Without borders

<strong>The Curtain: an essay in seven parts</strong>

Milan Kundera <em>Faber & Faber, 256pp, £12.

An alternative subtitle for this book could be "An Apology for Prose". If there is still a residual negativity in the word "prose", a featherlight condescension to what is merely prosaic, then Milan Kundera will correct us. "'Prose': the word signifies not only a nonversified language; it also signifies the concrete, everyday, corporeal nature of life," he writes. "So to say that the novel is the art of prose is not to state the obvious; the word defines the deep sense of that art. Homer never wondered whether, after their many hand-to-hand struggles, Achilles or Ajax still had all their teeth. But for Don Quixote and Sancho teeth are a perpetual concern - hurting teeth, missing teeth."

For Kundera to wonder about the teeth of Achilles or Ajax is itself an exercise in novelistic imagination. This faculty, he argues evocatively, rises from the ashes of the poetical outlook, born "from the ruins of [the novelist's] lyrical world". Surveying the wreckage of his illusions, the novelist sees life cast under "the soft gleam of the comical", and can begin to write about it with sympathy and irony.

The "soft gleam of the comical". Kundera's prose is full of such lovely constructions. Only the novel, he says, can reveal the "immense, mysterious power of the pointless"; or combat the "grammatical trickery of the plural". (The ease of saying "we" and "they" can convince us that homogeneous groups exist where none does: enter Faulkner, narrating As I Lay Dying with a multitude of distinct individuals.) The art of description, in an astonishing, almost throwaway parenthesis, is called "compassion for the ephemeral". And of Flaubert, Kundera writes admiringly: "In the soul of things, in the soul of all things human, everywhere, he sees it dancing, the sweet fairy of stupidity."

But for Kundera, the fairy of stupidity is not always so sweet. Literature, he insists, must be read without borders, and he despairs of the continuing practice of reading novels only in the "small context" of their national traditions. For "it was to Rabelais that Laurence Sterne was reacting, it was Sterne who set off Diderot, it was from Cervantes that Fielding drew constant inspiration, it was against Fielding that Stendhal measured himself, it was Flaubert's tradition living on in Joyce . . ." And yet, Kundera observes, it is in the foreign-literature departments of universities that the novel is most "intractably mired in its home province". Nor does Kundera entertain the idea that the novel should be a social documentary. It would be absurd to write a Comédie Humaine for our times because, he argues tartly, "Art is not a village band marching dutifully along at History's heels. It is there to create its own history."

Of two critical preface-writers in a 1972 edition of Madame Bovary, Kundera is splendidly rude: "These men saw nothing wrong with positioning themselves at a distance from the book in whose vestibule they are squatters." And, without naming names, he damns all unserious writers with marvellous spleen: "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." The ringing, threefold "thus", amplifying the criticism at each stage so that what began as "conventional" has become "noxious", and then, the final hammer-blow, outdoing even "noxious" with the pitiless judgement of "contemptible": it's a really invigorating crescendo of bile.

The energy of such denunciations is, of course, proof of Kundera's passion for the novel and for great novels. (You say you love music? Well then, tell me which composers you hate.) His essay is not a systematic survey of the novel, but an idiosyncratic history of his favourites - Rabelais, Cervantes, Sterne, Flaubert, Dostoyevsky, Musil, Gombrowicz - studded with the dicta of a great practitioner, guiding us to surprising, fragmentary perspectives. Kundera reads Sterne, dazzlingly, as a sort of Buddhist: "That absence of action (or miniaturisation of action) is treated with an idyllic smile . . . I think I detect a radical melancholy in that smile: to act is to seek to conquer; to conquer brings suffering to others: renouncing action is the only path to happiness and peace." Just as easily, Kundera will discuss technical matters of narrative strategy, or turn scholar of editions to make a brilliant point about Flaubert's revisions of his paragraphing.

Some anecdotes and arguments in The Curtain will be familiar to readers of Kundera's previous works of criticism, Testaments Betrayed and The Art of the Novel; some others make one wish for elaboration. But this short work is bursting at the seams with ideas and creative sympathy. At one point, Kundera describes Gombrowicz's writings on the novel, and warns us what to expect: "A novelist talking about the art of the novel is not a professor giving a discourse from his podium. Imagine him rather as a painter welcoming you into his studio, where you are surrounded by his canvases staring at you from where they lean against the walls. He will talk about himself, but even more about other people, about novels of theirs that he loves and that have a secret presence in his own work." He is talking about Gombrowicz, but also, of course, he is talking about himself. Kundera dashes irrepressibly around his own studio, playing the provocateur, the fan, the scholar or the charming old roué, to consistently fascinating effect. To be welcomed in is a rare pleasure.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Trident: Why Brown went to war with Labour