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Dating Without Kundera

One of the terrors of dating is Milan Kundera, and specifically, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the sexually-transmitted book that this Czech-born author has inflicted on a generation of American youth.

I fully recognize the important role of the dating book, that is, the carefully selected work you lend a prospective lover sometime in the golden honeymoon period between your second cup of coffee together and the first time you spend a night in the same bed without touching. In that short window of time, your partner is still a delicious mystery to you, an enigmatic and discerning being, and to her you are a dark continent of adventure and excitement, waiting to be explored. And so you lend her books that are funny, playful, and good subway reading, but also complex enough to hint at your Hidden Depths. Something unusual is a plus, as are lots of sexy bits, to serve as a reminder of the animal fires that burn within. And since you don't yet know one another too well, you try to choose a shotgun of a book that fires a wide pattern, thematically speaking. Like an early physicist studying the atom, you will hurl little bits of culture at your new love and collect valuable data about her inner life by observing the way they bounce off.

Given these requirements, it's not surprising that many people have gravitated towards The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The book has that sexy whiff of the Eastern Bloc to it (very effective on anyone who hasn't been immunized by an actual relationship with an Eastern European), it's full of young people having complex, turgid sex with one another, and since the first sentence of the book mentions 'Nietzsche', it is ipso facto philosophical. It doesn't hurt, either, that Milan Kundera's craggy, intellectual face with the thunderbolt eyebrows is staring from the back cover.

The problem, though, is that the Unbearable Lightness of Being is a really bad book. Milan Kundera is the Dave Matthews of Slavic letters, a talented hack, certainly a hack who's paid his dues, but a hack nonetheless. And by his own admission, this is his worst book. If you strip off the exoticism of Brezhnev-era Czechoslovakia (this rinses off easily in soapy water), you are left with a book full of vapid characters bouncing against each other like little perfectly elastic balls of condensed ego. And every twenty pages the story steps outside for a cigarette so that the author can deliver a short philosophical homily. Kundera has a sterile, cleanroom writing style meant to suggest that he is a surgeon expertly dissecting the human condition before your eyes, but if you look a little more closely, you see he's just performing an autopsy on a mannequin. Or more accurately, a RealDoll.

This is particularly galling given the A-team of Slavic authors just waiting to get their chance in the American dating ring, authors who've written funny, sexed-up books of great literary merit and philosophical depth that are fun to read no matter the mental wattage at your disposal. And just as importantly, fun to re-read - a salient feature of dating books is that you are likely to have to read through them over and over again in your great romantic life journey. In fact, you may start to find that the books are more fun than the dating, and then you're in the best position of all.

At any rate, given that Christmas is coming, given that a Google search for "Kundera sucks" unconscionably returns only a single (albeit highly interesting) result, and given that I could use a few referral bucks, I present the following books, optimized for seduction, a thoughtful and romantic gift for the long-term lover, or ideal for marriage bed, when you have all the time in the world to get your reading done.

Clicking on any image will whisk you to Amazon:

The Master and Margarita

Master i Margarita, 1937- Mikhail Bulgakov

The world heavyweight champion of dating books. The Master and Margarita offers something for everyone, right up from the age of consent all the way to the advanced post-doctorate level. Talking cats! The Devil doing magic tricks! A complicated crypto-Gnostic cosmology! Naked witches on their knees! A doofy and lovable Jesus! You can get by on the plot alone, you can try your hand at correlating the events in the book with Bulgakov's life, or (God help you) you can try to peel your way down further and try to figure out what this novel is actually about. Bulgakov's masterpiece is a sly onion of a book, though, and if you think you've understood it, it probably means you're not reading it right. Read Kevin Moss's excellent site to get invaluable background material and steal ideas.

Picking the right translation is always a big deal, but it's unusually important with this book—there are several versions in print, and most are either too sloppy or done from a censored 1967 version of the text. The Bergin/O'Connor version is what you want, it's unabridged, meticulous and has invaluable endnotes. And what is sexier than invaluable endnotes?

Collected Prose Works Of Alexander Pushkin

Sometimes you need to pull out the big guns. And no Russian writer fires a heavier broadside than Pushkin, still melting panties from beyond the grave nearly two hundred years after his death. That is, nearly two hundred years after his tragic death fighting a duel to save the honor of the woman he loved.

