I’m using a long form piece of literary analysis as my CNF selection: Milan Kundera’s The Curtain [full PDF included in the previous link]. I realize this choice is unusual, as it is less overtly personal in nature as many of the lyrical essays, but, as Gary Kamiya points out in his piece in Salon about this work, “[C]riticism written by novelists…usually reveal more about their own passions and obsessions than about their putative subject matter…Readers who take literature seriously, and especially those who wonder about the complex relationship between fiction and reality, will find it stimulating and provocative…”
Kundera suggests that the novel, to not die, must mutate. the Hermit Crab essays we sampled in class read more like new forms of fiction rather than new forms of essays. The specifics were vague enough that there was little fact checking to be had.
What is also interesting about this topic is Kundera is worried obsessively about the form of the novel, and the death of the novel. It was something he explored in his fiction previously, stating that the novel, to prevent being appropriated by the language of Cinema, must change itself to be un-filmable. The Hermit crab essays, in particular, fulfill this criteria because they echo “formats” of writing as their very purpose. You can not make a film of a drug side effect label without substantially altering the story, using is as a “launching point”. Meanwhile, traditional CNF, such as In Cold Blood, already has two movie versions.
Kundera’s essays–as academic essays tend to do–present themselves with an authoritative truth. As such, unlike other CNF, the reader is liable to want to fact check: Do I agree with the premise? Is he properly citing Hegel? By writing in an essay format, and thus inviting academic fact checking, the essays themselves comment on the malleable nature of truth. To take the essays as truth would be to commit the very sin the essays rail against. At the same time, he brings up anecdotes of his father to use as metaphors or symbols for his ideas, bringing the gap between memoir and essay, which is why this counts as CNF: He is writing on an academic topic, using autobiographical true stories, in the language of fiction.
“The Curtain” implies that there are in fact three truths:
- Details of truth (falling for 8 vs 9 seconds). These details are mostly irrelevant, and in fact can hinder the truth.
- The Platonic truth (some people commit suicide from the dehumanizing conditions of the modern world): This is the real truth and where an author should strive to reside. Truths 1 and 3 are “the veil of Maya” or the reflections of Plato’s cave. They are representations of truth, not the real truth.
- The grand truth (life is beautiful and suicide is bad): This is the most dangerous truth, the “grand narrative”, which attempts to make all individual people’s stories into one story without room for nuance. This truth allows no ambiguity. It is Greenberg’s kitsch and Nabakov’s Poshlust. Anything claiming to be the absolute truth, is a lie.
His ethics on truth can be understood from page one, in which he relates an anecdote about his father, then admits it probably isn’t true. This seems to imply that CNF can make things up, so long as the author is willing to be honest about making things up. The problem only arises when they insist on truth number 1.
But admittedly, I’m more interested in the idea of things labeled as fiction that contain truth. My favorite author is Milan Kundera. In the ‘tens, he was accused of having been an informant to the Communist party while it was under Soviet occupation. As most of his works deal with living a life under totalitarianism, the fact that he would “snitch” poses an interesting conundrum regarding his work for many. However, I believe this poses a more interesting interpretation of his work: A long form apology driven by guilt, with him empathizing with the prisoner he informed on. “The Joke” features a character sent to a prison camp over a joke on a note he sent to a female classmate. “Life is Elsewhere” features a jealous lover informing on his girlfriend. All of his work is labeled as fiction, but it is undoubtedly true that the stories resonate as true for the people who lived them, even if they did not occur exactly as he wrote; people would still feel “representation” in the stories. If he switches his role to write from the perspective of an accused instead of an accuser, is it less true?