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Authors: Milan Kundera

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Life Is Elsewhere

BOOK: Life Is Elsewhere
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FICTION

Tender and unsparing.... Life Is Elsewhere is a remarkable portrait of an artist as a young man.” —Newsweek

The author initially intended to call this novel The Lyrical Age. The lyrical age, according to Kundera, is youth, and this novel, above all, is an epic of adolescence; an ironic epic that tenderly erodes sacrosanct values: childhood, motherhood, revolution, and even poetry. Jaromil is in fact a poet. His mother made him a poet and accompanies him (figuratively) to his love bed and (literally) to his deathbed. A ridiculous and touching character, horrifying and totally innocent ("innocence with its bloody smile"!), Jaromil is at the same time a true poet. He's no creep, he's Rimbaud. Rimbaud entrapped by the communist revolution, entrapped in a somber farce.

 

"Along with Don Quixote and Madame Bovary, Life Is Elsewhere is perhaps the harshest work ever written against poetry. . . . Poetry as the last hiding place of God." —From the postface by Francois Ricard to the French edition

 

"Once again we observe the narrator's cool wit probe and peel away layers of self-delusion and masquerade. . . . Kundera offers a very special blend of sympathy and cynicism, irony and affability, that is unmatched in our literature." —Book Week

 

"A sly and merciless lampoon of revolutionary romanticism. . . . Kundera commits some of the funniest literary savaging since Evelyn Waugh polished off Dickens in A Handful of Dust." —Time "I will say no more about this lacerating book except to urge it upon all who care about literature in our difficult era." —Boston Globe

 

Perennial    ISBN 0-06-099702-8

 

Life Is Elsewhere

 

Originally written in Czech under the title Zivot je jinde; translated into French under the title La vie est ailleurs. Copyright © 1973 by Milan Kundera. French translation copyright © 1973 by Editions Gallimard. An English translation first published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, 1976. French translation revised by Milan Kundera, copyright © 1985, 1987 by Editions Gallimard.

FIRST EDITION

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Kundera, Milan.

[Zivot je jinde. English]

Life is elsewhere/[Milan Kundera]; translated from the French by Aaron Asher. p. cm. Written first in Czech; published in French as La vie est ailleurs. ISBN 0-06-099702-8 I. Asher, Aaron.

 

Contents

Part 1 The Poet Is Born

Part 2 Xavier

Part 3 The Poet Masturbates

Part 4 The Poet Runs

Part 5 The Poet Is Jealous

Part 6 The Man in His Forties

Part 7 The Poet Dies

Authours note

 

 

PART ONE

The Poet Is Born

1

When the poet's mother wondered where the poet had been conceived, there were only three possibilities to consider: a park bench one night, the apartment of a friend of the poet's father one afternoon, a romantic spot outside Prague late one morning.

When the poet's father asked himself the same question, he concluded that the poet had been conceived in his friend's apartment, for on that day everything had gone wrong.

The poet's mother had refused to go to the friend's place, they had quarreled about it twice and reconciled twice, and while they were making love the door lock of the adjoining apartment rasped, the poet's mother took fright, they broke off, and then they resumed lovemaking and finished in a state of mutual tension to which his father attributed the poet's conception.

The poet's mother, on the other hand, never admitted that the poet had been conceived in a borrowed apartment (she was repelled by the bachelor's untidiness, by rumpled sheets and pajamas on a stranger's bed), and she also rejected the possibility that he had been conceived on a park bench, where she had let herself be persuaded to make love, reluctantly and without pleasure, thinking with disgust of the prostitutes who made love this way on such benches. So she became absolutely convinced that the poet had been conceived on a sunny summer morning in the shelter of a huge boulder that stood with sublime pathos among the other boulders in a small valley where the people of Prague liked to stroll on Sundays.

For several reasons this setting is an appropriate place for the poet's conception: in the late morning sun it is a setting of light rather than darkness, day rather than night; it is in the middle of open nature, thus a place from which to take wing; and finally, though not very far from the apartment buildings on the city's outskirts, it is a romantic landscape strewn with boulders looming out of wildly rough terrain. For the poet's mother all this seemed to express what she was experiencing at the time. Wasn't her great love for the poet's father a romantic rebellion against the dullness and regularity of her parents' life? Wasn't there a hidden likeness between the untamed landscape and the boldness she, the daughter of a rich merchant, showed in choosing a penniless engineer who had just finished his studies?

And so the poet's mother was living a great love, despite the disappointment that followed a few weeks after the beautiful morning at the foot of the boulder. When she disclosed to her lover, with joyous excitement, that the intimate indisposition that monthly disturbed her life was several days overdue, the engineer asserted with appalling indifference (but, it seems to me, a feigned and ill-at-ease indifference) that it was an insignificant disruption of her cycle, which would soon resume its benign rhythm. The poet's mother, perceiving that her lover refused to share her joyous hopes, was hurt, and she stopped talking to him until the day the doctor confirmed her pregnancy. The poet's father said that he knew a gynecologist who would discreetly relieve her of her worries, and she burst into tears.

