That the West expects writers from Eastern (or what Milan Kundera prefers to call Central) Europe to be political was something Kundera learned the hard way when an English publisher, in the wake of the Soviet invasion, restructured and to some extent even rewrote The Joke to make it into what Kundera subsequently claimed it was not: a political protest against communism rather than a work of fiction (or, as Kundera countered at the time, a love story only). In terms of ideological preference, Kundera describes himself as “an agnostic” no more interested in a literature of politics than in a literature of the author’s personality. He is, in other words, no more and no less opposed to communist ideology than he is to capitalist (or communist) “Imagology,” as he terms the assault upon individual freedom in his sixth novel, Nesmrtelnost (1990; Immortality, 1991). His fiction is neither political nor didactic (moralistic), autobiographical nor journalistic. Rather, it is deeply meditative—more an exploration than an explanation.
Kundera traces his literary lineage back to Miguel de Cervantes, François Rabelais, Denis Diderot, Laurence Sterne, and more recently to the great twentieth century Central European writers Hermann Broch, Jaroslav Haek, Franz Kafka, Robert Musil, and Witold Gombrowicz. What attracts him to the first four is their sense of play, and to the latter five their “search for new forms,” a search that is at once “impassioned” yet “devoid of any avant-garde ideology (faith in progress, revolution, and so on).” “The great Central European novelists ask themselves what man’s possibilities are in a world that has become a trap,” or, as Kundera explained to fellow novelist Philip Roth, a pair of traps: fanaticism on one side, absolute skepticism on the other, with human beings attempting to negotiate the narrow path between the two. Kundera conceives of his negotiation not in terms of mimetic plots but instead as existential inquiries that raise questions rather than offer answers, preferring the demystifying “wisdom of uncertainty” to the “noisy foolishness” of received ideas. Thus, instead of the plot and characters of conventional fiction, Kundera offers a theme and variation approach, with characters who are not mimetic representations but instead “experimental egos” and the author’s “own unrealized possibilities.” Yet for all the open-ended complexity of Kundera’s fiction, his writing proves remarkably clear and concise, almost classically chaste in style despite its often erotic subject matter. It is also a prose that strives to be what Kundera believes Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent. (1759-1767) and Diderot’s Jacques le fataliste et son maître (wr. c. 1771; Jacques the Fatalist and His Master, 1797) are: “absolutely irreducible” and “totally unrewritable,” qualities as necessary in the media-maddened West as they were in an eastern police state.
Kundera, along with Havel, is one of contemporary Czechoslovakia’s two most important writers and, after Franz Kafka, the country’s most interesting, influential, and international novelist—“the other K,” as Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes called him. Such flattering comparisons are fully merited, for not only is Kundera, in his own largely apolitical and anti-ideological way, as devoted as Havel to resisting totalitarianism in its various guises, but also, as Kafka did before him, he has changed the very shape and scope of the twentieth century novel, giving it a new form and a new importance. For a writer so intellectually complex and aesthetically uncompromising, he has achieved a surprisingly large but wholly deserved following increased by, perhaps, but certainly not owing to, the popularity of Philip Kaufman’s 1987 film version of Kundera’s fifth novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
Kundera’s stories have received little critical attention, overshadowed by his better-known and more ambitious novels. He began writing the stories as a way of relaxing while working on his first play. He soon realized, however, that fiction would serve him far better than drama or poetry as a means for dealing with the “fascinating and enigmatic” reality in which he then found himself and his compatriots. Just as important, only when he began to write the first of his stories was Kundera able to find “my voice, my style, and myself.” Kundera, who completed the last of the stories only three days before the Soviet invasion, said that Laughable Loves is the book that he is “fondest of because it reflects the happiest time of my life.” Laughable Loves is important for another reason, for in these early stories one finds the wellsprings of Kundera’s later novels (which some convention-bound reviewers have complained are not novels at all but instead story collections). The form of the novel as Hermann Broch and Kafka practiced it and as the Soviet critic Mikhail Bakhtin came to define it provided Kundera with the scope and flexibility that his imagination required, but a scope and flexibility already manifest in miniature as they were in Laughable Loves. In them, the reader finds ample evidence of Kundera’s early interest in, and mastery of, the theme and variation approach, which would provide him with a potent means for countering what Terry Eagleton has called “the totalitarian drive of literary fiction.”
Laughable Loves is more than the title of three slender volumes published during the 1960’s and of the collection of eight of the ten original stories published in 1970 (seven in the French and English editions, 1970 and 1974 respectively). Laughable Loves refers as well to the theme on which each of the stories plays its variations—a theme that Kundera also treats in each of his six novels. Love figures prominently and ambiguously throughout Kundera’s fiction: partly as a release from everyday reality, partly as a way of achieving at least a momentary personal freedom, partly as a revelation of character, and partly as an epistemological delusion (in Immortality Kundera writes that love gives one “the illusion of knowing the other”). Love then, is not so much a state of being as it is the intersection of various social, sexual, political, and epistemological forces, a struggle against power that all too often—and perhaps all too predictably—turns into the exercise of power over another. In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, for example, “love is a constant interrogation,” and in La Valse aux adieux (1976; The Farewell Party, 1977), an unfaithful yet in his own way loving husband is “always suspecting his wife of suspecting him.” The relation between love and totalitarianism proves both close and comic, “laughable,” a word that here means more than simply “amusing.” Kundera conceives of laughter as the antidote to the seriousness that he believes characterizes the modern, journalistic age. As he explains in his introduction to Jacques and His Master, taking the world seriously means “believing what the world would have us believe.” Not surprisingly, given the complexity of his meditative style of fiction making, Kundera defines laughter in a twofold way: as an expression of the sheer joy of being and as a more or less existential negation of the world’s seriousness. Kundera as hedonist and kitsch destroyer approves of both and also understands that, taken to the extreme, each poses its own danger: the fanaticism of the totalitarian idyll often associated with a youthful lyrical (poetic) idealism and the absolute skepticism of the unbeliever.
“Nobody Will Laugh”
Both extremes manifest themselves in the opening story of Laughable Loves. “Nikdo se nebude smát” (“Nobody Will Laugh”) bears a striking resemblance to Kundera’s slightly later first novel. The story’s main character (and narrator), Klima, receives a pleading and obsequious letter from a stranger, Mr. Zaturetsky, asking him to read and recommend his enclosed essay for publication in the Visual Arts Journal, which, unbeknown to Zaturetsky, rejected the narrator’s “controversial” study which that very day appeared in a less orthodox but also less prestigious publication. Seeing that Zaturetsky’s essay is unoriginal to the point of being unintentionally plagiaristic but on the other hand unwilling to do the hatchet work of the very editor who rejected his essay, Klima decides to amuse himself by writing a long and cynically sympathetic letter in which he manages to make no final evaluation whatsoever....
(The entire section is 3577 words.)