Posts Tagged ‘czech’

There comes a time in a person’s life when he realizes that he is collecting the complete novels of Milan Kundera, and he decides to embrace it as a conscious decision. The local bookshop has two more (the two that I haven’t pursued as steadily because I read them first, fifteen years ago), and then it’ll be off to find the either more elusive or more recent books. When you shop primarily in used bookshops, recent novels are rather elusive.

Kundera didn’t publish any novels until he was about the age I am now, and this one, the second, still has a strong focus on youth. It seems a little allegorical, and I wonder if it might not be a little autobiographical as well. It’s about a young poet who comes of age during the Communist Revolution. While there are several important characters, they’re only named according to their function in the poet’s life, so while he is Jaromil, they are the janitor’s son, the artist, the redhead, the cinematographer, the silver-maned poet, etc. The janitor’s son becomes a policeman and a reminder of how far Jaromil is from the stereotypical adult masculinity he wants to achieve, but he only gets called the janitor’s son, even though his father isn’t in the story. This is indicative of Jaromil’s extreme self-centeredness. The ending makes the Narcissus metaphor explicit, but long before that I was sickened by Jaromil’s contempt for other human beings.

In some ways this book feels like a rewrite of Sons and Lovers – Jaromil’s mother is a little too close to him, and he has a relationship with a shopgirl that he knows she will disapprove of. Maman is imaginative, in the sense that she creates a mental reality when the perceived reality is unpleasant, but not in the sense that she is in any way unconventional. Jaromil (Communist poetry) was conceived by an engineer (the educated working class) out in nature, according to his mother, but it was more likely in a disgusting bachelor apartment borrowed from the engineer’s friend. Indeed, nature as landscape or unenclosed space has very little place in this book at all. Nature exerts itself over Jaromil as weather or as disease, or the idiosyncrasies of human biology. Maman was never that crazy about her shotgun husband, so she liked to pretend that a figure of Apollo (classical influences) conceived the boy without the father’s intervention, despite the obvious limitations of such a fantasy. This reading might seem facile and forced, but issues of artistic inspiration, expression, and responsibility are at the center of the book.

World War II figures largely in twentieth-century Czech history. German occupation and redrawing of boundaries is big on a national scale, but in the daily lives of people, particularly children, it seems to have had little effect. Jaromil’s father was killed in a concentration camp because he was having an affair with a Jewish girl, but his father was mostly absent anyway. This lack of a strong masculine presence in his life, coupled with soft delicate features, leads to his preoccupation with his inferiority as a male human. He does have an art teacher, but the teacher is concerned about the philosophy of art changing under Communism, and Jaromil tries to assert his independence by disagreeing with him, which damages their friendship. Jaromil never tries to build up the rest of his body, so he’s a spindly little artist who isn’t brave enough to talk to girls. Eventually he does find someone, and losing his virginity is a huge milestone for him, but his masculinity has turned toxic by this point. A sexual relationship doesn’t relieve his insecurities; it makes them worse. It leads to sexual violence, which brings up some unpleasant memories for me, and reading this part might explain why I’ve been so anxious and angry these last few weeks. Partially, at least – I have good reasons in my real life, too.

The book reaches a crisis at the end of the fifth section, and it seems like Kundera is about as sick of this kid as I was, because there’s this violent wresting of the narrative at the beginning of part six.

Just as your life is determined by the kind of profession and marriage you have chosen, so our novel is limited by our observatory perspective: Jaromil and his mother are in full view, while we glimpse other figures only when they appear in the presence of these two protagonists. We have chosen this approach as you have chosen your fate, and our choice is equally unalterable.

Still, every person regrets that he cannot live other lives. You, too, would like to live out all your unrealized potentials, all your possible lives. (Alas, unattainable Xavier!) Our book is like you. It, too, yearns to be all the other novels it could have been.

That is why we are constantly dreaming about erecting other observatories. How about putting one in the middle of the artist’s life, or perhaps in the life of the janitor’s son or that of the redheaded girl? After all, what do we really know about these people? We hardly know more than does foolish Jaromil, and he knows precious little about anyone. What kind of novel would it be if we followed the career of the janitor’s son, and Jaromil would appear only once or twice in the course of brief episodes about a poet and former schoolmate? Or we could follow the artist’s story and learn at last what he really thought of his beloved Maman, whose belly he had used like a piece of canvas.

And I breathed a huge sigh of relief. It was so great to get away from Jaromil for a while, even if only for twenty pages. There’s a middle-aged man, widower, who likes to have a sex life but doesn’t like to get attached, so he sees a girl only once in a while, and he has several girls. One of them is Jaromil’s girl, and they discuss him briefly, but this section is a few years after Jaromil’s death, so he’s seen at a great distance, as one who ruined the girl’s life but now has no more power to hurt her.

But who is this unattainable Xavier? Jaromil dreamt of becoming this guy, young and smart and strong and sexy, like a younger Czech James Bond-Indiana Jones hybrid, but there’s more than that. Xavier only exists in dreams – things get tough, he falls asleep and is instantly in another, equally real reality. He works through problems from one reality in the next, possibly nesting several dreams like in Inception (oh, how I love this film), and ultimately wakes back up to solve his problems and escape, even if only as a dream hiding in dreams. Xavier is Jaromil’s ideal self. But much as the poet dreams of freedom, he is continually caged in by his mother’s vampiric love. This is a trope I see in media a lot, and I suppose is relevant to my own life as well, the mother that wants her children to be strong, brave, confident, and successful, but constantly shelters them from experiences that will allow them to develop strength, bravery, self-confidence, and the other qualities that lead to success. Yes, it’s important for parents to show love to their children, but it’s also important for parents to know when their children can handle things on their own, and to sit back and let them do it. I have a lot of animosity built up toward The Ex, but I admit freely that she is an excellent mother, and I see my children growing up as intelligent, confident, capable boys. I know that living with her is the best choice for them. Perhaps not for always, and I keep hoping that I will be geographically close enough to have an emotionally close relationship with them, but for now they are having their best possible life, and I wouldn’t take that from them.

