Milan Kundera

The Fascinations Underlying Oscar’s Ghost

Thank you to John Cooper for making me aware of his detailed article Finding Oscar, which addresses the question of why Oscar Wilde continues to fascinate more than a century after his death.

As Oscar’s Ghost is coming out on the 15th, I’ve been feeling as though I ought to write about what sparked my interest in the lengthy feud between Robert Ross and Lord Alfred Douglas.

What makes a subject grab hold of one’s imagination? Interestingly, I find myself thinking back to my first literary love, Milan Kundera. In high school I devoured the Hitchhikers Guide series by Douglas Adams. In college I discovered Kundera, making him my first favored author as an adult.

I started, as most readers probably do, with The Unbearable Lightness of Being and something in it excited me and caused me to seek out the author’s other books. My favorites were The Joke and Laughable Loves. Having read the books a good three decades ago, I find that I remember my feelings about them more than I can recall what was actually in them. As I am on the road right now with my ballet project, I don’t have access to my books so I can’t look back and see what I highlighted. That is probably for the best, because it is my reaction that I am trying to revisit.

The fuzzy sense I have years later is that Kundera’s books presented society (in his case, communist society) as a kind of game that everyone is forced to play. Because the system is nonsensical it forces everyone, whether they conform or rebel, to live nonsensical lives. The idea that people have control over their lives is laughable, and yet we cannot help but to live as though this were the case. The characters did not understand each other. They acted on wrong assumptions about each other’s motives sometimes with disastrous consequences. Now, as I said, someone with a more recent familiarity with these books may look back and ask “What exactly were you reading again?” Memory is like that.

In looking back to those elements, however, I get a sense of some of the abstract ideas that fueled my interest in the Oscar Wilde circle and the feud between Douglas and Ross. Before I decided to write on the subject, I read a great deal about it. The Wilde story brings into sharp relief the problem of the individual vs. society. Even rebels– people who do not or cannot conform to society– must live within it. It is difficult to see your own society clearly, being immersed in it. Reading vivid descriptions of others at odds with elements of their society, how they try to balance conforming and resisting helps us to understand the larger forces that shape our own lives. In Lord Alfred Douglas you have someone who was favored in every way by his society– except for one.  The internal conflict of someone who is conservative and naturally inclined to back the status quo and who yet cannot conform in a way that his culture deems vital, was of great interest to me. As were the various misunderstandings between him and his once intimate friend Robert Ross and how social forces helped to escalate them.

Before I wrote on the subject, I obviously did a lot of reading, and I found that most people who wrote about the conflicts took sides. There seems to be always a Team Bosie and a Team Robbie. I found it most engaging to try to understand the perspectives of both and how each was prodded by his own situation, personality, assumptions, goals and shortcomings.

 

Banned by My Boyfriend: A Memory of The Unbearable Lightness of Being

“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.

Unbearable_lightness_of_being_posterThe 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.

Feature and Follow Friday: The Most Emotional Scene

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I discovered a new theme to play along with.  It is called Feature and Follow Friday.  Hosted by Parajunkee and Alison Can Read.

Today’s question is:
Q: Tell us about the most emotional scene you’ve ever read in a book – and how did you react?

Two thoughts come to mind.

The first scene that came to me is from Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being.  This was the first of Kundera’s novels that I read and I must have been about 23 years old.  This one passage struck me and made me want to read everything else 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 condemning Soviet imperialism.  She liked the 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, behind 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.

This was the first scene that came to mind.   The second thought that came to me was the holocaust novel Night by Elie Wiesel.  The whole book is harrowing and moving and I couldn’t pick out a particular scene, but here is a passage:

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed.  Never shall I forget that smoke.  Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.

Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.

Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live.  Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust.  Never shall I forget those things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God himself.  Never.

Don Quixote, Da Vinci and the Invisibility of Children in Literature

In Encounter Milan Kundera made the observation that “scarcely 1 percent of the world’s population are childless, but at least 50 percent of the great literary characters exit the book without having reproduced.”

I found this to be quite thought-provoking.  I disagree, however, with his conclusions as to why this is.  He hypothesizes that the novel makes the protagonist “irreplaceable… the center of everything.”

