Milan Kundera’s latest novel is set in Prague shortly after 1989. A widow in her early forties and a widower ten to fifteen years older revisit their native Bohemia. In The Art of the Novel (1986) Kundera explained that he never calls his native country Czechoslovakia, because “the word is too young…with no roots in time, no beauty.” Like Kundera, his characters Irena and Josef emigrated after the Russians invaded in 1968. Irena fled to Paris with her husband, Martin. Josef, a vet, settled and married in Denmark. His wife has just died; he loved her dearly.
Irena lost her husband, Martin, a long time back, and struggled to bring up two daughters single-handed in a foreign country. She had married young, mainly in order to get away from her mother, but her gratitude to Martin had turned into love: “She knows she is good at gratitude; she has always prided herself on that as her prime virtue; when gratitude required it, a feeling of love would come running like a docile servant.” Now Irena lives with Gustaf, a Swede whose company has offices in Paris and Prague. They commute between the two cities, and share a flat in Irena’s mother’s house in Prague. “She was sincerely devoted to Martin; she was sincerely devoted to Gustaf. But was that something to be proud of? Isn’t gratitude simply another name for weakness, for dependency?”
One day, while waiting at the Paris airport for her flight to Prague, Irena catches sight of Josef. She remembers how she saw him once before, very briefly and a long time ago when she was very young. Their eyes had met in a Prague bar; it was a coup de foudre on both sides, and when their friends began to leave the bar, he asked her to go home with him. She had been engaged to Martin then, so “she’d refused. But immediately she had felt such an abrupt, piercing re-gret that she has never forgotten it.” Josef doesn’t remember their meeting (and never will), even when she talks to him at the airport and again on the plane where she promises to ring him. (And even much later, when they have slept together.) He has to visit his brother’s family in the provincial town where he grew up, but they arrange a rendezvous in Prague for the night before he flies back to Denmark.
They meet in the lobby of his hotel, and are soon upstairs and in bed together. She experiences a sexual frenzy and ecstasy that she has never known before. Josef too is turned on as he has not been for a long time, first of all by Irena’s obscene language—which surprises her as much as it does him:
How unexpected! How intoxicating! For the first time in twenty years, he hears those dirty Czech words and instantly he is aroused to a degree he has never been since he left this country, because all those words—coarse, dirty, obscene—only have power over him in his native language (in the language of Ithaca), since it is through that language—through its deep roots—that the arousal of generations and generations surges up in him.
In The Art of the Novel (which is a very useful Baedeker to his work and especially to his intentions) Kundera described obscenity as “the root that attaches us most deeply to our homeland.” It is a view which might épater a few bourgeois, but Kundera seems to like doing that. As for Ithaca, to him the Odyssey is “the founding epic of nostalgia.” Odysseus and Penelope crop up throughout the novel, and right at the start Kundera discusses the etymology of the word “nostalgia” in Spanish, Catalan, German, Dutch, English, and Icelandic.
In bed together, Irena and Josef’s “accord is total.” But he keeps an eye on his watch: he has a plane to catch. Besides, “deep down Josef knows (and he may even want it so) that this erotic session is his last.” It takes place simultaneously with another erotic episode, this one in a comic mode: Gustaf returns from the office to find Irena’s jolly, feisty mother listening to the record player in her bathrobe. She has nothing on underneath, and she begins to dance. He joins her, and they, too, end up in bed.
Meanwhile, Irena falls asleep and Josef leaves. The novel ends on an unexpectedly sentimental note. On the plane to Denmark, he has a vision of his home:
The sky opened out, peaceful and friendly, strewn with stars. Through the porthole he saw…a low wooden fence and a brick house with a slender fir tree like a lifted arm before it.
He has evoked this image several times before, the last time as he gazed at Irena’s crotch while she slept,
that tiny little area that, with admirable economy of space, provides for four sovereign functions: arousal; copulation; procreation; urination. He gazed a long while at that sad place with its spell broken, and was gripped by an immense, immense sadness.
But it was his dead wife who planted the tree by the brick house, and its lifted arm presumably symbolizes a welcome back to what is now his real home. As for Irena, in his mind Josef assigns to her the role of a sister. He has mentioned his need for one before, but in the geography of the novel the idea of her being a sister looks like an unfrequented dead end.
Josef’s career has been shaped by the rise and fall of communism. As a rebellious teenager, he behaved like a Communist to annoy his family who “never missed Sunday mass and thereby incited Josef to be provocative.” His father and grandfather were surgeons, and his brother—five years his senior—was training to become one. So Josef chose veterinary medicine precisely because it was considered an inferior discipline. When the Russians moved in, that turned out to be an advantage: doctors and medical students were too bourgeois not to be suspect and persecuted, and Josef’s brother had a hard time. Vets, on the other hand, were left in peace, and Josef practiced unmolested. What moved him to emigrate was disgust with his brother, who (like most other people) hung out a red flag for the anniversary of the Russian Revolution in order to retain the post he had finally managed to get.
The third important character is Milada. She might be one of the lonely, thwarted women in an Anita Brookner novel. At the end of the book, “as on every Sunday evening, she was alone in her modest impecunious-scientist studio apartment. She moved about the room and ate the same thing she had at noon.” Milada is Josef’s age; but Irena feels Milada is the only one of her former friends in Prague to understand her and what she has been through. Milada is still beautiful, but she has never had a lover or a husband. This is Josef’s fault, although he doesn’t know it and doesn’t remember her until he rereads his diary—any more than he remembers his first meeting with Irena.
