Title: Life Is Elsewhere
Author: Milan Kundera
Milan Kundera belongs to the group of twentieth century authors whose careers were greatly hindered by the weight of their albatrosses. Think of Joseph Heller and Catch-22, Vladimir Nabokov with Lolita or Anthony Burgess with A Clockwork Orange: all were authors with fine bodies of work that went largely unacknowledged except by ardent bibliophiles, while just one of their creations (often not even their best) gained enormous fame and notoriety. With Milan Kundera, he’s inevitably eclipsed by The Unbearable Lightness of Being. In some ways, that book has become highly incorporated into pop-culture, partially because of the Daniel-Day Lewis movie, but also because reading it seems to be a rite of passage for hipster intellectuals. His other books are harder to incorporate into western culture, partially because they deal so much with what Eastern European has to live with. For instance, his novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is an absolutely wonderful read, but because it deals so much with Czech history, I can’t see it being turned into an art-house film or something to brag about reading at a party. Within his work, Life is Elsewhere, along with Slowness, are more overlooked than the others because of their levity. Again this is unfortunate, which is why I insisted on writing up this review.
Life is Elsewhere is Kundera’s brazen send-up of the world of poetry, particularly the world of poets who involve themselves with politics. It follows in the tradition of the nineteenth century novel where your given the main character’s life from birth onwards, although it does cut out portions, a la A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The main character is Jaromil, a man who has a painfully awkward childhood (complete with a few hysterically funny scenes) who grows up to believe he’s destined to be a poet. This isn’t the sort of vaunted or glorified view of artistry that you get with Somerset Maugham; Jaromil does on occasion make himself out to be a martyr for his artistry, but what’s so scathingly delightful about this novel is how the author exposes the foolishness of this posturing. As the novel progresses, Jaromil becomes more and more of a pretentious and foppish artist while imagining himself to be a literary hero. Things take a dark turn when he involves himself and his writing in the political turmoil of his era.
It’s rumored that Kundera based Jaromil loosely on Paul Eluard. I’d read somewhere that Kundera greatly admired Eluard, but then found out Eluard was involved in incriminating another man for the communists. Within the pages, if you read into it, it seems Kundera is using the story as a way to justify his own choice to leave the Czech Republic long ago for France and to criticize the excesses of the communist party from a safe distance, rather than conform and become a propagandist for his own country.
Bottom Line: Life Is Elsewhere is a funny, accessible book I’d highly recommend to fans of Kundera, or people who enjoy a good satire with a dark edge. I’d say this one’s worth buying if you’re library doesn’t carry it.