The Curtain

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

The Curtain is a collection of essays by Czech novelist Milan Kundera, author of L’Insoutenable légèreté de l’être (1984; The Unbearable Lightness of Being, 1984). The seven essays have a stream-of-consciousness quality. For instance, Kundera may begin with an observation, find a parallel between that and some incident from his past, consider how that incident reminds him of a moment in Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857), draw a connection between Flaubert and Miguel de Cervantes, and so on. The Curtain reads less like a textbook than a lecture on such a book, taking ideas and then expounding and digressing. A familiarity with the subject matter at hand (François Rabelais, Gabriel García Márquez, and others) is recommended.

In the first essay, titled “The Consciousness of Continuity,” readers are asked to consider a living composer and to imagine that that composer writes a symphony that sounds precisely like one of Beethoven’s. If Beethoven had composed it, it would have been considered one of the master’s greatest works; but a work like that would be laughable in the present day because it would be mocked as hopelessly derivative. Whereas scientific breakthroughs create change whenever they occur, making earlier theories obsolete, art progresses in a different way. An innovation in art is like the discovery of a new land: Discovering Antarctica did not make America obsolete; likewise, James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) does not make Cervantes’ Don Quixote (1605, 1615) obsolete.

The second essay contrasts a national literature approach with a world literature view. Literature is normally studied within the context of the writer’s nationality, which people consider to be even more important than the language in which the author writes. Franz Kafka, for example, is considered a Czech writer because he was ethnically Czech, even though he wrote in German. According to Kundera, it makes more sense to look at literature from an international perspective, because that is where all of its major developments have occurred. Flaubert was a major influence on Joyce. Kafka was an influence on García Márquez. Kundera himself is an author of Czech ethnicity who writes in French, so he has deep insight into these questions.

The third essay relates how Flaubert was criticized by one of his contemporaries for not writing a more uplifting story. Painters or musicians can be commissioned by the Church or wealthy patrons to produce a work of art that furthers some particular agenda, and they can still produce something of genuine artistic value, but literature does not work that way. A novel must be an honest portrayal of the way people act and think, whether that shows them to be moral or not. This exploration of the human condition occurred in literature decades before existentialism took hold in philosophy and in fact laid the groundwork for that strand of philosophy.

In the fourth essay, titled “To Understand, We Must Compare,” Kundera mentions how, in Hermann Broch’s Die Schlafwandler (1931-1932; The Sleepwalkers, 1932), readers understand a rebel by comparing him to a criminal, then asks rhetorically how readers are to understand a novelist: by comparing the novelist to a lyrical poet. Lyrical poetry is about the author, regardless of the subject matter. A novel, Kundera reminds, is prose; it is about everyday life. Flaubert was bored by his own character, Madame Bovary, because he had matured into a novelist. He had stopped writing about himself and started writing about life. The purpose of a novel is to show the readers themselves. Kundera was disappointed in his youth to learn that Marcel...

(The entire section is 1531 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

The Economist 382 (March 10, 2007): 83.

Harper’s Magazine 314 (March, 2007): 88-94.

The New York Times Book Review 156 (March 4, 2007): 1-10.

San Francisco Chronicle, February 11, 2007, p. M4.

The Times Literary Supplement, July 20, 2007, p. 11.

The Washington Post, February 4, 2007, p. BW10.