The democracy of Don Quixote

Jonathan Ree in Prospect:

Essay_reeIn his luminous new collection, The Curtain (Faber & Faber), Milan Kundera argues that the special virtue of the novel lies in its ability to part the “magic curtain, woven of legends” that hangs between us and the ordinary world. The curtain has been put there to cover up the trivia of our lives, the forgotten old boxes and bags where “an enigma remains an enigma” while ugliness flirts with beauty, and reason courts the absurd. These neglected spaces were redeemed for literature, according to Kundera, at the moment when Cervantes got his readers to imagine Don Quixote as he lay dying while his niece went on eating, the housekeeper went on drinking and Sancho Panza went on being “of good cheer.” By inventing a narrator through whose consciousness such dumb events could be worked up into an affecting “scene,” Cervantes created a form of literature that could do justice to “modest sentiments”; and so a new kind of beauty—Kundera calls it “prosaic beauty”—was born. Henry Fielding took the technique further when he created a narrator who could charm his readers with benign loquacity, and Laurence Sterne completed the development by blithely allowing the story of Tristram Shandy to be ruined by the character trying to recount it.

If Cervantes rent the curtain that separates us from the prose of ordinary life, Kafka tore it down completely. After Kafka, according to Kundera, the novel entered a realm where reality could never “correspond to people’s idea of it”; from now on the novel would be a constant witness to the “unavoidable relativism of human truths.”

More here.