"A magic curtain, woven of legends, hung before the world," writes Milan Kundera in "The Curtain", his fascinating new book on the art of the novel. "Cervantes sent Don Quixote journeying and tore through the curtain. The world opened before the knight-errant in all the comical nakedness of its prose." For Kundera, that curtain represents a ready-made perception of the world that each of us has a-pre-interpreted world. The job of the novelist, he argues, is to rip through the curtain and reveal what it hides.
In this entertaining and always stimulating essay, Kundera cleverly sketches out his personal view of the history and value of the novel in Western civilization. Too often, he suggests, a novel is thought about only within the confines of the language and nation of its origin, when in fact the novel's development has always occurred across borders: Laurence Sterne learned from Rabelais, Henry Fielding from Cervantes, Joyce from Flaubert, Garcia Marquez from Kafka. The real work of a novel is not bound up in the specifics of any one language: what makes a novel matter is its ability to reveal some previously unknown aspect of our existence. In "The Curtain", Kundera skillfully describes how the best novels do just that.