The Farewell Waltz
Goodbye, Milan Kundera. You showed us that whereas a mere novel is a collection of inventions, literature is a rendering of the truth.
What makes classic literature? Where does a mere story end and literature begin? The exploration is a worthy way, I think, to celebrate Milan Kundera.
Kundera, who died last week, was a Czech novelist who spent more of his life in comfortable “exile” in France. He moved there in the 1970s after having already achieved notoriety by upsetting the Communist authorities with edgy novels like The Joke. In that book, the student Ludvik Jahn derails his promising career with a joke about the Communists which is taken badly out of context. Misery follows for Jahn, and life lessons for the reader.
I first encountered Kundera via what some (but by no means all) will consider his magnum opus, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The novel tells the story of the surgeon Tomas, who is torn between his devoted (but boring) wife Tereza and his free-spirited (and reckless) lover Sabina. As you might expect, Tomas gets into all kinds of trouble that does neither his career nor either of the women much good.
At the time of my reading this book, in the late 1980s, I had already had some early flirtations with what one might consider literature. I was uncertain about what exactly made it worthy of the label. My sense was just that with storytelling, as with another ancient vocation, you simply know it when you see it.
For example, from early high school days I knew this applied to the American author Kurt Vonnegut. I loved that his early career was as a public relations writer for General Electric, and that he only began to be published in middle age (I believe I foresaw the evils of ageism correctly in this case). But when he did, with novels like Player Piano and Slaughterhouse Five – good lord, was it ever worth the wait.
Vonnegut bent toward the whimsical, and some of his works flirted with science fiction. So it was with what may be my favorite of his works, The Sirens of Titan. There, characters with names like Malachi Constant and William Niles Rumfoord travel through space and time which enables them to pretend to make predictions, leading to the establishment of a religion called "The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent."
It’s a vision I can get behind: The central tenet is that the universe is vast, indifferent, and devoid of purpose or meaning, so people should live with a sense of acceptance. The book contains the brilliant line, by a character who is thrust onto a public stage to explain the unexplainable: “I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all."
Of course I also enjoyed Catcher In the Rye and the occasional John Irving novel (The World According to Garp made a great impression especially, as I recall). But it was Kundera who set me on my literature-loving course.
What made it special? What made Kundera so stand out?