"A magic curtain, woven of legends, hung before the world," writes Milan Kundera in The Curtain, his fascinating new book on the art of the novel. "Cervantes. Translating Milan Kundera. Read more · Milan Kundera (Bloom's Modern Critical Views) The Art of Memory in Exile: Vladimir Nabokov & Milan Kundera. INTRODUCTION In his Jerusalem Address (), meditating on the European tradition of the novel, Milan Kundera asks: But what is that wisdom, what is the.
|Language:||English, Spanish, Arabic|
|ePub File Size:||17.54 MB|
|PDF File Size:||20.13 MB|
|Distribution:||Free* [*Regsitration Required]|
"The Unbearable Lightness Of Being" By Milan Kundera 2. PART ONE. Lightness and Weight. The idea of eternal return is a mysterious one, and Nietzsche has. identity Books by Milan Kundera The Joke Laughable Loves Life Is Elsewhere Farewell Waltz (EARLIER TRANSLATION: The Farewell Party) The Book. Milan Kundera - Slowness (PDF) - Free ebook download as PDF File .pdf), Text File .txt) or read book online for free.
That morning, in the bathroom, he had recovered the being he'd lost during the night, and now, in the late afternoon, she was changing again before his eyes. Cyrano cannot live without jealousy. Is that the last nag under wb. I said it to be provocative, but I really thought it. Nor is Juli e vexed or frustrated. It was a mountain hotel, he was a ski instructor at the time, and he was invited, by chance and for that one evening, to join the participants of a conference that ended each evening with a little cocktail party.
When I'm at the office, I wear the serious face. I get the resumes of people looking for work at our place. It's up to me to recommend them or reject them. Some of them, in their letters, express themselves in this perfectly up-to-date lingo, with all the cliches, with the jargon, with all the required optimism. And then there are the ones who, in other times, would certainly be going into philosophy, or art history, or teaching French literature, but these days, for want of anything better, almost out of despair, they're looking for work at our place.
I know that in their hearts they feel contempt for the j ob they're seeking and that therefore they are my kinfolk.
And I have to decide. I behave half as traitor to my company, half as traitor to myself. I'm a double traitor. And that state of double treason I consider not a defeat but a triumph.
Because who knows how long I'll still be able to hold on to my two faces? The day will come when I'll have only one face.
The worse of the two, of course. The serious one. The acquiescent one. Will you still love me then? She smiles and raises her wine glass: I don't know why, since I was very young I've always been fascinated by poems about death.
I've learned lots and lots of them by heart. I can recite some, you want me to? You can use them. For instance, these lines from Baudelaire, you must know them: Let's weigh anchor! This land bores us, 0 Death! Let's cast off! Your old Trotskyite loves poetry! And what better consolation for a dying person than to say to himself: For your ads, you'd only have to change them a bit: You're getting bored with this land.
Lucien Duval, the old captain, will help you weigh anchor. They're not the ones who'll be calling for Lucien Duval's services. And the living people who are burying their dead want to enjoy life, not celebrate death.
Keep this in mind: The word "adventure'! The word "future'! And the word "hope'! By the way, do you know the code name for the atomic bomb they dropped on Hiroshima?
That's a genius, the fellow who invented that code! They couldn't have dreamed up a better one. Little boy, kid, tyke, tot-there's no word that's more tender, more touching, more loaded with future. And thus was the postwar era inaugurated. Later, during the summer vacation, her sister-in-law told her: You should have another child. That's the only way you'll forget. A shadow rapidly fading into its successor. But she did not wish to forget her child. Against the future she was guarding a past, the neglected and disdained past that was the poor little dead child.
A week later, her husband told her: We should have another child right away. Then you'll forget. That was the moment she decided to leave him. It was clear to her that her husband, a fairly passive man, was speaking not for himself but for the more general interests of the family group dominated by his sister. At the time, the woman was living with her third husband and the two children born of her previous marriages; she had managed to stay on good terms with her former husbands and to regroup them around her, along with the families of her brothers and her cousins.
Their huge gatherings took place in an enormous country house during school vacations; she tried to bring Chantal into the tribe so that bit by bit, imperceptibly, she would become part of it. And there, in a little bedroom, she refused to make love with him. Every one of his erotic invitations reminded her of the family campaign for another pregnancy, and the idea of making love with him became grotesque.
They all assumed rights of scrutiny over her belly. Even the little nephews were enlisted as mercenaries in the war. One of them asked her: Irritated, she went on: Before her son was born, she had taught high school.
She felt guilty at betraying her own inclinations for the sake of money, but this was the only way to obtain her independence. To obtain it, nevertheless, money wasn't enough.
She also needed a man, a man who would be the living example of a different life, because though she yearned desperately to escape her earlier life, she could not Imagme another.
She was to wait a few years before meeting Jean-Marc.
Two weeks after that, she asked her astonished husband for a divorce. He runs after her and shouts her name. Yet it is not someone different, it is Chantal, his Chantal, he has no doubt of that, but his Chantal with a stranger's face, and this is horrifying, this is unbearably horrifying. He grasps her, holds her to his body, and, sobbing, he chants: The dream woke him.
Chantal was no longer in bed, he heard the morning sounds from the bathroom. Still in the grip of the dream, he felt an urgent need to see her. He rose and went toward the half-open door of the bathroom. There he stopped, and like a voyeur avid to steal a glimpse of some intimate scene, he watched her: At about six he came into the lobby, turned down the corridor, and stopped at her door.
It was ajar, as the bathroom door had been in the morning. Chantal was in her office with two women, her colleagues. That morning, in the bathroom, he had recovered the being he'd lost during the night, and now, in the late afternoon, she was changing again before his eyes.
He went in. She smiled at him. But the smile was fixed, and Chantal almost rigid. In France, over the past twenty years, kissing on both cheeks has become an almost obligatory convention and, for that reason, painful for people who love each other.
The gesture was artificial, and it left them with a false taste. They went out, and only after a while did he see her again as the Chantal he had known.
It is always that way: At their first encounter, in the mountains, he had had the luck to get away alone with her almost immediately. To these questions he has no answer. That phrase was unlike her. And her face, looking harsh, looking old, was unlike her too. His first reaction was jealousy: But less than an hour later, he came around to thinking: Wouldn't it be ridiculous to take offense at that? Still, without taking offense, he did not agree.
Because on the day they first met he had already noted traces of slight aging on her face she is older than he by four years. Her beauty, which struck him at the time, did not make her look younger than her age; he might sooner have said that her age made her beauty more eloquent. Chantal's phrase echoed in his head and he imagined the story of her body: However much he may tell her he loves her and thinks her beautiful, his loving gaze could never console her. Because the gaze of love is the gaze that isolates.
Jean-Marc thought about the loving solitude of two old persons become invisible to other people: No, what she needs is not a loving gaze but a flood of alien, crude, lustful looks settling on her with no good will, no discrimination, no tenderness or politeness-settling on her fatefully, inescapably. Those are the looks that sustain her within human society. The gaze of love rips her out of it.
With some remorse he recalled the dizzyingly headlong beginnings of their love. Turn to look at her? No need. She was instantly with him, in front of him, beside him. Unjustifiable inequality, iniquitous inequality. She was weaker because she was older.
But she was not by nature a woman born to run through lovers, and this vague, lyrical dream quickly fell dormant in her marriage, which started off calm and happy. And in this bath of white she was struck by a feeling of unbearable nostalgia for Jean-Marc.
How could she feel nostalgia when he was right in front of her? How can you suffer from the absence of a person who is present? Jean-Marc knew how to answer that: During that moment of strange nostalgia at the seaside, she suddenly thought of her dead child, and a wave of happiness flooded over her. Soon she would be frightened by this feeling.
But no one can do a thing about feelings, they exist and there's no way to censor them. The memory of her dead son filled her with happiness and she could only ask herself what that meant. The answer was clear: She was happy that her son was dead. Seated across from Jean-Marc, she wished she could say this aloud but did not dare. She was not confident of his reaction, she feared he would see her as a monster.
She relished the utter absence of adventures. She no longer wanted to embrace the world.
She no longer wanted the world. That same evening, just before falling asleep Jean-Marc was sleeping already , again she remembered her dead child and the memory was again accompanied by that scandalous wave of happiness. Someone must have brought it personally. She was a little rushed, so she put it unopened into her purse and hurried toward the bus. Once she was seated, she opened the envelope; the letter contained only one sentence: Then she told herself that after all it was unimportant.
What woman hasn't gotten such a message sometime or other? She reread the letter and realized that the woman seated beside her could read it too. She put it back into her purse and glanced around her. Usually, on the bus, she would ignore everyone else. This time, though, because of that letter, she believed herself watched, and she watched too. Was there always someone staring at her, the way the black man was today? As if he knew what she had just read, he smiled at her.
What if he were the one who wrote the message? She quickly rejected that idea as too absurd and rose to get off at the next stop. She would have to slip past the black man, who was blocking the way to the exit, and that made her uncomfortable.
