Sparked by Words

Posts tagged ‘love’

U is for The Unbearable Lightness of Being

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera is considered the Czech writer’s masterpiece. He is regarded as one of the world’s most important authors, having won numerous awards, commendations, international acclaim, and often short listed for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Being is one of the most unusual novels I’ve ever read. In fact, I couldn’t get through it the first two times I tried, so you’d be right if you’re questioning whether this is actually my favorite U book. I’m glad I finally completed it but it was a challenge from beginning to end.

I don’t think it’s possible to read Being without knowing something of the background of Kundera’s life and the history of Czechoslovakia. Kundera was born in Brno in 1929 and lived much of his adult life in Prague. The book reflects some of the events of his life. In fact, all of his books except for the very last describe life in Czechoslovakia. I’m no expert on this history, and what I do know I gleaned from the Internet and a bit of awareness of world issues as they happened.

Kundera’s first political association was with the Communist party but he eventually gave it up in favor of championing human rights, Czech political freedom, and support of the arts. He was one of many intellectuals who participated in the Prague Spring in 1968 in opposition to the Soviet invasion and takeover of his country. They banned his books. They reduced many of the intelligentsia and artistic community to second class citizenry and encouraged them to leave the country. Kundera and his wife emigrated to France where he taught at university, continued to write, and eventually became a French citizen. All of this is loosely exposed in Being, especially in the character of Tomas, Kundera’s alter ego.

The book begins with a lengthy discussion of human existence as a challenge between positive lightness, without emotional burden, and negative heaviness, requiring eternal return. Since we only get one life, we have no basis for comparison to determine which quality reflects life more accurately.* Many people take refuge in the aesthetic kitsch of religion or other distracting and sentimental activities to escape from Soviet oppression, a situation the author found deplorable and expressed within the viewpoints of characters. Kundera’s question about lightness versus heaviness is at the heart of living under a totalitarian government that destroyed the very nature of his country. Were I to be asked, I find the novel loaded with author intrusion, an absolute no-no according to modern writing standards (and many readers’ tastes.)

Ordinary writing rules don’t count under such circumstances. Throughout the book, philosophical arguments take more space than the activities of the characters. Most of the action revolves around their sexual relationships and betrayals, a kind of carousel of bed hopping, party attendance, and café sitting. Kundera devotes pages to definitions of words that later impact the characters. Words like “woman,” “cemetery,” and “the beauty of New York” create an internal dictionary of important ideas. Yeah, let’s you or I try that tactic in our novels and see how well it’s accepted by editors or readers.

Tomas, the primary character, is a brilliant surgeon who questions the quality and meaning of his life. He engages in an astonishing number of throwaway sexual liaisons, even while claiming to love only his wife, Tereza. At first a waitress escaping her vulgar mother, Tereza becomes a capable photo-journalist. She is always emotionally dependent on Tomas to the point that she is sickened and feels betrayed by his sexual exploits.

Tomas’ most important other sexual partner is Sabina, a talented painter and free spirit who even wins over Tereza. Sabina stays true to her values and eventually settles in America where she disavows her homeland and her past. The final significant character is Franz who becomes Sabina’s other lover. Franz lives a tragic life and dies abroad though he is essentially a kind person who recognizes his mistakes.

All four characters flee Czechoslovakia, though Tomas and Teresa return. Their lives take a difficult turn under the Communist occupation which demands slavish obeisance to party lines. They are forced to give up their previous professional identities. Their skills are wasted doing menial jobs, yet they accept this reduction in their status.

My most favorite character (actually, the only character I like) is the smiling dog, Kerenin. Tereza walks Kerenin every day to get a bun which he carries home in his mouth and does not eat until he roughhouses with Tomas. Though we know long before the end of the book that Tomas and Tereza die together in a car accident, for which no details are provided, it is Kerenin’s illness, death, and funeral that take up the final passages of the book. Other than anger at the heartlessness of the Soviet regime, only this section made me feel an emotional response to anything in the story.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a serious and important work for its depiction of the conflict of loyalty when one’s beloved country is invaded by an oppressive regime. It portrays the ways in which people tolerate and submit or flee and survive. Or rebel, as the author did. It doesn’t let you forget you’re reading a book the Communists hated. This is the distracting weight of the book for me, and it created a cleft between me and attachment to the story. As writers, we’ve learned that we must know the rules before we break them, and we better not break them unless we know how to do it so the entire story doesn’t shatter. Kundera knows how. I didn’t love this book but I will never forget it.

