Review of Life Is Elsewhere, by Milan Kundera
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/25/05
The more I read of Milan Kundera the more I am convinced that he is the John Ashbery of prose. Not in the similarities of the former’s prose to the latter’s poetry, although one could see some similarities, but rather that both men seemed to hit their heights years ago. Kundera with his two masterpieces, The Book Of Laughter And Forgetting in 1978 and The Unbearable Lightness Of Being in 1984, just as Ashbery’s lone great book of poems, Self-Portrait In A Convex Mirror, was in 1974. That book was preceded by a decade or more of poems with promise, and then followed by three decades of stale rehashes. Just as Ashbery has been coasting I suspect that Kundera has also been in cruise control because what I’ve read of his, aside from his two classics have left me underwhelmed. Later works, like The Art Of The Novel (1986), Testaments Betrayed (1993), and Identity (1997) are pallid echoes of former glories, while earlier books like Laughable Loves (1969), and Life Is Elsewhere (1973) show flashes of the later brilliance, but also a lot of puerility and preachiness.
LIE, especially, telegraphs much of what will zenith in his later opuses, both in subject matter and execution. The book follows the life story of a poet, replete with all the requisite clichés of pain, suffering, and madness being akin to genius. This is no surprise since the book’s title comes from an Arthur Rimbaud poem- Rimbaud being the poet of scatology and infantilism. The poet is named Jaromil, and the only snippets of verse we read from him are hardly anything to qualify him as a great poet. Regardless the book follows the surge to manhood of the very haughty and selfish Jaromil as he slowly asserts his independence from his overbearing mother (cliché alert), who is in a loveless marriage (cliché alert deux) to a man, the poet’s father, who never wanted him (cliché alert trois). Of course, the reason these are clichés and not classical structures is because Kundera never lets us see any of the characters having individuated thoughts that are not things we’ve read a thousand times before in similar characters in similar situations.
That said, is it any wonder that Jaromil is a misogynist? He is also the lover of two women- a coed called ‘stone maiden’ and a bourgeois redhead- both girls are unnamed. He is a communist and artist who feels that destiny has chosen him to be a great poet- the delusion of many a young poetaster. Of course, all these things- mother, girlfriends, politics- conspire top frustrate his ‘greatness’, yet Kundera, unlike in his later, better novels, never cores in deeper in to what makes Jaromil tick. He is just, in essence, a poet so that Kundera can have him claim he’s a poet, not that that fact is used for any other reason than to have Jaromil petulantly preen. This lack of depth to the characterization would be extirpated in the two classics, but this novel is driven not by a need to tell a story, nor deliver memorable characterizations, but by a need to make a ‘statement’ on art- yet he was too callow a writer and thinker, at the time, to rise above the banal, as noted by his and his character’s worship of poets like Rimbaud, Byron, and Mayakovsky, whom he emulates by becoming a shill for the Communists.
On the positive side, there are a number of digressive passages that work, as they would in the later books- especially one which juxtaposes Jaromil and his mother on sexual misadventures, but even these work only as passages, not as keys to the core narrative, as they would in the later classics. However, the whole is too predictable, as evidenced by the poet’s suicide at the end, replete with a choice between death by fire or water, after being denuded in public for the shill that he is.
Kundera wanted to write a treatise against poetry and the Romantic impulses behind it, but what he wrote was a puerile screed, at its worst, and a banal tale, at its best. Like the poet Ashbery, whose life is the antithesis of Kundera’s stereotyped version of what a poet is, his ideas and vision faded slowly, not with the glorious abruption of a tragic poet, for Jaromil is not only not a real poet, but he certainly is not tragic, for that requires an element of nobility and strength, both of which the character lacks.
Although this book is a sort of Mesohippus on the evolutionary scale that would lead to what Kundera would become at his peak I am more concerned about his fall from grace, and the lack of any further imagination that has appeared in Kundera’s published works, in the last two decades. Perhaps, this is why young artists- be they the fictive Jaromil, real Rimbaud, or young Kundera- cling so ferociously to their silly myths of tragic art and artists- because they know that the long slow slide to irrelevance awaits most of those who succeed or fail.
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