Well, not exactly, but close enough for the purposes at hand. The only ticklish thing about Pushkin is that his poetry, for which he is most famous, just doesn't survive the journey over from Russian. When you put your best man on the job you get this:

Friends of Lyudmila and Ruslan!
The hero of my novel,
Without preambles, forthwith,
I'd like to have you meet:
Onegin, a good pal of mine,

And if you let just any old computer geek try it, you get an antiaphrodisiac horror:

Fans of Ruslan and of Lyudmila;
Meet my new book! I'll now reveal a
Few things about its motley crew.
First let me introduce to you

Fortunately Pushkin, while famous for his verse, also pioneered modern Russian prose, and unlike his verse this makes it through translation with only a few bruises. This volume is an excellent collection; particularly good are the Tales of Belkin, full of all kinds of dueling and corset-heaving in a gentle parody of the prevailing fashion for that kind of storytelling, and with Deep Themes™ gurgling just underneath. Pushkin is a very modern writer for those used to our own 19th century crew, or even to the battleships of later Russian fiction. The stories are subtle and self-deprecating, and like with Shakespeare, you can go very deep into them without worrying that you'll outrun the author. Literary types and young swains have been mining this stuff for two centuries with no discernible sign of exhausting the supply, so it's a safe bet.

Slavoliciousness: Hot hot hot. Pushkin pretty much tops out the scale. Bring up the movie and fawning essay by Ralph Fiennes if you need that extra little push over the cliff.

Also replaces: Byron, Dr. Zhivago

The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova

Unlike the other authors on this list, there is no 'ha' in Akhmatova. This great Silver Age poet was a bit of a Berthe Morisot figure - a great talent dismissed as a bystander by her male contemporaries. Akhmatova's first husband was the great poet Gumilev, who discounted her talent and then got himself killed. Later in life, she had to confront the siege of Leningrad, a vicious set of attacks by Stalinist critics, a twenty-five year embargo on her work, and her son's incarceration in the Gulag. There was plenty to make Akhmatova gloomy. But her poems are exceptional. It's usually a risk reading a poet in translation, but this one is worth taking; the collection is worth the price just for the sheer caliber of the critical apparatus. And with so many early poems about getting all fluttery over men, there's a lot of potential here for the young swain.

Slavoliciousness: Akhmatova should be approached with the same caution as Frieda Kahlo—she is unconventionally attractive and you can get in huge trouble for calling her anything less than gorgeous. I happen to like prominent noses, but if you are having real difficulties then fall back on the drawings by her buddy Modigliani.

Also Replaces: Sylvia Plath.

Moscow To The End Of The Line

Venedikt Erofeef

A first-person celebration of the Russian national pasttime, alcoholism, as narrated by an inebriated passenger riding a rickety suburban train to see his girlfriend and her young son. The narrator gets progressively more plastered with each station—think of it as Dante on Thunderbird—and the book grows progressively darker and more phantasmagorical. There are cameo appearances from the angelic hosts (who give the narrator advice on where to find booze) and God himself, interspersed with reflections on philosophy, literature, and the narrator's days as a cable layer, which came to an abrupt end when he was fired for making charts of employee productivity versus alcohol consumption. Apart from being one of the few novels to exceed Hemingway for sheer alcoholic content, the book is a vicious satire of Soviet life and predictably had to circulate in samizdat for years before finally being published immediately before his death. On top of everything else, Erofeev is a master prose stylist, and a glimmer of his talent with the language comes across in this solid English translation. I have gotten myself in trouble circulating this book to people who believe alcoholism is a Serious Social Problem Not To Be Made Light Of, but that itself serves a useful filtering function.

Predictably this is an excellent book to read while drinking.

Erofeev stunned everyone by dying of throat cancer rather than cirrhosis of the liver in 1990.

Also replaces: Anything by Bukowski or Hunter Thompson


Witold Gombrowicz, 1937

Any book that is reviled by Polish nationalists, banned by the Nazis, and then banned again the Communists is probably worth reading; it's not easy getting those groups to agree even on a pizza topping. Gombrowicz climbed onto an Argentina-bound liner just a few weeks before the outbreak of World War II to escape the fallout from his big literary bomb, and ended up stranded in Buenos Aires for twenty years. During that time he and Czesław Miłosz (the Nobel prize winning poet utterly unsuitable for dating) were the twin giants of Polish literature in exile. It's hard to imagine two more dissimilar writers.

