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Doubts Punctuate The 1950 Milan Kundera Spy Case

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“Mirek rewrote history just like the Communist Party, like all political parties, like all peoples, like mankind. They shout that they want to shape a better future, but it’s not true. The future is only an indifferent void no one cares about, but the past is filled with life, and its countenance is irritating, repellent, wounding, to the point that we want to destroy or repaint it. We want to be masters of the future only for the power to change the past.” The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

As if taking a cue from one of his characters a dark secret from the past threatens to crash on the opening chapter of Milan Kundera’s life. In October 2008, the Czech weekly Respekt published a story that claimed Kundera informed on one of his countrymen in 1950, leading to the man’s imprisonment for 14 years in a hard labour camp.

The basis of the assertion was an old police report that fell into the hands of Adam Hradilek, a historian researching the bleak days of Czechoslovakia’s Communist past. The police document reopened the story of Miroslav Dvoracek and that of his childhood friend Iva Militka. The report also brought the past of arguably the most brilliant literary surgeon of communism in Eastern Europe to the forefront. It is a widely reported and misreported story in which the jury is still out on the truth and doubt remains the only certainty.

The 1950 Police Report
The police report dated March 14, 1950 says: “Today at around 1600 hours a student, Milan Kundera, born 1.4.1929 in Brno, resident at the student hall of residence on George VI Avenue in Prague VII, presented himself at this department and reported that a student, Iva Militka, resident at that residence, had told a student by the name of Dlask, also of that residence, that she had met a certain acquaintance of hers, Miroslav Dvoracek, at Klarov in Prague the same day. The said Dvoracek apparently left one case in her care, saying he would come to fetch it in the afternoon… Dvoracek had apparently deserted from military service and since the spring of the previous year had possibly been in Germany, where he had gone illegally.”

The most important thing is the veracity of the police report and from what has come out the document is being considered as genuine (though there is speculation on whether its contents are genuine). Jerome Depuis of the French magazine L’Express travelled to Prague and cited the historian Rudolf Vedova from the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes (USTR), the same institute Hradilek works for: “We had the document analysed by the Czech Secret Forces archive. The paper, the names listed, the identity and the signature of the officer were all examined—and the document was found to be authentic.”

Around the same time Jiri Grusa, a Czech poet and in 2008 the president of the international writers association PEN, told a German radio station that he went to Prague to see the police document for himself. Grusa said that he now has no doubts that “the document is real. There’s no denying it. Only it is not Milan Kundera’s document, it is no denunciation, it’s a police annunciation. And if Kundera says, I didn’t do it, then I have to believe him.”

The Background
In 1948 a putsch in Czechoslovakia led to a communist takeover. This resulted in the armed forces being purged and veteran airmen who had flown with the RAF in the war (about 40 per cent of Czech Air Force) were demoted, kicked out or sent to labour camps due to their exposure to the West. Even students were not spared. Two boyhood friends, Miroslav Dvoracek and Miroslav Juppa, who had attended the same school in a small town in Eastern Bohemia were included on a list of expulsions in a memorandum from January 1949. When they were ordered a month later to join an infantry unit, Dvoracek and Juppa, aided by Juppa’s girlfriend Iva Militka and her relatives fled to West Germany.

Click on the headline to read the full story.

The Joke, Prague, and Milan Kundera

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In October 1963 Jean Paul Sartre visited Prague as a guest of the Czechoslovak Writers Union and predicted that the great novel of the second half of the twentieth century would be produced by the search for truth about the experiment of communism.

Earlier that year, in July, when he was in Moscow for another one of his trips to promote the project of an East-West writers’ community, the Soviet leader Kruschev had initiated a clampdown. At a reception in his dacha in Georgia attended by Sartre, the Soviet leader denounced Western writers as the henchmen of capitalism, a theme reiterated at a conference in Leningrad which castigated Western art and culture for its decadence and corruption.

In his Prague visit Sartre confirmed that as a socialist he recognised that they were many unwholesome aspects of Western society but, to his credit, he refused to condone the attack on authors at the Leningrad conference. The writers dismissed as decadent at the Leningrad conference had names like Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Franz Kafka and Sigmund Freud.

Jim Holt wrote in a 2003 piece for Slate.com: “In the early 1950s, when the Cold War was at its peak, he (Sartre) realized that he was ‘living a neurosis’; despite his philosophy of action, he had been a mere bourgeois writer, like Flaubert. His interest in Marxism awakened, he decided to align himself with the Communist Party—this at a time when the crimes of Stalin were being documented and other intellectuals were abandoning the party. The erstwhile philosopher of freedom morphed into Sartre totalitaire.

That is something of a caricature, but Sartre did have his shameful moments over the next two decades. He broke with Camus because the latter denounced totalitarianism. He was silent on the gulag (‘It was not our duty to write about the Soviet labor camps’), and he excused the purges of Stalin and later Mao.”

