That Milan Kundera’s latest book, The Curtain – An essay in seven parts, is a work of literary theory rather than a novel should not dissapoint his large reading public. Kundera, after all, is a novelist who has always been remarkably interested in the structure and form of the novel as a literary genre, using literary criticism and anaylsis as the building blocks for his narratives. Just four short chapters into perhaps his best known novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Tereza appears carrying Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina under her arm, and Kundera’s characters find themselves meditating on their relationships, along with the omniscient narrator, through the prism of Tolstoy’s novel.
Before we delve further, it’s important to point out two things about The Curtain. First, this is as enjoyable and thought-provoking a book as any of Kundera’s novels. Enthusiasm and intelligence are on hand in equal measure as Kundera takes us through weighty topics like “the Consciousness of Continuity”, “The Ethic of the Essential”, and “The Torn Curtain of the Tragic”. As with his novels, his own voice bursts in, more often than not with an exclamation, as he excitedly passes an idea on to you, the reader. For example, talking about biographical speculation as to the inspiration behind Proust’s Albertine, “But what are they talking about! No matter who inspired her, man or woman, Albertine is Albertine, and that’s that! A novel is the product of an alchemy that turns a woman into a man, a man into a woman, sludge into gold, an anecdote into drama! That divine alchemy is what makes for the power of every novelist, the secret, the splendor of his art!”. Four exclamations in such a short paragraph, animatedly ushering you through Kundera’s ideas on art.
The second thing to point out is that this reader has not read a number of the novels upon which Kundera bases his essays, and yet did not for, even a fleeting moment, feel cheated or left out by his lengthy discussions on central European classics like Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke. Obviously a familiarity with the various works up for discussion will add to the reader’s experience, but Kundera’s skill as a storyteller, or perhaps more accurately as aconversationalist, even when spinning yarns about literary theory, means that the the novels are almost secondary. Of primary importance are the lessons he, as a reader and a writer, has drawn out of the texts – and these are lessons he frames with passion.
Let’s read, for example about ‘Antimodern Modernism’:
“‘ONE Must BE ABSOLUTELY MODERN,’ wrote Arthur Rimbaud. Some sixty years later Gombrowicz was not so sure. In Ferdydurke (writtne in Poland in 1937) the Youngblood family is dominated by the daughter, a ‘modern highschool girl.’ She is mad for the telephone;she disdains the classical authors; when a gentleman comes to call she ‘merely looks at him and, sticking a small wrench between her teeth with her right hand, offers him her left with total nonchalance.’”
Her mother is modern, too; she works with a “Committee for the Protection of Newborns,” is active against the deathpenalty and for civil liberties;”ostentatiously offhand, she sets out for the toilet” and emerges from it “prouder than she went in”; as she grows older, modernity becomes the more indispensable to her as the sole “substitute for youth.”
And papa? He too is modern; he thinks nothing but does everything to please his daughter and his wife.
In Ferdydurke, Gombrowicz got at the fundamental shift that occurred during the twentieth century: until then mankind was divided in two – those who defended the status quo and those who sought to change it. Then the acceleration of History took effect: whereas in the past man had lived continuously in the same setting, in a society that changed only very slowly, now the moment arrived when he suddenly began to feel History moving beneath his feet, like a rolling sidewalk: the status quo was in motion! All at once, being comfortable with the status quo was the same thing as being comfortable with History on the move! Which meant that a person could be both progressive and conformist, conservative and rebel, at the same time!”
The above passage brings to our attention two other important points to note. The first, a minor point but worth noting nonetheless, is that echoes float within the text of earlier ruminations by this Czech author. When reading ‘ONE MUST BE ABSOLUTELY MODERN’ a memory switch flagged inside my mind, telling me that this wasn’t the first time I’d come across this particular slice of Rimbaud – and given that I’ve – unforgiveably – never read any Rimbaud directly, it was to Kundera’s novels and his excellent The art of the novel that I scurried, to see if I could track the quote down. And there it is – in the art of the novel [pg 141], in the novel immortality [pg 155], and no doubt scattered liberally throughout the rest of his novels. Does this mean The Curtain is a mere repetition? Certainly not! Though it repetes themes that have been central to Kundera’s work for more than twenty-five years – modernity, the role of the novel, history and European identity.
It brings to mind an episode recounted in his novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, where the narrator’s father excitedly claimed to have finally understood a Beethoven variation:
“I knew what he wanted to talk about, of course. He had been involved with the topic a long time. Beethoven had felt a sudden attachment to the variation form toward the end of his life. At first glance it might seem the most superficial of forms, a showcase for technique, the type of work better suited to a lacemaker than to Beethoven. But Beethoven made it one of the most distinguished forms (for the first time in the history of music) and imbued it with some of his finest meditations.
True, all that is well known. But what Father wanted to know was what we are to make of it. Why did he choose choosevariations? What lay behind his choice?
That is why he called me into his room, pointed to the music, and said, “Now I know!”
The second thing to note about our lesson on ‘Antimodern Modernism’ is the chronology he gives to Gombrowicz, whocomes ‘some sixty years later’. Throughout he places all his particular subjects, from Rabelais to Sterne, from Kafka to Garcia Marquez and so on, in chronological relation, all interacting in the great project of the novel – taking it in different directions, with different emphasis, but all aware of belonging to a project (including the so-called founders of the genre, like Fielding or Cervantes).
Again using his father and music to make a point, The Curtain opens with an anecdote told about his father, a musician, who on hearing Beethoven’s Ninth symphony in company responds to the question ‘what’s that playing’, that to him it sounds like late-period Beethoven, backing up his assertion by pointing out a harmonic shift that the younger Beethoven could never have used. The point?
The anecdote is probably just a mischievous little invention, but it does illustrate the consciousness of continuity, one of the distinguishing marks of a person belonging to the civilization that is (or was) ours. Everything, in our eyes, took on the quality of a history, seemed a more or less logical sequence of events of attitudes, of works.”
The Curtain is then at root a work about our (European) culture, and has a certain melancholy to it as the author recognises that his classification, his contextual work, his way of seeing the world, is out of time with the preoccupations of a new age. The closing passage of the lectures, is entitled Eternity – a fitting topic for both a novelist and an ageing man (Kundera has just turned 79), and in a remarkably taught and elegant page brings together the themes of the book into one unifying statement. An elegant argument that awaits you.