed in the name of Denis Diderot.

Kundera’s themes in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting are more numerous and complex than Diderot’s. There are ideas about death, perspective, music, writing, and human understanding—as well as “laughter and forgetting"—and a curious untranslatable Czech word (litost), which seems to denote the disillusioned grief we feel when we find our private narcissistic images of ourselves betrayed by an ungenerous reality. But, like Diderot, Kundera has an interest in undercutting our notions of causality in regard to human experience; and so, like Diderot’s, his fiction cheats our expectation and the romanticized assumptions by which we locate the origin of human action in a rational or even passionate motivation.

Where all these themes seem to come together for Kundera, moreover, is in the notion of writing, or our relationship with writing as the manifestation of the “litost” inspired by the realization that we cannot expect to understand the irrational workings of the universe. For Kundera, imagination becomes in this context a part of that irrational universe: the irrational impulse driving us to art, music, or fiction in an attempt to assuage the guilt we feel for being unable to comprehend.

How far is this, though, from Diderot’s own point and his final comment on the nature of the novel? That final showdown between Jacques and his Master seems to have no point unless it is to suggest something about the human impulse toward philosophical reasoning. Jacques’ little experiment, after all, proves nothing about causes or effects except that his own desire to prove something about the way the universe works has influenced the course of events. But since throughout Diderot’s novel the idea of fictional motivation and the ideas of first causes have been reflexive of one another, the incident in the novel seems to point to the whole motivation behind the writing of fiction: that the writing of novels is (like Jacques’ willful and whimsical provocation of his Master) the manifestation of our need to exercise some cognitive power over the incomprehensible mess we see be fore us.

Jacques and His Master is not a very good play on anyone’s terms—Diderot’s or Kundera’s own. But perhaps Kundera’s true “homage” to Diderot may be found in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. And perhaps there, too, is to be found the explanation for why Milan Kundera might have wanted to do this crazy thing in the first place —what it was that Kundera so loved about this obscure eighteenth-century novel that he might have wanted to make it his own, even if that meant writing a not-very-good play.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 3 Number 7, on page 46
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