The Paris take on him goes: “Sartre brought us both the malady—totalitarianism—and the antidote: freedom.”

Nevertheless, a novel did come out of the communist experiment but Sartre at that time was awake only to the ‘unwholesome aspects of Western society’. The Joke by Milan Kundera is a profound novel with an intricate and beautifully worked out plot. The novel was first published in 1967 in Czech under the title Žert but the English language translations left the author bewildered. It is the loss of many readers that a novel of such brilliance came distorted to them for almost 25 years in four different translations before the author could finally call the fifth English language version as being faithful to his Czech original.

Milan Kundera is an intensely private person and he broke a 25-year media silence when in mid-October 2008 he denied an article published in a Czech weekly that on the basis of an old police report said that he turned over a Western intelligence agent to communist authorities in 1950, a move which saw the man narrowly escape the death sentence and led to his spending 14 years in prison. It is a sensitive incident that has been widely reported and misreported and I would need a few days of research before I can comment on it.

Milan Kundera was born on April 1, 1929, in Brno, Czechoslovakia, and his first step in the arts began at an early age on the piano. His father, Ludvik Kundera, was a concert pianist and musicologist who had earned recognition for collaborating with the famed Czech composer Leoš Janáček. The influence and the understanding of music can be found throughout Kundera’s works.

Kundera was an important figure in the Prague Spring, the brief period of reformist activities crushed by the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia on 21st August 1968. In 1970 he was expelled from the Communist Party for the second time after an earlier expulsion in 1950 had yielded to a readmission in 1956. The second time he was also expelled from the Writers Union and lost his job as a teacher of world literature on the film faculty at the Prague Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts. Access to his work was banned, and Kundera was reduced to making a living by writing an astrology column under a fictitious name. He described that experience in that unforgettable novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Some biographical material even says he worked as a labourer.

In an interview with Philip Roth, Kundera says, “Then they expelled me from University. I lived among workmen. At that time, I played the trumpet in a jazz band in small-town cabarets. I played the piano and the trumpet. Then I wrote poetry. I painted. It was all nonsense. My first work which is worth while mentioning is a short story, written when I was thirty, the first story in the book Laughable Loves.”

Jan Čulík, an independent journalist and a senior lecturer in Czech studies at the University of Glasgow, Scotland, says, “Most Western critics originally understood Žert as a political novel, a protest against Stalinist totalitarianism. Protest against Stalinism is however only one of many themes in the novel. Kundera rightly objected to such a simplified interpretation. He pointed out that the 1950s in Czechoslovakia attracted him as a scene for the novel only ‘because this was a time when History made as yet unheard of experiments with Man. Thus it deepened my doubts and enriched my understanding of man and his predicament.’ Czech critics of the 1960s correctly understood Žert as a work probing the deepest essence of human existence.”

In that interview to Roth, Kundera says: “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. Andrè 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.”

The Joke is a first person narrative by four characters-narrators and they appear reflectively in each other’s rendition. Armed with just a harmless little prank the novel exposes the brutal and bleak world of a totalitarian system and it does so with a deep understanding of the human condition. It is the power of the story coupled with Kundera’s genius to unearth every human emotion that makes The Joke such a complete delight.

In The Art of the Novel Kundera presents his conception of the European novel and also talks in detail about some of his books. It is a work of high erudition that grabs the essence of the novel as an art form and the novelist as an explorer of existence. “Well, I’ll never tire of repeating: The novel’s sole raison d’ etre is to say what only the novel can say.”

The novel shows the reader the world of possibilities. It is secondary whether the possibilities come into being or not. Asked that if you are trying to grasp a possibility rather than a reality, why take seriously the image you offer of Prague, for example, and of the events that occurred there; Kundera said: “If the writer considers a historical situation a fresh and revealing possibility of the human world, he will want to describe it as it is. Still, fidelity to historical reality is a secondary matter as regards the value of a novel. The novelist is neither historian nor prophet: he is an explorer of existence.”

“A character is not a simulation of a living being. It is an imaginary being.”

At the Fourth Congress of the Czechoslovak writers in June 1967, Czech writers openly clashed with the Communist leadership for the first time. Kundera became a leading figure in the movement for freedom. He delivered a speech that became a milestone in the history of independent, self-critical Czech thought.

“Nations tend to think of their cultures and political systems, even their frontiers, as the work of Man, but they see their national existence as a transcendent fact, beyond all question. The some-what cheerless and intermittent history of the Czech nation, which has passed through the very antechamber of death, gives us the strength to resist any such illusion. For there has never been anything self-evident about the existence of the Czech nation and one of its most distinctive traits, in fact, has been the unobviousness of that existence. This emerged most clearly in the early nineteenth century when a handful of intellectuals tried to resurrect our half-forgotten language and then, a generation later, our half-moribund people too.

