The Various Stages of a Voyage: The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera

It took me about fifty pages of Kundera’s book (in Aaron Asher’s translation from the French) before I was drawn in and absorbed with it. The seven chapters of the book are more like short stories which are loosely tied together by theme. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting has been described as a novel and, at times, autobiographical. But, like many great authors who invent their own genres of writing (Musil, Proust, Kafka, etc.) Kundera instructs us on how to read him:

This book is a novel in the form of variations. The various parts follow each other like the various stages of a voyage leading into the interior of a them, the interior of a thought, the interior of a single, unique situation, the understanding of which recedes from my sight into the distance.

It is a novel about Tamina, and whenever Tamina goes offstage, it is a novel for Tamina. She is its principal character and its principal audience, and all the other stories are variations on her own story and meet with her life as in a mirror.

It is a novel about laughter and about forgetting, about forgetting and about Prague, about Prague and about the angels.

Like the author himself, Tamina lives in exile in another country in the west after she escapes political persecution by the Communist government in Prague. Shortly after their escape, Tamina’s husband dies and she leads a very lonely, monotonous, and silent existence. As the years slip by she is worried that her memories of her life with her husband are fading as well. She is desperate to somehow retrieve her notebooks and diaries which she left in Prague.

For Tamina is adrift on a raft and looking back, looking only back. Her entire being contains only what she sees there, far behind her. Just as her pas contracts, disintegrates, dissolves, so Tamina is shrinking and losing her contours.

She wants to have her notebooks so that the flimsy framework of events, as she has constructed them in her school notebook, will be provided with walls and become a house she can live in. Because if the tottering structure of her memories collapses like a clumsily pitched tent, all Tamina will be left with is the present, that invisible point, that nothingness moving slowly toward death.

Throughout the book I kept thinking about memory and how our minds choose what to keep and what to discard. Even with important or traumatic events our memories can’t possibly retain every detail. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony about the Supreme Court nominee comes to mind: “indelible in the hippocamus is the laughter” is the horrifying detail she remembers when Kavanaugh and his friend attempted to assault her. Tamina doesn’t have the opportunity to get her diaries back but she learns that there are some parts of her memory, even though they are fragments—good or bad, that she will always have with her.

One final word about Kundera’s astonishing piece of writing is the eroticism that pervades every chapter. Orgies, menage a trois, assault, casual sex, etc. are among the acts that are described in the narrative. It was an odd theme that stands out among the others for me. But I don’t know enough about Kundera’s style and other writings to make any intelligent comments about it. So I will simply mention that it’s there and keep processing it as I read more of his fiction and non-fiction. Do you have a favorite Kundera? Please do let me know!

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Shattered by War and Repulsed by Fate: The Troy Exhibit at The British Museum

The collection of papyri, sculpture, pottery, paintings and literature on display at The British Museum’s Troy Exhibit is, to say the least, mesmerizing.   A large part of the exhibit is devoted to telling the story of the Trojan Saga through black and red figure vase painting from the 6th and 5th centuries BCE.  It was a special treat for me to go to the museum with @flowerville since, as a skilled potter herself, she helped me appreciate even more the creative process of making these delicate vessels.

Black figure amphora by Execkias. Achilles and Ajax playing a game. c. 540-530 BCE.

 

The marble sculpture of The Wounded Achilles by Filippo Albacini was also something we lingered over for a long time.  It is placed in such a way in the center of the exhibit that it is easily viewed from all sides.

The Wounded Achilles. Filippo Albacini. 1825. Marble with restored gilded arrow.

 

Another view of The Wounded Achilles.

 

The objects that I think we were the most fond of, and certainly most excited to view, were the books.  The displays of literature included Dryden’s 1697 translation of the Aeneid as well as Pope’s handwritten draft of the Iliad which includes his drawing of the Shield of Achilles.

