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Thursday, December 19th, 2002



by Milan Kundera

Laughter and Forgetting

A review by James Wood

It is not entirely unfair to suggest that Milan Kundera may be a didactician of the comic rather than a comic novelist. He has written many times about Rabelais, Cervantes, and the eighteenth-century novelists, and remarked that without the sense of comic joy that those writers impart, no great work can be done. "The novel is born not of the theoretical spirit but of the spirit of humor," he has observed. Yet his own fiction has lacked their comic abundance, and recently their joy. Ignorance, his latest novel, is really a series of dramatic scenes held in a suspension of exegesis. It is too light to feel like medicine, but there is no escaping its air of prescription. Two Czech émigrés, one from Denmark and one from France, return briefly to their homeland not long after the collapse of communism. We follow them in their attempts to make sense of their new country, and of their marginal but privileged positions in it.

Some of their encounters are mildly comic, and the book ends, in the familiar Kundera fashion, with a wild and supposedly comic erotic reckoning. Around these slim, sketchy, almost hypothetical scenes, a witty essayistic voice theorizes: about the etymology of the word "nostalgia," about Odysseus returning from long exile to Ithaca, about the modest but passionate nationalism of the Czech people. Fielding's Joseph Andrews has an Odyssean form, but Ignorance has an essay about Odysseus. Such works are successful when the proportion of commentary to dramatic action feels poised and each mode nourishes the other. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting was such a book, the exegetical and the fictive beautifully imbricated. Ignorance, for all its local delights, is an angry book compressed into a slight one, and it seesaws between slender theorizing and slender storytelling. It has a comic and ironic form — because both of the émigrés' returns are so ridiculously futile — but it barely musters the comic content needed to enflesh that form.

So what is Kundera's distinctive comic spirit? Like all modern Czech novelists, he reveres Jaroslav Hasek's novel The Good Soldier Svejk. Yet Hasek does indeed seem to belong to the Cervantine tradition, and the little soldier Svejk, who blunders into World War I through a combination of idiocy and dumb calculation, is really a Sancho Panza living on into an age that is no longer epic, and no longer comic either. Hasek does indeed possess the joy and the simplicity that Kundera so values; by comparison with the slyly unself-conscious Hasek, Kundera is exactly the kind of writer he claims not to want to be — a theoretical one.

Bohumil Hrabal, whom Kundera has rightly praised as Czechoslovakia's greatest modern novelist, once commended Freud's writing on comedy as "typically Central European, and essentially typical of Prague." Freud was especially interested in what he called "broken humor," "humor through tears," in which a sympathy we have prepared for a character is blocked by a comic occurrence and transferred onto a matter of secondary importance. The frustration of sympathy only intensifies it. This is a fine definition of Hrabal's sweet comedy, which is one of blockage, cancellation, and gentle absurdity; Hrabal used to say that he drew his worldview from a dry cleaner's slip he came across in Prague, which warned clients that "some stains can only be removed by the destruction of the material itself."

Kundera clearly draws on the absurdism in both Hasek and Hrabal, but insofar as both writers' visions are rooted in human folly, in the overflowing and congested soul, Kundera does not seem quite a comedian of the human, in this sense. The truth may be that Kundera is more interested in what comedy can do for his purposes than in how it naturally occurs. He is drawn to the noble utility of comedy in a totalitarian age, and is thus forever marked under the sign of a certain pressure.

He must know, even if he cannot quite admit it, that the kind of free, humorous joy open to Cervantes, Sterne, Hasek, and even Hrabal (who, unlike Kundera, was never an exile) is barred to a writer who has been effectively expelled from Eden by his own country. There is no return to this earlier sense of comedy, precisely because comedy has been forced to become functional: it is now one of the arrows to be used against humorless communism. The liberal anti-ideological writer, living in France and writing in French, may build his canon of Rabelais and Sterne, but since he is exiled from his country he is necessarily at war and cannot go about it in the same easy way a French writer can. Even as he disdains ideologies, he becomes, in his very need to co-opt that disdain for his purposes, something of an ideological writer.

So it is that Kundera's books resemble arguments on behalf of the importance of comedy rather than free enactments of comedy, and one reads his brilliant fiction in exactly the way one reads his brilliant nonfiction (such as The Art of the Novel). His first novel, The Joke, completed in 1965, is a beautiful work, full of moments of humor and pathos. It is the foundation of all of Kundera's later writing. Like Ignorance, it is an angry book, as angry as its protagonist, Ludvik Jahn, who is determined to avenge his expulsion from the Party and his sacking from the university. Ludvik has been cast into political darkness because of a foolish postcard he sent to Marketa, an ideologically fierce woman in whom he is interested. Marketa lacks a sense of humor, while Ludvik, though a Communist, is temperamentally skeptical and witty. His card, designed to provoke her, makes fun of the Communist ideals of optimism and progress, and praises Trotsky. Marketa hands the card to a party official, and Ludvik soon finds himself arraigned by joyless communism and sentenced accordingly.

