After the first episode of my September readings, here is #2!
already bend the rules: I am not going to talk about a book in particular, but about an author: Kundera. And, I’m not going to focus solely on September, but on my summer’s readings as a whole.
// Little disclaimer // I had to translate some of the quotes myself (my book is in French and I couldn’t find all I wanted online). Sorry in advance for the lack of literary style
A little bibliography
why / how
Let me explain: I bought, by chance, on one of his novels back in July (The joke). I read it, re-read it, and re-re-read it over and over again for a month. It wasn’t that I particularly liked the book to be honest, but since I was backpacking, I couldn’t change the lecture I brought with me in the first place.
Once I finished my trip
aka the book for good, I got curious. After all, of Kundera’s work, I only knew the classics (The unbearable lightness of being, Immortality, and his essay The Art of the Novel). Its kitschy dark universe fascinated me (how could one mix so easily tragedy and lightness?), but it didn’t seem to appear as sharp in The Joke. It is only later in my researches that I learned The Joke was actually the first book he published.
This particular discovery got me even more intrigued. As some love to watch a director’s filmography to see how he affined his signature style over the years, I love reading an author’s bibliography. I had already done it years ago for Camus, Chateaubriand and Roland Barthes – three of my favorite authors – and really wanted to discover more about Kundera.
BUT having binge-read Kundera is no reason to drown you under a plethora of reviews. This is why I chose to focus on three books in particular that represent– in my opinion – his work of art.
Some of Kundera’s novels
1 - The joke
I couldn’t pass on the book which started it all – both my madness and Kundera’s career. The Joke is the first novel published by the author in 1967. It tells the intriguing multi-layered story of Ludvik, a young man whose life unexpectedly changed after… a joke. We discover through three other character’s voices Ludvik’s past and future plans, as his universe – filled with communism.
Even after two months and several re-readings, I can’t really figure out what the novel is about: vengeance or love?
I rarely get the opportunity to read an author’s first piece of work, and I was surprised to see that every element we “identify” as Kundera’s were already in germ in The Joke. Namely: the polyphony, the light humor contrasting with a somewhat dark situation and characters whose lives are in doom.
2 - The farewell waltz
A little – tragic – vaudeville built like a classic play. Time, place and action are united, as prescripted. In 24 hours, eight characters concentrated in a little spa town experiment accidents, treason, love, among other things.
Having just finished The Joke, I was excepting a similar story; or at least, a similar tone. No need to say I was surprised by the story. Its shorter format condenses everything, which somehow ends up in strongly highlighting life’s irony. The author’s light dark humor even adds up to the situation’s gloominess and left me a bit shaken.
3 - Testaments betrayed
This last one is an essay divided in nine parts. The main topic Kundera explores in his Testaments betrayed is the art of the novel (which he wrote about in a previous essay).
Through different pieces, we manage to have a glimpse at Kundera’s book philosophy.
The essay provides a great source to understand further Kundera. However, I did have a hard time reading it / concentrate thoroughly.
I do recommend the book however, just not in any reading conditions. For instance, don’t mistake it for “train-book”. Find a quiet place, and be ready to focus.
A little word to go
As I mentioned, Kundera’s perfect blend between tragedy and apparent lightheartedness creates a darkish, gloomy universe I love.
The polyphony is, to me, one of the core elements that adds to the creation of this particular atmosphere. Characters’ stories resonate with each other, intertwine, part ways, and dive us -readers- into an exhilarating / tragically ironic whirlwind.
Depending on the lectures, I wouldn’t qualify Kundera as a “page-turner author” – pretty much for the same reasons Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov isn’t.
Some more next month. Until then: good reading!
OTHER BOOKS AND ARTICLES
- The Unbearable Lightness of Being
- An interview on literature with Kundera – the nystimes
What about you? What are you reading those days?