Posts Tagged ‘Milan Kundera’

Congratulations to Dubravka Ugrešić, winner of the Neustadt Prize!

Friday, October 23rd, 2015
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(Photo: Zeljko Koprolcec/Wikimedia Commons)

(Photo: Zeljko Koprolcec/Wikimedia Commons)

In May we announced that Croatian writer Dubravka Ugrešić was a finalist for the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. Tonight we are thrilled to announce that she’s a winner!

The Neustadt Prize, offered by the University of Oklahoma’s World Literature Today, is considered the “American Nobel,” and is often a harbinger of the Swedish award.

Ugrešić is the author of several works of fiction and essay collections. She went into exile from Croatia after being labeled a “witch” for her anti-nationalistic stance during the Yugoslav war. She now resides in the Netherlands.

Here’s what she had to say about that:

Ten years ago I held a Yugoslav passport, with its soft, pliable, dark red cover. I was a Yugoslav writer. Then the war came, and the Croats, without so much as a by your leave, shoved a blue Croatian passport at me. The Croatian government expected a prompt transformation from its citizens, as if the passport itself was some sort of magic pill. Since this didn’t go down easily in my case, they excluded me from their literary and other ranks. Croatian passport in hand, I abandoned both my newly acquired and formerly demolished homeland and set out into the world. With impassioned, Eurosong-like glee, the rest of the world identified me as a Croatian writer. I became a literary representative of a place that no longer wanted me. I, too, no longer wanted the place that no longer wanted me. I am no fan of unrequited love. Even today, I still, however, haven’t shaken free of the labels.

Again I hold a passport with a soft, pliable, dark red cover, a Dutch passport. Will this new passport make me a Dutch writer? It may but I doubt it. Now that I have a Dutch passport, will I ever be able to “reintegrate” into the ranks of Croatian writers? Possibly, but I doubt it. What is my real problem? Am I ashamed of the label of Croatian writer that still trails after me? No. Would I feel any better with a label like Gucci or Armani? Undoubtedly I would, but that’s not the point. Then what is it that I want? And why am I, for God’s sake so edgy about labels?

ministryWhy? Because the reception of literary texts has shown that the luggage of identification bogs down a literary text. Because it has further been shown that labels actually alter the substance of a literary text and its meaning.

Not surprisingly, then, she considers herself a “post-Yugoslavian writer.” Clive James wrote of her: “For her, Yugoslavia lingers in the mind and heart as the dreamed reality, whereas Croatia is the living nightmare. Tito’s iron hand at least kept the ethnic minorities from each other’s throats. … She comes from one of what Kundera memorably called the Kidnapped Countries, and she has given it its voice, which is the voice of a woman. The woman carries plastic bags full of the bad food and the thin supplies she has queued for by the hour while the men sit around in the square scratching their crotches and dreaming up their next war.”

As he points out, there is much to discomfit Western readers. For example, when she writes: “Proudly waving its own unification, Europe supported disintegration in foreign territory. Emphasizing the principles of multiculturality in its own territory, it abetted ethnic cleansing elsewhere. Swearing by European norms of honour, it negotiated with democratically elected war criminals. Fiercely defending the rights of minorities, it omitted to notice the disappearance of the most numerous Yugoslav minority, the population of a national, ‘nationally undetermined’ people, or the disappearance of minorities altogether.”

You can read an excerpt from her excellent interview with Daniel Medin in Music & Literature here.

The president of forgetting

Thursday, December 4th, 2014
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Milan Kundera remembers, anyway.

“If Franz Kafka was the prophet of a world without memory, Gustáv Husák is its creator. After T.G. Masaryk, who is known as the liberator-president (all his monuments without exception have been demolished) … Husák, the seventh president of my country, is known as the president of forgetting.

“The Russians brought him into power in 1969. Not since 1621 has the history of the Czech people experienced such a massacre of culture and thought. Everybody everywhere assumes that Husák simply tracked down his political opponents. In fact, however, the struggle with the political opposition was merely an excuse, a welcome opportunity the Russians took to use their intermediary for something more substantial.

