Life is elsewhere 
by Milan Kundera, translated by Peter Kussi.
Faber, 311 pp., £9.95, November 1986, 0 571 14560 4
Show More
My First Loves 
by Ivan Klima, translated by Ewald Oser.
Chatto, 164 pp., £9.95, November 1986, 0 7011 3014 8
Show More
Show More

Revolution, literature and love, and the roads and side-roads which join them together, are concerns of Kundera and Klima, whose name is a further concern of Kundera’s, and is used for the uxorious philanderer of his novel The Farewell Party. With the arrival of these two Czech writers Central Europe’s roman à K has taken a new turn. There is a sense in which the hero of the latest of Kundera’s novels to appear in Britain is also the hero of Klima’s collection of stories. Revolution, and its betrayal by a regime which both prescribes and proscribes literature, are described in the literature to which both men contribute. Both are interested in the subject of remembering and forgetting. In the books they write, music is heard in country places – trumpets, fiddles, the cimbalom – and love shows its face in country hotels, pleasant places, set down beside a stretch of water.

Klima may perhaps be a common name in Czechoslovakia, and Kundera has become a common name in the conversation of Western readers, who are drawn to these reciprocal concerns of his. The free world may like him both for having been, and for having ceased to be, a Communist of a sort, and for the freedoms he seeks in matters of literary form, for the modern inventiveness and manipulation of the literary games he plays, games that nonetheless commemorate, as he acknowledges, Cervantes, Sterne and Diderot, and for the sexual games which he plays in an age when, as he once put it, sexuality has ceased to be taboo. We like him for being into free speech and free love, and for what he has to say about convergences of the two, and about the enmity which revolution and its regimes may bear to both. The West has been grateful to Kundera, extravagantly so at times: there’s been an impulse to beat itself with his buoyant fictions. Heads have been turned, and have begun to swim, amid the flow of invention, delivered in works which have been Englished in rapid succession and which are not always easy to tell apart. Which is the one that has litost – a form of self-pity – and which is the one that has ‘unbearable lightness of being’? Which of these two conceptions, for that matter, we may even sometimes wonder, is which? His fertility, narrative gift, gift for experiments and impromptus, are such as to bewilder the attempt to form a judgment of any particular work. Not that he can mind that.

What he does mind – and what even the most arbitrary-seeming, the most ludic, of his ironic and erotic diversions and excursions show that he minds – is the regime that came to power in his native country after the revolution of 1948. Many of his most memorable literary effects attest to this. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being the Czech exile Sabina disturbs her French friends by being unable to last out a parade held to protest against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968: ‘She would have liked to tell them that behind Communism, Fascism, behind all occupations and invasions lurks a more basic, pervasive evil and that the image of that evil was a parade of people marching by with raised fists and shouting identical syllables in unison.’ The British reader, who has been spared the degree of suffering which enters the books of Kundera and Klima, where a joke, or no joke, or nothing whatever, can sequester you for years from the people you grew up with, is in a position, for all that, to know what Sabina means here. The British reader has only to listen to the sounds that protest makes in his own streets, to the cruel, brutal voices that bellow over loudhailers about injustice and the disadvantaged.

In thinking about what Stalinism brought to his country, Kundera thinks of the support which this despotism has received from the writers of his country, and of other countries. Literature, with its store of memories, is suspected by the state: and yet the state is served by certain writers. In books and interviews he has reminded the world that the French Surrealist poet Aragon, having praised Kundera’s wonderful novel The Joke in 1968, and having fulminated against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia – his legs would ‘refuse’ to take him to Russia any more – made it to Moscow four years later; and that another French poet, Eluard, abandoned his Prague friend, the Surrealist Kalandra, to the executioner. ‘Nowadays, people all over the world unequivocally reject the idea of gulags, yet they are still willing to let themselves be hypnotised by totalitarian poesy and to march to new gulags to the tune of the same lyrical song piped by Eluard when he soared over Prague like the great archangel of the lyre, while the smoke of Kalandra’s body rose to the sky from the crematory chimney.’ Tyranny is a force which locks writers up and which lyrical writers may assist.

Eluard’s soaring ‘lyricism’ helped to perpetuate a tyranny, and is the kind of thing which led Kundera to entitle this early novel of his The Lyric Age: but then his publishers got him to change the name. The novel was finished in 1969 and was published in America in 1974, translated by Peter Kussi, who has now revised his translation. The provisional title referred to the lifespan of Jaromil, who dies young, as lyric poets will, but also to the enforced, mass-produced, writer-proclaimed revolutionary ardours which ensued in 1948. At the outset, Jaromil’s lyricism is a Modern affair in which biological compulsion and biographical reference – peeps at the maid Magda in her bath, for instance – are enveloped and disguised in a poetry which his doting and self-pitying mother finds inscrutable. His first loves – to make use of Klima’s title – prove to be his last, but prove as engrossing to him as the lyrics in which his emotional development is encoded.

