Saturday, May 26, 2007

Milan Kundera: The Curtain

Just finished reading Milan Kundera's book length essay on the history of novel The Curtain. It is a wonderful tour through the history of ideas as reflected in the changing art form of the novel. He avoids the mandarin approach that plagues most of the critical books on the subject and yet he makes the topics accessible without really oversimplify the subject matter, something non-specialist readers, like myself, will really appreciate.

Kundera's canon is predictable. He starts with the comic romp of Rabelais, Cervantes and Sterne and then moves to the psychological realism of Stendhal, Flaubert, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and finally the modern writers like Kafka, Musil and Broch who took fiction away from "fascination with the psychological (the exploration of character) and brought it toward existential analysis (the analysis of situations that shed light on major aspects of the human condition)."

I specially liked the way he defended Musil and Broch (a writer I am not familiar with) and their brand of "novelistic thinking":

To emphasize: novelistic thinking, as Broch and Musil brought it into the aesthetic of the modern novel, has nothing to do with the thinking of a scientist or a philosopher; I would even say it is purposely a-philosophic, even anti-philosophic, that is to say fiercely independent of any system of pre-conceived ideas; it does not judge; it does not proclaim truths; it questions, it marvels, it plumbs; its form is highly diverse; metaphoric, ironic, hypothetic, hyperbolic, aphoristic, droll, provocative, fanciful,; and mainly it never leaves the magic circle of its characters' lives; those lives feed it and justify it.

Reading the book also set me thinking about why most of the contemporary novels, specially in the anglo-american world, leave me a little cold. Most of the writers seem to be blissfully ignorant of the long historical tradition of the novel and the history of ideas that this tradition represents. It was as if writing was just about finding the right word and inventing a fancy new syntax. There is also this hostility towards the comic and the grotesque (which Kundera bemoans too) and towards the "novelistic thinking" of Musil and his ilk, in many contemporary writers, who take themselves seriously. There is also this too much fascination with the psychological realism, the kind the common reading public apparently prefers too, which I find is harmful and a main cause of homogenity of much of the contemporary literary fiction. Where are the descendants of Cervantes and Swift (two of my personal favourites), Rabelais and Sterne? Salman Rushdie, yes, but someone I don't like I don't know why. Thomas Pynchon? David Foster Wallace? Sorry, have read neither of them. (Any other names btw?) Anyway, this book is really good. I have to find some time for Broch and Gombrowicz now. Complete Review links to lot of reviews of the book.

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