A noteworthy feature of many a Milan Kundera novel is the presence of the author himself sitting back and telling us this story. The novel proper of The Unbearable Lightness of Being begins with the line [this quote is from the Michael Henry Heim translation that I read] “I have been thinking about Tomas for many years,” and I remember thinking a few things when I read this. Further on in the novel, I would think that I’d much rather that the name Tomáš had been left with at least the accent, if not the other thing on the ess that I can’t name. That’s a particular-to-me, I know, and it applies mainly to the accent, just an example of my eccentricities. But immediately I considered the character of Tomas, how Milan presents him here as almost an old friend, but not quite so, simply someone that Milan has considered for some time now as he has brought out this story.
Vonnegut did this in Breakfast of Champions, but Kundera is known for it, which is what makes The Joke a special book. Here we see the writer paying his dues—his first novel is a multi-narrator deal, where Milan is completely absent. This was quite the interesting read, as I coupled it with Laughable Loves, Kundera’s short story collection which made its way here first as a part of Philip Roth’s Writers from the Other Europe. That’s the edition I have, a slipcase compilation of four books from the series that I picked up cheaply for the Kundera book. What we find in Laughable Loves is a sort of transition period. The collection (at least in the order in which it’s placed in the book I have) begins with some standard narrative voice and a few first person stories. What is very interesting is that the speaker of the fiction begins to appear toward the end of the book in the Dr. Havel stories and very much in the closing story, “Edward and God,” as I think the proper name was spelled in my edition (Wikipedia has it written “Eduard and God”). For a writer who has tried a similar style and watched it fail (in an early draft of a story called “On Relations” which I’m currently looking for opinions on, if you’d be interested in reading it, let me know, now with the bump done), this was great fun.
The reason I give you this perhaps boring exposition is to set an image: Milan Kundera as an artist who first gives us an accepted type of writing—that of the multiple narrators, a form that could perhaps be linked to the epistolary novel which is around five hundred years old, I’d say—so that he can transition into the writer of the metafiction for which he has become known. Although you can go back through history and declare books such as One Thousand and One Nights or Don Quixote as metafiction, this is really a genre that formed in the mid-late twentieth century. In The Joke, Kundera is putting in his dues, before he transitions into his more unique style. This image links with Borges, who wrote for a very long time before he transitioned into fiction. His essay-like style in many of his stories harkens back to all the non-fiction he had already written. In much the same way, we find Kundera’s themes simply moving from his characters’ mouths (in The Joke), to his own, albeit often placed in the story by way of a characteristic of a character.
This mumbo jumbo is especially interesting to me at the moment because I’m writing a story currently that I plan to entitle “Found,” so being able to find these writers finding themselves (or at least read about such) is almost doing my homework. As Ron Silliman notes on his blog about Redburn, “Melville teaching himself to write is the much more fascinating tale here,” and I’m not trying to say that The Joke is a torture of a book that is only academically notable (I thought it was a solid novel). I’m just quoting an idea that I found somewhat similar to my own.
So you teach yourself how to write by writing, which makes sense, and it isn’t so much that you write horrible stuff at the beginning, but just less skilled works. I mean, this captures almost perfectly the way I feel when I look back at the novel I wrote in November of 2008. It’s not worse than what I write now. And that’s not to say it is good, but like Father Kurt did in Palm Sunday, it’s not bad when I “compare myself with myself.” And I don’t know what to do with it, in actuality, should I mend it or simply rewrite? Another problem being that the plot doesn’t mesh perfectly with the universe I’m creating with my writings. Plot-holes have a way of working themselves out through revelation, but should I even be wasting time thinking about this book that I wrote? During the times that I don’t reread sections from it, I’m completely okay with letting it go (Letting Go is a Philip Roth novel, by the way, a bit of full circle going on here), but then I do take a look at it, and really I tied up three or four different storylines in that book, all of which I want to write official final drafts for at some point. So it’s difficult going.
This is one reason that I sit here and I make note of various changes in the writings of acclaimed authors. Little twitches that I’ve noticed in my observations of their works. And often not even that I’ve noticed but rather that someone else has noticed and I’ve simply passed on. (One of the reasons that I infrequently blog is because I feel that I’m simply link-dumping or passing on information that you can get elsewhere and often better said elsewhere.) By bringing up these models of mine, these inspirations and influences, I can avoid considering my own writing situations.
Think about it this way: I’ve already said that you learn through writing. This here is me writing about, well, not about that much. But I’m writing and that’s the point. I’ve been stuck in “Found” for the last few days, but I think I have an idea now, and I held on it and I wrote this as a bit of a warm-up. The problem is that I’m going to go to sleep tonight instead of writing (an Aaron McMullan song lyric “don’t stay up all night writing now”) and this is not going to function as the stretching exercise before the game. But that said, it’ll at least give me more practice at typing without looking at the keys.
You know, one of the problems with “finding yourself” is simply cultural hegemony, the chains of not only the dominating cultures of the world, but even the various cultures and groups of which you consider yourself to belong. Kundera wrote a book that would be accepted as such because, well, I’d say because he wanted to write. This done, he broke rules. And sometimes you never break the rules and you never really find anything other than what is very much a larger-than-life image: that of a combination of views that aren’t exactly your own, but those of the various people (including yourself) that make up any number of clubs.
While watching Iron Man 2 last Sunday, I had a little fun with the story of the work, simply bending the various themes to my will. Expressing in my head, by way of the various plot pieces, the things that I believe in. And it felt, heh, it felt damn good. Like I knew who I was and no one could tell me otherwise. (Another full circle idea: Kundera claims to write without a message and to write leaving a lot up to the reader’s imagination. I would expect, then, that he would support what I was doing, imagining various messages that Iron Man 2 could be somehow construed as to trying to get across to its audience, messages that I agreed with very much, that were in fact, my own ideas tacked onto this film, like some less mean-spirited Justin Hammer.)
So to put this meandering, uncertain tract to bed, I’ll simply say that what I think we need to do is continue to create a globalization that expands options, that does not restrict, allowing people to decide who they are and not feel that because they define themselves in a certain way (i.e. politically, sexually, religiously, ethnically…etc.). We need self-definition and we need a limit on the limits of every defined term. Lady Gaga was on Larry King tonight talking about expanding boundaries. They do need to be pushed and the people that can do so, whether or not they need to first pay their dues as Kundera did, well, I thought these people were worthy enough of a blog post.
If you’ve gotten to here, I’d like to think that you agree.