Want to read with me? Follow this link to view the list and pick a book (or a few!) to read along with me. I'd love for this project to be collaborative, and will post anyone's thoughts beside my own.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

What does this mad myth signify?

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Like Love in the Time of Cholera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being is an unconventional* love story. We follow the lives of several pairings of lovers, blending their perspectives on life, death, love, and everything in between. The Prague Spring and Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia provide the backdrop to our story, and its personal and political ramifications play out in the lives of the characters. Kundera paints a contemplative portrait of existence, and his protagonists illustrate his metaphysical musings.

* As in Cholera, love flows not simply from one person to another but from one, to another, to a third, back to the first, and so on and so on. Below is a breakdown of the various marriages and affairs by pairing:

{Tereza + [Tomas} + {Sabina] + [Franz} + Marie-Claude]
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

I really enjoyed this novel, though I wasn't sure what I would think of it at first. My sister, Diana, was less than whelmed by it, and we traditionally have similar tastes, but as always, I tried to open my mind and heart to the book, and when I did, I was pleasantly surprised. Kundera strikes a tender balance between the philosophical treatise and traditional novel, and his characters flesh out his mental quandaries in a way that I found organic and beautiful. Like Cholera, I'd suggest patience with this one if you're planning to read or have read and didn't get through. It took time for me to feel out the flow of it, and its rhythm was not immediately apparent.

- On this life being our only go-round
"We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come." Kundera comes back to this theme with some frequency. I loved the idea that we can't weigh our lives against other versions of them, or make changes and try again, because this is the only one we have. 

- On compassion
"Not even one's own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes." Tomas is tortured by Tereza's bad dreams at one point, and realizes that he could withstand violence against the rest of the country and the world (to his horror) but her grief and pain from her dreams is unbearable.

- Reading a book is the best first move
"He had an open book on his table. In Tereza's eyes, books were the emblems of a secret brotherhood." Tereza falls for Tomas when he's the only one reading at the restaurant she works at. I loved this moment because more often than not, I'm the one with my nose in a book. Maybe all I need to do to find my Tomas is read at restaurants more often! ;)

- On cutting novels some slack and seeing the small things in our own lives more
"It is wrong, then, to chide the novel for being fascinated by mysterious coincidences (like the meeting of Anna, Vronsky, the railway station, and death or the meeting of Beethoven, Tomas, Tereza, and the cognac), but it is right to chide man for being blind to such coincidences in his daily life. For he thereby deprives his life of a dimension of beauty." Kundera points out that while novels seem to be rife with coincidences and fortuitous events, our own lives possess them as well, and in our need to see novels as fiction, we preclude ourselves from seeing the chance moments in our own lives. Open your eyes to these moments more - maybe you'll be surprised by their poignancy!

- On the Russian invasion
-- "Photographers...preserve the face of violence for the distant future." I loved this line - Tereza and Sabina are both photographers, and they record the events of the Prague Spring and Russian invasion. In today's world, photographs are an assumed artifact of our existence; they provide incontrovertible proof of an event's occurrence. What would we believe more deeply from 200 or 2,000 years ago if we had photographs of everything? Might those photographs keep us from repeating mistakes?
-- "The Russian invasion was not only a tragedy; it was a carnival of hate filled with a curious (and no longer explicable) euphoria."
-- "It is a tragicomic fact that our proper upbringing has become an ally of the secret police. We do not know how to lie." The political upheaval of Prague was intertwined with the characters' lives in an understated, yet fascinating way. I thought this line was a perfect illustration of Kundera's self-reflective narration and this pairing of the personal and political.

- Living abroad
"Being in a foreign country means walking a tightrope high above the ground without the net afforded a person by the country where he has his family, colleagues, and friends, and where he can easily say what he has to say in a language he has known from childhood." I found this such a poignant depiction of living in another country - when I lived in France, I felt much like Tereza after she moved to Switzerland. I've often bemoaned the fact that among other things, I lost my sense of humor - I wasn't fluent enough in French to be funny, or tell a humorous story. It's a tenuous balance, blending the joy of experiencing such newness and feeling so removed from the familiar.

- 'Words Misunderstood'
Kundera includes a "words misunderstood" section to describe the disconnect in Franz and Sabina's relationship. It was one of my favorite parts of the novel. Here's an example:

  • Sabina: "When the sun goes down, the cemetery sparkles with tiny candles. It looks as though the dead are dancing at a children's ball... No matter how brutal life becomes, peace always reigns in the cemetery...against a backdrop of blue hills, they were as beautiful as a lullaby." This is how I feel about cemeteries. I still remember Père Lachaise in Paris and its meandering elegance, the gatekeeper for the likes of Balzac, Chopin, Modigliani, and Proust.
  • Franz: "For Franz, a cemetery was an ugly dump of stones and bones."
Later, after they've separated, Sabina comes to see Franz's point of view on things more, and Kundera writes:
"Perhaps if they had stayed together longer, Sabina and Franz would have begun to understand the words they used. Gradually, timorously, their vocabularies would have come together, like bashful lovers, and the music of one would have begun to intersect with the music of the other." What an exquisite sentence.

