The Laughableness of Love
Commenting on the title of Laughable Loves, in a piece called 'Dialogue on the Art of the Novel', Milan Kundera says "that title should not be taken in the sense of 'amusing love stories'. The idea of love is always associated with seriousness. But the category of "laughable love" is love stripped of its seriousness." If a writer like Cesare Pavese gives a pathological sobriety to questions of love, with suicide, alienation, loneliness and despair coming out of emotional entanglements with the other, Kundera is love's elevator, a writer who talks of love usually as a strategic problem more than an existential one. Most of the stories in Laughable Loves concern the sort of mind-games characters play with themselves and with others to give meaning and purpose to flirtation, lust, passion and sex, and no writer is more versed in creating amplitude around a character's actions; no writer shows greater interest in saying that an event doesn't only have many permutations in its unfolding, but also in its perception. It is partly this amplitude one suspects that give the stories their lightness even if the story itself, contrary to Kundera's claims, contains a certain unavoidable weight.
In 'Symposium' for example, a woman seems to have attempted suicide, and the central character Flaishman, an intern at a hospital, saves the ugly nurse with a beautiful body as she lies naked on the floor with the gas left on. Flaishman assumes that he is responsible for the woman's desire to take her own life: she seemed to be in love with him and he has been treating her with disdain. Yet Kundera, having unfolded the story in narrative terms with Flaishman rescuing the nurse, then allows for various musings from a number of the characters as they try to make sense of the event. Flaishman keeps his thoughts to himself but believes it was a suicide attempt; the chief physician reckons it was a deliberately failed suicide attempt, saying "my dear doctor, when someone wants to get poisoned with gas, to start with he closes the door. And not only that, he seals up the crevices well so that gas won't be located until as late as possible." He also concludes that the gesture concerned her feelings for the womanising Dr Havel. Havel's theory, though, is that she wanted to kill herself but also wanted to be found in a state of beauty, with her fine body discovered just after she passed away, and not "after she turned quite brown and bad smelling." A woman doctor thinks it wasn't a suicide attempt at all, but that amongst other things the nurse had taken some sleeping pills and absent-mindedly tried to make some coffee.
The story turns into a series of perspectives, as Kundera dissolves the reality of an event into the possible points of view upon it. Few writers more than Kundera create such a large ratio of perspective to event, to possible permutations in relation to an incident, whether this takes the characterisational form in Symposium, or what we'll call the authorial in so much of his work, where 'Kundera' will offer a comment that goes beyond the character and provides what the writer calls in The Art of the Novel "meditative interrogation". This is the manner in which he can ask certain questions about Being through fictional form. To stay too closely to the story, not to inquire into the nature of the characters' thoughts and feelings, and the situations they find themselves in, at whatever remove he wishes to take, would be to accept too readily the actual, the sort of ready actuality that might make the stories ponderously vivid, rather than full of suggestive conceits.
However, this distance between situation and thought is not as great as it would become in later works like The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, The Unbearable Lightness of Being and especially Immortality, where meditative interrogation becomes active digression, and the characters' subjectivity contained not by characterisational meditative interrogation, but by author's digressive meditations. This is evident in Kundera's acceptance that though "even if I'm the one speaking, my reflections are connected to character," he also admits, "I want to think his attitudes, his way of seeing things, in his stead and more deeply than he could do it himself." The laughable aspect of Laughable Loves rests in a certain removal without quite generating the sort of authorial digression that opens The Unbearable Lightness of Being or allows Kundera to devote pages to Goethe and Bettina in Immortality, but it is nevertheless the meditative interrogation that allows for a very bearable lightness of being despite the melancholic content of many of the pieces.
Let us look briefly at some of the other stories in terms of content. 'The Hitchhiking Game' follows two lovers in their twenties, where the innocent woman plays the role of someone sexually adventurous after her partner pretends to pick her up on the road. By the end of the story, she lies crying and humiliated as she sobs quietly: the game has gone too far as she had sex "without emotion or love", and that she had crossed the "forbidden boundary". The same pessimism surrounds 'Let the Old Dead Make Room for the Young Dead', where a woman in her mid-fifties visits a town where her husband is buried, and bumps into a younger man who many years before had been infatuated with her. At the end of the story they are about to make love, but full of resignation. "He didn't have the slightest doubt that this would actually end in disgust," the man thinks, while the woman says quietly in response to his "don't fight me", "You're right, why should I fight you."
In each of the stories, the subject of despair is countered by the tone of grim humour, and we might be reminded of a couple of Kundera passages elsewhere in his work where he discusses the importance of laughter. In chapter 4 of the third section of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Kundera's narrator insists there are two types of laughter: one angelic, the other devilish. It is important he says that the good of the world doesn't reside in the angels winning out over the devil; more that the world requires "a certain equilibrium of power". "If there is too much uncontested meaning on earth (the reign of the angels), man collapses under the burden; if the world loses all its meaning (the reign of the demons), life is every bit as impossible." In the essay collection, The Curtain, he offers a Rabelais coinage, 'agelast', to comment on people without humour. "There are people whose intelligence I admire, whose decency I respect, but with whom I feel ill at ease: I censor my remarks to avoid being misunderstood, to avoid seeming cynical, to avoid wounding them with a frivolous word. They do not live at peace with the comical."