If you’ve read this book or any of his other works, I’d love to know your impression.

 

*My explanation of the basic conundrum of the book is poorly described here, but Kundera gives it plenty of space and makes it comprehensible.

I look forward to learning about your favorite U fiction books.

 

One other book that was a serious contender for U:

Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman

 

Book cover image courtesy: Google images and Harper Perennial

H is for The History of Love

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The History of Love begins with an obituary and ends with the same – not a propitious beginning for a novel unless it is written by Nicole Krauss. Fortunately for readers, this book is. It contains a book within the book, one that is published under a thief’s name, and a view about love so enduring that no other person can take the place of the beloved. It is also about a search for a child, a child’s search for identity, and the true authorship of books.

This book won my heart as a reader but also as a writer. The first time I read it was pure pleasure as I became immersed in the story, eager to find out the ending but reveling in every phrase written, every image suggested, every new twist to a maze of a story. At the second reading, I paid attention to Krauss’ brilliant plot construction, character development, and psychological insight. She is a master writer, and for someone like me still learning to write, she is an entire writing class in a single volume.

The book is dense with imagery and poetic language, a gift for those who savor words and yearn to be kidnapped by story. It’s also complex and confusing, demanding sleuthing skills usually reserved for murder mysteries, and I found myself re-reading passages to reorient within the novel. The two main characters are each haunted people who brought me to tears and occasional laughter as I unraveled their stories. Leo Gursky, an old Polish Jew, now lives in New York. He is a Holocaust survivor without heirs or friends, afraid of dying alone and unrecognized. Once spying on the son he didn’t know about until, he is devastated to learn that he has died, a famous author who never knew his father. Leo has loved one woman in the world, and for her he wrote a book about love.

Fourteen-year-old Alma Singer, bereft from the loss of her father to cancer, is convinced she is named after an Alma from an old story about undying love, her parents’ favorite. She wants to find a man who can love her grieving, widowed mother and give her a reason to live. Her younger brother, Bird, is strangely obsessed, believing he is one of the thirty-six lamed vovnik, the righteous people chosen by God for whom the world is made. Like many impassioned teenagers, Alma feels the world’s weight pressing upon her shoulders and struggles to balance the responsibilities of saving herself, her brother, and her mother.

Tangled in the journeys of these two is the history of the book Leo wrote decades earlier and another book that Alma’s mother is translating. Both of course are Leo’s The History of Love. Then there is Zvi Litvinoff, who has claimed and secretly published Leo’s book as his own work; Bruno, Leo’s one friend until he dies; and Isaac, the son Leo never met. A less polished writer might have written a muddle of a book out of such disparate parts, but Krauss penned a taut and multi-dimensional story.

The end is somewhat ambivalent, readers debating exactly what has happened, a bit of magical realism claiming its part of the story. What is understood is that love is all consuming and eternal, that sometimes the obvious facts don’t add up until you find all the other facts, and that no matter who writes a book, love endures and makes all things possible. Krauss has conveyed intuition about writing, love, relationships, and identity in a story with an apt title.

My favorite line from the book is this: Once upon a time there was a boy who loved a girl, and her laughter was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering. Who of us does not want to be so consumed by love that it spins our world and lets us breathe?

It’s a book I’ve kept and one I’ll read again, not to discover more of the writer’s technique but for the pure pleasure of enjoying a story well told. And that is what a good book should be.

The History of Love won the 2008 William Saroyan International Prize for Writing for fiction.

 

Other books that were serious contenders for H:

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Harry Potter (entire series) by J.K. Rowling

Hawaii by James Michener

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Heidi by Johanna Spyri

Heir to the Glimmering World by Cynthia Ozick

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

He, She and It by Marge Piercy

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus

The House of the Spirits by Isabelle Allende

The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy

The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan

 

I look forward to learning about your favorite H fiction books.