“I find it highly significant in this connection that Husák dismissed some 145 Czech historians from universities and research institutes. (Rumor has it that for each of them – secretly, as in a fairy tale – a new monument to Lenin sprang up.) One of those historians, my all but blind friend Milan Hübl, came to visit me one day in 1971 in my tiny apartment on Bartolomejska Street. We looked out the window at the spires of the Castle and were sad.

Gustáv_Husák_-_oříznuto

That’s him. The prez.

“‘The first step in liquidating a people,’ said Hübl, ‘is to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history. Then have somebody write new books, manufacture a new culture, invent a new history. Before long the nation will begin to forget what it is and what it was. The world around it will forget even faster.’

‘What about language?’

‘Why would anyone bother to take it from us? It will soon be a matter of folklore and die a natural death.’

Was that hyperbole dictated by utter despair?

Or is it true that a nation cannot cross a desert of organized forgetting?

None of us knows what will be. One thing, however, is certain: in moments of clairvoyance the Czech nation can glimpse its own death at close range. Not as an accomplished fact, not as the inevitable future, but as a perfectly concrete possibility. Its death is at its side.”

– From Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

St Charles Bridge Prague

“We looked out the window at the spires of the Castle and were sad.” (Photo: Jorge Royan)

 

 

Philip Roth interviews Milan Kundera – 34 years later, it’s still timely.

Wednesday, May 7th, 2014
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Milan-KunderaStephan Müller‘s website for Czech writer Milan Kundera has a truly excellent interview with the author, conducted about the time his The Book of Laughter and Forgetting was published in English in 1980. The interviewer is American author Philip Roth (I interviewed him here). The interview carries its years well – in fact, it’s not only timely, but prophetic.  At the time, Roth was the general editor of a superb series of Penguin Books, “Writers from the Other Europe,” which included Heinrich Böll, Bruno Schultz, Jerzy Andrzejewski, and others. He had read a manuscript of the English translation; the interview in Czech and French was translated by Kundera’s wife Vera.

Two excerpts:

Roth: Do you think the destruction of the world is coming soon?.

Kundera: That depends on what you mean by the word “soon.”

Roth: Tomorrow or the day after.

Kundera: The feeling that the world is rushing to ruin is an ancient one.

Roth: So then we have nothing to worry about.

Kundera: On the contrary. If a fear has been present in the human mind for ages, there must be something to it.

kundera Roth: In any event, it seems to me that this concern is the background against which all the stories in your latest book take place, even those that are of a decidedly humorous nature.

Kundera: If someone had told me as a boy: One day you will see your nation vanish from the world, I would have considered it nonsense, something I couldn’t possibly imagine. A man knows he is mortal, but he takes it for granted that his nation possesses a kind of eternal life. But after the Russian invasion of 1968, every Czech was confronted with the thought that his nation could be quietly erased from Europe, just as over the past five decades 40 million Ukrainians have been quietly vanishing from the world without the world paying any heed. Or Lithuanians. Do you know that in the 17th century, Lithuania was a powerful European nation? Today the Russians keep Lithuanians on their reservation like a half-extinct tribe; they are sealed off from the visitors to prevent knowledge about their existence from reaching the outside. I don’t know what the future holds for my nation. It is certain that the Russians will do everything they can to dissolve it gradually into their own civilization. Nobody knows whether they will succeed. But the possibility is here. And the sudden realization that such a possibility exists is enough to change one’s whole sense of life. Nowadays I even see Europe as fragile, mortal.

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Phillip_Roth_-_1973

Kundera’s smart interlocutor.

Roth: What you now call the laughter of angels is a new term for the “lyrical attitude to life” of your previous novels. In one of your books you characterize the era of Stalinist terror as the reign of the hangman and the poet.

