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Words, Words, Words

A catalog of my comments and thoughts on books, reading, and writing as well as anything I come across that seems interesting. I used to sell other people's words at an independent bookstore but now I hope to get by on selling my own.

Kundera's Studio

The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts - Milan Kundera, Linda Asher

I picked this title up off a table at the Strand because I've been hiding in nonfiction essays recently. I have had a time of things recently and i found essays engaging mentally but without the emotional investment one gets from a novel. Appropriately these types of books are relegated to the basement of the famed bookstore, which suited my mood fine and saved me from the bustling main floor. I was on a mission for something new, not just to me, something I could have my opinion on without being intruded on by someone else's interpretations - I don't know why, that was just how I felt. Milan Kundera fell in the sweet spot, people know him - or at least The Unbearable Lightness of Being - but few have actually read him. Plus I just really enjoyed The Unbearable Lightness of Being.


This was another fortuitous pick-up on my part and I'm seriously considering picking up titles that I've never heard of before, though from authors that I already enjoy. The Curtain is hard to describe, which is quickly clear to anyone trying to get a feel for the book from the cover flap. It's subtitle is "An Essay in Seven Parts" and the back cover promises an "exploration of the novel - its history and art". The flap is a bit more revealing but I think Kundera describes it best, slipped sneakily into a discussion of Gombrowicz, 


"A novelist talking about the art of the novel is not a professor giving a discourse from his podium. Imagine him rather as a painter welcoming you into his studio, where you are surrounded by his canvases staring at you from where they lean against the walls. 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 own work. According to his criteria of values, he will again trace out for you the whole past of the novel's history, and in doing so will give you some sense of his own poetics of the novel, one that belongs to him alone and that is therefore, quite naturally, different from that of other writers."


The emphasis is mine, and I apologize for the length, but I couldn't resist that imagery of the artist in his studio. It also serves as a pretty good summary of The Curtain. It is a very well thought out but clearly personal tour of his history of the novel. The line isn't too far from the beaten path (Rabelais, Cervantes, Henry Fielding, Lawrence Sterne, Balzac, Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Kafka) though American readers will note a particularly European strain, even more specifically, Central European, in the more recent ones. Of course, he is European, so that's like saying my list of contemporary reads is particularly American.


The choice of subjects is pretty interesting in itself - you can be sure some of them will show up on my to-read shelf - but we are a profession of storytellers and what he has to say about them, about the flow of history, about how we think of it. In less capable hands it would be a tangled web of digressions, but he has pulled it together into a beautiful knit that enlightens. I was constantly engaged and had to keep my pen close by for highlighting and notes. It makes me want to revisit The Unbearable Lightness of Being, to go trace his history of the novel with his perspective lighting a way, to think about my own history of the novel, and to read this essay again because whatever it does or doesn't convince you to do, it was a great read.


I'll, let Kundera sign me off, "For the history of art is perishable. The babble of art is eternal"