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the Complete Review
the complete review - literature

The Curtain

Milan Kundera

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To purchase The Curtain

Title: The Curtain
Author: Milan Kundera
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2005 (Eng. 2007)
Length: 168 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Curtain - US
The Curtain - UK
The Curtain - Canada
Le rideau - Canada
Le rideau - France
Der Vorhang - Deutschland
Il sipario - Italia
El telón - España
  • An Essay in Seven Parts
  • French title: Le rideau
  • Translated by Linda Asher

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Our Assessment:

B+ : nice essay on the novel and literature

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 16/3/2007 .
Financial Times . 9/3/2007 Jonathan Derbyshire
FAZ . 19/10/2005 Andreas Kilb
The Guardian A+ 17/3/2007 Craig Raine
Independent on Sunday . 18/3/2007 Tim Martin
The LA Times . 18/2/2007 Susan Salter Reynolds
The Nation . 19/2/2007 William Deresiewicz
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 18/10/2005 Franz Haas
New Statesman . 19/3/2007 Steven Poole
The NY Sun . 31/1/2007 Alec Solomita
The NY Times Book Rev. . 4/3/2007 Russell Banks
The Observer A 11/3/2007 Peter Conrad
The Spectator A+ 17/3/2007 Sam Leith
Sunday Telegraph . 11/3/2007 Duncan Fallowell
Sunday Times . 4/3/2007 Kevin Jackson
TLS . 20/7/2007 Justin Beplate
Wall St. Journal . 10/2/2007 Joseph Epstein
The Washington Post . 4/2/2007 Michael Dirda
Die Zeit . 25/8/2005 Andreas Isenschmid

  From the Reviews:
  • "This short book of seven linked essays is a swiftly-told, neautifully crafted, pleasurable pan-European scrutiny of the novel from François Rabelais in the 16th century onwards -- an act of literay criticism by one of today's great practising novelists." - The Economist

  • "Kundera’s tone is seductive, sly and, above all, personal: his excursions into literary history are a way of talking about himself and his art." - Jonathan Derbyshire, Financial Times

  • "Denn natürlich sind Kunderas essayistische Exkursionen keine Theorie im wissenschaftlichen Sinn. Es sind Bekenntnisse, Notizen, Gedankenspaziergänge eines Lesers, der vor dem gewöhnlichen Leser oder Denker den Vorsprung der praktischen Erfahrung hat. Kundera schreibt, worüber er spricht. Das gibt seinen Betrachtungen eine selbstverständliche Autorität, selbst dann, wenn er über Dinge redet, die seinem Gesichtskreis fernliegen." - Andreas Kilb, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "(A) brilliant and beautifully intricate continuous argument. Its main thesis is the absolutely true idea that the novel shows us the prose of life, the unedited version, with its absence of grand events, the sense of life's inevitable undramatic defeat. (...) The Curtain is crammed with memorable phrases, exciting provocations, and breathtaking insights. (...) The Curtain is great criticism. It is an account of the novel, its shifting poetics, and a record of Kundera's own meticulous reading - what he reads, how he reads, and therefore how we now have to read also." - Craig Raine, The Guardian

  • "The Curtain has the inestimable advantage of making the reader think. In this it is large in import and encouragement beyond its elegant 160-odd pages. Most attractive of all, perhaps, are Kundera's deep and reasoned belief in the value of the novelist's profession and his utter withering scorn for the prizes-for-all cash-in that contemporary literature perpetually threatens to become." - Tim Martin, Independent on Sunday

  • "The Curtain is not one of Kundera's best books, but to readers for whom he has provided a crucial piece of the literary puzzle, it cannot be missed. Here (do I dare say it ?) there is a greater openness, a more revealing sense of the sources of his authority -- namely, his own life. More to the point, there is a vulnerability, as much as Kundera (who is not alone in his desire for seclusion from his readers) might like to deny it. In that vulnerability, he, like his readers, is and will always be vulnerable, full of doubt, homeless if not lost." - Susan Salter Reynolds, The Los Angeles Times

  • "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. (...) What's coming to an end, devolving into repetition, is not the novel, but what Kundera has to say about the novel. It gives me no pleasure to point this out, but there is very little here he hasn't said before and said better, most of it in The Art of the Novel, some of it in Testaments Betrayed, his other book-length essay. The Curtain is certainly well worth reading for anyone who doesn't know those other works. It is witty and brisk and very smart, like all of his writing. But it falls far short of The Art of the Novel, not only because he has so little new to say but because the earlier work was produced in the full flush of his novelistic career." - William Deresiewicz, The Nation

  • "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. (...) (T)his short work is bursting at the seams with ideas and creative sympathy." - Steven Poole, New Statesman

  • "Yet in The Curtain, amid lucid repetitions of familiar obsessions (...) Mr. Kundera also offers witty and edifying improvisations on these favorite themes, and adds some new ones. And the reader is grateful, too, for omissions: Mr. Kundera, as cocky as ever, preens less than in his previous nonfiction books. (...) Mr. Kundera's insights into the history of the novel are a delight. (...) Anyone interested in the novel will delight in this book." - Alec Solomita, The New York Sun

