A Difference in Implication
In 'The Storyteller', Walter Benjamin sees that vital to fiction is the capacity to understand an aspect of death. Quoting Paul Valery, Benjamin goes on to say that the idea of eternity has ever had its strongest source in death. If this idea declines, so we reason, the face of death must have changed. It turns out that this change is identical with the one that has diminished the communicability of experience to the same extent as the art of storytelling has declined. A fiction which is without the awareness of death cannot easily achieve the texture of our lives; it will perhaps only give us a snippet of existence. Though Milan Kundera can often seem like a flippant writer, given to detailing womanizing men, duplicitous affairs and offering up women obsessed with their ageing bodies, this would be to read Kundera out of the corner of one's eye. We wouldn't be paying too much attention to what really interests him, and one of those things is death. It is there in numerous works, most poignantly perhaps in describing the narrator's (and what we assume to be Kundera's) account of his father's demise in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. He is dismayed on his father's death by the lack of questions he had asked him during his life and links his own grief to that of one of his characters in the novel, Tamina. Tamina's husband died young and she could not forget him if she tried: each time she would get at all close to a man her husband's features would appear to her, as she too wished she had asked him more questions.
It is this idea of the question and death that we can see very forcefully present in Ignorance, though it is an issue that runs through most of Kundera's work, and he resolves it by making the books he writes about the questions death forces upon us. Kundera rarely dramatizes events; he meditates upon the temporal weight of a moment. In Ignorance, the entire novel is really about one minor event that nevertheless becomes of immense import: partly because death hovers over it, and that Kundera devotes time to it. What might have been a short story becomes instead a short but justifiable novel. The event is a sexual encounter that takes place late in the book but has been anticipated a quarter of the way through it. Here Josef meets Irina at a Paris airport. She is flying to Prague from the French capital; he too is flying to Prague, passing through the airport after transferring from Copenhagen, where he lives. They had a brief encounter some twenty years before. He, the older man, recalls nothing of it, she has never forgotten it. On the plane they talk a little; when they arrive in Prague they arrange to meet up. She takes for granted that he can remember her; he finds her attractive but cannot recall her name, though he doesn't tell her this. That evening many years earlier he had given his attention entirely to her, she remembers, as well as giving her a stolen ashtray from the bar that she had always kept, and regrets she never slept with him when she had the chance, engaged as she was to Martin. But Martin is now long since dead, and she is no longer in love with her partner Gustaf. Josef, however, is still in love with his late wife: the encounter can only be of little consequence to him.
What interests Kundera is how the same act between two people can have very different implications. For Irina it is the realization of a twenty-year dream; for Josef it is a moment of pleasure. As Kundera builds towards the occasion, detailing numerous aspects of both these characters' lives, we don't understand them as the living beings we usually expect from most fiction - fiction which plays up much more a 'natural' causality that makes us feel we are living with them, going through events as they are. In Ignorance, as with much of Kundera's work, we are beside them, in a Heideggarian, temporal mitsein that we could call Kunderan empathy. It is the temporal mitsein that makes it easy to defend Kundera against claims that he is cynical, or that he is too narratively controlling. He doesn't so much let his characters live, in the sense of figures passing through time and space focused on the present, but through their own psychological time, one that means no event will ever be the same for the two people engaging in it. While another writer might say that the two lovers felt as one and describe in detail how this oneness manifests itself, Kundera will describe the twoness, the bifurcation of event through the psychologies involved. In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, a philosophy professor reckons, "ever since Joyce we have been aware of the fact that the greatest adventure in our lives is the absence of adventure...Homer's Odyssey now takes place within man. Man has internalized it." Kundera more than most reflects this shift, aware that Irina's meeting with Josef is monumental for her, and can only be of importance for us if Kundera contextualizes it within his temporal empathy. When the narrator in Ignorance says of the lovemaking session and Irene's thoughts about it, "their accord is total, for she too is aroused by the words she has neither said nor heard for so many years. A total accord in an explosion of obscenities! Ah, how impoverished her life has been! All the vices missed out on, all the fidelities left unrealized - all of that she is avid to experience," this is indeed the Homeran adventure in reverse as well as internalized, with Kundera invoking the Homeran in the early stages of Ignorance as he looks at the question of nostalgia that the book feeds off. Here we have Irina and Josef returning to their homeland after living for many years elsewhere, but while Odysseus was unable to return home as he got caught in adventure after adventure that Homer describes, Irina and Josef's return is impeded by forces far more outside of their control - they escaped the Communist regime - and as Irina's comments show, exile has given her little in terms of adventure.
But everyone has a life, which is also why they have a death, but while the storytelling Benjamin was talking about could incorporate Ancient tragedy, Kundera's is the antithesis of it. Ancient tragedy was predicated on the unities of time and space, as Aristotle well-theorized. If unity works well for adventure, for major events that are happening not only in one's own life, but in history, as tragedy often focuses on kings and queens, generals and emperors, what happens when you focus on ordinary people to whom nothing very spectacular happens? Kundera's answer is not to generate false drama, but instead emphasizes the importance of a minor event by causally linking it to numerous other small events, ones that will contextualize that importance to the character and thus also to the reader. The book's title might be Ignorance, but Kundera constantly offers minor revelations. Yet at the same time he is resistant to regarding his novels as psychological or psychoanalytical, seeing them instead as existential works that indicate everybody has an existence that can be explored even if only some have adventures worth exploring. This places upon the novelist a different burden from that of dramatists of the past: the burden of insight, the capacity to explore the unbearable lightness of being, and yet the necessary weight that makes a life.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being is, of course, the title of Kundera's best-known book, a novel that opens with this contrast between heaviness and weight. Kundera draws upon Nietzsche's idea of eternal return, wondering what sort of burden we would be placed under if events would happen over and over again. That they don't, Kundera says, is to allow for a sort of ontological exoneration. "If the French revolution were to recur eternally, French historians would be less proud of Robespierre. But because they deal with something that will not return, the bloody years of the Revolution have turned into mere words, theories and discussions..." Yet Kundera's work is more receptive to such an idea than most, yet not at all in a condemnatory way. He isn't interested in the sort of post-facto judgements he sees offered in taking down the reputations in numerous writers and thinkers, a type of attack that he challenged in Testaments Betrayed, and that he was subject to several years ago when a Czech journalist claimed he had evidence of Kundera's own betrayal of a Communist colleague in the late forties, the story first published in the Czech magazine Respekt. In Testaments Betrayed, Kundera talks of Heidegger, Picasso and others who are read through their political errors, seeing what he calls a criminography. Heidegger for example, whose childhood is searched through for signs of Naziism without the least concern for locating the roots of his genius. Kundera does not have a problem with the past being brought to bear on the present, but on the simple-minded assumption that the present can speak authoritatively of the past. Events are decontextualized and 'presented', made into the image of the present. What interests him far more is the perspectival aspect of the past and the present conjoining not to judge the past, but to offer new perspectives upon it. Kundera would be unlikely to disagree with Faulkner's claim that the past isn't dead, it isn't even past. But what would kill the past is an absolute judgement placed upon it in the present.
This capacity to re-perspectivise the past is given narrative force in Ignorance, the most fundamentally nostalgic of Kundera's novels and where he devotes a couple of pages to the word nostalgia just as he devotes pages to compassion in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Here, in Ignorance, he tells us that there is a huge distinction between Odysseus's absence in his mind and Odysseus's absence in the minds of those who stayed in Ithaca. "During the twenty years of Odysseus's absence, the people of Ithaca retained many recollections of him, but never felt nostalgia for him. Whereas Odysseus did suffer nostalgia, and remembered almost nothing." He would feel the pain of what he is missing even if (and perhaps because) he could find little evidence for that pain. Others, who did not leave, would feel no pain but have nothing but evidence. Thus the place is the same but the perspective on it can be very different. For one person that home town is the place they had to escape, for another it is the place they long to return to. Kundera never assumes that the inanimate cannot be animated by perspective, and we notice this for example in the context of Irina's lack of nostalgia for Czechoslovakia after the wall comes down.
