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Friday
Aug192011

The Curtain

“Hypnotized by the image of its death, I think of its birth,” says this Czech–born author, who has been writing in French for more than twenty years, of his native country.  And with the Berlin wall’s collapse also now almost twenty-two years behind us, his writings are no longer heralded as topical but simply shelved away as remnants of an old fight which, I am happy to report, we appear to have won.  But what then is the fate of those brave Europeans who were forced to leave Communist countries because they refused to kowtow to the thought–free churning of the massive combine of human souls?  Well, Kundera for one is not concerned.  He is not concerned simply because he never thought of himself as an East European (he prefers, if anything, “Central European,” or no adjective at all), nor, for that matter, as a political dissident.  That he was exiled and expatriated is a drab detail on the luminous canvas of his artistic life.  Now free of these associations and at the cusp of his eightieth year, he can devote his time to his favorite subject – the history and development of the novel – which he exposes in typically unornamented fashion in his recent collection of essays.

The Curtain, like several of his other works, is divided symphonically into seven parts, all vaguely related and all general enough to merit some rather grandiose titles (“The consciousness of continuity,” “Aesthetics and existence,” “Memory, forgetting, and the novel”).  He defends this structure by claiming that
The beauty of a novel is inseparable from its architecture; I say beauty since composition is not simply technical know–how; it bears with it the originality of the author ... and it is the mark of identification of every individual novel.
Our eyes and minds tell us this is another of Kundera’s truisms, another observation so wide and plain that it proves impossible to dismantle.  In both Testaments betrayed and The art of the novel, Kundera delves into situations in which novelists that he admires have stayed true to or ventured astray from the unsaid conventions of the novelistic form: that is, of “going to the soul of things” (another chapter heading from The Curtain).  How curious, one may say, that someone famous for his big–picture style would harp on details and gestures and turns of phrase that are, upon cursory glance, insignificant to the structure of the work.  Although he will then claim that any novelist of quality “writes his novel as if he were writing a sonnet,” here to mean attention to detail and form, Kundera himself talks and has always talked in basic terms with nary a metaphor or simile, putting him in the tradition of Tolstoy, Kafka, Gombrowicz, and Broch, all of whom are regular guests in his essays.  He is very happy being compared to these authors, but there are others from whom he would like to keep himself separated:
Towards the end of the 1970s, I received the manuscript of a preface written for one of my novels.  The writer was a preeminent Slavist who, in his introduction, constantly compared me (most flatteringly, of course; at the time no one wished me any harm) to Dostoevsky, Gogol, Bunin, Pasternak, Mandelshtam, and to Russian dissidents on the whole.  Scared, I prevented its publication.  Not because I had any antipathy to these great Russians; on the contrary, I admired them all, but in their company I became someone else.  I will always remember the strange angst that this preface caused me: a displacement into a context that was not my own was for me like living in deportation.
This bizarre refusal is not only a product of his ego or his hatred of Pan–Slavic categorizations, neither of which supersedes his love for the newness of each literary work, but a specific objection to categorization outside of literature on the whole.  And there is an analogous situation: there is something belonging to each writer that he shares with millions of others; something they cannot agree on and alternatively love and despise; it is not a constant with regard to its structure, which may change as the whims of the world change, but ultimately, in the collective memory (for whatever that overused term is worth), it has a particular meaning and induces a particular form of pride in its adherents; it is the myth of one’s homeland, wherever that may be, and, more specifically, the myth of a home in general.  If an author can write about whatever he wants from wherever he wants, then the novel may comprise the author's homeland.  It is the novel that contains every permutation of what life was and could be, and which “goes to the soul of things,” and which becomes how we think of an author.  Kundera is no longer Czech or French, but the composer of nine novels, three essay collections, one book of short stories, and one play.  That he has written in two European languages is a bit of trivia that should remain forever caged in a footnote.

But what then is the titular curtain?  Herein lies the paradox of the world of Milan Kundera, a true internationalist who flouts all attempts at parochialization, who is also a true Czech.  This latter designation has nothing to do with some ridiculous travel guide clichés (e.g., “the widespread consumption of absinthe is indicative of the Czech laid–back attitude to life”), but with taking pride in one’s language and heritage and fashioning something new out of the world of literature (or to use Goethe’s term, which Kundera advocates, die Weltliteratur) that betrays neither your country nor your glorious international ambition. To do that, one must be no less courageous than Alonso Quijada himself:
A magic curtain, woven with legends, is suspended before the world. Cervantes sent Don Quixote off and ripped through the curtain.  The world then opened before the Knight Errant in all the comic bareness of its prose .... by ripping through this curtain of pre–interpretation, Cervantes set this new art in motion.
What is this new art?  The novel, of course, the only work of literary art not bound by language (as the understanding of poetry is inevitably conditioned by a thorough knowledge of the language) or time and space (like periodicals or historical epics), or personal conviction and historical facts (like philosophy and history).  It remains happily apart from all these strands of human communication while often being more insightful than all of them combined.

That Kundera has never postulated some profound new theory of existence has led many of his detractors to claim that he never really had much to say in the first place (these are usually the same critics who read this famous novel and find, quite rightly, that Kantian thought is still a wee bit more comprehensive).  Yet his aim has never been philosophy but writing novels and essays, which for him are imbricate patterns of the same fabric.  Critics who insist on relying on extraliterary analyses, specifically East–West Cold warring, claim that he does indeed talk about politics and even when he doesn’t, the absence of such diatribes indicates his avoidance of their significance out of the grief of having to live abroad (a prime example of petitio principii).  Over his long career, Kundera has coolly come to accept his fate in the hands of milkmen seeking to squeeze every last drop of humanitarian pathos out of art; but dubbing him apolitical is equally hasty.  He looks at the literary fate of a small nation often overly influenced by larger neighbors as a re–creation (or, simply, creation, as in the case of the work of this author from Martinique whom he discusses at length) of national myths, as he was always “hypersensitive to the destinies of small countries.”  These myths are not in the spirit of the epics of Viking lore, but microdescriptions of personal battles, obsessions, loves, and memories that are particular to that author.  Although he occasionally pretends to be cynical, Kundera has never been a cynical writer, nor has he ever been cruel or sexist (as previously discussed), or distanced himself from the world of commonalities.  He is a citizen of the world, but also very proud of his country, which is the bravest sort of patriotism.  And to think that many critics must have surmised from the title that The Curtain would be another attack on the evils of Communist ideology and practice.

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