Kundera is a 'thinking novelist' one who constantly reflects on his art, and whose reflections often enter into the very body of his fiction. In this seven- part analysis he tries to draw back the curtain and provide us a look at the essence of the novel. The novel which Lawrence called 'the bright book of life' is the form which had its first great manifestation in the Western World in Cervantes 'Quixote'. Kundera provides a brief historical survey of the novel. He argues for its being a foundation element of world- literature. He too argues that our well- worn habit of speaking of American fiction, English fiction, Russian fiction does a disservice to the form which is aimed to speak at our essential humanity, across all boundaries. Kundera tells us how the Novel first began to give everyday life its full place in our consciousness. He speaks of the way the nineteenth century novel of psychological character analysis moved into the twentieth century 'novel of situation', He provides us insight into those who are in his perception the greats of the genre Cervantes, Tolstoy , Dostoevsky, Proust, Laclos, Stendhal, Broch , Musil, Kafka. He argues against fiction which is meant to be a trivial entertaintment and in effect claims that what the Novel really is is the most essential way of telling and understanding Life. He argues for an Art which is essential and enduring, clearly having his own personal aspirations for his own work in mind.
All who love Fiction will be instructed by this master's insightful and often surprising essay on the most significant literary form of our time.
on February 25, 2007
Milan Kundera is best known for his 1984 novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which chronicles the fragile nature of an individual's fate. The author offers a nihilistic view of life in which there is no possibility of repetition, experiment, or trial and error.
Nevertheless, the author finds meaning, however fleeting, in humanity's creative urges. Not only has he written a long list of fictional works, but he has penned several volumes of literary criticism, including 1980's The Art of the Novel.
In his new work, The Curtain, Kundera continues this investigation into the novel--its raison d'etre; its strengths and weaknesses; its history, power, and purposes; how it differs from other literary genres.
For Kundera, "the curtain" represents the burden or weight of pre-interpretation inherited from the past. The great novelist, he asserts, breaks through this curtain of misperceptions, discovering or even inventing what lies beyond, thereby revealing something new about the human condition.
Kundera points out that Cervantes' Don Quixote, like Francois Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel, stands at the very beginning of the novel's birth, and that both of these works display an original version of human nature. This is what makes a novel matter: its ability to reveal some previously unrecognized aspect of our existence.
This truth is exemplified in the works of Franz Kafka, who, along with Miguel Cervantes, receives the lion's share of Kundera's analysis in The Curtain. Kafka ripped through the curtain in his novels, exposing the oppressive nature of the modern bureaucratic state and the destructiveness of the totalitarian mentality.
But Kundera warns us, the novel doesn't merely serve some social purpose--its role transcends the vicissitudes of humankind.
"Art isn't there," he writes, "to be some great mirror registering all of History's ups and downs, variations, endless repetitions...It is there to create its own history."
In other words, a great novel has, in addition to existential depth, an aesthetic value. In breaking through the curtain, it escapes provincialism, which Kundera defines as "the inability (or the refusal) to see one's own culture in the large context," and merges with the greater current of world history.
The Curtain--Milan Kundera's deeply considered personal vision of what the novel can and should be, a vision privileged by the unique perspective of a writer who has spent much of his life apart from his Czech homeland--provides an artistic, intelligent feast.
on March 8, 2007
Reading THE CURTAIN is akin to what I would imagine it would be like to hear Kundera lecture to a small group about literature. The tone is really quite intimate. His prose incredibly lucid (as always) and his ideas are so clear.
on February 13, 2007
This is billed as an essay in seven parts. I don't know how true that is because an essay should have a unifying thesis. This book is more like a meditation. The subject of the meditation? Art, history, politics...but mostly the novel. The title of the book reflects the way the world comes at us pre-interpreted. It is the job of the novel to tear through this curtain and see the world in a new way (he is obviously a fan of phenomenology).
Kundera has many points to make about the novel, so it would be a disservice to try to sum them up. He asserts that tracing literature through individual countries is wrong - novelists know no nationalities. As in his own novels, Kundera is obsessed with the idea of kitsch. For him, Kitsch is the ultimate enemy of Art. I think he uses "kitsch" to mean mawkishness. I don't know if I ultimately agree with him - I appreciate some good kitsch now and again - but it is a useful concept to keep in mind when reading Kundera's novels; he is fond of humor because it is the enemy of kitsch.
He goes on in some detail about the importance of humor. Yet, I wouldn't call this a tremendously uplifting read. He is convinced that Art and the Novel are dying. In our "consumer society" we are satisfied at having the world pre-digested for us. We can only hope that he is wrong.
on March 14, 2007
Milan Kundera's essay draws the curtain back to reveal the treasures of "die Weltliteratur" as he traces the threads of continuity in novels by Rabelais, Cervantes, Fielding, Dostoevsky, Kafka and many more. He eschews the cultural "isms" that weigh down our understanding of literature.
Although a work of non-fiction, The Curtain is a beautiful exposition on aesthetics as it is applied not only to literature, but to music as well. Kundera tells us to read and re-read with new eyes, unfettered by pre-imposed cultural and socio-economic distinctions.
