Milan Kundera’s The Curtain

I read Milan Kundera’s new book, The Curtain, at Stanford’s Green Library last weekend, and enjoyed almost all of it. The book-length essay, parts of which appeared in the New Yorker, argues for a unified tradition of world literature. Kundera basically suggests that we need to view all work in the context of this tradition, which in turn demands increased ambition from both novelists and readers. He writes,

A nation’s possessiveness toward its artists works as a small-context terrorism, reducing the whole meaning of a work to the role it plays in its homeland.

….

Every novel created with real passion aspires quite naturally to a lasting aesthetic value, meaning to a value capable of surviving its author. To write without having that ambition is cynicism: a mediocre plumber may be useful to people, but a mediocre novelist who consciously produces books that are ephemeral, commonplace, conventional–thus not useful, thus burdensome, thus noxious–is contemptible.

I found Kundera’s work to be rather powerful. I have to admit that for years, I only read books written in languages that I could read–English and French–and avoided most literature in translation with some exceptions: Kafka, Murakami, Nietzsche. I wouldn’t even read Nabokov’s russian novels until a couple years ago. I did this, in part, because I care intensely about prose styles when I read and had doubts about reading a translated style that could be entirely different from what the author intended. But reading Orhan Pamuk’s essay, which I blogged about over a month ago and this book by Kundera, I’m more convinced that these things don’t matter. What does still matter and why I’ll continue to primarily read American authors is that they’re mostly the ones who are concerned with the project that I’m trying to tackle by writing a novel: knowing America. Yes, I have in mind Kerouac’s famous line, “Nobody’ll ever know America completely because nobody ever knew Gatsby, I guess.”

One Comment

  1. evicious

    I can understand your reluctance about translated novels but you should know that translation is a fine, fine art. And the finest translators are incredible writers themselves. Haven’t you ever read the English translation to a French novel and read the original novel too? I am often surprised at just how a skilled translator can bring to life the original voice of the writer.

    But that’s not to say that translated novels will ever be nearly identical to the original. I think languages inherently have such a different sound and meaning, and to each person the sound of the language you know depends on the context in which you know this language.

    When I was a kid I loved the Chinese langauge because of the way words are used to play off meaning, sound, history…often in just one sentence. When I moved to the States I panicked because I loved to write but I couldn’t imagine myself becoming a writer in English because the language wasn’t innate to me…I couldn’t find my rhythm around it. I guess I decided to give it a try.

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