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Entries in Kundera (3)



The greater the period of time left behind us, the more irresistible the voice inviting us to return. This phrase has the look and feel of evidence, but all the same it is untrue. As one gets older and the end nears, each moment becomes more and more precious, and one no longer has time to waste on memories. One has to understand the mathematical paradox of nostalgia: it is more powerful in the throes of youth when the volume of life lived is completely insignificant.

                                                                                                                  Milan Kundera, L'ignorance

Watching this pretentious quilt of a film a while back, I was reminded of an old (and incorrect) saying: judge not the act for the place in which it occurs. Paris, a place I have never been able to get over, makes the most trivial of acts and banal of conversations seem more profound and life-changing. It colors the shades of my twilights, the reflections upon a citied river, the dappled incongruity of the houses and brasseries that have no comparison in any other city, the weather that always seems to enhance our rising emotions. Yes, readers of these pages know my weaknesses, and one of them is surely for the metropolises of Northern Europe. Strange that, as my ancestors hail from all corners of the Mediterranean; perhaps it is my conscious effort to overcome my bloodlines; perhaps, and more likely, it is among these northern lights  Paris, London, Hamburg, Copenhagen, Moscow, Amsterdam, Prague, Vienna, Stockholm, Berlin, St. Petersburg, Helsinki  that my soul has found the balance of culture, language, art and humanism that will forever nourish its dreams. And should memory serve me well  and it is usually a docile hound  I first flipped through this book on the ground floor of this bookstore several years ago. 

Only the German translation was available, and a few pages of random reading (my usual method of selection) suggested that waiting to acquire the original would probably be a better idea. Memory has yet to yield any data regarding that brief dalliance apart from the plot blurb on the back, which I seem to remember verbatim, and a few scattered thoughts about one woman's rather melodramatic and tragic return home (home, in this case, being this breathtaking city). The result is an odd novel, more a pastiche of the author's memories than anything else, and proof positive that where something takes place undoubtedly influences how we view what takes place. Our protagonist – well, our initial protagonist – is a Czech émigré called Irena, now living in Paris with her adult daughter. Like many of her compatriots Irena fled her homeland when the Red Army decided to practice tank manoeuvres in downtown Prague. Twenty-one years later, when the wall of ignorance between East and West was finally torn down, she was faced with a choice: return to a country she no longer knows or remain in another country where she will never truly be at home. It is a choice that every émigré and political refugee faces once another tyrant has been destroyed (we have, thank Heavens, only a few left), and there are no advantages to making a decision that has already been made by history. As our omniscient narrator comments: "But what can a man who has come to see the country of his past think of, if not of his past?" And here is where Irena wades through the waters of oblivion and finds some shells and artefacts she did not expect.

She goes back in time to her ex-husband Martin, now held against the light of the most typical filters of the past: her current lover, a Swede by the name of Gustaf, and "the one who got away," a Czech émigré and veterinarian called Josef. Martin dies after several years in France and with him dies her last opportunity to speak her native language on a daily basis, her daughter predictably preferring the new to the old. Gustaf is the very opposite of Martin: loud, almost rambunctious, unbeset by sadness and nostalgia (like many Scandinavians, he felt "limited" by the smallness of his country), and callow in the ways of the Iron Curtain. When the Berlin Wall does tumble, it is Gustaf who immediately suggests that Irena go back and take a look around  with him, of course, as a willing accomplice. Since he has never lost his country or the occasion to return to it, he could not possibly understand what leaving the ones you love for good might signify. His blithe, almost troglodyte manner is belied by the heaviness in Irena's eyes. Irena, we are told early on, is very much like the most famous wanderer in literary history. Indeed, given the twenty-year hiatus and the irretrievability of so much of the past (Odysseus and Irena both leave around the age of thirty-five), Ignorance provides a true account of Ulysses, because unlike Joyce's masterpiece, we witness a departure, period of absence, and return. The return is more important than the wanderings because the wanderings mean nothing if they cannot end; this is not to find fault with the metaphor Joyce borrowed but rather to underscore Kundera's closer approximation. And like Odysseus, who returns to his beloved Penelope after two decades away, Irena feels little of what she thought she might feel upon her touching Czech soil anew. So much so that Kundera offers an analysis: "If I were a doctor, I would issue the following prognosis in his case: 'The patient suffers from an insufficiency of nostalgia.'" This prognosis is quickly amended to: "'The patient suffers from a masochistic deformation of his memory.'" What is amusing about such a remark is that it no longer refers to Irena, but to the man she re-encounters twenty years later, Josef.

