Thank goodness for Book Oblivion’s Book Club or I would still be careening full-force through 2017 solely reading non-fiction. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera turned out to be a good one for both breaking and complimenting my non-fiction cycle.
Husband: “How’s the book?”
Husband: “Uh oh. What’s wrong with it?”
Me: “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Husband: “Whenever you answer with ‘interesting’ it’s not a good thing.”
Me: “I’m in the middle and this piece is intriguing so you’ve asked right in the middle of me possibly changing my opinion. I figure if at the end I want to read more of his work then I’ll overall rank it as a good read, but if I’m unconvinced then it’s going to stay in the unexplored, ‘interesting’ category.”
That’s what the rest of this Book Note will try to sort out.
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is comprised of seven chapters, loosely connected. The story is told in snippets and snapshots, much like the photo mentioned at the beginning, catching a simple moment and then considering its revisions through time. Perhaps readers are introduced by way of a photograph just to emphasize what a picture can’t tell us compared to what writing can. The photograph can’t tell you that it had been altered, it won’t tell you the relationship between the subjects, it may not even tell you who was looking and taking the picture, in short, it can’t tell you anything about the past and/or the future or the connection between the past and the present or the present and the future. Kundera’s novel continues to explore then the power of written words as one of the themes.
There are lost letters, journals and diaries confiscated, a struggling poet seeking an autograph, a surreptitious writing gig, and a particularly compelling conversation with a taxi cab driver. That conversation, plopped right in the middle of Part Four: Lost Letters (the reader’s introduction to Tamina and the point at which my husband asked how I liked the novel), was worth reading the book to find. A brief digression from storytelling to authorial opining, Kundera reflects on writing. This is just a small excerpt:
You might say that the taxi driver is not a writer but a graphomaniac. So we need to be precise about our concepts. A woman who writes her lover four letters a day is not a graphomaniac. She is a lover. But my friend who makes photocopies of his love letters to publish them someday is a graphomaniac. Graphomania is not a mania to write letters, personal diaries, or family chronicles (to write for oneself or one’s close relations) but a mania to write books (to have a public of unknown readers). In that sense, the taxi driver and Goethe share the same passion. What distinguishes Goethe from the taxi driver is not a difference in passions but one passion’s different results.
And so the novel, among other themes and with many more noticeable situations (sex much?), examines how we define living and life, and how we remember or forget having lived, and what is worth forgetting or remembering.
The laughter aspect of the title comes rarely in the form of joy or happiness; it comes from anxiety, dismissiveness, nervousness. It is false. It is, as Kundera explores in another section, the devil’s laughter. “There are two laughters, and we have no word to tell one from the other.”
My reaction to this novel was mixed. As a reader, I didn’t love it, but the dexterity of the writing between fiction and essay along with the subtle floating of themes (more than I mentioned here) in and through the piece kept me thinking and considering more than most books do. Nevertheless, the characters were largely flat, the stories were hit-or-miss, and I’m not interested to know any more ways someone can write about sex. But the ideas were compelling. As a writer, the form is intriguing, and Kundera’s perspectives on writing are worth digging into. It isn’t a book I would recommend to someone else. I would think of many others before suggesting this one. My recommendation would be “eh.”
But, just as the conversation with my husband suggested, I leave my personal response to whether I want to read more of Kundera’s work.
And the answer is: yes. My interest is not from an “I love his books!” reaction but more of an intellectual curiosity and response to his style and ideas. While The Incredible Lightness of Being will not be in my reading stacks of the near future, I am putting it on my TBR pile, and I look forward to exploring his non-fiction selections. Surprise, surprise. I end where I started, a link between fiction and non-fiction.