The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is Milan Kundera’s fourth novel, following The Joke (English translation, 1969), Life Is Elsewhere (1974) and The Farewell Party (1976). In addition to the novels, a volume of short stories has been translated: Laughable Loves (1974). That is a considerable body of work, but hardly representative of Kundera’s range. He has written three books of poems, two plays, and several volumes of short stories. He has written a study of the Czech novelist Vladislav Vancura (The Art of the Novel) and, more recently, a study of Franz Kafka. Before his expulsion after the Russian invasion in 1968, he was a professor of film and literature at the Prague Film School; he has both written and directed films. The son of a celebrated pianist, he has also published music criticism. Since 1975, he and his wife have lived as émigrés in France: his books are not published in his native country, and his Czech citizenship was revoked when Le livre du rire et de l’oubli appeared in France in 1979.
Kundera is a restless artist who shifts from genre to genre, attracted by the possibilities of various forms yet impatient with any kind of decorum. Indeed, the novel—which has attracted much of his attention in recent years—appeals to him precisely because he sees it as a form which is always violating the decorum of genre. His interests are philosophical, but—possessed by demons of mockery and eroticism—he writes fiction instead of pensées. Extraordinarily productive and energetic, a man of deep culture, conversant as a professional with at least three distinct arts, he specializes in boredom, evoking it as a pervasive atmosphere again and again, in the manner of other writers obsessed with the climate of fear. An unwilling émigré, he is not essentially a political writer. His intelligence is perverse; there is an unpleasant streak which most reviewers of his books have passed over in silence.
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is Kundera’s best and most ambitious novel to date, and accordingly has received far more attention than any of his earlier books. The New York Times Book Review featured only one work of fiction in its gala Christmas Book issue (November 30, 1980): The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. The review—a fine one by John Updike—appeared next to an interview with Kundera conducted by his friend, Philip Roth: review and interview were jointly headed “The Most Original Book of the Season.”
“Original” might arouse suspicion: so often, “originality” is invoked to push an unreadable hodgepodge. Kundera’s novel earns its praise, however, and is worth the effort required of the reader to “translate” it. For the first step of the translation—from Czech to a readable English—American readers owe their gratitude to Michael Henry Heim, but every reader must make a second “translation” on his own: Kundera’s “Czech-ness” and his complex sensibility demand it. John Updike sensed this demand, commenting that Kundera’s book is “brilliant and original, written with a purity and wit that invite us directly in; it is also strange, with a strangeness that locks us out.” Perhaps Updike overstates the case, but the resistant strangeness of Kundera’s novel should be acknowledged at the outset, even as we begin “translating.”
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is an odd, arresting, and nuanced title. There is an immediate biblical resonance—“The Book of Judges,” “The First Book of Chronicles,” “The Book of Job”—reinforced by the Table of Contents, in which two of the novel’s seven sections are titled “The Angels.” The title also suggests a miscellany, like The Book of Comfort and Joy (a collection...
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