The third part of this 1984 novel by Milan Kundera, titled “Words Misunderstood,” includes something called “A Short Dictionary of Misunderstood Words.” This dictionary is an attempt on the part of the author to catalog some of the many misunderstandings between two lovers, Sabina and Franz. These two first met as adults, after the musical composition that is their lives has already been written, and so “although they had a clear understanding of the logical meaning of the words exchanged, they failed to hear the semantic susurrus of the river flowing through them.” For example, Franz considers fidelity to be the highest of virtues, but for Sabina, the word implies the worst sorts of puritanism. She prefers betrayal—”breaking ranks and going off into the unknown.”
Sabina and Franz aren’t the only couple to suffer from different ideas about love. Tereza and Tomas, the book’s central characters, have a similar problem. Tomas feels driven to have sex with many women, and Tereza is tormented by his infidelities. She has nightmares about his betrayals, nightmares often tied in with her own fear of exposure, yet she remains loyal to Tomas. And Tomas is loyal to Tereza—in his way. The two feel bound together by destiny. They’ve concocted a story of their meeting, turning a series of coincidences into a sign of fate, perhaps because that’s more comforting than acknowledging their relationship is a mistake. Because they can’t know that it’s a mistake, as the author himself tells us:
There is no means of testing which decision is better, because there is no basis for comparison. We live everything as it comes, without warning, like an actor going on cold. And what can life be worth if the first rehearsal for life is life itself? That is why life is always like a sketch. No, “sketch” is not quite the word, because a sketch is an outline of something, the groundwork for a picture, whereas the sketch that is our life is a sketch for nothing, an outline with no picture.
Einmal ist keinmal, says Tomas to himself. What happens but once, says the German adage, might as well not have happened at all. If we only have one life to live, we might as well not have lived at all.
This novel is filled with images and moments of weighing and testing. Testing out different paths, weighing the value of a life, testing a lover, weighing a political decision. Some characters, like Tereza, are weighed down by it all, and others, like Sabina, bear no more burdens than they have to. No one choice is depicted as more correct than another, whether it’s the choice of which lover to be faithful to, or which political position to openly espouse (the latter being a particularly serious decision in Soviet-dominated Czechoslovakia, where most of the novel is set).
Kundera tells us that
The characters in my novels are my own unrealized possibilities. That is why I am equally fond of them all and equally horrified by them. Each one has crossed a border that I myself have circumvented. It is that crossed border (the border beyond which my own “I” ends) which attracts me most. For beyond that border begins the secret the novel is about. The novel is not the author’s confession; it is an investigation of human life in the trap the world has become.
Hmm… I suppose I could get frustrated that Kundera has just interpreted the novel for me. All this weighing and measuring is him weighing his own choices. But this novel is overflowing with ideas, and there are lots more questions to ask.
For example, what is that secret the novel is about? There’s a lot of talk about repetition, and each character could be said to be Kundera’s way of living life more than once and thus escaping the “einmal ist keinmal” (once is nothing) problem. (That’s one way of dealing with it—another way is noting that repeated patterns characterize a life. Tomas is unfaithful because of the pattern of unfaithfulness. Tereza has one brief affair—that once is nothing.)
The novel opens with a sort of meditation on this question:
Putting it negatively, the myth of eternal return states that a life which disappears once and for all, which does not return, is like a shadow, without weight, dead in advance, and whether it was horrible, beautiful, or sublime, its horror, sublimity, and beauty mean nothing. We need take no more note of it than of a war between two African kingdoms in the fourteenth century, a war that altered nothing in the destiny of the world, even if a hundred thousand blacks perished in excruciating torment.
Certainly the story in the novel gives us reason to think that a life that doesn’t return (and what life does?) doesn’t matter. In the end, a story of that life is crafted and emblazoned on a tombstone, but that story is what Sabina would call kitsch, an appeal to the emotions that covers up the truth of life and with all its shit and death. Everything is simplified and made to conform to a pattern, so that it isn’t true at all. And so no life can truly return; all we’ll ever get are shadows. Even Sabina, who is determined not to be reduced to kitsch, lives in Franz’s heart as a guiding angel who determines his steps—and those steps lead him to actions that the real Sabina would not be likely to support. She has become the story he’s made up about her.
Still, I can’t accept that it is returning that makes a life matter. Life matters as it’s lived, for the living—and that’s true in this novel. One character, Karenin the dog, is wholly unconcerned with these big questions. Karenin, a female dog with a male name (referred to as he in the book), isn’t exploring alternatives. Karenin just is. And Karenin’s life and death matter tremendously, both to his owners and to the narrative. And his owners’ death matters, as small and meaningless as it turns out to be, given the other possibilities. The lives that could have been, the lives that echo through history may matter, but they are no more real than a couple in the country with a dog. And what’s real is what matters.
I read this book for a book group that I’ve just recently joined; it’s one of those rare book groups that discusses the book for the entire two-hour meeting. We probably could have discussed it for another two hours; it’s a rich book, that turns in on itself again and again, never letting itself get pinned down, even when the author himself pipes in with his interpretations. Before discussing the book, I could see bits of what Kundera was trying to do, but talking about it enabled me to see even more—and to be more impressed with it. It also made it more difficult not to write an epically long post. I’ve noticed too much now, and I want to share it. This post is my attempt to pull together my own thoughts about the many observations people in the group made into a semi-coherent reading of the novel. Semi-coherent is the best I can do; there’s a lot going on in this book. And I’ve only read it once, so perhaps my musings don’t mean a thing: Einmal ist keinmal, after all. But I have only one life and only so much time to give to putting my thoughts into words. Muss es sein? Es muss sein!