“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.”-Milan Kundera, The Unbearble Lightness of Being
Way Back Wednesday is a Book Meme created by A Well Read Woman with the aim to write mini book reviews on books read in the past, that left a lasting impression.
The first author to really pique my imagination as an adult reader was Milan Kundera. In high school I had devoured Douglas Adams’ A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and looking back, although they have very different styles, I think the experience of both of these writers was formative. A reader recently described my signature style as “vivid use of words, wry humor, and spot-on observations about humanity.” The wry humor must have been informed by my love of Adams and observations about humanity are the literary offspring of my devotion to Kundera in my early twenties.
Most of the story-telling I had experienced as a young reader was heavily plot driven. You read (or watched TV) to find out who done it or how the hero will get to the happy end. What attracted me to Kundera was how the author used characters as a jumping off point to explore philosophical questions; to talk about human nature and society.
I still remember the passage from The Unbearable Lightness of Being that made me want to read everything Kundera had written.
A year or two after emigrating, she happened to be in Paris on the anniversary of the Russian invasion of her country. A protest march had been scheduled, and she felt driven to take part. Fists raised high, the young Frenchmen shouted out slogans, but to her surprise she found herself unable to shout along with them. She lasted no more than a few minutes in the parade. When she told her French friends about it, they were amazed. “You mean you don’t want to fight the occupation of your country?” She would have liked to tell them that behind Communism, Fascism, behind all occupations and invasions lurks a more basic, pervasive evil and that the image of that evil was a parade of people marching by with raised fists and shouting identical syllables in unison. But she knew she would never be able to make them understand.
Thinking back to the period when I immersed myself in Kundera’s novels, I remember that I had a live-in boyfriend for a time who was prone to jealousy and insecurity. He was suspicious of my interest in Milan Kundera. (Come to that, he was suspicious of my interest in anything besides him.) All that he knew about The Unbearable Lightness of Being came from the film adaptation of the novel. I don’t know if he had seen the film or not. What he knew about it, what most people knew about it, was that it was sexy and pushed the boundaries of acceptability at that time. The most talked about scene was a homoerotic photo shoot between the two main female characters which, as I recall, was not in the book. One of the things I loved about Kundera’s novels is that they do not lend themselves to film adaptation as the main interest in them is the philosophical musings not the plot point. I have always preferred novels that do not read like a movie. It means the author used his medium well.
My then-boyfriend, however, believed Kundera wrote dirty books. He was deeply threatened by the notion that I might have an interest in sex. He preferred the old notion that women do not like sex and therefore if one consents to have sex with you (at great cost to herself) she is making something of a sacrifice and that proves the depths of her love and devotion. If sex didn’t prove that she was entirely devoted, then what proof did you have of love? Women, of course, have had to navigate the ambiguities of what a particular act of intimacy means in context for years as we have not had the mythology that men would only want sex if they were devoted at the soul level, but for this particular man, the idea that he might have to navigate a sea of ambiguities was all quite unsettling. (This aspect of my relationship, incidentally, found its way into my first novel Angel as the jealousy of the main character, Paul.) He was so anxious about Kundera that during the time I was with him, I could not enjoy reading it.
And so a novel that had been politically censored in the author’s home country, and a film that was at the center of discussions about depictions of sexuality in film, led to a bit of censorship at home.