Insights into Literature, across Nations and Languages

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 15, 2007 | Go to article overview

Insights into Literature, across Nations and Languages


Byline: Joanne McNeil , SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

"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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Insights into Literature, across Nations and Languages
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.