Let the Old Dead Make Room for the Young Dead
Exposed to the Light
Born in 1929 in Brno, Milan Kundera has for many years been viewed as a likely contender for the Nobel Prize, but it has consistently eluded him. There may be various reasons for this but let us suggest that Kundera's work is, in the best sense of the term, too trivial for prize committees that think literature should be a worthy pursuit. And yet this emigre has at the same time potentially immense, Nobel-worthy significance, having lived many years of his life in France after escaping Communism in the seventies, settling in Montparnasse in a slender top-floor apartment consisting of some knocked in chambres de bonne.
In the story collection, Laughable Loves, as in much of Kundera's writing, including his essays, the emphasis lies on a reckless brevity manifest in short chapters. It can give to Kundera's work a breathless haste which allows the material an impudent confidence, one that shows a writer who neither wants to waste our time, nor take too seriously the characters, situations and ideas. While a great writer like Thomas Bernhard harangues us into submission, with long and often deliberately long-winded sentences, and J.M. Coetzee insists in sentences that are hard and determined, keen to keep the reader alert to the tension in the situations he creates, Kundera is one of the most seductive of writers, relying on charm, wit and provocation to create characters who are always as much a product of his imagination as people who have their own agency.
Now all writers create their characters; many however give the impression that once created they have a life of their own. In the Czech writer's work, he never allows that to appear the case, even if we may be moved by Tomas and Tereza's predicament in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, or the older woman (who isn't so old) in 'Let the Old Dead Make Room for the Young Dead'.
In this story broken down into fourteen short chapters, Kundera moves back and forth between the two main characters, one a man in his mid-thirties, living in a small Czech town, and a woman fifteen years older, who is visiting from Prague: her husband is buried in the local cemetery. Kundera moves between these two characters who are never named and whose interior thoughts are intruded upon by Kundera's constant asides. He balances the ridiculous with the poignant, and the comedy of embarrassment with the tragedy of realisation, as though keen to give the characters a degree of self-insight but to insist on novelistic agency.
Early in the story, they meet each other on the street for the first time in many years and the man says that he wouldn't have recognised her, which he promptly regrets as the narrator says "...it was a stupid apology, because it brought them precipitately to a painful subject, about which it would have been advisable to keep silent." Who, we might wonder, is thinking such thoughts? It seems to us as much Kundera's narrator as the two characters in the tale, with the narrator hovering over his characters all the better to emphasize their existence on the page without falling into an irony or cynicism that robs them of their humanity. They aren't so much characters on paper as in the writer's imagination, a small but important distinction perhaps if we sometimes find in post-modern fiction a play on stereotypes, cliches and conventions all the better to announce we are in a fictional work, evident in Martin Amis's Money and Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children.
Kundera is interested instead in what he calls 'the enigma of the self', believing the best way to comprehend it is to 'locate myself outside the so-called psychological novel." (The Art of the Novel) His interest in the post-modern, such as it is, would lie in the writer's ability to call into question the conventions of the form without falling into a self-reflexivity that turns a book into a commentary on itself and its making, on the wit and wiliness of a novel that plays with the art it practices. Nor is he much of a modernist, if we think of Woolf, Faulkner and Joyce and the devices they used. Kundera eschews the psychological and "pursues other enigmas" (The Art of the Novel) and this cannot be achieved by "setting a microphone" inside his characters' heads. Kundera is here talking of Joyce, and specifically Bloom in Ulysses, but what he means is that no matter how much he admires Joyce's use of interior monologue', "myself, I cannot use that microphone." (The Art of the Novel)
However not only does he refuse to take advantage of this modernist development, but he is also resistant even to nineteenth-century fictional focalisation that moves freely from character to character through more or less invisible narration. Kundera's is visible and one way he makes us well aware of it is through the frequent parentheses he adopts. It potentially gives to the material a trivialising of the problem, and sometimes this is so; more often not. When the man frets over his burgeoning bald spot, Kundera offers four parentheses to put the problem into a context the man himself takes more seriously than the writer. Kundera tells us the man finds himself in a terrible mood thinking of the patch but has a sense of humour towards the absurdity that Kundera emphasizes at one remove: "(He laughed inwardly at his own suicide note: I couldn't put up with my bald spot: farewell!") But the aloofness of the style isn't to mock the man but to play up a perspective beyond the trivial while paying attention to the trivial.