Kundera: Totalitarianism is not only hell, but also the dream of paradise–the age old drama of a world where everybody would live in harmony, united by a single common will and faith, without secrets from one another. André Breton, too, dreamed of this paradise when he talked about the glass house in which he longed to live. If totalitarianism did not exploit these archetypes, which are deep inside us all and rooted deep in all religions, it could never attract so many people, especially during the early phases of its existence. Once the dream of paradise starts to turn into reality, however, here and there people begin to crop up who stand in its way, and so the rulers of paradise must build a little gulag on the side of Eden. In the course of time this gulag grows ever bigger and more perfect, while the adjoining paradise gets ever smaller and poorer.

Roth: In your book, the great French poet Éluard soars over paradise and gulag, singing. Is this bit of history which you mention in the book authentic?

Kundera: After the war, Paul Éluard abandoned surrealism and became the greatest exponent of what I might call the “poesy of totalitarianism.” He sang for brotherhood, peace, justice, better tomorrows, he sang for comradeship and against isolation, for joy and against gloom, for innocence and against cynicism. When in 1950 the rulers of paradise sentenced Éluard’s Prague friend, the surrealist Zalvis Kalandra, to death by hanging, Éluard suppressed his personal feelings of friendship for the sake of supra-personal ideals, and publicly declared his approval of his comrade’s execution. The hangman killed while the poet sang.

Éluard

He sang for brotherhood.

And not just the poet. The whole period of Stalinist terror was a period of collective lyrical delirium. This has by now been completely forgotten but it is the crux of the matter. People like to say: Revolution is beautiful, it is only the terror arising from it which is evil. But this is not true. The evil is already present in the beautiful, hell is already contained in the dream of paradise and if we wish to understand the essence of hell we must examine the essence of the paradise from which it originated. It is extremely easy to condemn gulags, but to reject the totalitarianism poesy which leads to the gulag, by way of paradise is as difficult as ever. Nowadays, people all over the world unequivocally reject the idea of gulags, yet they are still willing to let themselves be hypnotized by totalitarian poesy and to march to new gulags to the tune of the same lyrical song piped by Éluard 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.

Read the whole thing here. It’s well worth it. 

Happy birthday, Milan Kundera! A few of his thoughts on “true human goodness.”

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014
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The birthday boy in 1980

Today is the 85th birthday of Czech writer Milan Kundera. The Czech Republic apparently has a lot of feelings about the event and the author, who has written only in French since the mid-1980s. From Radio Prague:

“Critics like Jiří Peňas from the Czech daily Lidové noviny have argued that Milan Kundera owes the Czech Republic nothing and that if anything, on the occasion of the author’s 85th birthday it is Czechs who could offer him thanks. In an opinion piece published Tuesday, Peňas reminded readers that Kundera’s novels cast a positive light on Czechoslovakia during the Iron Curtain, informing the West that the country was, culturally-speaking, not a Russian governorate where locals “blew their noses in the tablecloth”.

“In his Op-ed, Peňas alluded to the weight of Kundera’s “absence”, a question that has come up routinely since the Velvet Revolution. Why? Examples abound: when Mr Kundera allegedly visits friends in the Czech Republic it is incognito to avoid detection; when he was awarded state honours by the late president Václav Havel, he chose not to attend; and he has forbidden any of his new work to be translated into Czech. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in 2006, was the last.”

birthday cakeHis publisher Miroslav Balaštík said on the occasion: “For me, Milan Kundera is one of the few last great classical authors who consider writing to be more than a single novel or story but a continual process. A process that includes essays and a reflection on literary tradition, what literature means and where one fits as a writer. I think that is one of his contributions to both Czech and world literature.” I’ve just discovered the author for myself. I know… I know… I’m late to the table. My battered copy of The Unbearable Lightness of Being is heavily penciled, with all sorts of marginalia now. Those who have read it will appreciate his addition to the annals of literary canines, with Teresa’s dog Karenin – not to mention a very memorable pig as well. Since I am holed up right now, taking care of an ailing and disabled (but very beloved) dog, I thought a few of his animal-loving remarks would be pertinent for the occasion:

poopsie2

Please get better, Poopsie.

