Revisiting Kundera and Acocella

Today I read very positive reviews of two books about writing, which I’ve posted about in the past month. In the Sunday New York Times Book Review, Russell Banks reviews Milan Kundera’s The Curtain, while Joyce Carol Oates reviews, in one of the most unequivacally praiseful reviews I’ve read in a while, Joan Acocella’s Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints in the New York Review of Books.

Oates cites one of the better passages I encountered this week. Following Acocella’s visit to Penelope Fitzgerald in which the older writer provides nothing of much use during their interview, Acocella writes,

Why do we bother to interview artists? Why expect them, in two hours, to tell us their story, or— what we’re really looking for—a story that will dovetail with their work, explain it? The better the artist, the harder it is to produce such an accounting, for the life has been more fully transformed. Why violate their privacy, brush aside their years of work—the labor of creating stories that are not their story?

Banks, in his review, obviously loves Kundera’s work. He writes that 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.”

However, at the end of the review something curious happens. Banks falls into the trap of the model positive New York Times book review, getting in a last second jab. He writes,

If I have any quarrel with Kundera’s description of the history of the novel it’s that he’s not inclusive enough. He does not discuss a single female novelist, even in passing. It’s as if no Western woman has ever tried writing a serious novel in 400 years. And, in his appreciation of non-European novelists like Fuentes, García Márquez and Chamoiseau, he colonizes them, as if culturally they gazed longingly toward their European mother- and fatherlands instead of their homelands. But then, he’s not writing literary criticism; he’s writing the secret history of the novels of Milan Kundera and teaching us how to read them.

It’s as if he’s saying, “Look, everyone! The great Franco-Czech novelist is not perfect!” Well, of course, no one’s perfect, but pointing this out adds absolutely nothing to Banks’ review and cheapens what I suspect is a genuine appreciation of Kundera’s work.

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