She left the bus and said to herself: She kept hearing that mocking laughter all day long, like a bad omen. She looked at the letter two or three times again in her office, and back at home later, she considered what to do about it. Keep it? What for? Show it to Jean-Marc?
That would embarrass her, as if she'd meant to boast! Well then, destroy it? Of course. She went into the bathroom, and leaning over the toilet, she looked at the liquid surface; she tore the envelope into several bits, threw them in, flushed, but the letter she refolded and carried into her bedroom. She opened the wardrobe and put the letter underneath her brassieres. As she did this, she heard the black man's mocking laughter again and thought that she was just like every other woman; her brassieres suddenly looked vulgar and idiotically feminine.
She took Jean-Marc by the arm and drew him into the living room where she sat down facing him. But that's not the point.
I told you about that strange feeling of joy I had when I decided, back then, not to see him anymore. I was cold as an ice cube and that pleased me. Well, his death hasn't changed that feeling at all. You really do frighten me. Then, after swallowing a mouthful: He reminded me what I must have said when I was sixteen. When he did that, I understood the sole meaning of friendship as it's practiced today. Friendship is indispensable to man for the proper function of his memory. They are our mirror; our memory; we ask nothing of them but that they polish the mirror from time to time so we can look at ourselves in it.
But I don't care a damn about what I did in high school! What I've always wanted, since my early adolescence, maybe even since childhood, was something else entirely: I liked to say: I said it to be provocative, but I really thought it. Today I know that maxim is obsolete. But for us it isn't anymore. But that doesn't affect their friendship. They still go on helping one another, secretly, cunningly, without giving a damn for the truths of their respective camps.
They put their friendship above the truth, or the cause, or orders from superiors, above the king, above the queen, above everything. Or is the disappearance of friendship a more recent phenomenon? Friendship isn't a problem for women. Friendship is a problem for men. It's their romanticism. Not ours. Certainly as an alliance against adversity, an alliance without which man would be helpless before his enemies. Maybe there's no longer a vital need for such an alliance.
Bureaucracies, laws. What can a friend do for you when they decide to build an airport outside your windows, or when they fire you? Friendship can no longer be proved by some exploit. The occasion no longer lends itself to searching out your wounded friend on the battlefield or unsheathing your saber to defend him against bandits.
When the other people jumped on me, he kept quiet. But I have to be fair: Someone told me he even boasted of not knuckling under to the prevailing psychosis about me and of not having said anything that could hurt me. I was wrong to hope for more from him than neutrality. If he had put himself on the line to defend me in that bitter. How could I demand that of him? Especially since he was my friend! That would have been extremely unfriencllike of me!
To put it another way: Because friendship emptied of its traditional content is transformed these clays into a contract of mutual consideration, in short, a contract of politeness. Well, it's impolite to ask a friend for something that could be embarrassing or unpleasant for him.
All the more reason why you should say it without bitterness. Without irony. That's how things are. That second category, discreet and tactful, those are your friends. Listen, Jean-Marc, I've known that forever. A hand is caressing it tenderly, enjoying the skin of this naked, compliant body. Then the camera pulls back and we see the body entire, lying on a small bed: In the next sequence she lifts him up and her parted lips kiss the lax, wet, wide-open mouth of the nursling.
At that instant the camera draws in, and the same kiss, by itself, in close-up, suddenly becomes a sensual love kiss. There Leroy stopped the film: Like the candidates for president in an American election campaign.
We set a product within the magic circle of a few images likely to attract a majority of buyers. In the search for those images, we tend to overvalue sexuality. I want to alert you. Only a very small minority really enjoys sex.
They had long been aware that what flattered their boss was not their quick acquiescence but their astonishment. For that reason, a refined lady, with many rings on her aged fingers, dared to contradict him: Even if the person doesn't know your name, even if he's asking his questions over the phone and doesn't see you, you' re going to lie: When it comes to commerce, the erotic is a touchy issue, because while everyone may covet the erotic life, everyone also hates it, as the source of their troubles, their frustrations, their yearnings, their complexes, their sufferings.
She herself is amazed: Yes, they have. It was back when they still didn't know each other by name. She opened her mouth and pressed her tongue into Jean-Marc's mouth, eager to lick whatever she would find inside. Neither person had the courage to say outright and aloud, "I want to make love with you, right now, without delay," so they let their salivas speak for them.
Again Leroy stopped the spot: That's what interests us in this sequence: Incidentally, somebody's filmed the life of a fetus inside a mama-to-be. The fetus's self-fellation will move every grandmother in the world, even the sourest ones, even the most prudish. Because the baby is the strongest , the broadest, the most reliable common denominator of all majorities. She recalled hearing that in China and Japan the erotic culture has no open-mouth kiss. The screening done, Leroy wound up: The elevator was out of order.
The hammers finally fell silent, the heat began to subside, and she went in. She felt hunted, unable to hide anywhere. W ho in his acrobatic position performed a kind of masturbation so perfect that no adult could match it. Our self doesn't yet exist, but our lust is already there.
And, imagine, all my colleagues found this idea touching! They had tears in their eyes over the masturbating fetus! Ah, Jean-Marc, revulsion.
Then she went on: They film you. Your poor little fetus-masturbation. You"' ll never escape them while you're living, everybody knows that. But you don't even escape them before you're born. Just as you won't escape them after you die. I remember something I read in the papers once: After he died, to thwart his claim to nobility, they dug up the long-buried remains of a peasant woman who they said was his mother.
They dissected her bones. I'd like to know what lofty cause gave them the right to dig her up, the poor woman! And do you know the story about Haydn's head?
And the Einstein story? They followed his orders, but his disciple, ever loyal and devoted, refused to live without the master's gaze on him. Before the cremation, he took the eyes out of the cadaver and put them in a bottle of alcohol to keep them watching him until the moment he should die himself.
It's the only absolute death. And I don't want any other. Jean-Marc, I want an absolute death. Moved, this time, not by what she had just said but by Jean-Marc's voice, heavy with concern for her.
When she is there, she always talks with him, and today, as if she needed to explain or excuse herself, she told him, "Darling, my darling, don't think I don't love you or that I didn't love you, but it's precisely because I loved you that I couldn't have become what I am today if you were still here. It's impossible to have a child and despise the world as it is, because that's the world we've put the child into. The child makes us care about the world, think about its future, willingly join in its racket and its turmoils, take its incurable stupidity seriously.
By your death you deprived me of the pleasure of being with you, but at the same time you set me free. Free in my confrontation with the world I don't like. And the reason I can allow myself to dislike it is that you're no longer here.
My dark thoughts can't bring any curse down on you. I want to tell you now, all these years after you left me, that I've come to understand your death as a gift and that I've finally accepted that dreadful gift.
The letter hadn't the earlier laconic lightness. It read like a lengthy legal deposition. I usually follow you on your trip to the bus stop, but this time you walked the opposite way. You were carrying a valise and you went into a dry cleaner's. The woman there apparently knows you and perhaps likes you. I watched her from outside: Then you left, with your valise full.
Full of your sweaters, or of tablecloths, or bed linens? They are beautiful. Their red becomes you. It lights you up. That intrigues her. The first one had no signature, and she could think that its anonymity was, so to speak, sincere.
Some mlimown person saluting her and then immediately vanishing. But a signatme, even abbreviated, indicates an intention to make oneself known, step by step, slowly but inevitably. Charles-David Barberousse. She ponders the text: But she observes the world around her with very little interest, and did even less that day, since Jean-Marc was with her. And besides, it was he and not she who had made the dry-cleaning woman laugh and who was carrying the valise.
She reads those words again: The thing "added on" to her life-isn't that Jean-Marc himself? Was her correspondent trying, in an oblique way, to attack her beloved? Like the first time, she did not know what to do with the letter, and the ballet of hesitation played itself out again in all its phases: Leaning into the lingerie shelves, she heard the door open. She quickly closed the wardrobe and turned around: He moves slowly toward her and looks at her as never before, his gaze unpleasantly focused, and when he is very close he takes her by the elbows, and holding her a step or so in front of him, he goes on looking at her.
She is flustered by this, unable to say a thing. Like a windshield washed by a wiper. And nowadays you can even set the tempo of the windshield wiper in such a way that the movements are separated by a ten-second pause, which is, roughly, an eyelid's rhythm. Jean-Marc watches the eyes of people he talks to and tries to observe the action of the eyelid; he finds that it is not easy. We are not accustomed to be aware of the eyelid.
He thinks: I delete it from the eyes in front of me. And he goes on thinking: But what a sorry fate, to be the soul of a body cobbled together so offhandedly, whose eye cannot do its looking without being washed every ten, twenty seconds! How are we to believe that the person we see before us is a free, independent being, his own master? To be able to believe that, we've had to forget about the perpetual blinking of the eyelid. We've had to forget the putterer's workshop we come from.
