The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

( 16 )

Overview

Rich in its stories, characters, and imaginative range, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is the novel that brought Milan Kundera his first big international success in the late 1970s. Like all his work, it is valuable for far more than its historical implications. In seven wonderfully integrated parts, different aspects of human existence are magnified and reduced, reordered and emphasized, newly examined, analyzed, and experienced.

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Overview

Rich in its stories, characters, and imaginative range, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is the novel that brought Milan Kundera his first big international success in the late 1970s. Like all his work, it is valuable for far more than its historical implications. In seven wonderfully integrated parts, different aspects of human existence are magnified and reduced, reordered and emphasized, newly examined, analyzed, and experienced.

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Editorial Reviews

New York Times
"The Book of Laughter and Forgetting calls itself a novel, although it is part fairy tale, part literary criticism, part political tract, part musicology, and part autobiography. It can call itself whatever it wants to, because the whole is genius.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060932145
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 4/28/1999
  • Series: Perennial Classics Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 207,801
  • Product dimensions: 7.94 (w) x 5.26 (h) x 0.82 (d)

Meet the Author

The Franco-Czech novelist Milan Kundera was born in Brno and has lived in France, his second homeland, since 1975. He is the author of the novels The Joke, Farewell Waltz, Life Is Elsewhere, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and Immortality, and the short-story collection Laughable Loves—all originally written in Czech. His most recent novels Slowness, Identity, and Ignorance, as well as his nonfiction works The Art of the Novel, Testaments Betrayed, The Curtain, and Encounter, were originally written in French.

Biography

For someone whom the world regards as a serious intellectual, Milan Kundera has a brilliantly twisted sense of humor. His novels depict a world of awkward orgies and disastrous pool parties, mad scientists and self-pitying poets who contract pneumonia out of spite. While Kundera's works tackle profound issues of human identity, they also playfully juggle ambiguities, ironies and paradoxes. "The novelist teaches the reader to comprehend the world as a question," he said in a 1980 interview with Philip Roth. "There is wisdom and tolerance in that attitude. In a world built on sacrosanct certainties the novel is dead."

Kundera was born in Brno, Czechoslovkia in 1929. Like many young Czechs who had come of age during World War II and the German occupation, Kundera was attracted to Marxist philosophy, which seemed to promise a new freedom and peace. The first literary works he produced (three volumes of poetry and a play, The Owners of the Keys) were essentially Communist propaganda, though they didn't always conform to the tenets of socialist realism approved by the state. His resistance to the official restrictions on literature helped lead to his involvement with the "Prague Spring," the brief-lived reform movement toward "socialism with a human face."

During the '60s, Kundera began writing short stories, collected as Laughable Loves, which he would later identify as the beginning of his mature work. In several of them, jokes that start out as innocent pranks evolve into catastrophes for both perpetrator and victim -- they are deeds that, like the Czech version of Communism, have escaped the control of their creators. Kundera's first novel, The Joke, concerns a young man who is brought up on political charges after sending a teasing postcard to his girlfriend ("Optimism is the opium of the people!").

The Joke was published to wide acclaim shortly before the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Following the invasion, Kundera was ousted from his film-studies teaching job, his books were pulled from libraries and bookstores, and he was forbidden to publish new work. He went on writing, however, and his novels Life Is Elsewhere and The Farewell Party were published outside his native country. Farcical and bleak, the novels developed what would become a recurring theme for Kundera, in which commitment to an abstract moral principle paves the way for corruption and evil.

In 1975, Kundera fled Czechoslovakia and settled in France, where he eventually became a citizen. His first book produced in exile, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, remains one of his most celebrated works, weaving together autobiographical reflections with a series of connected fictions. John Updike, writing in the New York Times, called it "brilliant and original, written with a purity and wit that invite us directly in; it is also strange, with a strangeness that locks us out." His next novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, also drew high praise, and the 1988 film version of The Unbearable Lightness of Being starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Juliette Binoche turned Kundera into something of a celebrity.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the political pressures that shaped his early life and works, Kundera has long insisted that the novel should be a work of art, not a political or ideological statement. By the '90s, Kundera had started to write his novels in French; he is now sometimes tagged a "Franco-Czech" author. His works are often described as "novels of ideas," but he resists the term "philosophical novel." As he said in an interview with Lois Oppenheim, "There are metaphysical problems, problems of human existence, that philosophy has never known how to grasp in all their concreteness and that only the novel can seize."

