Thursday, April 19, 2007


The Curtain by Milan Kundera

"Is is true that the period people are living through now in Bohemia cries out for its Balzac? Maybe. Maybe it would be enlightening for the Czechs to read novels about the return of capitalism to their country, a broad rich novel cycle, with many characters, written like Balzac? But no novelist worthy of the name will write such a novel. ... Because while History (mankind's History) might have the poor taste to repeat itself, the history of an art will not stand for repetitions. Art isn't there to be some great mirror registering all of History's ups and downs, variations, endless repetitions. 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 the repetitive history, which in itself represents no value. The one thing that has some chance of enduring is the history of its arts."

By Edward Copeland
So ends the first part of Milan Kundera's fascinating book The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts exploring the evolution of novels and making a case along the way for the importance of each new writer building upon the foundation of what writers had left before.

The preceding quote came from an exchange he had with a friend who remained in Czechoslovakia long after Kundera had fled for France and who expressed a need for writers who could explore the new state of the post-communist Czech Republic. Kundera, one of my favorite novelists whose works include The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and The Joke, proves just as strong writing on theory as he does spinning fictional webs.

Though Czech by birth, most of Kundera's works have been written in French and I so wish I knew that language so I could read his words the way he truly wrote them, because if they prove this memorable in an English translation I can only imagine they would be even more powerful as he wrote them. Still, as translated by Linda Asher, whom I believe has translated the majority of Kundera's works that I have read, he definitely exhibits exceptional prose powers.

As the title indicates, The Curtain is divided into seven sections: "The Consciousness of Continuity," "Die Weltliteratur," "Getting Into the Soul of Things," "What Is a Novelist?" "Aesthetics and Existence," "The Torn Curtain" and "The Novel, Memory, Forgetting."

Kundera seems a perfect choice for the theoretical exploration he takes the reader on. The Joke, his very first novel, remains one of the greatest reading experiences of my life. Its structure even inspired me with an idea for one of my many unwritten novels, though as his book suggests, I wasn't planning on straight-forward plundering, I would have tweaked the framework he built into my own creation, had I (or if I) ever finish it.

Granted, Kundera certainly has read more works than I ever could hope to, even not knowing the specifics of some of the novels he cites, the case he makes still comes through clearly. One of his most telling example, at least for me, is when he repeats a legendary story regarding Flaubert and Madame Bovary.
"Even when no one reads Flaubert anymore, the phrase 'Madame Bovary is me' will not be forgotten. That famous line: Flaubert never wrote it. We owe it to a Miss Amelie Bosquet, a mediocre novelist ... To some person whose name remains unknown, that Amelie confided a very precious bit of information: that she once asked Flaubert what woman was the model for Emma Bovary, and that he supposedly replied, 'Madame Bovary is me!' Much struck by this, the unknown person passed along the information to a certain M. Deschermes who, also much struck, spread it about. The mountains of commentary inspired by that apocryphal item say a great deal about the futility of literary theory which, helpless before a work of art, endlessly spout platitudes about the author's psyche."

This leads Kundera to explore the importance of memory to a reader's perception of a work, whether a book is read in a single setting or over the course of weeks, and how common it is to misremember the details of novels, even the ones you love, as you progress forward in time.

At another point, he laments the tendency to try to make the fictional real, regretting that he ever heard that Albertine in Proust's Remembrance of Things Past actually was based on a man. It may come off sounding slightly homophobic, but it is perfectly understandable how knowing the reality that inspired a writer can wreck the images the novelist evoked in a reader.

Kundera raises so many great ideas (and it is a short book as well, a mere 168 pages), that it's impossible to go over them all, but The Curtain should be read by anyone who loves novels or contemplates writing them.

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It's funny that a piece of Kundera's own writing where he regrets that finding out the reality behind a work of fiction destroys the work for him is also a piece where I could find out that in real life he is somewhat homophobic, which would destroy his works for me. 'Could' I say.

However - Not very long ago I found out that Luis Bunuel (my favourite director whose name isn't Orson Welles or Akira Kurosawa) was expressly homophobic. Also not very long ago, in a book of otherwise ingenious, exceptionally brilliant, great great comedy, I was struck by a crack that Woody Allen (one of my favourite living filmmakers) makes that also undermines th epotential for love between two men. Also, I heard from someone that this same Woody Allen married his step-daughter. Also, my favourite songwriter, Tori Amos, regularly says airy, pretentious things that would technically put her on the same level with a deeply self-involved poetry undergrad. And now my favourite writer Milan Kundera (coincidentally I'm reading and being utterly blown away by The Book of Laughter and Forgetting at this very time) may or may not be homophobic. Quite frankly, I don't care to find out.

I learned a long time ago to completely disassociate an artist's real-life statements, claims and actions from his work. It was a very freeing decision - I'd recommend this to every one. This way I can continue to worship and get lost into the worlds of all sorts of wonderful things ranging from Bunuel's Viridiana and Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo to Amos' Under the Pink and Kundera's Ignorance.
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