We've had to submit to a contract to forget. It's God Himself who imposed the contract on us. This moment of sudden adolescent insight must have been a shock. It was a shock destined to be forgotten. And, indeed, he would have forgotten it for good if F. Deep in thought, he returned to the apartment and opened the door to Chantal's room.
She was putting something away in her wardrobe, and Jean-Marc wanted to see her eyelid wipe her eye, her eye that to him is the window to an ineffable soul. The feeling was sudden as a lightning flash, and he clutched Chantal to him. He told her: And he told her about the forgotten memory his unloved friend had called up. It all fits. Fully aware that life is too short for the choice to be anything but irreparable, he had been distressed to discover that he felt no spontaneous attraction to any occupation.
When he wondered: When finally he decided on medicine, he was responding not to some secret predilection but rather to an altruistic idealism: The letdown was not long in coming, when in the course of the second year he had to do his stint in the dissection room: When he told F.
When he decided to study medicine, he must have been nineteen; by then, having already signed on to the contract to forget, he no longer remembered what he had said to F. Too bad for him. The memory might have alerted him. It might have helped him see that his choice of medicine was wholly theoretical, made without the slightest self-knowledge. Thus he studied medicine for three years before giving up with a sense of shipwreck.
What to choose after those lost years? What to attach to, if his inner self should keep as silent as it had before? At the corner of their street is a bistro: At the counter she saw a young man who looked away when she entered.
He was a regular customer, whom she knew by sight. She even remembered that in the past their eyes had often met and that later on he pretended not to see her. Another day, she pointed him out to the woman from next door.
Do you know that? Du Barreau, that would fit. Cyrille du Barreau. Or better: Family comically proud of its particle. Soon after, she is walking in the street with Jean-Marc, and du Barreau comes toward them.
She has the red beads around her neck. They were a gift from Jean-Marc, but considering them too showy, she wore them only rarely. He must think and with good reason, in fact!
Briefly he looks at her, she looks at him too, and thinking of the beads, she flushes. She flushes down to her breasts, and she is sure he must have noticed. How come? But the attention she's granting him is no more than trivial curiosity! As an adult, she forgot about flushing.
Then the gusts of heat heralded the end of that journey, and once again her body shamed her. With her sense of shame reawakened, she relearned to flush. They were intelligent, decent, with nothing ridiculous about them, nothing importunate. Her correspondent wanted nothing, asked nothing, insisted on nothing. He was wise enough or canny enough to leave undescribed his own personality, his life, his feelings, his desires. He was a spy; he wrote only about her.
And if seduction was at all present in them, it was conceived as a long-term project. You were like flames that must dance and leap to exist at all. More long-limbed than ever, you were striding along surrounded by bright, bacchic, drunken, wild flames. Thinking of you, I fling a mantle stitched of flame over your naked body. I swathe your white body in a cardinal's crimson mantle.
She was at home, looking at herself in the mirror. She gazed at herself from every angle, slowly lifted the hem of the gown and felt she had never been so long of limb, never had skin so white. Jean-Marc arrived. Letting himself be seduced by the game, he pursued her throughout the apartment. Now they lie breathing side by side, and the image of her spy arouses her; in Jean-Marc's ear she whispers about slipping the crimson mantle over her naked body and walking like a gorgeous cardinal through a crowded church.
Then all grows calm; before her eyes she sees only her red gown, rumpled by their bodies, at a corner of the bed.
Before her half-closed eyes, that red patch turns into a rose garden, and she smells the faint fragrance nearly forgotten, the fragrance of the rose yearning to embrace all the men in the world.
She felt happy and gay, and out of nowhere she said to Jean-Marc, who was about to leave: Is he still alive? Just like that. She went into the bathroom, then over to her wardrobe, with the idea of making herself very beautiful. She looked at the shelves and something caught her attention. On the lingerie shelf, on top of a pile, her shawl lay neatly folded, whereas she recalled having tossed it in there carelessly.
Did someone tidy up her things? The cleaning woman comes once a week and never touches her shelves. She marveled at her talent for observation and told herself she owed it to the training she got years back during her stays at the country house. Delighted at the thought that those days were over, she checked herself with satisfaction in a mirror and left the apartment.
Downstairs, she opened the mailbox, where a new letter awaited her. She put it into her bag and considered where she would go to read it. She found a small park and sat down beneath the enormous autumnal canopy of a yellowing lime tree set aglow by the sun. You have reawakened the obsession of my early youth: I would imagine life before me like a tree. I used to call it the tree of possibilities. We see life that way for only a brief time.
You have made me remember that tree, and in return, I want to pass you its image, have you hear its enthralling murmur. As if it were the same tree as the one the letter described. The metaphoric tree fused in her mind with her own old metaphor of the rose. She had to go home. In farewell she lifted her eyes again to the lime tree and went away. Her heart starts to pound. The whole thing is so devilishly neat! How could he have known that he would run into her just after she read his letter?
On edge, as if she were walking naked under a red mantle, she draws closer to him, to the spy of her intimate life. She is only a few steps away and awaits the moment when he will address her. What will she do?
She never wanted this encounter! But she cannot run off like a fearful little girl. Her steps grow slow, she tries not to look at him good Lord, she really is behaving like a little girl, does that mean she has got so old?
She is already far past him, continuing her progress toward her house. Did du Barreau not dare? Or did he restrain himself? But no, no. At the next table, a couple was plunged in a bottomless silence. Managing silence under the eyes of other people is not easy. Where should the two of them turn their gaze?
Stare at the ceiling? That would seem to be making a display of their muteness. Observe the neighboring tables? Jean-Marc said to Chantal: Or that apathy has replaced love. You can't measure the mutual affection of two human beings by the number of words they exchange.
It's just that their heads are empty. It might even be out of tact that they're refusing to talk, if they've got nothing to say. Whenever I see her, she talks and talks without stop.
I've tried to figure out the principle behind her volubility. And-these are her words-that's how the time goes by for him. You know, Chantal, I really like those simple, ordinary phrases that are a kind of definition of a mystery. That ' and that's how the time goes by for him' is a fundamental line. Then Jean-Marc came back to his idea: Because the old occupations , at least most of them , were unthinkable without a passionate involvement: The meaning of life wasn't an issue, it was there with them, quite naturally, in their workshops, in their fields.
A doctor would think differently fro m a peasant, a soldier would behave differentlv from a teacher. That very apathy has become a passion. Not because my little jobs became more exciting.
But because everything that happens around me I turn into fodder for our conversations. But what would they nourish their intimate talk with? Jean-Marc moved on to another topic: That man in his forties who looks like a civil servant or a high-school teacher, and who's petrified with embarrassment when he holds out his hand to ask for a few francs.
You don't know who I mean? He always plants himself under a plane tree there, in fact the only one left on the street. You can see its foliage from our window. Now I know.
The man beneath a tree. A diffident man whose reticence strikes the eye. A few months earlier, he spoke to her directly and, very politely, asked for aid. Jean-Marc was still talking: He wouldn't understand why I'd want to talk to him. Out of curiosity? That would scare him. Out of pity? To make him some proposition? What should I propose? I tried to put myself in his shoes and understand what he might expect of people. I came up with nothing. His tree metaphor has given him away-him, the man under the tree, filled with the image of his tree.
Her thoughts come rushing, one after the other: And Jean-Marc went on: Still, I'd really like to talk to him. Because he's my alter ego! So she's just the dream of some poor wretch. W hat made him choose her, her in particular? And Jean-Marc, getting back to his idee fixe: You're living out the destiny I escaped by chance.
I was suddenly a man without ambition. And, what was worse: I had no desire to be anywhere else. True, I set myself up there in comfortable conditions. But still, it's the verge of ruin I'm set up on. I've become the erotic idol of a beggar. Now, there's a joke of an honor.
Then she corrects herself: Since they're hopeless, the beggar's desires have one feature that's beyond price: Then another idea occurs to her: She imagines this profoundly timid man, with his heartbreaking necktie, flattened against the wall of her bedroom, his hand out, fixedly and lecherously watching them romp in front of him.
She imagines herself, once the love scene is over, climbing off the bed naked and sweaty, picking up her purse from the table, looking for some change, and putting it in his hand. She can barely contain her laughter. He did not want to ask her the reason, content to savor the pleasure of watching her. As she lost herself in her comic imaginings, he reflected that she was his sole emotional link to the world.
People talk to him about prisoners, about the persecuted, about the hungry? People tell him about women raped in some civil war?
He sees Chantal there, raped. She and she alone releases him from his apathy. Only through her can he feel compassion. He would have liked to tell her this, but he was ashamed of the pathetic. The more so because another idea, completely opposite, caught him by surprise: She took his hand: You're sad again.
For the last couple of days I've noticed you're sad. What's wrong with you? Tell me, what's making you sad just now? That I'm wrong about your identity. A sad little hill of brassieres. A silly hill. But right through that vision he immediately caught sight of the real face of Chantal as she sat across from him.
He smiled: I didn't. Now his back is flat against the tree, his hand clumsily outstretched toward the passersby. Without raising his eyes , he repeats his line: Is he handsome, is he ugly? His circumstances place him beyond the handsome and the ugly.