The Joke is sometimes funny, but above all it is a book about the importance of being funny. It is itself an exercise in what might be called the weaponization of humor. Ludvik's joke, constructed in all innocence, loses its innocence as soon as it is brought under the category of the political. The rest of the book involves Ludvik's attempt to restore innocence to his joke by avenging himself on his persecutors. Similarly, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting argues on behalf of "diabolical" laughter, in a marvelous essay about halfway through the novel. But its own laughter seems muted.

In fact, Kundera seems to me not at all a writer in the mild tradition of Cervantes, Sterne, Svevo, and Hasek, but an increasingly French moralist, devoted to the correction of illusion in the style of Diderot and Molière, and as formalized by Bergson in his influential essay on laughter. Diabolical laughter, writes Kundera, has something "malicious about it," because it sees through the absurdity of things, and reveals the meaninglessness behind the mask. (This is essentially Bergson's purificatory theme.) This comedy is explicitly set against "the laughter of the angels," which is the forced, joyless laughter of power, exulting in how well-ordered everything down below is. It is hard to miss the political pressure of Kundera's division.

Ignorance hypothesizes the returns to Czechoslovakia of Irena, a widow living in Paris, and Josef, a widower living in Denmark. Irena's Swedish boyfriend, Gustaf, has started doing business in Prague since the fall of communism, and he coaxes his girlfriend back to her native city. But Gustaf's Prague is very different from Irena's Prague. His is the city of new money and new success, in which English is displacing Czech as the lingua franca. Kundera sees Gustaf without mercy — a ridiculous figure who noisily "explains" Prague to his Czech partner, and runs around his office wearing a ludicrous T-shirt bearing the slogan "Franz Kafka was born in Prague." He seems an easy target, as do Irena's old friends, who have not seen her for twenty years. Irena organizes a dinner, and brings good French wine. Her friends ignore the wine and drink Czech beer. Above all, they ignore Irena; they have no interest in her life in France. Only at the end of the dinner do they start to ask Irena about her younger life in Czechoslovakia. She feels that this is too little, too late: "Earlier, by their total uninterest in her experience abroad, they amputated twenty years from her life. Now, with this interrogation, they are trying to stitch her old past onto her present life. As if they were amputating her forearm and attaching the hand directly to the elbow."

One of Irena's friends says that she should return to Prague for good. But Irena feels that this Siren is "an emissary from the graveyards (the graveyards of the homeland), her job was to call Irena back into line: to warn her that time is short and that life is supposed to finish where it started." She feels that her homeland no longer belongs to her; in order to come back for good, she thinks to herself, she would have to take the twenty years of her life spent in France and set fire to it in a sacrificial ceremony. This is the price that she would have to pay to be "pardoned" by her old friends. When she tries to explain that emigration was not easy, her friend says that no one is interested anymore in suffering. "Those suffering-contests are over now. These days people brag about success, not about suffering."

Irena is a flat and rather dislikable creature, and the scenes in which she encounters old friends have a scratchy, rushed, irritated atmosphere. What Eliot called the shadow of an impure motive falls over these scenes, as if Kundera were not quite able to suppress his own anger at the way his country has received him: one senses the veronica of the author's grimace just behind these passages. Still, occasionally Kundera is able to fix a moment that has an authentic pathos. As soon as Irena arrives in Prague, she realizes that she has the wrong clothes, because it is warmer than she imagined it would be. She buys an unbecoming dress, which makes her look like "a provincial schoolteacher." Catching sight of herself in shop windows, she sees "the life she would have lived if she had stayed in Prague."

Josef, Kundera's other émigré, is a more sympathetic creation. We follow his return to his brother's house. As Irena does with her friends, Josef discovers that his brother is incapable of talking about Josef's twenty years in Denmark. Josef sees that his brother is wearing Josef's old watch, and that his favorite painting — left behind in the rush of emigration — is now on his brother's wall. Where Irena is angry, Josef is ruminative. "He had the sense he was coming back into the world as might a dead man emerging from his tomb after twenty years: touching the ground with a timid foot that's lost the habit of walking; barely recognizing the world he had lived in but continually stumbling over the leavings from his life." Standing at the window of his hotel room, Josef looks over the square of his provincial hometown and barely recognizes it: "During his absence, an invisible broom had swept across the landscape of his childhood, wiping away everything familiar; the encounter he had expected never took place."

