Michael Dirda

(Derek Berwin / Fox Photos / Getty Images)
By Michael Dirda
Sunday, February 4, 2007


An Essay in Seven Parts

By Milan Kundera

Translated from the French by Linda Asher

HarperCollins. 168 pp. $22.95

Joseph Conrad once wrote that his purpose as a novelist was simply "to make you see." According to Viktor Shklovsky -- the influential Russian formalist critic of the 1920s and '30s -- our daily, automatic routines leach all the freshness from existence, so that we no longer experience the wonder of the people and life around us. Art's purpose, consequently, is to "defamiliarize" the familiar, to shake up our dulled perceptions, to reinvest the dingy, gray and arthritic universe with richness, color, vitality.

According to Milan Kundera's similar literary theory of "the curtain," we grow up with cultural preconceptions that "pre-interpret" the world and close off various aspects of experience. He writes that "a magic curtain, woven of legends, hung before the world. 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." Ever since, the true 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."

Perhaps the best known Czech writer of his generation ( The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting), Kundera has resided in Paris for the past 30 years and now writes in French. (Such linguistic displacement is itself a way of tearing the curtain, of forcing oneself to see with new eyes.) In these essays, he addresses us as a European intellectual, an advocate of what Goethe called Weltliteratur (world-literature). Certainly, the authors Kundera invokes to illustrate his arguments are as cosmopolitan as he is: Cervantes, Sterne, Rabelais, Diderot, Laclos, Stendhal, Flaubert, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Proust, Hasek, Kafka, Faulkner, Musil, Broch, García-Márquez. Here, he would say, is fiction's essential tradition, and consciousness of this continuity is "one of the distinguishing marks of a person belonging to the civilization that is (or was) ours."

In the first of Kundera's seven chapters, he stresses that the novel explores human nature. In contrast to the high-mindedness of ancient epic and tragedy, fiction's prosy emphasis is on "the concrete, everyday, corporeal nature of life." After their battles, Homer's heroes never wonder if they still have all their teeth. "But for Don Quixote and Sancho [Panza] teeth are a perpetual concern -- hurting teeth, missing teeth. 'You must know, Sancho, that no diamond is so precious as a tooth.' " While heroes always demand our admiration, he adds, the characters in novels only ask to be understood.

In his second chapter, Kundera emphasizes that "cultural diversity is the great European value," then goes on to analyze provincialism -- an over-emphasis on one's own national art and literature just because it's American or Czech or French. "Indifference to aesthetic value inevitably shifts the whole culture back into provincialism." His third chapter explores the "soul" of the novel, in particular how 20th-century writers turned fiction away from "fascination with the psychological (the exploration of character) and brought it toward existential analysis (the analysis of situations that shed light on major aspects of the human condition)." In The Trial, we learn almost nothing about Joseph K.'s childhood, love affairs or emotional past, for Kafka doesn't need to make his protagonist seem three-dimensional. The only thing that matters is that he be appropriate to the existential situation, the horrible tangle, he finds himself in.

In subsequent pages of The Curtain, Kundera discusses humor, 19th-century fiction's discovery of the "scene," an author's rights, the main problem of modernity -- "the 'bureaucratization' of social life"-- and how such masters as Broch and Musil used the novel as a vehicle for real thinking about society, politics and human purpose. Throughout, Kundera writes plainly but with passion. He bewails our current "ethic of the archive" -- the conviction that every scribble from a writer's hand is important -- and urges instead an "ethic of the essential." Only the aesthetic project itself truly matters, the fully achieved novel, poem or play. In this light, the desire for artistic fame isn't mere egotism:

"Every novel created with real passion aspires quite naturally to a lasting aesthetic value, meaning to a value capable of surviving its author. To write without having that ambition is cynicism: a mediocre plumber may be useful to people, but a mediocre novelist who consciously produced books that are ephemeral, commonplace, conventional -- thus non-useful, thus burdensome, thus noxious -- is contemptible. This is the novelist's curse: his honesty is bound to the vile stake of his megalomania."

One may disagree with this -- surely, there is a place in our lives for entertainment and escape -- but, as the French expression goes, Kundera always gives you furiously to think. He quotes brilliantly too, as in this passage from Proust:

"Every reader, as he reads, is actually the reader of himself. The writer's work is only a kind of optical instrument he provides the reader so he can discern what he might never have seen in himself without this book. The reader's recognition in himself of what the book says is the proof of the book's truth."

Admirers of The Curtain may wish to go back to the Czech author's two previous volumes of essays, The Art of the Novel and Testaments Betrayed, which adumbrate some of his arguments here. In an age of the increasingly ephemeral, Kundera has long championed the permanence of art and the Flaubertian ideal of making every word count. A true novelist, he proclaims, should aim at nothing less than to build "an indestructible castle of the unforgettable":

"Against our real world, which, by its very nature, is fleeting and worthy of forgetting, works of art stand as a different world, a world that is ideal, solid, where every detail has its importance, its meaning, where everything in it -- every word, every phrase -- deserves to be unforgettable and was conceived to be such." ยท

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company