In Praise of Milan Kundera's Hypocrisies By Arthur Phillips Discussed in this essay: The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts by Milan

Kundera, Translated by Linda Asher One way to start writing a novel is to have a theory about what a novel is supposed to be for — like healing our wounds, holding a mirror up to the American family, or engaging with the political issues of the day. If you know, as the novelist Milan Kundera knows, that your first duty as a novelist is to explore and explain hitherto unknown "existential problems," then, assuming you can dig up a hitherto unknown existential problem, you have a good start on your novel. A theory like that gives you a guide to creating your characters, a subtext for your dialogue, a clothesline from which to suspend your sex scenes and flashbacks. Be careful, though: after a while, you may find yourself wishing for a little freedom from your own big ideas. That clothesline can turn into a boa constrictor. Kundera, best known for his nine novels, has now published his third book of literary theory and criticism. The Curtain; An Essay in Seven Parts follows 1993's Testaments Betrayed: An Essay in Nine Parts and 1986's The Art of the Novel, an essay in seven parts (though it doesn't say so on the cover). Twenty-one years and twenty-three parts later, devoted admirers like me may be forgiven for feeling that the ground of Kunderan thought is tramped pretty flat, considering as well that several of his novels come cushioned in afterwords, prefaces, and dense author interviews, Kundera the essayist wants us to know what Kundera the novelist was thinking, and in The Curtain, through short, breezy sections, he explains himself again, fiddling with the theoretical knots he has been tying for years. Although he loosens them somewhat, he is still, in the end, well and truly hound by them. In a voice surprisingly gentler (but no weaker), he returns here to the topics he addressed in the previous criticism: the construction and function of die novel, the menace of kitsch, the provincialism of governments, the idiocy of academic critics. With each book, he has found new lenses through which to examine his subjects. The Art of the Novel, for example, was a writer's book, "a practitioner's confession," that looked at his literary theory in its relation to nuts-and-bolts composition and technique. Kundera discussed chapter length, the use of word repetition, the structure of novels by Kafka, Sterne, and Broch, and tied these practical matters to his idea of the underlying existential mission of novels. Testaments Betrayed was angrier — a prophet's rant, examining how artists' rights are betrayed by executors,

We cannot see things as they really are. more or less patiently. even the composer Stravinsky's treacherous conductors. this game of Flickering over our favorite stories can feel.publishers. The Curtain is less gloomy. "Indifference to aesthetic value inevitably shifts the whole culture back into provincialism. as important. opens our eyes. Novels. good and bad. more of a reader's celebration. classic and modern. and the ultimately serious value of this "playful" art cannot he overstated. and ideologues." he soon reminds us. The Curtain explains again how the novel hears humanity's hopes for something morally crucial indeed. and several others. Flaubert. The enraged lament in Testaments Betrayed that the novel and Western culture were in their death throes is now quieted. and the same ideas are now viewed through the prism of literary history. Each aesthetic judgment is a personal wager. he paid special attention to Kafka's incompetent translators. mercifully replaced by the more hopeful reminder that the novel has "a freedom that no one can delimit and whose evolution will be a perpetual surprise. to use Kunderan language." and in so doing. reveal existence to us. and the "morality" of fiction lies in its ability to pierce this curtain and shine light. on existence and the range of human possibility. The novel says "what only the novel can say. His disclaimers did not for long rid me of the feeling — familiar from reading his fiction — that certain Laws of Nature were being explained. Rushdie's persecutors (and feeble defenders). Tolstoy. despite his new hedging. The novel tears the . well-known and obscure. he doesn't make many more appearances in The Curtain. the works and thoughts of Kundera's masters: Cervantes. "there are no precise measures…. The new. without judgment. We are all born with the realities of life hidden from us. like experience itself. I happen to agree. but I also admit that since the rules of judging are so personal. the novel still fulfills one specific and vital purpose. we all have our opinions. Kundera admits early in The Curtain to the possibility of aesthetic judgments that differ from his own. unbearably light." he calmly writes. and the talk of personal wagers is left behind." With similar tolerance. but a wager [that] does not close off into its own subjectivity. As a result. his theory of fiction in The Curtain still rings out. the instinct to charge the novel with a weightier purpose is hard to overcome. and. and that only a child would try to resist the cold facts of the matter. For him." In other words. supposedly more relaxed Kundera is not terribly convincing. Kundera has always been tempted by weightiness. Repeating the same theory of literature from his first book of essays. and after those opening caveats. above alt. behind a curtain of received ideas — hence the book's title. "In the realm of art. though.