Kundera powerfully evokes the émigré's dilemma: that of spending a life trapped in alien categories. The émigré is never French; but when he returns to Czechoslovakia, he is no longer fully Czech, either. His "freedom" is actually a kind of invisibility. Again, Irena's petulant bitterness seems to have a certain authorial pressure behind it:

Oh, the French, you know — they have no need for experience. With them, judgments precede experience. When we got there they didn't need any information from us. They were already thoroughly informed that Stalinism is an evil and emigration is a tragedy. They weren't interested in what we thought, they were interested in us as living proof of what they thought. So they were generous to us and proud of it. When Communism collapsed all of a sudden, they looked hard at me, an investigator's look. And after that, something soured. I didn't behave the way they expected.... They had really done a lot for me. They saw me as the embodiment of an émigré's suffering. Then the time came for me to confirm that suffering by my joyous return to the homeland. And that confirmation didn't happened. They felt duped. And so did I, because up till then I'd thought they loved me not for my suffering but for my self.

Irena makes this speech to Josef near the end of the book. The two émigrés meet at the Paris airport, and in the erotic choreography typical of Kundera it is only a matter of time until they end up in bed together. Ignorance ends with two sexual pairings: Josef and Irena, and, more unusually, Gustaf and Irena's sexy mother. But it is a feeble closure. It feels formulaic, merely a way of combining all the available characters, like a group photograph for the novel's last page. Once again, one wonders at Kundera's faith in sex as a formal and comic means of revelation.

What is it in sex that Kundera finds so narratively satisfying? The answer is that sex, like comedy, cannot really be a natural ingredient of Kundera's fictional world, but is instead highly functional. It brandishes its utility. Sex is seen as the equivalent of the joke, the necessary opponent of sexless, jokeless, "angelic" communism, the highest and most explosive assertion of the individual's freedom against the state. Above all, sex has become for Kundera the ultimate weapon in the struggle of the private against the public. Although Kundera is popularly celebrated for the way in which his novels combine the private and the public, the individually internal and the externally political, his work in fact represents a prolonged attempt to separate these dimensions. In The Joke, Ludvik exults that he is making moves on a local girl, Lucie, in a cinema while the Soviet propaganda film Court of Honor plays on the screen: "I concentrated entirely on her; to what was happening on the screen, I paid no attention (what a ridiculous revenge: I enjoyed letting the film so often quoted at me by my moral guardians unreel before me unheeded)."

Again, Kundera is famous for his modernist or postmodernist forms, mixing essay and dramatic action, but his work is really the exploration and expansion into totalitarian times of the great insights of the nineteenth-century liberal novel, especially of Tolstoy: that in private life one finds a truer perspectival power than in the pompous horizons of public life. It is in the folds of families — for Kundera, this means relationships rather than families — that the real truths are found, not on the immaculate uniforms of public lives.

In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Karel recalls his mother and her strange behavior during the invasion of 1968, when the Russians rolled into Prague. A week earlier, Karel's mother had invited the pharmacist to come and pick the pears in her garden, which were now ripe. But the pharmacist never came and Mama was unable to forgive him. At first Karel is infuriated by his mother's skewed private vision: "everyone else is thinking about tanks, and you're thinking about pears." But over time Karel begins to sympathize with his mother's perspective, "which had a big pear tree in the foreground and somewhere in the distance a tank no bigger than a ladybug, ready at any moment to fly away out of sight. Ah yes! In reality it's Mama who is right: tanks are perishable, pears are eternal." It is not surprising, perhaps, that this chapter involves several athletic bouts of sex, including a threesome between Karel, his wife, and his wife's girlfriend, which is almost witnessed by Karel's mother, who has come to stay with her son and daughter-in-law. The orgiastic sex emblematizes, in a sense, the triumph of Mama's perspective: the ripe pears of sex against the unripe metal of the tanks.

Kundera does not mention Tolstoy, but this passage in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is reminiscent of the scene in War and Peace when Prince Andrew returns from battle to his estate to find two little girls trying to steal some plums: "A new sense of comfort and relief came over him when, seeing these girls, he realized the existence of other human interests entirely aloof from his own and just as legitimate as those which preoccupied him." Kundera later writes in his novel that "all of us are prisoners of a rigid conception of what is important and what is not, and so we fasten our anxious gaze on the important, while from a hiding place behind our backs the unimportant wages its guerrilla war, which will end in surreptitiously changing the world and pouncing on us by surprise."

