(This is a half-review from my previous blog, which I now intend to finish.)
“Life is elsewhere, the students have written on the walls of the Sorbonne. Yes, he knows that very well, it is why he is leaving London for Ireland, where the people are rebelling. His name is Percy Bysse Shelley, he is twenty years old, he is a poet, and he is bringing with him hundreds of copies of leaflets and proclamations that are to serve him as visas for entry into real life.
Because real life is elsewhere. The students are tearing up the cobblestones, overturning cars, building barricade; their irruption into the world is beautiful and noisy, illuminated by flames and greeted by explosions of tear-gas grenades. How much more painful was the lot of Rimbaud, who dreamed about the barricades of the Paris Commune and never got to it from Cherleville. But in 1968 thousands of Rimbauds have their own barricades, behind which they stand and refuse any compromise with the former masters of the world. The emancipation of mankind will be total, or it will not exist.
But only a kilometre from there, on the other bank of the Seine, the former masters of the world continue to live their lives, and the din of the Latin Quarter reaches them as something far away. Dream is reality, the students wrote on the walls, but it seems that the opposite was true: that reality (the barricades, the trees cut down, the red flags) was a dream.”
I hardly know where to begin describing Milan Kundera’s Life is Elsewhere, for it seems to me that no descriptions can even begin to do justice to its power, its complexity, its wisdom and its sadness. This is a book about poetry, about revolution, about their inevitable entanglement, about words and the power of words to create images that can exalt and destroy, about love, longing, rejection and heartbreak, about coming of age, about ideals and absolutes, about everything. Wit and pathos mix with irony and tragedy; and at the final shattering climax, I found myself filled with a profound sense of sorrow and loss, but also, most inexplicably, smiling at something I could not understand… at beauty, perhaps. And for those five hours, I was enraptured, and time ceased to exist.
It’s difficult to summarise the book, because it has a multiplicity of themes, and each of those themes are so inextricably intertwined with each other, that one cannot be described without describing all the others. One of the central themes, for instance, is the protagonist Jaromil’s belief in the absolute and self-effacing character of love. Yet, one cannot explain this without also explaining how this metamorphoses into, and then is itself coloured by, the absoluteness of the ideal that marks any youth-driven revolution; love and revolution are mixed up inextricably, as the scene where the poets debate about the nature of love in pre-revolution society, amply demonstrates. And one must also then go into the role of poetry, and again, how poetry influences and is influenced by, revolution. Indeed, you could sum up this book by describing it as a critique of Shelley’s famous “Poets are the ultimate legislators of the world” – but that would be incomplete. One could sum it up as a critique of the Romanticist idea, something that is echoed by all the major characters in the novel, something that starts as a platitude and ends as the ultimate tragedy: “When it comes to love, there is no such thing as compromise. When you’re in love you must give everything” – but that would be incomplete as well. It is difficult to sum up this book, to grasp it, as it were, from any one angle. And I haven’t even touched upon the account of the mother-son relationship that forms a cornerstone of the book, as well as its treatment of the complex issue of learning love as one grows up.
Well, briefly, the book is about the life of a young poet, Jaromil, in the backdrop of the Czech Communist Revolution of 1949. It is no Darkness at Noon or 1984 – the concentration camps and the show trials and the political purges are there, certainly, but they are there in the relative background. We are never allowed to forget them, but at the same time, there is no doubting that the principal point of the narrative is to tell the story of Jaromil, his life, his poetry, his loves, his relationship with his mother, his part in the revolution, and the connections between all these. Jaromil’s life is dominated by his mother. He is Rimbaud. He suffers from self-pride to the point of insecurity. He is Lermontov. He wants to change the world with his poetry, and he chafes at his own inactivity, his imprisonment in a “house of mirrors“. He is Shelley. But it’s not just about Jaromil’s life – his life is the vehicle that Kundera uses to ask those age-old, critical questions: what is the role of the poet – and thus, more broadly – art, in society? Why do the ideals of revolution always destroy that which they seek to preserve and exalt? And of course, that ultimate question: what, after all, is love, and what part does it play in our lives? And at the end, there is as much ambiguity as there is in the beginning. We have to work out the answers for ourselves, and the book leaves us with the disquieting feeling that there may be no answers, or that the answers might point us to a direction we dare not go.
He is ironic without ever descending into cynicism – and at the same time, piercingly witty. Consider:
“… he found himself face to face with the blond classmate, who fixed her big blue eyes on him; her lips were no longer moving, no longer singing the song about the canary, which Xavier had thought would never end. Ah, what naivete, he reflected, to believe in the existence of a song that never ends! As if everything here in this world, from the very beginning, has been anything other than betrayal! Fortified by this thought, he took a look at the blond girl’s eyes and knew that he must not take part in the rigged game in which the ephemeral passes for the eternal and the small for the big, that he must not take part in the rigged game called love. So he turned on his heels and went back into the little washroom in which the stocky Czech schoolteacher was again planted in front of Xavier’s schoolmate, her hands on his hips.”
