Milan Kundera’s new essay The Curtain reads like a collection of morning-table musings he felt compelled to write in the wake of a hangover.
In the first few pages, “late Kundera” plagiarizes from “early Kundera” and his own essay The Art of the Novel by reexamining the origin of the European novel. Kundera’s new seven-part essay is another discussion on the art of the novel and the necessity of reinterpreting our visions of artistic history.
The modern European novel still stems from Don Quixote and seeks to uncover a part of humanity hidden by a world where perceptions are inherited and already established long ago. For Kundera the novel was a place of discovery, where light could shine behind the curtain of aesthetic perceptions that have been valued through time.
“History is a history of values,” Kundera tells us again, where works of art are lodged at their point of creation and are not to be repeated. If the art of the novel is to progress, it has to be through difference and not repetition.
There are not formulas for a text. If a modern composer wrote a Beethoven-like sonata, it wouldn’t be appreciated for its beauty because it would be seen as merely repeating a set of musical phrases from another period. Artistic development occurs across all levels of symbolic structures. It develops across time and cultures, with writers constantly learning from writers of other languages and other moments in history. Envision Garcia Marquez rereading Faulkner with a cigarette in his hand to learn about novelistic structure, or Joyce huddled over a work of Flaubert musing on everyday banality.
Thus the history of the novel is a dialogue of discovery between time and place. True artists are constantly becoming something new through their interactions with the world and artistic history. An artist’s work maintains its own chronology, where “late Beethoven” has different elements than “early Beethoven” because the artist has become something different.
Today the novel is at a point of crisis because of the collective reader and his or her lack of curiosity for all that is hidden. If we are to believe that nothing new can be seen, then the novel has died.
Authors today adhere to specific structural guidelines in order to publish their works because commodities consumed by silent majorities drive artistic production.
The romantic days of cherishing a book that ruptured your everyday life and helped you to reenvision your own perception seem to be fading. Since information is so accessible with alternative forms of media, the reader is no longer curiously seeking what hides behind the curtain of inherited perception and aesthetic value.
“The history of technology,” Kundera believes, “depends little on man and his freedoms: obedient to its own logic; it cannot be other than what it has been or what it will be.”
At the end of Kundera’s musings on the European novel, we are able to see the intimate gestures and passions that influenced some of the world’s greatest novels, but are left seeking a way to escape history’s bind. For Kundera, we must constantly reimagine our inherited artistic history in order to discover all that is behind the curtain of perception, but the method is left up to the reader.
After the last page, I wanted to wrap Kundera in his curtain of French theorist-inspired ideas and push him into the Seine. I wanted something new from The Curtain. Something hidden.