Kundera is clearly a writer who admires a sense of perspective, and whether this comes in the form of various permutations available in an event, or the humorous countering the despairing, it helps explain that laughableness of love. In 'Let the Old Dead Make Room for the Young Dead', the central male character frets over his burgeoning baldness and "found himself assailed by thoughts of suicide. Naturally, he appreciated the comic aspect of these thoughts, and he knew that he would never carry them out (he laughed inwardly at his own suicide note: I couldn't put up with my bald spot. Farewell." Yet perspective is not the same as facetiousness and Kundera must balance out the heaviness of the situation with the lightness of the observation. If he leans towards the cynical he is on the side of the devil; if he leans too much towards the angels, he is in danger of becoming an agelast. Kundera achieves the equilibrium partly by character contrast: the thirty-five-year-old man is beset by the problems of ageing, while the older woman is preoccupied it would seem by problems of mortality. Now these are not the same thing, and Kundera's achievement here resides in chiefly acknowledging the triviality of the male character's preoccupations, and the significance of the woman's, whilst still observing their specific importance to each character.
When the narrator says of the male character, "what astounded him was the knowledge that he had experienced so little. When he thought about this he felt embarrassed, yes, he was ashamed because to live here on earth so long and to experience so little - that was ignominious," we react a bit like we do to the idea of someone committing suicide because of hair-loss. However, when the narrator remarks that the woman didn't want to refer to her dead husband, she believed in the lasting value of everything he accomplished, "she therefore only said that every man accomplishes something, which initself may be most modest, but that in this and only this is his value," we feel not comic aloofness but instead emotional specificity. Even if there is something pathetic in her comments, the feeling conveyed here has the quality of pathos and not irony.
Indeed much of Kundera's sense of perspective comes from balancing irony with pathos, determined that the stories become neither sentimental nor facetious. In 'The Hitchhiking Game', though there are only six years between the young man and the girl, the man is sexually experienced and sophisticated, the girl innocent and slightly nave. He likes this quality in her, as most of his previous conquests were coarser, and she liked that he responded to this aspect, knowing that "he never separated her body from her soul". Yet over the course of the story that is exactly what happens as she plays the role of the insatiable woman, capable of responding in kind to his sexual comments. By the end of the story as she lies there sobbing next to him after they've had sex, "the young man began to call compassion to his aid (he had to call it from afar, because it was nowhere near at hand)." In this fine story Kundera achieves not so much the balance of irony and pathos, as the interweaving of the two: the couple have been caught in the ironic game they have set up, and the story ends on the wonderful pathos of two characters far from each other in the process of ludically having separated their minds, bodies and souls. One is left to wonder whether the characters will be able to unite the self the game has torn asunder.
One reason why 'The Hitchhiking Game' is so affecting lies in Kundera's interest in irony, pathos and perspective as essentially sub-categories of what he calls the "existential inquiry", the need to "wonder at the uncertain nature of the self and of its identity". (The Art of the Novel) The characters in 'The Hitchhiking Game' understandably think that they are playing out a trivial piece of fun, but who knows when weight will suddenly descend upon the lightness, when the comic will become horribly pathetic, or when the superficial will become deeply troublesome. In 'Nobody Will Laugh' it seems that the first person narrator will easily be able to dismiss a comrade, Mr Zaturetsky, who wishes for the lecturer to write a review of his work, by saying that he is simply not qualified to do so. Sure the article was stale and full of borrowed thoughts and simply unpublishable, but the writer doesn't want to cause needless offence and believes the kindly letter he writes, where he says he isn't the right person for the task, will be enough to put an end to the situation. Instead, it is simply the beginning of it, as Zaturetsky persists, and the narrator increasingly lies and rearranges his life to avoid writing the review that he should have avoided by simply telling him the truth initially. By the story's conclusion, the narrator looks like he'll lose his beautiful younger girlfriend, his teaching job and his assumption that he can control the nature of situations. Early in the story, the narrator says "man passes through the present with his eyes blindfolded. He is permitted merely to sense and guess at what he is actually experiencing." "Only later", he says, "when the cloth is untied, can he glance at the past and find out what he has experienced and what meaning it had."