He and Milada were in love when they were still at school. There was never an opportunity for them to have sex (this is not entirely convincing), but she promised to find one during the summer vacation. Meanwhile she has to go on a ski trip with her class. He begs her not to, but she explains that she can’t get out of it. In a rage he breaks with her, and lies that he is moving to another town with his family. On the ski trip she swallows a lot of sleeping pills and lies down in the snow to freeze to death. They find her in time, but one of her ears has to be amputated because of frostbite. And that is why—as Irena notices when they meet again—she still wears her hair as she did as a schoolgirl, in a long bob to below her chin.
She has condemned herself to loneliness, a condition Josef used to threaten her with in order to get his way. Loneliness meant “going through life without drawing anyone’s interest; talking without being heard; suffering without stirring compassion; thus, living as she has in fact lived ever since then.” A symbol for Milada’s desolation can be found in the image of a skeleton on horseback with a peacock sitting behind him: death and vanity. It comes from a line by the Czech poet Skacel that Milada reads to Irena, and in Milada’s case vanity is her refusal to let anyone see that she has only one ear. Vanity forced her to choose a life without sex. Like the fir tree in Josef’s case, her symbol—the skeleton on horseback—recurs as if to wave her goodbye at the end of the book.
It is difficult to love a novel by Kundera in the way one loves a novel by Tolstoy, or Charlotte Brontë, or Hardy, or Proust, or Thomas Mann, or even Jonathan Franzen. Maybe this is so because his main characters have very few distinctive characteristics. Their feelings are subtly and profoundly analyzed, but they hang loose: they could be anybody’s. Kundera is good at creating characters, but only minor ones: the emotionally primitive Gustaf, Irena’s embarrassing mother, and especially an old Communist called N., a kind, affectionate, decent man who was Josef’s mentor when Josef was young, and therefore of course a monster in the eyes of Josef’s parents. But he has no part in the plot, and seems to exist only in order to show that not every Communist is evil.
Kundera’s abstinence is deliberate. In The Art of the Novel he explained that he was not interested in psychology: “My novels are not psychological…. They lie outside the aesthetic of the novel normally termed psychological.” His interlocutor (for this particular quotation comes from a dialogue with the French writer Christian Salmon) suggests that they might be called phenomenological. “The adjective isn’t bad, but I make it a rule not to use it,” says Kundera.
I’m too fearful of the professors for whom art is only a derivative of philosophical and theoretical trends. The novel dealt with the unconscious before Freud, the class struggle before Marx, it practiced phenomenology (the investigation of the essence of human situations) before the phenomenologists.
Salmon objects that
your insistence on understanding the essence of situations seems to you to render all descriptive techniques obsolete. You say almost nothing about the physical appearance of your characters. And since the investigation of psychological motives interests you less than the analysis of situations, you are also very parsimonious about your characters’ pasts. Doesn’t the overly abstract nature of your narration risk making your characters less lifelike?
Kundera sweeps Salmon’s considerations aside: “A character is not a simulation of a living being. It is an imaginary being. An experimental self.”
He keeps citing early European fiction—Boccaccio and especially Cervantes—for examples of nonpsychological novels. Action is what matters, he asserts. “It is through action that man steps forth from the repetitive universe of the everyday where each person resembles every other person.” There is a touch of bullying there. Why shouldn’t a reader prefer not to step forth but to dig deeper into the psychological layers where we all resemble one another? There is something to be said for the pleasure of self-recognition, and there are people who find reading Boccaccio and Cervantes not so much a pleasure as a duty owed to literary history. Besides, their works are more broadly, overtly comical than Ignorance, and comedy has a better right to heartlessness.
Kundera’s mix of comedy and compassion doesn’t quite work. When Josef rereads his adolescent diaries about his relationship with Milada, he is revolted by the “sentimentality mixed with sadism” of the “little snot” he used to be. But he is just as ruthless with Irena, creeping away from her as she sleeps in his hotel room—even though he leaves a huge tip at the reception desk “to ensure that no one would give her an unpleasant look.” So when the fir tree waves in the next (and final) paragraph, Kundera’s own mixture of sentimentality and sadism may turn the reader off. Perhaps it’s intended to do so. That would be a risk, but then he seems an aggressive, in-your-face kind of writer.
In The Art of the Novel he regards himself as a modernist, a successor (though not a follower) of Kafka, Musil, and Broch. But he is really a conservative, a yearner after the good old days. At the start of his previous novel, Slowness, he moans (with a touch of irony, it is true),
Why has the pleasure of slowness disappeared? Ah, where have they gone, the amblers of yesteryear? Where have they gone, those loafing heroes of folk song, those vagabonds who roam from one mill to another and bed down under the stars? Have they vanished along with footpaths, with grasslands and clearings, with nature?
In Ignorance, he has Irena stand in for him to rage about the omnipresence of loud, piped-in music from which there is no shelter in the modern age. That is not exactly an unusual complaint. More importantly, regret for the past seems to underlie his obsession with memory and nostalgia, and even—at a remove, because nothing can be brought back from it—with death.
When Josef sees his brother for the first time in many years, they
gaze at each other. These are gazes of enormous intensity, and both men know very well what is going on: they are registering—swiftly, discreetly, brother about brother—the hair, the wrinkles, the teeth; each knows what he is looking for in the face before him, and each knows that the other is looking for the same thing in his. They are ashamed of doing so, because what they’re looking for is the probable distance between the other man and death.
Surely, notwithstanding Kundera’s dismissal of psychology, this is a passage of amazing psychological subtlety and sadness; but looking at someone’s face isn’t exactly the kind of action Kundera has called for, like charging at windmills.