is to Kundera the ultimate sin." A didactic novel tells you what you should do. because by exposing our naive desire to view the world in black and white. He has said that the novel is a "realm where moral judgment is suspended. memorably. everything he's capable of." The novel takes the form of a question rather than an answer. A novel examines "the realm of human possibilities." "the imaginary paradise of individuals … where no one possesses the truth. for crimes of kitsch. Kundera says a real "ironic" novel tells you only what people could do. The rights of man. overthrowing tired wisdom. the novel makes indifference to others less easy. by cracking our certainties." The novelist's only truth: "Things are not as simple as you think. adds a new stitch to that curtain of pretty lies. Kundera has long argued that any novel worth the name is an ironic (in the sense of "uncertain") inquiry into the nuance and complexity of life. This abhorrence of kitsch is not merely a matter of taste to him. in The Unbearable Lightness of Being as "the absolute denial of shit. which requires an effort to understand other people's points of view. simplification and myth-making. and replacing them only with questions. the story that promises redemption: Kundera will have none of that." according to Robert Musil). the obvious evil. by making things personal and thus showing the idiocy of generalizing ideologies. never certainty. at the start). Chief among these villains is kitsch. he very entertainingly prosecutes Victor Hugo and George Sand. everything that man can become. by definition. neither Anna nor Karen in. Kundera praises Flaubert for never writing "to communicate his judgments." Opposed to this high calling is not light genre fiction (Kundera says he has "never minded Agatha Christie's detective novels") nut humorlessness." Kitsch. depend upon a shared belief in human individuality. for he is never the same at the end of writing a book as he was years earlier. showing up easy simplifications. Although Kundera is easier on his old enemies in The Curtain than in Testaments Betrayed. It is a matter of morals. The novel is therefore nothing less than a bastion against intolerance. Why . inherited dogma of any sort. the easy choice. How does the novel do this? By expressing only doubt. the novelist necessarily disillusions the reader (and himself. because any answer. "a rosy veil thrown over reality" (even better: "bread drenched in perfume. by showing us truths other than our own. an act of willful anti-understanding — curtain repair. the novel that confirms everything you believe. And. the upright and unflinching hero. among others. the "supreme aesthetic evil" — defined by Kundera over the years as "the translation of the stupidity of received ideas into the language of beauty and feeling" and. The forced happy ending. Kundera argues.curtain.

before I knew I was going to . Kundera's theory offers no more usable standard of literary criticism than any other. everybody equally impressed by. newly discovered existential insights. in case any idea in the novel gains a false glow of seemingly inarguable truth. it plumbs. and agreeing on. hook reviewers can confidently send immoral books off to their kitschy. like all the others. Writing fiction to fulfill this ideal makes strong technical demands upon the writer and on translators. for instance." In Testaments Betrayed. premise: a homogeneous readership. But humans are a varied bunch (which Kundera accepted as one of his premises). even kitschy. for the novel's truth. and thus… damage the relativity that is indispensable to novelistic totalitarians and ayatollahs and priggish town councils ban novels? The answer: the novel is modernity's "most representative creation. I discovered Kundera's novels in college. analyzing an essay-like section in one of his own favorite novels (Hermann Broch's The Sleepwalkers)." If the novelist backs a particular truth. in every novel. Set out rigorously. the varied emotional and intellectual effects of a single paragraph of Kafka are analyzed through tour subtly different translations. (In Testaments Betrayed. unless you happen to be Milan Kundera. Kundera's temptingly clear standards seem to offer the critic an almost scientific method for reading fiction: try to find. Kundera argues. its thesis. phrased brilliantly. what new element of human possibility is being revealed and where such a discovery places the novel in relation to the discoveries of predecessors and contemporaries. still relies on an imaginary. removing every trace of his own authority and opinion.) The novelist must be scrupulous. it marvels. more tolerant Kundera)." the ultimate proof of individuality. indigestible to medieval thinkers of any faith. curtained hell. glowing with morality. Kundera insists that "novelistic thinking" is "fiercely independent of any system of preconceived ideas. But what is the mechanism for determining which hit of existential truth was or was not previously known? And to whom? Subjectivity will always worm its way into any aesthetic theory. Kundera worried that the passage could "readily he taken for the author's own thinking. In The Curtain. it does not proclaim truths. eroding even the best ones at their foundations. and my existential revelation is your grandmother's moth-eaten proverb. it does not judge. its statement. Kundera's standard. then his efforts to illuminate our essential truthlessness are doomed. no perceptible "history of values" at all. And since "a novel that tails to reveal some hitherto unknown bit of existence is immoral" (so much for the softer. it questions.

to believe it too. I felt he had read himself wrong. of ancient ideas about sex and defecation in Eden. This is part of the unique thrill of Kundera novels. full of a certain sort of black-turtleneck a writer. and I devoured them. issued by a wickedly opinionated man promoting a worldview at least partially incompatible with my own (or at least with somebody's). "Things are not as simple as you think. Kundera's apparent personality is very difficult to separate from his novelistic style — the intrusive narrator's voice that so marks his work. nowadays it roars everywhere and all the time … a flood of everything jumbled together … sewage-water musk in which music is dying"? I often had the impression reading his novels that Kundera was on a campaign to rid his audience (me) of certain illusions — the lasting power of friendship or love or democracy. I couldn't believe that these passages were nor statements of judgment. often because I felt forced to wrestle with him and his opinions. the narrator. she comes to regard her body as an enemy"' Or: "Men who pursue a multitude of women fir nearly into two categories"? Or this wonderful old-man crankiness. I was astounded. as the essayist insisted. as a closet novelist undeniably under his influence. and reading them. I read The Art of the Novel. "Things are simply much worse than you think. but one thing was clear to me: he. And again: what of the chapter of Life It Elsewhere that begins. with what I saw as his fiction's most identifying feature — the aggressively disillusioning ideas put forth as facts by a haughty. from Ignorance: "If in the past people would listen to music out of love for music. But wait: it. My deep admiration for Kundera (an admiration paradoxically defined in part by frustration over and anger at "his" beliefs when they contradicted my own) WHS an admiration for precisely what he claimed — with his essayist's pen — to disdain. who seemed to go by no other name than Milan Kundera. of memories of his own childhood reading — the narrator concludes: "Without shit… there would he no sexual love as we know it. moody narrator. Later. In one of my favorite passages from The Unbearable Lightness of Being — after a wide-ranging discussion of Stalin's son and prison camps. believed it. I loved his novels. and wanted me." . the novel's wisdom was the "wisdom of uncertainty. sitting in my dorm. "If a woman fails to live sufficiently through her body." but I heard this novelist saying mostly. the promise of the future or the innocence of children. brilliant." why was the narrator Kundera so certain? The essayist instructed me that a novelist must say only. But his theory of "irony" and novelistic "relativity" derided just such tyrannical narrators and the lessons they meant to teach." How he arrives here is not important. Ready to absorb any lesson from my master. I discovered a theory of art entirely contradictory to his own fiction.

is that his literary theory is forgivably wrong: Kundera's novels are beautiful because they carry his angry. provocative. but Kundera's work is beautiful because he is so visible in it — that intrusive narrator against whom his own theory tells him to rage. Kundera is a man of impassioned beliefs. he can't stay cool. totalitarianism. The good news. laughing didacticism in them. ironic. "If a woman fails…" Such pronouncements sound suspiciously like an opinionated narrator. and fail still. But I suspect it would bother him. though I am dubious. and so he is prone to generalizing statements. (Some of these ideas — about. novel after novel. it's not his ideas but his style of exploring those ideas that makes his fiction fly. to name a few. I think. Jaromil's mother.) Kundera admiringly cites Flaubert. the woman who has failed "to live sufficiently through her body" and now regards "her body as an enemy" is a character. To take one of the examples above. One of those beliefs is that the novel is not the place to teach impassioned beliefs. the emotion a story provokes. The problem is. Kundera chose a more powerful and intrusive opening — "If a woman fails" — and then later claimed as an essayist that we should have "heard" his joshing tone and not taken his lesson too seriously. or the beauty . I failed to hear it. an existential problem is one we might all face. From the very first word. "lyrical" womanizing vs. that the discernment of existential wisdom is not subjective — as is. He believes. history. say. you misunderstand: "Tone is crucial. even having read and enjoyed every explanatory essay. and a reader would have been free to extract those ideas for their possible implications. children. though. or toilets — are profound.No. some patently wrong. But Kundera's explicit goal of illuminating existential problems is a generalizing goal. no. he can't help himself — he's as didactic as any Victorian vicar or Soviet realist. says the essayist. or inquiring. the novelist who seeks to disappear behind his work. experimental. In any case. That double paradox — he preaches non-preachiness and cannot practice it — is what makes his novels Kunderan." This would have fulfilled his ideal of authorial recusal. sad. some inane. my thoughts have a tone that is playful. "epic" womanizing. "Jaromil's maman had failed to live sufficiently through her body. He wants to stay cool. But I can certainly argue that." I can't claim that Kundera didn't intend that tone. and had even come to regard her body as an enemy. Figuring out which is which is part of the game. the ideas would have been attached specifically to the character. Instead. It no longer bothers me that I love Kundera's novels for the very opposite reason that he would hope for. Kundera could have begun the chapter. some offensive. the high calling of the inimitable achieved by him because he is torn between incompatible ethics and aesthetics. music.

