On Kundera

Bought and borrowed a few new books today. I love the excitement of carrying fourteen books in tow – the pleasure of anticipation as I run my fingers over the brief chapter headings – and discover new authors/ and fall in love again with old. The books I read merge with my memories, and recently I’ve returned to texts which hail from high school and childhood days.

Yes who remembers the Baby Sitters’ Club! Haha! I remember that Claudia was always my favourite girl, the funky Asian American with a artistic sort of style… and I remember always looking forward to the next book when I was a child… I have no doubt my daughter will also be introduced to the Baby-Sitter’s Club and the exploits of the chalet school girls.

Today I returned with three more Milan Kundera novels – yes I am addicted, and very much enthralled by Kundera lately – Slowness (his first novel, and his fifth English version), The Joke, and Farewell Waltz. Beansprouts accused me once of bearing a sort of romanticism towards Kundera (if you recall, Beansprouts) but I insist that his best book is the rarer version of Life is Elsewhere, and he is a detailed, meticulous writer who knows the fine art of transposing irony into text with a slick controlled style inspired by greek semantics and structure. Yes, if you read his texts carefully, he carefully prepares each stage and word with such thought- despite reading only the translation, I am thrilled by the thought of his going through the translations, finding fault with a sudden dire expression, writing a long thesis to his Czech publisher complaining about such and such a syntax… remembering words and writing plots drawn from long walks and his music.

What I love most about Kundera perhaps, is that he pens out a paragraph in great emotics, and just when I have fallen for the character, my heart agrees and lies with the protagonist, he introduces such a smart denoument that suddenly my feelings waver, I am forced to reflect on my previous standpoint and consider whether it was mere emotional response, the reader wonders if he/she has similarly matured in the course of a few chapters or whether that true ugliness or doubt was hiding there like a dark seed all along. I love the way he builds up complexity in an affection and develops it in so many ways, and returns to it like a hidden image or picture in the background.

In Testaments Betrayed, he writes a series of essays, the first on irony – and it is a telling read of such a fascinating author whose success in Czechoslovakia- his fellowmen are thus proud of him and chorused his name each time I entered even an old and fading bookshop- him and Kafka, but for me he encompassed in a brilliant way both the Old Town and New Town of Kafka. Sometimes when I read Kundera, I think back to my memories of Prague and they grow a little bittersweet.

“The brain appears to possess a special area which we might call poetic memory and which records everything that charms or touches us, that makes our lives beautiful … Love begins with a metaphor. Which is to say, love begins at the point when a woman enters her first word into our poetic memory.” — Milan Kundera

“I imagine the feelings of two people meeting again after many years. In the past they spent some time together, and therefore they think they are linked by the same experience, the same recollections. The same recollections? That’s where the misunderstanding starts: they don’t have the same recollections; each of them retains two or three small scenes from the past, but each has his own; their recollections are not similar; they don’t intersect; and even in terms of quantity they are not comparable: one person remembers the other more than he is remembered; first because memory capacity varies among individuals (an explanation that each of them would at least find acceptable), but also (and this is more painful to admit) because they don’t hold the same importance for each other. When Irena saw Josef at the airport, she remembered every detail of their long-ago adventure; Josef remembered nothing. From the very first moment their encounter was based on an unjust and revolting inequality.”
— Milan Kundera

And this one reminds me of …actually, my cat…

“Every love relationship rests on an unwritten agreement unthinkingly concluded by the lovers in the first weeks of their love. They are still in a kind of dream but at the same time, without knowing it, are drawing up, like uncompromising lawyers, the detailed clauses of their contract. O lovers! Be careful in those dangerous first days! Once you’ve brought breakfast in bed you’ll have to bring it forever, unless you want to be accused of lovelessness and betrayal.”
— Milan Kundera

“Let us define our terms. A woman who writes her lover four letters a day is not a graphomaniac, she is simply a woman in love. But my friend who xeroxes his love letters so he can publish them someday–my friend is a graphomaniac. Graphomania is not a desire to write letters, diaries, or family chronicles (to write for oneself or one’s immediate family); it is a desire to write books (to have a public of unknown readers). In this sense the taxi driver and Goethe share the same passion. What distinguishes Goethe from the taxi driver is the result of the passion, not the passion itself.

“Graphomania (an obsession with writing books) takes on the proportions of a mass epidemic whenever a society develops to the point where it can provide three basic conditions:

1. a high degree of general well-being to enable people to devote their energies to useless activities;
2. an advanced state of social atomization and the resultant general feeling of the isolation of the individual;
3. a radical absence of significant social change in the internal development of the nation. (In this connection I find it symptomatic that in France, a country where nothing really happens, the percentage of writers is twenty-one times higher than in Israel. Bibi [character from the book] was absolutely right when she claimed never to have experienced anything from the outside. It is this absence of content, this void, that powers the moter driving her to write).

“But the effect transmits a kind of flashback to the cause. If general isolation causes graphomania, mass graphomania itself reinforces and aggravates the feeling of general isolation. The invention of printing originally promoted mutual understanding. In the era of graphomania the writing of books has the opposite effect: everyone surrounds himself with his own writings as with a wall of mirrors cutting off all voices from without.”
— Milan Kundera (The Book of Laughter and Forgetting)

Wrote down some of my other favourite parts of Laughable Loves, when I have more time, will share them soon.

I’m also starting on Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace! Long due-to-be-read book, and I am now reading the same pages as you once did, Beansprouts. Also reading the full version of Jekyll and Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson – for after finishing the full collection of Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales about my favourite detective, I knew that abridged versions, never, never can compare! I remember the day when I discovered in class, when Eddie was reading passages, that the full version of Edgar Allan Poe was so glorious and thrilling (The Fall of the House of Usher). Thus now starting to read full versions of many books I loved as a child – maybe Gulliver’s Travels? And what is the name of that man who fell asleep for many years and woke up as an old man…And I am finishing every single remaining novel I have not read of Joseph Conrad, and his first novel as a writer! (I similarly have a certain kind of romanticism towards writers’ first novels).

I, like Beansprouts, am starting to be spoilt, though. I like my books new.

I love the feeling of being in the middle of a novel and looking up and feeling a little lost and longing for a little bit of grape soda. ; ) Or a warm cat, for that matter (in case her jealousy is aroused).


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