“The very beginning of Genesis tells us that God created man in order to give him dominion over fish and fowl and all creatures. Of course, Genesis was written by a man, not a horse. There is no certainty that God actually did grant man dominion over other creatures. What seems more likely, in fact, is that man invented God to sanctify the dominion that he had usurped for himself over the cow and the horse. Yes, the right to kill a deer or a cow is the only thing all of mankind can agree upon, even during the bloodiest of wars.

The reason we take that right for granted is that we stand at the top of the hierarchy. But let a third party enter the game – a visitor from another planet, for example, someone to whom God says, ‘Thou shalt have dominion over creatures of all other stars’ – and all at once taking Genesis for granted becomes problematical. Perhaps a man hitched to the cart of a Martian or roasted on the spit by inhabitants of the Milky Way will recall the veal cutlet he used to slice on his dinner plate and apologize (belatedly!) to the cow. …

True human goodness, in all its purity and freedom, can come to the fore only when its recipient has no power. Mankind’s true moral test, its fundamental test (which lies deeply buried from view), consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals. And in this respect mankind has suffered a fundamental debacle, a debacle so fundamental that all others stem from it.”

Revisiting Yalta with Milan Kundera, Czesław Miłosz: “We are living in the era of propaganda.”

Sunday, August 11th, 2013
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miloszEvery time I pick up Czesław Miłosz: Conversations I run into something terrific I’d swear I hadn’t read before.  I have performed a great service in the world – let me pat myself on the back.  (There, I’m done now).

A week or so ago, I wrote about Yalta, where the major postwar powers divvied up Europe, forking over the east to the tender care of Joseph Stalin. Then I ran across this passage while looking for another for something I was writing.  As so often happens, Miłosz throws a new light on an old matter.  So does Kundera.

From 1986 New Perspectives Quarterly, later excerpted and republished in the New York Review of Books:

Nathan Gardels:  Many Latin American writers argue that there is a great similarity between the U.S. war on Nicaragua and the Soviet war on the people of Afghanistan.  Eastern European writers, Milan Kundera, for example, seem to have a different view.  “When it comes to the misfortunes of nations,” Kundera has written, “we must not forget the dimension of time. In a fascist dictatorial state, everyone knows that it will end one day. Everyone looks to the end of the tunnel.  In the empire to the East, the tunnel is without end, at least from the point of view of human life. This is why I don’t like it when people compare Poland with, say, Chile.  Yes, the torture and the suffering are the same, but the tunnels are of very different lengths. And this changes everything.”

Do you agree with Kundera? Is this also your perspective?

lemonCzesław Miłosz: Yes, yet I feel there is more to be said. Correct reasoning and realistic appraisal are very important. Moral issues are, of course, largely the result of sentimental propaganda. We are living in the era of propaganda.  A basic difference between the various social structures shouldn’t be underestimated. You shouldn’t put on the same scale of balance organisms which are completely different.  You cannot compare a lemon and a triangle.  They don’t belong to the same realm.

In Western thinking, parallelism has a very long tradition. I believe that the plan of division of the world between American and the Soviet Union, of which Europe is a victim today because Europe as a unit is destroyed by division, was due to a large extent to this parallel thinking.

triangleThe problem should be put in terms of certain acquisitions of civilization which risk being lost. For instance, I feel that a division of powers into legislative, executive, and judiciary is a basic acquisition of civilization. There is no reason to be ashamed of such an acquisition which some call “bourgeois democracy”; the worst can be withstood if this division is maintained.

So, the onslaught of the totalitarian state is just a kind of illness.  Of course, whether one cooperates and coexists with illness is a practical consideration. But to compare the two systems on a purely moral basis, that is completely wrong!

Yalta_summit_1945_with_Churchill,_Roosevelt,_Stalin

“When it comes to the misfortunes of nations, we must not forget the dimension of time.”

