THE timing is astounding. I sit in front of my piano, where I have spent the last two hours with the composer Leoš Janáček's work, On an Overgrown Path. It is one of the most wonderful compositions for solo piano. Since my first exposure to it in my early twenties, I have regularly returned to those notes. I feel this way about everything Janáček wrote for the piano: both volumes of Overgrown Path, Sonata I.X.1905, In the Mists... And while my hands are still on the keys, I receive a message: Milan Kundera is dead.
Anyone who has seen the film version of The Unbearable Lightness of Being will understand why I find it poetic to have Janáček's notes under my fingers when the news of Kundera's passing reaches me. The filmmakers wisely chose to use this music because Kundera was a great admirer of the Czech composer.
A journalist who conducted an interview with Kundera in 1984 described his apartment in Paris: shelves full of books on philosophy and musicology, an old typewriter, and two photos on the wall, one of Kundera's father (the renowned musicologist Ludvík Kundera), the other of Leoš Janáček.
I want to write about Kundera with Janáček's piano compositions as background music. Because I am no literary scholar, only a reader. And a pianist. Also, an enthusiast for the writer and the composer. Janáček's music is never only one thing: one moment there is light and calmness, then suddenly, without warning, he plunges you into another atmosphere, dark and furious. His notes evoke so much emotion, but never predictable feelings. For me, Kundera's words are also like that. One moment they're uproariously funny; the next, the character who just made you giggle draws bitter tears.
Kundera makes you believe that love exists — then he pulls the rug out from under your idealism, exposing love as a power game. The multiple threads of his stories confuse and alienate — until you reach the end of his books and realise that all the threads have come together to form one tapestry.
The sheet music in front of me when I heard the news was The Barn Owl Has Not Flown Away. It begins with something that sounds like a cry: fast sixteenth notes on two minor chords. Then, a soft contemplation of sound in the left hand and the owl's muted hoot. A chorale, now in major, stately and comforting. But the owl's cry interrupts the flow of the music, darkness returns; there is no solace to be found in this music. The piece was written two years after the death of Janáček's daughter. There is a European superstition that if an owl lands on your roof and doesn't fly away, death will follow you.
The composer wrote music that plucks the emotions every which way: one moment, you can feel sheltered in the softness and fluidity of his notes, and immediately afterwards you are overwhelmed by brutality. Kundera was deeply drawn to Janáček precisely for this reason. In his 1984 interview with Christian Salmon for the Paris Review, he described Janáček's music as “brutal juxtaposition instead of transitions; and always straight to the heart of things: only the note with something essential to say is entitled to exist".
Kundera does this in his books as well: he doesn't make it easy for the reader to navigate between characters and their emotions; he hammers the emotions together, and at the end of a chapter you are left breathless by juxtapositions: of love and anger, infatuation and loss, bravery for a country or for oneself, sometimes at the cost of oneself … always complex in Kundera's worlds.
I flip to The Madonna of Frýdek.
The opening chords fall softly on the ear but with a dark hue. A beautiful melody emerges above the major harmony; after a series of chords, the melody returns, but by changing only one note Janáček darkens it. The melodic curves remain the same, but the meaning is completely transformed. I think of Tomas and Tereza: in the first chapter of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Tomas sits on the floor next to his bed. He and Tereza had been sexually intimate earlier, but she developed a fever and stayed in Tomas's bed for days. He places his face close to hers and smells “the delicate aroma" of her feverish breath. In the fourth chapter, the positions are reversed. Tereza smells the sleeping Tomas's face, his hair. There is the scent of sex on him, of other women's genitals. One note, one chord has changed; the scenario is similar, the emotions completely different.
Throughout his life, Kundera frequently used music metaphors to describe his writing style. In a conversation with Philip Roth shortly after The Book of Laughter and Forgetting was published in English, he described the “polyphony" of his work. In music, polyphony refers to the interweaving of multiple melodic lines that function as a unity while retaining their individuality. Melodies that respond to each other in counterpoint.
Kundera described Laughter and Forgetting as follows: “My book is a polyphony in which various stories mutually explain, illuminate, complement each other … there is unity of the same metaphysical questions, of the same motifs and then variations."
The overarching theme of this book is totalitarianism; the seven chapters do not flow logically from one to another, but each character and event provides a commentary on the dangerous truths of this kind of regime. The multiple voices in Laughter and Forgetting come together to create the work of the novel: “A novel is a meditation on existence, seen through imaginary characters … the purpose is to unite philosophy, narrative and dream into a single music."
Kundera's books are polyphonic music. Just as Janáček combines multiple musical lines to convey his complex sonic messages, Kundera's characters are enlisted together to articulate the theme, the message of the book, each in their individual way. Each chapter of Kundera's books can be assigned a tempo. The penultimate chapter of The Unbearable Lightness of Being is described by the author as “prestissimo, forte": extremely fast and terribly loud. It is the chapter of kitsch, furious words about worlds where people would rather hide from the truth than confront it with open eyes and strong voices. The final chapter, where Tomas and Tereza finally find happiness in each other — despite everything they have lost and because of it — is lento (slow) and pianissimo (very soft).
I can read Kundera's books over and over again, repeatedly discovering new messages as my own life is renewed and changed, and my consciousness along with it.
Rest softly, Milan Kundera. The literati may have their criticisms, and history may not handle you gently enough. But today I will open your books again. And once again play Janáček.
Dobrou Noc! Goodnight.
♦ VWB ♦
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