The Unbearable Lightness of Being

An alternative title for this blog post is “Taste of Food and Drink in Hemingway.” However, the title of Milan Kundera’s 1984 novel captures the essence much better.

Both writers’ works are characterised by lively accounts of sensory experiences  –  the taste of wine and good food, the experience of a sunset across a city, an encounter with a lover.

Hemingway cover pic

Hemingway, in his  book A Moveable Feast, shares a meal:

As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.

This literary technique brings their stories alive for the reader, painting taste and touch pictures with mere words.

In doing so, they articulate the ‘existentialist’ ethos of the 20th century. Against a backdrop of war, political regimes, and rapid social changes, the writers contrast simple sensory experiences to meditate on the mystery of being.

Unbearable Lightness of Being

Kundera writes:

The man hunched over his motorcycle can only focus on the present…. he is caught in a fragment of time, cut off from both the past and the future…. he has no fear because the source of fear is in the future, and a person freed of the future has nothing to fear.

Existentialism posits that individuals are responsible for giving meaning to their lives. Those who do are termed “authentic”, showing courage to reject the meaning imposed upon them by tradition, religion or political regimes. Those who do not impose meaning into their lives, can easily drift into nihilism.

Both writers seek to ground their lives in the beauty of freedom, and sensual experiences.

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Set in Prague Spring of the 60s, Kundera’s novel explores the question of  whether any meaning or weight can be attributed to life, since humanity only has the opportunity to live once, a fleeting ephemeral existence.

The novel follows the life and loves of Tomas, a talented surgeon and an avowed philanderer, who though married to Tereza, cannot give up his mistresses. The novel explores his relationship to the various women in his life, and to his definition of love and meaning.

The novel intertwines their story with Sabrina, a talented painter and Franz, her lover all set against the backdrop of the invasion of Prague by the Russians.

Ultimately, Kundera argues, we cannot find meaning; where meaning should exist we find only an unbearable weightlessness.

Hemingway Quotes

Similarly, Hemingway, writing in the 1920s, was part of the “Annes Folles” or “the Crazy Years” so called because of the fertile social, artistic, and cultural collaborations of the period after the First World War.

His generation was also nicknamed “the lost generation”, so named because their youth was grounded in the optimism of the late 19th century and their prime punctuated by World Wars, The Great Depression of the 1930s and the rise of Nazi Germany.

Both writers turn their art to ‘meaning creation’, capturing the sweetness of life, through taste and touch, no matter how fleeting nor how uncertain.

Each writer, a poet to life, meditates on the lostness, the lightness, of being.

A Tale of Two Cities

Cited as one of the top 5 best selling books of all time, [not including the Bible or the Qu’ran], Charles Dickens’, ‘A Tale of Two Cities‘ is a stand-out seller at over 200 million copies world wide. Though exact numbers of book sales is debated, it is interesting that Dickens’ 1859 novel, set in London and Paris during the French Revolution, is his best-selling work.

‘A Tale of Two Cities,’ ranks only slightly behind Miguel Cervantes ‘Don Quixote‘ and Mao Tze-Tung “Quotations From Chairman Mao” [or the Little Red Book], to beat out any individual Harry Potter book, The Lord of the Rings and  The Hobbit for all time popularity stakes of fiction novels.

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What makes this novel, of all Dickens’ novels, so great?

Born in 1812 and living until 1870, Dickens was within his own lifetime a legend. Best known for his comedy, unique characterisations, and social criticism, his writing style is so distinctive, that the term Dickensian has come to be used to describe stories featuring poor social conditions and comically repulsive characters.

His fiction was so effective he shifted Victorian public opinion in regard to class inequalities.

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Karl Marx wrote that Dickens:

…issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together.

A Tale of Two Cities, is unlike many of Dickens’ other works in that it is a work of historical fiction, less reliant upon comedy, satire, caricature and class idioms. He sides neither with the working class nor the aristocracy in his account of the bitter Revolution, telling the story of people on both sides caught up in the violence and turmoil.

It opens with famous lines describing its setting:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair …

The story recounts the release of Doctor Manette from 18 years of imprisonment in the Bastille, the infamous Parisian fortress prison beloved by french nobles. Manette an old man, much broken by his years in prison, is reunited with his now adult daughter Lucie, and with the help of friend Mr Lorry, immigrates to London.

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In London, they are befriended by Darnay, a man who unknown to them is the nephew and heir of a French Aristocrat, the Marquis of St. Evrémonde, the very man who imprisoned Doctor Manette years ago. Darnay, disgusted by the cruelty of his aristocratic family had taken the name of his mother and sought a new life in England.

