Whenever I’m asked, “What’s your favorite…” I have a lot of trouble answering. I’m like Julie Andrews singing about raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens… followed by 47 other favorites. I feel this way about films (my general response on, “What’s your favorite movie?” is, “It depends on my mood.”), music (it’s cliche to say the Beatles are my favorite band, but they are my favorite rock band of all time… please note the modifiers), food (other than “sustainably raised” I probably don’t have a favorite per se), or book.
I always liked to play “desert island discs,” which evolved from “desert island records,” and probably is as vague a reference to the under-30 set as “fax it to this number.” In DID, you picked the 10 or so albums you just couldn’t live without, the joke being everyone had the White Album in their stash (although, for the record, I prefered Abbey Road). The point was that you didn’t have to live with only one favorite; you got to keep a handful.
However, if I were forced to pick my one and only favorite book, I know that it would be Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.
First off, a word about Mr. Kundera. I’ve never done literary analysis of his work, but I’ve no doubt an entire semester could be filled studying him. I’m sure many a thesis has been written discussing the myriad of themes that he tackles in his work. What I love most about Mr. Kundera’s writing is that it cannot be classified. Truly. It gets lumped in as “fiction,” but there’s philosophy and (maybe, probably) autobiography, sometimes real biography, history, comedy, and a great deal of non-fiction particularly as regards politics, music and art. And there’s sex. A lot of sex.
Mr. Kundera doesn’t write porn or even erotica. I wish my book, The Truth, which I’m proofing now for the paperback edition (hope to have it out next week), could write sex as well as Mr. Kundera does. His work has been an incredible influence on my writing, however, even if I delve into greater prurience than he would undoubtedly approve. I would like to believe, however, if Mr. Kundera were to get his hands on my book, he would at least give me a nod that I’m on the right track. (He’s kind of the French J.D. Salinger, so no one really knows where he is or what he’s writing these days.) Born of the same revolution that inspired Ayn Rand, Mr. Kundera was a staunch communist in the former Czechoslovakia until the party ousted him and banned his books. Thus, many of Mr. Kundera’s stories are set in the Czech Republic, although some of his later works (written in his adopted homeland and language) take place in France or other parts of Western Europe.
Perhaps it is my background in Russian or my time spent living in the USSR that makes Mr. Kundera’s work so appealing to me, but I honestly think my passion for his work is because Mr. Kundera is a writer’s writer. He cares more about writing than he does about the reader “getting” what he wrote. He shifts between styles and tenses, points of view be damned, words flowing like caramel across the page, dripping with tantalizing sweetness that dares you to take in so much that your stomach will ache as a result.
And his characters are among the most human ever put down on paper. There are no “heroes” or “antiheroes.” There are simply sketches of humanity that seem all the more real for what is not written down. Mr. Kundera may be writing for himself, but he engages a reader so utterly and completely that you could read and re-read his works for all eternity and find something new each and every time, in large part because the human imagination has no limit. Mr. Kundera is among a very few living authors who seem to write for a dwindling population of readers still in possession of some semblance of imagination.
I’ve recommended The Book of Laughter and Forgetting to several people who read it and told me it was the worst thing they’d ever read, only to come back a week or month later to admit that the book stuck with them, making them reevaluate everything they had ever thought. In the interim, these readers came to appreciate the beauty of this book that cannot be shoehorned into a Library of Congress call number and do it justice. It’s a work that lingers long after the last page is read.