Kundera said that small nations always face the threat of extinction and there is no point in preserving a separate Czech identity in a quickly integrating world if this community is incapable of making its own, innovative and unique contribution to mankind, in particular in the field of the arts. For that to happen he argued Czech literature must develop in conditions of total freedom. “All suppression of opinions, including the forcible suppression of wrong opinions, is hostile to truth in its consequences. For the truth can only be reached by a dialogue of free opinions enjoying equal rights.”

Having experienced democracy, Nazi subjugation, Stalinism and ‘socialism’, the Czechs are favourably placed to produce a unique testimony about man and his/her predicament, thus giving Czech culture meaning, maturity and greatness. The question remains, Kundera concluded, whether the Czech national community is aware of this opportunity and whether it will use it.

Kundera’s novels offer that unique and moving perspective on human existence. They tell a compelling human story with compassion and with rare insight of a world that is intoxicated with power and oblivious to individual sorrow. Describing irony he says, ‘the more attentively we read a novel, the more impossible the answer, because the novel is, by definition, the ironic art: its ‘truth’ is concealed, undeclared, undeclarable. Irony irritates. Not because it mocks or attacks but because it denies us our certainties by unmasking the world as an ambiguity. In other words, the art of the novel does not lie in the answer but in the beauty of the questions it raises.

In The Unbearable Lightness of Being he writes: “A question is like a knife that slices through the stage backdrop and gives us a look at what lies hidden behind it. In fact, that was exactly how Sabina had explained the meaning of her paintings to Tereza: on the surface, an intelligible lie; underneath, the unintelligible truth showing through.”

Sources: Sartre by David Drake; Slate.com, Interview with Philip Roth, writings of Jan Čulík, and the novels of Milan Kundera.

To Write Or Not To Write

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Victor Hugo once said: “If a writer wrote merely for his time, I would have to break my pen and throw it away.” Great novels are not dated in any essential sense as they capture the timeless human condition and longevity is the ultimate test for them. A vexing question for writers is as to why they write and what they seek to achieve via writing. In this post I’ll take some authors and present their views on the writing process and elaborate on how they look at what they do.

J.D. Salinger in a 1974 telephonic interview given to the New York Times from his home in Cornish, New Hampshire, said: “There is a marvellous peace in not publishing. It’s peaceful. Still. Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.”

When he gave the interview it was about nine-and-a-half years since he had published his last novella ‘Hapworth 16, 1924’ in The New Yorker magazine in June 1965. The interview in 1974 was also his first since 1953, when he gave one to a 16-year-old girl of a high school newspaper in Cornish.

Salinger, who died aged 91 in January this year, blasted his way to literary fame and cult-like devotion with the 1951 publication of The Catcher in the Rye. “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” That’s how the frenetic three-day account around Christmas of Holden Caulfield began in the modern epic that is the benchmark against which all coming-of-age novels are measured.

Salinger remained a unique celebrity after the novel in the sense that his absence from public life further fuelled the curiosity around his life and works. Salinger was an extremely private man and after Catcher he devoted himself to creating fiction that centred on religion and ‘exposed the spiritual hollowness’ in American society (from http://www.deadcaulfields.com/; a website dedicated to the life and works of Salinger). To this end he collected characters from his early stories and bound them together into a single family—the Glass family. He described the family of seven children and their parents Les and Bessie Glass as ‘settlers in twentieth century New York.’

Salinger said: “I think writing is a hard life. But it’s brought me enough happiness that I don’t think I’d ever deliberately dissuade anybody (if he had talent) from taking it up. The compensations are few, but when they come, if they come, they’re very beautiful.”

In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting the Franco-Czech novelist Milan Kundera discusses graphomania (a mania for writing books). The author recounts his encounter with a garrulous taxi-driver in Paris. The driver has chronic insomnia (Has had it since the war when he was a sailor and his ship sank. He swam three days and three nights before being rescued). In his extra time he writes and is working on a book about his experiences.

‘“Are you writing it for your children? As a family chronicle?’

He chuckled bitterly: ‘For my children? They’re not interested in that. I’m writing a book. I think it could help a lot of people.’

That conversation with the taxi driver suddenly made clear to me the essence of the writer’s occupation. We write books because our children aren’t interested in us. We address ourselves to an anonymous world because our wives plug their ears when we speak to them.

You might say that the taxi driver is not a writer but a graphomaniac. So we need to be precise about our concepts. A woman who writes her lover four letters a day is not a graphomaniac. She is a lover. But my friend who makes photocopies of his love letters to publish them someday is a graphomaniac. Graphomania is not a desire to write letters, personal diaries, or family chronicles (to write for oneself or one’s close relations) but a desire to write books (to have a public of unknown readers).”