About a third of the way through the novel, Josef hijacks the narrator's attention and we are thrown headlong into his world. Josef also left his family behind, although he was unmarried and began a family in his new homeland, Denmark. Unlike Irena, however, Josef selected another small country as his destination; he would not melt into the ethnic stew that France was becoming in the 1960s, but stick out rather prominently in still-homogenous Copenhagen. Here we find a wonderful passage on the much-maligned "small country complex":

To be ready to give your life for your country: all nations of the world have known the temptation of such a sacrifice. The enemies of the Czechs, as it were, have also known it: the Germans, the Russians. But these are great nations. Their patriotism is different: they are exalted by their glory, their importance, their universal mission. The Czechs loved their country not because it was rife with glory but because it was unknown; not because it was great and elevated, but because it was small and constantly imperiled. Thus their patriotism signifies immense compassion for their country. The Danes are the same. It was not by chance that Josef chose to emigrate to a small country.

The details of Josef's youth after he discovers his old high school diary and is astonished that he didn't bother to take it along with him might remind the Kundera connoisseur of the author himself. After all, we are regaled on the usual tales of skirt-chasing, music, and Romanticism that is kept alive by Kundera's own digressions on figures such as this poet and this composer. Amidst these digressions is a tapestry of beautiful images, failed dreams, and tainted memories that can only come from a long life of reflection, art, and moral intuition. In one great passage, Josef spots his watch on the wrist of his brother, and then compares his return to that of a dead man returning from the grave twenty years later and finding his possessions divvied up among his survivors; another passage features the bittersweetness of nostalgia as "the captive, conquered present overcome by the past." That is not to say that the world of Kundera – who turns eighty-five today – is not tinged with hope: he remains, in fact, incorrigibly optimistic about the future of art while rightly attacking the trendy nonsense with which the twentieth century was saturated. Long-time Kundera readers have realized that each successive work seems to be a summary of his previous output, at once more precisely tied to his experiences and more abstractly philosophical, and we read and are transported to all the right points of the past. Even if most of them aren't really there anymore.


The Curtain

“Hypnotized by the image of its death, I think of its birth,” says this Czech–born author, who has been writing in French for more than twenty years, of his native country.  And with the Berlin wall’s collapse also now almost twenty-two years behind us, his writings are no longer heralded as topical but simply shelved away as remnants of an old fight which, I am happy to report, we appear to have won.  But what then is the fate of those brave Europeans who were forced to leave Communist countries because they refused to kowtow to the thought–free churning of the massive combine of human souls?  Well, Kundera for one is not concerned.  He is not concerned simply because he never thought of himself as an East European (he prefers, if anything, “Central European,” or no adjective at all), nor, for that matter, as a political dissident.  That he was exiled and expatriated is a drab detail on the luminous canvas of his artistic life.  Now free of these associations and at the cusp of his eightieth year, he can devote his time to his favorite subject – the history and development of the novel – which he exposes in typically unornamented fashion in his recent collection of essays.

The Curtain, like several of his other works, is divided symphonically into seven parts, all vaguely related and all general enough to merit some rather grandiose titles (“The consciousness of continuity,” “Aesthetics and existence,” “Memory, forgetting, and the novel”).  He defends this structure by claiming that
The beauty of a novel is inseparable from its architecture; I say beauty since composition is not simply technical know–how; it bears with it the originality of the author ... and it is the mark of identification of every individual novel.
Our eyes and minds tell us this is another of Kundera’s truisms, another observation so wide and plain that it proves impossible to dismantle.  In both Testaments betrayed and The art of the novel, Kundera delves into situations in which novelists that he admires have stayed true to or ventured astray from the unsaid conventions of the novelistic form: that is, of “going to the soul of things” (another chapter heading from The Curtain).  How curious, one may say, that someone famous for his big–picture style would harp on details and gestures and turns of phrase that are, upon cursory glance, insignificant to the structure of the work.  Although he will then claim that any novelist of quality “writes his novel as if he were writing a sonnet,” here to mean attention to detail and form, Kundera himself talks and has always talked in basic terms with nary a metaphor or simile, putting him in the tradition of Tolstoy, Kafka, Gombrowicz, and Broch, all of whom are regular guests in his essays.  He is very happy being compared to these authors, but there are others from whom he would like to keep himself separated:
Towards the end of the 1970s, I received the manuscript of a preface written for one of my novels.  The writer was a preeminent Slavist who, in his introduction, constantly compared me (most flatteringly, of course; at the time no one wished me any harm) to Dostoevsky, Gogol, Bunin, Pasternak, Mandelshtam, and to Russian dissidents on the whole.  Scared, I prevented its publication.  Not because I had any antipathy to these great Russians; on the contrary, I admired them all, but in their company I became someone else.  I will always remember the strange angst that this preface caused me: a displacement into a context that was not my own was for me like living in deportation.
This bizarre refusal is not only a product of his ego or his hatred of Pan–Slavic categorizations, neither of which supersedes his love for the newness of each literary work, but a specific objection to categorization outside of literature on the whole.  And there is an analogous situation: there is something belonging to each writer that he shares with millions of others; something they cannot agree on and alternatively love and despise; it is not a constant with regard to its structure, which may change as the whims of the world change, but ultimately, in the collective memory (for whatever that overused term is worth), it has a particular meaning and induces a particular form of pride in its adherents; it is the myth of one’s homeland, wherever that may be, and, more specifically, the myth of a home in general.  If an author can write about whatever he wants from wherever he wants, then the novel may comprise the author's homeland.  It is the novel that contains every permutation of what life was and could be, and which “goes to the soul of things,” and which becomes how we think of an author.  Kundera is no longer Czech or French, but the composer of nine novels, three essay collections, one book of short stories, and one play.  That he has written in two European languages is a bit of trivia that should remain forever caged in a footnote.

