The book of laughter and forgetting

by Milan Kundera

Paper Book, 1999





New York, NY : HarperPerennial, 1999.


The only authorized translation of the bestselling masterpiece by one of the greatest authors of our time, "The Book of Laughter and Forgetting" is part fairy tale, part literary criticism, part political tract, part musicology, and part autobiography.

User reviews

LibraryThing member bookcrazed
Included with this edition is “A Talk with the Author,” a summary of two conversations between Kundera and Philip Roth. Of particular interest to me is Kundera’s comment that reveals the meaning of the title:

"The unity of a book need not stem from the plot, but can be provided by the theme. In my latest book, there are two such themes: laughter and forgetting." (p. 232)

As experimental novels go, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is relatively successful and better than most.

Kundera begins with forgetting—a commentary on the recent history of his native Czechoslovakia and his most powerful statement on forgetting:

"The bloody massacre in Bangladesh quickly covered over the memory of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, the assassination of Allende drowned out the groans of Bangladesh, the war in the Sinai Desert made people forget Allende, the Cambodian massacre made people forget Sinai, and so on and so forth until ultimately everyone lets everything be forgotten." (p. 3)

Laughter, too, embodies a universal truth for Kundera:

"Whereas the Devil’s laughter pointed up the meaninglessness of things, the angel’s shout rejoiced in how rationally organized, well conceived, beautiful, good, and sensible everything on earth was. . . . People nowadays do not even realize that one and the same external phenomenon embraces two completely contradictory internal attitudes. There are two kinds of laughter, and we lack the words to distinguish them." (p. 63)

Acts of sex are so frequent in Kundera’s narration that sex becomes as much a character as the characters who perform it. In the way that some writers may habitually bring their characters together over drinks at the pub, Kundera brings his characters together in coitus. This may be characteristic of all his work. I’ve only read one other of his novels, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in which sex was most assuredly the main character. This realization is thought-provoking. Kundera’s sex character is neither titillating nor disgusting; s/he is just another player in the drama.

Kundera skillfully executes the novel-within-the-novel, and I forget I have been gently pushed into a fictional world within a fictional world. Still in a sphere of writers and artists living under the thumb of a repressive regime, I now inhabit the fractured world of Tamina, a young widow who struggles to reconcile life without her husband. A New York Times review suitably describes Laughter and Forgetting as “part fairy tale.” Kundera’s Tamina moves easily in and out of reality taking me with her, never quite sure if I am in a world of imagination or a commune of lost souls.

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is of that genre of literature that invites the reader to come back again and again to see what more there is to be discovered. The nonfiction qualities of this book—Kundera’s description of the crushing disappointment of a revolution that only replaced one despot for another—are as intriguing to me as the fictional aspects.
… (more)
LibraryThing member poplin
After falling in love with The Unbearable Lightness of Being, I glutted myself on Milan Kundera's other novels; as a consequence, plots and themes ran together in my mind, and only The Unbearable Lightness of Being remained distinct. (From this experience, I learned the lesson of putting at least a few books in between multiple books by the same author.) For this reason, re-reading The Book of Laughter and Forgetting was a curious experience: at each moment, I remembered nothing of what happened next in the book, but whatever page I was currently reading jogged my memory—rather apropos, perhaps.

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is a book of variations on a theme. There is no single narrative, but each of the seven parts expands on the theme of forgetting and its consequences. However, Kundera does indicate that Tamina—the heroine of Parts Four and Six—is the central character, and whenever Tamina is missing from the action, the book is for her.

As the title suggests, the nature of forgetting forms the major theme of the book. Forgetting is always seen as creating a vacuum, but that vacuum is viewed in different ways. For example, both Mirek of Part One and Tamina of Part Four are concerned with recovering old letters. Mirek wants to obtain his old love letters to an embarrassing flame so that he can destroy them and thus completely erase her from his life’s narrative; Tamina, on the other hand, wants to recover the letters she shared with her dead husband in order to stop his disappearance from her memory.

For Mirek, forgetting is positive, a means of creating the life he wants in reverse (whether or not this attitude is psychologically healthy is, of course, another question). For Tamina, forgetting deprives her life of any weight; she feels as though she’s adrift on a raft, always looking back into an indistinct past. In this way, the dichotomy of memory and forgetting seems to parallel the contrast between lightness and heaviness from The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

Kundera also discusses the nature of forgetting in a political context; an incident is cited in which the communist leadership, in an Orwellian move, erased an official from a photograph and thus from history. Perhaps it is a result of my (blessed) removal from the realities of communism, but Kundera’s digressions into the nature of forgetting as underlying the true inhumanity of communism served merely to emphasize the narrative regarding personal memory rather than the other way around.