This is another quote by Kundera: “The irresistible proliferation of graphomania shows me that everyone without exception bears a potential writer within him, so that the entire human species has good reason to go down into the streets and shout: we are all writers! For everyone is pained by the thought of disappearing, unheard and unseen, into an indifferent universe, and because of that everyone wants, while there is still time, to turn himself into a universe of words. One morning (and it will be soon), when everyone wakes up as a writer, the age of universal deafness and incomprehension will have arrived.”

In the afterword of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a novel that unfolds on a summer motorcycle trip undertaken by a father and his son and becomes ‘a personal and philosophical odyssey into fundamental questions on how to live’ author Robert M. Pirsig says: “Certainly no one could have predicted what has happened. Back then, after 121 others had turned this book down, one lone editor offered a standard $3,000 advance. He said the book forced him to decide what he was in publishing for, and added that although this was almost certainly the last payment, I shouldn’t be discouraged. Money wasn’t the point with a book like this.

That was true. But then came publication day, astonishing reviews, best-seller status, magazine interviews, radio and TV interviews, movie offers, foreign publications, endless offers to speak, and fan mail… week after week, month after month. The letters have been full of questions: Why? How did this happen? What is missing here? What was your motive? There’s a sort of frustrated tone. They know there’s more to this book than meets the eye. They want to hear all.

There really hasn’t been any ‘all’ to tell. There were no deep manipulative ulterior motives. Writing it seemed to have higher quality than not writing it, that was all.”

The last author that I want to consider in order to approach the writing process is the 2006 Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk. I discovered Pamuk late and was blown away by My Name is Red. The novel is set in Istanbul in the late 1590s. The Ottoman Sultan commissions a great book: a celebration of his life and his empire, to be illuminated by the best miniaturists of the day. The novel opens with the murder of one of the artists and the mystery behind it sustains the pace and some of the tension in the plot. However, the murder is the backdrop from where the author enters into a meditation on art, love, artistic devotion and the conflict between East and West.

My Name is Red is a first person narrative; the titles of the chapters tell you who is doing the talking. It works brilliantly as you get to see how the same event is perceived by different people. The novel surgically opens and reveals the entire panorama of human relationship and motive. For instance you get to see the novel’s love story from the perspective of Black as well as Shekure (the man and the woman).

My Name is Red was translated by Erdag M. Goknar. The recent works of Orhan Pamuk are translated by Maureen Freely, a US journalist, translator, author, and professor who grew up in Turkey and now lives in England. In a review for New Statesman Freely said of My Name is Red: “More than any other book I can think of, it captures not just Istanbul’s past and present contradictions, but also its terrible, timeless beauty. It’s almost perfect, in other words. All it needs is the Nobel Prize.”

Dick Davis in a review for the Times Literary Supplement wrote: “Heartbreakingly persuasive… This novel is then formally brilliant, witty and about serious matters. But even this inclusive description does not really capture what I feel is the book’s true greatness, which lies in its managing to do with apparent ease what novelists have always striven for but very few achieve. It conveys in a wholly convincing manner the emotional, cerebral and physical texture of daily life, and it does so with great compassion, generosity and humanity.”

Pamuk himself has given less weight to the murder mystery and the East-West question and has called the arduous work of the miniaturist, the artist’s suffering, and his dedication to his work as the central issues of My Name is Red. The stories within the narrative of the old masters of Herat and of the great Bihzad are fascinating. Even towards the end Pamuk makes the reader marvel when Master Osman gets completely lost in admiring the illuminated pages of yesteryears and when the other miniaturists lose themselves while remembering the long days of their apprenticeship in the Sultan’s workshop. Pamuk has the gift of offering the reader any number of diversions to savour even when the tension of the plot is approaching boiling point.

‘Sirin falling in love with Husrev by looking at his picture is the best-known and most frequently illustrated story in Islamic literature’ and Pamuk uses it as a model for many scenes, gatherings, and stances in the novel. In a similar manner Pamuk sketches the character of Shekure so brilliantly that it becomes possible to fall in love with her just by reading.

In Pamuk’s words: “My book really has only one center, one heart: the kitchen! It is the place where Hayriye seeks to influence Esther the clothier with gossip and food; Shekure, too, comes downstairs to the kitchen to advance her intrigues, send off letters and notes, scold her children, and supervise the cooking. The kitchen and all that it contains are the platform on which everything stands.”

Pamuk captures the essence of a writer’s occupation in his book Other Colours: “In order to be happy I must have my daily dose of literature. In this I am no different from the patient who must take a spoon of medicine each day. …To read a dense, deep passage in a novel, to enter into that world and believe it to be true—nothing makes me happier, nothing more surely binds me to life. …If my daily dose of literature is something I myself am writing, it’s all very different. Because for those who share my affliction, the best cure of all, and the greatest source of happiness, is to write a good half page every day. For thirty years I’ve spent an average of 10 hours a day alone in a room, sitting at my desk. If you count only the work that is good enough to be published, my daily average is a good deal less than half a page.

