April 2007

Josh Cook

nonfiction

The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts by Milan Kundera

The Curtain will not be the last word on the modern novel, but it could create a new cadre of passionate, active novel readers. In a collection of short musings, interpretations, and anecdotes, grouped into seven parts, Kundera constructs a theory of the novel through an onslaught of aphorisms. The experienced novel reader won't find anything provocative about his ideas, but will enjoy listening to a kindred spirit take to the novel with such exuberance. However, most novel readers do not approach the novel as an opportunity to explore the vast range of human meaning in literature. They read for entertainment and escape without knowing that active exploration can actually improve the way they understand the world around them.

Reading is a skill beyond translating abstract symbols into words. You can't expect someone to operate a jackhammer if you have not taught them the skills needed to do so, and you can't expect someone to explore the novel if you have not taught them the necessary skills. For whatever reason, most of us get through high school and college with neither the skill, nor the desire, to approach a novel any differently then we approach TV shows or movies. An infectious passion radiates from The Curtain, whether for the novel as a form or for the great works that Kundera discusses, a passion that, I hope, could lead many people to reconsider their relationship to the novel.

Furthermore, The Curtain's format is perfect for book clubs. His aphorisms are directly stated and easily grasped, with enough depth that they can be discussed. For example, Kundera concludes a passage on Don Quixote with the statement, "All we can do in the face of the ineluctable defeat called life is to try to understand it. That -- that is the raison d'etre of the art of the novel." How is life a defeat? Can that defeat be avoided? What is the benefit of understanding it if it is still a defeat? How does the novel help us understand the defeat? Is this something TV or poetry can't do?

The aphorisms can also be used to guide the discussion of a particular novel. The author states: "The beauty of a novel is inseparable from its architecture; I say 'beauty' because the composition is not merely technical skill; it carries within it an author's originality of style." What is this novel's "architecture"? Is it beautiful? Does this passage demonstrate "technical skill," "originality of style," both, or neither? Are there points where the architecture fails?

Kundera also distills the essences of many great works stigmatized as "too hard." His conclusions about Proust, Musil, Kafka, Sterne and others are formulated into the same direct and clear aphorisms as his other ideas, making them easy to understand and apply, conclusions that could act as footholds for a novice reader's first attempt at The Man Without Qualities or In Search of Lost Time. These distilled essences are also useful in connecting the line of influence from one of these great works to contemporary works, providing another avenue for readers and book clubs to further explore the novels they're reading.

The novel is a vast and powerful form of communication. Complex. Intricate. Expressive. It is the most widely read genre in contemporary literature, yet most of us are content to read for the simplest aspects of the novel and buy the novels that most embody those aspects. In the right hands, The Curtain could be an epiphany, revealing a world of experience previously unimagined. By showing how he reads, explores, and critiques, and by doing so with passion and exuberance, Kundera could pass on the reading skills so many of us missed in our formal educations.

The Curtain leaves much of the novel unexplored. Important works are unmentioned. Major schools of thought are not discussed. Ambiguities of meaning, challenges of interpretation, and culture differences are left uninvestigated. But if The Curtain creates a new group of passionate, active novel readers, it will be one of the most successful works of criticism on the novel.

The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts by Milan Kundera
HarperCollins
ISBN 0060841869
176 Pages