As a last point, Tamina—the character the book is about and for—is, for me, utterly captivating and a character for whom I felt instant affinity; a feat made all the more remarkable by the fact that she occupies so little of the novel and is developed through sparing biographical details. The book escapes feels fragmented by having Tamina at its heart.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being cemented Kundera as one of my favorite authors; although The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is less of a coherent statement, and certainly less of a masterpiece, it is nonetheless an exceptional novel that further underlines Kundera’s immense talent.
… (more)
LibraryThing member tcw
This book completely destroyed my previous ways of judging a book and it's author, it came across as so completely fascinating and so new, how he tells a story even as you feel you are sitting in the room with him, how he branches off and here you are reading a moment in the life, as if you are sitting in a room with a rambling uncle who, as it turns out, has had a wild and romantic life. This book cntinues to point me in Kundera's direction, devouring everything to find snippets of his same genius. 6 stars.… (more)
LibraryThing member GlebtheDancer
This is perhaps the most skillful piece of Kundera's I have read. In a series of apparently unrelated narratives he gradually unfolds his philosophy of being in which the trivial and kitsch is given centre stage and the apparently important events of Czech history relegated to irrelevancy. His logic is compelling but the construction of his arguments subtle, via a series of short stories focusing on the lives of ordinary Czechs suffering under communism. In a country undergoing turmoil and upheaval his characters struggle with where to focus their energies and how to define their identites. Memory and identity are continuing themes in the book, as is the search for happiness and the meaning of laughter. These are complex ideas that Kundera renders accessible. You may not agree with his point of view, but I challenge any reader not appreciate his the skill with which he expresses himself.… (more)
LibraryThing member EricKibler
I remember that I laughed, but I've forgotten everything else.
LibraryThing member bas615
This is not my favorite of Kundera's works but it hits on many of the same themes as his others. Eroticism coupled with a repressive society weave themselves together in most of these stories. It is not necessarily the subject matter that appeals to me with Kundera but rather the quite extraordinary nature of his insights into life and the sheer beauty of his writing. The lyrical nature is quite compelling and when this is coupled with his perceptiveness to small parts of our lives it brings this work to another level. I have never read a Kundera book that at the end did not leave me feeling enriched despite my disregard for the eroticism of his work.… (more)
LibraryThing member marek2009
A brilliant depiction of intellectual life under communism. Philiosphically profound & very moving. The more allegorical sections were a slight disappointment though.
LibraryThing member Arctic-Stranger
A collection of short stories. If you have not read Kundera, this is a good place, because you get a lot of his major themes neatly laid out. Well, as neatly as he can do it.
LibraryThing member Clurb
Sex, philosophy, politics, and existential angst. This is classic Kundera. Well written, incisive and consummately readable. Didn't have me leaping around the room shouting 'Yes!' and nodding my head in appreciative agreement quite as much as some of his others though.
LibraryThing member oogumboogum
A joy to read Kundera touches the human spirit like nobody else .
LibraryThing member bookroute
I read this book then devoured the rest of Kundera's list. No one does it better than this man. While there is genius in all his books, this remains the top of the list for me, maybe because it was my first dip into this mind and that impression carries above all else.
LibraryThing member hardcastle
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting contains stories with unparalleled emotional depth and nuance. Kundera succinctly and elegantly describes the most delicate and complicated feelings, ones that have no name, that you often and easily forget even exist, shining a light on the dark and hidden depths of the human soul like few others. Laughter and Forgetting only gets better with each successive story. One of my favorite books.… (more)
LibraryThing member Tinwara
Kundera wrote the Book of laughter and forgetting in 1978, ten years after the Prague spring, and more than ten years before the 1989 velvet revolution that ended the communist and totalitarian era in Czechoslovakia. At the time he lived in France as a refugee. This must have been a desperate time, without much hope for improvement. This sets the atmosphere for this book.

The author is a character in this book, that is a strange mixture of fiction, non-fiction and autobiography. The writer thinks about his native country, his people and its sad destiny. A central theme in this book is forgetting. For a totalitarian state forgetting is essential: let the people forget their history, forget where they came from, who their ancestors were, who their friends once were. Live in the present, in the collective joy of the here and now. Dance, and loose yourself in the drums of loud music. Stop thinking, leave that to those who are in power.

In the mean time the author writes stories, stories about forgetting, about refugees, about victims of the regime. About historians who were fired from universities, about the assassination of so-called traitors whose very existence was wiped out from history by even removing them from pictures. About the ones in the West who flirted with communism while people were killed by it.

A second theme is the theme of laughter, the two kinds of laughter: the laughing of devils and the laughing of angels, and how both can turn into a nasty extreme.

The book meanders around these themes that are explored both in made up stories and in real memories and experiences of the author. Variations on two themes, as a piece of music.