Today is Mothers’ Day in the United States, and while I have some animosity built up toward my mother as well, it’s the day that I pretend that doesn’t exist and call her. Sometimes she feels abandoned, which Jane Austen would call “the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning”; my mom was emotionally unavailable during my childhood because she was coping with the divorce and her own anger issues, and the work of repressing all that kept me at a distance. In my roving life I often regret the type of relationship we have, and I wish I could be closer to my biological family, but the bottom line is that I don’t miss them, the actual people that they are, very much. There’s a big family thing this summer that I’ve been planning to go to, but these days I’m thinking of skipping it. I miss my kids, and I’d rather put my time, energy, and money into seeing them rather than into seeing people that I’m really angry about.

Art and revolution. Poetry seems to have been at the forefront of the Communist Revolution, at least in Czechoslovakia. The arts were bent toward propaganda, which leads the artists in the book to ask the question, How do I adequately express myself? In modern abstract experimental forms, or in the more mimetic forms that will appeal to the uneducated masses? With the Party taking a strong interest in the arts, the question also becomes, How do I adequately express myself without getting arrested? A lot of artists and thinkers seem to have been sent to do manual labor on farms (I’m thinking forward to the guy in Slowness, as well as back to the teacher from The Joke), and while there is value in that sort of life, it’s not the life that they chose for themselves. So, it’s either follow the unstated, unacknowledged rules of the establishment, or be forced to give up art altogether. It’s a dangerous gamble/game.

This was a hard book for me. I’ve got my own issues with mothers, though, and with governments, and this troubled relationship with the idea of being a writer and whether or not that makes me an artist, so it may not be for you. Happy Mothers’ Day.

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This was Kundera’s first novel, and in some ways, it explains his habitual themes more clearly. It’s like The Joke is a key to help understanding his entire oeuvre. While most of his other novels that I have read focus on the Prague Spring or other anti-Communist movements, this one predates all that. It starts with the generation that became Communist after World War II.

I have become such an inveterate skeptic that whenever someone starts listing his likes and dislikes I am unable to take it seriously, or to put it more precisely, I can accept it only as an indication of the person’s self-image. I didn’t for a moment believe that Helena breathed more easily in filthy, badly ventilated dives than in clean, well-ventilated restaurants or that she preferred raw alcohol and cheap, greasy food to haute cuisine. If her words had any value at all, it was because they revealed her predilection for a special pose, a pose long since outdated, out of style, a pose going back to the years of revolutionary enthusiasm, when anything “common,” “plebeian,” “plain,” or “coarse” was admired and anything “refined” or “elegant,” anything connected with good manners, was vilified.

I think that it must have been terribly thrilling to have been a Communist living during the revolution, seeing the old forms of civilization consciously destroyed and replaced by something rational, based on the ideology that you yourself are committed to. Ludvik Jahn is just such a young man, but he keeps a skeptical distance from the crowd. He has a friend, Marketa, who dives in head first, drinks the Kool-Aid, whatever other metaphor you might prefer for a complete commitment to a system of belief. So when she goes away to training camp, he writes her letters, just sort of messing with her because she’s gullible and naively enthusiastic. But. One postcard, intended as this sort of not-funny-to-everyone joke, gets picked up by the Party and his life gets ruined. Sarcasm always stings a little, but here that little sting turns around and eats his entire life. His best friend Zemanek votes him out of the Party, and therefore out of the university. He’s drafted by the military, but that little black mark on his record gets him sent to a prison squad, where he works in a mine with rioters, thieves, and political dissidents. They’re forced to work six days a week, but the only way to get leave passes or other privileges is to volunteer to work on Sunday too, so sometimes they’d go thirteen or twenty days without a break. It’s a lonely, miserable existence.

I know that my experience is not that bad – the universe is generally fairly gentle with me – but this does remind me of my expulsion from Texas, nearly a year ago. I work for a private language company that does intensive English programs, and they sent me to Texas to work at modifying our curriculum to expand the market to boarding schools with international students. Speaking strictly professionally, it was a resounding success. I kept careful records and had enough data to show that my students’ language skill had improved dramatically, but that wasn’t enough. Little did I know that the Christian school where I worked had been watching me like a hawk all year, and as soon as they figured out my Facebook identity they dug through everything I had ever posted, all four years of it, and used it as proof that I was anti-Christian and deserved to be fired. I’m not against Christians or their beliefs, as long as those beliefs aren’t being used to hurt anyone. They were aghast at all the pictures of men I’ve hit the Like button for, but they based their argument on a joke. It’s not a very funny joke, admittedly, but it was a joke nonetheless.

Back when I was religious, sometimes I’d joke with my friends on the day between Good Friday and Easter – Jesus is dead, we can do what we want while he isn’t looking. I even added a bit about him getting back from Hell, when I would go back to being good. Now, I agree that it’s not very funny, but it is completely orthodox. Many theologians have believed that Jesus spent his time between death and resurrection saving souls from their punishment – the Medievals called it The Harrowing of Hell. You can see it in the old Cycle plays (The York Cycle can be found in your local academic library). Before Jesus, everyone went to hell because of Original Sin, then Jesus went down there to personally bring to heaven all those who were actually good people. Now, because of Jesus, the decent people can skip hell and go to heaven. The Harrowing of Hell is a great cinematic moment in the history of the world as envisioned by the Christian Church, yet these people hadn’t heard of it. This is the problem with splinter groups (read: non-denominational independent Protestant Churches) – insufficient education. My supervisor called it a witch hunt because I’m gay, but because the company does want to keep this market open, they relocated me back to the Midwest. The little Christian school would have just fired me because in Texas it is perfectly legal to fire someone for being gay. My company was really great about the whole thing, appropriately appalled at the suggestion I be fired for my sexuality, so they sent me somewhere I would be surrounded by friends and unconditionally accepted. So, a good move.