The poignant end of rebellions! First she rebelled against her parents for the sake of the young engineer, and then she ran to her parents for help against him. Her parents didn't let her down: they spoke plainly to the engineer, who clearly understood that there was no way out, agreed to an ostentatious wedding, and readily accepted a sizable dowry that would enable him to establish his own construction business; then he packed his belongings into a couple of suitcases and moved into the villa his new wife had lived in with her parents from the day she was born.

The engineer's prompt capitulation, however, couldn't hide from the poet's mother that the adventure she had precipitated herself into with a heedlessness she found sublime was not the great shared love she believed she had a full right to. Her father was the owner of two flourishing shops in Prague, and the daughter's morality was that of balanced accounts; since she had invested everything in love (she had been ready to betray her own parents and their peaceful home), she wanted her partner to invest an equal amount of feeling in their joint account. Striving to redress the injustice, she wanted to withdraw from the joint account the affection she had deposited there, and after the wedding she presented a haughty and severe face to her husband.

The poet's mother's sister had recently left the family villa (she had married and rented an apartment in the center of Prague) and so the old retail merchant and his wife lived on the ground floor and the engineer and their daughter above them in the three rooms—two large and one smaller—furnished exactly the way they were twenty years before when the villa was built. Acquiring an entirely furnished home was a rather good deal for the engineer, because he really owned nothing but the contents of the aforementioned two suitcases; nonetheless, he suggested some small changes in the appearance of the rooms. But the poet's mother didn't allow the man who had wanted to put her under the knife of a gynecologist to dare disrupt the time-honored arrangement of rooms that harbored the spirit of her parents, twenty years of sweet routine, and mutual intimacy and safety.

This time, too, the young engineer capitulated without a struggle, permitting himself only a moderate protest, which I note: in the couple's bedroom there was a small tabletop of heavy gray marble on which stood a statuette of a naked man; in his left hand the man was holding a lyre against his plump hip; his right arm was bent in a pathetic gesture as if the fingers had just struck the strings; the right leg was extended forward, the head slightly inclined, and the eyes turned toward the sky. Let me add that the man had an extremely beautiful face, that he had curly hair, and that the whiteness of the alabaster from which the statuette had been sculpted gave the figure something tenderly feminine or divinely virginal; it's not, moreover, by chance that I use the word "divinely": according to the inscription carved on the pedestal, the man with the lyre was the Greek god Apollo.

But the poet's mother could rarely look at the man with the lyre without being angered. Most of the time it was his rear end that faced the onlooker, and sometimes he served as a peg for the engineer's hat or a shoe was hung from his fine head or a smelly sock of the engineer's stretched over him, the latter a particularly odious defilement of the master of the Muses.

That the poet's mother was impatient with all this was not solely due to her meager sense of humor: she had in fact correctly guessed that with the buffoonery of putting a sock over Apollo's body her husband was letting her know what he politely hid from her with his silence: that he rejected her world and had only temporarily submitted to it.

Thus the alabaster object truly became an ancient god, that is, a supernatural being who intervenes in the human world, schemes, scrambles destinies, reveals mysteries. The newlywed wife regarded him as her ally, her dreamy femininity transforming him into a living creature whose eyes at times took on the colors of illusory irises and whose mouth seemed to draw breath. She fell in love with the naked little man, who was being humiliated for and because of her. Gazing at his lovely face she began to hope that the child growing in her belly would resemble this handsome foe of her husband's. She wanted the resemblance to be so strong that she would be able to imagine the child as this young man's rather than her husbands; she implored him to use his magical powers to rectify the fetus's features, to transform and transfigure them as the great Titian once did when he painted a masterpiece over a bungler's spoiled canvas.

Instinctively modeling herself on the Virgin Mary, who became a mother without the intervention of a human begetter and thus the ideal of maternal love without a father's troublemaking interference, she felt a provocative desire to name her child Apollo, a name that to her meant "he who has no human father." But she knew that her son would have a hard time with such a pretentious name and that it would make both him and her a laughingstock. So she looked for a Czech name that would be worthy of a young Greek god and came up with Jaromil (which means "he who loves spring" or "he who is beloved by spring"), and this choice was approved by everyone.

Moreover, it was spring and the lilacs were blooming when they drove her to the hospital; there, after some hours of suffering, the young poet slipped out of her onto the soiled sheet of the world.

 

2

Then they put the poet into a crib next to her bed and she heard the delightful cries; her aching body was filled with pride. Let's not begrudge her body that pride; until then it had not experienced it, even though it was well built: it did have a rather inexpressive rump and the legs were a bit too short, but the bosom, on the other hand, was unusually youthful, and beneath the fine hair (so fine it was difficult to set) a face that may not have been dazzling but had an unobtrusive charm.

Mama had always been more conscious of her unob-trusiveness than of her charm, all the more since she had lived since infancy with an older sister who was an outstanding dancer, was clothed by Prague's best couturier, and tennis racket in hand, moved easily in the world of elegant men, turning her back on the parental home. The flashy impetuosity of her sister confirmed Mama's sullen modesty, and in protest she learned to love the emotional gravity of books and music.

BOOK: Life Is Elsewhere
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