09 May 2007

The Curtain

What is the novel’s raison d’etre? Can the novel help us understand reality, to define the boundaries and/or the relationship between fiction and reality? Or, as Milan Kundera suggests in his new book, ‘The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts’, help us see with new eyes? For, isn’t the novel’s tradition (and it’s true for fiction in general) as old as human culture, laying the path to a more progressive, revolutionary form?

In his March 2007 article, ‘The unbearable rightness of fiction’, in Salon.com, Gary Kamiya explains Kundera’s point why it is important for all novelists to understand the history and the form of the novel:

“Kundera’s point is that Western culture, including classical music and literature, has a definite history, which one must know not just to understand new works but, as a creator, to build on. If you’re a novelist writing in 2007 and you don’t know ‘Don Quixote’, ‘Tom Jones’, ‘Tristram Shandy’ and ‘The Castle’, you may still create a lasting work -- but you will do so only as a wild genius, not as a craftsman. And the history-obsessed Kundera has his doubts about untutored genius.”

Adding, “Kundera believes novelists must know the history of the form because if they don’t, they are likely to repeat fictional expeditions already undertaken -- for him, the ultimate aesthetic sin.”

But what about pioneer novelists like Cervantes and Rabelais who had no history of the novel to start with? Were they simply men of untutored genius? Were they not craftsmen as well?

Gary Kamiya goes on to write, “‘The Curtain’ reveals a lot about Kundera. Yet, ironically, it also helps us understand why his creative works, or those of any major writer, cannot be reduced to theory.” I agree.

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