Life Is Elsewhere has been a three-, four- and five-star book. I couldn’t, and still can’t, make up my mind about it. At times I loved it, stopped at certain passages to marvel, to underline in order to remember later. Other times, I found myself rolling my eyes. By the end, I had to admit to myself that I was looking forward to finishing (the tell-tale signs: unconsciously skimming longer paragraphs; checking the page numbers to ascertain how many are left.) All in all, I’d say that, enjoyment and literary merit considered, this is a 3.5 for me.
I only read Life Is Elsewhere because I’d recently read and adored The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Apart from a few little things that niggled and irritated (these were magnified and harder to overlook in LIS, I think), the reading experience was utterly lovely. I had this sensation I don’t often get with books where, on reading an author for the first time, I feel a sense of recognition. Not necessarily anything to do with the content (i.e. the plot resembling some life event of mine), this recognition is with the writing itself (the style, the voice, its perspective on things). As with déjà vu, I feel I’ve been there before – but obviously, haven’t. It was a book I felt I had been waiting to read, like I had always known it would end up in my hands someday. Some books just do that, and it’s the nicest thing. So, for this reason, on finding another Kundera novel on my parents’ shelves, I couldn’t wait to get stuck in.
In LIS, a poet is conceived, born, nurtured and adored. His childhood and his adulthood, his growth into poet, lover, political man, is a shared story, as much his mother’s as his. We begin with a conception and end with a death, and this is cleverly done. Kundera’s novel has a grandness to it, Jaromil the poet is The Poet, a figure at once candidly and closely drawn, cobbled together out of all the little and large experiences and influences that go about making a person, but is also distanced from, placed out of reach and made something more. At times he feels allegorical. Sometimes it felt as though Kundera was setting the poet up in a role not dissimilar to the gallant knight of an epic tale. This had much to do with Kundera’s presence in the text (as with TBOLAF). His frequent interjections into the narrative felt like an interruption, shaking up the text, disturbing the realness of a scene. These usually took the form of rhetorical questions, regarding character motivation, or else tried to set up Jaromil’s actions as something higher. The narrator repeatedly broke through what was otherwise described from a distance, and I found this bothersome. It felt incongruous against the intimate, more subtle narration of events elsewhere.
I didn’t always like the way LIS discussed sex and relationships. Assumptions the book made were reminiscent to me of Lawrence, at least in the way they made me feel uncomfortable. Does this mean I prefer it sugar-coated? Not at all. Hopeless and unromantic as Kundera’s depictions of sex could be (often with easy cruelty; at other times, every intimate act accompanied with some psychological explanation; and sometimes, sex as everything, some airy-fairy pursuit of truth), they didn’t feel especially like real life. In fact, it felt like Kundera trying to make his novel and its character weightier than they really were. Same with the author interjections. Shame, because beneath all that, the story is solid, without the need for every point to be wrung out and exhausted. I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of Jaromil’s childhood. The small politics of the classroom, a growing interest in literature, the transition from reader of poetry to writer of it, trying on the title of Poet like a hat, the pubescent boy’s dawning sexual awareness. There is a very knowing, wonderfully written section where the adolescent Jaromil decides he is in love with Madga, the maid in mourning with the ‘sorrow-lovely face’. He concocts a plan to watch her bathe. It is gloriously subtle section of the book, which really, despite its rigid chronology, has no real shape and is a thread of experiences, of which the seemingly inconsequential can have as much or more impact than the life-changing (a father in a concentration camp.) I loved the way Kundera was able to get into this young boy’s head. Jaromil’s total preoccupation with this act, the planning of it, the all-or-nothing importance it has to him. It felt real, I was able to believe in it. In this way, Kundera showed himself as a skilled, consummate and thoughtful writer, one who is able to zoom his lens in and out as easily as he achieves a panoramic sweep.
I enjoyed the depiction of Maman’s loveless, dispiriting but not necessarily unhappy marriage, and of her love affair with the unnamed artist. It could so easily have been played as a rescue. And while it was a sexual awakening for Maman (her identity, even in this, always as a mother), the flaws in the pairing are evident. Maman sees herself as a reflection of what the artist wants to see. The artist begins to paint Maman, actually to paint her naked body, and she becomes a part of his art. Cleverly, the artist is described as a god of sorts, and Maman his creation. Maman is unhappy for it, or perhaps, since she has now known passion, unhappier than ever. She seemed to me a far richer, more interesting character than her son, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my interest began to wane around the time that Jaromil grew up and took centre-stage. However, the way mother and son’s stories were intertwined was well done. Too much of one of them would have called for a much smaller book.
Flaws in the pacing, the rambling nature, the constant and obvious authorial insights, did not take away from the really rather lovely bones of this book. And, annoyed and indifferent as it made me at times, I’m glad I read it.
“The artist lavished attention on her and tried to draw her into the world of his paintings and thoughts. Maman liked that. It proved to her that their union was not merely a conspiracy of bodies exploiting a favorable situation.”
“Éluard had become the poet of Magda’s calm body and of her eyes bathed by a sea of tears. He saw his entire life locked in the spell of a single line: sorrow-lovely face. Yes, that was Magda: sorrow-lovely face.”
“At that point Maman really was little more than his image and his invention. She knew it, and she tried with all the self-control at her command to keep him from knowing it too, to keep him from realizing that she was not his partner, not a magical counterpart worthy of love, but only a lifeless reflection, an obedient looking glass, a passive surface on which he was projecting the images of his longing. She succeeded. The artist reached the climax of his joy and happily slid off her body. When she returned home, she felt as if she had undergone a great ordeal, and before going to sleep that night she wept.”
“She stood in the middle of the room and could think of nothing except her belly. She was afraid to look down but she saw it before his eyes as she knew it from a thousand desperate glances into the mirror.”
“He was repelled by the pettiness that reduced life to mere existence and that turned men into half-men. He wanted to lay his life on a balance, the other side of which was weighted with death. He wanted to make his every action, every day, yes, every hour and minute worthy of being measured against the ultimate, which is death.”