Kundera's Gifts

by Jon Rachmani

"The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts"

By Milan Kundera

Translated by Linda Asher

168 pp.

HarperCollins Publishers


No other novelist's criticism is so continuous with his fictive prose as Milan Kundera's. His new book-length essay on the form, The Curtain, has recently been translated into English by Linda Asher, to much well-deserved attention -- the sort of attention that usually only goes to a book of criticism, even by a very popular novelist, when the book itself is popularizing. However, the interest in The Curtain would seem to be because of its gorgeous insights, its unacademic, even antiacademic seriousness, and most of all its relevance to the novels of Kundera himself. The caution with which the reader approaches a novelist's criticism, constantly looking for fallacies that prop up the more indefensible of the writer's shortcomings, is not needed here, because Kundera seems uninterested in the illusion of this particular generic partition. In one of the book's essays, he describes the nature of Nineteenth-Century kitsch, reminding the reader of the passage in The Unbearable Lightness of Being that deals with Teresa's confrontation with her nation's manifestation of the illness, "What repelled her was not nearly so much the ugliness of the Communist world (ruined castles transformed into cow sheds) as the mask of beauty it tried to wear -- in other words, Communist kitch." In The Curtain we are informed that for the Central European artist, this intense familiarity with kitch has created an "allergy" to it, whereas further west it has always been tolerated as the "syrupy leftover of the great Romantic period". In this way we are introduced to one of Kundera's major themes in the book: the importance of national difference: a distinction, coming from a "small country", that he is in a good position to teach to Americans still unaccountably high on universalist fantasies.

Reading The Curtain will improve the reader's enjoyment of Kundera's novels, and vice versa. He praises Herman Broch's daring use of lengthy essayistic passages in The Sleepwalkers, and this is certainly true of his own works, with their essayistic and tangential anecdotal passages leaping out of the character's concerns or leading up to some new revelation. It is a wider conception of the novel than the English speaking world generally accepts, and it's one that Kundera has consciously expanded beyond the limits of his fictional works.

Even so, there is nothing easy-going or particularly raucous in his expansiveness; and he sets up the novel as a very delicate and special form that he is worried for, though he wisely does not reach his free hand out to giddily grasp the bell-clap and announce the novel's death. The delineation he sets out in the very last essay in the book between innovative art, which exists only within the framework of its own history, and traditional art, which constantly reinforces culture -- and which is undynamic and therefore ahistorical -- helps to allay generic obituaries: he is a physician, a scientist, much like Flaubert, and not a fanciful prognosticator. He speaks of the church musician who invented counterpoint in Twelfth-Century France, freeing musicians from mere imitation and giving importance to individual composers, thus shaping a history of art. Consider, for example, the total irrelevance of the artists name to a Byzantine icon, while to look at a Cimabue without knowing the artist's identity and his position in revolutionizing artistic principles in Siena is to deny oneself access to much of the painting's beauty. Historicity, within an art form, is essential to meaning. "Because while History (mankind's History) might have the poor taste to repeat itself, the history of an art will not stand for repetitions." Kundera goes on though, to end the book ominously,

What takes flight will one day come to earth. In anguish I imagine a time when art will cease to seek out the never-said and will go docilely back into the service of the collective life that requires it to render repetition beautiful and help the individual merge, at peace and with joy, into the uniformity of being. For the history of art is perishable. The babble of art is eternal.

This declaration is all the more striking for its Modernistic bravery: art as such is not our interest, otherwise would we not read with equal fervor the Medieval mystery plays as we do Middlemarch? Would we not look on the traditional arts not only of Europe but of all the world with an instant recognition and sense of challenge just as we do the plays of Shakespeare? The difference, so well expounded in this essay, though oft ignored, especially in a genial but misguided impulse to give all aesthetic expression equal footing, is at the root not only of the above differences, but some that are much more pressing, such as the difference between visions that awaken the individual, still available in scores of decent if not often brilliant novels, and television's latest atrocity. The distinction is hidden by the biggest lie of mass culture: in its triumphant emphasis on "ME!" and "MY EXPRESSION" it convinces the unwitting youngster that what is being affirmed is the individual, whereas in truth this latter day Iphaginia dies on a far more indifferent pyre than the first: here no dignity can be salvaged once the sacrifice is made. The actor has rejoined the chorus, and done so with a sanctimonious grin. This is the difference between the new collectivity and the old: here, in its dishonesty, not only freedom of expression, but beauty itself is of necessity discarded.

