Milan Kundera Essay - Kundera, Milan (Vol. 4)

Kundera, Milan (Vol. 4)

Kundera, Milan 1929?–

Kundera is a Czech novelist and short story writer whose work has been banned since 1967 in his own country, where he now lives without the right to teach or to travel abroad.

["Life Is Elsewhere"] concerns the efforts of a young poet, Jaromil, to discover his own identity and his role in the turbulent events of the 1948 communist seizure of power. The work, being built entirely around this egoistic, arrogant, yet strangely appealing youth—he is the only character in the book with a name—traces the hero's efforts to escape from his middle-class background, and especially his mother's influence, his attempts to develop first in the field of painting and then of lyrical poetry, and his humorous yet sad love affairs. This last element, so familiar to us from Kundera's previous works, assumes a new dimension: an innocent joke, a mere white lie leads directly to the heroine's arrest and imprisonment and the final disintegration of Jaromil as a moral person. Constantly identifying himself with the great poets of the past, Rimbaud, Shelley, Keats, Mayakovsky, in the end he becomes nothing more than a police informer.

The last chapters are packed with bitter irony and display the author's unique ability to make bathos just a shade more tragic than comic. Jaromil's search for a real life leads him to a banal and humiliating death, a death which no one troubles himself about, except his doting mother, from whom he has tried to escape ever since boyhood. Her proud declaration, "Everything he has done has been for the working class," is as misplaced on her bourgeois lips as is his act of informing in order to be morally arrivé and his girlfriend's act of lying in order to win his love.

Along with Pavel Kohout, Milan Kundera is perhaps the most important figure writing prose in Czechoslovakia today. However, unlike Kohout, he has taken an extremely apolitical stand. In "Life Is Elsewhere" there is only one small hint of the "Prague spring" and its aftermath—the mention of a young martyr (obviously Jan Palach). Many more words are devoted to the 1968 events in Paris. This is not perhaps all that surprising; at present for the intellectuals of Czechoslovakia, life must clearly be elsewhere.

Robert Porter, in Books Abroad, Vol. 48, No. 2, Spring, 1974, pp. 397-98.

Life Is Elsewhere … is an altogether extraordinary work, complex, chilling, and brilliantly executed….

In his savagely satiric narrative Kundera zeroes in on the romantic sensibility, which, as he defines it during the course of the novel, emerges as an attraction to abstract and absolute systems of faith that enable the believer to "transcend" the bewildering and exhausting exigencies of a fully selfconscious, mature, and moral life. [The] passionate desire [of Jaromil, the protagonist,] to see the world "transformed" is rooted in self-hatred; it is a violent impulse, and one that easily accustoms itself to the straightforward brutality of political tyranny. Kundera has himself witnessed dramatic historical demonstrations … and it is, perhaps, the severity of his experience that makes his voice as disciplined, powerful, and uncompromising as it is. The final wonder is that he has so masterfully succeeded in transforming political passions into a disinterested work of art. Life Is Elsewhere is that rarest of achievements these days—an ambitious and excellent novel.

Jane Larkin Crain, in Saturday Review/World (copyright © 1974 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), July 27, 1974, p. 25.

Kundera, who is a magnificent short-story writer and a reasonably good novelist (I am going on the evidence of "Life Is Elsewhere"; [Philip Roth, in his introduction to "Laughable Loves," expresses] a high opinion of "The Joke"), depends for his effects on the ridiculous strictures set up by a Socialist government. You have first to assume that the hacks in the Czech Government believe they have created a Socialist paradise; after that, everything they do is funny. A writer who keeps his sanity long enough to ridicule his oppressors, who has enough hope left to make this ridicule into satire, must be congratulated. And Kundera's humor is impossible elsewhere. One can't imagine his particular situations growing out of anything but a combined anger and fascination with the cut-price Stalinists who have the whip-hand in Prague, "that city," he says, "of defenestration …"….

"Life Is Elsewhere" is a small achievement next to "Laughable Loves," the stories. Roth finds them "Chekhovian." I think he's wrong, but this is a measure of his enthusiasm, not a critical judgment, and I would be very surprised if a better collection of stories appeared this year.

Paul Theroux, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 28, 1974, p. 7.

The stories in "Laughable Loves" are buoyantly energetic and virtuosic, a leap forward from the sturdy, rather morose realism of "The Joke." The politics here is sexual: male dominance and impotence, role-playing and fantasizing detonate with startling effect….

"Life Is Elsewhere" is a remarkable portrait of an artist as a young man. The brief life of the lyric poet Jaromil, dead of pneumonia before he is 20, is dominated by his Maman, who had first wanted to name him Apollo (meaning "fatherless"). Observing that lyric poets generally grow up in homes run by women, Kundera laces his story with mock-heroic parallels from the lives of Esenin and Mayakovsky, Rimbaud and Baudelaire, Hölderlin and Lermontov, Keats and Shelley….

Jaromil is a deluded and tragic-farcical figure, his mother a pathetic gorgon. Kundera's achievement is to engage our sympathy in their misadventures instead of inviting our contempt. "The genius of lyric poetry," he says, "is the genius of inexperience…. We can scoff at the poet's lack of maturity, but there is something amazing about him, too." Kundera's anatomization of the creative process is both tender and unsparing.

