I read “Erasing Obama,” Tim Egan’s column in the Times about Donald Trump’s obsession with obliterating — instantly — every achievement of the Obama presidency, and I thought — instantly — of this…
In February 1948, the Communist leader Klement Gottwald stepped out on the balcony of a Baroque palace in Prague to harangue hundreds of thousands of citizens massed in Old Town Square. That was a great turning point in the history of Bohemia. A fateful moment of the kind that occurs only once or twice a millennium.
Gottwald was flanked by his comrades, with Clementis standing close to him. It was snowing and cold, and Gottwald was bareheaded. Bursting with solicitude, Clementis took off his fur hat and set it on Gottwald’s head.
The propaganda section made hundreds of thousands of copies of the photograph taken on the balcony where Gottwald, in a fur hat and surrounded by his comrades, spoke to the people. On that balcony the history of Communist Bohemia began. Every child knew that photograph, from seeing it on posters and in schoolbooks and museums.
Four years later, Clementis was charged with treason and hanged. The propaganda section immediately made him vanish from history and, of course, from all photographs. Ever since, Gottwald has been alone on the balcony. Where Clementis stood, there is only the bare palace wall. Nothing remains of Clementis but the fur hat on Gottwald’s head.
So begins Milan Kundera’s “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.” It’s a famous passage, and if you read nothing else by Kundera… well, you’ve read this. I would encourage you to read on, but I have to tell you, I’ve read this book once each decade for three decades, and a lot of it still eludes me. I grasp that it’s about good laughter and evil laughter, about memories you want to forget and memories that are crucial to your survival. But I don’t quite get how these seven stories make a novel, or how they express in different ways how the Czechs resisted Communism, and two of the sections (“Litost,” about a rural woman’s adventure with a literary student, and “The Border,” which makes a detour into misogyny and ends with an orgy) were a chore to read.
For all that, I encourage you to read “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting” with pencil in hand, for this is the book that made Kundera’s reputation, and if you’ll just mark the sentences with ideas new to you or emotions you feel but have never quite articulated, you may agree with me that this is among the more significant books you’ve ever read. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here.]
First, the skinny on Milan Kundera. As a teenager, he joined the Czech Communist Party. When he saw what it was, he became a reformer, and, in 1975, a refugee. He lives in Paris now, is a French citizen and writes in French.
In this book, Kundera is writing about the l970s, but as I look back over the sentences I’ve marked, I’m stunned by how they can be read as commentary on our lives. Consider:
The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.
Trying to hide, feeling guilty — that’s the beginning of the end.
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.
Women don’t look for handsome men, they look for men with beautiful women.
The only reason people want to be masters of the future is to change the past.
And this, which rang so true, I put it into my novel:
Every love relationship is based upon unwritten conventions rashly agreed upon by the lovers during the first weeks of their love. On the one hand, they are living a sort of dream; on the other, without realizing it, they are drawing up the fine print of their contracts like the most hard-nosed of lawyers. O lovers! Be wary during those perilous first days! If you serve the other party breakfast in bed, you will be obliged to continue same in perpetuity or face charges of animosity and treason!
I’ve said nothing about the characters or the stories. They are strangely compelling. An intellectual about to be arrested tries to get his love letters back. A mother comes to visit her son and his wife on the same weekend they’ve having a threesome. A widow, still faithful to her husband years after his death, wants to retrieve his memories but is thwarted. Not like “regular” stories, to be sure. You’re off-balance on every page.
Why read this book? Because we are also seeing memory obliterated and history rewritten. Because no matter how much we may want to avoid politics, we can’t. And because, as Kundera writes, “The sadder people are, the louder the speakers blare.” Sound familiar?