Timothy Snyder: On dissent and “the stories people tell about themselves”

Wednesday, January 25th, 2012
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Provocative author of "Bloodlands"

You don’t have to live under a totalitarian government to understand some of the head trips  Timothy Snyder of Bloodlands fame describes in his provocative and incisive interview over at the Browser.  We run them through our minds daily – at home, in the workplace, in our social circles.

Which hardly undermines the stories of people for whom the stakes were astronomically higher – those who face prison, death, or poverty for risking free expression.  But it does make his observations universal.

His responses in the Q&A (with Alec Ash) are heartbreakingly insightful.  But then, he is often quoting maestros. He recommends five books: George Orwell‘s Homage to Catalonia, Czeslaw Milosz‘s The Captive Mind, Adam Michnik‘s The Church and the Left, Milan Kundera‘s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Václav Havels The Power of the Powerless.

“The people whose books I’ve chosen lived in regimes which not only monopolized violence but threatened it in an everyday sense. And some of them suffered as a direct result of what they wrote,” he said.

Tim’s responses, and the books he has chosen, do not just tell us (as the subhead says) “how to challenge the over-mighty”; more importantly, they all demonstrate the way we delude ourselves – regardless of political stripe, personal beliefs, or external circumstances.

I have my caveats. He seems to put a lot of stock in such terms as “liberals”; I find that these labels increasingly meaningless if not misleading (and highly elastic), and have come to feel that it’s dangerous to identify oneself with any political group.  Too often among my colleagues, such labels become simple synonyms for “good,” “truth,” and “people who think like me.” Which means you can do anything you like, because you’ve a priori identified yourself with the good.  And why is the piece, which praises non-violence, illustrated with a clenched fist from Wikipedia Commons?  Ah well.

That said, how can you argue with passages like this?

… The Captive Mind by the celebrated Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, seems to have some overtones of 1984 itself.

Milosz

Yes. Milosz tried to explain – as the title suggests – how thinking people could accept communism from inside the communist system. How does one not resist or just endure, but actually place one’s mind in the system? He points to a number of ways in which the mind can adapt. You can accept one larger truth that guides your interpretation of all of the smaller untruths, accept a vision of the future that is so bright that it drives away the shadows of the various dark acts of your own time and place. Or you can collaborate on the outside but preserve an inner core of yourself that does not collaborate on the inside.

Milosz’s point was that all of these things are possible as human adaptations to a situation, but impossible as ways of preserving humanity. In fact they’re nothing more than stories people tell about themselves, as they give in to a system which is actually inferior and repressive.

Kundera

Why did you choose Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting?

Milan Kundera was of course not really a dissident, but this book gets across the heartfelt reality of Stalinist faith. Kundera was a young Stalinist, as were his friends. So he knows what it was like to be on the inside, to have certainty about the rest of the world and to believe that everyone who didn’t share that certainty was a fool. To know where things were going and what you wanted from society – that glowing, overwhelming sense that one is young and the world belongs to you. Kundera really gets that sense across, and I think that’s incredibly important.

Also apropos of Czechoslovakia and very topical, your final selection is Václav Havel’s essay The Power of the Powerless.

Havel

In the end I think Havel will be remembered as the outstanding East European dissident writer, and he will be remembered as such above all for this essay. Its central point is that even a communist regime that controls the media and exercises a great deal of power depends ultimately on an almost visible collaboration with society – society meaning individual decisions taken by individuals, which accumulate to have a universal appearance.

And what does Havel say to that inner voice that you shouldn’t risk personal suffering and put your head above the parapet?

He understands it. There is this Christ-like patience, and he’s not programmatic. Havel doesn’t call for everyone to do what’s beyond them. He asks them to do what they can, and then – like [Adam] Michnik – he leads by example, does things his own way and pays the price for it. Michnik and Havel are among the dissidents who have spent the longest time in prison.

Read the whole thing here.

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PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT:  Some time ago, we explained that the Book Haven was moving, and there might be a few cyberspace bumps in the subsequent days as we switched servers.  It never happened.  But it is happening in the next 24 hours.  Bear with us.  All shall be well and all manner of things shall be well …