Kundera goes beyond generic historicity to the issue of nationality. In two brilliant chapters in the book, "On the Provincialism of small nations" and "On the Provincialism of Large Nations," he contrasts, for instance, Poland and France. Each tends toward provincialism for a different reason: the Poles because world culture seems "distant, inaccessible, an ideal reality with little connection to their national literature", and the Frenchmen because "their own literature seems sufficiently rich that they need take no interest in what people write elsewhere". What is stunning for the American reader is how both definitions fit our cultural ethos. America is a hybrid nation, a backwater and a giant at once, and it approaches the rest of the world in pulses of affronted alienation and gushing idolization. One can therefore only find Russell Banks' criticism ("Reading With Kundera", New York Times, 4 March 2007)) of Kundera's failure to adequately cover American writers, given that Hemingway and Faulkner each receive the balance of a chapter each and are mentioned elsewhere, somewhat ill-conceived. Why not ask why most American writers fail to reflect on Broch or Carpentier in similar books? It is surely Kundera's contempt for kitsch that has freed him from such vulgarities as "covering all the bases". He has in no way implied that this book is meant to be comprehensive in its coverage. As he himself explains in the essay "The History of the Novel as Seen From Gombrowicz's Studio", "Novelists often have astonishing holes in their own reading: Gombrowicz had read neither Broch nor Musil; irritated by the snobs who latched onto Kafka, he was not especially drawn to him; he had no affinity with Latin American literature ..." While these details help to teach Gombrowicz's readers a great deal about his work, they do not lessen his stature. The novelist needn't have strong theoretical backing for his choices, and this, as he certainly wishes us to observe, is true of Kundera as well. The fundamental lesson from this book is strikingly anti-theoretical and what Kundera calls "anti-modern modernist", a kind of literary conservativism that thrives off of constant innovation and stylistic development: there is no rule that can be rightly applied to the novel that is not an inherently novelistic one, derived from the form itself. Just as the cultural behavior of painting is not like that of music nor like that of novelistic prose, no outside criticism can encapsulate either one or all of them. This seems well born out by the fact that most academic criticism has never taken fiction on its own terms and that most worthwhile popular criticism has been written by columnists who are novelists themselves.

So what are the novel's own terms? Kundera speaks of the novel's capacity to reveal the hidden life of the mundane, and in this he is a true heir to Flaubert, whose Madam Bovary he defends against the old charge still leveled against it in cocktail party cant and serious discussion alike: its author must either be insipid or hateful to have created such an unrelenting portrait of banality and the vulgar. However, with this strand is woven the tapestry of all of modern life, and life everywhere is the life of people, and it is therefore of necessity interesting to the artist.

Further, in this essay Kundera pinpoints a common feeling of trudging novelists: the amount of design that goes into a work is never understood by the reader, the motifs and chord-like structures bypassed. Kundera asserts that the novelist must be content to know what she has achieved, even if the balance goes unnoted. However, Kundera not only shows evidence of having picked up on a lot of these chords in his own reading, but he leaves them to be found not only throughout individual works, but across his oeuvre. One keen example bears mention for its inclusive definition of the artist's role. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being we read the line, "When Thomas first positioned his scalpel on the skin of a man asleep under anesthetic ... and finally cut it open with a precise and even stroke (as if it were a piece of fabric -- a coat, a skirt, a curtain), he experienced a brief but intense feeling of blasphemy." Tomas as surgeon holds a privileged access to the inner-workings of the mundane body, and it is only through a calculated act of beneficent violence that he achieves it. Here we find not only the present essay's title, but the act he describes in the first of two of the book's chapters entitled "The Torn Curtain":

Cervantes sent Don Quixote journeying and tore through the curtain. The world opened before the knight errant in all the comical nakedness of its prose.... [Cervantes's] destructive act echoes and extends to every novel worthy of the name; it is the identifying sign of the art of the novel.

Despite the incredible learning and self-consciousness as a writer that Kundera here reveals, his treatment of some writers, notably Kafka, while accurate, is very surface, and this is indicative of how little indeed we can trust the novelist as critic. Kafka is congratulated on his brilliance of taking the basic structure of a joke, e. g., A man wakes up and is charged with a crime he didn't commit and his accusers refuse to tell him what the crime is, and treating it not as an object of fun, but as a structuring principle for a character's life. This is well observed. But then Kafka is portrayed as merely the writer who reveals best the stunning nightmare that is the modern bureaucracy, an element of the mundane that had only grown since then. From the Flaubertian school this is meant as a compliment, but it doesn't quite apply to Kafka. To this critic it seems surprising to not go beyond this point to note that that very portrayal was merely engineered as a trope through which to see the legitimate quest for truth. Kafka's genius seems always tied up with his tropical opacity, but this by no means should detract from the songs of deeper meaning that come through to the reader. Kundera states about Kafka's bucolic setting for The Castle, "Cruelly he defiles the sacred symbol of the antibureaucratic idyll by giving it a precisely opposite meaning: that of the total victory of total bureaucratization." Perhaps the shallowness of this interpretation lights for us Kundera's prejudice toward those scientists of the novel -- Flaubert and his Modernist successors -- ignoring that other, more dangerous strain of Modernism, that of the negative sublime of the failed gnostic quest. The reader, like K, searches for universal meaning, the root of all metaphors, and yet the search is endless, because the metaphors keep changing -- the Castle's officials are universals at their desks, imps on their own: like all priest figures it is their very vulgarity that makes their capacity for transformation so important to the quester. There is a refusal of interpretive limits in Kafka, and seeing a great reader buck against this feature is instructive. It is a strange irony that in the America that prides itself on great and ambiguous projects with no seeming limits, and with limitless literary works like those of Melville, Whitman, and even Gaddis and Pynchon, it is usually Kundera's interpretation that wins the day -- in our blended way, we have adopted a critical tradition at odds with our own strongest literary tendencies. Kundera's latest book is peculiarly of value to any reader seeking a high level of engagement with her own nation's greatest contradictions though this decidedly outside source.