Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Bookish Indifference: Not Much Laughter, Too Much Forgetting

Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, translated from the Czech by Michael Henry Heim, left me with such a shoulder shrug and feeling of “whatever” that I think I’ll write more about the experience of reading the book than about the book itself. I loved the very first vignette about airbrushing a political leader out of a photo. But it didn’t even last the first page, though Kundera does mention it again later in the book. Tellingly, that vignette was the only part of the book I remembered from a reading in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s.

What I most wish I’d remembered from that first reading is that The Book of Laughter and Forgetting incorporates essayish material, metafiction, eroticism, and absurdity into stories about infidelity, family, politics, and death, creating and connecting (sometimes) variations on themes related to, of course, memory and laughter. I probably didn’t remember that from my reading twenty years because I’ve already nearly forgotten the book after reading it last week. I don’t say this to be mean or snarky: every now and than a book just don’t stay with me at all.

Now, I can handle genre blends and bends but I usually lose patience when the author can’t convince me that a book’s disparate elements belong together. Of course tastes and opinions about what does and doesn’t belong together vary greatly, but Kundera failed to convince me that Laughter and Forgetting is more than a rather random ramble through his thoughts.

By contrast, Mathias Énard’s Zone (previous post) is much longer and more difficult than Laughter and Forgetting in both form and content, but Énard’s jumpy narrative feels natural and uncontrived to me because it reflects the subject matter. After Énard’s book, which unified itself quite nicely, IMHO, with one long sentence, Kundera’s jumpy self-conscious narrative feels scattershot, contrived, and so unengaging, even smug with its clever comments, that the book barely registered on my emotions (other than petty annoyance) or memory, despite my interest in Czechoslovakia before the collapse of the Soviet bloc.

On the positive side, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting does have some good lines, such as this thought about writing:

“The reason we write books it that our kids don’t give a damn. We turn to an anonymous world because our wife stops up her ears when we talk to her.”

This is funny and apt, though hardly news to me, the person who’s been torturing her friends and family about Russian literature for decades. Thank goodness for the Internet, where I can blog about this stuff and find fellow enthusiasts! I’d most recommend The Book of Laughter and Forgetting to readers who enjoy disjointed books with the feel of oral storytelling, a taste of life in the Eastern Bloc, and an author’s pop philosophy.

I’d love to hear about other books and reading experiences that readers have found memorably unmemorable...

Up next: Fleur Jaeggy’s Sweet Days of Discipline.


  1. Perhaps isn't it because of the translation? In spite of that, some books just fail, utterly fail to inspire and once in a while we meet such books. However, they might work for others too. What I love about reviewers like you is the way they state their minds without being offensive as the mere act of sitting down to write deserves to be recommended. Thanks

  2. Thank you, Nana, for your very gracious comment. I do try to be fair to the books I write about, so it's nice to hear that comes through to readers.

    I don't think the translation was the root of my problem with Laughter and Forgetting, particularly because I thought Heim did a good job creating a distinct narrative voice. And that voice reminded me of similar voices I've heard in Russian fiction. I think this is a book that just, as you put it, utterly failed to inspire me!