  • "In Kundera's hands, however, the bagginess of the form is appropriate. The book's aphoristic, often flatly declarative style (...) allows for an elegant, personalized integration of anecdote, analysis, scholarship, memory and speculation. This is not strictly or even loosely speaking literary criticism; nor on the other hand is it merely a meander through the mind of a philosophically inclined novelist." - Russell Banks, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(T)his zigzagging history of the form (.....) He reduces me to the same blissful burbling. Ah, Kundera !" - Peter Conrad, The Observer

  • "The Curtain is light and playful, elliptical, aphoristic, sometimes contradictory, and in its fewer than 200 pages contains multitudes. (...) A fresh idea or insight sparks here on the turn of every page. (...) Just treat yourself. You’re unlikely to read an essay this year full of more knowledge, more wisdom and more love." - Sam Leith, The Spectator

  • "The Curtain is 168 pages long, also in seven parts (Kundera's books often are), but its prose is harmonious and its arguments, though similar, are orderly. (...) The Curtain's graceful cohesiveness makes it a work of art in its own right. In fact, it's wonderful, endlessly quotable, and not at all let down by Linda Asher's translation from the French." - Duncan Fallowell, Sunday Telegraph

  • "Kundera’s essay is anything but academic, and its dogged idiosyncrasy is what helps make it readable as well as exasperating. It rapidly becomes apparent that Kundera is not writing about some absolute, Platonic ideal of prose fiction, but about the novelists he has most admired, and who have helped him to become the author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being and the like." - Kevin Jackson, Sunday Times

  • "The Curtain is by no means an overarching theory of the European novel, more a series of impressionistic, often personal, sketches that always frame the aesthetic subject within some wider context: cultural, political, or historical. If the dominant mode remains that of a detatched and analytical intelligence, there is a persistent lyrical strain running throughout his writing, and rising, on rare occasions, to ravishing effect." - Justin Beplate, Times Literary Supplement

  • "(A) work of sophisticated literary cartography. (...) The view informing The Curtain is chiefly Continental. (...) Written in aphoristic style, The Curtain is agreeably studded with insights that may have been overlooked even by veteran readers of the novel." - Joseph Epstein, Wall Street Journal

  • "One may disagree with this -- surely, there is a place in our lives for entertainment and escape -- but, as the French expression goes, Kundera always gives you furiously to think. He quotes brilliantly too" - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

  • "Milan Kundera tut in diesem Buch, was er schon in zwei anderen getan hat. Er umreißt seine Theorie des Romans. (...) Kalter Kaffee also ? Keineswegs. Obgleich man manches liest, was man schon kennt, liest man sehr vergnügt und weiß nicht, wofür man diesen Essay mehr schätzen soll: für seine Leidenschaft und Frische, für seine Strenge oder für seine Leichtigkeit ?" - Andreas Isenschmid, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Curtain is the third essay Milan Kundera has written that focusses specifically on the novel. The novel-form is what Kundera loves and is fascinated by, and from Don Quixote to The Sleepwalkers he finds it offers more than essentially any other human accomplishment. Its particular appeal lies in the aspect that also gives this essay its title. As he explains:

     (T)he world, when it rushes toward us at the moment of our birth, is already made-up, masked, preinterpreted. And the conformists won't be the only ones fooled; the rebel types, eager to stand up against everything and everyone, will not realize how obedient they themselves are; they will only rebel against what is interpreted (preinterpreted) as worthy of rebellion.
       But the novel offers an alternative:
For it is by tearing the curtain of preinterpretation that Cervantes set that new art going: his destructive act echoes and extends through in every novel worthy of the name; it is the identifying sign of the art of the novel.
       It's a high bar to set, of course -- as it turns out, there aren't that many novels worthy of the name, and one of the interesting things about Kundera's overview is the many authors he doesn't mention. Still, it's an admirable ambition to have for (or demand to make of) the novel, and with his examples Kundera can convince that it is worthy, too.
       The seven-part essay does also consider other aspects of literature, beginning with the evolution of the form: notions of history and progress are different for the novelist/artist: "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."
       Of particular interest is Kundera's consideration of the concept of 'world literature'. He finds two differently provincial attitudes towards it: large nations can resist the idea of world literature "because their own literature seems to them sufficiently rich that they need take no interest in what people write elsewhere", while small nations: "hold world culture in high esteem but feel it to be something alien, a sky above their heads, distant, inaccessible, an ideal reality with little connection to their national literature." He suggests the large/small divide is much more significant than generally thought, maintaining, for example that: "nobody would know Kafka today -- nobody -- if he had been a Czech" (as opposed to a German writer).
       As a writer who has made the jump from small to large not only in physically moving from (then) Czechoslovakia to France but also made the leap from writing in Czech to writing in French, Kundera seems particularly attuned to these issues; it's too bad, then, that he doesn't go into more of his personal experience and the reasons for his choices.
       Still, the tour he offers, and the appealing and appropriate examples he finds to make his points, make for a powerful essay in support of the novel (or at least a certain kind of novel, with the proper ambitions) as well as an interesting history of the form. The ease with which Kundera presents and articulates his arguments make it (too) easy to forget all that he omits, and his perspective comes very much from a specific Central European tradition, but it's still of considerable worth.
       Nicely presented and argued, well worth reading.

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About the Author:

       Milan Kundera lived 1929 to 2023. The author of numerous highly acclaimed and widely translated novels he left Czechoslovakia in 1975, settling in France. He has become a French citizen, and beginning with Slowness (1995) has completely forsaken his native language, writing even his fiction in French.

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© 2007-2023 the complete review

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