It is assumed that she would surely want to return since she fled the country for France in the first instance. As Irina says "the French, you know, they have no need for experience. With them, judgements precede experience. When we got there, they didn't need any information from us. They were already thoroughly informed that Stalinism is an evil and emigration is a tragedy. They weren't interested in what we thought, they were interested in us as living proof of what they thought." Subsequently, when the wall came down and Irina and others wanted to stay, "they looked hard at me, an investigator's look. And after that, something soured. I didn't behave the way they expected." The French people Irina knew understood her predicament but they didn't understand her perspective, When the predicament changed and her perspective didn't change with it, they seemed perplexed, perhaps angry. Is this not what we often find in people who cannot easily re-perspectivize, cannot see that within the facts of a situation there are lots of perspectives upon it? Our experiences are not the same as those of others partly because our perspectives upon those experiences are our own, and constantly available to change. This is perhaps centrally where empathy, or compassion, resides, and allows us to distinguish it from pity or sympathy. We have noted, after all, that Kundera gives much space to compassion in The Unbearable Lightness of Being where he explains, etymologically, the different approaches to the word in different languages, noting in Latin languages the root comes from suffering and that in Czech, Polish, German and Swedish it comes from feeling. Kundera sees in the latter that this "signifies the maximal emotional telepathy. In the hierarchy of sentiments, then, it is supreme."
Our distinction rests, in Kunderan terms, on the capacity to perspectivise. To pity is to accept the fact, to offer an unequivocal response of what seems like an unequivocal event. Somebody breaks up or loses a job and we offer sympathy; we see someone who has to leave their country or loses a boxing match and we offer pity. But in compassion or empathy we try to understand the individual perspective and not just the general predicament. An event might be singular in deed but is multiple perceptually. Few writers understand this better than Kundera, and he finds no better an event than an assignation between Josef and Irina to delineate it. As Kundera says, "I imagine the feelings of two people meeting again after many years. In the past they spent some time together, and therefore they think they are linked by the same experience, the same recollections. The same recollections? That's where the misunderstandings start." Josef and Irina did indeed spend some time together twenty years earlier; Josef offered her undivided attention one evening and gave her the stolen ashtray. But this would have been an evening of flirtatiousness on Josef's part, and in between has come a wife and her death. For Irina, there has also been death, but this was of an older husband she might not have wished to marry, followed by a long term affair with another man her husband's age with whom she no longer has sex. Her life seems to have been half-lived; with Josef the lover who got away. Josef's has been entirely lived but his wife has gone away, to an afterlife that Josef cannot reach but only respect - as we discover when he explains that he cannot easily return to the Czech Republic even if he wished to: he would be leaving his wife's dead body in a grave in Denmark. He would be leaving her far more deliberately than she left him..
Thus we have two people reuniting but even that is too bold a statement. Only for Irina can we call it a reunification; Josef recalls nothing of the previous meeting at all. When she sees him at the airport in Paris it is she who recognizes him, she who says "didn't we know each other in Prague?" "Of course" Josef replies, and they start to chat. But after the exchange, we are no longer in dialogue and instead close to Josef's thoughts. "He enjoyed the encounter [at the airport too]; she was friendly, charming, and agreeable; fortysomething and pretty; and he hadn't the faintest idea who she was. It was n embarrassing situation since he thought he maybe remembered her but she no longer looked the same." So there we have it: a man who can't remember a woman who has never forgotten him, How can the encounter between them be remotely the same experience? This could be an opportunity for cruel comedy, and it is true Kundera's work can often seem close to farce. But if farce is the mechanical nature of events that often leave characters on the surface of their personalities, Kundera's comedy is to accept that events have constant and different internal meanings over external assumptions. If we can talk about the mechanics of farce it is because there is an external logic to events once something is set in motion. "The basic elements of farce are: exaggerated physical action (often repeated), exaggeration of character and situation, absurd situations and improbable events....In farce, character and dialogue are nearly always subservient to plot and situation." (The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory) Kundera's internal farce is usually kinder and more compassionate, which is why we talk of the empathy in his perspectivism. The narrator feels the crisis the assignation with Josef will have on Irina and constantly delineates why this will be so. But this indifference on Josef's part has nothing to do with a man taking advantage of another woman; more that he cannot get his dead wife out of his mind. He accepts there is space in his bed for Irina, but this is the limit of that space: headspace is elsewhere. We can come away from the encounter comprehending Irina's devastation while understanding why Josef would not wish to take it to the next level. If there is a next level for Josef, it will be to join his spouse in the afterlife.