But what then is the titular curtain?  Herein lies the paradox of the world of Milan Kundera, a true internationalist who flouts all attempts at parochialization, who is also a true Czech.  This latter designation has nothing to do with some ridiculous travel guide clichés (e.g., “the widespread consumption of absinthe is indicative of the Czech laid–back attitude to life”), but with taking pride in one’s language and heritage and fashioning something new out of the world of literature (or to use Goethe’s term, which Kundera advocates, die Weltliteratur) that betrays neither your country nor your glorious international ambition. To do that, one must be no less courageous than Alonso Quijada himself:
A magic curtain, woven with legends, is suspended before the world. Cervantes sent Don Quixote off and ripped through the curtain.  The world then opened before the Knight Errant in all the comic bareness of its prose .... by ripping through this curtain of pre–interpretation, Cervantes set this new art in motion.
What is this new art?  The novel, of course, the only work of literary art not bound by language (as the understanding of poetry is inevitably conditioned by a thorough knowledge of the language) or time and space (like periodicals or historical epics), or personal conviction and historical facts (like philosophy and history).  It remains happily apart from all these strands of human communication while often being more insightful than all of them combined.

That Kundera has never postulated some profound new theory of existence has led many of his detractors to claim that he never really had much to say in the first place (these are usually the same critics who read this famous novel and find, quite rightly, that Kantian thought is still a wee bit more comprehensive).  Yet his aim has never been philosophy but writing novels and essays, which for him are imbricate patterns of the same fabric.  Critics who insist on relying on extraliterary analyses, specifically East–West Cold warring, claim that he does indeed talk about politics and even when he doesn’t, the absence of such diatribes indicates his avoidance of their significance out of the grief of having to live abroad (a prime example of petitio principii).  Over his long career, Kundera has coolly come to accept his fate in the hands of milkmen seeking to squeeze every last drop of humanitarian pathos out of art; but dubbing him apolitical is equally hasty.  He looks at the literary fate of a small nation often overly influenced by larger neighbors as a re–creation (or, simply, creation, as in the case of the work of this author from Martinique whom he discusses at length) of national myths, as he was always “hypersensitive to the destinies of small countries.”  These myths are not in the spirit of the epics of Viking lore, but microdescriptions of personal battles, obsessions, loves, and memories that are particular to that author.  Although he occasionally pretends to be cynical, Kundera has never been a cynical writer, nor has he ever been cruel or sexist (as previously discussed), or distanced himself from the world of commonalities.  He is a citizen of the world, but also very proud of his country, which is the bravest sort of patriotism.  And to think that many critics must have surmised from the title that The Curtain would be another attack on the evils of Communist ideology and practice.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

A long time ago, while still studying Czech, I decided to devote half my master’s thesis to this venerable Franco-Czech writer, an announcement met with sharp criticism from a few other burgeoning scholars, all of whom were women.  They could not quite believe that I, ostensibly an open–minded fellow if a bit carefree, was going to allot a considerable amount of time to such a “sexist.”  “I cannot stand him,” said one particularly disgusted student who happened to attend a few of my classes, “I simply cannot stand him.”  Her small, pretty nose twitched as she said this (the sign of true contempt), but she never explained why she found his oeuvre so intolerable.  Yet I understood why then, and the matter is even clearer to me now in re–examining his most famous novel.