Dryden’s 1697 translation of Vergil’s Aeneid

 

Handwritten draft of Pope’s translation of the Iliad with a drawing of the Shield of Achilles. 1712-24

 

I really could go on and on about the exhibit but these are just a few of the highlights.  One additional piece I would like to mention, which was built as a set especially for the exhibit, is an enormous wooden skeleton of the Trojan Horse as if it were in the process of being constructed by the Greeks.  It immediately brought to mind these lines of Vergil’s Aeneid 2.13-17 (translation is my own):

Fracti bello fatisque repulsi
ductores Danaum tot iam labentibus annis
instar montis equum divina Palladis arte
aedificant, sectaque intexunt abiete costas;
votum pro reditu similant; ea fama vagatur.

Shattered by war, repulsed by fate, and
with so many years now having slipped by,
the leaders of the Greeks, with divine
inspiration from Athena, built a horse
that was as big as a mountain. They covered
up the skeleton and ribs they constructed
with felled trees. They pretended to
pray for a safe return; this rumor
of their departure was spread around.

 

A skeleton of the Trojan Horse suspended from the exhibit ceiling.

 

This was really a once in a lifetime experience for me and sharing it with flowerville made it even more of a special occasion.  Our only real complaint was that there wasn’t enough Latin and Ancient Greek text included with the English translations.  But viewing these artifacts has inspired us both to look at and translate the ancient texts, especially The Aeneid.

 

 

 

 

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The World is Round

The Sea of Time and Space. William Blake. 1821.

As I’m sitting here at Heathrow waiting for my flight back to Boston my heart and my mind are full of thoughts and emotions. We oftentimes tend to dwell on grief, loss and heartache—broken relationships, silence, distance, and, of course, death. But we rarely speak about the experience of meeting new people and making a new friend. Of all my trips to London, this has been my best experience because of a new friend.

I am reading Caroline Bird’s poetry collection (one of several books I bought on my trip) from Carcanet, “Looking Through Letterboxes” and her poem “Geography Lesson” seems especially fitting:

When you’ve reached the peak,

the summit, the end,

you’ve come to the limit,

let me tell you gently

that the world is round, my sweet,

and it’s all a long walk backwards,

starting from here.

Maybe I’m just too much of an optimist. But I think that, even as an adult, if we keep our minds and hearts open it is possible to meet fantastic, new friends. But as Bird also says in one of her poems, “Only takes you so far, fate.”

The Blake piece also seems fitting and was one of my favorites at The Tate exhibit: ” The Sea of Time and Space” which deals with, among many things, the theme of choice.

More on my trip later, when I’m home and have time to think.

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Tragic Thirst for a Wilder Existence: The Immoralist by André Gide

Michel’s entire life up until his young adulthood has been influenced and directed by his father.  From his earliest years he is groomed to be a classicist and archaeologist and is immersed in ancient history and cares for nothing that doesn’t deal with the past.  Michel is a docile, emotionless, physically weak and disciplined man.   When his father dies, he marries Marceline, not because he loves her, but because that’s what his father wanted.

While on their honeymoon in Africa, Michel becomes very ill with tuberculosis.  His fevers, bad health and brush with death awaken in him thoughts, emotions, longing and senses he has never experienced before.  He falls in love with his wife and becomes extremely devoted to her.  And he also develops a sensual longing for the African boys that visit and interact with them.  When he recovers and returns to France, he tries to reestablish his career by giving a series of lectures on Athalaric, an obscure Gothic king who died young from heaving drinking and leading an excessively sensual life:

But, I must admit, the figure of the young king Athalaric was what attracted me most to the subject.  I imagined this fifteen-year-old, covertly spurred on by the Goths, rebelling against his mother Amalaswintha, balking at his Latin education, rejecting culture like a stallion restive in harness and, preferring the company of the tumultuous Goths to that of the old and over-prudent Cassiodorus, enjoying for a few years with unruly favorites his own age a violent, voluptuous, unbridled life, dying at eighteen, utterly corrupted, glutted with debauchery.  I recognized in this tragic thirst for a wilder and unspoiled existence something of what Marceline used to call, with a smile, my “attack.”  I sought relief by applying to it at leas my mind, since my body was no longer concerned, and I did my best to convince myself there was a lesson to be read in Athalaric’s hideous death.

