(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Life Is Elsewhere narrates the fictional biography of Jaromil, showing the stages of his development and along the way parodying many of the cliches surrounding the romantic figure of the poet (documented by intermittent references to numerous actual poets). For example, Jaromil could have been conceived on a park bench, on a soiled bed, or in a romantic forest near Prague. His mother, Maman, who plays an overwhelming role in molding the young poet, decides that it was in the romantic forest. Other circumstances of Jaromil’s premarital conception, however, are not so auspicious. His father, a poor young engineer, wants Maman to abort the fetus, but Maman’s well-to-do parents intervene and arrange the couple’s marriage; afterward they move to the top floor of her parents’ home, where Jaromil is born.

Relations between the couple never return to their original warm temperature, although they have sex and make a home together. Resentful of her husband, Maman directs all of her affection to little Jaromil, watching carefully over his eating and bowel movements and recording all of his first sayings (editing them for better effect). When he uses a rhyme, she is convinced that her child is a budding poet, and her subsequent efforts go into developing his artistic talents. Little Jaromil thus becomes convinced from an early age that he is a special person with special gifts.

When he begins school, his schoolmates are not as easily convinced; in fact, they heartily detest him. The perfect student, Jaromil has only one school friend, the janitor’s son, another pariah. Otherwise Jaromil is something of a loner, staying at home and daydreaming about his alter ego,Xavier (to whose heroic and romantic exploits an entire section of the novel is devoted). These experiences merely reinforce his artistic inclinations, which are further developed when Maman signs him up for lessons with an artist. Maman receives her own lessons free when she has an affair with the artist, but she soon breaks it off, fearful of her deepening emotional commitment. Her husband’s arrest by the Nazis (World War II is raging, and Czechoslovakia is under German occupation) reconfirms her loyalty to him, and when he dies in a concentration camp she virtually enshrines his memory. Later, after Maman learns that the Nazis arrested him because of his long-standing affair with a young Jewish woman, the shrine comes down.

In high school Jaromil finally comes into his own. He learns that some girls—unfortunately, generally the frumpier...

(The entire section is 1043 words.)