Life is Elsewhere / Laughable Loves
Lovable Laughes, novel in 3 parts: 1963-1965-1968, complete 1969.
Live is Elsewhere, novel, written 1969/70.
Small Novel - large Stories (by Paul Theroux, 28/7/1974)
When he want to annoWhen he want to annoy the cultural commissars on his occasional visits to the Soviet Union, the superb Turkish novelist Yashar
Kemal--southern Anatolia's William Faulkner--says, "Well Socialist Realism is basically anti-Marxist. . ." It is also, in the right hands, a great recipe for
comedy: The po-faced deflation in bureaucratic gibberish, the rigidity that seems designed to collapse amid howls of laughter from its own weight.
Understandably, the Czechs are embarrassed by the attention shown to their deflations especially after the heroic fiasco of "The Prague Spring." And Philip
Roth points out in his introduction to "Laughable Loves" how skeptical Czech writers are when a foreigner expresses interest in them, as if the predicament
is more important than the work and that any outside expression of praise can only be patronizing. Roth quotes the Czech novelist Ludvik Vaculik's
lament about foreign critics judging Czech writing according to how it "settles accounts with illusions about socialism."
"I would think," Roth writes, "that like Holub and VaculÌk, Milan Kundera too would prefer to find a readership in the West that was not drawn to his fiction
because he is a writer who is oppressed by a Communist regime. . . ." Yes, but it is hard to ignore the origins of the comedy in Kundera's fiction as to set
aside the circumstances and concentrate on the purity of diction in the poetry of Ho Chi Minh or the Bard of Peking, who writes poems when he is not killing off his opposition.
The fact is that Kundera, who is a magnificent short-story writer and a reasonably good novelist (I am going on the evidence of "Life Is Elsewhere";
Roth has a high opinion of "The Joke"), depends for his effects on the ridiculous strictures set up by a Socialist government. You have to first
assume that the hacks in the Czech Government believe they have created a Socialist paradise; after that, everything they do is funny. A writer who keeps
his sanity long enough to ridicule his oppressors, who has enough hope left to make this ridicule into satire, must be congratulated. And Kundera's humor is
impossible elsewhere. One can't imagine his particular situations growing out of anything but a combined anger and fascination with the cut-price Stalinists
who have the whip- hand in Prague, "that city," he says, "of defenestration. . . ."
The stores are bound with politics, and even when politics is never mentioned, as in "The Hitchhiking Game," it
enters the story as a kind of fatigue: why else would this pair be behaving like this if it weren't for the fact that
their famished imaginations are the result of political frustration? He is more specific in other stories, because
his best humor always seems to be rooted in authority situations: in "Nobody Will Laugh" Mr. Klima is a
wise-cracking victim of the art wing of the party (who want him to praise a bad article); in "Edward and God," a
comedy quite as good as any of Roth's, the jokes are based on official disbelief in God, and it is impossible to
appreciate the complexity of the humor until one takes into account the whole attitude toward religion in a Marxist society. Only then does the wry figure of Edward, discovered blessing himself (because he wants to be
a believer) become funny.
"Life is Elsewhere," Kundera's novel, revolves on a single political proposition: that in a society with strict rules
a poet risks betraying his lyricism. In describing the life of Jaromil from the moment of conception to a tubercular death, Kundera casts his clauses back to other times, to other thrusting young poets--Shelley,
Mayakovsky, Rimbaud--highlighting their similarities to his own creation but taking special pains to remind us
that Jaromil has misread the liberty he so enthusiastically praises. "Lyric poets generally come from homes run
by women," Kundera says. Jamoril's mother is a monster of deceptive affections and leads the poor boy into
believing that he has a prodigious imagination, that his greatness is undeniable, that he is "one of the elect."
This motherly conspiracy, making childish utterances into Blakean bon mots and turning every human possibility into an occasion for naÔve and self-deluded philosophizing, is the best thing in the book and
becomes not only a comment on Jaromil but an argument against romanticism. Jaromil is inadequate, soulless, castrated, while claiming a soulful virility; he is one of a mob of apostrophizing innocents who must be
held responsible for the party hack.
Kundera makes the point repeatedly: this poet is a pariah; but he invests Jaromil with enough of Byron's charm
to make one pause over his unprincipled flights and forgive him his youth. On the other hand, Jaromil, so blind
to his deliberate willfulness, is really an easy target. The two professions in the world that are easiest to ridicule
are the poet's and the politician's--a person only has to say that he's a politician to have everyone within
earshot in stitches, and rightly so. But the poet's power is imagined; if he appears to be a joke it is because he must eventually face the fact that his scribblings must be of small eminence in a world where only the
politician's howlings are heard. Kundera's epigraph, a mocking one is from Rimbaud, "Il faut Ítre absolument
moderne." But it is salutary to reflect that Arthur Rimbaud abandoned modernity and fled to the hinterland of
Somalia to rid himself of the poetic impulse; and he once remarked to his employer in Africa (speaking of the buggers and versifiers he knew in Paris), "I'm through with those birds."
Jaromil never takes that step. Kundera nudges him to the limit of irresponsibility, and Jaromil-- believing he is
serving his own idealism--betrays his girlfriend's brother. The brother is planing to leave the country; Jaromil
turns him in. It is the height of cruelty because it is a denial of the very liberty Jaromil has been rhapsodizing
about. After the dirty deed, Jaromil is at the police station: "Jaromil gazed with admiration at the policeman's
face. It looked beautiful to him, criss-crossed with deep wrinkles testifying to a hard, two-fisted life. Yes,
Jaromil too hoped their meeting would not be the last. He was glad to be of help. He knew where he stood." And after this brainlessness, Jaromil goes home to write a poem.
It seems to me that the novel is only half-successful because it looks too much as if Kundera is shooting a
clumsy fish in a very small barrel. And it is not a very convincing rebuttal of the heroics of Byron and Shelley or
the poetic mind in general. It is particularizing of an isolated case of perversity--metrical feet shod with jackboots. It does put one in mind of that tuneless prima buffa Yevtushenko and the whole tradition of Soviet
writing which, as Nabokov once remarked, has about it "the smell of the prison library." By making Jaromil a partisan he makes him insignificant as a poet.
The fact that this is a novel with a built-in solution should not deter anyone from reading it. It is, among other
things, a novel of tremendous elasticity, stretching in all directions as it moves forward; it is also very funny.
But "Life Is Elsewhere" is a small achievement next to "Laughable Loves," the stories. I think he's wrong, but
this is a measure of his enthusiasm, not a critical judgment, and I would be very surprised if a better collection of stories appeared this year.