Later, the narrator tells us of the woman's dismay at her lack of perpetual preparedness, that awareness of the sexually possible encounter which Kundera offers as a complicated problem. The woman is not so old that the encounter is unlikely, nor so young that the encounter doesn't need a little preparation. One may see in such a claim a hint of misogyny and ageism but Kundera takes what might appear like a moment of vanity and wonders what it says about age more generally. He offers it in parenthesis: ("We should perhaps find in this dismay something akin to the dismay of a very young girl who has been kissed for the first time, for if the young girl is not yet and she [the woman] was no longer prepared, then this "no longer" and "not yet" are mysteriously related, as the peculiarities of old age and childhood are related)."
The aside comes late in the story as it looks like the characters will follow through once again on an assignation that had taken place fifteen years earlier. He had been a twenty-year-old student and she an attractive older woman, bored with her life, finding excitement in sexual encounters. He saw in the fling a glorious future, a womanising existence to which he was being introduced but things didn't work out that way, neither with this older woman or with other women either. She avoided him after this first encounter, and his own sexual life was forestalled by his shyness, then by falling in love, marrying and having a child; and then, freshly divorced, by lack of money as he has to pay his ex-wife alimony. Will a renewed affair with the woman be what he needs; and what will it mean to her?
Kundera takes as the thrust of the tale the inconsequentiality of a failed womaniser (who nevertheless manages the odd shallow encounter) and concludes on the realities of the ageing process. Both characters aren't young, at least in their own eyes, and those are the eyes Kundera wants to view the story from, even if he is not concerned chiefly with the details of their lives and the specifics of their psychologies. The comment about the divorce covers one short paragraph, and the child another parenthetical aside. The woman's relationship with her late husband is mainly passed over and her son is mentioned chiefly as an opportunity for Kundera to muse over his role in her life: how the son isn't showing great love towards his late father when he insists they visit the cemetery every year, but assigning her instead "to a widow's proper confines." The son is disgusted by anything sexual in her, anything that still indicates youthfulness.
There might be a serious story to tell about a woman who years earlier lost her husband and is now emotionally reliant on her bond with her child, but that isn't the story Kundera cares to tell. What interests the writer far more, here and in other work too, is the way the inconsequential gives way to the profound, how a minor incident can have major repercussions.
We see it too in 'The Hitchhiking Game', when a young couple is on holiday, and when he asks her while they eat where he is going, she tells him, "for a piss", a surprisingly vulgar word for so shy and modest a woman. The comment turns into the game of the title as she plays the role of the whore while he offers numerous vulgarities as well. After sex in a hotel room, she thinks abjectly of this encounter that was without emotion or love, but she knows also that she has passed over into another place: one where she had never known such pleasure. It generates a crisis even though the event might have seemed so minor.
In 'Nobody Will Laugh', a university teacher receives a very poor article that the writer, Zaturetsky, wants the narrator to persuade an art journal to publish. Rather than being honest with the man, he sits down and writes a vague response that leads the writer to feel encouraged. In time, Zaturetsky tries to track the narrator down at the narrator's, but the narrator keeps avoiding him. This leads to others receiving abuse and threats while the narrator evades both the man and his responsibilities, which in turn leads him by the end of the story to lose both his job and his girlfriend. The tale concludes: "only after a while did it occur to me...that my story was not of the tragic sort, but rather of the comic variety."
Yet in Kundera's work, the tragic and the comic are very close together, and don't we see it again in 'Let the Old Dead Make Room for the Young Dead' and evident in the title? It comes from a comment made by the cemetery administration who tells the woman, after she sees her husband's grave has been replaced, that the old dead get replaced by the new dead: that since she didn't extend the lease a new body had replaced her dead husband. This might be Communist Czechoslovakia, and her husband a corpse, but real estate is real estate.
At the end of the story, the woman decides that she will sleep with the younger man aware that she is in danger of ruining the memory he possesses of her in her younger years by showing her body to him in its present, fifty-year-old form, a body with grey pubic hair and a long scar from a stomach operation. She yields, thinking that indeed the old dead should make way for the young dead. Just as her husband has been moved for the new dead, so she will accept that her memory in the mind of the man will be dislodged by this more recent one. So what, she thinks - his memories of her are his business, not hers. But which story is more tragic; which more comic? Her husband's hasty removal or the woman accepting the realities of the flesh? Kundera ends the story poignantly. During the assignation fifteen years earlier when she was still beautiful, the room was dark, the dusk having settled. Now it is still the afternoon, and the room is light. Her body will be exposed but then too, we might think, will be the younger man's bald patch.
© Tony McKibbin