What bothers me about all this is just how nice the Christians were, right up until they asked my boss to fire me. I should have figured something was wrong – my subconscious was sending all kinds of paranoia messages, like how I was avoiding open spaces because I kept seeing men aiming rifles at me. But I assumed it was a response to past situations and not the present one, and I knew they weren’t really there, so I figured I was just being crazy, like I was back when I was religious. But no, I was ignoring a present warning. I really ought to learn to trust myself. These people were not my friends, even though I thought they were and trusted them almost completely. A year later, I still have a serious aversion to churches. And strangers. And religions in general.

So, drifting back to changes in Czech society in the late 1940s. They absolutely rejected religion and capitalism, replacing them with a belief in progress, community, and communism. As such, familiar habits became crimes, such as sarcasm or a belief in God. The belief in God doesn’t fit with the officially atheistic stance of The Communist Party, but sarcasm is a subtler crime. It evinces a certain pessimism, an antagonistic way of seeing the world, and pessimism is a lack of faith in progress and hence anathema to the Communists. Sarcasm is not the product of happiness. It betokens disappointment and pride, a sense of intellectual superiority. When everyone in the community is holding hands and singing together, sarcasm is extremely anti-social. The Communists were trying to force an individualistic society into becoming collective, and some people resisted. Maintaining individual difference marked people as suspect because difference meant hierarchization. Part of this destruction of the individual is the erasure of the line between public and private spheres. Suddenly I understand why Kundera makes such a big deal out of this in later books – privacy was taken away by the Communist Revolution. It must have made it strange to arrive in the West and see exhibitionism, where people voluntarily arrange a private act for public viewing. So this explains his fascination with writing about public sex, and how weirdly scatological his middle-aged characters can get.

Ludvik’s sarcasm landed him in prison mines for several years. Finally he was allowed to finish his degree and become the academic he had always wanted to be. All this is mostly flashback – the present of the book is about revenge. He’s coming back to his hometown to avenge himself on the man who ruined his life. But he gets sidetracked when he sees Lucie.

Lucie is from a different city. As a teenager, she had a gang that she was friends with, and when they got to be around sixteen they noticed that she was the only girl and proceeded to gang rape the shit out of her, repeatedly. Eventually she got away, and by that I mean got run out of town because everyone said she was a slut, and started a new life in a new town. There, she met Ludvik during his time in the mines and they had a thing for a while, but he never understood why she wouldn’t have sex with him. She’d try to be willing, but in the end she just couldn’t. She coped with the rape by creating a division between her body and soul – the one became dirty and corrupted with the violence of men, but the other was free and pure. She loved Ludvik with her soul, but she needed such an abyss between the physical and the emotional that she couldn’t have sex with him. Eventually they broke up over not having sex, and she left town to start over again. This third town is Ludvik’s childhood home, but she has no way of knowing that. She meets Kostka, a Christian determined to save her. Kostka was a professor at the time of Ludvik’s expulsion, and he was expelled for his religion a short time afterward. He helped to heal her internal divisions, and when the time is right she expresses that personal union by having sex with him, which can sound a little sordid and self-serving on his part, but it’s actually a big step for her to be able to give her body to someone she loves and respects. The sex doesn’t seem to benefit him much; it’s more for her, celebrating her newfound love for her own body. It only happened the one time, like a baptism, and then she went on to lead a conventional life in a conventional marriage to a conventional guy who probably beats her in the conventional way.

Ludvik really has one purpose in coming here: to sleep with Zemanek’s wife Helena. He thinks that cuckolding the guy who derailed his life will make up for all the suffering he’s gone through. But again, this relies on a sense of privacy that the mainstream has abandoned. Ludvik’s seduction succeeds, but his revenge fails because Zemanek doesn’t care. He’s fucking this girl who’s young enough to be his daughter and rubbing it in Helena’s face. Helena thinks she has found someone she can leave her husband for, but Ludvik isn’t looking for a commitment. She might be in love, but to him she’s just a revenge fuck. She has an assistant who’s in love with her and even younger than Zemanek’s girl, but she’s not into him, at least not yet.

Our other essential character is Jaroslav, Ludvik’s childhood friend. While Ludvik and Zemanek embrace the Party in their youth, Jaroslav doesn’t. He’s not in the center of the revolution. But, when the Party announces that it intends to foster art with Communist ideals that still retains a national character, he finds his way in. Jaroslav loves Moravian traditions, especially folk music. He organizes the traditional dances, he writes songs in the folk tradition with Communist-approved themes, he finds ways to keep doing what he loves doing even under a repressive regime. Ludvik may criticize, but Jaroslav did what we all do – he selected and expanded the canon. On a small scale, each of us who reads and writes does this; on a larger scale, academia has trends in what gets taught and what gets avoided. For example, in the 1960s Sir Walter Scott was considered one of the most important Romantic writers, equally with Byron, Keats, and Wordsworth. Now, his poetry is considered too long and tedious to teach, so we mention Ivanhoe in a survey class and move on. Other works get dropped for political reasons, like Heart of Darkness or The Education of Little Tree. Then we choose other things to add, like Felicia Hemans or Oroonoko. There are a lot of subtle currents that add up to big changes.

Youth is a terrible thing: it is a stage trod by children in buskins and fancy costumes mouthing speeches they’ve memorized and fanatically believe but only half understand. History too is a terrible thing: it so often ends up a playground for youth – the young Nero, the young Napoleon, fanaticized mobs of children whose simulated passions and primitive poses suddenly metamorphose into a catastrophically real reality.

When I think of all this, my whole set of values goes awry and I feel a deep hatred towards youth, coupled with a certain paradoxical indulgence towards the criminals of history, whose crimes I suddenly see as no more than the terrible restlessness of waiting to grow up.

While our situations are drastically different, to some extent Ludvik et al are going through the same thing that Generation X is doing today. In our late teens and early twenties, we felt like we were reshaping our world to be kinder, more welcoming. Now that we’re in our thirties or forties, it seems like we’re supposed to have made it, but at thirty-seven I don’t feel like I have anything more together than I did ten years ago. The universe has not acceded to my demand for a better world, and now people are fighting against the movement that I feel really made things better – the Obama presidency. The young people growing up don’t have the same values that people only fifteen years older than they are did. Jaroslav’s son hates folk music; he and his friends are all excited about modernity, so they’re wearing leather jackets and listening to rock music, and in a few years they will propel the Prague Spring to try to take their country back from their Communist parents. Youthful idealism can make a lot of good things happen, but as we age we develop compassion: we learn to see people as individuals instead of masses, ideas as shades of grey instead of the black-and-white ideologies of adolescence. Ludvik’s response, hating youth, is a result of his personal experience of betrayal.