…But please don’t misunderstand me: A writer who is as dependent on literature as I am can never be so superficial as to find happiness in the beauty of the books he has already written, nor can he congratulate himself on their number or what these books achieved. Literature does not allow such a writer to pretend to save the world; rather, it gives him a chance to save the day. And all days are difficult. Days are especially difficult when you don’t do any writing. When you cannot do any writing. The point is to find enough hope to get through the day, and, if the book or the page you are reading is good, to find joy in it, and happiness, if only for a day.”

Anton Chekhov: The Tsar of Russian Literature

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During my school days in the eighties there was a lot of Russian literature that I had easy access to courtesy Progress Publishers and one of my uncles. My uncle is an avid reader and those days his library was flush with Pushkin, Gogol, Tolstoy, Chekhov and also innumerable folk tales from Russia. Some 5-odd first cousins and I grew up in a small hill town surrounded by Russian folk tales. Aldar Kose and Shigai-Bai were household names and we were all too familiar with the laziness and the charm of the youngest son Ivan.

The first time I read ‘Misery’ by Anton Chekhov it was a Hindi translation called Vyatha Ka Bhar. The story of Iona Potapov, a sledge-driver in Petersburg, takes just over 2000 words to capture crushing grief. Chekhov is brilliant in using the settings of Russian rural life; lived under the weight and silence of snow. The primary purpose of this post is just to provide a link to the story for an interested reader. In ‘Misery’ death ‘came for the father’ but took the son instead; and Chekhov, in the most beautiful manner, captured the stone deafness of the living.

Author J.D. Salinger referred to Chekhov in his book Franny and Zooey. ‘At ten-thirty on a Monday morning in November of 1955, Zooey Glass, a young man of twenty-five, was seated in a very full bath, reading a four-year-old letter. It was an almost endless-looking letter, typewritten on several pages of second-sheet yellow paper, and he was having some little trouble keeping it propped up against the two dry islands of his knees.’

The letter is addressed to Zooey and written by his eldest alive brother Buddy Glass and it deals with, among other things, the acting career of the recipient.

“And if you go into the theatre, will you have any illusions about that? Have you ever seen a really beautiful production of, say, The Cherry Orchard? Don’t say you have. Nobody has. You may have seen ‘inspired’ productions, ‘competent’ productions, but never anything beautiful. Never one where Chekhov’s talent is matched, nuance for nuance, idiosyncrasy for idiosyncrasy, by every soul on-stage. You worry hell out of me, Zooey. Forgive the pessimism, if not the sonority. But I know how much you demand from a thing, you little bastard. And I’ve had the hellish experience of sitting next to you at the theatre. I can so clearly see you demanding something from the performing arts that just isn’t residual there. For heaven’s sake, be careful.”

Salinger gets it so right; it is near impossible to match Chekhov’s talent nuance for nuance, idiosyncrasy for idiosyncrasy. The Wordsworth Classics edition of selected stories of Anton Chekhov carries an introduction by Joe Andrew, Professor of Russian Literature, Keele University, and some information in this piece is distilled from it. From being a writer partly to earn money to train to be a doctor and partly to amuse himself Chekhov drifted into literature seriously in the mid-1880s when he moved to St. Petersburg and met a number of famous writers who praised the great talent they saw semi-submerged beneath the hackwork. In his work Chekhov combined the dispassionate attitude of a scientist and doctor with the sensitivity and psychological understanding of an artist.

One of the works, The Robbers, appeared in Suvorin’s New Times in 1890 and the publisher reproached Chekhov for his ‘objectivity’ (that is, lack of ‘message’), and Chekhov responded with a tired irony: ‘You tell me off for my objectivity, calling it indifference to good and evil … When I depict horse thieves, you want me to say that stealing horses is wrong. But surely this has been long known without me saying so. Let the jury condemn them, but it is my job simply to show them as they are.’

Yet there was a shift in Chekhov’s own approach as shown in a few of his last works and just two years later he wrote to the same correspondent that the best writers ‘are realistic and describe life as it is, but because each line is saturated with consciousness of its goal, you feel life as it should be in addition to life as it is, and you are captivated by it.’

The twentieth-century Russian writer Ilya Ehrenburg sums this up well: ‘Chekhov’s sympathies and antagonisms are clear, but he does not touch up the people he likes and he finds human traits in those he dislikes or even hates. As a result of these tendencies, it would be no exaggeration to say that Chekhov was perhaps the most human, liberal, and basically decent man in Russian literature.’

This understanding of what the artist needed to do at the end of the nineteenth century in Russia arose in part from his deepening consciousness as an artist, but also because, as a man who had risen from very humble origins, and who continued to work (for free) as a doctor well into the 1890s, Chekhov knew life ‘in the lower depths’ better than any of his predecessors. Perhaps that is the reason why this profound line came from him: “Any idiot can face a crisis — it’s day to day living that wears you out.”