Jaromil is not so much a character as a type, and is not unlike the Shelleyan poet in Shaw’s Candida, Eugene Marchbanks. Aerial creatures, these, ineffectual angels. Eugene, ‘so uncommon as to be almost unearthly’, wants to go ‘up into the sky’. His brow is ‘lined with pity’. He speaks with ‘lyric rapture’. But he is all right when you get to know him. ‘Don’t say that Jaromil is a bad poet!’ Kundera’s postscript implores. He is a ‘sensitive young man’ – a monster too, but the same monster is in you and me. And in Shelley, and Rimbaud, and Hugo. Jaromil and his mother are portrayed, we learn from the postscript, quite without any satirical intention. In that respect, Kundera could have fooled the present reviewer: but I do see that it belongs to the point of it all that the uncommon Jaromil should be thought humanly representative.

By a painter who befriends him, and who sleeps for a while with his mother, Jaromil, already self-perceived as exceptional, original, is introduced to modern art, which ‘had not yet become the shopworn property of the bourgeois masses and retained the fascinating aura of a sect, a magical exclusivity fascinating to childhood – an age always daydreaming about the romanticism of secret societies, fraternities and tribes’. Soon he is writing modern poems. ‘This verse described a boy who had been trembling in front of the bathroom door, but at the same time this boy was swallowed up by the verse; it surmounted and survived him. Alas, my aquatic love, said another line, and Jaromil knew that the aquatic love was Magda; but he also knew that nobody else could find her in that line ...’ These lines are short and do not rhyme. They are free. Magda was lost in a poem which was ‘as independent and unintelligible as reality itself. Reality does not discuss, it simply is. The independence of the poem provided Jaromil with a marvellous world of concealment, the possibility of a second existence.’

Much later we read: ‘Everything seemed to indicate that Jaromil’s enormous yearning for newness (the religion of the New) was only the disguised longing of a virginal youth for the unimaginable experience of the sex act. When he first reached the blissful shore of the redhead’s body, a peculiar idea occurred to him: he now knew at last what it meant to be absolutely modern; it meant to lie on the shore of the redhead’s body.’ By now he has also reached ‘the realm of real life’ – by which he ‘understood a whirling world of parading throngs, physical love and revolutionary slogans’. It turns out that real life rhymes, that the revolution wishes its poetry to do so. There is a magical power in rhyme and rhythm. ‘Can a revolution dispense with repeated affirmation of the new order? Can a revolution dispense with rhyme?’ By now free verse has been exposed as decadent, and modern art as the shopworn property of the bourgeois masses.

Lyricism, then, is the poetry which sings along with the triumph of the proletariat, and with the repressions which accompany its triumph. What is required is a poetry which does not analyse or criticise, and is suitable for throngs and parades, where the self-portraits of the lyric author can thus be displayed like placards. Lyricism is inexperience, and it is the desire for glory. Such poems ‘need not be stimulated by real-life events’ such as the plight of the Marseilles dockworkers, which has effaced the sight – darkly limned in Jaromil’s juvenilia – of Magda in her bath. Meanwhile the poet who displays his ignorant, indifferent self-portrait is hoping for applause, and this is more than ever the case in the new world of revolution, which rings with applause, and with blame.

By the end of the novel Jaromil has forsworn his artist friend, who is under the ban of the regime and compelled to paint by candlelight: ‘The whole world of his pictures has been dead for years. Real life is elsewhere!’ We are told that these last four words are Rimbaud’s and the Surrealist André Breton’s and that in 1968 they were a slogan of the protesting Sorbonne students. They are words that can be made to mean different things, and perhaps they are applicable as such to the story of Jaromil’s poetic progress from private to public, which can also be recognised as a simultaneity of the two, based on an enduring self-engrossment. Kundera asks us to join together two things that are often kept apart: lyrical effusions and public poetry. The quoted words point back to the privileged second existence which poetry had once promised Jaromil – a meaning that can now appear to have been reversed, with the claim that real life resides in a revolutionary solidarity. Just before this snarl of his about real life, Jaromil has betrayed his redhead to the police, by swallowing a lying excuse of hers concerning a subversive brother.