Kundera would be wary of farce not only because he wants to find compassion for his characters, figures whom he nevertheless always reminds us are figments of an idea, born not from a womb but from the brain. "Characters are not born like people, of woman; they are born of a situation, a sentence, a metaphor containing, in a nutshell, a basic human possibility that the author thinks no one else has discovered, or said something essential about." (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) But also because farce would be too consistent with the ancient approach to literature he cannot quite produce in the modern age: it would seem redundant, beside the point. It would be audience gratification but wouldn't amount to a search for new knowledge in being form. "The novel is a meditation on existence as seen through the medium of imaginary characters." (Art of the Novel) Unless there is room for the meditative, we are in the realm of entertainment. This is the repetition of stale knowledge, and is not much of the humour generated in farce almost deliberately stale? We rarely expect empathy from farce and hence the mechanics. It settles for the minimal emotional telepathy, not the maximal. The latter is vital to the modern novel since, as the professor says in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting that Homer's adventures have been internalized, it is a question of how one finds the drama in a life that is no longer so external. That Kundera is wary of farce does not mean he is at all indifferent to irony. Irony can sometimes be a close cousin to paradox, especially if we entertain the idea that paradox is the internal contrary to the external. This combination of irony and paradox we so often find in the writer's work has a name: he calls it consubstantial irony, an irony that is indeterminate. It is futile to try and make a novel 'difficult' through stylistic affectation; any novel worth the name, however limpid it may be, is difficult enough by reason its consubstantial irony. (Art of the Novel)
We could say it is merely ironic that Irina is in love with a man who cannot even remember her name, but the irony that incorporates the paradoxical can say that Irina's love for Josef represents a misdiagnosed yearning, and that one can choose whether to focus on the misdiagnosis (close to farce), or the yearning (which allows for consubstantial irony). Here is Kundera describing the way Irina feels with Josef during their encounter. "In Irina's head the alcohol plays a double role: it frees her fantasy, encourages her boldness, makes her sensual, and at the same time it dims her memory. She makes love wildly, lasciviously, and at the same time the curtain of oblivion wraps her lewdness in all concealing darkness." Kundera adds: "As if a poet were writing his greatest poem with ink that instantly disappears." This how the writer describes Josef's thoughts: "he knelt by the bed, leaning over her gently snoring head; he felt close to this woman; he could imagine staying with her, being concerned with her...he knew nothing about her but one thing seemed clear: She was in love with him: prepared to go off with him, to give up everything, to begin everything over again...He had a chance, certainly his last, to be useful, to help someone, and among the multitude of strangers overpopulating the planet, to find a sister." He has no room for love; she has many rooms to fill. But what he does have room for is a sister he never had. When he leaves her in the hotel room asleep, he writes a brief note. "Sleep well. The room is yours till tomorrow at noon..." He wanted to add something that would be very tender yet not at all exaggerated. Finally, he puts "...my sister."
