The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts


“A magic curtain, woven of legends, hung before the world. Cervantes sent Don Quixote journeying and tore through the curtain. The world opened before the knight-errant in all the comical nakedness of its prose.”

In this thought-provoking, endlessly enlightening, and entertaining essay on the art of the novel, renowned author Milan Kundera suggests that “the curtain” represents a ready-made perception of the world that each of us has—a pre-interpreted world. The job of the novelist, he argues, is to rip through ...

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“A magic curtain, woven of legends, hung before the world. Cervantes sent Don Quixote journeying and tore through the curtain. The world opened before the knight-errant in all the comical nakedness of its prose.”

In this thought-provoking, endlessly enlightening, and entertaining essay on the art of the novel, renowned author Milan Kundera suggests that “the curtain” represents a ready-made perception of the world that each of us has—a pre-interpreted world. The job of the novelist, he argues, is to rip through the curtain and reveal what it hides. Here an incomparable literary artist cleverly sketches out his personal view of the history and value of the novel in Western civilization. In doing so, he celebrates a prose form that possesses the unique ability to transcend national and language boundaries in order to reveal some previously unknown aspect of human existence.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
A writer who has left an indelible stamp on 20th-century fiction, Milan Kundera presents a brilliant book-length essay on the development of the novel in Western culture. Dissatisfied with the classification of world literature along narrow national lines, Kundera proposes a bold new "history" that stresses the novel's true cosmopolitan nature. He shows how writers learn from each other, uncovering startling connections between such disparate authors as Rabelais and Sterne, Cervantes and Fielding, Flaubert and Joyce, Kafka and García Márquez. An important contribution to literary criticism and a dazzling showcase for Kundera's intellectual agility, The Curtain is a must for any serious reader.
Russell Banks
“An elegant, personalized integration of anecdote, analysis, scholarship, memory and speculation...Kundera’s opinions...are well worth listening to.”
Joseph Epstein
“A work of sophisticated literary cartography…agreeably studded with insights.”
Cecile Alduy
“Kundera…argues brilliantly…Discarding chronology, Kundera lets us witness the inner workings of his....wonderful reader’s mind.”
Michael Dirda
“As the French expression goes, Kundera always gives you furiously to think…[He] writes…with passion.”
Alec Solomita
“Kundera offers witty and edifying improvisations on…favorite themes…Anyone interested in the novel will delight in this book.”
William Deresiewicz
“Well-worth reading…witty and brisk and very smart, like all of [Kundera’s] writing.”
Steven Poole
“Bursting at the seams with ideas…Kundera dashes irrepressibly around his own consistently fascinating effect. A rare pleasure.”
The Economist
“A swiftly told, beautifully crafted, pleasurable...scrutiny of the novel ...To Mr. Kundera, the novel is a liberating force.”
New York Review of Books
“Essential reading in a long history of debates about the genre...Wise, deep, and witty.”
Buffalo News
“Kundera is assuredly one of the great living writers…This is a remarkable book….Absorbing and sometimes sublime.”
Philadelphia Inquirer
“Lovely, meandering observations on the genre to which he has consecrated his life…Like good love stories, it pulls you in.”
“Brilliant, vehement, learned and wise…Stimulating and provocative…THE CURTAIN raises essential questions.”
Philadelphia Inquirer
“Lovely, meandering observations on the genre to which he has consecrated his life…Like good love stories, it pulls you in.”
The Economist
“A swiftly told, beautifully crafted, pleasurable...scrutiny of the novel ...To Mr. Kundera, the novel is a liberating force.”
Buffalo News
“Kundera is assuredly one of the great living writers…This is a remarkable book….Absorbing and sometimes sublime.”
New York Review of Books
“Essential reading in a long history of debates about the genre...Wise, deep, and witty.”
“Brilliant, vehement, learned and wise…Stimulating and provocative…THE CURTAIN raises essential questions.”
Russell Banks
… [Kundera] is one of the most erudite novelists on the planet. Not since Henry James, perhaps, has a fiction writer examined the process of writing with such insight, authority and range of reference and allusion.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
