Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The Curtain: An Essay in Nine Parts by Milan Kundera

A nonfiction book on reading and writing novels by a master of thought and form.

"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 produces books that are ephemeral, commonplace, conventional--thus not useful, thus burdensome, thus noxious--is contemptible."

Easy for him to say.

But he's a little bit right too. I think ambition is often considered either ugly or egotistical among young writers, published and unpublished, but I think that's why we too often settle for good rather than great. Interestingly students often reward good work in workshop, without pushing the student-author to be great, but are very reluctant to acknowledge great work in the reading I assign. I suppose it's a way of finding hope and even inspiration--to mythologize their peers and de-mythologize their published predecessors.

In the novel My Name is Red, Orhan Pamuk has his characters argue whether a great artist is one who can copy exactly the work of his great predecessors or one who finds his individual style and in so doing changes the very nature of what is considered great work. Kundera makes clear that history has come down on the side of individual style. The books that get remembered are the ones that change what has come before. And so great books only achieve their greatness in the context of history. That if someone wrote a Shakespearean play (not one of those rewrites but an original play in the voice and style of Shakespeare) it would not be considered great, at all. It would be anachronistic, imitative and a step backwards. But this may be an academic view more than a popular one. People might really like a new Shakespeare play... but the make-up of courses and theories of art as tied to periods of history (British Novel of the 20th Century, etc) doesn't really allow for such a work to be important.

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