Monday, 30 July 2007

The Curtain

The Curtain by Milan Kundera (2005)

‘…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’etre of the art of the novel.’

Described as An Essay in Seven Parts, this book is Kundera’s personal view of the history and value of the novel in Western civilization. ‘The curtain’ is the ready-made perception of the world which we all inherit – a pre-interpreted world. It is the function of the novelist to tear down this curtain to reveal to us something which we didn’t know. For anyone who reads as many novels as I do this book is salutary.

A novel which glorifies the conventional or the hackneyed ‘excludes itself from the history of the novel.’ Only by tearing through the curtain of pre-interpretation can a novel be worthy of its name – ‘It is the identifying sign of the art of the novel.’

‘For life is short, reading is long, and literature is in the process of killing itself off through an insane proliferation. Every novelist, starting with his own work, should eliminate whatever is secondary, lay out for himself and everyone else the ethic of the essential.’

‘It [the novel] refuses to exist as an illustration of a historical era, as description of society, as defense of an ideology, and instead puts itself exclusively at the service of what only the novel can say.’


Olga said...

Wow! It's inevitably a scattergun approach though, isn't it? In that what is unknown for one reader is not necessarily so for another. Or does he mean that each novel must reveal something that is like looking for a new idea in art: everything has been done before, but what is extraordinary is the new perspective.

I wonder what he thinks of the writing on the internet.

Celia said...

‘Scatter-gun approach’ – yes, but in such a brief mention I wasn’t doing justice to Kundera’s argument, which is developed using very precise examples from particular novels, explaining why those he chooses to focus on are offering something new – getting behind ‘the curtain’; often this is achieved by showing things from the ‘new perspective’, as you say.

In Art and Illusion, Gombrich says: The more we become aware of the enormous pull in man to repeat what he has learned, the greater will be our admiration for that exceptional being who could break this spell and make an exceptional advance on which others could build.’ Gombrich, of course, is writing in the context of the psychology of pictorial representation, but I suggest Kundera is saying something similar in relation to the art of the novel.