The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

by Milan Kundera


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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060932145
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 04/07/1999
Series: Perennial Classics Series
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 155,756
Product dimensions: 7.94(w) x 5.26(h) x 0.82(d)

About the Author

Milan Kundera 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.


Paris, France

Date of Birth:

April 1, 1929

Place of Birth:

Brno, Czechoslovakia


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.

Table of Contents

Author's Note vii
Part One Lost Letters 1(34)
Part Two Mama 35(40)
Part Three The Angels 75(32)
Part Four Lost Letters 107(54)
Part Five Litost 161(52)
Part Six The Angels 213(50)
Part Seven The Border 263

What People are Saying About This

John Updike

"This book, as it bluntly calls itself, is brilliant and original, written with the purity and wit that invite us directly in."

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."

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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Book of Laughter and Forgetting 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 29 reviews.
MichaelinPhiladelphia More than 1 year ago
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.
Ziggaroth on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Very much like his more famous Unbearable Lightness of Being, only more political, and much better. I don't think Kundera's brilliant, but he's got a real ability to make his reader think; I have certainly found myself more thoughtful reading these two novels than during almost any others I can remember. This one's harder to figure out than Lightness, but worth the effort I think.
marek2009 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A brilliant depiction of intellectual life under communism. Philiosphically profound & very moving. The more allegorical sections were a slight disappointment though.
bas615 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is not my favorite of Kundera's works but it hits on many of the same themes as his others. Eroticism coupled with a repressive society weave themselves together in most of these stories. It is not necessarily the subject matter that appeals to me with Kundera but rather the quite extraordinary nature of his insights into life and the sheer beauty of his writing. The lyrical nature is quite compelling and when this is coupled with his perceptiveness to small parts of our lives it brings this work to another level. I have never read a Kundera book that at the end did not leave me feeling enriched despite my disregard for the eroticism of his work.
poplin on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
After falling in love with The Unbearable Lightness of Being, I glutted myself on Milan Kundera's other novels; as a consequence, plots and themes ran together in my mind, and only The Unbearable Lightness of Being remained distinct. (From this experience, I learned the lesson of putting at least a few books in between multiple books by the same author.) For this reason, re-reading The Book of Laughter and Forgetting was a curious experience: at each moment, I remembered nothing of what happened next in the book, but whatever page I was currently reading jogged my memory¿rather apropos, perhaps.The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is a book of variations on a theme. There is no single narrative, but each of the seven parts expands on the theme of forgetting and its consequences. However, Kundera does indicate that Tamina¿the heroine of Parts Four and Six¿is the central character, and whenever Tamina is missing from the action, the book is for her.As the title suggests, the nature of forgetting forms the major theme of the book. Forgetting is always seen as creating a vacuum, but that vacuum is viewed in different ways. For example, both Mirek of Part One and Tamina of Part Four are concerned with recovering old letters. Mirek wants to obtain his old love letters to an embarrassing flame so that he can destroy them and thus completely erase her from his life¿s narrative; Tamina, on the other hand, wants to recover the letters she shared with her dead husband in order to stop his disappearance from her memory.For Mirek, forgetting is positive, a means of creating the life he wants in reverse (whether or not this attitude is psychologically healthy is, of course, another question). For Tamina, forgetting deprives her life of any weight; she feels as though she¿s adrift on a raft, always looking back into an indistinct past. In this way, the dichotomy of memory and forgetting seems to parallel the contrast between lightness and heaviness from The Unbearable Lightness of Being.Kundera also discusses the nature of forgetting in a political context; an incident is cited in which the communist leadership, in an Orwellian move, erased an official from a photograph and thus from history. Perhaps it is a result of my (blessed) removal from the realities of communism, but Kundera¿s digressions into the nature of forgetting as underlying the true inhumanity of communism served merely to emphasize the narrative regarding personal memory rather than the other way around.As a last point, Tamina¿the character the book is about and for¿is, for me, utterly captivating and a character for whom I felt instant affinity; a feat made all the more remarkable by the fact that she occupies so little of the novel and is developed through sparing biographical details. The book escapes feels fragmented by having Tamina at its heart.The Unbearable Lightness of Being cemented Kundera as one of my favorite authors; although The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is less of a coherent statement, and certainly less of a masterpiece, it is nonetheless an exceptional novel that further underlines Kundera¿s immense talent.