Notes: Misery and Grief by Anton Chekhov; Wordsworth Classics, Selected Stories, Anton Chekhov, 1996. Franny and Zooey, J.D. Salinger.

Written by Deepan Joshi

May 28, 2010 at 10:29 pm

Three Cheers For Afghanistan

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When Afghanistan took on India on Saturday at the World T20 championship American novelist Marvin Cohen’s words came to my mind: “Life is an elaborate metaphor for cricket.”

War-ravaged Afghanistan’s journey from refugee camps to the elite league of cricket is nothing short of heroic and they played extremely-well considering the context. One Afghan player got to a fifty faster than a run a ball and another bowled sharply and with purpose. There was no hesitancy in running between the wickets and everyone noticed that the players were not overawed. Why would they be? South African captain Graeme Smith was quoted by the New York Times, when told that an Afghan batsman had declared himself unafraid of Dale Steyn—one of the world’s fastest bowlers—as saying: “I wouldn’t be either, if I had grown up in a war zone.”

The great Australian all-rounder and World War II fighter pilot Keith Miller had a very relaxed attitude on the playing field that enchanted spectators and made him a favourite of the English public. He attributed this to the fact that sport was trivial in comparison to war. When asked many years later about pressure on the cricket field Miller responded with the famous quote: “Pressure is a Messerschmitt (German fighter plane) up your arse, playing cricket is not.”

Richard Downey, the Archbishop of Liverpool from 1928 to his death in 1953, made a curious observation about cricket when he said: “If Stalin had learned to play cricket, the world might now be a better place.” That gives us the context as the Cold War’s last and most poignant battle was fought in the treacherous terrain of Afghanistan.

Is cricket really trivial compared to war? For help I turn to Franco-Czech novelist Milan Kundera and to his amazing novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.

“At a time when history still made its way slowly, the few events were easily remembered and woven into a backdrop, known to everyone, before which private life unfolded the gripping show of its adventures. Nowadays, time moves forward at a rapid pace. Forgotten overnight, a historic event glistens the next day like the morning dew and thus is no longer the backdrop to a narrator’s tale but rather an amazing adventure enacted against the background of the over-familiar banality of private life.

Since there is no single historic event we can count on being commonly known, I must speak of events that took place a few years ago as if they were a thousand years old: In 1939, the German army entered Bohemia, and the Czech state ceased to exist. In 1945, the Russian army entered Bohemia, and the country once again was called an independent republic.”

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is a study of variations. ‘The various parts follow each other like the various stages of a voyage leading into the interior of a theme, the interior of a thought, the interior of a single, unique situation the understanding of which recedes from my sight into the distance.’ Mirek says in the opening chapter of the novel: The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting. The chapter that brings out the thought behind this piece is the second chapter that contains an orgy of pleasure taking place under the larger canvas of pain.

“Karel shrugged his shoulders in resignation. Marketa was right: Mama had really changed. She was pleased with everything, grateful for everything. Karel had been expecting in vain a quarrel over some little thing.
On a walk a day or two before, she had gazed into the distance and asked: ‘What is that pretty little white village over there?’ It wasn’t a village, just boundary stones. Karel took pity on his mother, whose sight was dimming. But her faulty vision seemed to express something more basic: what appeared large to them, she found small; what they took for boundary stones, for her were distant houses.

To tell the truth, that was not an entirely new trait of hers. The difference was that at one time it had annoyed them. One night, for instance, their country was invaded by the tanks of a gigantic neighbouring country. That had been such a shock and brought such terror that for a long time no one could think of anything else. It was August, and the pears in their garden were ripe. A week earlier, Mama had invited the pharmacist to come and pick them. But the pharmacist neither came nor even apologized. Mama was unable to forgive him, which infuriated Karel and Marketa. They reproached her: Everyone else is thinking about tanks, and you’re thinking about pears. Then they moved out, taking the memory of her pettiness with them.

But are tanks really more important than pears? As time went by, Karel realized that the answer to this question was not as obvious as he had always thought, and he began to feel a secret sympathy for Mama’s perspective, which had a big pear tree in the foreground and somewhere in the distance a tank no bigger than a ladybug, ready at any moment to fly away out of sight. Ah yes! In reality it’s Mama who is right: tanks are perishable, pears are eternal.”

“Ulysses”: An Endlessly Open Book Of Utopian Epiphanies

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Today Random House is one of the leading publishing houses of the world. Its origin, though, can be traced to the Modern Library that was founded in 1917 by Boni and Liveright. It was reborn when Liveright, needing the money (he had bought off Albert Boni), sold the Modern Library to one of his employees, a 27-year-old vice-president who wanted to go into business for himself. The new publisher was Bennett Cerf.

