My Love Affair with Kundera

8 11 2011

I was twenty. I wandered into a bookstore in Jerusalem, and saw it on the New Books table– The Joke. The title was intriguing. The blurbs were enthusiastic. The surrealist/modern- angst cover hinted that the humor of The Joke would be cynical and ironic. I didn’t have much money in those days; reader, I bought it for love. Or rather, a hope that it would live up to its promise. And that, my friends, was how I met Milan Kundera.
It was one of those instances where a book takes you by the hand and shows you something you’ve suspected must exist, but never seen. The writing was witty and accessible. The project was political satire, where the distinction between the good guys and the bad was thrillingly obvious, and the tone was an appealing mixture of earnest and sardonic. Kundera’s characters, Czech citizens living in a regime that both terrorized and infantilized them, were foreign to me, but at the same time, as intriguing as fascinating new friends. The predicament of people struggling to create a life under the stifling rule of communism struck me as beautiful and heroic.
But rather that talk about The Joke , I’m going to move on to the book that is considered Kundera’s masterpiece, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Whenever I’m asked to think of a book that influenced me as a writer , this is what comes to mind. I’ve heard it said that with the end of Communism in Eastern Europe, this work has lost its relevance. That might be true if one approaches it as protest literature, but otherwise, I disagree. What Kundera has shown here is how one might successfully invest a book with philosophical discourse, politics, psychology, sociology, history, and one’s own digressive musings, while never losing sight of the main business of fiction – which, hopefully we agree, is a good story. This all sounds heavy and unpleasant to digest. It isn’t. It’s more like a meal where the various ingredients have combined to produce an unusual sense of satisfaction.
Why is this so? I think it’s precisely because The Unbearable Lightness of Being offers us so much more than just another story. It opens in (what was once) Czechoslovakia, at the time immediately before the Prague spring, and tells of a couple, Tomas, a surgeon, and Tereza, a waitress in a provincial hotel. Following a brief, chance meeting between the two, Tereza leaves her home and travels to Tomas in Prague. A love story ensues, but Tomas has a habit for philandering which he cannot and does not want to curb. Tereza tries to be accommodating, but feelings of unworthiness, jealousy, and self-hatred nonetheless make themselves known in anxieties and bizarre, violent dreams. The couple moves to Zurich, where they enjoy the freedom and prosperity of the West, but when Tereza decides that she can no longer stand living in the shadow of Tomas’s affairs, she returns to Russian-occupied Prague, alone. Tomas realizes that she is the love of his life and followers her. Like many of the Czech intelligentsia, he eventually loses his job and takes on menial work, in his case, as a window washer. Ultimately the two leave Prague for the country to live out their lives amongst simple farmers.
This story, a romantic tale at heart, is compelling enough. But what Kundera does with it is both daring and original: he frames this story in philosophical notions and dichotomies. Like a Sonata (Beethoven is clearly a favorite, and his work also figures in the book) the book is structured in seven “movements”, which bear names like “Light and Darkness” and “Body and Soul”. This directs our attention to the philosophical problems that Kundera wants to explore through the fates of his characters. But Kundera, though painfully alive to the great post-modern questions, does not go in for post-modern tricks and obfuscation. He simply interrupts the narrative and explains what’s on his mind. He doesn’t show what he’s thinking, he tells you. Like a warm, chatty professor digressing to his class, he discusses the narrative action, brings in relevant examples to highlight his case, quotes renown but unconnected figures, calls up historical anecdotes, and holds forth in discourses on the nature and motivations of the erotic (a pet subject of his, to which he gives a good deal of consideration).
For me, this work offers a model of how an artist might integrate all the various, and unrelated, musings, ideas, associations, and insights that flow through one’s mind into a clear, stable story line, deeply developed characters, and intensely felt themes. This sort of integration is not easy to achieve, even when done badly. But when the attempt is successful, it is exhilarating.
The result is such that in this novel, Kundera has described one of the principal dilemmas of our time: How to find meaning in a world where the post-modern sensibility has made everything meaningless. What is weighty for us? What is weightless? Is there anything that can comfort us in the wake of meaninglessness? How can we live with the knowledge that even if others understand our words, they don’t really understand what we mean?
Did Kundera create Tomas and Tereza and the rest of his characters in order to share his philosophical ponderings? Or did he begin with his inquiries, and then create characters and situations in which they could play out? One only need turn to the writing to see the answer. I have been thinking about Tomas for many years….Kundera tells us right at the beginning of the book, after a few pages of musings on the meaning of Nietzsche’s concept of Eternal Return. I saw him standing at the window of his flat and looking at the courtyard at the opposite walls, not knowing what to do.
It is images like this one that suggest that in the world of Kundera’s vision, the most troubling of philosophical questions play themselves out not in books and treatises, but in every moment of our waking, and sleeping, lives.

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