porcelainandporcupines

Archive for June 2016

The most frustrating thing about aging right now is how much it makes me think of Milan Kundera. I spent a good solid chunk of the ’90s, maybe ’93 through ’99 – just absolutely hating that guy. It was so bad that I was planning to write abook about it, entitled “Why I hate Milan Kundera,” with the first chapter being “Because He Sucks.” It’s a compelling argument, I know, which made it all the more astonishing that it should need to be made in the first place. Milan Kundera clearly sucks, so why was he so popular?

At least in part, the answer to that is because everyone’s first exposure to Kundera was via a charming turn by a young Daniel Day Lewis in the film version of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. In a larger sense, though, the two halves of the equation are more intertwined, and the thing that makes him so popular is the very reason that he sucks so bad, and that reason is the clear and incredible contempt he has for his female characters.

This is not simply an issue of an author writing unlikable characters. While I generally prefer to like the characters I read about, in much the same way I prefer to spend time with people whose company I enjoy, it’s not 100% necessary. I understand unlikable characters have their time and place; holidays, for example, or other family gatherings. But the series of embarrassing or tragic calamities that befall so many of his female characters ends up having no lasting impact on the story. So a pregnant nurse accidentally takes a poison pill – the real surprise is that the crabby old man wasn’t lying all those years about carrying a suicide pill with him at all times. Or the woman, despondent over an unworthy man, who attempts to end her own life but instead takes a handful of laxatives and suffers not just the expected bathroom embarrassments while her uninterested beloved stands on the other side of the door, she, desperate to flee her humiliation, must then run out of the bathroom without pulling her stockings all the way up, causing her to trip so severely that she falls face forward on the lawn, exposing her bare ass to the world.

Now, I have not had occasion to have first-hand experience of the stockings that could be gotten under Communism, but from decades of Democracy stockings I do know both that even in an intestinal emergency they don’t take that long to pull up, and that if you are in such a rush that you don’t pull your stockings all the way up, that will present such a serious impediment to travel that you will not get far enough out of the bathroom to run outside, trip, and expose your bare ass to the world.

Such are the calamities that befall young women in Kundera’s novels. Should a female character manage to avoid both accidentally being poisoned and accidentally not poisoning herself, she can still in her old age look forward to being ridiculed by Kundera for having aged. And in this case, instead of acting through his characters or the role of the omniscient narrator, in Immortality (or maybe it’s Identity; I read all of those books such a long time ago), Kundera inserts himself directly into the story as Milan Kundera, sitting poolside as an older woman climbs out of the water, pausing in her post-pool toweling off to wave girlishly at someone.

She’s probably not waving at Kundera; even if she doesn’t know him, she can probably tell he’s a dick. But Kundera was there to catch the wave and can’t help but notice the incongruity of the girlishness of the act with the advanced aged of the actor, and is stunned to be witness to this older woman not knowing that she’s not beautiful anymore. Which, honestly, shouldn’t be such a terrible surprise to him – or maybe it should, because, despite his many years, he seems to have no awareness that he himself is a terrible prick. Regardless, he is so amazed by it that he goes on to repeat that this woman is no longer beautiful at least 1,000 times on just that one page if I’m recalling correctly; as I said, I read it a long time ago, so it may have been more.

This has always been my problem with Kundera – is that it’s impossible to believe that the extremely negative portrayal of women in his works is due to anything but him. Which is always the case with authors, that everything that happens is due to them, but the purposelessness of the malice directed at his females, that doesn’t add to the story, that doesn’t provide any commentary on the role of women in society, Communist or otherwise, or on the difficult and changing relationships between women and men; by the process of elimination, we can only conclude that the only purpose women serve is to show how much Milan Kundera does not like women.

And that, in my opinion, is what accounts for the disproportionate popularity of his books here in these United States. Writing as he was behind the Iron Curtain, Kundera provided assurance that, should American have lost the Cold War and been crushed under the heel of oppressive equality, men would still have plenty of opportunities to act like immature and terrified little prats toward women, benefiting from their accidental and completely avoidable deaths, or causing them disgraceful embarrassment simply for not being their ideal. So, that we may have won the Cold War, in that we just waited while the other side collapsed under its own weight, we have the comfort of knowing that, even if we had failed (or they didn’t), the State would have begun to do terrible things to those who acted against its interest, but crimes against women would still not be considered crimes against the state and could therefore proceed unobstructed, in the usual fashion.

