three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
28-May-June-2007
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An Essay in Seven Parts

A-The Curtain.epsIn The Curtain, Czech novelist Milan Kundera continues his 20-year meditation on the novel as a mirror of the human condition. Invoking writers such as Cervantes, Rabelais, Flaubert, Dostoyevsky, Faulkner, García Márquez, and others, he contemplates such wide-ranging topics as cultural diversity, the use of humor, and the emergence of surrealism and existentialism in the 20th century. According to Kundera, the ultimate purpose of the novel is to illuminate human nature against the beauty of everyday life. To accomplish this, the novelist must tear through "the curtain"—the preconceived ideas and rigid beliefs we all internalize during our lives—and force the reader to see the world through new eyes. Only then can we appreciate the novel as a true art form and the best tool available for understanding ourselves and our surroundings.
HarperCollins. 176 pages. $22.95. ISBN: 0060841869

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"The Curtain is an extended essay in which a novelist talks about the novel after a lifetime of contemplating its wonders. … Written in aphoristic style, The Curtain is agreeably studded with insights that may have been overlooked even by veteran readers of the novel." Joseph Epstein

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Throughout, Kundera writes plainly but with passion. … In an age of the increasingly ephemeral, Kundera has long championed the permanence of art and the Flaubertian ideal of making every word count." Michael Dirda

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The Curtain is not one of Kundera’s best books, but to readers for whom he has provided a crucial piece of the literary puzzle, it cannot be missed. Here (do I dare say it?) there is a greater openness, a more revealing sense of the sources of his authority—namely, his own life." Susan Salter Reynolds

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"If I have any quarrel with Kundera’s description of the history of the novel it’s that he’s not inclusive enough. He does not discuss a single female novelist, even in passing. It’s as if no Western woman has ever tried writing a serious novel in 400 years." Russell Banks

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"However compelling, this network of convictions does not leave much room for nuances or a genuine dialogue with the reader. What is curiously missing from this hermeneutic model of the novel as purveyor of a deeper truth is a theory of reading." Cécile Alduy

Nation 3 of 5 Stars
"It is witty and brisk and very smart, like all of his writing. But it falls short of The Art of the Novel, not only because he has so little new to say but because the earlier work was produced in the full flush of his novelistic career." William Deresiewicz

Critical Summary

Milan Kundera states that the novelist’s primary goal "is not to do something better than his predecessors but to see what they did not see, say what they did not say." Ironically, many critics observed that Kundera covers much the same ground as he did in The Art of the Novel (1986) and Testaments Betrayed (1995), though they also mentioned that his views have softened somewhat toward authors and trends he had previously condemned. Most reviewers found his writing clear and accessible despite its erudite subject matter and praised Linda Asher’s skillful translation for preserving the writer’s linguistic idiosyncrasies. Perhaps the greatest value of The Curtain is the insight gained into Kundera’s own novels as he explains his personal philosophy of writing and reading.

Also by the Author

The Art of the Novel (1986): Kundera discusses Kafka, Cervantes, Tolstoy, Flaubert, Rabelais, Diderot, and his own work, analyzing what, in his opinion, makes a great novel. This is not a how-to book for writers; it is a deep examination of the form.