She would like to say something to him, but she does not know what. He stands there immobile, the terrible palm stretched toward her, and his immobility makes the silence weightier yet. When instead of a little chip of cold metal the beggar feels paper in his hand, he raises his head, and she sees his utterly astonished eyes.
It is a terrified look, and, uneasy, she moves quickly away. Only as she hurries off does she become capable of a bit more clearheadedness: Suddenly everything is obvious: She is overwhelmed with rage against herself. Why is she paying so much attention to this bullshit?
Why, even in imagination, is she lending herself to this little adventure set up by a bored layabout with nothing to do? The idea of the bundle of letters hidden beneath her brassieres abruptly strikes her as unbearable. She pictures a person in some secret cranny observing her every move but unaware of her thoughts.
No longer able to stand the invisible observer's sneering gaze, as soon as she reaches home she goes to the wardrobe. She sees the pile of her brassieres and is struck by something. Yes, of course, she had already noticed it yesterday: In her euphoric state at the time she had immediately forgotten that. But now she cannot ignore this sign of a hand not her own. Ah, it's too obvious!
He's read the letters! He's watching her! He's spying on her! She is full of rage at a dozen different targets: The essence of romantic love, as Fabrizio or Henry Brulard understood it, and as Ludvik himself briefly sensed it when he read Halas to Lucie, rises from the sexual act elevated above the body's cockcrow.
It exists only within the pathos, which is a blessing, of agonistic individuation. For all his suffering, Ludvik's norm as lover remains that of a gang rapist, however much he tries to escape from the surrounding world of triviality where values have lost their arche.
Disguised in a borrowed suit, he makes his way past the guards to a bare room in a house outside the camp, where Lucie is waiting for him. The much-desired scene of intimacy that follows unravels all his hopes by cruelly inverting the symbols of sexual domination he had conjured up during his long anticipation. I realized that everything had turned out the opposite of what I'd dreamed: I saw myself as the naked Christ taken down from the cross and placed in the arms of a grieving Mary, and I was horrified, because I hadn't come to Lucie for compassion and consolation, I'd come for something entirely different.
Lucie's compassionate lap forces him "to eat the humble pie of [his] immaturity. By now he has lost all sense of her individuality, just like the boyfriend in the story "The Hitchhiking Game" Laughable Loves , who experiences the same loss at the height of sexual mastery.
Lucie flees from Ludvik, leaving him to face alone the additional ordeal of Alexej's suicide. In the cynical hangover from those two events, his mind takes bitter satisfaction in noting, without self-pity but also without forgiveness, that "I was more the object than the subject of my story" p. This awareness of his own indignity, an incurable falling-short of the tragic norm his imagination craves, has followed Ludvik from the playground of history into the world of the tarnished pastoral.
But in this polyphonic novel, no statement is allowed to stand without being confronted with the possibility of its opposite. In part 4, Jaroslav sketches a retrospect of Ludvik's life that might very well fit the tragic mold. We learn that Ludvik is the son of a village bricklayer who died in a Nazi camp and that he had to endure the ostentatious charity of his rich relatives, the Kouteckys.
As Jaroslav sees it, that boyhood humiliation is the key to Ludvik's ardent Communism, a commitment Ludvik himself prefers to discuss in more philosophical terms. Jaroslav's own life is bound together by a deep loyalty to his roots, and he naturally interprets Ludvik's enforced absence from his mother's funeral, which took place while he was in jail for desertion, as an event of prime significance. The Kouteckys, left to dispose of the dead woman's body as they pleased, ensconced it in a monument of marble "guarded by a white angel with curly hair and a sprig of flowers.
It was an angel of devastation " p. Impervious to the historical irony lurking in that statement, Jaroslav, who is still a sincere Communist, lumps together under the hated aegis of the Kouteckys both the Nazi occupation and the more recent depredation of which Ludvik is a victim.
Jaroslav's voice shifts the narrative from bitter irony to a warm tone of a deeply felt nostalgia. He is a six-foot-two giant constitutionally unable to resist anyone he perceives to be weaker than himself. In his mouth, the adjective "poor" is more a term of endearment than a label of class warfare.
His is the Communism of the heart, open to all generous illusions. Like his schoolteacher father, who was also Ludvik's mentor, Jaroslav is deeply attached to the folklore of his native Moravia. Ludvik, the Pied Piper of Revolution, had persuaded him that Communism, in abolishing private property, would by the same stroke reawaken the "languorous Sleeping Beauty of the past" p. In the fall of , Jaroslav had returned home to be near his father, who was in frail health after a stroke.
This sacrifice of a university career unexpectedly leads to undreamt-of success on the home ground of his village. Under the watchful eyes of the Party, the cimbalom ensemble he organizes to play songs ancient and new soon catapults him to national fame. His group's repertoire includes hymns to Stalin and songs about the collectivization of agriculture, as well as lyrics about love and death.
As Jaroslav's voice surfaces in the novel, he is on the verge of seeing an old dream fulfilled. It is a Friday night in June , and that Sunday his son Vladimir is to play the role of king in a folk ritual known as the Ride of the Kings, which his native village has celebrated from time immemorial. The exact origin and meaning of this seasonal rite is veiled in obscurity, a subject of learned dispute among ethnographers. But for Jaroslav, it speaks with the intensity of a cherished personal memory, consecrating his filial bond to his dead father.
In , when the Ride took on secret meaning as a national demonstration against the Nazi occupation, the villagers had selected him to play the lead role, seeking thus to honor the spirit of his patriotic father. In the coded language of the ceremony, which the Germans did not trouble to decipher, the village was acting out its "pilgrimage to our sources" p.
The figure of the beggar-king riding with his retinue through the village, silent and veiled, while his heralds ask the people for alms, was intuitively perceived as a symbol of the humiliated majesty that belonged to a threatened Czech culture communicating in a language always on the verge of extinction but so dearly loved that nothing could erase it from memory.
When we first hear Jaroslav's voice, he is shown as a lonely figure in the Moravian landscape, lying on a grassy verge among small fields. To the alert Czech reader of , this tiny descriptive detail would immediately have brought home the anachronistic character of the setting.
These grassy verges meze , which marked the borders of individually owned farming plots, had been forcibly ploughed over in the collectivization process of the early s.
In , when Jaroslav is lying there, such meze had long disappeared from the Moravian landscape, if not from Jaroslav's personal memory. His questions at the outset—"Do these lands I cross belong to another age? What lands are they? Jaroslav is trying to escape the oppression of present success and the anxiety about his son by turning to the dream world of the old myth that is the matrix of all his reverence. Private tenderness and public passion merge harmoniously within his meditation, making music together, not ideology.
And I want you to accept it from me" p. Jaroslav knows that his son is reluctant to play the king; moreover, he is not sure about his wife's attitude. In his dream vision, as he relives his wedding to Vlasta, the images of the Moravian nuptial feast keep flowing into scenes from the Ride, now strangely transformed into a drama of defeat and desertion.
The central characters of both pageants, the bride and the beggar-king, are concealed figures, and the effectiveness of the event hinges on their quasimagical power to compel recognition. Jaroslav the bridegroom, guided by the patriarch as the ritual demands, reads the signs flawlessly, rejecting the sham bride first offered under the mask of a kerchief in a playful mimicry of courtship.
He still knows his Vlasta in her poetic essence, as "a poor man's daughter" p. She says I don't see things as they are. Well, she's wrong. I do see things as they are, but in addition to the visible I see the invisible" p. For Jaroslav, folk song and folk ritual are the arche of experience. He calls them "a tunnel beneath history" p. Jaroslav believes that unlike modern man, who "cheats," his ancestors, for all their passionate hereditary attachment to growing things, had the ability to come to terms with death as "the fact of no return.
Part 5, where Ludvik's voice returns for the third time, functions somewhat deceptively, like the dominant step in a major scale, as if to conclude the assertive chord of the theme of revenge announced by the tonic. While the avenger deliberately fuses his description of the bedroom scene with Helena and his memory of Zemanek's triumph at the trial, another echo is overheard by the attentive reader. The Pieta scene with Lucie reverberates through the sadism of Ludvik's lovemaking with Helena, an unwanted replay that is all the more disturbing because it seems to creep in on the telling in spite of the narrator's intellectual control.
Underlining the Lucie connection, part 5 is framed by Ludvik's reflections on the paradoxical nature of sexual love. These thoughts, whose philosophical pessimism recalls the observations of Schopenhauer or the maxims of Georges Bataille, dwell on the essential loneliness of the lover, which persists into the most intimate fulfillment of his body's desire.
In Ludvik's formulation of the problem, the agonistic self-enclosure of the lover is doubled by the egotism of the poet-actor who teams up with him for the duration of the erotic game, thus converting his experiencing self into an aesthetic object of his own making that rivals the beloved for passionate attention. Lucie's reappearance in the barbershop seems to have given a rough jolt to the poetic text of Ludvik's life, where she has figured as "a kind of legend or myth, inscribed on parchment and laid in a metal casket at the very foundation of my life" p.
Unlike the Byronic lover whose predatory imagination he shares, Ludvik feels himself void of the charisma to generate from within an aesthetically compelling myth of his self.
He needs Lucie as a talisman against his loss of individuation. As he walks through town on Saturday morning, killing time before Helena's arrival, he notices a Baroque monument to victims of plague, which stands as a reminder of the town's once fervently Catholic past. There was a saint on the pedestal, a cloud on the saint, an angel on the cloud, and on that angel's cloud another angel, the last.
I took a long look at the poignant pyramid of saints, clouds, and angels masquerading in stone as heaven, then at the real heaven—a pale morning blue hopelessly removed from that dusty stretch of earth.
By reading the monument upside down and by insisting on the pull of gravity that binds all the figures to earth, he has transformed the angels and the clouds and the saints into mere pedestals to support the vain illusion of soaring weightlessness, which no longer holds. Contemplating this monument to an ancient faith that has lost all power to compel belief, Ludvik experiences a feeling of very personal loss.
It has become too easy to deconstruct all systems of meaning, and the price to be paid for such sophistication is a perception of reality deprived of any sense of authenticity. This acedia, as the medieval monks might have called it, turns the world around Ludvik into a sham, always a parody of something else, like the grotesque ceremony of the "welcoming of new citizens to life" p.
Ludvik the narrator chooses to depict this rite of civic initiation by means of the device of ostranenie estrangement , made famous by Tolstoy's description of an opera performance through the eyes of a countrified Natasha in book 8 of War and Peace. Kundera wields the same device in the intellectual manner of an eighteenth-century philosophe. Young Pioneers march with military precision to form a guard of Communist angels around the newborns while the mothers look on in embarrassment, uncertain about what to do with the precious bundles that are now being claimed by the State.
Several pages later, after Ludvik has picked Helena up at the bus station, the motif of the monument returns: This time Ludvik's commentary characterizes it as an emblem of the age he lives in, with its relentlessly downward pull of inherent baseness.
The availability of Helena's body at his side fills him with bitter recognition of his own lack of nobility, so he complicates his game by teasing her mind a bit, since that mind also belongs to Zemanek. When they pass the monument again, after having a drink, he points to the statuary, and Helena, conforming to his expectations, delivers herself of a small pearl of Communist kitsch.
Why don't they build something to celebrate life instead of all that mysticism? Having executed "without a hitch" p. In Dr. Kostka's borrowed apartment, just before the kill, as he places his hands on Helena's legs—"the very legs whose opening and closing have provided the rhythm, the pulsations for a decade of Zemanek's life" pp.
But Helena as erotic victim, a nothing in herself, is also a stand-in for Lucie's body, whose pulsations he could never master. And in the sadistic ribaldry of possessing Helena, whom he orders to undress for him while denying her the intimacy of a kiss, he also debases Lucie's image.
The middle-aged seducer executes his scenario of sexual subjugation with routine skill, but in the process he senses his mind wandering. His abstracted mind proceeds to develop its conceit about love while Helena beckons him with shameless abandon. What does the spirit actually do when the body unites in its age-old, universal, immutable motion with another body?
Think of the wonderful ideas it comes up with during those times, proving as they inevitably do its superiority over the never-ending monotony of the life of the body! Think of the scorn it has for the body. Or conversely: For the spirit or the soul is held in the same scorn as the poor body in a scene of cruel lovemaking under the watchful gaze of a sadistic intellect that enjoys the comic quid pro quo inflicted on Helena, a foolish woman who mistakes brutality for passion and a slap in the face for a lover's extreme caress.
When he finally confronts his own face in the mirror as he washes up, Ludvik bursts into a peal of laughter and takes this reaction as a token of his victory. For her part, Helena is exultant in her pleasure, boasting of the infallible instinct of her body, which, she says, has recognized in him from the start "a mysterious elan vital,.
In her new effusiveness, she confesses the secret of her collapsing marriage, a revelation that "made [his] flesh creep" p. His scheme of revenge is suddenly devalued into a joke at his own expense, and Helena's body looms before him as the ugly reality of a virulently comic contrappasso.
When she finally leaves him alone with himself, he seeks to escape into the thought of Lucie, the incorporeal one, his "goddess of vain pursuit" p.
Momentarily, his own longing for abstract purity masks the guilt he feels for the violation he has just inflicted on Lucie's image. The penultimate narrative section introduces an "outside person" whose function is to open "a secret window through the novel's wall.
Kostka reviews the themes of his conversation with Ludvik, who has asked him about Lucie. The meditations of this medical scientist, who reads Jan Hus, Luther, and Pascal, have the probing introspective quality of a rigorous examination of conscience. In Kostka's exposition of events and characters, the narrative matter is subject to the imperative of self-judgment, in the confessional mode as interpreted by a Christian.
His ultimate interlocutor, even when he appears to address Ludvik or Lucie, is the unseen God, as in Augustine's Confessions. Kostka is an anguished evangelical Christian who dreams of realizing the promise of brotherly love contained in the Gospels. It was this hope for humankind, for this world but not of it, that determined his relation to Communism. At the university in , before the Party seized absolute control, he had sided with the Communists in all the debates, thus scandalizing his fellow Christians.
Soon after the February coup, he fell under suspicion as an internal dissenter who moreover "took the side of several students due to be expelled for the political stance of their parents" p. At a Party hearing, a student named Ludvik Jahn stood up for him, arguing that the Party owed him respect for his support before the coup and that his Christianity was no doubt a mere phase.
The friendship between the two men dates from this gesture by Ludvik and the private exchange of views that followed, in which Kostka felt bound to declare that he did not expect to outgrow his faith in God and Ludvik responded that religious faith was "of no concern to anyone but the individual" p. That first meeting set the tone for their continuing friendship, which is characterized by what Kostka terms "external sympathies" and "internal conflicts" p.
Each time they talk, they return to their fundamental disagreement about the origins and meaning of Communism. While Ludvik sees socialism as the culmination of the secular, antireligious spirit of European skepticism, stemming from Renaissance rationalism, Kostka argues that socialism is religious in its essence, a significant but passing phase in the long history of humanity's quest for the kingdom of God on this earth.
But he assigns a religious meaning even to their apostasy, interpreting it as still another chapter in mankind's unending dialogue with God, "a sign that mortals cannot sit on His throne with impunity and that without His participation even the most equitable order of worldly affairs is doomed to failure and corruption" p. In Kostka's world, everything, including absence and failure, has a meaning that hinges on its relation to the absolute good of human redemption.
It is from this perspective that he views his own relationship with Lucie, whom he met in the fall of , after she fled from Ludvik to the Cheb region of western Bohemia, where she was born. Kostka was then working as a technical adviser at a collective farm, having resigned his position at Prague University.
Lucie first crops up in Kostka's pastoral as a mysterious runaway who hides in the hills, begging bread and milk from the shepherds.
She is like Dorotea in Don Quixote, a girl fleeing love's madness in disguise, or, closer to home, like Viktorka in Bozena Nemcova's much-loved nineteenth-century novel Babicka The Grandmother , half woman and half vila a spirit of the woods , who lives on the extreme margins of the domesticated lands of a Czech village.
Even before meeting the girl, Kostka is deeply moved by her power to evoke the protective instinct of the local people, especially the children, who call her the "wandering fairy" p. This sentimental idyll of spontaneous Christian feeling is soon interrupted when the police find Lucie and identify her as a girl with a morals charge and a theft on her record. She is nevertheless given a job at the state farm, where Kostka, who sees her as a symbol of an age of defilement, takes her on as his assistant and becomes her protector.
Throughout the winter, Kostka the healer nurtures Lucie's trust with infinite patience and gentleness, until she tells him about the two mysteries of her past, each of them linked to a social transgression. At sixteen, she had been the only girl in a gang of six young hoodlums, who subjected her to a collective rape as a ritual of initiation.
The boys were arrested for stealing, and she spent a year in the reformatory for having given them "everything a young girl could give" p. From there she went to faraway Ostrava, where she was a model worker until she was again arrested, this time for taking flowers from a cemetery. As Kostka contemplates Lucie's fate, with its perpetual running away—from Cheb to Ostrava and back again, from a loveless home into the brutal embrace of the gang, from there into the rough arms of an "insistent soldier" p.
Lucie is for him the child-victim of the age of religious emptiness. Under his prompting, the gang rape and the struggle with Ludvik emerge as a confession of two experiences of violation, ordeals enacted against the background of the religious pictures hanging on the walls of the bare rooms in which the two events took place. The image of the Madonna lactans presided over Lucie's humiliating sexual baptism, and the Christ of Gethsemane was the privileged witness of Ludvik's attempt to rape her.