As Kundera outlines the "fragility of human certainties" found is so much of the world's great literature and implores us to understand the true worth of the novel so that we can embrace both its history and its essence. This is a poetic work of literary criticism that will be a worthwhile read for anyone interested in literary art.
on April 1, 2009
Schopenhauer made the astute observation that the essence of true art is the fact that it conveys an unexpected and original insight into the real nature of our world.
Building on that, Hermann Broch considered the novel (literature) as an optical instrument for the reader so that he can discern what he might never have seen in himself without that specific book. He even went so far as to claim that a novel, which fails to reveal some hitherto unknown bit of existence, is immoral.
This is also Milan Kundera's viewpoint: `For all we can do in the face of the ineluctable defeat called life is to try to understand it; that is the raison d'être of the novel.'
`A novel is purposely a-philosophic, even anti-philosophic, fiercely independent of any system of preconceived ideas, it questions, it marvels, it doesn't judge, nor proclaims truths.'
`Its characters do not need to be admired for their virtues. They need to be understood.'
And, `novelists should past the frontier of the plausible.'
Milan Kundera sketches marvelously the history of the novel: from actions (Cervantes), over psychology (Dostoyevsky, Flaubert) to situations (Kafka, Joyce).
He makes also penetrating comments on his favorite writers (Fielding, Broch, Kafka, Flaubert, Musil, Rabelais, Gombrowicz, Cervantes, Dostoevsky, Sterne) and shows their unique place and high originality in the continuing evolution of the art of the novel.
This book is a must read for all lovers of world literature.
on January 4, 2008
In The Curtain, which in fact is a series of separate pieces, each of which are further divided into component pieces, Kundera presents the novel and novelists in a tableau of history, politics, and culture. His manner is discursive. Among his shaggy dog elements: the novel as psychological exploration of character or as existential analysis; phenomenological observations on the workings of memory; Rabelais, Cervantes, and Hermann Broch (The Sleepwalkers) as stand-alone contributors to the nonlinear history of the novel, along with Sterne, Flaubert, Kafka, Carlos Fuentes, and more; the influence of national culture on art (the difference between French "vulgarity" and Central European "kitsch"); the innards of a novel's process, and the workings of prosai-comi-epic imagination ...
It occurred to me, as I began to scribble notes on this or that observation, put so succinctly and well, that I hadn't felt the need to do that in a while, since reading E.M. Cioran's observations on life, in fact, and before that the aesthetic takes on visual art of Andre Malraux in Anti-Memoirs) and the comments on writing by Sartre in Why I Write. You can reread such books, as I expect I'll reread this one as well.I Think, Therefore Who Am I?
on January 29, 2008
The Curtain is Kundera's third work of literary criticism/theory and it is, in my view, the best. It is more focused than Art of the Novel and less bitter than Testaments Betrayed. Here Kundera presents extremely readable and pointed analyses of several works and, more importantly, provides a larger argument about the role of the novel in the world and its moral capabilities. He provides insights into several well known writers such as Cervantes and Kafka, but he has also alerted me to many writers with whom I was previously unfamiliar. It is one of those books that, after you finish, will make you want to go and read a dozen other books. And I think that is a good thing.
on June 20, 2013
I don't read most of the novels that I see mentioned over and over, but when Milan Kundera mentions the Musil novel, The Man Without Qualities, I realize that an index would help me find works that are far more familiar to me in this book. Written in French in 2005, the English translation in hardcover in 2006 did not have an index, but I read far enough to find a few pages on Witold Gombrowicz, who wrote in Polish and died in France in the summer of 1969 after a paroxysm that caused him to be ill when a Ford Foundation grant brought him to Berlin in 1962 or 1963. Those were terrible times. On page 81:
It was three months after the Russian Army
had occupied Czechoslovakia;
Russia was not yet able to dominate
Czech society, which was living with
anxiety but (for another few months)
with a good deal of freedom; the
Writers Union, alleged to be a hotbed
of the revolution, still had its houses,
published its journals, received guests.
I think the time and place were 1968, when Gombrowicz was in bed in France, just after the guests left, Kundera had the opportunity to read the Czech translation proofs of One Hundred Years of Solitude. (p. 81). Having a novel of "free imagination itself" is like going back in imagination to what Gombrowicz considered "the miraculous moment of its beginnings." (p. 79). After seeing all the epistemic modalities left in the ditch of finiteness when a culture is "caught in the straitjacket of the small context" (p. 79), literary life is the way out of the paltry, monotonous, solipsism, and onanism of personified roles.
on May 12, 2007
It's a pleasure to read a Milan Kundera essay. Even apart from the ideas involved, which are stimulating, I appreciate his style. And he touches on Musil, Broch, Cervantes, Rabelais, Kafka, Tolstoy, Proust, etc. Kundera makes a compelling case for a view of the novel as an art form with a specific history. This essay is so rich, it's worth returning to a number of times, like the classics by Montaigne, Emerson, and so on. This is a joy to read.