Good To Know

Kundera joined the Communist party while still in his teens, but was expelled in 1950 (an experience that helped inspire his 1967 novel The Joke). He was readmitted to the party in 1956, then expelled again in 1970.

Kundera's father played the piano, and Kundera himself studied music composition. He has often described his novels in musical terms as "polyphony," in which different voices are juxtaposed to build up a unified whole. As he told Philip Roth, the "various stories mutually explain, illumine, complement each other."

According to Kundera, there are four great European novelists: Franz Kafka, Hermann Broch, Robert Musil and Witold Gombrowicz. He has called the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal "our very best writer today."

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    1. Hometown:
      Paris, France
    1. Date of Birth:
      April 1, 1929
    2. Place of Birth:
      Brno, Czechoslovakia
    1. Education:
      Undergraduate degree in philosophy, Charles University, Prague, 1952

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Lost Letters

In February 1948, the Communist leader Klement Gottwald stepped out on the balcony of a Baroque palace in Prague to harangue hundreds of thousands of citizens massed in Old Town Square. That was a great turning point in the history of Bohemia. A fateful moment of the kind that occurs only once or twice a millennium.

Gottwald was flanked by his comrades, with Clementis standing close to him. It was snowing and cold, and Gottwald was bareheaded. Bursting with solicitude, Clementis took off his fur hat and set it on Gottwald's head.

The propaganda section made hundreds of thousands of copies of the photograph taken on the balcony where Gottwald, in a fur hat and surrounded by his comrades, spoke to the people. On that balcony the history of Communist Bohemia began. Every child knew that photograph, from seeing it on posters and in schoolbooks and museums.

Four years later, Clementis was charged with treason and hanged. The propaganda section immediately made him vanish from history and, of course, from all photographs. Ever since, Gottwald has been alone on the balcony. Where Clementis stood, there is only the bare palace wall. Nothing remains of Clementis but the fur hat on Gottwald's head.

It is 1971, and Mirek says: The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.

With this he is trying to justify what his friends call carelessness: meticulously keeping a diary, preserving his correspondence, compiling the minutes of all the meetings where they discuss the situation and ponder what to do. He says to them: We're not doing anything that violates the constitution. To hideand feel guilty would be the beginning of defeat.

A week before, at work with his crew on the roof of a building under construction, he looked down and was overcome by vertigo. He lost his balance, and his fall was broken by a badly joined beam that came loose; then they had to extricate him from under it. At first sight, the injury seemed serious, but a little later, when it turned out to be only an ordinary fracture of the forearm, he was pleased by the prospect of some weeks of vacation and the opportunity finally to take care of things he had never found the time for.

He ended up agreeing with his more prudent friends. The constitution did indeed guarantee freedom of speech, but the laws punished anything that could be considered an attack on state security. One never knew when the state would start screaming that this word or that was an attempt on its security. So he decided to put his compromising papers in a safe place.

But first he wanted to settle the Zdena business. He had phoned her in the town where she lived, but was unable to reach her. That cost him four days. He got through to her only yesterday. She had agreed to see him this afternoon.

Mirek's seventeen-year-old son protested: Mirek would be unable to drive with his arm in a cast. And he did have trouble driving. Powerless and useless in its sling, the injured arm swayed on his chest. To shift gears, Mirek had to let go of the steering wheel.

He had had an affair with Zdena twenty-five years earlier, and all that remained from that time were some memories.

One day, she had appeared for a date wiping her eyes with a handkerchief and sniffling. He asked her what was wrong. She told him that a Russian statesman had died the day before. A certain Zhdanov, Arbuzov, or Masturbov. Judging by the abundance of her tears, the death of Masturbov had moved her more strongly than the death of her own father.

Could that really have happened? Isn't it merely his present-day hatred that has invented those tears over Masturbov's death? No, it had certainly happened. But of course it's true that the immediate circumstances which had made these tears real and believable baffled him now, and that the memory had become as implausible as a caricature.

All his memories of her were like that: They had come back together by streetcar from the apartment where they first made love. (Mirek noted with distinct satisfaction that he had completely forgotten their coitions, that he was unable to recall even a single moment of them.) She sat on a corner bench in the jolting streetcar, her face sullen, closed, surprisingly old. When he asked her why she was so silent, she told him she had not been satisfied with their lovemaking. She said he had made love to her like an intellectual.

