The Art of Memory in Exile: Vladimir Nabokov and Milan Kundera

By Soroka, Mykola | Canadian Slavonic Papers, September-December 2004 | Go to article overview

The Art of Memory in Exile: Vladimir Nabokov and Milan Kundera


Soroka, Mykola, Canadian Slavonic Papers


Hana Píchová. The Art of Memory in Exile: Vladimir Nabokov and Milan Kundera. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2002. 148 pp. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $35.00, cloth.

Hana Píchová's The Art of Memory in Exile: Vladimir Nabokov and Milan Kundera is a valuable contribution to the study of these two prominent writers. Both were forced, albeit in different ways, to leave their homelands, which certainly explains Píchová's theoretical perspective on their writings, focused as it is primarily on the art of memory in exile. The fact that the two writers are of different generations and from different political and cultural backgrounds, one an imperial Russian and the other a colonized Czech diversifies the comparative dimension of the undertaking.

Píchová starts her introduction with an excerpt from Kafka's story "The Bridge," which she uses as a kind of extended motto, to present metaphorically her conceptualization of exile as a 'bridge' which connects and is sustained by two shores. An exiled writer, then, must live in at least two spaces, and is constantly negotiating his homeland and hostland.

To live as an émigré is to struggle to maintain a tenuous balance as if at a precarious height; the émigré finds himself or herself in a kind of unstable, rickety bridge between two shores, where the new, unknown territory has to be appropriated and familiarized while the old, known territory becomes the realm of imaginary.... (p. 2).

Shifting the balance to cither side would lead to failure, forgetting and death. Nabokov and Kundera, the author argues, succeed in sustaining their bridges and in exploiting the advantages of their 'dual focus,' and she considers memory a crucial key to both their artistry and success (p. 10).

This work deals with two types of memory: personal (Part One) and cultural (Part Two). It is based on a thorough textual analysis of the first work written in exile by each author (Mary by Nabokov and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Kundera) and the later, 'pivotal'-as she calls them-novels (The Gift and The Unbearable Lightness of Being, respectively). These texts reveal how memory works, especially through old photographs, letters, books, diaries, cloth and other artifacts charged with sentimental or reflective flashes of the past. Each part consists of two chapters, one devoted to Nabokov's and one to Kundera's novel, while each chapter has three sections: (p. 1) "the first view into the kaleidoscope of exile" in their first novels; (p. 2) the further developments of exile in the later novels; and (p. …

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