But while it may seem that he is one of those criminals restless to grow up, I don’t feel like he has. This whole revenge thing smacks of immaturity. He sees Helena’s body as belonging to her husband, and his sex act as thieving something to balance the years of freedom stolen from him. Zemanek doesn’t see his wife’s body as his; the Communist idea seems closer to Brave New World, where everybody belongs to everybody else. A woman’s body is never her own. That’s why I think Lucie and Kostka’s experience is so important and good – Kostka teaches Lucie that her body belongs to her, and when they have sex it is her decision about what to do with her body. I don’t make any great claims to maturity myself; I’m preparing to see my family this summer, and as I look ahead, I’m not picturing spending time with the people I love, I’m imagining confrontations with the brothers I feel betrayed by. Without using this vocabulary for it, I’ve been visualizing revenge on them, not by sleeping with their wives but through cutting comments and burning indifference. But that doesn’t make me any better than Ludvik, and it’s not a path that will lead to a good time. I’m not the same person I was when bad things went down, and neither are they. As Kundera points out, revenge is either immediate or worthless. There are no other options.

As long as people can escape to the realm of fairy tales, they are full of nobility, compassion, and poetry. In the realm of everyday existence they are, alas, more likely to be full of caution, mistrust, and suspicion.

The fate of this book is like the fate of its protagonist. Kundera wrote it as a novel, not a political satire. The problem with realism is that if you show real problems realistically, people think you’re exaggerating or being satirical. So, the Communists saw his book the same way his fictional Communists saw Ludvik’s joke, as a serious attack on the establishment. Westerners heard of it and started translating, but they translated poorly and only the bits that served their agendas. Eventually the author left Czechoslovakia and moved to Paris, and he set about having his novels retranslated, so while my copy is an approved translation, it’s not the final definitive one that Kundera supervised in the 1990s. Everyone took it so seriously, even when the title warns us not to.

Yes, this is a book about the pace of modern life. Partially.

We begin with Kundera and his wife driving out to a castle-turned-hotel for the evening. As he’s driving, he’s thinking about the modern tendency to road rage (yes, I’m pointing at myself) and our insane hurry to do everything. After they arrive, they enjoy a quiet evening and go to bed early. So, for most of the book, he’s imagining it, and his wife is dreaming what he imagines, like their minds are in the same vehicle but he’s driving. Every now and again she’ll wake up and comment on the story, or a piece of music that he mentions. This is the frame.

Because this is a Milan Kundera novel, he moves quickly to the subject of sex. He thinks that our sex lives must be as hurried as the rest of life, and he finds this unfortunate. He remembers a short erotic story from the eighteenth century, Vivant Denon’s Point de Lendemain. This is a real story; you can read it at Project Gutenberg, if you read French. Denon was more famous for his Egyptology; his travel book on Egyptian archaeology fueled the orientalist fads of the late eighteenth to the nineteenth century, which sort of culminated in Aida – because why not set an Italian opera in Egypt – or possibly in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – because why not send an American teacher to fight Nazis in Egypt. Frankly, if you’re looking for eighteenth century smut, Fanny Hill is much more detailed, with less not-sex. A young man sees a married friend of his mistress, and she takes him out to her home in the country (the same castle Kundera is staying in, of course). Over the course of the evening, she works a slow seduction, the type designed to end in sex but in such a way that the man thinks it’s his ardor leading the charge. There are a few changes of scenery; she leads him all over the garden. She flirts him in a little, then pushes him away with that classical French pout. Finally she takes him to a secret room in the castle and they do what she brought him for; the next morning he runs into the guy she’s been fucking and he reveals that the whole night was just a smokescreen so that her husband would focus his jealousy on Young Protagonist instead of on the real lover.

So of course Kundera reimagines the story in the modern world (twenty years ago, before we all had cell phones). Kundera’s pal Vincent is at the same hotel, attending a conference of entomologists. He meets Julie, some kind of admin assistant working the conference. They bond over the fact that they both feel young and undervalued, so they abuse the other attendees over a few drinks and decide to go up to her room. They get sidetracked by the new swimming pool, so they swim naked for a bit and do it poolside. Then she runs away all flirtatious-like and he follows her but not quite fast enough (A lady clutching a dress to her nude front is all right, but a gentleman ought to put on the trousers in his hand). He can’t find her, so for both young men, the love affair has no tomorrow. I feel like I ought to be sad about that, but a one-night stand is one of my favorite memories, so I’m really not.

Because this is a Kundera novel, there’s also a socio-political element, this time focused on performance. Some people grow and expand like a rose blooming when they have an audience. So they play to that audience; Kundera calls it dancing, and he has quite a lot to say about dancers. Most of it not great. We wear masks in public, and sometimes we confuse the mask for the real self. People who don’t even know a person’s real self can reject a mask, but the rejectee feels it in the real self. The good politicians and academics know how to manage their personae to get ahead. Čechořipsky is less skilled in this area. He may at one time have been a brilliant entomologist, but he failed to ingratiate himself with the Soviets when they took over Czechoslovakia. He tries to see it as a successful rebellion now, but at the time it was just cowardice. So he’s spent the last twenty years as a construction worker, not studying bugs. He’s so emotionally overwhelmed at the conference he forgets to present his paper, and when he realizes his mistake he feels like a big idiot, so he comforts himself by thinking of his physique. Working in construction like that, he’s stronger than any of these guys who have spent their lives in laboratories. Boys have always comforted themselves for the fact that they’re not comparatively smart by asking themselves who would win in a fight. But the other scientists don’t see him as buff or hot or anything. They seem to see him more as a Quasimodo figure.