If Don Quixote had children, he argues, his life would be prolonged.  His narrative would go on in the form of his children and the story wouldn’t be finished.

This makes no sense to me as the full life of a character from birth to death is not usually the span of a novel.  Novels usually focus on a particular period in a character’s life starting not at birth but just before a particular drama unfolds.  Some novels end with the death of the main character, but this is far from a requirement.  The story is finished when the drama as the author conceived it is over.  (“And they lived happily ever after” is as common in story telling as “And then they all died.”)

Stories do not include children for the same reason they do not include a lot of elements of life— the drama of a novel is stripped down to those characters and situations that are essential to portray the particular struggle being illustrated.  Children exist in our stories largely as plot devices rather than characters because adults are, for the most part, not that interested in exploring the depths of the immature mind.

The biggest problem I see with a Papa Don Quixote is that we are meant to view Don Quixote as a hero because he refuses to be constrained by ugly reality and chooses instead to live in beautiful fantasy.  He makes his own dream world rather than living with the constrains and responsibilities of his social environment.  There is a part of us that is always at war with the constrains of society, and that part loves Quixote.  But it is much easier to admire Don Quixote’s beautiful madness if it is not at the expense of an abandoned family; a wife and children who might depend on him to be present in the real world back home.

It would be even more outlandish for us if he were a woman.  Imagine Donna Quixote:  A wealthy Spanish woman who chooses a world of fantasy over reality.  She would have a hard time.  If she was childless our culture would have us assume one of two things about her.  Either she was traumatized by her barrenness (her madness might be attributed to it) or she was selfish enough to put her own needs above child rearing.  She could be either a damaged victim or unsympathetic.  Those are really the only two choices we have in our culture, especially historically, for childless women.  Neither makes for a great hero.  If Donna Quixote had children, on the other hand, how forgiving would we be if she went off to have adventures as a knight and left the kids behind?  Much less so, I imagine, than we would be for the warriors of classic literature.

Which leads to another observation about the great literary characters.  I am making this statistic up out of thin air, but my guess would be that while a full 50% of the world’s population is female, 98% of the great literary characters are male.

Historically, children were a woman’s responsibility and they were interesting to men only as heirs.  This being the case, they would rarely figure in the drama of a man’s life.  He might find his princess and she might have his children, but that would have little impact on his adventures at sea.

Kundera’s analysis of the purpose of children in literature, in fact, takes the view that the only meaning of a child is as an heir.  The child is not a responsibility or a person with whom you have a relationship.  If more of the great books focused on the lives of women then children might be more present.  In stories about women, children often exist as a pressing responsibility.

I was thinking about this question again the other day when I was reading one of those books on the search for the historical Jesus.  The book speculated on whether or not Jesus was a married man.  It would be unusual for a 30-year-old Jewish man of his day not to be married, and the author concluded that it was likely that he would have been.  The popularity and appeal of this view of Jesus is attested to by the great success of Dan Brown’s best seller The DaVinci Code.

Of course, when you speculate about the marital status of Jesus, the next question is whether or not he had children.  The author of the book on the historical Jesus touched on this question.  Just as Dan Brown does in The DaVinci Code and as Kundera does in his musings on Don Quixote’s childlessness, he frames the question of Jesus’s children as one of his bloodline. Does Jesus have descendants walking around somewhere?

This sidesteps a rather important question: If Jesus had children what kind of father was he?

We know that Jesus did not have many positive things to say about family bonds.  He told his disciples to leave their families and follow him, and he turned away his own mother and brothers (Matthew 12:47-49) and said that his disciples were his real brothers.  Would this detachment from his mother and siblings extend to the next generation as well?

It is easy to see how the idea of a Christ with children becomes problematic.  If he favored his own children over others, it undercuts his message of universal love– a love that shines out on everyone and everything with equal unconcern.  Jesus loves the beggar, the prostitute and the tax collector with the same depth and quality as he loves his mother, no more no less.  Yet as human beings, the idea of a father who does not favor his own children and give them special attention over other people is abhorrent to us.

It is much easier to avoid the issue all together by leaving his family, if indeed he had one, out of the story.