Cerf and his friend Donald Klopfer set up the Modern Library, Inc., on August 1, 1925. Two years later, finding that they had time to spare, they started Random House as a subsidiary of the Modern Library. Random House enabled them to publish, “at random,” other books that interested them. It soon was a publishing force in its own right, and the Modern Library would become an imprint of its own offspring.
Ever since the “100 Best” story first broke in The New York Times on Monday, July 20, 1998, all kinds of opinions about the list—and theories about the Modern Library’s purpose in concocting such a contest of sorts—emerged.

The Modern Library says on its website that the purpose was to get people talking about great books. The readers’ poll for the best novels published in the English language since 1900 opened on July 20, 1998 and closed on October 20, 1998, with 217,520 votes cast. The difference between the choice of the Board and the readers makes for an interesting comparison that can be accessed in detail on the Modern Library website.

Ulysses by James Joyce, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce were the top three novels decided by the Board. The readers went for Ayn Rand and four of her books found a place in the top ten. She stayed on top of the non-fiction pile as well in the readers’ choice. The Fountainhead was at number two and Atlas Shrugged claimed the number one slot according to reader votes. Ayn Rand could not find a place in the top 100 novels decided by the board. I would take The Fountainhead in the next post and the choice of the Board here.

Declan Kiberd says in his introduction to the standard Random House/Bodley text that first appeared in 1960: Ulysses is ‘an endlessly open book of utopian epiphanies. It holds a mirror up to the colonial capital that was Dublin on 16 June 1904, but it also offers redemptive glimpses of a future world which might be made over in terms of those utopian moments.’

The Sheila Variations is a storehouse of information on the works of Joyce; her being Irish adds to the intimate way in which she has discussed the book. Joyce said: “[Ulysses] is the epic of two races (Israel – Ireland) and at the same time the cycle of the human body as well as a little story of a day (life). The character of Ulysses always fascinated me ever since boyhood. I started writing it as a short story for Dubliners, fifteen years ago but gave it up. For seven years I have been working at this book—blast it!”

“The pity is, the public will demand and find a moral in my book—or worse they may take it in some more serious way, and on the honour of a gentleman, there is not one single serious line in it,” Joyce said. The publishing history of the Ulysses is fascinating and can be accessed through this link.

Joyce never felt he was writing about ‘the extraordinary’—he didn’t believe writers/novelists should focus on that—“that is for the journalist”. He wanted to focus on “the significance of trivial things”—thoughts, stream-of-consciousness, sensory reality, dream-spaces, the way the world looks through a particular set of eyeballs … to be INSIDE the character rather than outside. This is why much of Ulysses can be quite challenging to read. There is no narrator. No one interjects himself and tells you, “Here is what is happening here.” It is a purely subjective book—and we are inside Stephen Dedalus and we are inside Leopold Bloom. We see and hear only what they see and hear.

The statement about the mundane affairs of daily life is the art of the novel. If a writer wrote just for his time then it is not literature. Literature is not dated in any essential sense and its beauty springs from exploring the timeless human condition with all its daily joys, sorrows, conflicts and miseries. Joyce wrote the book between 1914 and 1921; when he was here and there during the raging war in Europe. “Ulysses” has survived bowdlerization, legal action, bitter controversy and the test of time. It is an undisputed modern classic.

Sheila, my guide, says that the story of Ulysses could not be simpler. Stephen Dedalus, our hero from Portrait is now a college student. His father is kind of useless. So he, unconsciously, is looking for a father figure. Leopold Bloom, a Jew in Ireland, married to Molly—who is having an affair—is at a loss how to keep his wife happy. He feels Irish, but he’s also Jewish … which makes things complicated. Through the long meandering course of one day—Dedalus and Bloom keep missing each other through the streets of Ireland … but you get the sense that they need to meet. Leopold Bloom will be the father figure for Stephen. Finally, near the end of the day, they meet. They go to a brothel. They go out for a meal late at night. They walk home to Bloom’s house. They talk. Dedalus staggers home. Bloom wonders if his wife upstairs is awake. The book ends (of course) with the 40 page run-on sentence of Molly Bloom, lying in bed. All roads lead to the female. The female ends the book.

Joyce said, “With me, the thought is always simple.” The structure is complex, but the thought behind it is simple. “Once you get that… the whole thing is not only quite easy, but a ton of fun. To treat it like a big serious tome is to completely miss the point of the book—which is rather silly, most of the time … and has to do with what people eat, and how they chew, and what it’s like in a brothel, and the people you meet on any given day: windbags, sirens, patriotic nimrods, pious righteous folks, old tired teachers … whatever.

