A review of The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts, by Milan Kundera

The Curtain was published by Gallimard as Le Rideau in April 2005. When HarperCollins published its English translation this January, the work had already appeared in Spanish, German, Portuguese, Polish, Greek, and Croatian translations. Its reappearances exemplify the notion of world literature that Milan Kundera argues for in this long essay, and that he has realized in nine novels and one short story collection between 1967 (The Joke) and 2000 (Ignorance). A literary emigrant who in 1975 left the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic for Paris, he has moved successfully from writing in Czech to writing in French, the language of his last three novels—although Identity, his most recent, was first published in Spanish! Kundera's œuvre includes three early volumes of poetry, four plays, and seven previous essays, but his claim to world literary immortality will rest on his novels. The Curtain serves, among other things, to justify his choice of that art form.

Like the 1986 The Art of the Novel (Kundera's first work written and published in French), The Curtainis divided into seven parts; also like the earlier work, it "intend[s] no theoretical statement at all," though it does sport a more continuous argument. Indeed, The Curtain's power and charm spring from the author's identity as a writer and reader of novels. Kundera has little favorable to say about professional or academic literary criticism or critics, and any gestures in that direction are ironic: the subsection, titled "Theory of the Novel" is two pages long and simply sums up Henry Fielding's author's reflections in Tom Jones. And Kundera's concluding celebration of the "miracle" of Europe's development of the arts since the Renaissance is undercut by the book's final two sentences: "For the history of art is perishable. The babble of art is eternal."

Taken as a whole, the seven "parts" of Kundera's essay move circuitously from the beginnings of the novel to its present and future prospects. The Curtain traces the novel's origins to the work of Rabelais and Cervantes, whose works predate the use of the term in English by almost two hundred years. Even Fielding, one of the novel's fathers, saw himself in 1749 as "the founder of a new province of writing," as yet unnamed, to which he attached the label "prosai-comi-epic writing." In conventional literary criticism, the "newness" of the novel is linked to formal and social changes (from poetic to prose fictional narratives, from aristocratic/courtly characters and audiences to middle-class/popular ones), but Kundera defines innovation in more fundamental terms. Drawing on Fielding's proposition that the novel's "new province" is the investigation of "Human Nature," and Laurence Sterne's "radical and total dethroning of ‘story'" and focus on seemingly insignificant topics in Tristram Shandy (1759), Kundera claims that "in the art of the novel, existential discoveries are inseparable from the transformation of form." This emphasis on new understandings of the human creature through new representations guides his pithy, illuminating account of the novel's development: from a focus on plot and story, to an emphasis on psychological plausibility and material circumstantiality (from Balzac and Flaubert through Joyce and Proust), to the surrealist-existentialist-metafictional works of such writers as Kafka, García Márquez, and Kundera himself. Whatever the era, however, Kundera's definition of the novel as "great antilyrical poetry" applies to the work of every author he covers, from Rabelais to Salman Rushdie.

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Kundera represents such innovations in understanding and artistic representation through the metaphor of tearing through the curtain of pre-interpretation that determines our view of the world, whether we are "conformists" or "rebels," whether the world is being interpreted through our own eyes or through the representations of lesser artists, or whether we may call such pre-interpretation ideology, common sense, the way things are, what is right, or the best-seller list. In Kundera's account of the novel, the great innovators are Rabelais and especially Cervantes, who "sent Don Quixote journeying and tore through the curtain. The world opened before the knight errant in all the comical nakedness of its prose," and Cervantes's "destructive art echoes and extends to every novel worthy of the name; it is the identifying sign of the art of the novel."

Kundera's history is therefore not progressive: "The novelist's ambition is not to do something better than his predecessors but to see what they did not see, say what they did not say. Flaubert's poetics does not devalue Balzac's, any more than the discovery of the North Pole renders obsolete the discovery of America." Don Quixote tore through the curtain, but so did novels like The Internal-Combustion Monster, a forgotten work by the Czech novelist Jaromir John, who in 1932 provided a comic, surrealistic forecast of human life disrupted and determined by the automobile. Nor is Kundera's history timeless or universal: what he calls "the shame of repeating oneself" would prevent a 21st-century writer from mimicking Hemingway, let alone Fielding, and would prevent readers from accepting such fiction as anything other than parody or plagiarism. Nor is Kundera's history comprehensive. Mediocre novels—most novels—have no place here because they have not fulfilled the criteria for innovative illumination of human nature.

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For Kundera, the history of the novel—like the history of all arts—is a history of "values," constituted over time and subject to reappraisal over time. Rabelais and Cervantes could only be recognized as the founders of this art once readers and writers of novels had come to realize what constitutes its distinctive "aesthetic value—that is to say: the previously unseen aspects of existence that [a] particular novel has managed to make clear; the novelty of form it has found." As a result,

in the collective consciousness, the history of the novel over its whole span from Rabelais to our own time is thus in constant transformation, shaped by competence and incompetence, intelligence and stupidity, and above all, forgetting, which never stops enlarging its enormous cemetery where, alongside nonvalues, lie buried values that have been underestimated, unrecognized, or forgotten.

