I was talking books with a group of students at a campus gathering the other week when one of them, eyes shining with enthusiasm, broke in. “Have you ever heard of a book called The Unbearable Lightness of Being?” he asked. What I love about this story is not just that 20-year-olds are still reading Kundera’s most famous novel, as I did when I was their age, but that the experience of doing so is still such a vital event that, like young lovers (or like me, when I first read it), they think they’re the first people it’s ever happened to. Kundera is no longer the literary presence he was twenty years ago, but the work he did then still feels to people like it was written yesterday.
So what has he done in the past twenty years? Immortality (1990), the novel that followed The Unbearable Lightness of Being, has turned out to be his last full-length work and the last one written in Czech. Since then, he has published three novellas and, with The Curtain, three short works of nonfiction. All five volumes were written in French, as was his first collection of essays, The Art of the Novel (1986). Kundera turns 78 this year, and it’s no wonder he’s slowed down. Still, it’s hard not to notice that his shift from Czech to French, and from long, ambitious fictions to much slimmer works, coincided with the fall of Communism. Although Kundera rightly rejects the notion that he’s a political writer, he did his best work after his immigration to France in 1975. As with so many twentieth-century writers, the tensions of exile seem to have tuned his imagination to its highest pitch. Unlike most others, he lived past the century’s symbolic end in 1989, and the removal of the condition of exile–not the fact of not being at home but the fact of not being able to be–seems to have slackened it.
If history did indeed have this impact on Kundera’s career, it would be fitting, since history is his key term for understanding the novel. The Curtain is an extended essay on the novel, and it begins with a brisk and idiosyncratic history of the form. Cervantes first tore open “the curtain that hides life’s prose,” “the curtain of preinterpretation”: of ideology, inherited beliefs, false grandeur–everything we use to blind ourselves to the real texture, and real beauty, of everyday experience. Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne’s late-eighteenth-century comic masterpiece, went further, dethroning the tyranny of story, of dramatic action, to assert the value of the ephemeral and insignificant. Balzac introduced History itself–the sense of inexorable change–and as a compensatory gesture, description in its fullest form, the minute recording of appearances as a way of saving them from their imminent dissolution. Dostoyevsky gave the novel an unprecedented density, packing his scenes with a thickness of event and coincidence that achieves a beauty transcending the prosaic nature of ordinary life. Flaubert, by contrast, insisted on detheatricalizing the novel, revealing not just the humble or insignificant dimensions of daily existence but its boredom, stupidity and pointlessness. Finally, Tolstoy contrived to keep Anna Karenina’s suicide an enigma–for our deepest motives, he believed, are a mystery.
Kundera’s purpose is not just to lay out his sense of the novel’s historical possibilities but to show that it has a history, and that its history is very different from History in the larger sense. The first section of the book is cleverly arranged; it begins with a story about Kundera’s father identifying a musical passage as late Beethoven from its inclusion of a harmonic shift the young composer would never have used, and it ends with another Czech story, this one about how a certain incident from post-Communist life resembles, “word for word,” the plot of Balzac’s Père Goriot. History repeats itself, but the history of art does not, must not. History forgets itself in an endless procession of ups and downs, but the history of art is always self-aware and must always remain so. The novel, like every other art, is a permanent set of possibilities that the history of the form discovers one after another, all of them remaining available as reference points for future practitioners. In a riposte to Marxism’s historical determinism, Kundera asserts that the history of art is independent from political and economic history, for art, he implies, is the realm of autonomy–of discovery, possibility, choice–the one sphere in which human beings can assert their freedom from History.