So he goes down to the pool to do some lengths and feel better about himself, and he sees these two people fucking next to the pool, and he thinks what a strange and wonderful country France must be, where lovers can do that in public without drawing unwanted attention. What he doesn’t realize is that Vincent’s dick is not at all engaged. It’s in its resting state, dangling about but not actually inside her. This sex act is a performance. Vincent and Julie are each performing their rebellion against society for an invisible audience, possibly each other, so there’s no need for them to actually touch. Just like in Denon’s story, where the lady takes the young man to prove to her husband that he doesn’t have to worry about the man she’s sleeping with habitually – it’s all performance. Our lives are full of performance too; we’re all dancing about in front of the cameras, hoping to get our pictures taken. Our cultural conversation insists that fame is ephemeral, but that doesn’t stop us from wishing for it. Kundera points out that we all think we are the elect, and that we will somehow get our image preserved forever. It’s hard for us to cope with our equality; we believe we’re special, that we somehow deserve nice things even when no one else has them. Or maybe I’m just talking about me, who secretly never gave up his dream of becoming a rock star. Even though he’s 37 and has only a basic musical talent and a complete disdain for autotune. It makes people sound like robots.

So, to complete this book on fame and sex (and the informal spaces where the two interact) and pacing, there’s this weird little apostrophe on the last page that doesn’t seem to fit with the novel.

I beg you, friend, be happy. I have the vague sense that on your capacity to be happy hangs our only hope.

Is that really what the whole thing has been about? Happiness? and Hope?

What does it take to be happy? What does ‘happy’ even mean?

Against my expectations, I’m reminded of a bit of St Paul, where he says that external circumstances don’t matter to him because his contentment comes from within (Phil 4:12-13). Much as I dislike supporting Paul, this one makes sense. The characters in this book are mostly unhappy, but it’s primarily themselves they are unhappy with. Vincent and Julie and Čechořipsky and the other dancers are all acting out their obvious insecurities, while the characters he borrows from Denon seem happy, even the young man who was manipulated and used. I guess that makes sense, according to the codes of the time he protected a woman (read weak, defenseless creature) from the vile aspersions of her husband (however true they may be). I guess people like being helpful, even if the help is kind of strange. In context, though, I think Kundera would link their happiness to their slower pace of life. Their actions are more deliberate: Julie takes the opportunity when it comes, but Madame de T creates the opportunity and orchestrates the entire experience. My modern self wants to be special, unique, not so easily predicted, but Denon’s lad finds happiness in the utility that comes from being so utterly conventional. Less individuality, less fame, but more happiness.

As I’m sitting here considering times I have been both happy and slow, I think that the connection has to do with the amount of control I feel I have over my own life. If I let modernity have its way, I get swept into the rush of things. When I can control my life, I slow it down. When I feel in control, I feel happy. And frankly, reading seems to play a large part in all this. He got me an iPad a month or two ago, and it’s a nice toy for checking my friends’ facebook posts, but when I try to read an article they share, the ads load very slowly, so I read a few sentences and the screen goes blank to reload the next ad, so I find my place and read a few more words before the screen goes blank again. If I get through an entire paragraph and have to scroll down, when the screen goes blank it will leave me at the top of the page again. It’s one of the most frustrating reading experiences I’ve ever had because I’m forced to rush. But reading an actual book is wholly different. The artifact is already intact, so I don’t have to wait for ads or buffering. It’s always immediately available, and it never reloads. There’s no pressure to hurry before the words disappear. Any pressures are purely internal, so I’m in control of the experience. I can choose to read quickly if the book is exciting, or I can slow down if the writing is complex or beautiful. With a printed book, I can make choices because there is so little technology mediating my experience of the text while I’m reading it.

Choice might actually be a better way of thinking about this than control. When I make choices, I’m happiest if I can take them slowly. Modern life does have a way of insisting that choices be made immediately, whether the matter is actually urgent or not. It’s better to have time to deliberate, weigh the options, think on it for a bit. The slower pace gives me confidence that I’m making a good choice. So. Slow is good. Taking time with/for people shows them that they are important to you. Taking time is how we escape from that twentieth-century French conviction that everything is meaningless. Slowness makes things matter.

Ignorance is a novel about immigration. It changes our reaction to the people involved, though, by referring to them as émigrés instead of immigrants. Immigrants are itinerant laborers from Latin America, southern Asia, or some other slightly disreputable country. Émigrés are refugees fleeing unsatisfactory political or economic situations. Émigrés are more educated in general and are more aware of and invested in current events. They bathe more regularly, have lighter skin, and make more of an effort to learn the language of their new country. They have children instead of anchor babies. The power of French terminology. We do this in English too – what’s the difference between an expatriate and an immigrant? We all have our reasons for leaving.

Ignorance is not just about immigration; it’s about returning after having been gone for a while. I don’t mean the two-year stints that I do in other places – Kundera means spending twenty years in a foreign country, then going back to where you were born. At this point, you can no longer call it home. Home is where you either rent or own a living space where you keep your stuff. That no longer applies to the birth country. I’ve never stayed gone the length of time that he says is necessary for The Great Return, but I feel the same things on a smaller scale, as I travel about and occasionally head back to what should be home.

Home has always been a difficult concept for me. It seems to denote a place where people feel safe, and I didn’t grow up feeling safe. Children in abusive homes seldom do, I believe. My father refused to self-medicate his undiagnosed bipolar disorder with drugs or alcohol; he beat his kids instead. I dodged that by being tiny and young; four older siblings can be useful. My mother wasn’t good at dealing with emotions, so I never felt that anything I did was good enough for her. I did notice, though, that she seemed grateful if I could handle something by myself, so I did. I rarely took my problems to anyone, and besides, I was afraid that if I did a social worker was going to come split our family apart. Somehow most of my siblings have forgotten what it was like to grow up with that, because they want to have a close relationship with her, and they argue about where she should spend her retirement. I don’t want her following me; I can only tolerate her for about three days. Visiting my mother always shows me how far I am removed from ‘home,’ culturally speaking; she tried to convince me to buy a George Strait CD this summer.

