All novels, of every age, are concerned with the enigma of the self.
Man hopes to reveal his own image through his act, but that image bears no resemblance to him. The paradoxical nature of action is one of the novel’s great discoveries. But if the self is not to be grasped through action, then where and how are we to grasp it? So the time came when the novel, in its quest for the self, was forced to turn away from the visible world of action and examine instead the invisible interior life.
Joyce analyzes something still more ungraspable than Proust’s “lost time”: the present moment. There would seem to be nothing more obvious, more tangible and palpable, than the present moment. And yet it eludes us completely. All the sadness of life lies in that fact.
The more powerful the lens of the microscope observing the self, the more the self and its uniqueness elude us; beneath the great Joycean lens that breaks the soul down into atoms, we are all alike.
But if the self and its uniqueness cannot be grasped in man’s interior life, then where and how can we grasp it? Can it be grasped at all? Of course not. The quest for the self has always ended, and will always end, in a paradoxical dissatisfaction.
-from The Art of the Novel, Milan Kundera, F&F.