a "history of values. the individual works are nothing. and carries forward. "There is no such thing as a 'new thought. a critical history of fortune cookies." usually without having to go much past his titles: being can feel unbearably light and meaningless." More starkly. even when people die (Cervantes). But all these qualities share the same destination: the mind of the beholder. inherits. from a jumble of stimuli (Tolstoy). bureaucracy is stealing our identities and our capability for individual adventure (Kafka). literary history is therefore like geographic exploration and cartography." literature is just a "storehouse of works whose chronologic sequence carries no meaning. Kundera shrinks his own favorite novelists to mere messengers of a certain rueful common sense: life goes on humbly. or the charm of a character. According to Kundera. our decisions in everything. As the Hungarian novelist Sándor Márai wrote. A literary history of discovered wisdom is dull stuff. He lays out in The Curtain his history of the novel as a series of discoveries about life." a mission that the writer discerns. or a good laugh. Kundera has faith that the novel will arrive in the reader's head as it left the writer's hand. much is inevitably lost between the writer's intention and the reader's experience. boring detail and outright stupidity. It's not what's left after you throw the story away. from politics to suicide. the most important moments of our lives are surrounded by an envelope of prosaic.of the writing." but that is what he does in The Curtain. in his history of novelists as existential pioneers. the tendency to lyricism is closely tied to youth and easily harnessed by totalitarian .' only a new expression" that "gives new tension to the old thought. but how can he look at the history of the novel and of criticism and then believe any such impossible kitsch as that? Kundera believes that a writer's favorite writers have more in common than just their shared fan. They form a "personal history of the novel. or hovers around it. it is "babble". filling in a map of knowledge." Kundera has written in the past of his "disgust for those who reduce a work to its ideas. are made irrationally. a bucket of great thought nuggets. the corrosiveness of laughter and forgetting condemn to futility much of man's serious efforts and beliefs. a process of accumulating wisdom. Without such a unifying theory. whether that writer's intention is to stitch the curtain or to tear it. But wisdom is locked inside a story. and in parts of The Curtain. You can reduce Kundera's own novels to such "insights. insignificance is where most of us live (Sterne). This is not to say that Kundera the essayist is completely wrong — only to point out that in the world of humans. That's just a flimsy moral. "inseparable from 'human nature'" (Flaubert). slashing at that curtain of ignorance.

if Gombrowicz calls Borges pretentious. if Robertson Davies mocks Graham Greene. assembled my personal history of literature. what I savor when reading. As I put clown one book to pick up the next. But the arch-ironist is. charmingly genuine and excitable about them. Kundera seems to relax and describe his own masters' books somewhat less theoretically. one that belongs to him alone and that is therefore. what is profound. No. Perec led me to Calvino. and that's an objective fact. Woolf led me to Proust. (Life Is Elsewhere was originally titled The Lyrical Age. So how can the "history of the novel" be a series of life lessons I don't recall learning from novels? Kafka taught me to mistrust bureaucracy? I learned that in driver's ed. When I was trying to teach myself to be a novelist. Kundera imagines Gombrowicz tracing "for you the whole post of the novel's history. different from that of other writers. Mann.) But the problem with ranking literature for this sort of achievement is that you miss all the mysterious pleasure of reading — those moments of joy and beauty and wisdom that are hauntingly tied to you and your life but are quite unrelated to the great men's "discoveries. and in so doing will give you some sense of his own poetics of the novel.bullies. all of this is subjective. what is beautiful. I came upon a puzzling problem: my history of the novel was populated by incompatible writers who loathed each other more often than they liked each other. Praising Hašek for The Good Soldier Svejk or Musil for The Man Without Qualities. the author of Cosmos and Ferdydurke. one of Kundera's lodestar heroes. he is generous with exclamation points. what is funny. Kafka taught me how hard it is to keep a blanket on your stomach when you turn into a dung beetle. But I was also led down paths where I found the bloodstains of literary duels. Unlike Kundera's favorites. as if my parents were fighting in front of me and my friends. Witold Gombrowicz." I don't look back on my favorite novels and cherish their existential illuminations — except perhaps in the case of Kundera's work. as in the beautiful passage imagining the history of the novel seen from a different writer's point of view. quite naturally. What I recall. but they also nullify much of what has come before in The Curtain. too. Nabokov led me to Bely and Borges. Hemingway and James led me to Flaubert. and Gombrowicz. very few . To an American eye these enthusiasms appear at first to be some sort of devastating double back-flip irony. At times in The Curtain. I read my favorites and the favorites of my favorites: Kundera led me to Musil. ghosts slashing at ghosts: if Nabokov hates Mann and James. Stoppard led me to Schnitzler. then what am I to do with my affection for all of them when it comes time to sit down and write? I found this old sniping painful." These are exciting ideas in Kundera's hands. tried to make sense of that storehouse of beautiful works. I think. I.

