Insights into Literature, across Nations and Languages

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"A sensation gripped her like one she used to feel long ago when, off for a swim, she prepared to plunge into the water."

That breathtaking sentence comes from "Anna Karenina," but few can recognize it out of context. It occurs just before Anna leaps to her death. In that context, the sentence is nothing short of "miraculous," says Milan Kundera, in his latest book of thought-provoking essays, "The Curtain." "In a single second, the last one of her life, the extreme gravity calls up a pleasant, ordinary, lighthearted memory!"

Flaubert enthusiasts similarly may have overlooked a stunning line near the end of "Madame Bovary." The heroine, rejected by bankers and the man in her life, passes a beggar. She "flung him a five-franc coin over her shoulder. It was her whole fortune. She thought it quite fine, tossing the coin like that." Mr. Kundera points out that this line "reveals what Flaubert saw very well, but Emma was unaware of: she did not merely make a generous gesture; she was pleased with herself for making it even in that moment of genuine despair, she did not miss the chance to display her gesture, innocently, wishing to look fine for her own sake."

Many writers seem bogged down with what Mr. Kundera calls "kitsch": publishing novels with the very same self-conscious sense of purpose that motivated Emma Bovary to part with her last coin. Mr. Kundera's latest book of essays a follow-up to "The Art of the Novel" (1988) and "Testaments Betrayed" (1995) questions the social and political obligations of a novelist:

"There are two basic contexts in which a work of art may be placed: either in the history of its nation (we call this the small context), or in the supranational history of its art (the large context). We are accustomed to seeing music quite naturally in the large context: knowing what language Orlando de Lassus or Bach spoke matters little to a musicologist, but because a novel is bound up with its language, in nearly every university in the world it is studied almost exclusively in the small, national context."

The national context, of course, is impossibly undersized for the truly great influential works of literature. Mr. Kundera writes, "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 . . . Do I mean by this that to judge a novel one can do without a knowledge of its original language? I do mean exactly that!"

Similarly, political undertones immediately undermine the subtle quirks in human nature a novelist chooses to examine. Japanese writer Kenzaburo Oe's 1958 short story "Sheep" is about a group of foreign soldiers boarding an evening bus, where they then taunt young passengers, finally forcing the locals to remove their pants.

Oe never reveals the ethnicities of the passengers or soldiers all the wiser, says Mr. Kundera, who points out that America occupied Japan after the war: "[Why] does he not specify the nationality of the soldiers? Political censorship? No. Suppose that, throughout the story, the Japanese passengers were facing American soldiers! The powerful effect of using that single word, explicitly pronounced, would reduce the story to a political tract."

Still, political implications and interpretations arrive naturally. …