I tend to think of the area where I studied at university as home. As soon as I graduated from high school, I rocketed away from that place and moved a solid 350 miles down the road. At Thanksgiving, I went back to my mom’s house with a big bag of laundry. I set it next to the washer and said, “Look what I brought you!” She replied, “You mean look what you brought yourself. I have to wash your brother’s work clothes.” [All weekend? Really?] I had been joking; she was serious. That was the moment that I first realized that this was not home. I was happier at school anyway, so it was easy to start calling it home. My ex’s family was from that area, so after we graduated we kept calling it home and coming back to it, and now that my kids live there it’s the place with the greatest draw for me. The place I came from is Down East; the Appalachians of North Carolina and Georgia are home.

Kundera’s characters experience this in a much more extreme fashion. They left Prague when Russia stamped out Czech-ness in 1968, and now that the Communists are gone, many of the Czechs are returning (published in 2000, but probably set early-90s). After twenty years abroad, what does it mean to come home? The opening page of the novel:

“What are you still doing here?” Her tone wasn’t harsh, but it wasn’t kindly, either; Sylvie was indignant.

“Where should I be?” Irena asked.

“Home!”

“You mean this isn’t my home anymore?”

Of course she wasn’t trying to drive Irena out of France or implying that she was an undesirable alien: “You know what I mean!”

“Yes, I do know, but aren’t you forgetting that I’ve got my work here? My apartment? My children?”

“Look, I know Gustaf. He’ll do anything to help you get back to your country. And your daughters, let’s not kid ourselves! They’ve already got their own lives. Good Lord, Irena, it’s so fascinating, what’s going on in your country! In a situation like that, things always work out.”

“But Sylvie! It’s not just a matter of practical things, the job, the apartment. I’ve been living here for twenty years now. My life is here!”

My life is here. This is the struggle that long-term immigrants have to deal with; where is your life? What is temporary, what is permanent? I’m renting a storage unit where I keep the detritus of nearly thirty-five years of living, and there’s an ocean and a couple of continents between my apartment and it. Which place is home? This is where I work and sleep, there is where I’ve stashed my life. How can this be home if most of my books are there?

“Tell me,” he said. “Is this still our country?”

He expected to hear a sarcastic response about worldwide capitalism homogenizing the planet, but N. was silent. Josef went on: “The Soviet empire collapsed because it could no longer hold down the nations that wanted their independence. But those nations – they’re less independent than ever now. They can’t choose their own economy or their own foreign policy or even their own advertising slogans.”

“National independence has been an illusion for a long time now,” said N.

“But if a country is not independent and doesn’t even want to be, will anyone still be willing to die for it?”

“Being willing to die isn’t what I want for my children.”

“I’ll put it another way: does anyone still love this country?”

N. slowed his steps: “Josef,” he said, touched. “How could you ever have emigrated? You’re a patriot!” Then, very seriously: “Dying for your country – that’s all finished. Maybe for you time stopped during your emigration. But they – they don’t think like you anymore.”

“Who?”

N. tipped his head toward the upper floors of the house, as if to indicate his brood. “They’re somewhere else.”

This passage shows some of my foreignness. The Americans of the South, including all of North Carolina and several other states, tend to think like Josef, patriotism being important and meaning a willingness to die for a certain plot of land and the people who live on it. I tend to be more like N – I don’t want my children to want to die. I’m ready for the American Empire to retract its claws, to loosen its grip on world affairs. Some people are criticizing Obama for not playing a larger part in international affairs (Syria), but I think the United States needs to start asking the question, is this situation any of our business? Less dominance, more cooperation, more letting other peoples handle their own problems. I’m somewhere else.

But I also fill Josef’s role whenever I go back. In my memory, towns stay fixed; in reality, they are always changing. The city I grew up close to built a new shopping center out toward the airport (Target! Best Buy! Starbucks! Welcome to twenty-first century America!); it’s become one of the biggest shopping areas in town and it killed the mall, so the residents see the city as shaped differently than when I lived there. The university I attended has changed the center of campus, ripping out streets and putting in walking areas and a huge fountain; my heart doesn’t recognize it as home any more, even though that is the place I’ve lived longest as an adult. The town close by has changed less, but time still marches on. Zoo Video disappeared more than ten years ago, KFC closed and became Dunkin Donuts, there’s a new Dairy Queen, and last week there was a fire in one of the buildings downtown. Its future is still uncertain, but I think they’ve decided that they don’t have to tear it down. There are some changes I’m comfortable with, like the restaurant that changes hands every couple of years because the parking lot is too small and too much of a pain to get in and out of so nothing lasts, but the downtown area has too distinct a character to lose a building easily.

Kundera spends some time with our relationship to time. We don’t possess the past because our memories are so faulty. We forget things, we reconstruct alternate versions to make sense of the disconnected scenes we can remember clearly, and sometimes we fabricate memories without quite meaning to. In the early years of our marriage the ex had a favorite story to tell about our married life, and once I told her that it hadn’t happened the way she was telling it, and she responded that it made a better story the way she told it. She was right, but she was also purposely obscuring the truth and making me seem different than I am. But it makes a better story, so that’s how it gets remembered. This is the difference between history and the past. According to Kundera, we don’t possess the future either; we can’t predict it or adequately prepare for it, so it’s out of our reach. Because of our inability to grasp either past or future, we can’t really say that we have the present either. The present is indissolubly linked to two unknowable moments, so it becomes covered by the same fog, the same ignorance.

Kundera’s Irena and Josef come back to Prague to think about the possibility of moving back permanently, but they have grown too foreign, their lives are somewhere else, they don’t fit any more. They belong in their new countries, France and Denmark. Their old friends have moved on, and there is no vacant place in anyone’s life for them to step into. Nothing they left behind belongs to them. Thomas Wolfe titled one of his novels You Can’t Go Home Again, and while I haven’t read it to see what he intends with that phrase, as an expat I’ve felt it to be true. You can’t go home again because home is never where you left it. It’s changed, moved along, and so have you. I don’t have a single home right now; ‘home’ is an area that covers three counties and several cities that are all on the opposite side of the world from where I live.