Such a unilateral encounter could have given rise to farce, at least easy irony, yet Kundera manages to convey in Irina's yearning a respect that needn't be dismissed by Josef. He has his own yearning - for the wife who has departed and the sister he never had, and appears to find in the note an honest feeling that might not be what Irina will want to hear, but is nevertheless a letter that she might be able to acknowledge possesses emotional content of its own. The indeterminate irony rests on a woman who wants it all with a man who wants nothing, but that at the same time what they both share is a meaningful period of time that conveys a sense of loss. Irina's may be for the great love she never had; Josef for the great love he no longer has, but a beautiful encounter has taken place, an encounter Kundera believes is significant enough to put at the centre of this short novel. The time together that easily could have been farcical instead becomes consubstantially ironic. This is where the maximal emotional telepathy comes in, where we find compassion in perspective. When a writer lacks this perspectivism, we might regard them as insensitive, possibly classical or certainly ancient, ancient in the sense that the professor invokes Homer.
What do we mean precisely when we separate these three categories? If we think of a play by Sophocles, even up to and including Shakespeare, the emphasis is on external action, which is partly why Aristotle plays up the importance of the unities of time and space, cause and effect, saying the structure of the various sections of the events must be such that the transposition or removal of any one section dislocates and changes the whole. (Poetics) The rumble of someone's stomach, the headache they have, the too tightness of their boots will be usually irrelevant unless it can be incorporated strongly into the play. This doesn't mean subjectivity would be completely ignored of course: think of Banquo's ghost in Macbeth etc. More that the irrelevant, or the personally relevant has no place. Banquo's ghost is there to further the plot: to say to Macbeth that his ambition is going to haunt his conscience, just as later his wife isn't simply washing her hands: she is washing them over and over again trying to wipe the mental blood off them. In classical fiction that would include anything from Balzac to Dickens, Austen to Turgenev, the irrelevant finds far more space: clothes, apartments, and motivations become much more readily delineated. But the emphasis was usually psychological and sociological rather than existential or phenomenological. Often in 19th-century fiction the Ancient fascination with power was replaced by the emphasis on class, and psychology and sociology the means to explore it. The modern work the professor alludes to would be the work of Joyce, Kafka, Woolf and Proust. Class wouldn't necessarily be absent (in Woolf and Proust) and power would take on a horrible modern form (in Kafka), but a new emphasis would be placed on the phenomenological and existential: in man's being in the world, where cause and effect is dissipated, motivation diffuse, and the most minor of details sitting alongside the most significant of events. When as James Wood notes in How Fiction Works Nabokov criticized Henry James for claiming that a cigar had a red tip, this wasn't only a pedant getting one over on another pedant, it was also a slightly more modern writer seeing how an earlier one may have been very attentive to the minutiae but not quite attentive enough.
What we have seen in much important literature of the last hundred years is how the writer dictates what becomes relevant on the basis of their own parti pris over established conventions. George Perec writes a novel without the letter e (A Void), Robbe-Grillet uses a letter instead of a name for a key character in Jealousy, and calls his characters A, X and M in his script for Last Year at Marienbad. Kundera himself quite often muses how he will name a character, and says in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, when detailing a gathering of significant Czech poets who he wishes to remain anonymous: "if the students call the lecturer Voltaire, what is to stop me from calling the great and greatly revered poet Goethe? And the poet across from him Lermontov. And the one with the dreamy black eyes Petrarch." Very little indeed in modern fiction. If Aristotle would talk about the importance of the unities, and Kundera noted that the 19th-century novel was beholden to scenes. (The Curtain), the 20th-century novel no longer need to rely on the unities nor the scene and can play much more freely with time and characterization. Kundera's key scene takes place between Irina and Josef near the end of the book and serves as a denouement. There is no unity of time and space at all: even if we accept the novel chiefly takes place in the very brief period when Josef and Irina are in Czechoslovakia, much of the time the book is elsewhere, curious about Josef's childhood through his diaries, Josef's thoughts about his wife,