The poets Czeslaw Milosz and Donald Davie are bothered by the insufficiency and irresponsibility of the lyric genre – and their views are discussed in the next article in this issue. It could be felt that Kundera goes further, in denouncing the lyric, and fares worse. The lyricism that sells out to a state-ordained reality and solidarity is not the only lyricism we know, and it is the opposite of much of what we know by that name. Youthful as some of them are, the lyrics of Heaney do not embody the genius of inexperience, whatever some of Shelley’s may do. In other words, Kundera’s novel isolates certain tendencies in the behaviour of poets (and others) in order to prosecute an attack on Stalinist Czechoslovakia. It will be clear to most people here that the attack is deserved, and that writers sold out. Jaromil’s adventures, moreover, are shrewdly observed. Lyricism is indeed very like this description of it. Poetry has often been a form of self-pity and a means of self-advancement, and it has often pretended otherwise: Kundera’s book rumbles such pretence, as in the comedy he stages of an embassy of poets to a college of policemen and a debate there over the aesthetic of the socialist love-poem. But he does all this at the cost of suspending a due sense of the tendency there has also been for poets to see further than their noses, and to speak out, and to go to the wall for it. His postcript evokes the aim of a white-coated Doctor Kundera ‘to solve an aesthetic problem: how to write a novel which would be a “critique of poetry” and yet at the same time would itself be poetry’. This aim has a sweepingness and a suspendingness which are apparent, too, in the novel to which it relates. Many poems contain a critique of poetry, just as many contain a critique of the self-portrayed poet, and of his intention to serve a social or doctrinal system, or of his claim to be a special case. The lyric is not generically debarred from standing out against the state, or from taking a generous interest in what goes on in the world. Mandelstam’s lyric about the ‘Kremlin mountaineer’ – Klima’s ‘great Generalissimo’, Stalin – sent him to the camps.

Am I making heavy weather? It’s more than likely. Let me turn to Ivan Klima, who could be called a lyric author. The notion of what it is to be such an author is duly stretched in these gentle and deliberate stories, which read as if they have been grown and stored before being made public. The boy poet Klima loves literature, and pities himself, in a work which pities those around him. There is a lot to pity them for – the stories touch on ghetto hardships, on murders and deportations. His father, devoutly socialist, is jailed by the socialist regime whose discipline replaces that of the SS, which is also in evidence here. Klima’s first loves have a way of not working out; and what may have been his longest affair is the one about which least is said. In the opening story Miriam distributes milk to the tenement building and favours the boy with an extra share: but he never gets to tell her that he is the lyric author of poems ‘about love. About suicide.’ A central episode is enacted in and around a country hotel, where the wife of a coarse doctor takes a more than kindly interest in a Klima wide-awake to the sights and sounds of this paradise. The episode ends at a funeral, hovered over by a surreal balloon, from which hangs a fancied female acrobat. ‘I was able to soar up, to fly, I could rock in the air like that balloon, I could fly away with it, choose any of the four points of the compass, but I remained where I was, I stopped above this small, painful, blessed piece of earth.’ Then there is the tale of a lying girl, as she may be, with whom he makes love, and who alarms him with word of a threatening German – an SS man, perhaps. He has her report the matter to the police. In this there may be the ineptitude, together with some other features, of Jaromil’s treatment of his mendacious redhead. Klima’s girl is not locked up, though: she disappears into the Prague bars, leaving him with an imaginary address. She is rather like a lyric author herself, a bit of a lyre.

The last story has to do with the girlfriend of a friend. Literary, second-sighted, sick, she holds out a hand to him: he clasps it, but then decides he can’t go on. Is Klima, as the angry friend alleges on this occasion, a flirt, who goes from girl to girl? The stories do well to return an uncertain answer. Through them, somewhat in the spirit of a Chagall, runs the aerial preoccupation of romantic escapism. Balloons float, a high-wire circus act teeters. In the last story Klima comes to see ‘the connection between heights and vertigo, ecstasy and ruin, soaring and falling’. The literary girl waxes lyrical:

A person who accepted love was like a passenger. Maybe on a boat, at night, on some vast lake. Whichever way you looked there was nothing but calm black water. It was true that the water might rise and swamp you. But to love someone meant to fly, to rise above the earth yourself. So high that you could see everything. Even if the world looked different from that height, even if it looked changed, even if what on the ground seemed important was transformed into insignificance. She’d say, moreover, that you could always get out of a boat and go ashore, but from that height you could only crash.

The blessed piece of earth over which float these balloons, over which are poised these acrobats, is a corner of painful Czechoslovakia. Klima’s stories breathe a delicate patriotism – which is not absent, either, from Kundera’s accounts of a country which is harder to inhabit, or remain in, or return to. For both men, Czechoslovakia is both painful and blissful. It is not surprising that the Czech novelist Josef Skvorecky should be keen on My First Loves. Skvorecky left his country to teach in North America – as did the Dubcekite Klima – and has improved the shining hours of a Canadian exile. But Klima has gone back. It has been said of him that he would rather live in his native country, and not be allowed to publish, than go elsewhere and be free to do so. Reality is in Czechoslovakia? A challenging attitude on his part, if the story in question is correct.

It should not persuade us that the boy poet Klima is the boy poet Jaromil. It is possible to suggest that the two poets resemble one another. Each is inexperienced, youthful. Each fancies a second existence, wants to float free. Each feels sorry for himself. Each is lyrical. But the lyricism of the character ‘Klima’ can be considered an element in the lyricism of Ivan Klima, and perhaps it can be thought to encounter there its own critique. As for that business of going to the police, it is true that there are few signs in the stories of an intransigent dissidence: but I can’t see either of these Klimas as a hero of the state.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences