The Book of Laughter and Forgetting | Critical Review by E. L. Doctorow

This literature criticism consists of approximately 20 pages of analysis & critique of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.
This section contains 2,378 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Ellen Pifer

Critical Review by E. L. Doctorow

SOURCE: "Four Characters under Two Tyrannies," in New York Times Book Review, April 29, 1984, p. 1.

In the review below, Doctorow examines Kundera's narrative style in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, describing the relation between the characters and themes of his book.

"I am bored by narrative," Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary in 1929, thus suggesting how the novel has been kept alive in our century by novelists' assaults on its conventions. Writers have chosen to write novels without plots or characters or the illusion of time passing. They have disdained to represent real life, as the painters did a half century before them. They have compacted their given languages, or invented their own, or revised the idea of composition entirely by assembling their books as collages.

Appearing noticeably in the United States 15 or 20 years ago was the disclaimed fiction in which the author deliberately broke the mimetic spell of his text and insisted that the reader should not take his story to heart or believe in the existence of his characters. Disclaiming had the theoretical advantage of breaking through to some approximation of the chaos and loss of structure in life. The subject of these fictions became the impossibility of maintaining them, and the author by his candor became the only character the reader could believe in. John Barth is one writer who comes to mind as having explored the possibilities of this strategy, and the distinguished Czech novelist Milan Kundera in his new book, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, continues to find it useful.

"And once more I see him the way he appeared to me at the very beginning of the novel," Mr. Kundera says of one of the characters, who is described standing at a window and staring across a courtyard at a blank wall. "This is the image from which he was born…. Characters are not born, like people, of woman; they are born of a situation, a sentence, a metaphor, containing in a nutshell a basic human possibility … the characters in my novels are my own unrealized possibilities. That is why I am equally fond of them and equally horrified by them…. But enough. Let us return to Tomas."

The question may reasonably be asked if this convention too isn't ready for assault. May it not be too late to return to Tomas? Do we have to be told where he comes from any more than we have to be told where babies come from? There is a particular hazard to the author who intrudes on his text: He had better be as interesting as the characters he competes with and the story he subverts or we may find him self-indulgent or, worse, coy, like those animated cartoons where a hand draws a little animal and colors it in and pushes it along to its adventure down the road.

Even now, in our age, there is a sanctity to the story. Because it is supremely valuable to us—as valuable as science or religion—we feel all violence done to it must finally be in its service. Virginia Woolf's experiment in avoiding narrative, Mrs. Dalloway, discovered another way to construct it or, perhaps, another place in which it could occur. The idea has always been to make it beat with life's beating heart.

Let us return to Tomas. Mr. Kundera has made him a successful surgeon. In Prague, in the spring of 1968, when Alexander Dubcek is trying to make the Czech Communist Government more human, Tomas writes a letter to a newspaper to add his voice to a public debate. Thereafter, the Russians invade Prague, Dubcek is replaced, public debate ceases, and Tomas is asked by the authorities to sign a statement retracting the sentiments of his letter. But he knows that once he does, if he ever again speaks out the Government will publish his retraction and his name among his fellow Czechs will be ruined. So he refuses and for his intransigence is then asked to sign a letter avowing his love for the Soviet Union, a possibility so unthinkable that he quits medicine and becomes a window washer. He hopes that now that he is down at the bottom he will no longer matter to the authorities and they will let him alone. What he discovers is that he no longer matters to anyone. When he was supposed by his hospital colleagues to be thinking of signing the retraction in order to keep his job they turned up their noses at him. Now that he's been declassed for maintaining his integrity, he's become an untouchable.

The first thing to note about this character's fate is that it is a gloss on Orwell: To destroy Tomas, Mr. Kundera is saying, the powerfully inertial police apparatus doesn't have to expend the energy required to torture him. It need only send around an affable plainclothesman with a letter to be signed. Once the policeman appears, no matter how Tomas responds his life is ruined.

The second thing to note is the idea of the exhaustion of meaningful choice. Tomas is one of four main characters born frankly of images in Mr. Kundera's mind. All of them to one extent or another enact the paradox of choices that are not choices, of courses of action that are indistinguishable in consequence from their opposite. He shows us Sabina, a painter, as she is deciding whether or not to keep her current lover, Franz, a university professor. Franz is physically strong. If he used his strength on her and ordered her about, Sabina knows she wouldn't put up with him for five minutes. But he is gentle, and because she believes physical love must be violent she finds Franz dull. Either way, whatever Franz does, she will have to leave him.

Mr. Kundera says Sabina lives by betrayal, abandoning family, lovers and, finally, country, in a way that condemns her to what he calls a "lightness of being," by which he means a life so lacking in commitment or fidelity or moral responsibility to anyone else as to be unattached to the real earth. By contrast, his fourth character, Tereza, the loyal wife of Tomas, suffers an unflagging love for her philandering husband that finally is responsible for his ruin, because it's her unwillingness to live in exile that brings him back to his fate in Czechoslovakia after he has set himself up nicely in a Swiss hospital. Thus, Tereza, the exact opposite of Sabina in commitment and fidelity and rootedness to the real earth, sinks under an unbearable moral burden, weight and lightness, in the Kunderian physics, adding up to the same thing.

So there is a pattern in the subservience of his characters to Mr. Kundera's will. They all exemplify the central act of his imagination, which is to conceive of a paradox and express it elegantly. The paradox he is most fond of is the essential identity of opposites, and he plays with it over and over again, with minor characters as well as major ones and with little essays and one-line observations. For instance, he shows us a dissident Czech emigre in Paris in the act of reproaching his fellow emigres for their lack of anti-Communist fervor, and he finds in him the same bullying quality of mind as in the former head of state, Antonin Novotny, who ruled Czechoslovakia for 14 years. The elegance lies in the image Mr. Kundera uses to make the observation that both the emigre and the former ruler point their index fingers at whomever they address. In fact, people of this sort, Mr. Kundera tells us, have index fingers longer than their middle fingers.

Whether personal or political, all attitudes, stands, positions in the Kunderian vision come up short. He will kill off three of his quartet and allow the fourth to disappear from the book, presumably from a lightness of being; but his true story, the one to which he gives honest service, is the operation of his own mind as it formulates and finds images for the disastrous history of his country in his lifetime. The paradox of the essential identity of opposites describes an intractable world in which human beings are deprived of a proper context for their humanity. The author who ostentatiously intrudes in his characters' lives and tells them how to behave mimics, of course, the government that interferes deeply in its citizens' lives and tells them how to behave. Tomas and Sabina and Franz and Tereza were invented to live under two tyrannies, the tyranny of contemporary Czechoslovakia and the tyranny of Mr. Kundera's despair.

Readers of the author's celebrated novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting will recognize here his structural use of leitmotif, the repertoire of phrases and fancies among which he circulates and recirculates. They will find the same ironic tone and brilliance of annotation of the fearful emptiness of Eastern European life under Communist management. Here too is the author's familiarity with music, his preoccupation with Don Juanism, his almost voyeuristic attention to the female body and its clothes. And the pointed, surreal image: Park benches from the city of Prague, colored red, yellow and blue, floating inexplicably on the Vltava River. Like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mr. Kundera knows how to get ahead of his story and circle back to it and run it through again with a different emphasis. But the prose is sparer here, and the Garcia Marquez levitations are not events now, but ideas. There is less clutter in the prose, less of the stuff of life, as if the author had decided to send the myriad furnishings of novels, its particulars, down the Vltava, after the benches. This is a kind of conceptualist fiction, a generic-brand, no-frills fiction, at least in Michael Henry Heim's translation. Mr. Kundera is not inclined to dwell on the feel of human experience except as it prepares us for his thought.

And what is his thought? Asking this question leads to the novel on its own terms. Mr. Kundera is a good psychologist of the rutting male. His idea of love as the occupation by another person of one's own poetic memory is a sweet one. He adds to the meaning of the word kitsch by describing it, first, as an esthetic ideal that denies the existence of excrement and, second, as the inevitable adjunct of political power. "Whenever a single political movement corners power we find ourselves in the realm of totalitarian kitsch," he says. "Everything that infringes on kitsch must be banished for life … every display of individualism … every doubt … all irony." Thus, "the gulag is a septic tank used by totalitarian kitsch to dispose of its refuse."

It is a not unattractive philosophical bent that sends Mr. Kundera into his speculative exercises. He has a first-rate mind and, like Bernard Shaw, the capacity to argue both sides of a question and make each side seem reasonable in its turn. But every now and then a wryly argued proposition seems flawed, a weakness for literary idea rather than a strength of thought—that a concentration camp, for instance, is defined first and foremost by the complete absence of privacy; it might be argued that slave labor and starvation and mass graves are its primary characteristics. Or the idea, coming from Sabina's walk through New York City, that its beauty, unlike that of European cities, is unintentional, or "beauty by mistake, the final phase in the history of beauty." New York may indeed be unintentionally beautiful, but we are younger than Europe, and, whatever holocaust is in sight, beauty by mistake might just as easily be the first phase in the history of beauty as the last.

One recurrent theme in the book is that the ideal of social perfection is what inevitably causes the troubles of mankind, that the desire for utopia is the basis of the world's ills, there being no revolution and therefore no totalitarianism without it. This idea has currency among expatriate Eastern European intellectuals, and perhaps their bitter experience entitles them to it. But the history of revolutions begins, more likely, in the desire to eat or to breathe than in the thought that man must be perfected. And a revolutionary document like the American Constitution is filled with instructions and standards for civilized life under equitable law; and it is truly utopian, but its ideals are our saving grace and drive us to our best selves, not our worst.

It is not exactly self-indulgence or coyness that threatens The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The mind Mr. Kundera puts on display is truly formidable, and the subject of its concern is substantively alarming. But, given this subject, why are we forced to wonder, as we read, where his crisis of faith locates itself, in the world or in his art? The depiction of a universe in which all human choice wallows in irresolution, in which, as Yeats wrote, "The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity," sometimes sets off the technique of this novel as an act of ego in excess of the sincere demands of despair. Mr. Kundera's master, the prophet Kafka, we can't help remembering, wrote a conceptualist no-frills fiction in which, however, he never appeared.

All this said, the work of reconceiving and redesigning the novel continues through the individual struggles of novelists all over the world, like an instinct of our breed. What is fine and valiant in Mr. Kundera is the enormous struggle not to be characterized as a writer by his exile and by his nation's disenfranchisement, even though they are the conditions his nose is rubbed in by Czechoslovak history. He works with cunning and wit and elegiac sadness to express "the trap the world has become," and this means he wants to reconceive not only narrative but the language and history of politicized life if he is to accord his experience the dimensions of its tragedy. This is in direct contrast to the problem of the American writer who must remember not to write of life as if it had no political content whatsoever. We can hope, with Milan Kundera, not to enact one of his elegant paradoxes in our separate choices and discover that either one leads to the same exhausted end.

(read more)

This section contains 2,378 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Ellen Pifer