Just because a book has lost its sense of unity doesn't mean it loses its capacity for craft. Kundera talks at length in The Art of the Novel about his approach to craftsmanship that is very much his own, when referring to the musical structure of his books and his interest in thematic exploration as readily as narrative unity. A part is a movement. the chapters are measures. these measures may be short or long or quite variable in length. Which bring us to the issue of tempo... The themes are worked out steadily within and by the story. In Ignorance, the book is held together by its theme and pushed forward by its narrative. We can look forward to the encounter between Josef and Irina, see in the delay a series of retardation devices that are not about cheap suspense to keep the couple apart before the conclusion, but an ever greater elaboration of the theme of nostalgia and how people remember. Josef and Irina recall an event very differently, and this will affect greatly how they go into this briefest of affairs. But if we talk about theme rather than back story this returns us to the notion that many a great modern book is interested more in the phenomenological and existential over the psychological and the sociological. This is why Kundera can digress, finding in other characters orbiting around the central pair aspects that reflect on Josef and Irina's predicaments. There is a young girl the narrator imagines who lost her ear, and as Kundera constantly refers to her as she rather than by name, it is not until near the end of the novel that we find out this is Milada, a colleague of Irina's late husband, someone who is sympathetic and open to Irina on her return. Kundera surprises us with this information, yet if it doesn't feel quite like a plot twist it rests on the thematic over the narrative, the probe into existence over the delineation of character and situation. Whether it is Odysseus or Milada, even Irina or Josef, the characters are never quite themselves; they are products of the writer's imagination as Kundera would seem very far away from the novelist claiming that the characters write themselves. As Kundera announces near the beginning of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, speaking of his central character. "I have been thinking about Tomas for many years. But only in the light of these reflections did I see him clearly. I saw him standing at the window of his flat and looking across the courtyard at the opposite walls, not knowing what to do." For Kundera, novelistic empathy doesn't reside in consideration for another person's feelings exclusively, but for their predicament in the world. Their predicament is their own based on the many different events that have happened to them, and an analysis of a number of them will give some idea to their existential code, their way of being in the world. At this stage in their lives, for Josef the great love lies behind him; for Irina, twenty years younger, it lies in front of her however paradoxically it happens to be based on a meeting twenty years earlier. One senses the narrator feels for Irina, but he does not pity her, as though to comprehend someone from their point of view, from their code, is to indicate compassion, that co-feeling we have alluded to, rather than pity, which is a singular feeling from oneself to another, based on an assumption about the other's state. We pity Nancy in Oliver Twist, just as we pity Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. If many find Dickens a brilliant but manipulative novelist does it not reside partly on his capacity to extract pity rather than explore compassion?
We offer this point of comparison to indicate not only the difference between a 19th century novelist and a late 20th century writer (are Jude and Anna Karenina characters for whom we feel compassion rather than pity?) but to indicate that for all the cleverness at work in a Kundera novel, for all the narrative intrusions and the temporal switches, there is an interest in character few novelists can survive without. Yet this is an interest in character as a being rather than an individual, as someone created out of a novelist's mind to explore a set of given situations. Is this more human or less? That would depend on how we see humanity? If we are inclined to view the human possessing a set of fairly determined characteristics with basic drives and motivations like greed, lust and power, then there are many writers to read long before Kundera. But if you see humanity as a question of being that possesses numerous means and methods to be, then a book like Ignorance leaves one with a surprising sense of hope. This is not the hope of happiness or success for the characters, which we might call narrowly optimistic, but the maximal emotional telepathy that sees hope in comprehending subtly and enquiringly other minds, other bodies. As Kundera says concerning a woman and her husband in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, "what attracted and held Tamina's attention was his questions. Not what he asked, but the fact that he asked anything at all...The only person who had ever really interrogated her was her husband, and that was because love is a constant interrogation. In fact, I don't know a better definition of love." It would seem that the interrogation Josef offered was towards his wife, that is where the most compassion manifested itself. Irina must look elsewhere for such co-feeling, but that doesn't mean Josef cannot find within himself the integrity to describe the feeling he has for Irina very precisely and yet oddly ambiguously as he leaves her sleeping in his hotel room, after boisterously sleeping with her, by leaving the note that will refer to her as his sister. It is Kundera's terribly sad consubstantial irony at work, and with compassion mercifully close to hand.
© Tony McKibbin