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December 20, 2021

Forty years ago, if there was one novel you could count on educated readers having read and loved, it was The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera. First published in an English translation in America in 1980, it took the temperature of the age as no other book did.

It was the great novel of the end of European Communism: a novel of ideas and eroticism, the surreal and the naturalistic. In tone intimate and ironic, it seemed to take its readers into its confidence, assuming a high level of curiosity and scepticism, large-mindedness and mirth, but also anxiety, lest waking from one nightmare was no guarantee that we wouldn’t fall headlong into the next.

We didn’t read it as we read polemic — the characters were too vivid to allow us to forget we were reading fiction — but it was conjecturally high-risk in a way that other novels weren’t. Laughter and Forgetting: the very concatenation of those words promised an original ride. So we hung on, rubbing our eyes as though waking from a long sleep, curious to read whatever Kundera had written earlier and impatient to read whatever he would write next. Today, the laughter has fallen silent and, except among a few aficionados and readers without an axe to grind, Kundera himself is all but forgotten.

The forgetting of Kundera’s title is the state-sponsored forgetting essential to totalitarianism, allowing that totalitarianism insinuates its way into the most private corners of our lives. The novel’s opening reads like a fairy tale told by a historian. “In February 1948, the Communist leader Klement Gottwald stepped out on the balcony of a Baroque palace…” Next to Gottwald on the balcony is the Foreign Minister, Vladimir Clementis. It is cold and, noting that Gottwald is bareheaded, Clementis takes the fur hat off his head and puts it on his leader’s. Four years later Clementis is hanged for treason and “immediately airbrushed out of history”, which means being airbrushed out of this and all other photographs as well. Inspect the photograph today and the only evidence that Clementis was ever on that balcony is the fur hat on Gottwald’s head. So tellingly comic is the image that one wants to push it further into surrealism and remove Gottwald too, leaving only the hat to hover Magritte-like in the snow.

We have our own vocabulary to describe what the Czech Communist party did to Clementis 70 years ago. We say it “cancelled” him. It is, I think, instructive to trace cancel culture’s political origins in the mindset of totalitarianism.

The cruel irony is that Kundera’s novel has itself become the object of the very cancelling it describes. Little by little, whether by malevolent design (which is hard to prove) or by subtle changes in the literary/political zeitgeist (also hard to chart) Kundera and his novels fell out of favour.

He had left Czechoslovakia for France in 1975 and never returned when it was safe to do so. Why was that, some wondered. A willing exile is not the same as a forced one: did he remain in France in order to keep his distance from people who could reveal a secret? Rumours of his having earlier sold out a colleague to the Communist authorities began to circulate. Vehemently denied and never proved though this accusation was, a whiff of deception, not to say betrayal, remained. Not impossibly, some people wanted it to remain in order better to sell or explain a disaffection that had other causes. A Kundera who forged his own biography was a Kundera whose books might also lie to us.

The world was changing; subtle re-evaluations of the contributions of Soviet Communism among those very intellectuals who would once have been Kundera’s admirers, compelled them to think again about him or, as was more convenient, to forget about him altogether. Ideological enemies of the Left were no longer automatically embraced. New sorts of crime, more insidious but not necessarily any less terrible than those which Kundera had made his reputation excoriating, required new and no less vigilant policing. Universities began to take on the aspect of commissariats. You might say that Kundera’s ironic tone, once so bracing, now sounded stale, tactlessly assertive and masculinist. No one was going to ask this question in so many words, but did irony even have a place in literature any longer?

In a marvellous flight of inspirational fancy in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting Kundera describes two kinds of laughter: the Devil’s, which denies “all rational meaning to God’s world”, and which by its very maliciousness permits “a greater latitude in living”; and the Angel’s, which is no laughter at all, but a horrible fabrication of it, declaring the beauty and goodness of everything on earth.

Once a longing for unitary meaning turns into a cult or ideology of that meaning — as Soviet Communism was — any dissenter from that cult becomes its enemy. To cancel, in our culture, is to deny such dissent the space to breath in.

“I too danced in a ring,” Kundera writes. “It was the spring of 1948.” That has the wistful tone of a confession — an allowance that the yearning to join such a dance is inescapable if you are young — albeit the confession of someone who dances in a ring no longer. 1948 was the year of the Communist coup d’etat in Czechoslovakia. A time of victorious celebration if you were of the Angel’s party, and for that short time, who wasn’t?

You held hands, your hearts overflowing with joy, and danced in a ring of perfect unanimity. It might remind us of the rapturous welcome Jeremy Corbyn was given in Glastonbury by thousands upon thousands of popular music orgiasts, already gathered to dance in a giant ring, and for whom adding Corbyn to their objects of unquestioning worship was a small step. Kundera’s dancers, “fleeing rest and sleep, outstripping time”, finally grow wings and soar above the earthly Prague. The fantasy that buoys them is the same fantasy that briefly enabled Corbyn’s supporters to believe they were flying.

Discussing the surprising omission of Kundera and his long-time admirer Philip Roth from the list of Nobel Prize winners, the French Philosopher Alain Finkielkraut speculates that the charge of misogyny levelled at both writers has something to do with it. “The Stockholm jury was ‘woke’ before the word appeared,” he says. I wish to stay out of using ‘woke’. Words when they come with poisoned tips promote hostility, not accommodation. We all have our sore spots.

Myself, I bridle at expressions of anti-Semitism. On the other hand, I don’t think even the clearest evidence of it in this or that novelist’s work disqualifies them as novelists. A ferocious, convicted anti-Semite the French writer Céline might have been, but he wrote a couple of fine novels. He made us see the world as we previously had not. Sometimes, in the discomfort we feel reading or looking, is to be found art’s true purpose.

The Communist Party of Czechoslovakia weakened itself when it airbrushed out Valdimir Clementis but kept his hat. To cancel is to forget, and to forget diminishes not only the forgotten but the forgetter. It is also, as Kundera’s great novel demonstrates, to forgo the liberation there is in laughter — laughter not as the Angels understood it but as the all-disparaging Devil did — the power to question and criticise and scorn, to leave the dance of shared conviction and refuse the ecstatic fantasy of flight.

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