I haven’t seen most of my college friends in 47 years. When I think of them, I see them as they were — as we were — in 1968. Elise Rosenhaupt and her boyfriend Tom: off they go, bright and shining, headed for New Mexico. So when Elise sent me her book, “Climbing Back: A Family’s Journey through Brain Injury,” the title was like a blow to my brain. It begins like this: “The last time I saw our son before his injury, my husband and I were walking toward Harvard Square.” And you sink with her: getting the news that Martin, a Harvard sophomore, had been struck by a car that launched him 100 feet in the air. He’d landed on his head. He was in Neurological Intensive Care at Massachusetts General Hospital.
There are many books that chronicle disaster and recovery. This one’s not like them. There are doctors and nurses, of course, and friends in the waiting room, and Harvard faculty showing up unexpectedly, but Elise Rosenhaupt has worked as a poetry editor, and she knows when to weave in the story of her marriage, her family, her parents and their brain disorders. The prose is taut: “There is nothing in my world but wanting Martin to live.” And you think, this is how recovery is done when it’s done right, when you marvel at the frailty of our bodies and the resilience of our spirits. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here. For the audio book, click here.]
When two friends whose opinions you respect praise a movie, book or service, it’s actionable. That’s how I found myself in Joan Pancoe’s apartment for a Soul Reading. Joan has been a karmic astrologer, psychic therapist and spiritual teacher since 1976, and has written several books. (The most recent is “Cosmic Sugar, The Amorous Adventures of a Modern Mystic,” published with a pen name for good reason; it’s explicit in the extreme. I mean, it made me blush. To buy the Kindle edition, click here.) Joan’s seen everyone from believers in past lives to skeptics. I’m somewhere in the middle. So I only felt moderately silly showing up at her Lower East Side lair with my list of Big Questions and Important Names. Then Joan went into trance and rolled out the kind of Spiritual Truths that are generally applicable… and Specific Insights that make you wonder if she’d hacked your email. Was I glad I saw her? Yes. Will you? I’m no seer. More information here.
Sherry Amatenstein is a New York City-based licensed clinical social worker. She’s written 3 three books on relationships. Now she’s edited “How Does That Make You Feel? True Confessions from Both Sides of the Therapy Couch,” with essays by 13 therapists and 21 patients. “I wanted to humanize shrinks to the shrunks,” she says. “I wanted patients to see that therapists are neurotic as hell, too.”
Her contributors — they include a noted screenwriter and a writer for “Seinfeld” — are just as honest. “Has my drive been solely about proving to my narcissistic [Jewish] mother that I am indeed worth her sagging labia?” one writes. A woman whose parents sent her to a pedophile therapist, writes about her mother: “She never met a boundary she couldn’t or wouldn’t cross.”
Most of these essays are more heartfelt than shocking; they not only provide a valuable window into therapy, they give us an appreciation for the process. This includes Amatenstein’s reason for becoming a therapist: “My father was at Auschwitz and had to watch his parents and little sister walk away, knowing they were going to the ovens. My mother was sent to a work camp. I never knew my grandparents.” So she grew up hearing other people’s pain and wanted to ease their suffering. This book helps. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]
I’ve scoured New York in search of exotic and esoteric food suppliers for 60 years, but a woman from France who’s lived here only a decade makes me feel like a first-time tourist. Nathalie Sann and photographer Susan Meisel set out to find 200 of the city’s best food stores, and in “Shop Cook Eat New York” they’ve done just that. Some were obvious: Katz’s Deli, Murray’s Cheese Shop, Magnolia Bakery, the shops on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. But the majority of their favorites are real finds. Like Arcade Bakery (it’s hidden in the lobby of an office building), which makes the best ham-and-cheese sandwiches in town. And Harlem Shambles, my favorite butcher (the name is from Corinthians: “Whatever is sold in the shambles, eat, asking no question for conscience sake”). And Andrews Honey, which attracts bees on 50 rooftops, including the Waldorf-Astoria. And SOS Chefs, a favorite find of mine. The writing is brisk and stylish (“Lobel’s is the Fabergé of meat”), the photos are crisp, and Sann enriches the book with 27 field-tested recipes. A great resource for New Yorkers, an obvious gift for visiting foodies. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here.]
This article originally appeared on The Head Butler
Photo credit: Getty Images