For many years, I have considered Milan Kundera’s “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting” one of my favorite books. I’ve recommended it to at least a dozen people and given it away multiple times. But I haven’t had my own copy of the book in years and for some reason it isn’t available in any e-book format, so I haven’t revisited it.
Recently I decided to go back and read it again. And I still consider it to be one of my favorite novels, but I’m also deeply puzzled. In my re-read, I didn’t remember a single detail from the book — talk about a book of forgetting. In fact, if anyone had asked for details of the novel, I probably would have mentioned something that was actually in “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.”
That isn’t too big a leap, actually, because the two novels share a number of like and similar plot points. Every male character is basically a form of Kundera. While his view of male sexuality is overtly toxic, at least Kundera is willing to make his male protagonists ridiculous. The female protagonists are more interesting, but also seem slightly less real, more idealized versions of the type of sexual liberation Kundera wishes could play out on both sides. To put it in the crudest terms, Kundera’s men tend to be Czech while his women tend to be French.
I do wonder, however, exactly why I liked the book so much 30 years ago, when I was unaware of its many positive and negative literary influences. The book leans heavily into the French (Diderot and Voltaire, especially) while thoroughly rejecting the Russian (most notably Doestoyevsky.) At the time I first read it, I hadn’t read enough world literature to grasp the references, never mind the multiple Jungian tropes that Kundera trots out (including multiple examinations of the shadow.) Perhaps I identified with the “Litost” section of the book at the time more than I do now.
But there is another form of influence I could not have understood 30 years ago — just how significantly this book and others in Kundera’s corpus would influence my own style. Kundera demonstrated to me that a book of ideas could live and breathe as vividly as any work of fiction. And reading this paragraph, I cannot imagine taking on the original Montaigne project without Kundera’s lead:
This book is a novel in the form of variations. The various parts follow each other like the various stages of a voyage leading into the interior of a theme, the interior of a thought, the interior of a single, unique situation, the understanding of which recedes from my sight into the distance.
Maybe it is just a testament to the book’s quality that it can be enjoyed purely on its own terms, but also in the greater context that I can appreciate it now. Interestingly, the book’s sharply anti-Russian point of view is also far more fitting with the current zeitgeist than that of the early 1990s, when post-Soviet Russia was viewed in far more positive terms. Kundera would have none of that, and after more than 20 years of Putinism run amok in the world, it’s much easier to accept his point of view now.
In many ways, however, the book seems dated. It fit with the cynical, ironic worldview of the 1980s and 90s beautifully. But now, the book’s stance against revolution and social change seems selfish and privileged. Calls for revolution within no longer feel appropriate. Even so, the book has resonance and value as a cautious reminder that even the best of intentions have a way of becoming corrupted when taken on as a mass movement and the most meaningful changes must always occur first at the personal level.
I’m reasonably sure that the last place where I read this novel was Richmond, Virginia, a city now engaged in the long-overdue act of tearing down its numerous Confederate general monuments. But as this act of social progress takes place, Kundera offers an interesting counterpoint to consider about the historical memory hole in Prague:
Wandering the streets that do not know their names are the ghosts of monuments torn down. Torn down by the Czech Reformation, torn down by the Austrian Counter-Reformation, torn down by the Czechoslovakian Republic, torn down by the Communists; even the statues of Stalin have been torn down. In place of those destroyed monuments, statues of Lenin are nowadays springing up in Bohemia by the thousands, springing up like weeds among ruins, like melancholy flowers of forgetting.
At the time I first read this novel, those Lenin statues had too been torn down. Now even the name Czechoslovakia has fallen into the memory hole. It was all easy to swallow 30 years ago. Perhaps the difficulty this message has in going down today makes “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting” even more valuable, even if we rightfully cheer Robert E. Lee monuments being destroyed.