7. Laughable Loves, Milan Kundera

8 Mar
Laughable Loves, Milan Kundera

A cover art so hideous it's worth reproducing.

I remember reading this in college after seeing the movie The Unbearable Lightness of Being, looking for…some kind of knowing entree into the life of the libertine, I suppose, since the movie was a cult late-80s/early 90s sex classic up there with 91/2 Weeks, Sex, Lies and Videotape and Betty Blue. I didn’t understand the book, and vaguely didn’t like it, and didn’t quite understand what I didn’t understand about it, but knew it was somehow lacking the sexual information I was seeking at age 18. The title of the movie always nagged at me, too…What did he have in mind?

A friend recently suggested that the “unbearable lightness” was what the easy-living womanizer Tomas experienced… a not-taking-things-to-heart, so I guess I wasn’t alone as a teenager in misunderstanding the movie. Re-reading this book again more than 20 years later, I like it very much, I don’t think it’s really about sex anymore (or, if it is, it’s the sexual priorities of a lecherous elderly Czech in the 60s, of little interest to me…), and I understand why as a young woman I would have been put off perhaps without realizing why by the casual misogyny.

The “Unbearable Lightness” is the extraordinary looseness of identity. A woman’s eyes swim in her face like it’s a swimming pool, a girl (who has just been raped by her boyfried) cries ‘I’m me, I’m me, I’m me” and the narrator remarks that she’s defining a nonsense term with itself, characters feel nauseated and disgusted by the unfixity of who they are, and who the people around them. The young intellectual in the final story, “Edward and God” realizes that the intellect, the body and the profession are just a random collision of circumstances, and feels that we’re all written in runny ink.

It’s interesting to me, and odd, that identity ooze freaks Kundera out so much, since his other obsession is totalitarian social control. Anything obligatory is laughable he says (in the sense of un-serious, inessential, deeply sad) and the characters are always seeking the chosen/voluntary possibilities in life.  I get the feeling that Kundera finds totalitarianism grotesque in part because it purports to assign identity. So… why should we be fixed in identity? Why is it so upsetting that we’re not?

Anyway, I really like these stories. They feel very now, less for the identity stuff, and more because of the characters’ struggles with a vapid and monstrous social system (a sibling of our own current-day corporate totalitarianism, which goes about cloaked in an Orwellian doublespeak much more hideous than Orwell).

I’d be interested to try to a) write a tribute in the style of Kundera, updated to reflect the modern flavor of the unbearable lightness and the modern totalitarianism; and b) also to try to write one of the clever libertineish stories that would have appealed to me as a teenage girl.

My last thought reading this was, you know, now this is writing. metaphysical and intense and deeply about many things on many levels. It makes you just want to shoot people who go liking books like A Visit From the Goon Squad.

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