- Karenin (love, and a bit wiv a dog)
Hands down, the most heartbreaking moment (SPOILER ALERT! I know, it's out of place - Sorry!) was when Karenin, Tomas and Tereza's dog, dies. They euthanize him at home, and the last few weeks they share with him as he's dying are heartrending. Here are a few of my favorite lines about him (actually, he's a she, but they decide that Karenin is the most appropriate fit for him from Anna K, which Tereza was reading at the time. I don't know anyone that gives a pet the wrong gendered name (AHEM. Harvey.):

- "Lately, Tereza realized, she positively enjoyed being welcomed into the day by Karenin. Waking up was sheer delight for him: he always showed a naïve and simple amusement at the discovery that he was back on earth; he was sincerely pleased. She, on the other hand, awoke with great reluctance, with a desire to stave off the day by keeping her eyes closed." This is exactly how I feel about my cat, Suzy. She's delighted to get up each day, if for no other reason than to badger me into consciousness, while I (and my chronic sleep apnea) feel a bit more like this Brad Pitt line from Ocean's Twelve: "Are you suicidal?" "Only in the morning."

- "Her home was Karenin, not Tomas. Who would wind the clock of their days when he was gone?" When Tomas and Tereza were getting ready to put Karenin down (Tomas is a doctor until he's forced to abandon his career due to persecution by the secret police), it reminded me of a time I took Suzy to the vet about a year ago. I was sitting in the waiting room with her in her travel carrier, and when I looked across the lobby, I saw a couple holding their cat in their laps. I was confused, and immediately thought that maybe they were a new-agey couple, and that they felt the carrier was too confining for their kitty. I didn't think much more of it, and went in with Suzy for her appointment. When I came out toting Suzy, the couple was standing next to the receptionist and weeping. Their arms were empty. Only then did I realize that they didn't bring a carrier because they were bringing their cat to be put down. On the way back home, I told Suzy profusely how much I loved her, and how sorry I felt for that couple. I also promptly told my rooommate, Josh, how great it was that that would never be a problem with Suzy because she was Never Going to Die. (#isn'tdenialthebest?) I Could tell you that I didn't weep uncontrollably when Karenin died. I could Also tell you I have three heads and a million dollars in the bank.

- On characters
Like Proust, Kundera pontificates about writing while he's writing. Some people probably find this very pretentious, but I find it's the moment when I feel most connected to an author. Here are a few of my favorite moments like this from the book:
--"Characters are not born like people, of woman; they are born of a situation, a sentence, a metaphor containing in a nutshell a basic human possibility that the author thinks no one else has discovered or said something essential about."
--"The characters in my novels are all 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."

Sentences that struck me:
  • "Tomas lived under the hypnotic spell cast by the excruciating beauty of Tereza's dreams."
  • "Looking out over the courtyard at the dirty walls, he realized he had no idea whether it was hysteria or love."
  • "The beauty of New York rests on a completely different base. It's unintentional. It arose independent of human design, like a stalagmitic cavern." -- in other words, "Beauty by mistake."
  • "What does it mean to live in truth?"
In the last scene of the book, we experience the night before Tomas and Tereza die. (Sorry, I know I'm spoiling all over the place. It's no use crying over spoiled spoiler alerts, now is it?) We know they're going to die because we've already heard the news earlier in the novel, and Tereza suspects that their end is near. It was one of my favorite moments in the novel, so I'll leave you with it.

"On they danced to the strains of the piano and violin. Tereza leaned her head on Tomas's shoulder. Just as she had when they flew together in the airplane through the storm clouds. She was experiencing the same odd happiness and the odd sadness as then. The sadness meant: we are at the last station. The happiness meant: we are together."

Onwards to Hocus Pocus, Practical Magic, pumpkins and midnight margaritas! I'll be back with An Invocation for Lewis Nicepants. Adieu!

Friday, October 11, 2013

Little by little the fragrance of Fermina Daza became less frequent and less intense, and at last it remained only in white gardenias.

