Alan Lightman’s Reunion
and Milan Kundera’s Ignorance
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/11/05
I recently read Alan Lightman’s Reunion and Milan Kundera’s Ignorance, and much similar in the two books, unfortunately in the most negative light. Both involve reunions of former lovers. The former takes place all in the mind of a professor going to his thirtieth college reunion, and the later takes place in the Czech Republic, after the fall of Communism, twenty or more years after the lovers broke up and fled their nation. Both are small, slim books- the kind that really aren’t novels, but novellas, yet their dust covers believe they can snooker the public into believing are novels by calling them ‘A Novel’. Lightman surprised the literary world in the late 1990s with his actually good little book, also not a novel, called Einstein’s Dreams, while Kundera is a household name worldwide, on the basis of his two masterpieces, The Book Of Laughter And Forgetting, and The Unbearable Lightness Of Being. Since their success over two decades ago he has struggled mightily to regain his touch, with a series of his and miss efforts. This book is a so-so effort, yet it is far superior to Lightman’s book, which has none of the intellectual sparkle of Einstein’s Dreams, which was almost a latter day Flatland. I know he’s written other books in the interim, but this book is absolutely atrocious
Here are summaries of both book’s plots: In Reunion, a middle-aged professor named Charles, with a successful job and faithful, caring lover, goes to his thirtieth reunion, muses in his room over a lost love, Juliana, his ballet dancer girlfriend who cheated with him with a professor. He caught them, blackmailed the professor into calling it off, then found out she was pregnant, and forced her to not have the abortion she wanted. The girlfriend fled and he never saw her again. The book ends with the professor’s younger self whining to him, and the professor returning to his newest lover and crying on her shoulder. In Ignorance the lovers end up meeting, having a brief romantic reunion in real life, then part again, with a bit better of a feeling about themselves. Of course, Kundera goes off on his now almost predictable digressions, and they are among his better ones in recent books. Lightman- well, he has written a novel that seems adapted from a bad 1970s television movie of the week. His sentences are larded with clichés, and those that are not describe a world that is barren in detail and intellect. I could picture Robert Conrad as Charles the elder, and a young Nicollete Sheridan as Juliana- the perfectly narcotized bimbo that Lightman doesn’t realize his creation is. Who cares who would be the young Charles? He’d just end up in Diet Pepsi ads.
By contrast, even though even less ostensibly happens in Kundera’s Ignorance, at least he has honed his digressions to the point that even when the narrative he tells is a snooze, there will always be a half dozen or so two to three page runs where you know you’ve at least broken even for your expenditure- provided you got the book at a used bookstore, or one of those remaindered discount outlets. Lightman’s hardcover book, at full price ran for $22 even, Kundera’s for $23.95. Aside from their brevity neither work is a novel- they are fillips, digressions, fictive essays of a sort, eructations that in no way deserve mass publication. Kundera’s book is a mildly entertaining New Yorker story, if cut to its actual good length of a quarter its size, while Lightman’s is a backburner story on All My Children. Neither book seems to understand that good novels are designed to eacesdrop in the lives of a character or characters at a crucial moment in their lives, to see how they react, and hopefully grow. Charles, in Reunion, weeps and weeps, while the protagonist in Ignorance- and I won’t name him because Milan refused me a real story, simply goes on with his carefree life after boffing his lover again.
One need go no further than the first three paragraphs of Lightman’s book to see that, regardless of the tale, the writing is simply flaccid, trite and dull:
Sheila lies on top of me, snoring, her heavy breasts heavy on my chest, her stomach on my stomach, her hair damp in the afternoon heat, a shard of light through the white shutters she closes when we make love, the slow beat of the overhead fan, the tiny sound of a radio from the street. I too am falling asleep.
I fly above mountains, dizzy, frightened. Someone’s arm slides across my face. What? What? An hour has passed, maybe two. I sit up on the silk rug, sweaty. In slow motion, Sheila kisses the back of my neck, stands, and stretches.
‘I like it here, with the books,’ she says and yawns. ‘I always have. Have you read them all? I’ll bet most of them are for show.’ Grinning at me, she takes a long sip from the wineglass on the bookshelf. I watch the amber liquid swirl slowly around her lips, I stare at her body, creamy and white. She is not unattractive in her middle-aged nakedness, and I think that I may even love her, but I am ready for her to leave. There is a certain book I want to finish.
It’s not this book, trust me. Are all liquids drunk amber? And isn’t creamy and white not only trite, but redundant? It couldn’t get worse? Yes, it does. Later on this actually appears in the book:
Is it possible for a person to love without wanting love back? Is anything so pure? Or is love, by its nature, a reciprocity, like oceans and clouds, an evaporating of seawater and a replenishing by rain?
No, Lightman is not seventeen. But he is a bad writer, for I suspect this book is far closer to his actual talents than the anomalous first book, Einstein’s Dreams, which probably took twenty years of revising to get good, even though it’s barely over half the length of the skimpy Reunion. As for Kundera, despite this book’s handful of good moments it’s time for him to not pick up his pen until he really has something new to say, narratively or philosophically. Is a one night stand really the best he can offer? Kundera is merely a weak shadow of his former greatness. My guess is this is his last even decent tale. As for Lightman….
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the 10/05 Hackwriters website.]
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