Finally, "[t]he novelist is not a valet to historians"—novels cut through the curtain of what has been reified as History in order to understand how human beings subject themselves to its conditions. But this understanding, whether in the novel or in other arts, is ultimately more valuable and enduring:

Art is not a village band marching dutifully along at History's heels. It is there to create its own history. What will ultimately remain of Europe is not its repetitive history, which in itself represents no value. The one thing that has some chance of enduring is the history of its arts.

About midway through the essay, Kundera identifies The Curtain as a "‘personal history of the novel.'" The quotation marks point to the subjectivity of his account but also to its authoritativeness—who better to interpret and evaluate novels than a novelist, after all? Indeed, insofar as it persuades readers of its aesthetic judgments through literary interpretation and analysis, The Curtain is masterly. As a reader and critic of great fiction, Kundera is lucid, elegant, engaging, and convincing—whether he is pointing out how Flaubert's 1879 revision of Sentimental Education marked an evolution from scene-centered, overly dramatized realism toward the beauty of "everyday banality"; analyzing how Tolstoy managed to represent so superbly the "prose of a suicide" near the end of Anna Karenina; showing how Kafka transmuted the romanticism of Adalbert Stifter's Indian Summer (1857) into the world of The Castle, "defiled" comprehensively and irrevocably by bureaucratization; or arguing why in his short story "Sheep" (1958), Kenzaburo Oe refrains from identifying as Americans the drunken, brutish foreign soldiers who force the Japanese passengers on a bus into self-humiliation: "Just forgoing that one adjective was enough for the political aspect to recede into dim shadow, and for the light to focus on the enigma that most interested the writer, the existential enigma."

Many of the chapters of Immortality, Kundera's last novel written in Czech, involve dialogues of mutual admiration between Goethe and Hemingway, who encounter each other wherever it is that great writers end up (at least in the works of other writers). Kundera notes that the "honesty" of any great novelist (i.e., any real novelist) "is bound to the vile stake of his megalomania," because "[e]very novel created with real passion aspires quite naturally to a lasting aesthetic value, meaning to a value capable of surviving its author." Near the end of The Curtain, Kundera refers to the inexhaustible influence of Rabelais upon later writers from Sterne to Rushdie as an instance of how novels have renewed themselves and enlightened their readers for nearly 500 years: "their common history puts them in many mutual relationships which illuminate their meaning, extend their effect, and protect them against forgetting." But forgetting, a major theme throughout Kundera's work, may also be closely linked to the anxieties of a novelist in his late 70s whose greatest work, beginning with The Joke and culminating in The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), seems to lie behind him, and was closely connected to the stifling effects of Czech Communist ideology, the trauma of the Soviet invasion in 1968, and Kundera's subsequent flight to and residence in France. The novels written since then call attention to philosophical problems and existential concerns of the human condition in their very titles (Immortality, Slowness, Identity, Ignorance), but Kundera's three French works are his shortest, and half of the books composed in his adopted language are essay collections, including The Curtain.

Another anxiety in The Curtain is suggested in Kundera's calling attention to Jaromir John's prophetic but unknown novel about automobiles, as well as his observation that the earliest Western prose fictions were Icelandic sagas—magnificent narratives that had no influence on the novel (some late Victorian poets were the first in English literature to rediscover them, and Tolkien was the first to borrow from them in prose narratives). After all, Czech and Icelandic have never been, nor ever will be, read by a large number of readers, let alone novelists—and inadequate English translations of Witold Gombrowicz (a novelist much admired by Kundera) have distorted or delayed his reception in America. Kundera's decision to write in French rather than Czech may reflect an anxiety about being forgotten himself. Moreover, his painstaking revision between 1985 and 1987 (and thereafter) of all the French translations of his novels testifies to his concerns about the novelist's right to control the form of his immortality. In fact, according to the Author's Note to the 1995 English translation of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, "the French translations have become, so to speak, more faithful to the Czech originals than the originals themselves," so Kundera had Aaron Asher use the newer but more authentic French version of the novel as his source text.

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Kundera's curious re-authorization of himself illustrates an important claim in The Curtain that makes possible the novelist's privilege—and obligation—to write for all readers, regardless of History, nation, or language: novels written in any language can be read, understood, and judged by readers ignorant of that language. Kundera supports his argument by striking instances from literary history: not only was Rabelais better understood by Bakhtin than by the Russian's French contemporaries, but Dostoyevsky was best understood by Gide, who knew no Russian, and Dos Passos by Sartre, who did not read him in English. Kundera's claim gives the novelist an unrivaled opportunity to write in the largest context possible—world literature. Kundera endorses Argentinian novelist Ernesto Sabáto's comment on the novel's audience: "in the modern world, abandoned by philosophy and splintered by hundreds of scientific specialties, the novel remains to us as the last observatory from which we can embrace human life as a whole." Whether the numerous translations of his own novels point to Kundera's literary immortalization must be left to novelists and novel readers yet to come. For the moment, however, The Curtain provides an elegant and compelling brief for the novel, past, present, and future.