|All That Jazz (1979)|
I’m rereading Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being. It was published in English in 1984 and I can’t have read it any later than 1986. The book was presented as an urgent bulletin from behind the Iron Curtain, which felt permanent at the time, but remarkably only survived another 5 years. Although the ostensible subject of the book is Soviet rule in Czechoslovakia, especially the Prague Spring rebellion, by far the greatest weight of words is expended on the sexual, and occasionally romantic, relationships between men and women.
Even in the 80s the male characters struck me as having a debatable attitude towards women, and re-reading I found the book pretty much as I remembered it. I suppose the fact that it made such a lasting impression on me is at the very least a backhanded compliment.
The cornerstone of the book is the relationship between Tereza, a 20 year old waitress, and Tomas a surgeon in his early 40s. The book unfolds through a litany of categorial assertions about life that just beg you to disagree with them, and can get deeply infuriating at times. Tomas is not one of those middle-aged men who use young flesh to stave off their sense of impending death, but a deep and tortured thinker, an existentialist, the Ulysses of the bedroom.
He is naturally unfaithful, running a large stable of mistresses, though the only one we learn about in any detail is Sabina, an artist who gets turned on by wearing a bowler hat, bra and pants next to her fully clothed lover. Tomas explains his womanising as an imperative to explore the idiosyncrasies that women only express during sex. He has little interest in the idiosyncrasies women only express outside of sex and is not going to be a source of many profound profound insights, though he may have a book of sexual technique in him.
Tereza is understandably deeply pissed, but incomprehensibly long suffering. At one point she is so distraught she considers sleeping with the chef who sexually harassed her as a young waitress, as a means of dealing with her pain.
The book pivots around a letter about the tragedy of Oedipus that Tomas publishes in a literary magazine that is obscure almost to the point of extinction. The unreasonably thorough censors decide that Tomas identified the regime with Oedipus, implying that it has made itself wilfully blind. Tomas becomes an unintended, and very obscure martyr. The incident reminds you of Paulin’s poem “Where Art is a Midwife” (The censors are on day-release. / They must learn about literature. // There are things called ironies, / Also symbols, which carry meaning. // The types of ambiguity / Are as numerous as the enemies / of the state).
Tomas’ descent begins. He loses his job as a surgeon, and is soon washing windows for a living, and fucking his female clients. Finally Tereza confronts him about his infidelity and Tomas realises that his only comfort comes from her love for him. They decide to move to the country to work on a collective farm, where the simple life keeps Tomas faithful, and they come to an understanding of what life is really about.
I realise that I have made the book sound dreadful and it is dreadful in some ways. But it reads like a dream, has great pace and energy, and is not lightweight. The story shifts backward and forward in time, and major plot points are revealed long before they happen. All of this is handled masterfully and the early revelations only serve to make events more poignant when they happen. As I said, I found the book pretty much as I read it 30 years ago - I don’t remember most books a fraction that well...