Fuck The Title
The Curtain, Milan Kundera, Faber, 2007
Some writers have no idea how to make their book seem interesting. They lack the necessary self-promotion to reduce pages of ideas into a snappy title which fits nicely on an A5 book cover. The Curtain, Milan Kundera’s third instalment of literary criticism, might seem slightly dry. The serious chapter titles (“The consciousness of Continuity”) and headings that sound like under-grad essay titles (“The multiple meaning of the word ‘history’”) give the impression that this book is the literary equivalent of tinder. However, first impressions are full of superficial bullshit. Despite all appearances, this book is alive.
The Curtain, an essay in seven parts, is primarily an examination of literary context. Kundera looks at the position a novelist occupies in a historical context, a national context and within the context of literature itself. For Kundera the novel exists within a glacial continuity of ideas (though not necessarily the progress of ideas). Every contemporary novelist throughout history has developed their own style from the previous generation of writers. Through the past literary trail blazers they have been able to develop their own voice. But while nudges are taken from the reams of “classics” there is still a need to shred through the curtain of pre-existing assumptions. The writer always hovers between influence and nihilism.
‘The novelists ambition is not to do something better then predecessors, but to see what they did not see, say what they did not say.’
Personally, I think arguments of authorial intention are old hat. In literature a new pragmatism is emerging – just write the bugger and let critics take care of the rest. But it doesn’t matter a Goddamn bit whether you agree with Kundera. His arguments are not always logical or particularly relevant to the subject, but they are always passionately argued. The joy of Kundera is the journey.
I can’t think of anything worse then a writer dissecting a joke, explaining why it is funny and how it works, but Kundera pulls it off. His trick is treating it like a philosophical issue (which I guess it is) and not trying to follow it with his own gags. He is enthusiastic about the subject of books and ideas, but he treats them with dignity. In other writer’s essays, Amis particularly comes to mind, there is a feeling of desperation, where the writer is desperate for the reader to approve. Kundera doesn’t pander to anyone. He mentions almost no books written after the 1970’s (except for The Satanic Verses right at the end) and the reading list is distinctly European, spending the most time on his big three: Cervantes, Flaubert and Kafka. He offers no apology for this and nor should we expect one.
The Curtain is not literary criticism in the strictest sense of the word. Kundera mixes his personal experience among his big arguments about Rebelais.
He recounts his exile from Czechoslovakia, his womanising friends in Paris and rich family fables. But all of these points are not recounted without purpose; they are all assimilated to lend support for his arguments. Kundera is the king of digression and is almost continually profound. He is the guy ranting in a bar whose eyes take in everything. Kundera’s tangents that can make his fiction seem overly philosophical or a political (he loathes being labelled as a political writer). However, the essay as a form gives Kundera the freedom to digress as much as he wants. His sidetracks never seem quite as protruding as they do in his novels.
However, in reading The Curtain there is more then a slight whiff of irony. By Kundera writing this essay he is essentially writing himself into oblivion. Kundera is a part of previous generation of writers and under his own advice we are to disregard or modify his beliefs and argument. But the fact his arguments account for its own death make The Curtain all the more relevant and alive. When we disagree we are actually agreeing. Kundera is a writer of ideas, which gives him a more enduring appeal and makes him unique among his stylised peers.
Zeitgeist is such a post-modern word, but it seems appropriate as we are resting on the cusp of literary change. Little points such as Kundera’s essay on literary evolution, Martin Amis’ appointment as professor of creative writing at Manchester and Zadie Smith’s long literary manifesto in the Guardian suggest a lapse into introspection of the current literary establishment. They are examining everything they stand for and the ideas that have formed their writing. It’s the kind of self-conscious analysis that has always foreshadowed death. The recent attention given to the brutalists and the off-beat generation reveal that we are ready for something new. Something fresh and honest. Despite signalling the end of Kundera’s relevance it’s reassuring to know that he does at least approve.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Wesley Weyers is originally from Essex, but relocated to Manchester. He has a creative writing degree from Bangor University and has almost finished writing his first novel provisionally titled Church Bells and Hookah Pipes.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, March 29th, 2007.