Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The novelist's curse

  • Michael Dirda reviews Milan Kundera's newest book of essays in The Washington Post.
In subsequent pages of "The Curtain," Kundera discusses humor, 19th-century fiction's discovery of the "scene," an author's rights, the main problem of modernity -- "the 'bureaucratization' of social life"-- and how such masters as Broch and Musil used the novel as a vehicle for real thinking about society, politics and human purpose. Throughout, Kundera writes plainly but with passion. He bewails our current "ethic of the archive" -- the conviction that every scribble from a writer's hand is important -- and urges instead an "ethic of the essential." Only the aesthetic project itself truly matters, the fully achieved novel, poem or play. In this light, the desire for artistic fame isn't mere egotism:

"Every novel created with real passion aspires quite naturally to a lasting aesthetic value, meaning to a value capable of surviving its author. To write without having that ambition is cynicism: a mediocre plumber may be useful to people, but a mediocre novelist who consciously produced books that are ephemeral, commonplace, conventional -- thus non-useful, thus burdensome, thus noxious -- is contemptible. This is the novelist's curse: his honesty is bound to the vile stake of his megalomania."

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.

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