It's not often that a work comes along that so perfectly distills an approach to art that it realigns the way an art form is understood. Susan Sontag's revolutionary work On Photography was one such piece. Kundera's new book-length essay should be another. The renowned Franco-Czech author (The Book of Laughter and Forgetting) investigates the history of the novel, beginning with the moment in which Cervantes denied Don Quixote's desire for elevation to knight-errant and instead "cast a legendary figure down: into the world of prose." In the prosaic world, according to Kundera, the absence of pathos, the insistence on the comedic and the interrelation of all novels represent the locus of meaning and emotional impact. Kundera argues against the tendency to classify and study literature through the lens of nationality. Instead, he proposes a world literature that would take into account the way novelists learn from one another, Sterne from Rabelais, Fielding from Cervantes, Joyce from Flaubert and, though he never explicitly states it, Kundera from them all. This is a self-consciously personal vision of "the poetics of the novel," one that displays Kundera's own preoccupations, from his Central European dislike of sentimental kitsch to his exhortation that, to be counted in the history of the novel, all novelists must follow Cervantes, must "[tear] the curtain of preinterpretation" into which we are all born. Only then can the novel accomplish its purpose: to show its readers their own lives. (Feb.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Picking up where he left off in The Art of the Novel (1988), Franco-Czech novelist Kundera marvelously conducts us on a journey through the history of the novel. With Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes tears apart the curtain of the real world and reveals the magical world that hides behind it. Cervantes's enchanting novel gives birth to a long line of descendants, from Laurence Sterne and Fran ois Rabelais to Gustave Flaubert, Franz Kafka, Hermann Broch, Leo Tolstoy, and James Joyce. Kundera elegantly reminds us that the novel cuts across world literatures and that the history of the novel is not simply a history of a particular nation or its literature: "It was to Rabelais that Sterne was reacting, it was Sterne who set off Diderot, it was from Cervantes that Fielding drew constant inspiration, it was against Fielding that Stendhal measured himself, it was Flaubert's tradition living on in Joyce " The immediacy of Kundera's evocative prose and the rich tapestry he weaves compel us to pick up and read, or reread, the bountiful literary treasures of Western literature. This could be a book from which to draw a summer reading list. Highly recommended for all libraries.-Henry L. Carrigan Jr., Lancaster, PA Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A celebrated Franco-Czech novelist considers the history of the novel and worries about its future. Kundera (Ignorance, 2002, etc.) begins by observing that there were no novels until stories began to have aesthetic value. One of the novel's principal functions, he claims, is to explore the prose of life. "All we can do in the face of that ineluctable defeat called life is to try to understand it," he writes. Kundera repeatedly considers literary history, and he shows how the past has influenced the present. Don Quixote, Tom Jones, Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, The Trial, Ulysses-these and other celebrated works are mined throughout for their explanatory and illustrative riches. Kundera believes that readers of literature must be readers of comparative literature: to read only those works that mirror your own culture and language is to intentionally blind yourself. Kundera alludes to novels and novelists from all over the word (though most are European men). He explains the title of his book in its fourth section: Novelists must devote themselves to "tearing the curtain of preinterpretation." This section also features something of a rant against pop fiction; Kundera labels "contemptible" those writers who create repetitive fictions that deal with the ephemeral. In later sections, he offers some insights on the pervasiveness of human stupidity and bureaucracy, and he ends with eloquent passages about our separation from the past-how forgetting and memory, which transforms rather than records, make more difficult the novelist's task. On bright display are Kundera's vast reading, his passion for his art and his disdain for the ordinary.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060841959
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 1/1/2008
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 176
  • Sales rank: 767,469
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.39 (d)

Meet the Author

The Franco-Czech novelist Milan Kundera was born in Brno and has lived in France, his second homeland, since 1975. He is the author of the novels The Joke, Farewell Waltz, Life Is Elsewhere, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and Immortality, and the short-story collection Laughable Loves—all originally written in Czech. His most recent novels Slowness, Identity, and Ignorance, as well as his nonfiction works The Art of the Novel, Testaments Betrayed, The Curtain, and Encounter, were originally written in French.