Kundera says you need to know the history of the novel's obsession with the single moment. Kundera says the novel is a device for exploring ideas. Kafka. or co-opt him. and as a result I was repeatedly blocked from forming my own unifying theory of literature. Patrick Chamoiseau. Kundera's marvelous essays are inconceivable. "I am supremely indifferent to the 'problems of a writer and the future of the novel. when he praises authors as varied (and. And I happily hear Kundera giving himself that same freedom.of mine seemed to share goals or aesthetic intentions. as living) as Carlos Fuentes. and Salman Rushdie for their style and imagination. Flaubert helped Nabokov write like Nabokov and Kundera like Kundera." And yet Nabokov and Kundera lined their shelves with works by many of the same writers: Tolstoy. beauty was found in the specifics. And. refreshingly." Their "vesperal freedom is a miracle. There seemed to be limitless variety not only in style and method but in purpose as well. Flaubert. Somehow they drew opposite aesthetic lessons from the same books. When. "Life does not exist without a possessive epithet. without their ever sharing a theory or purpose. If I were to believe Kundera that the novel is "for" existential illumination." He praises these artists for achieving an indifference to the opinions of others and a uniqueness available only to the old. then I must somehow either forsake Nabokov. what does it mean it I give my new character a happy childhood or a bad haircut? On what principles do I make the ten thousand decisions involved in writing a chapter? Vladimir Nabokov (I feel pretty confident in this necro-ventrilocriticism) would have dismissed The Curtain with a laugh. and Beethoven as old men. he seems released from his self-assigned weighty duties. "I prefer … images to ideas. Kundera writes with erudition and enthusiasm about the untapped sources of artistic inspiration to be found in Rabelais or the epistolary novel." Nabokov says. Fellini. Nabokov's history of the novel was not a history of existential discovery but a history of style. perhaps to enjoy in his own artistry something other than a responsibility to illuminate existence for us. he savors their "joyful irresponsibility. To understand Ulysses. Kundera seeks the existential truth about life. or make yet another exception to my feeble theory. Nabokov says. Nabokov says. For him. They were both right. Speaking of Picasso. "One of the functions of all my novels is to prove that the novel in general does not exist. Nabokov says. in the meantime. in the detail as described by an inimitable genius. Nabokov says you need a map of Dublin. ." and the word "existential (used seriously)" is itself deeply suspect. Kundera seeks to explain the function of the novel.'" but without these issues (without the very words "problems" and "future of the novel"). in The Curtain. an island.

Forget the theory. or email articles for individual use. -----------------------------------------------------------------------Copyright of Harper's Magazine is the property of Harper's Magazine Foundation and its content may not be copied or emailed to multiple sites or posted to a listserv without the copyright holder's express written permission." That's why you read Kundera. as he concludes a discussion of novelistic scene structure. When he mocks "the futility of literary theory… helpless before a work of an. aware that there is something else hidden inside these strange stories we love to read." the mockery applies no less to his own provocative essays about his own provocative art. . "It brings to mind the libertine Bohemia of my youth: my friends used to declare that there was no more gorgeous experience for a man than to make love to three different women in a single day.For an author obsessed with exploring ideas. for whom the novel is an inquiry into ideas. The mystery at the heart of beauty. not for its revealed truths but for its continually revealed style. even a beauty spun from ideas. Perhaps that is my unifying theory. whether he likes it or not. is penetrable only in flashes. The Curtain is to be savored. users may print. going wonderfully strong in Kundera's eighth decade. It is when relishing Kundera's unmistakable opinions (a pleasure impermissible by his own lights) that I feel I am reading a book that could have been written by no one else. more than memorised or followed — rolled around the palate. download. he begins to reminisce. he seems. However. enjoy the man. at moments in The Curtain.