In the political jargon of those days, the word "intellectual" was an insult. It indicated someone who did not understand life and was cut off from the people. All the Communists who were hanged at the time by other Communists were awarded such abuse. Unlike those who had their feet solidly on the ground, they were said to float in the air. So it was fair, in a way, that as punishment the ground was permanently pulled out from under their feet, that they remained suspended a little above the floor.

But what did Zdena mean by accusing him of making love like an intellectual?

For one reason or another, Zdena was displeased with him, and just as she was capable of imbuing the most abstract relationship (the relationship with Masturbov, whom she didn't know) with the most concrete feeling (embodied in a tear), so she was capable of giving the most concrete of acts an abstract significance and her own dissatisfaction a political name.

In the rearview mirror, he noticed a car persistently staying behind him. He had never doubted he was being followed, but up to now they had behaved with model discretion. Today a radical change had taken place: they wanted him to know they were there.

Out in the country, about twenty kilometers from Prague, there was a high fence with a service station and auto-repair shop behind it. He had a pal working there who could replace his defective starter. He stopped the car in front of a red-and-white-striped barrier blocking the entrance. Beside it stood a heavy woman. Mirek waited for her to raise the barrier, but she just stood there staring at him. He honked his horn, in vain. He stuck his head out of the open window. "Didn't they arrest you yet?" asked the woman.

"No, they haven't arrested me yet," answered Mirek. "Could you raise the barrier?"

She stared absently at him for some more long moments, then yawned and went back to her gatekeeper's shack. She sat down there behind a table, no longer looking his way.

So he got out of the car, walked around the barrier, and went into the repair shop to find the mechanic he knew. The mechanic came back with him and raised the barrier himself (the heavy woman was still sitting in the gatekeeper's shack, staring absently), allowing Mirek to drive in.

"You see, it's because you showed up too much on TV," said the mechanic. "All those dames know who you are."

"Who is she?" asked Mirek.

The mechanic told him that the invasion of Bohemia by the Russian army, whose occupation of the country had affected everything, had been for her a signal of a new life, out of the ordinary. She saw that people who ranked above her (and everyone ranked above her) were being deprived, on the slightest allegation, of their powers, their positions, their jobs, and their bread, and that excited her; she started to denounce people herself.

"So why is she still a gatekeeper? Why wasn't she promoted?"

The mechanic smiled. "She can't count to ten. They can't find another job for her. All they can do is let her go on denouncing people. For her, that's a promotion!"

He raised the hood and looked at the engine.

Mirek suddenly became aware of a man standing near him. He turned: the man was wearing a gray jacket, a white shirt with tie, and brown trousers. Above the thick neck and puffy face was a head of gray hair in a permanent wave. He had planted himself there to watch the mechanic leaning under the raised hood.

After a moment, the mechanic noticed him too, and he straightened up and said: "Looking for somebody?"

The thick-necked man with the permanent wave answered: "No. I'm not looking for anybody."

The mechanic leaned over the engine again and said: "In Wenceslaus Square, in Prague, a guy is throwing up. Another guy comes up to him, pulls a long face, shakes his head, and says: 'I know just what you mean.'

The assassination of Allende quickly covered over the memory of the Russian invasion of Bohemia, the bloody massacre in Bangladesh caused Allende to be forgotten, the din of war in the Sinai Desert drowned out the groans of Bangladesh, the massacres in Cambodia caused the Sinai to be forgotten, and so on, and on and on, until everyone has completely forgotten everything.

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Reading Group Guide

Plot Summary
With its seven interrelated parts--rich in story, character, and imaginative range--The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1978) is the novel that brought Czech-born Milan Kundera his first big international success. Aaron Asher's new translation, commissioned and monitored by Kundera himself, conveys beautifully into English the nuances and the tone of the author's original text. "Part fairy tale, part literary criticism, part political tract, part musicology, and part autobiography" (as the New York Times described it), The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is, above all, the wonderfully integrated stories of men and women living in a world of public oppression and private longings, a world in which history may be rewritten overnight and in which love may fall victim to either political intrusion or personal betrayal.

