- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 14, 2007

THE CURTAIN

By Milan Kundera

HarperCollins, $22.95, 176 pages

REVIEWED BY JOANNE MCNEIL

“A sensation gripped her like one she used to feel long ago when, off for a swim, she prepared to plunge into the water.”

That breathtaking sentence comes from “Anna Karenina,” but few can recognize it out of context. It occurs just before Anna leaps to her death. In that context, the sentence is nothing short of “miraculous,” says Milan Kundera, in his latest book of thought-provoking essays, “The Curtain.” “In a single second, the last one of her life, the extreme gravity calls up a pleasant, ordinary, lighthearted memory!”

Flaubert enthusiasts similarly may have overlooked a stunning line near the end of “Madame Bovary.” The heroine, rejected by bankers and the man in her life, passes a beggar. She “flung him a five-franc coin over her shoulder. It was her whole fortune. She thought it quite fine, tossing the coin like that.” Mr. Kundera points out that this line “reveals what Flaubert saw very well, but Emma was unaware of: she did not merely make a generous gesture; she was pleased with herself for making it — even in that moment of genuine despair, she did not miss the chance to display her gesture, innocently, wishing to look fine for her own sake.”

Many writers seem bogged down with what Mr. Kundera calls “kitsch”: publishing novels with the very same self-conscious sense of purpose that motivated Emma Bovary to part with her last coin. Mr. Kundera’s latest book of essays — a follow-up to “The Art of the Novel” (1988) and “Testaments Betrayed” (1995) — questions the social and political obligations of a novelist:

“There are two basic contexts in which a work of art may be placed: either in the history of its nation (we call this the small context), or in the supranational history of its art (the large context). We are accustomed to seeing music quite naturally in the large context: knowing what language Orlando de Lassus or Bach spoke matters little to a musicologist, but because a novel is bound up with its language, in nearly every university in the world it is studied almost exclusively in the small, national context.”

The national context, of course, is impossibly undersized for the truly great influential works of literature. Mr. Kundera writes, “Rabelais, ever undervalued by his compatriots, was never better understood than by a Russian, Bakhtin; Dostoyevsky than by a Frenchman, Gide; Ibsen than by an Irishman, Shaw … Do I mean by this that to judge a novel one can do without a knowledge of its original language? I do mean exactly that!”

Similarly, political undertones immediately undermine the subtle quirks in human nature a novelist chooses to examine. Japanese writer Kenzaburo Oe’s 1958 short story “Sheep” is about a group of foreign soldiers boarding an evening bus, where they then taunt young passengers, finally forcing the locals to remove their pants.

Oe never reveals the ethnicities of the passengers or soldiers — all the wiser, says Mr. Kundera, who points out that America occupied Japan after the war: “[Why] does he not specify the nationality of the soldiers? Political censorship? No. Suppose that, throughout the story, the Japanese passengers were facing American soldiers! The powerful effect of using that single word, explicitly pronounced, would reduce the story to a political tract.”

Still, political implications and interpretations arrive naturally. Mr. Kundera writes of the many post-World War II Antigone productions that portrayed Creon as a fascist foil to a libertarian heroine:

“Hitler not only brought unspeakable horrors upon Europe but also stripped it of its sense of the tragic. Like the struggle against Nazism, all of the contemporary political history would thenceforth be seen and experienced as a struggle between good and evil. Wars, civil wars, revolutions, counter-revolutions, nationalist struggles, uprisings and their repression have been ousted from the realm of tragedy and dispatched to the authority of judges avid to punish.”

Mr. Kundera sees “The Good Soldier Schweick,” by Jaroslav Hasek, as a good example of political complexity. The title character so widely exaggerates his support for the war that no one in the story understands whether he is mocking or conforming. “Schweik feels so little connected to the purposes of the war that he does not even dispute them … War is dreadful but he does not take it seriously. You don’t take seriously a thing that makes no sense.”

Passions and convictions require differing degrees of flexibility, hesitation and contradictions, so “people change views easily, not through some profound intellectual reappraisal but the way they change neckties if the color no longer pleases.”

Of course, Mr. Kundera’s own fiction writing (“The Joke,” “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” and “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting,” among others) is intensely political, rejecting provincialism and simmering with the complexity he fervidly advocates in these essays.

The Czech writer — who has lived in France since he was 45 (he is now 78) — even writes exclusively in French in order to branch outward, rather than linearly, in the history of European arts, which he compares to a “relay race in which the various nations pass along similar testimony from one to the next.”

The tone in “The Curtain” is conversational rather than didactic. A novelist writing about novels should be considered like a “painter welcoming you into his studio, where you are surrounded by his canvas staring at you from where they lean against the walls.”

Perhaps his most acute insight is that the “existential import of a social phenomenon is most sharply perceptible not as it expands but when it is just beginning, incomparably fainter that it will soon become.” Kafka, after all, wrote “The Trial” when “bureaucracy … was an innocent babe compared to today.”

The Czech author Jaromir John wrote a long-forgotten but defiant book, “The Internal-Combustion Monster,” about the noise of automobiles back in 1918, “when Prague had probably one car to every hundred inhabitants or, I don’t know, perhaps to every thousand.”

Mr. Kundera acknowledges Jaromir John as “minor” but “a real novelist; he was not just copying truths stitched on the curtain of preinterpretation; he had the Cervantes-like courage to tear the curtain.”

Mr. Kundera himself has torn “the curtain” with this book. Lucid and engaging, these essays are essential reading for anyone concerned with the progress of world literature.

Joanne McNeil is a freelance writer in Massachusetts.

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