Walter Clemons, "Sexual Politics," in Newsweek (copyright Newsweek, Inc., 1974; reprinted by permission), July 29, 1974, p. 72.

Until now, Milan Kundera has been associated here solely with his sardonic but straightforward protest novel, The Joke, published in 1967 as part of the campaign against government repression which culminated in that brief bloom of freedom, the Prague Spring of 1968. The Joke dealt with the severe punishment meted out to a university student who playfully rewrote some Stalinist slogans for his politically humorless girl friend, but it had some desperately unfunny consequences for its author. As Philip Roth notes in his generous introduction to the American edition of Laughable Loves …, Kundera's volume of stories, he has been expelled from the writers' union and fired from his teaching job …; he is prohibited from traveling in the West; his books are barred from Czech libraries and bookstores; his plays may not be produced; and he is being financially victimized by a tax, aimed specifically at dissident writers, that confiscates more than 80 per cent of the considerable royalties his work earns outside of Czechoslovakia.

Yet a Western reader unfamiliar with The Joke and first encountering Kundera's quirky talent in his stories or the simultaneously published American edition of his novel Life Is Elsewhere … must feel only shock and perplexity at the political treatment he has received. The corrosive irony of Laughable Loves, for example, touches barely at all upon politics; it is directed almost entirely at the characters' sexual foibles. In fact, Kundera's essential attitude toward sex and women—part acid amusement, part macho contempt—is strikingly like that of his American admirer, Roth….

Occasionally the setting and mood of a story offer Kundera exactly the scope he requires for his comic scrutiny. But more often,… his psychological and dramatic insight is undeveloped, and a nattering repetitiousness reduces the whole project to tedium.

A somewhat similar failure is evident in Life Is Elsewhere…. On one level, this is a comic story about the delusions of a mediocre poet doomed from birth to be the consuming obsession of his stupidly self-pitying and resentful mother. Kundera's portrait of the monstrous child-eating stage Mom is superb, yet it is difficult to understand what he intends with the foolish and insipid poet-hero Jaromil. In episode after unoriginal episode, Kundera ridicules the spineless mama's boy as he tries, in childhood and adolescence, to lose his virginity. His awkward attempts, one need hardly add, are painstakingly documented.

On another level, however, Life Is Elsewhere describes the aspiring poet's effort to identify the lineaments of his literary persona…. In the midst of his protagonist's pilgrimage of immaturity, Kundera contemptuously intrudes his own ambiguous commentary on the weakness of lyrical poetry, "a realm in which any statement is immediately accorded veracity." But since he consistently emphasizes Jaromil's abysmal lack of talent, Kundera's fundamental meaning is indecipherable. Is the book an attack on the romantic poet's unspeakable ego, with its treacherous confusion of poetry and politics? One can only make a half-hearted guess, for in the end Life Is Elsewhere remains an unenticing mystery, overweeningly arch and coy, a long-winded and unamusing joke without discernible point or punchline.

Kundera reminds us, particularly in his stories, that sex under socialism can be as awkward, funny, delicious, and humiliating as its decadent-capitalist counterpart….

Pearl K. Bell, "Sex Under Socialism," in The New Leader, August 5, 1974, pp. 16-17.

It is clear now to thoughtful members of the literary apparat that a critic who praises an Iron Curtain writer does so at considerable risk to his reputation as a subtle fellow…. The message is stern: under an oppressive state, all artists may be persecuted, but not all those persecuted are artists.

Thus the case of the Czech comic novelist Milan Kundera comes up at a time when to be persecuted in Czechoslovakia is not a clear advantage….

There is a Czech tradition of satirizing mindless officialdom that goes back to Kafka's The Trial and Jaroslav Hasek's The Good Soldier Svejk. But this is not Kundera's main theme, and there is no reason to think that his work would be wholly different if his country's absentee landlords were still the Habsburgs, not the Soviets.

[Life Is Elsewhere] is a sly and merciless lampoon of revolutionary romanticism, and it deals with lyric poetry as a species of adolescent neurosis. The hero is an unpleasant young man named Jaromil, whose every childhood uncertainty has been marveled at by his crazed mother as evidence of an artistic soul. Out of resentment of her coarse husband, who hung his smelly socks on her beloved alabaster statuette of Apollo, this monstrous mother determined to make her infant son a poet.

Jaromil indeed becomes a poet…. The genius of lyric poetry, Kundera observes, "is the genius of inexperience…. We can scoff at the poet's lack of maturity, but there is something amazing about him too. His words sparkle with droplets that come from the heart…. These magic dewdrops need not be stimulated by real life events. On the contrary, we suspect that the poet sometimes squeezes his heart with the same detachment as a housewife squeezing a lemon over her salad."

In this way the romantic prose becomes reality, and a necessary part of this reality, Kundera cheerfully demonstrates, is that the poet be an utter ass. The novelist is not shy about invoking the names of such famous poetic asses (as he sees them) as Rimbaud, Keats, Shelley and Victor Hugo….

