By Kevin Rabalais
“I read a book one day, and my whole life was changed.” Readers don’t just smile when they read the opening sentence of Orhan Pamuk’s The New Life. We do more than merely read literature; we feel it.
We never forget that first moment, the beautiful event that Pamuk describes, much as we never forget the moment of falling in love. That moment came for me during my first year of university. In southern California while on spring break, conversation from the next room grew louder. Demands rang out to pass the bottle and shuffle and deal the cards. Yet I wanted only to plunge deeper into The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I had traveled to California to explore the possibility of transferring universities in order to study filmmaking. During the day, I visited a beautiful campus. I met with advisors. I heard their voices while the great dream of Kundera’s world washed over me. After a week, I left with a changed vision of life. Literature, rather than cinema, now resided at its center.
Years later, Kundera continues to offer an education. His books, particularly his nonfiction, have been for me the Yale and Harvard that Ishmael finds on board his whaler. And so today, on the occasion of Kundera’s eighty-seventh birthday, I return—as I do so often—to The Curtain.
At the center of this "essay in seven parts" is Kundera’s belief that the history of nations isn’t formed through its advances in science or industrial progress but through the progression of its arts.
The history of science has the nature of progress.
Applied to art, the notion of history has nothing to do with progress; it does not imply improvement, amelioration, an ascent; it resembles a journey undertaken to explore unknown lands and chart them. The novelist’s ambition is not to do something better than his predecessors but to see what they did not see, say what they did not say. Flaubert’s poetics does not devalue Balzac’s, any more than the discovery of the North Pole renders obsolete the discovery of America.
The history of technology depends little on man and his freedom; obedient to its own logic, it cannot be other than what it has been or what it will be; in that sense, it is nonhuman; if Edison had not invented the lightbulb, someone else would have. But if Laurence Sterne had not had the wild idea of writing a novel with no “story,” no one else would have done it in his stead, and the history of the novel would not be the one we know.
Or, as he writes elsewhere in The Curtain, “Taken outside the novel’s history, Ulysses would be no more than a caprice, the incomprehensible extravagance of a madman.”
While the historian investigates episodes, the novelist investigates characters. What novelists provide us, in the process, is an emotional history of mankind. And that, to paraphrase Kundera, is the novel’s raison d'être. “Characters in novels do not need to be admired for their virtues,” he writes. “They need to be understood, and that is a completely different matter. … All we can do in the face of [the] ineluctable defeat called life is to try to understand it.”
As in his other works of nonfiction—The Art of the Novel, Testaments Betrayed and Encounter—Kundera’s focus remains largely European. He revisits the work and ideas of his own literary idols, among them Robert Musil and Hermann Broch. The latter, in Kundera’s words, believed that “the novel’s sole morality is knowledge; a novel that fails to reveal some hitherto unknown bit of existence is immoral.”
Art is not a village band marching dutifully along at History’s heels. It is there to create its own history. What will ultimately remain of Europe is not its repetitive history, which in itself represents no value. The only thing that has some chance of enduring is the history of its arts.
Art is long and life is short, as Hippocrates informed us. Kundera helps us to see the art of the novel as a conversation that links past and present and also give us a hint to how the future of the form—and, therefore, humanity—will appear.
In doing so, he’s like that generous guest whose enthusiasm becomes so infectious that we find ourselves seeking the names and works he offers. We could burn through several lifetimes of reading and still find a wealth of generosity in these pages.