Pulling Back the Curtain
Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.
Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being has to be one of the twentieth-century’s most beautiful and most thoughtful novels. While many readers will want to argue with my assessment of the novel, there’s no doubt that Kundera understands himself to be carrying on a legacy that begins with Cervantes and Don Quixote.
All of his stories and novels—beginning with The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and moving through Immortality and Slowness—replay the history of the novel. They are intertextual marvels, weaving the comedy of Quixote with the gravitas of Hermann Broch’s novels and the exquisite lyrical splendor and beauty of Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina. Kundera’s novels magically blend the weight of political affairs with the poetry of great literature.
Kundera brings his gifts as a novelist to his critical writings as well. Beginning with The Art of the Novel (1986) and moving through Testaments Betrayed (1996), Kundera meanders through the history of the novel, offering a brilliant insights into the development of the novel and its role in western world.
In his latest effort, The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts (HarperCollins; $22.95), Kundera picks up where he left off in The Art of the Novel.
For Milan Kundera, the novel begins with Don Quixote. “A magic curtain, woven of legends, hung before the world. Cervantes sent Don Quixote journeying and tore the curtain. The world opened before the knight errant in all the comic nakedness of its prose.” Cervantes's enchanting novel gives birth to a long line of descendants, from Laurence Sterne and Francois Rabelais to Gustave Flaubert, Franz Kafka, Hermann Broch, Leo Tolstoy, and James Joyce.
Kafka, for example, grabs Cervantes’ torn curtain and pulls it apart even further. “After Kafka crossed it, the frontier to the implausible was left with no police, no customs guards, open for good. That was a great moment in the history of the novel.” It was Kafka’s “long avid gaze” on the real world that led him and other great novelists—Joyce, Beckett, Garcia Marquez, Rushdie—“past the frontier of the plausible.”
For Kundera, novels cannot be understood in a vacuum, apart from their authors and their lives. Cervantes and Don Quixote are synonymous, for example. “The birth of the art of the novel was linked to the consciousness of an author’s rights and to its fierce defense. The novelist is the sole master of his work. He is his work. It will not always be thus. When that day comes, the art of the novel, Cervantes legacy, will cease to exist.” Kundera’s canon includes those novelists—Flaubert, Kafka, Rabelais, Cervantes, among others—who have crossed literary borders, reinvented literary forms, and challenged preconceived notions of reality.
Kundera elegantly reminds us that the novel cuts across world literatures and that the history of the novel is not simply a history of a particular nation or its literature: "It was to Rabelais that Sterne was reacting, it was Sterne who set off Diderot, it was from Cervantes that Fielding drew constant inspiration, it was against Fielding that Stendhal measured himself, it was Flaubert's tradition living on in Joyce, it was through his reflection on Joyce that Hermann Broch developed his own poetics of the novel, and it was Kafka who showed Garcia Marquez the possibility of departing from tradition to ‘write another way’.”
Kundera’s lyrical essay contains such luminous insight that it is tempting to quote almost every other line as a way of pointing to the multifaceted bounty of Western literature. The immediacy of Kundera's evocative prose and the rich critical tapestry he weaves compel us to pick up and read, or reread, the abundant literary treasures of Western literature.
Henry Carrigan dreamed of being a rock ‘n roll star with a life of coast-to-coast tours and wild parties with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell among others. But books intervened, and instead he went to Emory University to major in Religion and Literature. Later, teaching humanities in college, he took up writing about books—this time to avoid reading students’ papers. Henry soon became Library Journal's religion columnist, then religion book editor for Publishers Weekly. While working as editor-in-chief for Northwestern University Press and editing classic books for Paraclete Press, he still continues to write for LJ and PW, as well as the Washington Post Book World, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Charlotte Observer, ForeWord magazine—and now, BiblioBuffet. And he still enjoys playing his guitar. Henry can be reached at