Kundera’s novels seem to be getting shorter, tighter. This would have been only one part of Immortality or The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, but it stands on its own quite well. Ignorance and Identity are much more strongly unified, which I imagine makes them more approachable. Kundera is publishing nonfiction these days too, so it makes sense that the philosophical musings are taking up less space in his fiction. He’s becoming less post-modern. Maybe the rest of us are too. Story is becoming the center of literary fiction again; I wonder what we’ll call this period, thirty years from now?

I envy people with simpler lives, shorter stories. Characters in Hardy novels seem to grow straight out of the ground – their families have lived in the same place for generations, they know everyone they see and everyone they see knows them. I’ve spent my life looking for roots, but I don’t really have them. I’d like to belong to a place instead of wandering about the world, building a life out of blocks that don’t fit together. I’ve got Lincoln Logs, Legos, Duplo blocks, K’Nex pieces, and a bit of an old erector set, and I’m trying to make a coherent whole out of these chunks of different things. Sometimes I can keep things balanced, but other days I just slide apart.

When reading the works of Milan Kundera, it helps to have some knowledge of, or at least interest in, three subjects: philosophy, European history and politics, and sex.

I’ve read this novel before, focusing on plot and character and letting the philosophy wash through me. But having read Sartre recently, I understood the philosophy better, so I paid more attention to it. The title and first two chapters introduce some of the important concepts. Kundera begins with Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal return: existence happens in cycles, patterns of behaviour that are repeated within a person’s lifetime, throughout cultures, and on the global scale as well. Many books read this way, including the Old Testament (referenced quite a few times in the text). If this moment is bound to happen again and again, it is infinitely important that we make the right choices because we, and everyone else, are bound to repeat this choice over and over. This sounds like an easier-to-swallow version of Sartre’s idea that what choices we make define humanity. The responsibility for our choices and the awareness that they affect everything in time and space feels like a weight, and this heaviness is roughly equivalent to Sartre’s meaning of the word anguish. On the other hand, the Germans have an old saying, einmal ist keinmal, or, once is never. If something only happens once, it may as well have never happened at all. Kundera seems to champion the belief that life is a series of discrete moments with little connection to each other. Without these causal connections, there is no grand responsibility for the world, no weight. There is an incredible lightness, in which nothing we do matters because we are powerless to affect anything. Hence the unbearable lightness of the title.

Personally, I think lightness and weight are two extremes, and the truth is a blend of the two. There are certain clear causal links between my behaviour and the events in my life. However, I am not responsible for the choices of other people. Kundera only presents the two possibilities, that either events return and we always choose the same thing or events never return and every decision is irrevocable. I think that similar choices recur in our lives, so that we do have the opportunity to change our minds, to choose to be something other than we have always been. We are constantly recreating our identities, and if we want to be different, we can act differently and choose something new. I think this is what Sabina is getting at with her fixation with betrayal of betrayals; choosing something new that contradicts her choices in the past, she has a compulsion to do and be differently than she has done and been. She keeps in the middle between lightness and weight, and you notice she’s the only main character to live through the book.

As with philosophy, Czech history is not my forte. It’d be interesting to read this book in close juxtaposition with Milosz’s The Captive Mind and other books about the spread of communism in Eastern Europe in the late twentieth century. Nearly all of my knowledge of European history comes through its literature, and, as with most novels, you don’t have to understand it all in order to follow the story, so again as with philosophy, I let the history wash through me and piece together a more complete understanding with time.

The aspect of the political situation that I identify with most strongly is the fear of observation. I’ve always been a little paranoid about being watched and judged, and living in a country with strict anti-terrorism legislation doesn’t help. I don’t want to overthrow any specific government; I think the whole idea of government is flawed, but it sure beats having to walk around with a gun all the time. I do object to being asked which books and films I bring into a country, though. Stories are very important to me, and I get heartily offended at the implication that some are unwelcome in an entire country.

In Tereza’s eyes, books were the emblems of a secret brotherhood. For she had but a single weapon against the world of crudity surrounding her: the books she took out of the municipal library, and above all, the novels. She had read any number of them, from Fielding to Thomas Mann. They not only offered the possibility of an imaginary escape from a life she found unsatisfying; they also had a meaning for her as physical objects: she loved to walk down the street with a book under her arm. It had the same significance for her as an elegant cane for the dandy a century ago. It differentiated her from others.

(Comparing the book to the elegant cane of the dandy is not absolutely precise. A dandy’s cane did more than make him different; it made him modern and up to date. The book made Tereza different, but old-fashioned. Of course, she was too young to see how old-fashioned she looked to others. The young men walking by with transistor radios pressed to their ears seemed silly to her. It never occurred to her that they were modern.)

Yes, all of this, yes. This was me as a kid, but I recognized the old-fashionedness of it because I read old-fashioned books. I went all out for it, with huge mutton chop sideburns and pocket watches and bowties and stuff. I don’t mind feeling a little anachronistic at times. The first time my ex saw me naked she said I looked like a Victorian gentleman.

Persons who are uncomfortable with sex should never read Kundera. Sex is very important to him, so he puts lots of it in his novels. Sometimes it’s very graphic, like the clockwork orgy scene in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. I welcome it, but I don’t discuss Kundera with my mother. I may not have a ton of sexual experience, but I do have a vivid imagination and a tendency to think about it a lot. I analyze my experiences and fantasies to understand myself, and what things I’d like to try in the future. Kundera discusses the vision of Paradise in terms of unattainable ideals, but two of his characters have an experience that approximates mine. They laugh and suddenly the joke turns into sex.

What could have excited them so? A moment before, the hat on her head had seemed nothing but a joke. Was excitement really a mere step away from laughter?