Kostka's retelling of Lucie's life has all the inner coherence but also the oppressiveness of a religious allegory. The human figures are reduced to their proper scale as illustrations of the perennially moving sacred drama of the birth and killing of the Man-God. It is quite obvious that Kostka does not know that the "insistent soldier" is his friend Ludvik, to whom he confides the tale of Lucie's past, and Ludvik fails to enlighten him.
As a result of this withholding of facts, the two legends of Lucie, Ludvik's and Kostka's, are made to stand side by side in the novel in unmediated confrontation. At the end of the long winter, the deadening grip of shame is finally unclasped from Lucie's soul, and she responds to Kostka with the passionate flowering of "the great female springtime. As Kostka tells it, the scene of sexual consummation is ushered in by a spiritual epiphany in a landscape suddenly transfigured into the temple of God.
But his severe, almost Jansenist conscience also weighs in, casting the bitter seeds of guilt on that triumph of the spirit over the body. He blames himself for being "a seducer in priest's robes" p. Kostka lives with an internal tribunal sitting in permanent session in his conscience. Unlike the Communist believer, whose propensity for self-accusation he shares, the judgments to which he subjects himself are not open to external manipulation, and they rarely accommodate anyone's convenience.
Kostka is not afraid of the truth, wherever it may lead him, yet for all its agonized honesty, his voice is burdened by too much certainty and grates unpleasantly against Ludvik's equally relentless but much lighter skepticism.
Kostka's discourse, dominated by the vocative mode, is obtrusively insistent, even though it is gentle when directed at Lucie and stern mostly in dialogue with himself. Like the voice of the priest in the Cathedral scene of The Trial, it seems to come from a vast empty distance, and it resonates with a strangely inhuman sound.
The final part of the novel hinges on two near-death scenes that produce first a comic and then a tragic catharsis. Both events, Helena's overdose and Jaroslav's heart attack, are preceded by a shattering of illusions, a leitmotif that connects the two characters to Ludvik, who is the third narrator of this part. As the three voices alternate in telling the action, the tempo varies from the staccato of the minimal sections to the more leisurely and even pace of the longer narrative passages.
On Sunday morning, three spectators converge upon the Ride of the Kings, which takes place on the main street of the suburban village. Jaroslav has followed the preparations with anxious trepidation, even while giving perfunctory answers to the routine questions with which Helena, armed with a tape recorder, plies him.
Ludvik, who is longing to leave the events of the past day behind him and return to Prague, stumbles into the din of the festival in a mood of cynical indifference. Kostka's revelations the evening before have destroyed his legend about Lucie's innocence, and with it, his own pathos as the unfulfilled lover.
He now sees himself as the dupe in a laughable, somewhat obscene anecdote about a child-whore. In the yard of Jaroslav's house, the veiled beggar-king, dressed in a woman's costume as custom demands, and guarded by two pages also disguised as women, sits astride his festive horse. Deeply moved, Jaroslav forgets his exhaustion, approaches the figure, and whispers his son's name. Blinded by his will to believe that Vladimir has at last accepted the precious legacy he himself had received from his father, he is quite unaware that the real Vladimir has absconded to the motorcycle races in Brno with the active collusion of his mother.
For the first time in his life, Jaroslav's second sight has failed him. He will follow the performance of insincere actors with true emotion, until his illusion is punctured by old man Koutecky, who tells him with a bit of malice that Vladimir has gone off with his grandson Milos.
By contrast, Ludvik enters the spectacle in the middle, with a mind forewarned against a ritual debased into mass entertainment. The shabbiness of it all, the noise of the loudspeakers and the inattentiveness of the crowd, which keeps interfering with the cortege as it winds its way through a traffic jam, exceeds even his expectations.
But then, making an effort to filter out the vulgar noise that surrounds him, Ludvik begins to listen to the strange music of the heralds, gradually discovering an island of pure sound, "a construct on the border of speech and song.
The formal beauty of the archaic verse he hears moves him as sublime poetry, precisely because he can read no particular meaning into it.
His imagination, worn down by a perpetual wandering in a maze of symbols of his own making, which have all been inverted into parodies, takes in the healing power of chaste sound.
Ludvik knows that the Ride of the Kings has been interpreted as a stylized commemoration of a historical event, perhaps the flight of defeated Hungarian king Matthias or, as some say though Ludvik doesn't mention it , the escape from captivity of Prince Viktorin, son of the popular fifteenth-century Czech king Jiri Podebrady.
He also knows about speculations that the Ride may be a survival of pagan rites of passage from boyhood to manhood. But he finds both readings redundant. As he lets himself sink into the vortex of rhythmic utterance, he momentarily experiences the vertigo of eternal forgetting. Twenty years earlier, when he had played one of the heralds to Jaroslav's king, he "hadn't seen a thing," because he had experienced the Ride "from within" p. But as the coded speech works its deeper life-in-death magic upon him, it finally releases its hidden thaumaturgic gift of vision, without which all poetry, no matter how beautiful its inner articulation, would be a dead letter.
The Ride of the Kings, Kundera says in his preface, "frames the action of the novel; it is a frame of forgetting" p. But it also connotes the very opposite of the act of forgetting, a ceremony of mnemonic empowering. Performed yearly on Whitsunday, the seventh Sunday after Easter, this seasonal ritual conceals in its pagan heart an allusion to the Pentecostal mystery of spiritual initiation. The beggar who hides the king, and the young man about to reach the first peak of virility disguised as a woman, are oxymoronic symbols of dignity masked in humility, of great power about to be released from constraint.
In this ironic novel about the modern distemper between words and the things they signify, poetry suddenly flares out with its ancient tongue of flame. At last disabused of his deadening cynicism, Ludvik comes to the verge of addressing Lucie in the rediscovered language of love, the language in which she had courted him when she gave him those flowers picked from the cemetery. Freed from the narrow confines of Kostka's allegory—a tale that "mixed truth with fiction and produced a new legend closer to the truth, perhaps, more beautiful, more profound to superimpose on the old" p.
The vision of Lucie rediscovered is abruptly dispelled by the sound of a male voice calling out to Ludvik. It is Pavel Zemanek, smilingly advancing with outstretched hand. Ludvik takes that hand just before the scene cuts to Jaroslav and his no less dumbfounding encounter with old Koutecky, the expropriated rich man who tells him the truth about his son Vladimir.
Old hatreds are like old loves. One day they die, leaving in their fiery wake something like a budding nostalgia for shared memories. So Ludvik, in the next scene, hearing Pavel's attractive young girlfriend praise the former Stalinist as a liberal of the mid-sixties, one of the most popular lecturers at the university, registers a sneaking sympathy for his old enemy. Once again, Zemanek is successfully pointing his rhetoric in the same direction the whole country is headed.
Sensing that "the dishonorable truce" p. His inveterate tormentor reduces the dreaded ceremony of reconciliation to a casual glance at his watch before departing with his beautiful young girlfriend on his arm.
Ludvik then proceeds to tell Helena that he does not love her and will not see her again, in full awareness that "she was quite innocent with respect to me" p. Under that blow, Helena's bloated world collapses instantly. But she is a woman of appetite, with little talent for despair. While her distracted mind toys with the temptation of eternal oblivion, she feels driven to indulge herself one more time by allowing Jindra, the young sound technician who dogs her footsteps with adolescent devotion, to kiss her on the mouth.
Jindra is the source of the pills she has just ingested in a dangerously exaggerated quantity, in order to still the ache that racks her head. The consequences of Helena's halfhearted suicide attempt are described suspensefully from the perspective of a terrified Ludvik. He fears the worst once he has scanned Helena's melodramatic farewell message, which Jindra delivers to him by hand, in an envelope bearing the official letterhead of the Party District Council. The two men conduct a frantic search that finally leads them to the bolted door of a country outhouse.
Forced open, the latrine yields a vision of comic anguish that more than matches in its extremity the dreaded image of a dead or dying Helena. Jindra s pills were not analgesics, as Helena had thought, but laxatives mislabeled in a gesture of self-protective prudery by an adolescent ashamed of the unpoetic character of his digestive tract.
Helena, perched on the wooden seat of the primitive toilet with her skirt pulled up, is an outrageous sight that underlines the cruelty of laughter with a sadism that has shocked some of Kundera's readers. In , when The Joke first appeared, the Czechs laughed freely, because they saw the Party being humiliated through Helena.
But if we heed Kundera's counsel against a political interpretation of the novel, we are faced with the revolting spectacle of woman's body shamed through its "place of excrement," without even a pornographic trace of anything that might remind us of Yeats' paradox about love's mansion.
Panurge's obscene trick, which turns the pious lady who rejected his sexual advances into an object of unseemly attention for excited dogs right in the middle of a religious service,26 seems like a prank compared with the treatment Kundera reserves as Helena's reward for excessive complacency.
Jindra, maddened by pity, turns upon the mortally embarrassed Ludvik. In Czech, the throwa-way phrase has a directed concreteness impossible to reproduce in English. The expression "Sere na Yds" "She shits on you" ,27 which Jindra repeats twice without fully realizing what he is saying, turns the offensive noun "shit" into an active verb with Helena as its ruling grammatical subject.
