It’s a bearable thought, though startling: Forty years have passed since Czech-born Milan Kundera, the once and perhaps future most fashionable European literary writer of his generation, published his first novel, The Joke.
Packed with local description, its modernism plain yet modest, the book struck most local critics as a realist take on the author’s postwar communist homeland, a rebuke to the Stalinist ’50s in the spirit of the Prague Spring ’60s. The revenge-drama plot – Kundera did plots back then – revolved around Ludvik Jahn, a veteran who schemes to get back at Pavel, the head of a student tribunal that expelled him from the university and the Communist Party in 1949, by sleeping with Pavel’s wife, Helena.
After he’d fled Czechoslovakia for Paris in 1975, Kundera showed little patience for such interpretations. He later recalled a fellow participant in a television discussion of his works “called The Joke a major indictment of Stalinism, I was quick to interject, ‘Spare me your Stalinism, please. The Joke is a love story!'” Its origin: a news item of a young woman stealing cemetery flowers to give to her lover.
Kundera has been telling the literary world ever since that he didn’t remotely begin as a Czech Solzhenitsyn but rather as a Europeanized Nabokov, an aesthetic descendant of rambunctious Francois Rabelais, which may explain his ongoing commitment to France as home and French as his literary language. The Curtain continues a form Kundera embarked on in The Art of the Novel: lovely, meandering observations on the genre to which he’s consecrated his life, with echoes, fresh insights, and – one must acknowledge – repetitions of things past.
Kundera longed, as an ambitious artist born amid what he calls here “the provincialism of small nations”, to be a cosmopolitan European novelist at home with peers like Hermann Broch and Robert Musil, as trickily modern as the Pole Witold Gombrowicz, yet somehow also in a direct line descended from Icelandic sagas. Resentment fueled in a writer by growing up in the European sticks can issue in fierce ways, but in Kundera, the upshot was an almost religious exaltation of the novel as art.
That position has always appealed to the world’s aesthetically minded literary scholars, bolstering Kundera’s prestige, much as his existential irony in novels such as Life Is Elsewhere and The Unbearable Lightness of Being made Kundera the hip read of the 1980s for students who might have packed Camus or Hesse if born earlier. Yet Kundera is somewhat unloved in his homeland, now the Czech Republic. There, intellectuals have long chosen sides between him (cerebral, self-regarding, barely political, and at times a cynical expatriate) and playwright/ex-president Vaclav Havel (morally committed, dissident ex-prisoner, defeater of communism, Czech through and through).
The Curtain will do little to alter those perceptions or battle lines, which in the bad old days led Kundera to chide Havel as a moral “exhibitionist” and Havel to view Kundera as mired in decadent kitsch. Kundera remains a world-class muser on his saintly literary form, which he believes “arises in a freedom that no one can delimit and whose evolution will be a perpetual surprise.” His resignation before moral and political reality – for which Havelites rebuked him – still persists: “All we can do in the face of that ineluctable defeat called life,” he writes, “is to try to understand it … that is the raison d’etre of the art of the novel.”
Here, as elsewhere in Kundera’s work, history comes with a capital H, though it’s simply “a kind of searchlight circling around human existence.” One does not go to Kundera, though, for his inchoate metaphysics. When his “curtain” parts to reveal concrete observations of specific writers and connections, the book comes alive.
Flaubert wanted, he remarks, “to de-theatricalize the novel … (`de-balzacize’) it.” Anna Karenina’s death may seem foreordained to many readers, he shrewdly observes, “but is a trapped person necessarily doomed to suicide? So many people adapt to living in a trap!” Regarding nationalistic pigeonholes for writers, Kundera rails that “Rabelais, ever undervalued by his compatriots, was never better understood than by a Russian, Bakhtin; Dostoyevsky than by a Frenchman, Gide; Ibsen than by an Irishman, Shaw; Joyce than by an Austrian, Broch.”
The names may make your head swim if you haven’t fulfilled World Lit prerequisites, but those with a taste for grand landscapes of literature will enjoy Kundera’s canvas of sweeping aphorism and pointillist reports. Those who regard the novel, like life itself, as flawed may find themselves less infatuated.
For Kundera, it continues as the “privileged sphere of analysis, lucidity, irony.” It possesses its own “muse,” “genesis,” “history,” “morality.” Novelistic thinking is “fiercely independent of any system of preconceived ideas; it does not judge; it does not proclaim truths; it questions, it marvels, it plumbs.”
Relationship counselors have a word for this: idealization. Which suggests a conclusion. The Curtain is a love story. Milan Kundera and “the novel” sitting in a paper object produced from a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G. Like good love stories, it pulls you in.