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Love in the Time of Cholera is a love story, but not in the traditional sense. It spans decades (over half a century, in fact) and tells both of the all-consuming passion of the bloom of young love and the more subdued, but no less powerful magnetism of companionship and shared lifetimes. We follow the lives of Fermina Daza, a young daughter of a sketchy businessman in South America, Florentino Ariza, the eclectic son of a notions merchant, and Dr. Juvenal Urbino, a second-generation aristocrat and enterprising doctor. The book begins with the death of Dr. Urbino after nearly 50 years of marriage to Fermina Daza, and traces back to the love affair between Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza that predates her marriage, and begins anew after her husband's death. Love emerges in both classic and entirely unexpected ways, in various iterations and permutations. The end result is not, therefore, a straightforward, linear tale of two lovers, but a stunning portrayal of love in all its forms.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

I loved this book. If you know me personally and you've chatted with me while I was reading the earlier stages of the book, you know that I wasn't wild about it when I first started it. But, much like Hemingway's novels, the book crept up on me. The language was undeniably magnificent, and the imagery sublime, but it wasn't until over halfway through that I felt the poignant tenderness of Florentino Ariza's unswerving passion for Fermina Daza, and her complicated path of maturity and journey to motherhood and beyond. If you haven't read it, I'd highly recommend it. I do recommend you enter into the book with an open mind, and perhaps even more importantly, a good dose of patience.

- Dr. Urbino's library (#iwantit)
"But no other room displayed the meticulous solemnity of the library, the sanctuary of Dr. Urbino until old age carried him off. There, all around his father's walnut desk and the tufted leather easy chairs, he had lined the walls and even the windows with shelves behind glass doors, and had arranged in an almost demented order the three thousand volumes bound in identical calfskin with his initials in gold on the spines. Unlike the other rooms, which were at the mercy of noise and foul winds from the port, the library always enjoyed the tranquillity and fragrance of an abbey." As a side-note, Florentino Ariza is also an avid reader, but since he isn't as well off as Dr. Urbino until much later in his life, it says Florentino lovingly sewed his novels into cardboard covers. What a sweetheart. <3 adorable="" i="">

- Universality
I am always most struck by the moments in books that seem piercingly relevant to life today. Dr. Urbino and Fermina Daza have a big fight after several very calm years of marriage, and, as is often the case, the fight is not over anything substantial, but in fact, over whether or not Fermina Daza had remembered to restock the soap. I loved the moment when, after an extended period of being confined to another room each night, Dr. Urbino falls asleep on their bed, and when Fermina Daza tries to shake him awake and send him off, he finally relents, and just mumbles, "Let me stay here, there was soap." :)

- Florentino Ariza, when he sees Fermina Daza on Christmas Eve
"In the din of fireworks and native drums, of colored lights in the doorways and the clamor of the crowd yearning for peace, Florentino Ariza wandered like a sleepwalker until dawn, watching the fiesta through his tears, dazed by the hallucination that it was he and not God who had been born that night."

- Love without speaking (Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza (the first time around)
"It was the year they fell into devastating love. Neither one could do anything except think about the other, dream about the other, and wait for letters with the same impatience they felt when they answered them. Never in that delirious spring, or in the following year, did they have the opportunity to speak to each other."Can you imagine falling in love with someone in this day and age and not being able to speak to them for over a year? 

- Soul crushing agony - when young Fermina Daza rejects young Florentino Ariza
"Now, instead of the commotion of love, she felt the abyss of disenchantment. In an instant the magnitude of her own mistake was revealed to her, and she asked herself, appalled, how she could have nurtured such a chimera in her heart for so long and with so much ferocity. She just managed to think: My God, poor man! Florentino Ariza smiled, tried to say something, tried to follow her, but she erased him from her life with a wave of her hand."  and later, "Today when I saw you, I realized that what is between us is nothing more than an illusion." I died a little in my heart when this happened. I knew the passion of their youthful amour was too effusive to last, but I never expected her to totally rescind her affection! 

- 51 years, 9 months, and 4 days
is how long Florentino Ariza waits to re-confess his love for Fermina Daza. I'm not sure there's anything in my life I would wait 51 years for. Maybe if you told me I could have a million dollars in 51 years, or a super-fantastic house, or a multi-year vacation across the globe. But still, I'm not sure. 51 years is a Long, Long time.

- Fermina Daza's cousin, Hildebranda, on meeting the newly spurned Florentino Ariza
"He is ugly and sad, but he is all love." possibly my favorite description of a protagonist ever.

Florentino Ariza's appearance: "The only area in which he persisted in defying time and fashion was in his somber attire, his anachronistic frock coats, his unique hat, the poet's string ties from his mother's notions shop, his sinister umbrella." I could just picture Florentino Ariza, standing in today's relentless rain, staring back at me and clutching his sinister umbrella.

- Letters from Florentino
"This was the period when he spent his free time int he Arcade of the Scribes, helping unlettered lovers to write their scented love notes, in order to unburden his heart of all the words of love that he could not use in customs reports." Florentino has too much love to know what to do with, so he starts writing love letters for other people. Amusingly enough, this leads to him writing both sides of some love affairs:
 "and so it was that he became involved in a feverish correspondence with himself."hehe, oh, Florentino. such a romantic!

