Milan Kundera World Literature Analysis
“I tried a lot of things” before turning to fiction, Kundera has said. “[C]inema, painting, music, poetry, criticism, theory, aesthetics. But none of it was serious; I think of all that now as a kind of prehistory.” Intellectually and artistically, he has repeatedly emphasized, “I am attached to nothing apart from the European novel, that unrecognized inheritance that comes to us from Cervantes.” As Kundera sees it, that inheritance is a record of both an extraordinary sequence of discoveries and a series of roads not taken. With English novelist Samuel Richardson, he argues, the novel discovered psychological realism, and, ever since, most novels have followed the nearly inviolable standards of that tradition. In the second half of the twentieth century, Kundera notes, it has often been argued that the novel is dead. He disagrees, insisting instead that, since Richardson, the novel has ignored many of its possibilities. One of the most important of those unexplored possibilities, he argues, is the one suggested by Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent. (1759-1767) and Denis Diderot’s Jacques le fataliste et son maître (1796; Jacques the Fatalist and His Master, 1797): the idea of the novel as a game rather than a representation of reality.
After Sterne and Diderot, Kundera owes his aesthetic of the novel to the examples of central European novelists and artists of the past century—especially to Hermann Broch and to the Czech composer Leo Janáek. He shares Broch’s view that every serious novel must discover something that the novel—and no other form—can discover. He has also experimented with several of the formal ideas contained in his favorite Broch novel, Die Schlafwandler (1931-1932; The Sleepwalkers, 1932): The novel’s traditional unity of action can be replaced by a unity of theme; the musical technique known as polyphony—the simultaneous presentation of two or more voices or melodic lines that are both bound together and independent—can be adapted to enrich the form of the novel; such novelistic polyphony can allow the author to combine radically different nonnovelistic genres within the text. From Janáek, his favorite composer, Kundera learned to upset technical conventions through ellipsis: to replace traditional transitions with harsh, abrupt juxtapositions, to replace repetition with variations, to eliminate the superfluous.
For Kundera, then, “a novel is a long piece of synthetic prose based on play with invented characters. These are the only limits.” By “synthetic,” he told Philip Roth, he means the novelist’s desire to grasp his subject from all sides and in the fullest possible completeness. Ironic essay, novelistic narrative, autobiographical fragment, historic fact, flight of fantasy: The synthetic power of the novel is capable of combining everything into a unified whole like the voices of polyphonic music. The unity of the book need not stem from the plot, but can be provided by the theme.
A novel, he believes, should search for and pose questions. The questions that his own works pose are existential: Who am I? What is a self? To what extent do I define my self, and to what extent is it defined by others? Do my choices define me, or does chance? What does life, living, being a human being, really mean? The fact that Kundera can explore such weighty questions in novels that are also witty and entertaining is an essential aspect of his art and his appeal.
In each of his novels, from The Joke to Ignorance, his exploration of these existential questions is structured around a series of key words (or themes) that appear and reappear from book to book. In his novel Immortality, he wrote that he would have called the book The Unbearable Lightness of Being if he had not already used the title. All of his novels, he told an interviewer, might have been called The Joke or Laughable Loves. Moreover, each is a book of laughter and forgetting.
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
First published: Le Livre du rire et de l’oubli, 1979 (English translation, 1980; in Czech as Kniha smíchu a zapomnní, 1981)
Type of work: Novel
A novel in the form of variations on the themes of laughter and forgetting, this work examines both the lives of a series of characters in Prague and Paris and the implications of history and memory, for individuals and nations.
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, like all of Kundera’s Czech novels except The Farewell Party, is divided into seven parts. Several of the parts have the same titles—two are entitled “Lost Letters,” two are entitled “Angels”—to underline the idea that the novel is a series of variations on a set of themes. Two parts focus on a young woman named Tamina, but each of the other five focuses on unrelated characters who appear only in that part. Each of the seven parts combines several genres, such as traditional novelistic narrative, autobiography, philosophical essay, dream, political commentary, linguistic analysis, realistic description, and fantasy. The parts are not linked by a single plot, but by their direct or indirect relationship to Kundera’s exploration of the meanings that he attaches to words such as “laughter,” “forgetting,” “angels,” the “circle,” “litost,” and “border”; by his reflections on Czech history; and by his voice and presence as the authorial “I.”
They are also connected—to one another, and to all of Kundera’s other fiction—by their exploration of the interrelationship of public and private life. In Kundera’s work, the threat that the border between public and private life will disappear—the fear that it already has—is the nightmare that lies behind all the verbal and sexual high jinks. Most often, this threat is expressed as an invasion of private life by public life, seen as a distortion of the sexual by the political. In Kundera, sexual relations are an arena where the politically powerless exercise power, where the oppressed oppress, where public tragedy begets private comedy. Yet they are also the sphere where character reveals itself most fully. One of the paradoxes at the heart of his novels is that, in their most intimate moments, his characters are both most themselves and most the product of the external forces acting upon them.
The first part of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting perfectly demonstrates Kundera’s novelistic method. Each of its sections presents private and public variations on the theme of forgetting. The love story of Mirek...
(The entire section is 2752 words.)