Eventually, in ’99, I let go of my plans to take down Milan Kundera. Partially because writing a book would have meant learning a lot more about Milan Kundera than that I hated him. Partially because “because he sucks,” is a lot harder to turn into a whole book than you might think (although, at this point, you may have an inkling). Mostly, it was because I realized that when I gave up trying to convince the whole world that Kundera was terrible, I would not have to subject myself to him anymore.

And so I put his books down. I still remember closing that last one – Immortality, or possibly Slowness – on my desk at work. Under the bright florescence my coworker Matt asked “What are you reading?” And I replied, with a calm smile and a pleasant shake of my head “Nothing,” certain that the moment would be as cinematic in my memory as it was in reality. Eventually, I got rid of the books that I’d been lugging around from house to house; physically and mentally, I left Kundera behind.

And so I lived, happily ever after for 15 years without thinking of Milan Kundera at all. But here we are together now, talking about him which means, obviously, that has ended. Not because of his new book, although it’s fitting that Kundera, too, has forgotten that he’s not desirable anymore. But a year ago, as I stood in the Grove with my brother and sister on a sunny spring day that wasn’t as warm as it should have been. It was the first time we were all together in more than a decade too, and we stood in this crowded outdoor shopping complex overrun by tourists, like us, who, like us, had come hoping to spy a celebrity and who wouldn’t notice us anything other than a group, like them, of middle-aged tourists, standing around and squinting into the sun.

It was sad in that moment to realize that I too was a part of the anonymous throng of overweight Americans, that, until that moment, I’d been living like Kundera’s foolish old woman at the pool, living on as though I had value despite the cruel march of time. Perhaps somewhere in that crowd at the Grove there was a writer witnessing that moment who would be so inspired by the momentary despair that they, too, would use it as the springboard for an unrelated story that reinforces for the world what a cock they truly are.

At the same time, from the viewpoint of Kundera’s ridiculous old woman, I understood – in a way Kundera could not – that she wasn’t so ridiculous after all. She may not have been beautiful in the moment Kundera hoped to preserve (an observation which is entirely suspect because why would anyone trust Milan Kundera on these things?) but even he himself can recognize that she had been beautiful at one point. This may not be valuable in his opinion, but it is not merely the shadow of beauty that persists. Her beauty (which, it should also be noted, is not her most important quality, but again, we are limited by Kundera’s framework) may no longer be that of youth, but it continues to be visible for the people who know her. The woman herself, other people, people who are not assholes; rather than lamenting its absence, they still see her beauty, made all the more remarkable that it can still be seen despite her foolish old face.

Too, there are the people of the woman’s life who don’t know she is no longer beautiful,those who knew her before the moment Kundera felt was so important to preserve. The moments they witnessed – of beauty of otherwise – also endure, as much as Kundera’s moment, if not more because they are not insufferable twats, most likely. And, even if they are, the version of them that the old woman knew still exists, as she remembers a place where she was beautiful in the company of someone sufferably charming; her eyes alight with mischief while he stands up straighter and wonders if in the future they’ll still be together. Those two people, who managed to be lively even in the face of Communism, will continue to matter as long as anyone continues to think of them, in the present as a fond recollection or a promise of a future that will never be realized.

But the most important thing – the MOST important thing I have to occasionally remind myself about that day in the Grove, when I notice my eyelashes have vanished, or as I wait at an intersection for a beautifully upright horse to trot past while I sit in the car feeling like a melting candle, is not just that, even if only in photos or on Facebook, I will always be young enough to enjoy the sun and believe it will always be shining on me; that my brother will always have a dopey grin and a bowl haircut even as his crew cut becomes saltier; that our sister will always be taller than us because she’s older, and her feathered bangs will never go out of style. The MOST IMPORTANT thing to remember is that Milan Kundera will always, ALWAYS be a dick.


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