Two things, I think, rescue this passage from depressing cynicism. The first is that Xavier himself is unreal – he is a creation of Jaromil’s. And secondly, these comments on the futility of love are sandwiched between two moments of high farce – the discovery of a teacher and a student kissing in the bathroom, and the deliberate return to that same spot. So, putting this in context, one gets the feeling that it’s not really about the impossibility of love, but in a sudden inversion, Kundera’s mocking the solemn declarations of the impossibility of love.
This kind of… uhm, defamiliarisation occurs regularly throughout the book. It’s there when Jaromil’s attempts to make love fail for various reasons on various occasions, and when he finally does achieve it, it is through the strangest anticlimax imaginable. It’s there when Kundera consciously juxtaposes eras and poets together, switching from Rimbaud in one line to Lermontov in the next, and to Jaromil in the third – and then back to Shelley in the last – and even as he does so, he juxtaposes the themes, showing, again, their inevitable intermingling. The effect cannot be described without directly quoting:
“He looked at the girl as her last words died away; yes, that’s how it was; during all that time when he was tormented by solitude, when he was desperately taking part in meetings and processions, when he kept running on and on, his life as an adult had already been prepared for him here: this basement room with walls stained by dampness had been patiently waiting for him; this room and this ordinary woman whose body had finally linked him in a complete physical way to the crowd.
The more I make love, the more I want to make a revolution – the more I make a revolution, the more I want to make love, a Sorbonne wall proclaims, and Jaromil entered the redhead’s body a second time. Adulthood is total, or it doesn’t exist. This time he made love to her long and marvelously.
And Percy Bysshe Shelley, who like Jaromil had a girlish face and looked younger than his age, ran through the streets of Dublin, he ran on and on because he knew that life was elsewhere. And Rimbaud, too, kept running endlessly, to Stuttgart, to Milan, to Marseilles, to Aden, to Harar, and then back to Marseilles, but by then he had only one leg, and it is hard to run on one leg.
Again he slid out of the girl’s body, and as he lay stretched out beside her, it seemed to him that he was not resting after two long acts of love but after months of running.”
Notice, of course, that there are three very different acts of running that are being described and juxtaposed here. Jaromil is running to find love and adulthood. Shelley is running to change the world through revolution. And Rimbaud, well, it’s difficult to sum that up in a line! But the whole beauty of Kundera’s writing is how, in that one metaphor, the conditions of all three come together, and can be viewed through the lens of a single prism, since at bottom, they are essentially, the same.
For it is Kundera’s case that poets inhabit a house of mirrors; they forever long to belong to the world, the world of action and of enterprise, but cannot; and so they construct their own worlds through their poetry where, because everything is their own creation, there is nothing to condemn them, nothing to hold them to account and expose them if they come up short. But it is precisely in this that their sorrow lies, because they’re always longing to – and trying to – ride the wave on the cusp of the epoch. So, Kundera, quoting the poetry of Frantisek Halas (Banished from the land of dreams…) and Vladimir Mayakovsky, says: Only a true poet can speak of the immense longing not to be a poet, the longing to leave that house of mirrors where deafening silence reigns. The poet is always trying to go into the world, but the best he can do is show himself to the world; so, Kundera writes, in another remarkable juxtaposition:
“The processions had already passed the reviewing stand in Wenceslas Square, improvised bands had appeared on the street corners, and blue-shirted young people were starting to dance. Everyone was fraternizing here with both friends and strangers, but Percy Shelley is unhappy, the poet Shelley is alone.
He’s been in Dublin for several weeks, he’s passed out hundreds of leaflets, the police already know him well, but he hasn’t succeeded in befriending a single Irish person. Life is elsewhere, or it is nowhere.
If only there were barricades and the sound of gunfire! Jaromil thinks that formal processions are merely ephemeral imitations of great revolutionary demonstrations, that they lack substance, that they slip through your fingers.
And suddenly he imagines the girl imprisoned in the cashier’s cage, and he is assailed by a horrible longing; he sees himself breaking the store window with a hammer, pushing away the women shoppers, opening the cashier’s cage, and carrying off the liberated dark-haired girl under the amazed eye of the gawking onlookers.
And then he imagines that they are walking side by side through crowded streets, lovingly pressed against each other. And all at once the dance whirling around them is no longer a dance but barricades yet again, we are in 1848, and in 1870, and in 1945, and we are in Paris, Warsaw, Budapest, Prague and Vienna, and these yet again are the eternal crowds crossing through history, leaping from one barricade to another, and he leaps with them, holding the beloved woman by the hand…
(To be contd.)