For someone whom the world regards as a serious intellectual, Milan Kundera has a brilliantly twisted sense of humor. His novels depict a world of awkward orgies and disastrous pool parties, mad scientists and self-pitying poets who contract pneumonia out of spite. While Kundera's works tackle profound issues of human identity, they also playfully juggle ambiguities, ironies and paradoxes. "The novelist teaches the reader to comprehend the world as a question," he said in a 1980 interview with Philip Roth. "There is wisdom and tolerance in that attitude. In a world built on sacrosanct certainties the novel is dead."

Kundera was born in Brno, Czechoslovkia in 1929. Like many young Czechs who had come of age during World War II and the German occupation, Kundera was attracted to Marxist philosophy, which seemed to promise a new freedom and peace. The first literary works he produced (three volumes of poetry and a play, The Owners of the Keys) were essentially Communist propaganda, though they didn't always conform to the tenets of socialist realism approved by the state. His resistance to the official restrictions on literature helped lead to his involvement with the "Prague Spring," the brief-lived reform movement toward "socialism with a human face."

During the '60s, Kundera began writing short stories, collected as Laughable Loves, which he would later identify as the beginning of his mature work. In several of them, jokes that start out as innocent pranks evolve into catastrophes for both perpetrator and victim -- they are deeds that, like the Czech version of Communism, have escaped the control of their creators. Kundera's first novel, The Joke, concerns a young man who is brought up on political charges after sending a teasing postcard to his girlfriend ("Optimism is the opium of the people!").

The Joke was published to wide acclaim shortly before the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Following the invasion, Kundera was ousted from his film-studies teaching job, his books were pulled from libraries and bookstores, and he was forbidden to publish new work. He went on writing, however, and his novels Life Is Elsewhere and The Farewell Party were published outside his native country. Farcical and bleak, the novels developed what would become a recurring theme for Kundera, in which commitment to an abstract moral principle paves the way for corruption and evil.

In 1975, Kundera fled Czechoslovakia and settled in France, where he eventually became a citizen. His first book produced in exile, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, remains one of his most celebrated works, weaving together autobiographical reflections with a series of connected fictions. John Updike, writing in the New York Times, called it "brilliant and original, written with a purity and wit that invite us directly in; it is also strange, with a strangeness that locks us out." His next novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, also drew high praise, and the 1988 film version of The Unbearable Lightness of Being starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Juliette Binoche turned Kundera into something of a celebrity.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the political pressures that shaped his early life and works, Kundera has long insisted that the novel should be a work of art, not a political or ideological statement. By the '90s, Kundera had started to write his novels in French; he is now sometimes tagged a "Franco-Czech" author. His works are often described as "novels of ideas," but he resists the term "philosophical novel." As he said in an interview with Lois Oppenheim, "There are metaphysical problems, problems of human existence, that philosophy has never known how to grasp in all their concreteness and that only the novel can seize."

Good To Know

Kundera joined the Communist party while still in his teens, but was expelled in 1950 (an experience that helped inspire his 1967 novel The Joke). He was readmitted to the party in 1956, then expelled again in 1970.

Kundera's father played the piano, and Kundera himself studied music composition. He has often described his novels in musical terms as "polyphony," in which different voices are juxtaposed to build up a unified whole. As he told Philip Roth, the "various stories mutually explain, illumine, complement each other."

According to Kundera, there are four great European novelists: Franz Kafka, Hermann Broch, Robert Musil and Witold Gombrowicz. He has called the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal "our very best writer today."

