Tag-Archive for ◊ beloved wife ◊

Author:
• Friday, June 14th, 2013

Milan Kundera was born in 1929 in Brno, the Czech Republic, from a middle class family. His father was a musicologist and a pianist. Milan learned to play the piano from his father and later studied musicology and musical composition.

Kundera finished secondary school in 1948. He then studied literature and aesthetics at the Faculty of Arts at Charles University in Prague for two terms, before transferring to the Film Academy to learn film direction and script writing. He graduated in 1952 and worked as lecturer in world literature at the Film Academy.

He joined the communist party in 1948 like several intellectual Czechoslovaks of the time. He was expelled from the party two years later, for having “unorthodox inclinations”. However he rejoined the party again in 1956 and was discharged once more in the seventies.

Kundera’s works were banned and he was dismissed from his teaching job by the Czechoslovak communist regime after taking part in the short-lived liberalisation movement of 1967-1968.

In 1975 Kundera and his wife left Czechoslovakia for France, where he was appointed guest professor at the University of Rennes. He was stripped of his Czechoslovak citizenship in 1979 and lived in exile in France, becoming a French citizen in 1981. Presently he lives with his wife in Paris.

He has written novels, a short story collection, a poetry collection, essays and drama. In 1985 he received the Jerusalem Prize and in 1987 won the Austrian State Prize for European Literature. In 2000 he was awarded the international Herder Prize and in 2007 he won the Czech State Literature Prize. He was made an honorary citizen of his own home town, Brno, in 2010 and received the Ovid Prize in 2011.

“Nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return”, says the long exiled Kundera at the beginning of his philosophical novel Ignorance. This sentence sets the main themes of the book which are: emigration, nostalgia, the longing for homecoming and the indifference that follows once back home as well as the deliberation on recollection and about human fallibility, creating a state of amnesia and ignorance. These are topics understandably close to the author’s heart, emigration being a first-hand experience for him.

Pregnant Irena, her husband Martin and their young daughter, leave their homeland, Czechoslovakia in 1969, one year after the Russian invasion, to seek refuge in Paris.

After twenty years of exile, Irena is now a mother of two daughters and a widow. With her new Swedish companion Gustaf, they decide to go back and live in the post-communist Czech Republic.
At Paris airport, while waiting for the Prague flight, her path crosses Josef – a short time heart-throb from adolescent days. He is also by coincidence, returning to his country for a brief visit after his wife’s death and twenty years of exile in Denmark.

The two uprooted protagonists, once back home after a long absence, are disillusioned to find their past forever gone. They don’t know how to pick up the threads. They come back to a completely transformed country from the one they remember, which no longer exists except in their own memories. They feel estranged in their native land among their compatriots and their families with whom they no longer have anything in common. They suffer through loss of identity as well as solitude for not fitting in with others.

Irena and Josef’ feel that their families and friends ignore them, as well as showing no interest in their lives in exile during the past twenty years. Irena, once in Prague, invites her friends and offers them an expensive French 1985 vintage Bordeaux wine but her friends who wanted “to teach (her) a lesson in patriotism” ask to drink beer instead. Irena believes that “rejecting the wine was rejecting her. She, as the person she is now, coming back after so many years…Either she succeeds in being among them as the person she has become, or else she won’t stay” because with their aloofness and disinterest in all she has been through abroad, they are erasing twenty years of her life.

Irena, on reflection, decides that her once beloved Prague of the old days is now completely alien to her. That is when she realises with assertion that she is more mature and wants to lead a life of her own and not stay in this city as it stands now. Her apprehension for the “Great Return” to the post-communist Czech Republic, occurs at the beginning of the book during her conversation with Parisian friend, Sylvie, who encourages her to go back home and reconnect with her past. After a short visit to Prague, Irena’s presentiment is proven to be correct – she no longer belongs to this new country.

Josef also feels the same as Irena and decides to go back to Denmark to continue living true to the memory of his deceased beloved wife. He was convinced after the disappointing visit to his older brother and his wife, followed by the visit to N., a Czech friend from forty years ago. To his surprise and sorrow, he discovers that neither his friend N. nor his wife are interested in his life and experiences during all his long years abroad. Josef discovers that even his mother tongue has become unfamiliar to his ears, as if it was “some unknown language”. He wonders what happened to Czech during these last two decades while he was away.

Just like Odysseus when he came back home after being tortured by his nostalgia and was eager to return to his beloved Ithaca after his long absence. To his great astonishment and affliction, he discovers “that his life, the very essence of his life, its centre, its treasure, lay outside Ithaca, in the twenty years of his wanderings. And this treasure he had lost and could retrieve only by telling about it”.

The several themes meditated, philosophically analysed at length and historically paralleled with Odysseus in the Odyssey, plus the inclusion of the Czech poet Jan Skacel, the Austrian composer and painter Arnold Schoenberg and the German writer,Thomas Mann, override the development of the one dimensional characters in the book. Kundera mentioned once during an interview, that the “unity” of a book can depend on its theme rather than on its plot.