I would argue that the lesson Michel learns is that we can’t let ourselves get too weighed down by the past; we must move forward, take risks in life.  And even though these risks may cause us pain and heartache, it is always worth taking a chance.

Gide was a perfect read for my post-Proust reading funk.  I’ve also decided to finish Schmidt’s book on poets and immerse myself in poetry for a while.

 

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A Proust Reading List

I thought it would be helpful to share the list of books related to Proust that I have compiled as I have done previously with Kafka and Dante.  This is a very short list so please leave me additional suggestions in the comments.  The translation I used to read Proust was the Moncrieff et al. version published by The Modern Library which I would highly recommend.

By Way of Sainte-Beuve by Marcel Proust.  This collection of essays is a good introduction to Proust’s style of writing for those who don’t want to dive right into his novel.

The Collected Poems by Marcel Proust. Translated by a wide variety of talented translators.  A wonderful dual language edition by Penguin of Proust’s poetry.  I find that a lot of people don’t realize he wrote poetry.

On Reading by Marcel Proust.   Another great way to get a taste of Proust through his ideas on reading.  It is also a dual language edition I found published by Macmillan in 1971.

Letters of Marcel Proust.  Translated and edited with notes by Mina Curtiss.

Monsieur Proust by Celest Albaret.  Translated by Barbara Bray. Albaret was Proust’s housekeeper in his final years while he was writing his magnum opus.  This book also has a lot of nice photos of Proust.

Marcel Proust: A Biography. Volumes I and II by George D. Painter.  There are two other biographies of Proust by Tadie and Carter that were recommended to me  but I chose the Painter.

Paintings in Proust by Eric Karpeles.  This was a perfect companion to reading Proust for those who like a visual of all the paintings that Proust discusses.  It also saves a lot of time from having to look each one up individually.  The photos in the book are beautiful.

Monsieur Proust’s Library by Anka Muhlstein.  An interesting little book that discusses books and reading in Proust.

The Albertine Workout by Ann Carson.  I happened to buy this at The Strand a few years ago because I was interested in Ann Carson.  This is not any kind of truly revealing “workout” of who Albertine was but if you like Carson’s writing then it’s a quick, interesting read.

Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp by Jozef Czapski.  Translated by Eric Karpeles.  An inspiring little book that uses Proust to show prisoners that there is hope.

“Proust and I” by Gabriel Josipovici. An essay included in his collection The Teller & The Tale.

“The Image of Proust” by Walter Benjamin.  An essay included in his collection Illuminations translated by Harry Zohn and edited with an introduction by Hannah Arendt.

“The Experience of Proust” by Maurice Blanchot.  This essay, which discusses Proust’s unfinished novel Jean Santeuil, is included in his collection The Book to Come translated by Charlotte Mandell.

And, of course, there is the famous essay on Proust by Samuel Beckett which I have yet to find a copy.  Finally, since Proust was so fond of Balzac and his work is constantly mentioned in In Search of Lost Time, I acquired a complete set of Balzac’s novels.

Addenda:

Thanks to Steve at This Space for sharing these great recommendations with me-

Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method by Gerard Genette.  Translated by Jane E. Lewin.

Proust & Signs: The Complete Text by Gilles Deleuze.

And Eric (@spaceisagrail) who is also reading Proust recommended Roger Shattuck who has a couple of books that are field guides through Proust.

There is an obscure short story that I mentioned in  my last Proust post translated by Burton Pike.  It is wonderful and gives the reader a taste of Proust’s fiction before one decides to dive into the big one:

“The Indifferent One” by Marcel Proust.  Translated by Burton Pike for Conjunctions No. 31.

Thanks to Derek Kalback (@dkalback) for this addition:

Proust Among the Stars by Malcolm Bowie.

Thanks to the amazing flowerville for sharing this essay by Jean Amery and translated by @shirtysleeves and an additional book:

http://shirtysleeves.blogspot.com/2017/11/a-translation-of-zugang-zu-marcel.html

The Quest for Proust by Andre Maurois.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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