Sunday, November 23, 2008

Laughter and Forgetting

Opposable Thumb - a blog by writer, reviewer, philosopher Denis Welch - quotes Milan Kundera. It stopped me in my tracks because the quote he uses expresses so aptly the thoughts that have been tapping inside my head. It describes the precariosity I want to capture one way or another in my new novel.

It takes so little, so infinitely little for a person to cross the border beyond which everything loses meaning: love, convictions, faith,history. Human life—and herein lies its secret—takes place in the immediate proximity of that border, even in direct contact with it; it is not miles away, but a fraction of an inch. [Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.]

I was one of many readers captured by Czech author Kundera in 1984 with the publication of his novel The Incredible Lightness of Being. We were living in London at the time and I remember sitting in one of those humid basement laundries waiting for the clothes to dry, and reading a persuasive review of TILB in The Guardian. I went the next day to Charing Cross Road to buy it. Such a title and such a book.

It's about a group of intellectuals living in the wake of the Prague Spring and develops the idea that existence is light because the ordinary life is lived only once in a straight line, and without repetition there is no weight to existence, and therefore no happiness. Or I think that's it. Kundera's not a straightforward read. And like John Banville who reviewed it 20 years later in The Guardian, there is much I've forgotten [more than usual!]:

As I began re-reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera's novel of love and politics in communist-run Czechoslovakia between 1968 and the early 1980s, I realised that, true to its title, the book had floated out of my mind like a hot-air balloon come adrift from its tethers. I managed to retrieve a few fragments - the naked woman in the bowler hat whom we all remember, the death of a pet dog, a lavatory seat compared to a white water lily rising out of the bathroom floor, and the fact that Nietzsche's name appears in the first line on the first page - but of the characters I retained nothing at all, not even their names. [John Banville]

And you know, try as I might, I don't remember the naked woman in the bowler hat! I remember the womanising Tomas and the painful relationship he has with Tereza. The death of the dog. The deep, depressing drumroll of fate. How sad it all was and how provocative its thinking. Those who know the work of Nietzsche say Kundera appears to both accept and reject the philosopher's position on what the lack of repetition in life means.

It's the author's deep-tissue thinking that elevates The Incredible Lightness of Being into a modern classic. He's considered a modernist and post-modernist, a man of his times and a man who isn't tied to time at all, a moralist and a writer of ideas who gives insights into the 'felt life' [Banville], a writer of significance who writes brilliantly of our insignificance. You don't have to believe what he says to be dazzled by him.

Or at least his writing. The reclusive Kundera - who lives in France in his late 70s - was just last month accused of having betrayed a Czech who spied for the west 58 years ago. Kundera has denied the charge, declaring it 'the assassination of the author.' The Economist titled its article on the subject: 'The Unbearable Weight of History.'

I don't have a copy of The Incredible Lightness of Being anymore. I lent it to a Greek communist, my aunt's former lover, and it was never returned. I have The Book of Laughter and Forgetting somewhere and will never forget the opening image as a searing insight into power and the communist regime. Or perhaps simply power and the closeness of the border posts.

In February 1948, the Communist leader Klement Gottwald stepped out on the balcony of a Baroque palace in Prague to harangue hundreds of thousands of citizens massed in Old Town Square. That was a great turning point in the history of Bohemia. A fateful moment of the kind that occurs only once or twice a millennium.

Gottwald was flanked by his comrades, with Clementis standing close to him. It was snowing and cold, and Gottwald was bareheaded. Bursting with solicitude, Clementis took off his fur hat and set it on Gottwald's head.

The propaganda section made hundreds of thousands of copies of the photograph taken on the balcony where Gottwald, in a fur hat and surrounded by his comrades, spoke to the people. On that balcony the history of Communist Bohemia began. Every child knew that photograph, from seeing it on posters and in schoolbooks and museums.

Four years later, Clementis was charged with treason and hanged. The propaganda section immediately made him vanish from history and, of course, from all photographs. Ever since, Gottwald has been alone on the balcony. Where Clementis stood, there is only the bare palace wall. Nothing remains of Clementis but the fur hat on Gottwald's head.

It is 1971, and Mirek says: The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.


Rachael King said...

I saw the film in - what - 1989? Which led me to the book, which led me to a whole lot of other Kundra novels. They were the perfect companions to my angsty-question-my-existence self at the time. They made me pretty damn excited to be alive.

Stephanie said...

Wow, a great post. I came to your site some time back via Beattie's book blog and haven't stopped visiting. Thanks for sharing your wonderful talent for writing and your observations on really interesting subjects. So life enhancing!

This is the post that has me adding TILB to my already over-long 'must read' list - but more importantly, is sending me out, finally, to buy 'The Blue'. Three copies at least - one for me, one for my mum and one for my sister. That's a treat for me and Christmas for them sorted. Best wishes!

Mary McCallum said...

Rachael, lovely to hear from you! I am not surprised you like Kundera too. It must be the way Kundera evokes the collective and personal angst of people, inside whichever border, that excites his readers. It's is as if he's not scared to drill down deeper and for longer to try and find answers to the age-old questions about the meaning of life etc. I have heard him compared with Coetzee.

And Stephanie, thank you for you generous comment. I am thrilled to think you've been visiting here and now, on the strength of that, want to buy The Blue (x3). I love blogging but sometimes - as most authors do - you wonder if you energies wouldn't be best spent writing the next book.

This post is an example of the good effects of blogging 1. it added another element to my thinking on things precarious for the novel I am writing now and, in writing the post, I thought more deeply and gave voice to it 2. it encouraged you to go out and buy my book!

So thanks again, I needed that. And I do hope you and your family enjoy reading The Blue.

Bookman Beattie said...

Great piece Mary,do buy yourself another copy of that book. Thanks for sharing.

Mark Hubbard said...

The Incredible Lightness of Being, novel, and The Unbearable Lightness of Being, film, have both been on my radar for years, but I've never 'quite' got round to reading/watching them.

The film title is a marked departure from the novel title: I suspect it lives more on the surface, whereas the novel is more philosophic in nature?

And I've still not made it around to buying The Blue yet, but got a book voucher for my birthday, so I'll pick it up for my Christmas reading. (Though I've already got more Christmas reading than time off - so could be New Year during the tedium of work reading also).

a cat of impossible colour said...

I love Kundera. And:

"a Greek communist, my aunt's former lover..."

Wow! Sounds like there's a story there.