Obviously, all writers could make a similar claim, as the apparently irrelevant turns out, retrospectively, to be of importance, but Kundera creates a strong metaphysic out of the trivial and the meaningful where a casual game turns into an identity crisis, where a little white lie allows a lecturer's world to collapse. It is also here where the meditative digression proves vital, as cause and effect is achieved not through strong causal links, but strong authorial ones. In classic strongly focused cause and effect fiction we would need no authorial interruptions to tell us that Jude's life is falling apart, that Oliver Twist is without a proper home, or even that Madame Bovary is frustrated by her life in a provincial town. The writers brilliantly describe the world in which the characters are contained, and there is no great burden of proof analytically to explain and explore why their lives go right or wrong. Narrative flow dictates behavioural specificity as the event leads inevitably to the next event and the narrative progresses smoothly from one situation to another. But while it is one thing to say Jude is frustrated with his inability to get into university, and Bovary with living a provincial existence, the provincial aspect of the male character's life in 'Let the Old Dead Make Room for the Young Dead', the frustrations or the critical ambitions of Mr Zaturetsky's in 'Nobody Will Laugh', are irrelevant next to the amplitude the story offers: the manner in which the writer must intrude on events to explain and justify them. If we're to say that Jude is about the manner in which Jude's educational ambitions are stalled, then Hardy 'merely' has to explore the manner in which this happens to be the case. But if we have a story where the writer says a couple play a hitchhiking game and she almost loses her identity, or a woman sleeps with a man whom she knew from fifteen years previously, and some time after her husband's death, and does so as if accepting that the old dead must make room for the young dead, then the amplitude resides in what we might call the analytic burden: not so much the burden of narrative proof, but the weight of analytic justification as the apparently trivial (the game) becomes utterly serious (the collapse of identity). The conclusion does not readily follow from the premise, and Kundera's brilliance rests in finding in the often trivial opening the significance of the denouements.
Most of the stories hinge on this gap between the light premise and the depth of their conclusions, and there is in Kundera's fiction a strong sense of buying into his work as one might buy into an argument. Generally fiction is not bought into in this way; it is accepted, as if it takes place in a world that is found and not sought. "I don't seek; I find" Picasso famously said, and it is a comment easily echoed by writers whose work does not require that we find it plausible. Now obviously there are plenty of writers who work with material that we buy into: but this is usually to do with plot more than perception, behaviour or psychology. What Kundera so often seeks is the psychology of singular observation: the manner in which he as authorial presence, to whatever degree of removal, explores and explains why a character thinks or acts in the manner they do. It is this that we are expected to find plausible, just as we accept a plot twist justifiable within a thriller novel. But one reason why Kundera is such an important figure, and the thriller writers are not, is because he wants that singularity, he wants to take responsibility for the thought that we buy into, and not utilise a device to convince the reader that a plot twist has been pulled off.
A thriller writer might, for example, insist on a conspiracy between the American and Russian governments, and the novel shows the manner in which people double-cross each other to get what they want, and we accept that the Russian spy sleeps with the American hero to garner state secrets, only to find later that she really loves the American and simply worked as a spy so that her father would get the medical care he needed. But the father has passed away and she has no living relatives and will flee to the States with the American hero if he will still have her.
One gives the above not quite as the idle example it might seem: Kundera's writing sometimes plays on the duplicity of the political, but makes it decidedly singular. It is as though he is interested in bluff and double-bluff, cross and double-cross, but finds a micro-subject upon which to play it out. None of the seven stories in Laughable Loves has a big subject. 'The Golden Apple of Eternal Desire' has two forty-year-old men still interested in seducing women, one with blind enthusiasm; the other with lucid trepidation. 'Dr Havel After Ten Years' shows the titular character no longer quite the great womaniser he was, but with a beautiful actress wife who can force others to take him seriously even if he cannot also be taken seriously himself. In the final story 'Edward and God', a young teacher praises God as he tries to get closer to a young woman who is a believer, but ends up first sexually involved with a Communist schoolmistress who has no interest in religion but admires his bluntness in defending his position; a position of course that he doesn't really hold.
Most of the stories play on the problem of what is on someone's mind but not in the hyperbolised manner of the thriller, but in the singular manner that creates the necessary amplitude, the psychology of the specific observation. What happens is that external events prove only as relevant as the internal point of view: the manner in which someone responds to the situation that they happen to be in, or, at the other extreme, when they are at the mercy of other points of view upon them. In 'Edward and God', in 'The Hitchhiking Game' and 'Let the Old Dead Make Room for the Young Dead', the amplitude of personal perspective seems vital. In 'Nobody Will Laugh' and 'Symposium', though, it is the point of view of others on the narrator's apparent laziness, in the former, as the university thinks that he has stopped lecturing while he has only shifted his classes to avoid Mr Zaturetsky, and the different takes on an apparent suicide attempt in the latter.
What both the internal and external perspectives allow, however, is for Kundera to search out the necessary meditative expansion: to say that the event is not given but hermeneutically variable, depending upon the angle on which it is seen. In the spy thriller example we gave that is not the case. There is one actuality that is not interpretable but revelatory. The spy is a spy and she only became one to help her father. There is consequently no space for perspective, and consequently little need for the sort of authorial intrusions that are vital to Kundera's work. Kundera, inverting Picasso's formula, seeks rather than finds, offers an amplified point of view that we can accept or reject on the very psychologically singular terms upon which it is offered. Many insist that Kundera is an essayist more than a novelist, but that seems too easy and hardly useful. He is better seen as a writer who demands the provisional and the possible, the sense that seriousness and the humorous are in careful balance, and knows an awareness of perspective in all its manifestation is vital. As the narrator says at the end of 'Nobody Will Laugh': "only after a while did it occur to me (in spite of the chilly silence which surrounded me) that my story was not of the tragic sort, but rather of the comic variety." Would another narrator, offering another perspective, have said the reverse, and might we see in his comments a depth charge contained within it that makes the story far from trivial?
© Tony McKibbin