In his essay collection The Art Of The Novel, Milan Kundera argued that the reader completes the act of novel-writing, by adding individual experiences that flesh out an author's sketchy characters and ideas. In The Curtain—a book-length essay divided into short trains of thought—Kundera puts the onus back on the author, describing how novelists from Cervantes to Kafka have torn through "the curtain" of presupposition to show us a new angle on what we thought we knew. The Curtain aims to do something similar, shifting our collective understanding of what sets the novelist apart from any other artist.

Of particular interest to Kundera is the question of time, which in prose can be drawn out interminably—describing more actions in a single second of a character's day than even the character can perceive—or abruptly truncated. As Kundera puts it, "The novel alone [can] reveal the immense, mysterious power of the pointless." And unlike theater, cinema, or comics, novels can also avoid giving too much detail about how a character or a place looks, which universalizes those "pointless" moments.

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Kundera follows different threads throughout The Curtain, and not all of them lead to especially fruitful places. But Kundera is inspiringly feisty, railing against the small-mindedness of comparative-literature professors, who think too narrowly in terms of national movements, as though Kafka never read a book by Flaubert. Kundera also debunks the archivist impulse to go against a writer's wishes and keep unpublished work in the public eye. To Kundera, the most important part of the author-reader contract is that authors get to control all that they can control, which are the actual words on the page.

It's a fair point, and it may explain why The Curtain is primarily concerned with modernism and not postmodernism or pastiche. (The problem with the latter is that the reader may be coming in fresh, not realizing that the author is borrowing from past masters.) But even though Kundera's biases sometimes get in the way of his argument, The Curtain is always lively and incisive, with an explication of European literature that doubles as a short history of the last two centuries of Western culture.