- Florentino, on a love letter wooing Fermina Daza after the death of her husband
"It had to be a mad dream, one that would give her the courage she would need to discard the prejudices of a class that had not always been hers but had become hers more than anyone's. It had to teach her to think of love as a state of grace: not the means to anything but the alpha and omega, an end in itself."

- Love is love at any age. Take that, Ofelia!
Ofelia Urbino Daza (Fermina Daza and Dr. Urbino's daughter), to her brother, on her mother's late blooming affection for Florentino Ariza: "Love is ridiculous at our age, but at theirs it is revolting."

Fermina Daza's response: "The only thing that hurts me is that I do not have the strength to give you the beating you deserve for being insolent and evil-minded. But you will leave this house right now, and I swear to you on my mother's grave that you will not set foot in it again as long as I live." that's right, Fermina Daza! you tell her!

- On Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza
Fermina Daza, and Florentino's hope that she may have room to love him after all his waiting: "She began to speak of her dead husband in the present tense, as if he were alive, and Florentino Ariza knew then that for her, too, the time had come to ask herself with dignity, with majesty, with an irrepressible desire to live, what she should do with the love that had been left behind without a master."

- Don't worry, it's not cholera - it's love
When Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza finally get together (in their seventies), they sail on a riverboat full of companions. The trip to their destination is fine (they're in the early stages of companionship), but they're horrified by the public nature of the audience they would need to share their love with on their return, so Florentino Ariza, who runs the riverboat company, tells the captain to fly the boat home with a cholera flag (which suggests the ship is quarantined, and would require only Florentino Ariza, Fermina Daza, and critical crew members on the ship).
- "If such things were done for so many immoral, even contemptible reasons, Florentino Ariza could not see why it would not be legitimate to do them for love."
- "During the day they played cards, ate until they were bursting, took gritty siestas that left them exhausted, and as soon as the sun was down the orchestra began to play, and they had anisette with salmon until they could eat and drink no more." sounds perfect to me!

My favorite passage in the whole book, on Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza together (at last) in their seventies:
"It was as if they had leapt over the arduous calvary of conjugal life and gone straight to the heart of love. They were together in silence like an old married couple wary of life, beyond the pitfalls of passion, beyond the brutal mockery of hope and the phantoms of disillusion: beyond love. For they had lived together long enough to know that love was always love, anytime and anyplace, but it was more solid the closer it came to death."

Particularly Pleasing Passages
  • "In summer an invisible dust as harsh as red-hot chalk was blown into even the best-protected corners of the imagination by mad winds that took the roofs off the houses and carried away children through the air."
  • on Florentino Ariza's serenades: "One of his favorite spots was the paupers' cemetery, exposed to the sun and the rain on an indigent hill, where turkey buzzards dozed and the music achieved a supernatural resonance. Later he learned to recognize the direction of the winds, and in this way he was certain that his melody carried as far as it had to."
  • on daily life at a brothel where Florentino made an unusual number of friends (just regular friends, readers - he had plenty of special friends while he waited for Fermina Daza, but oddly enough not at the brothel): "It was a daily fiesta that lasted until dusk, when the naked women marched, singing, toward the bathrooms, asked to borrow soap, toothbrushes, scissors, cut each other's hair, dressed in borrowed clothes, painted themselves like lugubrious clowns, and went out to hunt the first prey of the night. Then life in the house became impersonal and dehumanized, and it was impossible to share in it without paying."
  • on Fermina Daza and her father's return home from their journey: "Fermina Daza was no longer the only child, both spoiled and tyrannized by her father, but the lady and mistress of an empire of dust and cobwebs that could be saved only by the strength of invincible love."
  • Dr. Juvenal Urbino, trying to fall asleep the night after his return 'home' from school in Paris: "He was tormented by the hallucinating screams of the madwomen in the Divine Shepherdess Asylum next door, the harsh dripping from the water jar into the washbasin which resonated throughout the house, the long-legged steps of the curlew wandering in his bedroom, his congenital fear of the dark, and the invisible presence of his dead father in the vast sleeping mansion."
  • "Then there was such a diaphanous silence that despite the disorder of the birds and the syllables of water on stone, one could hear the desolate breath of the sea."
  • "From time to time, fragments of fugitive voices escaped through open balconies, bedroom confidences, sobs of love magnified by phantasmal acoustics and the hot fragrance of jasmine in the narrow, sleeping streets."
  • on Fermina Daza and Dr. Urbino's marriage: "Together they had overcome the daily incomprehension, the instantaneous hatred, the reciprocal nastiness and fabulous flashes of glory in the conjugal conspiracy."
  • "The wind from the Caribbean blew in the windows along with the racket made by the birds, and Fermina Daza felt in her blood the wild beating of her free will."
May you feel your free will beating in your blood and feel the wind at your back. Onwards to The Intolerable Heaviness of Existence. Join me if you please!