Milan Kundera has charmed readers with a mix of brilliant story-telling and historical insight for decades, and his recent efforts—Slowness, Identity, and Ignorance—have been shorter than the masterworks of middle age but hardly less engaging. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, such “Eastern European” offerings have lost some of their cache, and Kundera himself was denounced as an informer a few years ago. But he keeps finding new things to occupy his attention. Ignorance, for example, deals with The Great Return, by which Kundera means the émigré’s return from exile. And in the recent seven-part essay The Curtain (2005), Kundera also returns to re-examine, from a more mature perspective, some of the material he dealt with in The Art of the Novel (1986).
One section of The Curtain originally appeared a free-standing essay in the New Yorker, and at the time I found it so brilliant that I cut it out and stuck it in my copy of The Art of the Novel. In that piece Kundera defends the practice of reading literature in translation, even going so far as to assert that it is only through translation that literature from small countries will ever escape the tyranny of nationalistic enthusiasm to make its mark on the wider world.
The broader theme of The Curtain is the history of the novel itself, and very early on Kundera makes a stab at underscoring why that art form is so important.
“…human life as such is a defeat. All we can do in the face of that ineluctable defeat called life is to try to understand it. That—that is the raison d’être of the art of the novel.”Kundera’s approach to the subject is freewheeling; he refers again and again to a fairly small selection of authors, jumping back and forth in time to suit his purpose: Cervantes and Rabelais, Sterne and Fielding, Balzac and Flaubert, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, Musil and Broch, Kafka and Gombrowitz. At one point he contrasts his approach to the more strictly chronological one we often find in conventional histories.
“ ‘History as such,’ the history of mankind, is the history of things that no longer exist and do not join directly in our lives. The history of art, because it is the history of values, thus of things we need, is always present, always with us; we listen to Monteverdi and Stravinsky at the same concert.”
This analysis is not entirely sound. History of every sort concerns itself with things that remain valuable and conjoined to us. But in the history of art those connections become blatant.
Kundera analyses the density of Dostoyevsky’s plot-constructions, Flaubert’s attempt to de-theatricize fiction, and Tolstoy’s success an exposing the largely random musings that pass through a character’s mind, even during moments of extreme crisis. He explores the significance of the fact that until recently, the French language had no word for “kitsch,” and jostles Hegel’s theory of lyricism just to see what will fall out.
Music and poetry, Hegel says, have an advantage over painting: lyricism. And in lyricism, he continues, music can go still further than poetry, for it is capable of grasping the most secret movements of the inner world, which are inaccessible to words. Thus there does exist an art in this case, music that is more lyrical than lyric poetry itself. From this we can deduce that the notion of lyricism is not limited to a branch of literature (lyrical poetry) but, rather it designates a certain way of being, and that, from this standpoint, a lyric poet is only the exemplary incarnation of man dazzled by his own soul and by the desire to make it heard.
We may be reminded here of the Italian sage Benedetto Croce’s simple maxim: Art is lyricism. Yet just a few pages further on, Kundera underscores the anti-lyric conversion a novelist must undergo to establish distance between himself and the characters he’s creating. He credits Cervantes for tearing through the curtain of self-identification. “..his destructive act echoes and extends to every novel worthy of the name: it is the identifying sign of the art of the novel.”
At this, as at other points in Kundera’s argument, we might be tempted to offer counterexamples. In particular, Kundera’s theories are better fitted for comic literature than to some other kinds. Indeed, at one point he observes: “Humor is not a spark that leaps up for a brief moment … to set us laughing. Its unobtrusive light glows over the whole vast landscape of life.”
But the problematic character of some of Kundera’s assertions do not diminish the dazzle of his wit, the jaunty music of his prose, or the estimable brevity and heedless courage with which he takes up such issues as depth, soul, tragedy, history, and meaning itself.