On Milan Kundera and How Our “Murder” of Albertine Is the Least of His Problems

07Oct07

Today on the way up Whiteface Mountain, we stopped to take in the view and were surprised when a hawk suddenly appeared above the treeline. It flew toward us and landed on a nearby boulder; in its beak it carried a single sheet of paper, which we were equally surprised to learn — after the sleek brown-and-orange bird had left its missive for us — contained an extract from The Curtain, Milan Kundera’s recently published essay about the art of the novel.

We quickly absorbed this staggering piece of prose, in which Kundera explains how, after he discovered Proust in Czech translation as an adolescent (but without knowing anything about the French master), Albertine was “the most captivating of all female names” for him. Unfortunately, he goes on to tell us with something between an embarrassed cough and a sly wink, this bliss (one we readily admit to sharing) did not last: “I myself lost the privilege of that lovely ignorance, when I heard it said that Albertine was inspired by a man, a man Proust was in love with. But what are they talking about!… [O]nce I’d been told that her model was a man that useless information was lodged in my head… A male had slipped between me and Albertine, he was scrambling her image, undermining her femininity. One minute I would see her with pretty breasts, the next with a flat chest, and every now and then a mustache would appear on the delicate skin of her face.” Kundera thus concludes: “They killed my Albertine,” and Proust is thereafter relegated — or so we were informed by the hawk before it flew away — to less than a footnote in Kundera’s estimation of great novelists.

Strange as it was to have received this on today of all days, we did not pause for very long to consider it. Dark clouds now encroached on the horizon, and we arrived at the summit just seconds before the thunderstorm. By this point, we had constructed a paper airplane out of Kundera’s work; we stepped out onto the observation deck and released it into the wind. For a second it seemed to hover, unsure of which direction in which to travel, until a bolt of lightning brazenly ripped through the sky and instantly incinerated it. The rain stopped and we watched the ashes float down into the valley, where we felt reassured to know that his words would sink to the bottom of the lake and be buried under a million years of sediment.

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