Yes. My vision of Paradise is the memory of my favourite sexual experience. My laughter is often misunderstood because I don’t laugh at things that are humourous. At funny movies, I remain silent because I’m afraid of missing something. I laugh when I am delighted with the world, or a certain person in it. When I feel a rush of love for someone, I laugh because I’m so happy. Sometimes that makes it seem like I’m laughing at their problems or distress, as at funerals, but that’s really not it at all. So one night I was so happy leading into sex that I started laughing for no apparent reason, and the ex started laughing too, then suddenly we were fucking hard and fast, and when it was over we burst out laughing again. My vision of perfection is this combination of love and joy, where the partner is a source of intense physical and emotional delight, perhaps not constantly, but regularly. Lately I’ve been meeting guys who seem really great and delightful, but once they take their pants off they become violent. I’d prefer to sleep with someone who’s not going to call me a bitch, slap me around, or choke me. That doesn’t seem like an unrealistic goal, but it is proving harder than it looks.

As I move through the world gaining experience, I realize more and more just how separate love and sex really are. Our culture tells us that they’re the same thing, or that one is a sign of the other, and we even refer to sex as making love. It’s all a big lie. I prefer to use the phrase ‘making love’ in the sense that Jane Austen uses it, when two people talk to each other with the purpose of inspiring or encouraging positive feelings between them. Love can be accompanied by physical actions, but we hardly have sex with everyone we love. With nearly all the people I love, I would feel extremely uncomfortable with the implication that they desired a sexual relationship with me. I try to love all the people I come into contact with, so there’s usually at least some involved when I have sex, but I can’t say that I’d want any of my partners back again. I wish them well in future romantic endeavours, so long as they don’t involve me. Love is a patterned emotional response, but sex is a behaviour. It’s great when the two come together, but they don’t always. Intellectually, I can understand the behaviour patterns of the characters in the novel, but I don’t envy Tomas his promiscuity. When two people commit to sexual fidelity, I think they should honour that commitment. I see marriage as a promise of faithfulness; if you’re going to live with one partner while following several others, I say don’t get married. His affairs upset me almost as much as they do his wife.

One of the differences between characters is how they define themselves. What makes me different from other people? How do I know that I am uniquely myself? Tereza has a real problem with her body; she sees the physical bodies of all people as being roughly equivalent, so she only feels herself when clothed. Her self is her soul, that difficult-to-define entity. Her unique combination of intellectual and emotional patterns, I guess you could say. But those are so tied into the body, electrical impulses moving through biological matter, that I don’t see the distinction. Soul and body are so much a part of each other that I can’t imagine a realistic post-death life where they are separate.

For Tomas, on the other hand, a woman’s individuality is made clear in her sexual behaviours. When he meets a woman, he wonders,

How would she behave while undressing? What would she say when he made love to her? How would her sighs sound? How would her face distort at the moment of orgasm?

Even when I meet someone I’d like to sleep with, I don’t spend time on these questions. My concerns are a little different. Is he interested in me? Is he still going to be nice to me after I drop my pants? Is he going to kick me out immediately afterward? Would he be good with my kids? If we’re watching a video on the couch, would he rather put his arm around my shoulders or have mine around his? Will he let me kiss him in public? What would he look like in a kilt? It may seem as though I’m making moral judgments against Tomas, but I don’t feel that I am. According to the culture I was raised in, Tomas’s questions are much more masculine, and since I’m a man, I feel I ought to be somewhat more like him. But then I remind myself that I’d rather be me, and that I’m okay as I am.

Kundera defines kitsch several different ways in this novel. Art is inseparable from the discussion, but it encompasses the body, politics, and philosophy as well. Kitsch is an aesthetic mode that denies the existence of the unpleasant. The first unpleasant thing is shit. We do distance ourselves from our own feces, and consider it an oddity if someone makes a habit of looking at it. But what is shit? Indigestible material we’ve consumed, mixed with waste from the body. Our cells are constantly replicating because they are also constantly dying and being expelled from the body: our shit is composed of the influences on our body that we can’t use any more. It seems like a healthy thing to me to examine what emotional or intellectual influences we’re holding onto and to release those that no longer serve our growth. What happens if we don’t release that shit? Blockages, cancer, regurgitating the same old shit again and again. Kitsch enables the eternal return of unchanging ideologies. Another unpleasant thing kitsch denies is death. We’re all going to die; that’s the only real end to any of our stories; it’s my evidence that nature always overpowers humanity eventually. Much of twentieth century art consciously distances itself from kitsch by embracing shit, death, and ugliness, which is why you rarely see it outside of specialist galleries.

But political movements rely on kitsch, perhaps not bad art itself, but the idea of it. We ignore the unpleasant realities of an ideology in order to convince people to join us; as such, there’s a kitsch for every ideology. Kundera calls liberalism’s kitsch The Grand March – a protest march with fists punching the air, slogans chanted in unison; all that’s missing are the uniforms and the goose-step. Those of us who find a comfortable home for our identities in the humanities can get easily sucked into it, and lose sight of the conformity we are demanding. Everyone should compost for their container gardens and recycle their identically low-BHA plastic bottles. Good ideas, of course, but people can be just as judgmental and controlling about liberal politics as they can be about conservative politics. Eventually Kundera calls kitsch the opposite of individuality. What makes us unique? Our shit, our death. Our faults and failures. What we discard. Perhaps what makes me me is which shit I am willing to forgive myself for.

A quick word on plot structure: This is not a linear story. Each part focuses on a specific person. Part I is for Tomas and is about the lightness and weight above. Part II is for Tereza, and covers approximately the same period of time as the first, but seeing the same events from her perspective instead of his. Tereza focuses on questions of soul and body. Part III is for Sabina and Franz and all their miscommunications. The exact timing re Tomas and Tereza wasn’t clear to me. During or after. Part IV we’re back with Tereza, mostly after Part II, and Part V is Tomas during the same time again. Part VI is Sabina and Franz, now separated, after Part III and at least partially during the time of Parts IV and V. Part VII is back to Tomas and Tereza but focuses on their dog, before the end of Part VI. So, don’t get upset when people die; you’ll probably hear more of them later anyway. If it seems hard to follow, take breaks between sections. We hear stories from people in real life this way, but not all at once. We constantly revise our understanding of people, sometimes based on things they do now, sometimes on things they did in the distant past. If something doesn’t make sense, it probably will after we have better information. Treat it with the patience that you do reality and it’s not too hard to follow.