The seven parts of Kundera's novel explore different aspects of human existence in the twentieth century, particularly as they are affected by life in the police state of the narrator's fictionalized Bohemia. In 1971, three years after the Russian occupation of his homeland, Mirek--under surveillance by the not-so-secret police--seeks to retrieve his love letters from his former lover, Zdena. Marketa and her husband, Karel, must cope with Karel's increasingly childlike mother while at the same time dealing with the amoral Eva and memories of past desires. At a small French summer school, two American girls learn the lessons of laughter. Displaced to a provincial town in Western Europe, Tamina ("all the other stories are variations on her own story") urgently tries to retrieve memories of her husband and their pasttogether in Bohemia, memories recorded in notebooks that she left behind at her mother-in-law's house in Prague. And forty-five-year-old Jan prepares to cross several borders--geographical, existential, erotic--for a new life in the United States.

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting closes with a group of naked men and women on an isolated beach exchanging opinions about the fate of Western civilization and the liberation of humanity, opinions that "Jan had heard ten, twenty, thirty, a hundred, five hundred, a thousand times before." His own attempt to obliterate the border between past and present, and to re-experience the innocent and blissful mystery of his youth, fails. In the end, he finds himself squarely in the land of forgetting.

Discussion Topics
1. What kinds of laughter does Kundera identify? How is each related to personal and historical memory or forgetting? What makes Kundera's characters laugh? With what consequences? Is it true, as Petrarch insists in Part Five, that "love has nothing in common with laughter"?

2. What importance do you ascribe to the various sexual attitudes and activities of the characters? How are these attitudes and activities shaped or determined by personal objectives, familial background, politics, and/or social mores? To what extent are they expressions of rebellion against family, state, or history?

3. In Part Three, Kundera draws a distinction between "the police in the false unity (imposed, commanded) of the row" and "the young people in the true unity (sincere and natural) of the circle." How do these two "unities"--the row and the circle--appear throughout the novel? Which of the characters are associated with the row, and which with the circle? In what ways does the circle possess a "magical meaning"?

4. At the beginning of Part Four, Kundera writes of Tamina, the heroine of this section and of Part Six, that "I am more attached to her than to any other." Why is this so? What characteristics of Tamina's personality, life, and experiences might account for her creator's attachment to her?

5. In Part Five, Kundera defines litost as "a state of torment created by the sudden sight of one's own misery." What instances of litost do you find in the novel, and in what contexts? To what extent may litost be said to be the defining motif of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting?

6. What is the importance of Kundera's comments, in Part Six, on Beethoven's musical variations? How are Kundera's stories variations on Tamina's story, as presented in Parts Four and Six? How are they variations on the dual theme of laughter and forgetting?

About the Author

"Kundera has raised the novel of ideas to a new level of dreamlike lyricism and emotional intensity."
--Newsweek

The Franco-Czech novelist Milan Kundera was born in Brno and has lived in France, his second homeland, for more than twenty years. He is the author of the novels The Joke, Life Is Elsewhere, Farewell Waltz, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and Immortality, and the short story collection Laughable Loves--all originally in Czech. His most recent novels, Slowness and Identity, as well as his nonfiction works, The Art of the Novel and Testaments Betrayed, were originally written in French.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 16 )
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  • Posted November 28, 2010

    One of my favorite books of all time.

    An astonishing work of art, this book is a combination of fiction and philosophical essay that gives the most incisive portrait I've ever encountered of life in a Communist society. Kundera calls it a novel, even though it doesn't sustain a story line over its full length; it is rather a collection of separate pieces that are thematically related, with only one important character who appears in two of them. Kundera's evisceration of Communism is not journalistic but poetic; his image of totalitarian life as living in a society of children is startling and, as embodied in the most important episode of the book, unforgettable. If any contemporary book could truly be called a work of genius, this is it.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 25, 2008

    Delightful

    Short stories that are more related in their theme that revolves around human emotions and behaviors.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 25, 2008

    One of my favorites

    This is an excellent book with some very profound insight. I highly recommend this read. I feel bad for the fellow who made it through this book with out enjoying and reflecting.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 26, 2007

    A reviewer

    As a graduate of Yale, reading continues to be a central life activity for me. I must say that this is the worst book I've ever read. I stuck with it and finished it because I had faith it would get better, but it did not. There is no plot, but a collection of strange, disjointed stories and anecdotes that make little sense. Most of the books I buy find a place on a shelf for later reference or are given to a friend. This one is going in the trash!

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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