In this way, Czech speech manages to retrieve something for Helena from this agonizing scene, by endowing her body with the mimetic power of a Schweik.
She suddenly escapes from the humiliating trap of her concrete position into the realm of verbal abstraction, where the words generate a vivid metaphor for the state of mind of a whole nation that has overdosed on so many lies for so many years.
There is a measure of justice for Ludvik as well in this fully realized trope. He is, after all, the mirror as well as the victim of the age whose ill humors are thus purged. In the process, Helena's body is freed at last of the phony-noble rhetoric that has draped it, and it becomes pure physis once more, the Rabelaisian touchstone of truth, as when the child Gargantua demonstrates the empirical method of philosophical inquiry by testing for the best possible ass-wipe.
Jaroslav's release from illusion follows immediately after. In a confrontation with Vlasta in their kitchen, he taxes her with complicity in Vladimir's betrayal, and when she retaliates, the exchange heats into a quarrel between the Communist and the kulak's daughter.
She sullenly keeps her thin back turned to him as she stands at her stove, pretending to be busy with her cooking. The rage inside him keeps mounting, until he starts breaking the dishes on the floor. After this uncharacteristic bout of violence, he steps over the rubble in his home, where he had "borne the tender yoke of the poor man's daughter" p. In his anger at Vlasta, who has been filling his house with the tasteless bibelots of neo-bourgeois consumerism, Jaroslav would like to think that he is hitting out against the Koutecky element.
But Ludvik, whom he meets outdoors, knows better, having understood that "they" and "we," terms once pitted against each other in the ideological discourse of , are hopelessly ambiguous whenever applied to real experience. History, with its lure of eternal memory, is really a very ironic jade.
All rectification both vengeance and forgiveness will be taken over by oblivion" p. This maxim belongs to Ludvik, mulling over his encounter with Zemanek, but it applies equally to the aftertaste of Jaroslav's confrontation with Vlasta, when he is like "an abandoned king past his prime" p. In the last, poignant scene of the novel, Ludvik sits down to play with Jaroslav's cimbalom ensemble in the same restaurant where Jindra had sounded his false alarm that afternoon.
The two old friends, when they acknowledge each other at last, at the end of the harrowing weekend, seem to have exchanged roles. Jaroslav, still the masterful fiddler, plays with the passion born of despair, as if trying to hold the melody one more time against the growing tide of indifference about to engulf him. Ludvik, chastened by what he has been through, picks up his clarinet with the authentic tenderness of a long-delayed homecoming.
As they concentrate on playing, life appears to Ludvik bathed in the gentle light of forgiveness. From within the "glass cabin" of an ancient love song, the values he and Jaroslav shared in their youth, which circulated in words like "comrade," "Fucik," and "the future," revealing a sinister underside in the process, appear to him again in their original innocence, like Lucie come back to him in the "magic circle of music" p.
This statement, rising with the insistence that only final conclusions can muster in any discourse, seems to beg for a commentary transcending the immediacy of the moment of grace that inspired it. The Joke was written in , when Czech culture was experiencing the gathering momentum of hope. It is characteristic of Kundera's temper that he ends his novel against the grain of optimism and the righteous clamor for retribution that filled the Czech air at the time.
One may well ask how much hope there should have been about the liberalizing trend in Communism whose representative is the opportunistic Zemanek. Rather than looking forward to a time when "Communism with a human face" would be the slogan meant to legitimize an outburst of radical skepticism to Russian ears, Kundera's nostalgic coda contemplates the meaning of and the things long gone, which people like Zemanek were busily forgetting.
But even in relation to Zemanek, Ludvik's mind, purged of all venom, leans toward an understanding that has the poignantly personal quality of generational sympathy. As the music swells, Jaroslav, the defeated dreamer, suffers a heart attack that will doom him to live out the rest of his life without passion, "under the watchful eye of death.
But it is inside the skeptical mind of Ludvik that Jaroslav's lost faith flares up one last time, with a tragic incandescence that lingers with the reader as the novel's culminating effect. Looking down at his stricken friend, Ludvik pictures himself "holding him in my arms, holding him and carrying him, carrying him, big and heavy as he was, carrying my own obscure guilt; I could picture myself carrying him through the indifferent mob, weeping as I went" p.
The repetition of the word "carrying," with its rhythmic insistence on the burdensome assumption of guilty responsibility in an act of purely gratuitous love, becomes a dirge for a past never more loved than at this moment of its passing into a dreamlike state of being. While Zemanek the timeserver elbows his way back to the helm of unfolding events, Ludvik chooses to stay behind with Jaroslav, who is making his sad exit from history.
The skeptic mourns the death of the idealist in an experience of guilt that is the other side of tenderness, a purely private emotion that has nothing to do with the dubious rights or wrongs human beings persist in attaching to public events. Ludvik has surrendered the realm of historical meaning and imperatives to Zemanek, the inveterate actor who exists for and within the eyes of his public. We expect Pavel to be highly effective at the rostrum and in the lively streets during the festive months of the Prague Spring.
If he is like his real-life brothers within the movement for Czech socialist renewal like Pavel Ko-hout,29 whom he resembles , Pavel Zemanek will not make his peace with Moscow after the events of August unlike Aragon. But these are questions of the future, outside the purview of this novel, which persists in looking back, first in anger and ultimately in forgiveness.
The emotional resolution of ideological conflicts that brings together the winners and losers of the historical game is the beginning of Kundera's protracted farewell to the idea of History. It was published in New York in ,1 with an introduction by Philip Roth, while its author was still living in Czechoslovakia. But all seven stories that make up the volume were written much earlier, between and , during that marvelous decade of Czech culture which was also a time of great artistic ferment for Kundera.
Originally, the title Smesne lasky Laughable Loves linked a series of ten short stories issued in three separate "notebooks,"2 the last of which saw print in , during the final gasp of Czech literary freedom. In the definitive form achieved after several authorial interventions,3 stripped down to seven entries rearranged in a sequence that highlights the emotional counterpoint between laughter and pathos, Laughable Loves prefigures the structural archetype of Kundera's later, elliptical novels.
Still, that book is one of the first efforts in modern Europe to create a large-scale composition in narrative prose, and as such it has a place in the history of the novel at least as its source and forerunner. Though Laughable Loves obviously lacks unity of action and has independent sets of characters the single exception being Dr. Havel, who connects the fourth and sixth stories , the series achieves internal coherence as a reflection on the paradoxical entanglements of three major themes.
These themes, first raised in the opening trio of stories to be more fully developed in the remaining four all of which date from the last stage of composition , are: While the book employs a diversity of narrators, the perspective on the action throughout is one of irony, which Kundera considers "consub-stantial" with the spirit of the European novel. This is particularly true of the opening entry, "Nobody Will Laugh," which is told by an unlucky jester caught in a society where laughter has been suspended.
At the beginning of the story, he is a successful university lecturer in art history who finds himself comfortably in possession of a beautiful mistress named Klara. By the end, she has turned against him and left him "because a man who lies can't be respected by any woman" p. This reversal originates in the narrator's unfortunate attempt to evade the truth, an instinctive, dubiously motivated reaction that might even be construed as a sudden access of kindness.
As a professional art historian, he is being badgered for a critical appraisal by an amateur scholar who has written an utterly worthless, derivative article about a well-known nineteenth-century Czech painter.
Since he is at core a man of strict intellectual standards, the narrator cannot praise Mr. Zaturetsky's pedantic drivel, but there is something within him that rebels against the thought of playing executioner of the little man's plodding hopes and ambitions. Unfortunately for both of them, Zaturetsky is relentless in his pursuit of the punishing truth, and he finally manages to corner his unwilling critic, who has been playing an elaborate game of escape from his would-be victim.
Zaturetsky even tracks down our hero's private retreat, a bachelor flat where he keeps Klara under wraps. When this carefully preserved separation between public obligations and secret pleasures crumbles, indulgence gives way to spite, and he falsely accuses the little man of trying to seduce Klara. The situation becomes grave when Zaturetsky's personal outrage escalates into an accusation of slander that is instantly submitted for investigation and eventual judgment by the neighborhood committee of comrades, which keeps a tight watch over socialist morals.
The inventive fibster soon discovers that all around him expected laughter has frozen into rigid indignation. He cannot even persuade his mistress that a personal code of integrity lies concealed under the elaborate structure of deception he has erected. Klara will not understand the distinction between the lie in the heart and the lie on the lips, and she urges him to get everyone out of trouble by satisfying Zaturetsky's craving for scholarly approval.
Even though he feels himself driven to a fall by the laughable lie of his own creation, our hero resists her expedient advice and instead proceeds to tell Zaturetsky's wife what he really thinks of her husband's article. But that long-suffering woman harbors a pathetic faith in her partner's vocation that makes her utterly impervious to the truth at hand, and in the end the liar turned truthteller in extremis finds himself surrounded by distrust.