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    1. Hometown:
      Paris, France
    1. Date of Birth:
      April 1, 1929
    2. Place of Birth:
      Brno, Czechoslovakia
    1. Education:
      Undergraduate degree in philosophy, Charles University, Prague, 1952

Read an Excerpt

The Curtain

An Essay in Seven Parts
By Milan Kundera

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2007 Milan Kundera
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780060841867

Chapter One

The Consciousness of Continuity

They used to tell a story about my father, who was a musician. He is out with friends someplace when, from a radio or a phonograph, they hear the strains of a symphony.

The friends, all of them musicians or music buffs, immediately recognize Beethoven's Ninth. They ask my father, "What's that playing?" After long thought he says, "It sounds like Beethoven." They all stifle a laugh: my father doesn't recognize the Ninth Symphony! "Are you sure?" "Yes," says my father, "Late Beethoven." "How do you know it's late?" He points out a certain harmonic shift that the younger Beethoven could never have used.

The anecdote is probably just a mischievous little invention, but it does illustrate the consciousness of continuity, one of the distinguishing marks of a person belonging to the civilization that is (or was) ours. Everything, in our eyes, took on the quality of a history, seemed a more or less logical sequence of events, ofattitudes, of works. From my early youth I knew the exact chronology of my favorite writers' works. Impossible to think Apollinaire could have written Alcools after Calligrammes, because if that were the case he would have been a different poet, his whole work would have a different meaning. I love each of Picasso's paintings for itself, but I also love thewhole course ofhis work understood as a long journey whose succession of stages I know by heart. In art, the classic metaphysical questions--Where do we come from? Where are we going?--have a clear, concrete meaning, and are not at all unanswerable.

History and Value

Let us imagine a contemporary composer writing a sonata that in its form, its harmonies, its melodies resembles Beethoven's. Let's even imagine that this sonata is so masterfully made that, if it had actually been by Beethoven, it would count among his greatest works. And yet no matter how magnificent, signed by a contemporary composer it would be laughable. At best its author would be applauded as a virtuoso of pastiche.

What? We feel aesthetic pleasure at a sonata by Beethoven and not at one with the same style and charm if it comes from one of our own contemporaries? Isn't that the height of hypocrisy? So then the sensation of beauty is not spontaneous, spurred by our sensibility, but instead is cerebral, conditioned by our knowing a date?

No way around it: historical consciousness is so thoroughly inherent in our perception of art that this anachronism (a Beethoven piece written today) would be spontaneously (that is, without the least hypocrisy) felt to be ridiculous, false, incongruous, even monstrous. Our feeling for continuity is so strong that it enters into the perception of any work of art.

Jan Mukarovsky, the founder of structural aesthetics, wrote in Prague in 1932: "Only the presumption of objective aesthetic value gives meaning to the historical evolution of art." In other words: in the absence of aesthetic value, the history of art is just an enormous storehouse of works whose chronologic sequence carries no meaning. And conversely: it is only within the context of an art's historical evolution that aesthetic value can be seen.

But what objective aesthetic value can we speak of if each nation, each historical period, each social group has tastes of its own? From the sociological viewpoint the history of an art has no meaning in itself but is part of a society's whole history, like the history of its clothing, its funeral and marriage rituals, its sports, or its celebrations. That is roughly how the novel is discussed in the Diderot and d'Alembert Encyclopédie (1751-72). The author of that entry, the Chevalier de Jaucourt, acknowledges that the novel has a broad reach ("nearly everyone reads it") and a moral influence (sometimes worthwhile, sometimes noxious), but not a specific value in itself; and furthermore, he mentions almost none of the novelists we admire today: not Rabelais, not Cervantes, not Quevedo, nor Grimmelshausen, nor Defoe, nor Swift, nor Smollett, nor Lesage, nor the Abbé Prévost; for the Chevalier de Jaucourt the novel does not stand as autonomous art or history.