The double erotic scenes at the end of the novel – between Irena and Josef on one side and her mother with Gustaf on the other, don’t enhance the story. They are gaudy and anticlimactic. They belittle the seriousness of the matters raised in the book, despite what the author says in one of his interviews that:“the erotic scene is the focus where all the themes of the story converge and where its deepest secrets are located”.

A very emotional, short, concentrated and thought provoking book. It analyses human weaknesses and therefore problems that touch many people today. These problems are unlikely to change because they have been with us since the dawn of time. Throughout the centuries, people have been pushed to emigration and homecoming with all that it entails.

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Author:
• Saturday, January 26th, 2013

Jay Parini was born in Pittston, Pennsylvania in 1948. He attended West Scranton High School and graduated from Lafayette College in 1970. After graduating in 1975 with a doctorate at Scotland’s University of St. Andrews, he taught at Dartmouth College from 1975 to 1982 and has continued teaching since then at Middlebury College in Vermont as an Axinn professor of English and Creative Writing.

Jay Parini has written several novels and poems as well as being a regular contributor of essays and reviews to various newspapers and journals. He is a scholar and a writer of poetry, fiction, non fiction, biographies, criticism and he has also edited many books. He has received awards as well as fellowships and his books have been translated into many languages.

He is married to psychologist, essayist and story writer, Devon Jersild, they have three sons and live in Weybridge, Vermont.

The Last Station, published in 1990, became a best seller and was adapted into a film released in 2009 which received two Oscar nominations.

The last Station is an interesting and ingenious mixture of fiction and biography. It’s based on real events and recounts the last year in the life of the most revered Russian writer, Leo Tolstoy, as imagined by Jay Parini who “still thinks of himself as essentially a Tolstoyan in his spiritual and political life”.

In an interview, Jay Parini remarked that he makes little difference between biographies and novels. He goes on to say that: “they both are works of fiction” and that fiction allows the writer “more freedom”, since the writer can imagine the motives by digging into the head and unconscious mind of a character.

The story of The Last Station is narrated alternately by the different main characters, each one giving his or her own perspective on the multiple facets of the eighty-two-year-old, Leo Tolstoy: his thoughts, his political convictions, his love of nature, his compassion for the poor, his religious beliefs, his meditations and his extreme moralistic and ascetic views. The reader follows him in this last agitated year of his life through his illness to his death in the small Astapovo railway station, while trying to escape his wife’s daily, unbearable harassment in the hope of spending his last days in peace. He is the main focus of the novel, is much admired, praised worldwide and has many disciples.

Each chapter in the novel represents a voice of a narrator which the author has interspersed with his own poems. There is Tolstoy’s wife, Sofya Andreyevna followed by Bulgakov, Tolstoy’s new and last secretary, then Tolstoy himself, his doctor, Makovitsky, his youngest daughter Sasha, who was also his secretary and Tolstoy’s biggest admirer, friend, disciple and promoter of his work, Chertkov. There are also extracts from Tolstoy’s letters and various diary entries.

Tolstoy’s married life seems to be an important and crucial issue in the novel. The wedlock which was once a passionate, sexual and intense love affair, ends in a stormily complex, disturbed and insufferable relationship. The sort of harmony which existed in the past between the couple is now broken for ever and beyond retrieve.

Sofya is an intelligent, cultured woman, a great lover of operas and a talented piano player. She is a loyal wife, a good mother and bears Tolstoy thirteen children. She provides valuable support for her husband throughout her married life. She looks after the finances of the household, works as his secretary correcting his novels and hand copied War and Peace several times. Now that she is nearly sixty-six-year-old, she feels threatened in her old age.

The indomitable Sofya has put up with her husband’s eccentricities all these years but can no longer accept his reasoning when it concerns her future security and protection. She feels angry and bitter towards her husband who seems to be plotting in secret with Chertkov to change his will. Sofya senses what’s happening behind her back. She knows that Tolstoy wants to deprive her and their children from the royalties on his works by donating them to the nation, something which she regards as his family’s and his heirs’ entitlement after his death.

Everybody around Sofya thinks that she is selfish, possessive, paranoid, hysterical and even mad, instead of understanding how lonely, vulnerable and insecure she has become.

As he grows older and more unyielding in his beliefs, a life of self-indulgence revolts him. Count Tolstoy is unhappy to continue living in luxury just to please his wife, countess Sofya, who is accustomed to such a life, while a great part of the Russian population hardly has the means to survive. After leading a hedonistic existence in his youth, he is now, surprisingly, encouraging chastity, vegetarianism and frugal life. Therefore he wants to relinquish his heirs’ rights to his early books.

The Last Station is a moving novel, depicting a husband torn between loyalty to his beloved wife and allegiance to his people and country and especially to what he perceives as being the right thing to do on the one side, and his wife, who also has every right to her inheritance, on the other.

Tolstoy and Sofya lived together for nearly fifty years and yet were unable to come to a compromise or even to try to understand one another. A very sad story and a regrettable ending to such a long married life of two exceptional people.

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