Waves of politics and philosophy undulate through The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but at the core swims a young couple, Tomas and Tereza, who are trying to make sense of that most human condition of all, morality.  They are joined in their quest by two more main characters: Sabina, who is Tomas’s lover, and Franz, who is also Sabina’s lover.  The four live in awareness of one another, but perhaps not in acceptance, and each embodies, with his or her profession, one field of human knowledge.  Franz is a university professor and the most distant from the incredible ecstasy of art; he finds solace in politicized protests and sewn–on labels such as “dissident,” “immigrant,” and “radical change.”  Tomas is a physician and an inveterate rake, but his aesthetic sense perseveres through bouts of wanton behavior and even justifies his emotional immaturity in a German aphorism.  Tomas is clearly superior to Franz in every way, and the reader cannot but smirk when Franz feels burdened by his Philistine wife and bourgeois existence, while Tomas continues to enjoy whatever skirt he can crawl his way under.  Sabina and Tereza, meanwhile, are slabs from the same quarry.  They even pursue variants of the same vocation: Sabina is a painter and Tereza a professional photographer.  They are the pictures for Tomas’s captions, the film for his voiceover.  And both of them adore Tomas for his alleged strength and freedom of spirit, yet acknowledge that these traits only cloak a fear to commit, a fear to love completely and absolutely, and that most primal of male anxieties, the fear of giving up all the earth’s women to receive, in return, only one.  How can one woman possibly compensate for the plenitude of all the rest?  In a way, this is the novel’s essential question.  One may do well to substitute “life” or “soul” for “woman” and ask the question again.                

If all this seems vague and meandering, think of it as a symphony.  After all, that is how Kundera, the son of a well–known Czech musicologist, loves to characterize his works.  He himself once studied composition, and musical references, liner notes, and tidbits of musical history are scattered throughout his writings.  He is particularly fond of the granddaddy of bombast, and a famous quote from the musical genius is repeated throughout the novel.   The plot, if one may call it that, is furnished by the events of the Prague Spring and its aftermath.  The historical happenings are as meaningless for the characters as stage props.  They may stumble and injure themselves on them, even mortally, but nothing can ingress their substance, because the substance of each of them (except, arguably, that of Franz) is entirely outside of any plot or material life.  Someone at one point or another must have already dubbed The Unbearable Lightness of Being a “waltz of souls,” or something to that effect.  If no one has, then I will be happy to use that designation.

On the back cover of the first English version of the novel (translated by this renowned Slavist), one reviewer calls Kundera “an intellectual heavyweight,” which, in my humble opinion, he most certainly is.  But the philosophy in the novel is threadbare, and can be whittled down to the simple statement: if our decisions have no consequences because they repeat infinitely, are we freer or more enslaved?  The question is worth asking, and a topic for students of ethics.  But more important is whether one life, or soul, or woman (which, if she is loved completely and absolutely, can be a life or soul) can matter in the face of churning time.  These characters, called in some places “Kundera's quartet,” represent science, academe, art, and journalism (Tereza’s photographs inevitably chronicle the tumult of 1968), with Soviet tanks providing the military segment.  They become the polyphony of Czech society itself, although it doesn’t need to be Czechoslovakia or 1968  for us to get the idea.  Woven between and among things they could not possibly impact or control, they are both triumphant and trampled underfoot.  They both sublimate and disintegrate, and sometimes it is hard to predict exactly how the fates will turn given all the decisions that have to be made along the way.  A constant pendulum between light and heavy, which may explain the oxymoron of the novel’s title.
What then of Kundera the “sexist”?  If you are familiar with Kundera’s ten works of prose fiction, you know that he likely sides with the Don Juans of life, perhaps being one himself, although that needn’t concern us here.  It is women, however, that he sees differently.  He believes, or will have us believe, that women were more liberated before the sexual revolution because they retained their mystique.  Does anyone, he might ask, ever compose odes to a woman’s beauty any more?  Can love for a woman in Western society ever be separated from enjoying her womanhood without inducing mockery?  In a way, such discourse is an oversimplification, because the liberation of women over the last hundred years has to do with much more than sex.  But Kundera is steadfast in his portrayals of modern women: he sees them as equals, yet society certainly does not.  He gives them as much intelligence and fortitude as his male characters then watches them fail.  Whether this makes him a sadist, a sexist, or someone who yearns for the days when women and love could be safely placed above lascivious urges, is a matter of perspective.  Sabina and Tereza are the true heroes of The Unbearable Lightness of Being.  They are braver and smarter than everyone else in the novel, but society expects less talent and more prudence on their part.  And so they fail.  And had they succeeded, they might have spared us a lot of nose–twitching.