To cap it all, his mistress accuses him of being a "stereotyped cynic" to justify dropping him. In the "chilly silence" p. In this overture to a cycle of tales where, as Philip Roth tells us, "erotic play and power are the subjects frequently at the center,"8 the love interest stays in the background. It is a losing stake, thrown almost casually into a game of make-believe played at the extreme edges of the problem of truth. In positing a disjunction between intellectual truth and the pleasures of Eros, which are the chosen domain of the nonserious spirit, this story, the only one Kundera preserved from the first notebook , anticipates the masterly "Symposium" In the book's definitive sequence, "Nobody Will Laugh" and "Symposium" frame two stories about the pursuit of sexual love, both published originally in The two have been lovers for a year, but she is still anguished about her lack of sexual ease.
Imagining her reserve to be an obstacle for her lover, whom she adores with a jealous passion, she never suspects that he cherishes her shyness as a sign of innocence.
While driving together on the first day of a holiday trip to the mountains, they inadvertently stumble into an adventure of erotic exploration, a dangerous game of masks that will throw their love off course. Attempting to imitate the kind of sophisticated flirtation she thinks he enjoys when he is away from her, the young woman pretends to be a hitchhiker and assumes the suggestive manner of an easy pickup.
At first reluctantly, then with mounting ferocity, the young man responds to her provocative double-talk by escalating the verbal game into gesture. At the end of the road down which imagination leads them, they stand opposite each other in a hotel room, two faceless bodies topped by masks.
Their lovemaking is a grappling in the dark, neither of them knowing the other who lies in this harsh embrace while the body's pleasure feeds the pain it inflicts on the exiled soul. Roth writes that this "confusion of identities, and the heightened eroticism [it] provokes in the lovers, with its scary sado-masochistic edge, is not so catastrophic to either of them as his joke turns out to be for Ludvik Jahn.
It is true that the private catastrophe that results from this brutal marivaudage remains locked behind a bedroom door. But it seems to me that Roth, who sees the grimness of these tales in the long shadow society casts over the erotic game, misses the metaphysical dimension of Kundera's dark vision of the comedy of the sexes.
Here Kundera's Don Juan is Martin, a man who has just crossed the threshold of forty, and is married and in love with his wife. His chronicler is a younger friend, a scholar by profession, and by predilection a student of the discipline of the erotic chase that Martin exemplifies and teaches. This unnamed narrator casts a reflective eye on the action as it unfolds within the time span of a single Saturday afternoon.
The master, with his disciple in tow, embarks on the road of sexual adventure that will take them from their starting point in Prague, from village to village, to their appointed goal at a small-town hospital where two nurses are awaiting them. Behind the wheel of a rented Fiat, the obliging pupil drives along, compelled by the imperious desire for adventure that resides within the older man sitting in the passenger seat beside him. The undivided quality of his master's will fascinates him like a force of nature.
For his part, he knows he has been tricked into joining the action: The prospect of reclaiming that book taints his own motivation with a distinctly scholarly duplicity. He admits to himself that unlike Martin, he is a mere "dilettante," a man "playing at something which Martin lives. Yet he also acknowledges that playful imitation has been the controlling value of his life, an imperative of sorts, to which he has consistently subordinated all his personal interests and desires.
Kierkegaard, in an essay on Mozart's tragicomic opera, observed that "there is also something erotic in Leporello's relationship to Don Juan, there is a power by which Don Juan captivates him, even against his will. They are attached to each other by something that approximates but does not quite match the power of erotic seduction. Rather, they are inseparable as two game players are, who need each other to carry on with the game. Martin, whom his companion posits as the natural Don Juan, serves as a talismanic figure in whose living presence the illusion of physical authenticity is preserved, and he in turn uses his friend, always so obedient to the call of his masters unquestionable desire for women, as the mirror that will return a reassuring image of his own fabulous potency.
Both are caught in a shared delusion of a perennially conquering male sexuality. Kierkegaard heard in Mozart's opera the "opulent moment"11 of sensuousness rising above the dread to which Christian spirituality had consigned it. He interpreted Don Giovanni as the supreme classical expression of the Don Juan myth, capturing in all its ideality, as only music could, the "daemonic joy of life"12 that is Don Juan's gift to women.
Kundera's treatment of the myth in Laughable Loves is essentially antimusical, charting an aggressively intellectual territory at the opposite pole from the Mozartian spirit of immediacy as Kierkegaard defined it.
In Da Pontes libretto, it is the servant Leporello who recites the famous catalogue of Don Giovanni's conquests, an "epic survey of his master's life,"13 Kierkegaard calls it, whose tantalizingly incomplete tally of 1, invites the imagination to lose itself in an ever-expanding prospect of seductions to come.
Kierkegaard conceived Mozart's Don Giovanni as "handsome, not very young," and placed his age at thirty-three, "the length of a generation.
But Kundera's variation on Leporello clearly breaks away from the original mold. In the opera, Don Giovanni's power over Leporello is such that the servant can almost be assimilated to his master, even becoming "a voice for Don Juan. The type of the great aristocrat slumming, le grand seigneur qui s'encanaille, was familiar to Parisian playgoers in the waning decades of the eighteenth century.
Beaumarchais, whose comedy The Marriage of Figaro Da Ponte had adapted for Mozart a year earlier, in , used the type con brio, provoking dangerously ambiguous laughter in the urbanized aristocratic audience. Don Juan also takes advantage of his servant one time too many, since for him too, it is growing late for such tricks. In his socialist Bohemia, Kundera's Don Juan retains no servant to compile the record of his amorous exploits.
He is reduced to being his own accountant, but he requires a secondary male presence at his heels to witness the actuarial function that rivals and ultimately overwhelms the primary activity for which Don Juan's sword once stood as guarantor and metonymic emblem.
Martin is a highly theoretical quantifier of women. He has invented an elaborate verbal technique for targeting and pinning down his prey, and this is the essence of the art of seduction he teaches his disciple.
In describing the two initial stages of his strictly codified, systematic approach to women, he deliberately uses the abstract, latinate words registraz registration and kontaktaz contact ,16 words a pollster might use in preparing a survey. Martin's erotic foreplay is a cerebral activity that imitates the precision of a laboratory experiment, within a time frame arbitrarily limited as in a bureaucratic schedule. The adventure of the high road to sexual conquest starts in Prague at 2: The interval thus circumscribed is spacious enough for the two men to duly register and contact a number of new women on the way to the predetermined assignation with the nurses.
The sexual consummation is postponed to a hypothetical future as the new contacts are carefully tucked away in Don Juan's impressive file.
Philip Roth has compared the Don Juanism in this story to "a sport played by a man against a team of women, oftentimes without body contact"—a witty metaphor that effectively expresses Roth's sense of the tale as a "mild satire" on Don Juanism. But it seems to me that Kundera's tale has a deeper bottom than mild satire can fathom. The reflective narrator who watches Martin's game while also participating in it is contemplated from an even greater distance by the all-seeing yet unseen author.
It was Kundera, after all, who gave the tale an epigraph from Pascal's Pensee , on divertissement: The hunt, that quintessentially aristocratic sport of the seventeenth century, is Pascal's elected metaphor for the concept of divertissement, which he defines as "une occupation violente et impetueuse qui les detourne de penser a soi" "a violent and impetuous activity that deflects men from thinking about themselves".
But Kundera insists on retaining the original, nonmetaphoric meaning of the word divertissement, which denotes a frivolous kind of entertainment. Frivolity assumes the value of a philosophical concept in Kundera's world. It functions as a snare for the spirit of gravity, or as an acid test for questions of the order Pascal raises in his meditation on the misery of the human condition in the absence of God. By the end of the mock-epic narrative, Martin's reflective companion will have understood the illusory nature of his master's activity.
At bottom, Martin is a mere imitator, just like his pupil, even though his game may be constructed from a real memory of his younger self. The narrator voices off abruptly at the moment when his cameralike eye has trained its lens on Martin, and himself at his side, traveling the road of return, suspended in futile animation within an ephemeral present quickened by elusive anticipation.
Stoically faithful to the obligation of frivolity that Kundera likes to impose on his most conscious male characters, the disingenuous companion of borrowed adventure cuts off the inconclusive action with a fine verbal flourish, pinning down the forever receding object by naming it The Golden Apple of Eternal Desire. The sexual connotation of the symbolic apple lingers on within the word like a precious essence, even though Eve herself has become the vanishing point of an illusionistic prospect.
The allusion to the primal sin in the lost garden, whose grave echo was heard in the Pascal epigraph, dissipates in the advancing twilight.
Kundera's Don Juans are haunted by the pathos of imitation and the consciousness of living a parodistic derivative of a once charismatic identity. In Laughable Loves, the perfection of the type is the intellectual and sexually practiced Dr.
Havel, a man of wit who figures as the lead character in two of the stories. The first of these, "Symposium," takes the form of a miniature drama in five acts, built around the twin questions of love and death. Like the Platonic dialogue from which it takes off, it is primarily a drama of ideas.