June 7, 2016 by Jessica Palmer
Review of Milan Kundera’s Le Rideau
Department of French and Francophone Studies
Milan Kundera. Le Rideau. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 2005. 196 pages.
Milan Kundera, the Franco-Czech novelist most famous forThe Unbearable Lightness of Being, has also written three essays on the art of the novel, the most recent of which,Le rideau (The Curtain), was published in France last April to great critical acclaim. The essay has since appeared in Spanish and German versions and will likely be published soon in the United States.
Like the best-selling novel Ignorance, which appeared in several foreign editions well before its 2003 French publication date, Le rideau has proven to be something of an international literary event.
One imagines that Kundera, a vigorous proponent of the Goethian notion ofWeltliteratur, takes pleasure in the fact that his creative vision transcends national and linguistic boundaries. The essay takes up arms in defense of the cosmopolitan yet diverse European culture out of which Kundera’s cherished art of the novel emerged some four centuries ago, a Europe which he defines by its ability to contain “the maximum diversity in the minimum of space.” Like the cultural entity he theorizes, his book, constructed in seven parts, each of which is in turn divided into several sub-chapters, offers a rich array of reflections on topics ranging from Fielding’s proto-theory of the novel to Flaubert’s “conversion romanesque” to the fate of tragedy in a postmodern intellectual climate dominated by Manicheism and thus incapable of grasping the reciprocity of tragic debate.
Indeed, the essay covers so much ground and touches on so many different subjects that summarizing it is probably impossible. A sampling of themes and topics, however, may serve to give prospective readers an idea of what to expect. One particularly intriguing passage compares Laclos’ Liaisons dangereuses to Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, noting the similar polyphonic structures of the two novels. An eighteenth-century libertine novel and a twentieth-century chronicle of the obsolescent South make strange bedfellows, yet Kundera’s willingness to explore the affinities between them brings out unexpected echoes. The passage demonstrates yet again, as Kundera is so fond of repeating, that a novel’s importance, its “objective aesthetic value,” can be appreciated only in the “big context” of Europe and the history of the European novel, and that arbitrarily imprisoning works in little, provincial contexts (the context of literature produced by émigrés from Communist countries, for example) distorts our aesthetic judgment. Faulkner can be understood when placed next to Laclos; Chamoiseau can be understood next to Rabelais; and Broch must be read along with the other novelists of the great Central European pleiad—Kakfa, Hasek, and Musil—but also with Flaubert, with Fielding, and indeed with all of the other novelists worthy of the name who have put pen to paper since Cervantes first “tore the curtain of pre-interpretation” in Don Quixote.
And what is it that makes a novelist worthy of being called a novelist? According to Kundera, it is his ability to pierce through the fog of clichés and illusions that cover over reality and prevent us from understanding it concretely. Thus he devotes a few pages to a practically forgotten Czech novelist from the early twentieth century, Jaromir John, whose novel Le monstre à explosion recounts the tragicomic martyrdom of a minor bureaucrat hounded nearly unto madness by the din of the newly-invented horseless carriage. “John was one of those novelists we call minor,” writes Kundera. “However, big or small, he was a true novelist.” Instead of mindlessly passing on the received ideas of his generation, John placidly recorded one of those elusive transformations in being which often go unnoticed. Instead of writing about democracy or capitalism, he wrote about noise. For Kundera, a change in the soundscape such as that brought about by the advent of automobiles has incalculable ramifications in all sorts of domains, from music to lovemaking. War can break out in Africa without affecting our lives in the least, treaties can be signed, monuments erected to dead leaders and new leaders triumphantly crowned, but concrete changes in our environment, in the way we interact with our neighbors or stroll along the avenue, can have a greater impact on our lives than all the dramatic events recorded in the history books.
That is probably why, for Kundera, the novel should be looked at as a “revenge” on History and its utopian projects, and therefore as an autonomous art beholden to neither the politicians nor the historiographers. “Le romancier n’est pas le valet des historiens” (The novelist is not the historians’ lackey), he declares. Lovers of literature will enjoy Le rideau not only for the author’s impassioned defense of his art, but also for the essay’s polished French and contrapuntal structure. Kundera published his first essay on the novel, L’Art du roman (The Art of the Novel), in 1986, and in the two decades since he has refined both his abilities as a French stylist and as an architect. Le rideau stands as a superb example of what Kundera, writing about the Italian director Fellini, calls “la liberté vespérale,” the period at the end of an artist’s career when he stops trying to please either critics or the public, when he renounces his claim on posterity, and revels in the “joyous irresponsibility” of his twilight years. The Asher translation has yet to be announced by HarperCollins. It will no doubt be excellent, but English readers who know French are advised to find a copy in the original language, simply for the exhilarating pleasure of reading a master in full command of his adopted tongue.