Like meeting an old friend, I always enjoy reading Kundera. In this "essay in seven parts" he follows in the footsteps of Fielding in setting out what a novel is all about. Kundera has a wonderful knack of conjuring metaphors for our experiences with literature. He likens great novels to geographical discovery of new territory, in other words, novels should communicate what has not yet been said.
In The Curtain Kundera draws attention to the culture and heritage of his Czech homeland, and to the wider "Central Europe" that includes Poland, Hungary, and even Austria. He investigates the history of the novel, and recognises it in its highlights. It is part of a History with its own rules and raison d'être. Without an understanding of this history, many great novels become little more than blips in the general noise, a view he summarises in the final paragraphs of the essay:
In anguish I imagine a time when art shall cease to seek the never-said and will go docilely back into the service of the collective life that requires it to render repetition beautiful and help the individual merge, at peace and with joy, into the uniformity of being.
For the history of art is perishable. The babble of art is eternal. - p. 168
I also sensed some sadness for the less recognised works of art, and that this is a chance to introduce them to a wider audience. Modernist works such as the Polish writer Witold Grombowicz's Ferdydurke, and the Austrians Hermann Broch and Robert Musil's The Sleepwalkers and The Man Without Qualities respectively, are all discussed with passionate interest.
He also provides the reader with wise observations worth reflection. I relate a few:
What will ultimately remain of Europe is not its repetitive history, which in itself represents no value. The one thing that has some chance of enduring is the history of its arts. - p. 27
We should certainly ponder this thoroughly: the first great prose treasure of Europe [the Sagas] was created in its smallest land [Iceland], which even today numbers fewer than three-hundred thousand inhabitants. - p. 32
A nation's possessiveness towards its artists works as a small-context terrorism, reducing the whole meaning of a work to the role it plays in its homeland
... recall Flaubert's words: "The artist must make posterity believe he never lived." Understand the meaning of that line: what the novelist seeks to protect above all is not himself; it is Albertine and Madame Arnoux. - p. 95
... life is short, reading is long, and literature is in the process of killing itself off through an insane proliferation. Every novelist, starting with its own work, should eliminate whatever is secondary, lay out for himself and for everyone else the ethic of the essential! - p. 96
the deserter is one who refuses to grant meaning to the battles of his contemporaries - p. 112
On the fact that Kafka's great novels about bureaucracy were written at the dawn of bureaucracy, when its mere beginnings were felt to be intolerable. Bureaucracy is now so much greater, but is hardly given a second thought:
reality is utterly unashamed to repeat itself, but confronted with reality's repetition, thought always ends by falling silent - p. 122
On freedom in Kafka's bureaucratised world (with the romantic possibilities described in Adalbert Stifter's Indian Summer all but gone from contemporary life):
What can a citizen, with all his rights, change about his immediate environment, about the parking lot being built below his house, about the howling loudspeaker set up across from his windows? His freedom is limitless, and powerless. - p. 136