“It’s a cornucopia of personality. And I think Joyce was onto something when he said there’s not a serious line in it. ..It’s an important book—yes. Its place in literary history and the history of the 20th century is pre-eminent. Nobody tops him. But the book itself is a rollicking jaunt through one day—June 16, 1904—Joyce wrote it as a tribute to his wife Nora.

They had gone on their first “date” (a walk thru Dublin—with probably a sexual encounter in a back alley) on June 16, 1904. He wrote to her later that on that day she “made him a man”. And so Ulysses was a tribute to her. And to that first day they shared together. Damn. Imagine someone writing a tribute to you and then having it turn out to be the greatest book of the 20th century.”

My guide has encouraged me with her simple explanation and after years I have finally mustered the courage to get past ‘Stately, plump Buck Mulligan…’ and hopefully would reach the 40-page run-on sentence of Molly Bloom, lying in bed.

Mystic River: Masterful Writing By Dennis Lehane

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When I first saw the movie Mystic River I was hit by a thunderbolt; Clint Eastwood is so precise in what he wants as a director and two of his actors pulled out performances of their lifetime—Sean Penn as Jimmy Marcus and Tim Robbins as Dave Boyle are electrifying in this superbly-crafted screenplay of a masterful novel by Dennis Lehane.

Sample this opening paragraph of the book: “When Sean Devine and Jimmy Marcus were kids, their fathers worked together at the Coleman Candy plant and carried the stench of warm chocolate back home with them. It became a permanent character of their clothes, the beds they slept in, the vinyl backs of their car seats. Sean’s kitchen smelled like a Fudgsicle, his bathroom like a Coleman Chew-Chew bar. By the time they were eleven, Sean and Jimmy had developed a hatred of sweets so total that they took their coffee black for the rest of their lives and never ate dessert.”

A blogger I read defined it perfectly by calling it a deceptively-simple start. The whole book is written in this deceptively-simple manner. The fathers of Sean and Jimmy were friends and on Saturdays they would get together at Sean’s place for a beer; and as one beer turned into six, Jimmy and Sean would play in the backyard, sometimes with Dave Boyle, a kid with girl’s wrists and weak eyes.

“Dave Boyle didn’t have a father, just a lot of uncles, and the only reason he was usually there on those Saturdays was because he had this gift for attaching himself to Jimmy like lint; he’d see him leaving his house with his father, show up beside their car, half out of breath, going ‘What’s up, Jimmy?’ with a sad hopefulness.”

Then one day when they were on the kerb of a street and having a friendly fight a strange car pulled up near the sidewalk. One boy got in the car, two did not, and something terrible happened—something that ended their friendship and changed all three boys forever.

Twenty-five years later, Sean Devine (Kevin Bacon) is a homicide detective. Jimmy Marcus is an ex-con who owns a corner store. And Dave Boyle is trying to save his marriage and keep his demons at bay.

Dennis Lehane has this almost perfect way of fleshing out his characters just as he keeps the plot moving forward. Jimmy has three daughters and Katie is the eldest one. Katie and a guy called Brendan Harris are in love and have planned to elope the next day. While packing Brendan is thinking about when he met her first just a year ago when he was doing a roofing job for a guy called Bobby.

‘He’d known of her, of course; everyone in the neighbourhood knew of Katie. She was that beautiful. Few people really knew her. Beauty could do that; it scared you off, made you keep your distance. It wasn’t like in the movies where the camera made beauty seem like something that invited you in. In the real world, beauty was like a fence to keep you out, back you off.”

But Katie, man, from the first day she’d come by with Bobby O’Donnell, and then he’d left her at the site while he and his boys tore off across town to conduct some pressing business, left Katie behind like they’d forgot they ever had her—from that very first day, she was so basic and normal; she hung with Brendan as he applied flashing to the roof as if she was just another dude.”

Lehane describes the pace of the day and the mood of the principal characters before the two love birds have decided to fly and get married; leaving behind Buckingham where they grew up and where everyone knows everyone.

“At thirty-six, Jimmy Marcus had come to love the quiet of his Saturday nights. He had no use for loud, packed bars and drunken confessions. Thirteen years since he’d walked out of prison, and he owned a corner store, had a wife and three daughters at home, and believed he’d traded the wired-up boy he’d been for a man who appreciated an even pace to his life—a slowly sipped beer, a morning stroll, the sound of a baseball game on the radio.

When Jimmy was a kid—hell, until he was almost twenty-three—that energy had dictated his every action. And then … then you just learned how to stow it some-place, he guessed. You tucked it away.”

“His eldest daughter, Katie, was in the midst of that process now. Nineteen years old and so, so beautiful, all her hormones on red alert, surging. But lately he’d noticed an air of grace settling in his daughter. He wasn’t sure where it had come from—some girls grew into womanhood gracefully, others remained girls their whole lives—but it was there in Katie all of a sudden, a peacefulness, a serenity even.

Click on the headline to read the full story.

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