'A novelist talking about the art of the novel is not a professor giving a discourse from his podium ... He will talk about himself, but even more about other people, about novels of theirs that he loves and that have a secret presence in his work. According to his criteria of values, he will again trace out for you the whole past of the novel's history, and in so doing will give you some sense of his own poetics of the novel, one that belongs to him alone..." Milan Kundera's introduction to a sequence of reflections from Witold Gombrowicz is also a concise apologia for his own method in this persuasive, if sidelong, essay on the history and practice of novelism. A short and unapologetically personal thesis, The Curtain is a wonderful book to argue with: it is enviably quotable, at times infuriating, but rarely less than instructive.
Kundera is a Czech writer by birth and a French one only by adoption, and his "seven-part essay" is far less cluttered with playful Gallic intello-junk than a quick look at its chapter- headings ("The Frontier of the Implausible Is No Longer Under Guard", for example) might suggest. This goes for almost everything except the weird central image that he chooses to illustrate his discussion, of a "curtain of pre-interpretation" - a notional screen in front of mankind, embroidered with the sum total of man's efforts to interpret the world. The task of any artist worth his salt, says Kundera, is to tear down this curtain rather than simply repeating the truisms written on it. It was Cervantes who, by winding up Don Quixote and sending him tearing through the curtain, first caused the world to "open before the knight errant in all the comical nakedness of its prose". Thereafter, we're told, such destructive acts "echo and extend to every novel worthy of the name"; they are "the identifying sign of the art of the novel".
In other words: make it new, that fine Modernist exhortation. "Art is not a village band marching dutifully along at History's heels," writes Kundera. "It is there to create its own history." And he deftly sets out the increments by which this history evolved, neatly cataloguing, for instance, the move from the theatrical concentration of narrative event in Balzac and Dostoevsky to the rigorously catalogued quotidiana of Flaubert, then tracing the impulse through Joyce to the "anti-lyrical poetry" of Gombrowicz, Kafka and Musil. As with much in the book, this isn't a new argument, but Kundera accompanies his observations with such a striking wealth of idiosyncratic detail and offbeat reflection that new depths emerge.
An alternative title for this book might well be "Against Provincialism". …