 

Book cover image courtesy: Google images and W.W. Norton & Company

Tramp with Me the Prairie

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Tramp with me the prairie, shaft and grain

We’ll mow down the swat-knee grass

Share stalks of brittle wheat between us

Lips kiss, remind our hearts to beat again

 

Ford with me the river, pool and cascade

We’ll slosh through opaline ripples

Spray unfiltered water along our thighs

Hips touch, we slide and shiver, gasp for air

 

Climb with me the mountain, cliff and gorge

We’ll bushwhack a cloddy trail

Break live oak limbs that scratch our arms

Bloody wounds, mine into yours into mine

 

Hike with me the desert, sand and ravine

We’ll roam across arid gullies

Weave spiney ribbons around our heads

Cheeks sore reddened with sun, by wind

 

Surf with me the ocean, froth and wave

We’ll float on currents far from shore

Bind seaweed between our damp wrists

Ride a waxing swell ashore on our backs

 

Quest with me new frontier, stars and moon

We’ll explore the trajectory of flight

Orbit bare into milieu of solar dust

Universe small for the breadth of our being

 

 

Prairie image courtesy goodfreephotos.com, public domain images

Plum Tree

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Once a plum tree in spring, roseate petals toed on bare limbs, opens to sun,

Moth limps wet from its brittle cocoon into moonlight and raw leaf excess,

Onion swells from its torn dry shell, each layer transparent, unfurling,

Pungent odor stinging nose, swelling eyes, slimy sap burning cuts on flesh

 

Once a chick pecks sharp at marquise shell, totters hungry in noon warmth,

Trout slurps surface of jadeite pond, then glides through secret current,

Silent rainbow glitters after storm, melted gem colors, netted by clouds

Elusive, moves away from capture, away from certainty, to somber dark

 

Once evening’s sultry wind, morning’s dewy breath, vague languor

Honey from the hive, dripping sweet and gravid, orange, sage, tupelo,

Sting of the bee, startled, angry, defensive, only a brief defense,

Threat of more, to frighten, to ache, to paralyze, enough to kill

 

Once risen lovers, heated hearts, desperate for passion, fight and dance

Surety of souls meant to find each other, anywhere, everywhere, forever

Wisdom of warriors, aged, battered, gasping, marching on one leg, you and

I, winter now, crusted tears, tenuous, plum petals fallen from our fingers

 

In honor of National Poetry Month

Plum Tree image courtesy publicdomain.com

Sand Sculpture

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If we lie on the beach, reach through froth

press into sand as our bodies crush each into other

the bowls made by our hips gather seeped ocean

edges rise like glass battlements piercing sky

and promises string salty tears across our backs

 

When we finally stand to leave, shake off foam

waves sneak up and, lobbing salty spit, rush back

washing away the sculpted stamp of our bodies

does the first carving of sand made of us tell the truth

or is it the ruined print after the wave recedes to sea

 

I do not know how far to horizon will wane the tide

how long the sand will repose from brine and tears

all I know is to marshal grains, impress our forms

and begin to rebuild the battlements of our union

because it’s what we do, we gather ourselves again

 

 

Beach image, public domain

 

First Laugh

First laugh

Pierces morning’s vault

Splits the full belly of sky

As stars plunge through clouds

Light shatters, hot grease on ice

And skitters into cosmos

A billion shrieks ascend –

That rare –

First laugh

 

First touch

Sets fire to forest

Ignites trees from roots to limbs

As leaves crush against the earth

Birds abandon nests too hot to mind

And flit toward ashen boughs

A million fingers flex –

That flame –

First touch

 

First kiss

Blisters sleeping lips

Allures harbored secrets of young

As touch lifts the wedding veil

To expose the modest heart

Breaching limbs shiver in heat

A thousand hairs tremble –

That raw –

First kiss

 

First love

Sears frugal thoughts

Swells the full bore of self

As the private two of them blend

Vows freeze, all oaths suspend

And promises collapse in shreds

A single spark of bliss –

That lone –

First love