Here however, Darnay is accused of treason to the British crown for leaking documents to the French in North America. He is acquitted on the grounds that his appearance is strikingly like a Barrister present in the court by the name of Sydney Carton and so therefore cannot be irrefutably linked to the crime.

Darnay and Carton, while copies of one another physically, are entirely unlike in nature. Carton is a drunkard while Darnay is a man of integrity and character. Both love Lucie and confess their love to her, however Carton knowing she will not love him in return, promises to “embrace any sacrifice for you and for those dear to you.”

Paris

As the years pass, Darnay and Lucie raise a young family and Carton is accepted as a close friend of the family becoming a favourite of their daughter, little Lucie. Across the channel however, as the French Revolution sparks into flame, and the Bastille is stormed, Doctor Manette’s former cell is searched. A detailed account of his imprisonment at the hands of Darnay’s uncle, the Marquis de Evremonde is found hidden in the cell.

Throughout the countryside, officials and representatives of the aristocracy are dragged from their homes to be killed, and the St. Evrémonde château is burned to the ground. Darnay is summoned to France to aid his uncle’s servants who have been imprisoned by the revolutionaries. They plead for him, the new Marquis to help secure their release. Once there, Darnay is caught and put on trial for the crimes against Doctor Manette.

Manette, Lucie and Mr Lorry travel to Paris to seek Darnay’s release, however Doctor Manette’s own testimony discovered in his cell in the Bastille is used to accuses Darnay, the now Marquis de Evremonde.

A Tale of Two Cities

Carton, true to his promise to Lucie, arranges a secret visit with Darnay in prison. There he drugs Darnay, and then trades clothes, arranging him to be carried out. Carton has given his own identification papers to Mr Lorry to present on Darnay’s behalf and urges them to flee to England. In London, Darnay can live out his life as Sydney Carton. Meanwhile, Carton walks to the guillotine as the Marquis de Evremonde.

Carton’s unspoken last thoughts speak of the life he sees beyond the horizon of his own death:

I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy, in that England which I shall see no more….

I see that child who lay upon her bosom and who bore my name, a man winning his way up in that path of life which once was mine. I see him winning it so well, that my name is made illustrious there by the light of his. I see the blots I threw upon it, faded away. I see him, fore-most of just judges and honoured men, bringing a boy of my name, with a forehead that I know and golden hair, to this place—then fair to look upon, with not a trace of this day’s disfigurement—and I hear him tell the child my story, with a tender and a faltering voice.

It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.

The story reaches beyond social commentary and into heroic epic, touching on resonant symbols of sacrifice and redemption. Sydney Carton transforms from dissolute man to heroic saviour through his own death, and foresees the future lives of Lucie, Darnay and their children, yet unborn living free because of his sacrifice.

Carton, a scoundrel, goes to his rest a peaceful man.

 

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

Recently, I completed the Gold Coast Half Marathon, slowly and rather painfully. It made me think of one of my favourite writers and his love for long distance running.

Haruki Murakami is a best selling Japanese writer whose works have been translated into 50 languages and sold millions of copies globally. He has completed over 20 marathons since the 1980s and one ultra marathon.

Haruki Murakam

Famous for his fiction works which blend fantasy with realism, it’s his non fiction work “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running” [走ることについて語るときに僕の語ること Hashiru Koto ni Tsuite Kataru Toki ni Boku no Kataru Koto] which depicts his love of running so well.

The book’s title was inspired by Raymond Carver’s collection of short stories entitled ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’. Murakami sits within the tradition of post-modern writers such as Carver, Kurt Vonnegut and J. D. Salinger. Frequently featuring western pop culture, music and themes, Murakami’s works are a pastiche of impressions, often surrealistic, melancholic or fatalistic, characterised by post-modernist themes of alienation and loneliness.

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The reason he is one of my favourite writers is because he paints a world of magical realism; a world in which dream and reality intertwine curiously lending an otherwise inexplicable existence, something magical, something mythical, something akin to wonder.

“What I Talk About When I Talk About Running,” recounts Murakami’s foray into long distance running in his early 30s, some five years after becoming a full time writer. 

He equates the process of setting out on a long run with writing, both methodical decisions to complete a journey, often pointless to everyone except the one undertaking it. Used as a metaphor for existence, the race and the novel are both grueling but beautiful endeavours, inexplicable yet sweet, painful yet redemptive, each in their own unique way.

image what I talk about when I talk about running

Through running, as with writing, Murakami has met many people, seen many strange and remote places, thought hours of his own thoughts and suffered great highs and great lows. It is the same methodical discipline that Murakami applies to writing and to life.

As with Carver’s original, what is talked about when talking about running is far more trivial and yet far more profound. By running and by writing about running, Murakami explores the sweetness and mystery of being and becoming. The sweetness and mystery of life.