The Cold Comedian

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

by Milan Kundera, translated by Michael Henry Heim
Knopf, 228 pp., $10.95

Milan Kundera
Milan Kundera; drawing by David Levine

The analogy of musical form is a beguiling siren for literary artists, and the rocks are white with their bones. Milan Kundera, a Czech writer in exile, is a virtuoso both of music and of fiction, and he has the talent, more unusual still, of controlling the freedoms he assumes. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is a seven-part invention of immense wit, intelligence, and verve. Symphonic it isn’t; but in the genre of literary chamber music, it’s a remarkable achievement.

This delicacy of touch seems to be a relatively recent development in Kundera’s writing. I have not read his first novel, The Joke (1967); but the early Laughable Loves (short stories) and Life Is Elsewhere (a novel), both published in the US in 1973, are not distinguished for their indirection. “Edward and God,” most successful of the short stories, describes a grotesque set of sexual outrages committed by a simpleton on the socialist pieties; it is a witty but vengeful story, and not subtle in its vengeance. The hero of Life Is Elsewhere, an all but unmitigated heel, doesn’t fully support the weight of his own analysis; we know he is what he is finally labeled too long before the fact is finally demonstrated.

On the other hand, The Farewell Party (1976) plays out a complex and elusive comedy with a sense of style worthy of Congreve or Sheridan. It’s a sharp, amoral quadrille, full of reversals and betrayals, disillusioned and casually contemptuous of the regime, but no more so than of its own characters. Not even Kundera’s saints (there is one in this book) come off very well; his scoundrels are about as weak and wicked as they seem, but those who complain of them are worse. The grotesque arrangements with which the book concludes bring a measure of sardonic satisfaction to the characters, and a meaner grin to the reader. The Farewell Party deepens Kundera’s original vein of game-playing into regions of mystification previously inhabited by Hoffmann and Tieck. There’s a certain blue light associated with one of the characters, of which the reader may make what he will; on one page a juvenile angel wanders across the scene on her way from nowhere to nowhere; and a single wide-reaching phrase passes through the mind of a vacant young lady (on page 124), leaving the reader with much, very much, to meditate.

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is more loosely woven and freely modulated than anything else Kundera has yet attempted. Its themes return more persistently to forgetting than to laughter; and in fact the book is mostly about remembering what other people have forgotten. A good part of what is to be remembered is, for Kundera, Czechoslovakia—the nation, the people, their culture, their history. There is a personal reason for this; the author has been exiled from his native land, so that he must try desperately…

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