For Prince Andrew, the discovery that the world is made of different perspectives occurs naturally, as a happy accident. For Kundera, writing under the shadow of communism, there cannot really be such an easy Tolstoyan egalitarianism, in which one just view of the world takes its place alongside another. Instead, the pears must banish the tanks, and sex must banish the propaganda film; there must be a triumphing of the private. Nor can Kundera happily recreate Prince Andrew's sense of surprise, whereby a fictional theme grows naturally from a serendipitous soil. In Kundera's use, his characters seem more like pieces on a thematic board, arranged and placed for the purposes of necessary argument.

For Kundera, then, sex represents the greatest intensification of the private. If we differ from each other by only one-millionth, he writes in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, it is in sex that "the one-millionth dissimilarity of the I resides." Only in sexuality does it become "precious, because not accessible in public." In his earlier books, sex did indeed sometimes have the political charge that Kundera wanted for it, though a difficulty was that since the West had made sex ubiquitous and uncharged during the 1960s and 1970s, it was always awkward for Kundera's books to re-pristinate sex. Sometimes, the erotic romps in his fictions (and their steady undertone of misogyny) seemed to mark them as merely anachronistic, the belated offerings of old Central Europe. (Josef Skvorecký's novels occasionally breathed the same musty male atmosphere.) In Ignorance, however, the curious weightlessness of the sexual episodes obviously has to do with a catastrophic collapse of context paralleled by the collapse of communism. The two returning émigrés are no longer living in shackles. They have traveled from free countries to visit a newly free country; they are free to go and free to stay. Their erotic shenanigans seem, as a result, only to be the spoiled exercise of an exhausted liberty, both on their parts and on the author's. If, in Kundera's earlier books, one felt at least the notional presence of the secret police, poised at the door and ready to interrupt the first stirring of carnal desire, and hence the whispered justification of such merry goings-on, the sex-servants of Ignorance seem like mere greedy consumers, while the writer struggles to make this frictionless fucking somehow significant.

This indeed may be why, in a broader sense, Ignorance fails to amass. As far as one can tell — dates are cloudy in the book, no doubt deliberately — Irena and Josef are returning to Czechoslovakia in the early 1990s, shortly after communism's fall. Their difficulties, their angers, and their frustrations are historically specific. But Kundera's spindly style and his starvation of detail render his characters thinly emblematic, so that it is hard to remember, as one reads, that the novel is indeed set in the early 1990s, that it is really a kind of historical novel. Instead it seems to live in the present age, and the Prague described — a city in which English has become the chief foreign language, and in which success is prized over suffering — seems also to belong to the present rather than to the early 1990s.

Though the historical Irena and Josef, returning to a still shaky country, would not be entirely free, and would not feel so, the fictional Irena and Josef, as they appear in this book, seem too free — completely liberated, made weightless by Kundera's hypothetical style, his manner of seeming merely to play with possible scenes and encounters. Shorn of their immediate historical context, Josef and Irena spin around in the polemical atmosphere of the book, a polemic that Kundera seems to be conducting through his characters, and which seems to belong to the present moment rather than to a decade ago. Since they have little personality, Irena and Josef seem more like symbolic whiners than Kundera surely wants them to be, their bitterness too like the adolescent plaint "No one understands me!" They seem relatively free people complaining too much about being relatively unfree. A strange lack of proportion is felt: Josef and Irena are returning only for brief stays, yet the novel seems to forget this, and treats their dilemmas as crises, as if they were indeed permanently relocating to Czechoslovakia, with all the gravity of a final move. But Josef and Irena are not like Odysseus on his climactic way back to Ithaca, despite the novel's attempts to link them thus. They are closer to political tourists than to Odysseus.

In a curious way, the novel treats Irena and Josef exactly as they complain that their old friends treat them. Kundera has seemingly little interest in their lives in France and Denmark, about which he provides only the barest facts. About their earlier years in Czechoslovakia, we learn next to nothing. They are, as Irena fears, amputated beings — but it is Kundera who has amputated them. They are keen to escape a life of alien categorization, yet they cannot stop hoarding one category clearly still dear to them: that of the émigré. One feels about them that they want not to be émigrés in any particular place, since that would entail inevitable miscategorization, but émigrés in a notional land of other émigrés. They want not to be émigrés, but they want less to be returned émigrés. They want not to be Czechs-in-Denmark or Czechs-in-France, but they want less to be Czechs in Czechoslovakia. In this way the novel enforces the very complaints that it makes, and the result is an arrested book that seems not to desire to change a situation so much as to freeze it, the better to attack it. For all his anger, on the evidence of this strange book Milan Kundera would like things to stay much the same.

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