Chag Sameach!

For the Jewy Jews out there celebrating Passover, chag sameach. And for everyone who writes those fine romance novels we love so very, very much with heaving bosoms of passion, this is from our family seder last night. It was written by Milan Kundera, and we used it during the portion of the seder known as the Four Questions.

The Stupidity of Having an Answer

A novel does not assert anything; a novel searches and poses questions. I don’t know whether my nation will perish and I don’t know which of my characters is right. I invent stories, confront one with another, and by this means I ask questions. The stupidity of people comes from having a question for everything.

The novelist teaches the reader to comprehend the world as a question. There is wisdom and tolerance in that attitude. In a world built on sacrosanct certainties the novel is dead. The totalitarian world, whether founded on Marx, Islam or anything else, is a world of answers rather than questions. There, the novel has no place. In any case, it seems to me that all over the world people nowadays prefer to judge rather than to understand, to answer rather than ask, so that the voice of the novel can hardly be heard over the noisy foolishness of human certainties.

How does that relate to romance? I think with each romance novel, the question is how to arrive at the happily ever after, and to ask repeatedly “Aren’t each of us worthy of love and care?” Even the most unredeemable hero finds true love, and his perfect match, and the same can be said for some heroines. Miss Thing might be slightly more sharp than a box of hair, but there is a handsome hero for her by the final page.

The judgments people render against romance novels try to dismiss the question of why romance is so popular, and why so many millions of people spend so many millions of dollars on their choice of reading material. But even against the certainty that romance is “dreck,” or “chick porn” or just lowbrow popular culture loved by dim women in puffy paint sweatshirts, the questions that we ask about romance push back against judgment and assumption to celebrate the questions romance novels ask about human emotional and sexual experience.

Now, pass the matzo ball soup!

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Random Musings

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  1. 1
    shaina says:

    chag sameach to you too! our seder last night had us all in tears…because we were laughing so hard! it was amazing!
    about the four questions—do you realize that in most translations there’s really only ONE question, Why is this night diff from all other nights? the others are statements. hm. weird. but whatev. seders are fun! hope you have a great week.

  2. 2
    dillene says:

    But the world is not a novel.  And as much as I enjoy reading Milan Kundera’s work, I have to disagree with him here.  If we never made judgements, or drew lines, then the world would be all chaos and flux and nothing would ever get done.  We have to make some judgements and provide some answers, even if those answers are not guaranteed to be correct, so that there is some order in the world.  Once there is order, then we can worry about improving the world.

    Furthermore, Milan Kundera needs to get off my lawn.  Damn Czech kids- I spend $250 a month to have the landscaper keep it looking so nice and then he comes in with his philosophizing.

    Happy Passover!

  3. 3

    Chag sameach!  I’ve only been to one seder, but it rocked!  I love how completely ritualized and symbolic it is.

  4. 4

    Good yontiff (chag sameach in Yiddish), Sarah and everybody. I’m about sedered out for one life, but I love the Kundera quote and I agree with your take on it. And I think it’s quite possible that reading (and writing romances) is a far better way to ask the big questions about life and love than to drive oneself nuts with those angry Having-it-All-or-Not debates that the New York Times and Caitlin Flanagan are so fond of burdening us with.

  5. 5
    Ann Aguirre says:

    Are you saying I have to put away my puffy paint sweatshirt now? :(

  6. 6
    Octavia says:

    Dillene, I don’t think Kundera is saying we should never judge, just that we need to understand that the world has a lot more gray in it than black and white, and that we need to keep in mind that we might be wrong about the things we feel most certain about, and remember, too, that what is good for us might not be good for the next person.  Very good advice, IMO.  I agree with him that art can help us do this, and I also think that blogging can, too, which is why my favorite bloggers tend to be the ones who have the most interesting comment threads.

    I do think that romance *readers* can be painfully judgmental, though, about the contents of the books we read (or even worse, don’t read).  I wince when I read comments (not here, of course) about what a slut some heroine is because she did something sexual that a reader disapproves of, or when someone condemns a book out of hand without reading it simply because they’ve heard it has a certain plot element in it.  Sometimes I wonder if we have the right to complain about people who dismiss the entire genre, since we can be just as judgmental in our own way.

  7. 7
    Kaite says:

    Sometimes I wonder if we have the right to complain about people who dismiss the entire genre, since we can be just as judgmental in our own way.

    This is human nature, unfortunately. But I agree with his point that we need to be willing to understand as opposed to judge—even if something is not right for me, it doesn’t mean it’s not right for someone else. So while I personally don’t cotton to silk undies, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be banned.

  8. 8
    Robin says:

    I also love this Kundera passage.  For anyone who’s interested, here’s a link to the entire NY Times interview by Philip Roth from which it came:  http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/05/17/specials/kundera-roth.html

    It adds a lot of context for Kundera’s position in this passage, IMO.

  9. 9
    bene says:

    Does anyone know where that Kundera passage is taken from?

  10. 10
    Robin says:

    Does anyone know where that Kundera passage is taken from?

    The link I posted is, as far as I can tell, the original source—an interview with Philip Roth (actually apparently they had several conversations, which Roth condensed) on Kundera’s “Book of Laughter and Forgetting.”  The quote Sarah posted in near the end of the interview.

  11. 11

    At our seder we all use different haggadot and in my haggada, “Women at the Seder”, there was a great story about Yalta, a woman of high status and a scholar during the Talmudic period.  She was insulted by a rabbi who thought as a woman she didn’t rate a special extra cup of wine.  Yalta got so pissed she smashed 400 jars of the rabbi’s wine, dissed him for gossiping and implied he had lice.

    Here’s to feisty broads through the ages!

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