It's impressive writing, yet at the same time it is a book that very much belongs to the 1970's. Even if one could argue that there are still totalitarian states today, this book is very much about Czechoslovakia. A country that has been freed from totalitarianism, yet do all its inhabitants actually make use of their freedom of thought now?
… (more)
LibraryThing member Tropic_of_Cancer
I really love his beautiful writing style. I do. I couldn't help but feel a little disappointed with this book, though. I thought it was good, but nothing special.
LibraryThing member twilightlost_2
I had previously read "An Unbearable Lightness of Being" and enjoyed it so I thought to try another Kundera. This one did not do it for me, but could have been better had I had anyone with whom to discuss its meaning.
LibraryThing member caffron
I read this book in a marathon of Kundera's works after I devoured The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Immortality. While I have reread Unbearable numerous times, this one was satisfying but not demanding of a reread. That said, there was more laughter and less forgetting versus some of his other works which were less memorable.… (more)
LibraryThing member Ziggaroth
Very much like his more famous Unbearable Lightness of Being, only more political, and much better. I don't think Kundera's brilliant, but he's got a real ability to make his reader think; I have certainly found myself more thoughtful reading these two novels than during almost any others I can remember. This one's harder to figure out than Lightness, but worth the effort I think.… (more)
LibraryThing member jonfaith
My rating is questionable. I am afraid that Kundera's characters and situations have shifted into an melange of protest; one which remains indistinct in my ability to appreciate and discern.
LibraryThing member kbullfrog
Another Kundera classic, not quite as subliminal as his others, but very enjoyable.
LibraryThing member A_Reader_of_Fictions
This is not a book that really lends itself to summarization, so I'm not going to even try (Yoda would be disappointed otherwise, and you don't want to disappoint Yoda). The best explanation of the book comes from within its own pages:

"This entire book is a novel in the form of variations. The individual parts follow each other like individual stretches of a journey leading toward a theme, a thought, a single situation, the sense of which fades into the distance.
It is a novel about Tamina, and whenever Tamina is absent, it is a novel for Tamina. She is its main character and main audience, and all the other stories are variations on her story and come together in her life as a mirror.
It is a novel about laughter and forgetting, about forgetting and Prague, about Prague and angels." (165-6)

This really does convey what The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is like. The book is composed of a series of vignettes, some obviously related to one another and others, so far as I can tell, coming out of left field. The composition of the novel is similar to the one other Kundera book I have read, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Both are told in brief snippets and focus as much (actually more) as philosophy as on characters.

The difference lies in the fact that The Unbearable Lightness of Being had a clearly defined cast, setting and plot. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting does not have any such clear cut framework. In fact, his description that the parts follow one another towards a theme, only to have sense fade into the distance, perfectly captures my experience reading this novel. Any time I started getting really interested in a particular character, journey, philosophical idea, etc, or even just started to think I knew what he was getting at, the story would inevitably leap to something else entirely, leaving me more confused and irritated than before.

He also does some weird postmodern, breaking the fourth wall stuff that really was not working for me. I have never been a huge fan of novelists including themselves as a character in their works (name and all), and this was one of those times where it did not work for me. Another thing that bothered me was the weird metaphor where death was like childhood, which also involved children raping an adult woman. That was weird and creepy, and didn't really quite work as a metaphor. And, sadly, it's not the only rape scene in the book.

Sometimes, I could tell that Kundera was getting close to something interesting here, but I don't feel like he made it. There is definitely a reason why The Unbearable Lightness of Being is the more well-known work. I would recommend reading that one first.
… (more)
LibraryThing member deeEhmm
Some beautiful, moving prose here, and some intense commentary pertaining to the cultural moment from which it emerged. In the end, though, I could not reconcile myself to the violence done to women in this novel--both the graphic sort and the "passive" sort, by which I mean the violence of squashing women into flat, objectified characters. I don't believe in giving a book a pass on this kind of thing just because it's old.… (more)
LibraryThing member jcrben
From way back in my days of "finding myself". Copy of my comments from then:

Some good passages. I liked the description of "graphomania" (p 92), the mention how everything was a battle for ears (something I never believed in before), the

"borderline" of sanity that everyone is on the brink of. The description of "erotic biographies"... all interesting stuff.

Retrospectively, I don't want to read it again.
… (more)
LibraryThing member dbsovereign
How laughing and remembering help us transcend the wretched. Also, about how forgetting only enables us to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. A bit of Czech history that should help us see that in order to break through we must first face "the dark side" in ourselves.
LibraryThing member Sally1645
I really enjoyed this book. I want to read it again from the beginning and take down all the really deep, insightful quotes. It's a sad book, and very, very sexually strange. Not what I would usually go for but the Book Club was reading it. I feel like I broadened my literary horizon by reading this.
LibraryThing member hezekiahm
the book of laughter and forgetting has a lot of different stories with emotional ties behind each one. The author describes in this book the feelings of people in this book. The story involve secret affairs, death, and love. It can be very out there at times with the graphic and content of the book when they talk about the subject of sex. Overall the book is a great read and will keep you glued from the begging to the end.… (more)


Original language

Page: 0.3707 seconds