oogumboogum on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A joy to read Kundera touches the human spirit like nobody else .
LisaMaria_C on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being is one of my favorite novels. I feel more mixed about his earlier work, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. A blurb from the New York Times describes it as "part fairy tale, part literary criticism, part political tract, part musicology and part autobiography." I can certainly see all that. It's rather loosely structured into seven parts, each one of which could be seen as (mostly) independent short stories, even if one of the characters, Tamina, is repeated and Kundera insists she is central. Within the novel itself, Kundera himself sometimes intrudes as a first person narrator and breaks the fourth wall, at times telling stories purportedly about himself and how his life became entangled with his country and its convoluted history--once upon a time part of the Austria-Hungarian Empire, then an independent republic, then under Nazi then Soviet domination, which still cast its shadow when this was written in 1977. In the midst and as part of the novel he explicitly explains the novel's meaning. "This book is a novel in the form of variations.... It is a novel about laughter and about forgetting, about forgetting and about Prague, about Prague and about the angels." In the first pages Kundera tells us that the "struggle of man against power is struggle of memory against forgetting" and he also tells us that that "bursting out in... ecstatic laughter is [to be] without memory." Despite such explicit explanations of the theme, I can't pretend to see how all the stories fit together, or how Tamina is central and others the mirror to her experience. This is a far less unified work than The Unbearable Lightness of Being, less realistic (parts of it are so surreal they can't possibly be taken as literally happening) and I found it far less moving. At the same time, unlike the case with many such novels, I didn't feel disappointed or as if it was a failure of the author. I do like it less than the other novel, but this one fascinated me in a way I could see reading it again, or wanting to read more about it and discuss it to understand how everything fits. It's an alienating novel in its way--I can't say I connected with any of the characters--particularly that of Kundera himself given a rather disturbing account of him and a woman I don't know whether to take as really having happened or not. Besides the surreal touches there's also quite a lot of sexual (though not particularly graphic) kink I'm not sure what to make of thematically. So I'm not sure always what Kundera is trying to say overall with the various stories--but often he says it beautifully, and parts are quite funny. There are so many lines and passages that are quote-worthy and worth a reread--such as his musings on twelve-tone music which is about so much more than just music. I couldn't help but contrast this to Joyce's Ulysses, which I read recently and to so much modernist literature in general. It seems literary critics only count as profound these days the near incoherent. They confuse difficulty in reading with complexity or profundity. Kundera's prose is fairly simple, and often lyrical, and in a line-by-line sense absolutely lucid and was always a joy to read--but that doesn't make his novel simple in meaning or in any way simplistic.
hardcastle on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting contains stories with unparalleled emotional depth and nuance. Kundera succinctly and elegantly describes the most delicate and complicated feelings, ones that have no name, that you often and easily forget even exist, shining a light on the dark and hidden depths of the human soul like few others. Laughter and Forgetting only gets better with each successive story. One of my favorite books.
Tropic_of_Cancer on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I really love his beautiful writing style. I do. I couldn't help but feel a little disappointed with this book, though. I thought it was good, but nothing special.
soylentgreen23 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
It's hard to exactly pinpoint the reason why I fell in love with this book so dramatically. Perhaps it has to do with Kundera's art of examining the everyday, and making it poetic and philosophical, so that one can learn from it. Perhaps it's Kundera's way of putting the Soviet invasion into his homeland into perspective. Perhaps it's that every single word was full of a maudlin joy, a sad happiness, that I've just not found anywhere else.
Clurb on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Sex, philosophy, politics, and existential angst. This is classic Kundera. Well written, incisive and consummately readable. Didn't have me leaping around the room shouting 'Yes!' and nodding my head in appreciative agreement quite as much as some of his others though.
Arctic-Stranger on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A collection of short stories. If you have not read Kundera, this is a good place, because you get a lot of his major themes neatly laid out. Well, as neatly as he can do it.
bookroute on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I read this book then devoured the rest of Kundera's list. No one does it better than this man. While there is genius in all his books, this remains the top of the list for me, maybe because it was my first dip into this mind and that impression carries above all else.
twilightlost_2 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I had previously read "An Unbearable Lightness of Being" and enjoyed it so I thought to try another Kundera. This one did not do it for me, but could have been better had I had anyone with whom to discuss its meaning.
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