"…[the novel’s form] arises in a freedom that no-one can delimit and whose evolution will be a perpetual surprise."

Milan Kundera speaks in concise philosophical truths. His recent essay in seven parts, The Curtain, is a characteristically precise analysis of the art of the novel, and the art of being a novelist. He wields a critical scalpel like a master conceptual surgeon, with complete steadiness of hand and purpose. The text is studded with hard gems of insight. “Description: compassion for the ephemeral.” His cultural world-view can be rigid, and he admits as much, although he follows this by letting us know that it’s the correct view. We can allow this; he’s earned it. “The unbearable lightness of being,” “the beauty of a sudden density of life.” Even in translation, his aphoristic tendencies survive with clarity. He marshals a global coterie of authors, and culls their writings (novels, stories, letters) to weave a tapestry of thought and novelistic philosophy. In the process, he generates a steady stream of ideas, any one of which could fill a chapter, or even a book. It would be breathless were it not for Kundera’s utter control of the material, his iron grip on the evolution of the novel across societies, cultures, nations and moments in history. Naturally, any writer reading The Curtain will find resonance with those ideas that most closely dovetail with their own, but there is much to learn in this book, from the many writers included within. Kundera calls on Flaubert for assistance on multiple occasions, most deeply when he quotes the author of Madame Bovary talking about his mission as a novelist: “I have always done my utmost to get into the soul of things.” What more could we ask for from a novelist? By truthfully, genuinely getting into the soul of your story, your characters, everything else will follow. As Kundera says, “in the art of the novel, existential discoveries are inseparable from the transformation of form.” It’s the one and only real rule of writing: be true to the story. Get into the soul of it, and it will take the shape it needs. The characters will inhabit their organic world, truthfully. Toby Barlow’s Sharp Teeth, a brilliantly composed contemporary noir thriller about werewolves and dogcatchers in LA, is written in brutally spare, beautifully simple blank verse. When asked why, Barlow described how, once he started writing it, starting deep in the heart of the story, the form it had to take became apparent. From Flaubert’s cinematic journeys into the modern consciousness, through Kundera’s conceptual renderings, to Barlow’s lovelorn wolves howling up at the dying skies of LA, one thing is always necessary: get into the soul of it; or, as Oasis put it in their most recent album title, dig out your soul. The truth will be there.

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