Tag Archives: Philosophical Fiction

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Screen Shot 2017-11-26 at 5.37.36 PM

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
Milan Kundera
Kniha Smichu a Zapomneni (1978)
Le Livre du Rire at de L’oubli (1979)
Translated from Czech by Michael Henry Heim (1982)
Faber and Faber (1992)


So much of Milan Kundera’s writing in “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting” is exceptionally self-aware of his role as a writer. More so than perhaps the content of his book, I was struck with the layers of perception which filter through its structure. Interspersed with the poetic and incredibly fragile vignettes which expound on the themes of memory and laughter, is a consistent stream of conscious elaboration of the nature and form of literature. I can’t say that I know much about re-explaining or reconceptualising something said with undeniable poetry and feeling, but I do know how to see the layers between the phrases and to uncover some of what builds to their meaning. In the case of Kundera, even they layering of his structure is poetic. So if we take what Kundera himself says, that the book is a form of variations all leading to one intangible yet synthetic whole, then each of the characters are but constellations of separate universes. Tamina revolves in and around a certain memory of herself and her home, filtering through shared wavelengths but never touching the worlds of Mirek and Marketa. Often in this book, it appears more like the stories are woven apart rather than together.


La peste

Screen Shot 2017-10-15 at 8.20.11 PMLa peste
Albert Camus
Éditions Gallimard, 1947
(Collection Folio)

A sublime reading of La peste. By applying some of the concepts around the experience of the sublime to Albert Camus’ La peste I want to explore the question of engaging with a specific aesthetic concept within a literary work. This has been done innumerable times before, but I want to explore how it is actually possible. Therefore, in the case of La peste, there are two moments within the text which strike me intuitively as being representative of the sublime.

The first would be an example of Kant’s mathematical sublime. This occurs during a description of the escalation in the presence of the rats in the first few pages of the book: 

“Le docteur de souvenait de la peste de Constantinople qui, selon Procope, avait fait dix mille victimes en un jour. Deux mille morts fit cinq fois le public d’un grand cinéma. Voilà ce qu’il faudrait faire. On rassemble les gens à la sortie de cinq cinémas, on les conduit sur une place de la ville et on les fait mourir en tas pour y voir un peu clair. Au moins, on pourrait mettre alors des visages connus sur cet entassement anonyme.”

This psychological need to build an associated image of human bodies as relative to their occupation of space in a cinema is indicative of a possible experience of the sublime. The Doctor cannot synthesise each individual death into a purely numerical and logical representation of the totality of those dead. This experience mirrors our inability to comprehend such a large scale of death, not only in numbers but also in the weight and depth of each individual loss. The Burkean necessity of the feeling of terror is certainly present, for one cannot fathom such morbidity without a sense of one’s own mortality.

The second is tied more to the emotive qualities associated with an experience of the sublime, in particular that of interesting sadness.

“…la peste. Le mot ne contenait pas seulement ce que la science voulait bien y mettre, mais une longue suite d’images extraordinaires qui ne s’accordaient pas avec cette ville jaune et grise, modérément animée à cette heure, bourdonnante plutôt que bruyante, heureuse en somme, s’il est possible qu’on puisse être à la fois heureux et morne.”

When referencing the word plague the Doctor is assaulted by a multitude of conflicting and often paradoxical images. There is a certain disjunction between the way things currently appear and the way by which they are presently imagined. To be at once happy and sad is a feature of one’s experience of the sublime for Kant and this sense of interesting sadness is in fact a prerequisite for any experience of the sublime. This indicates a disparity between one’s experience of the world and the ideas which this experience evokes. Consequently, the sensation of interesting sadness is possibly heterodox to Kant’s pure theory of the sublime whereby impressions are directly linked to the images and ideas which they evoke.  

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

screen-shot-2016-10-20-at-8-27-29-pmThe Elegance of the Hedgehog
Muriel Barbery (2006)

Translated from the French by Alison Anderson
Gallic Books, 2008

The Elegance of the Hedgehog only really starts in Chapter Two of Summer Rain: The Great Work of Making Meaning. All that I read up until that point, excluding some mild philosophical insights, was a litany of self aggrandising and cerebral insecurities.

Finally, there is a lovely point on page 174 where Renée’s past is slowly and sensitively revealed in an anecdote of a little glass globe which held all of her possible hopes and dreams. All of which had been locked away for too long.

Unfortunately for the book and my impressions of Renée, the indefatigable stereotype of the disgruntled and uneducated concierge persists rather too long. Admittedly the book seems to be set in a different time, so some of the of the cultural and class bigotries were still pertinent, and certainly are still applicable today. However, I found it so incredibly difficult to reconcile Renée’s new found confidence with the down trodden perspective which seems to have blighted her whole life:

“I am not accustomed to such a relationship with the world; it seems to me that he views it with indulgence and curiosity, whereas the other human beings I know display with wariness and kindness (Manuela), ingenuity and kindness (Olympe) or arrogance and cruelty (everyone else).” p.225

I was really put off by this almost fetishisation of orientalism and who calls people human beings? Of course the latter could simply be an error of translation; this book was so popular that I was even ignorant as to it being written originally in French. For the former, however, there seems to be no justification. The lack of self-awareness paired with an inept smugness and superiority towards others in the world was really unfortunate and certainly broke any feelings of sympathy for the characters:

“What would I do if I were Colombe Josse, a young student at the École Normale with all my future before me? I would dedicate myself to the progress of Humanity, to resolving issues that are crucial for the survival, well-being and elevation of mankind, to the fate of Beauty in the world, or to the just crusade for philosophical authenticity.” p.248

Admittedly at this point I was convinced that the book was a scathing criticism on the failures of naivety, or at least an ironic account of a misguided save the world impetus common to many failed literary heros. The only reason I moved away from such a view was that things started slowly to get better. To get richer, to get fuller and to get much more interesting.

I think that instead of following the method of simplicity which builds into dimension in the development of her characters, Barbery decided on the something like the opposite. The characters are immediately so self-assured with their own superiority that they only grow into three dimensional individuals by virtue of their relationships with other people. Even though their personal foundations are vapid and ultimately vain, once they come together, the softer more human aspects of their personalities are free to emerge.

It is only at the point when Paloma and Renée start to recognise one another on an existential level that some truly redemptive moments are given the room to evolve: “You have found a good hiding place.” (p.241) These sweet uncalculated moments are a significant commentary on the fallibility and ignorance of intelligence. Which is what I believe Barbery was ultimately aiming for. Finally, although there is no comparison with another well known work of philosophical fiction; Sophie’s World, there are some absolutely heartrending moments in the book, which do much to make up for the beginning.