Rabelais and Cervantes. That the encyclopedist did not cite either one of them is no shock: Rabelais hardly worried about whether he was a novelist or not, and Cervantes believed he was writing a sarcastic epilogue to the fantastical literature of the previous period; neither saw himself as "a founder." It was only in retrospect, over time, that the practice of the art of the novel assigned them the role. And it did so not because they were the first to write novels (there were many other novelists before Cervantes), but because their works made clear--better than the others had--the raison d'être of this new epic art; because for their successors the works represented the first great novelistic values; and only when people began to see the novel as having a value--a specific value, an aesthetic value--could novels in their succession be seen as a history.

Theory of the Novel

Fielding was one of the first novelists able to conceive a poetics of the novel: each of the eighteen books of Tom Jones opens with a chapter devoted to a kind of theory of the novel (a light, playful theory, for that's how a novelist theorizes--he holds jealously to his own language, flees learned jargon like the plague).

Fielding wrote his novel in 1749, thus two centuries after Gargantua and Pantagruel and a century and a half after Don Quixote, and yet even though he looks back to Rabelais and Cervantes, for him the novel is still a new art, so much so that he calls himself "the founder of a new province of writing . . ." That "new province" is so new that it has no name yet! Or rather, in English it has two names--novel and romance--but Fielding refuses to use them because no sooner is it discovered than the "new province" is . . .


Excerpted from The Curtain by Milan Kundera Copyright © 2007 by Milan Kundera. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents

The Consciousness of Continuity     1
The Consciousness of Continuity
History and Value
Theory of the Novel
Poor Alonzo Quijada
The Despotism of "Story"
In Search of Present Time
The Multiple Meanings of the Word "History"
The Beauty of a Sudden Density of Life
The Power of the Pointless
The Beauty of a Death
The Shame of Repeating Oneself
Die Weltliteratur     29
Maximum Diversity in Minimum Space
Irreparable Inequality
Die Weltliteratur
The Provincialism of Small Nations
The Provincialism of Large Nations
The Man from the East
Central Europe
The Contrasting Paths of the Modernist Revolt
My Great Pleiades
Kitsch and Vulgarity
Antimodern Modernism
Getting Into the Soul of Things     57
Getting Into the Soul of Things
Ineradicable Error
What Only the Novel Can Say
Thinking Novels
The Frontier of the Implausible Is No Longer Under Guard
Einstein and Karl Rossmann
In Praise of Jokes
The History of the Novel as Seen from Gombrowicz's Studio
A Different Continent
The Silvery Bridge
What Is a Novelist?     85
To Understand, We Must Compare
The Poet and the Novelist
A Conversion Story
The Soft Gleam of the Comical
The Torn Curtain
They Killed My Albertine
Marcel Proust's Verdict
The Ethic of the Essential
Reading Is Long, Life Is Short
The Little Boy and His Grandmother
Cervantes's Verdict
Aesthetics and Existence     101
Aesthetics and Existence
And If the Tragic HasDeserted Us?
The Deserter
The Tragic Chain
The Torn Curtain     117
Poor Alonzo Quijada
The Torn Curtain
The Torn Curtain of the Tragic
The Fairy
Going Down Into the Dark Depths of a Joke
Bureaucracy According to Stifter
The Defiled World of Castle and Village
The Existential Meaning of the Bureaucratized World
The Ages of Life Concealed Behind the Curtain
Morning Freedom, Evening Freedom
The Novel, Memory, Forgetting     145
Forgetting That Erases, Memory That Transforms
The Novel as Utopia of a World That Has No Forgetting in It
A Forgotten Birth
Unforgettable Forgetting
A Forgotten Europe
The Novel as Journey Through the Centuries and the Continents
The Theater of Memory
Consciousness of Continuity
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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 20, 2008

    A reviewer

    This work is astonishing. The language is beautiful and flows effortlessly. While Kundera certainly champions the novels of which he speaks so highly, there is no pretense in this work. Indeed, this book will give you a new outlook on the role of the novel both outside of and within culture and history.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted July 20, 2010

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