Kundera commits some of the funniest literary savaging since Evelyn Waugh polished off Dickens in A Handful of Dust. Running through it is some wonderfully comic sexual burlesque….

[An] amused look at eroticism is the business of the story collection Laughable Loves. The book is light, wry and wise….

Kundera's tone in these stories and the novel is that of a detached observer who lifts an eyebrow now and then in mock surprise at the world's absurdities. As Roth suggests in his introduction [to Laughable Loves], this ironic detachment is a natural refuge for a writer who must endure the repressive pieties of a police state. It is also a pose achieved at considerable cost. He cites a remark the author makes in one story, that "a man lives a sad life when he cannot take anything or anyone seriously." The reader is meant to see the lifted eyebrow and to smile. Then he is meant to see the sober truth of the statement behind its mockery. Then the mockery behind that sobriety and so on. What lies deeper, the mockery or the truth? It is a rare comic writer who can raise the question, and Kundera is one.

John Skow, "A Handful of Lust," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), August 5, 1974, pp. 82, 84.

The life and death of a lyric poet form the narrative of Life Is Elsewhere. But there is an argument about the role of poetry that is peculiar to Czechoslovakia and forms the real background to this terrific satire. Milan Kundera, who made his own transition from poetry to novel-writing, is one of the deadliest exponents of the argument that there have been too many poets, too few novelists: too much romantic narcissism and too little sober illustration of what is within the capacity of the human animal and what is not. An editor in Life Is Elsewhere suggests, in exasperation, that Czechoslovakia should export its surplus poets: "They could give a valuable boost to developing countries. In return for our poets, we'll get the bananas or electronic instruments our economy needs."…

It is a subtle, highly constructed satire. It is also heavy with literary reference: Kundera evokes Keats…. Scenes from the lives of Shelley, Rimbaud, and Nerval are briefly switched on like amplifiers. There is a little too much of this showmanship: the novel, which seems to me even better than the famous Joke, does not need these allusions.

Neal Ascherson, "People in a Trap," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1974 by NYREV, Inc.), August 8, 1974, pp. 14-15.

It takes a writer of Milan Kundera's caliber and integrity to show that the relationship between art and politics is far more intricate than dogmatic party hacks would make one believe.

Laughable Loves, a group of delicate studies of the absurd erotic games people play, was deemed publishable in Kundera's native Czechoslovakia, while Life Is Elsewhere, a novel depicting a private tragedy against a broad historical-political background, was not, which only goes to show that fiction dealing with a highly subjective, atypical, even bizarre reality is still considered less dangerous in an authoritarian society than the wrong kind of political novel. Of course even the stories contained in Laughable Loves seem apolitical only on the surface. In many of them, sexual experimentations and strategies become metaphors for personal and political freedom. For example in … "The Golden Apple of Eternal Desire," even the protagonist's seemingly harmless hobby of keeping a file on candidates for future amorous adventures—he carefully "registers" promising "contacts" in his notebook—appears to reflect the political climate of a country whose government for years kept confidential files on just about everyone, and where surveillance was a fact of daily life.

The ambiguity of individual identity is a major theme in these stories. The players of amorous games slip into roles with great ease; one Pirandellian disguise follows another, and we are again subtly reminded that a society that has produced millions of "instant" Communists actually encourages pretense and hypocrisy….

Politics—sexual politics, to be precise—becomes [a] more conspicuous feature of Kundera's novel, Life Is Elsewhere, although it would be an oversimplification to label the work a political novel. (It could just as easily be called a novel of education or an artist novel.)… Fortunately Kundera resists the temptation of fashioning a glib satire out of his story. For one thing, [its] theme of "momism," not an unfamiliar one to American readers, is treated with finesse and humor. Kundera has considerable compassion for "Maman" and he obviously couldn't care less about Freud….

Kundera is brutal in exposing Jaromil's mediocrity and crass opportunism, but he also has his anti-hero express some rather profound ideas about revolution and revolutionary art. With a tenderness that mocks his own irony, Kundera suggests that propaganda literature can also be deeply felt, and that the Stalinist period in Czechoslovakia "was not only a terrible epoch, but a lyrical one as well: It was ruled by the hangman, but by the poet too."…

Kundera's fiction does not always make for absorbing reading; the plot meanders, many characters don't come alive, the mock-serious, fussily bureaucratic tone becomes tiresome. But Kundera insists on this style, on his dizzying juxtapositions and digressions. Like some of the great Czech filmmakers who emerged in the '60s, he is uncompromising in his adherence to a highly personal artistic vision….

As we said, these two works, though intensely political, also transcend politics, just as Kundera's previous novel, The Joke, was much more than what its American publisher claimed it to be: an exposé of "the brutal regime in Czechoslovakia today." Nevertheless, in reading Kundera's fiction an understanding of time and place is crucial. "How sweet it would be to forget History," says the author wistfully in Life Is Elsewhere. He can't, and that in a way is what these two books are about.

Ivan Sanders, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), September 7, 1974, pp. 23-4.