Ferdydurke (the name comes from Sinclair Lewis's Freddy Durkee) is the story of a narrator who finds himself trapped in a series of literary clichés and does his best to use language to club his way out of them. The book is a playful, crazy, funny modernist masterpiece, deflating a series of ponderous forms and kicking the Novel of Ideas in the shins. Recurring topics are immaturity, ankles, professors, cultural aunts, stableboys, and the sinister color green, but the book is impossible to summarize for much the same reasons as a Monty Python skit, which it resembles.

Gombrowicz was a hero to three generations of Eastern European authors, including the very Kundera we're trying to get away from, who admired him for his sense of fun, his wordplay and his complete irreverence. Unfortunately the book was banned in its own country for most of the century, and marooned in English by a twice-removed translation from the French that pasteurized all the life out of the novel. In 2000 it was finally translated in all its glory into English by the brave Danuta Borchardt. Frequenty called the best novel nobody has ever heard of.

Also Replaces: Proust Volumes I-MCLXVII, Catcher in the Rye

Slav-o-liciousness: Extreme

Adventures of the Good Soldier Svejk

Jaroslav Hašek

The other great Czech author! Imagine Kafka as interpreted by Benny Hill and recited to you at a seedy bar. Indestructible Svejk is a consumate shirker and malingerer who wields the weapon of unassailable stupidity to defeat all the forces trying to get him killed in the First World War. But is he really stupid, or is the FOOL REALLY THE ONLY SMART ONE IN THE BOOK? Discuss over beers, preferably Czech beers, since Svejk's hometown is České Budějovice, home of the real Budweiser. Like the beer, this is humor several shades stronger than you would find stateside. Hasek hated the First World War so much that he refused to dignify it by taking it seriously.

Many Eastern Europeans of a certain age know this book by heart, since it was such a helpful primer in how to survive under the absurdities of advanced socialism. A particularly fun book to inflict on ardent multiculturalists—the dying Austria-Hungary it depicts is a heaven of diversity—and a tonic to anyone sick to death of activism, in any guise. Passivists have more fun!

Also replaces: Voyage to the End of the Night, Catch-22, All Quiet on the Western Front

Slavoliciousness: Hašek spent his entire short life in bars, and it shows. The key is to find the youngest picture you can.

The Defense

Zashchita Luzhina
Vladimir Nabokov

Everybody's read Lolita—some have even read the indispensible Annotated Lolita—but do you really want to look deep into your new acquintance's eyes and start talking about nymphets? High risk, low reward. Better to let Nabokov help you play to your strengths. After all, he had a long past as a Russian author before he ever thought of switching languages to English, and he took care to see his early work was properly translated (by his son) after getting himself settled in as an American author. Instead of cringing through your date's misreading of his great American novel, or forcing her to cringe through your own, why not analyze the strange moves of this Jimmy Corrigan-like chess master, an emigré lost and adrift and seemingly rescued by the love of a good woman? The novel itself is a kind of chess problem, the usual inside-out trap lovingly laid out for you by the author, but at least it won't make you look like a pedophile. Less overtly recondite than much of Nabokov's later fiction, and like with Kundera, you get a hot movie version to fall back on if you really don't want to do the assigned reading.

Slav-o-liciousness: The girls will go crazy over the soulful eyes and the lifetime of monogamous devotion.

The Russian Debutante's Handbook

Gary Shteyngart

Unlike the other authors here, Gary Shteyngart writes in English and is a young slip of a guy, alive and well in New York. The Handbook is a good-natured skewering of a whole generation of emigres and expats in both directions—our track-suited countrymen in Brajton Bich and the American student Bohemians imitating their vision of 20's Paris in a variety of Eastern European cafés. The book is beautifully written but not recommended if you think your young love may be humorless, or if you have heard her say anything at all about how much she grew as a person during her semester in Prague. Although in that case, what are you doing with her? Just read some good books instead. Also not recommended if you have issues about not having achieved much during your twenties; Shteyngart will make you want to curl up into a ball and stay that way.


You want to be careful here since at least in theory, your girlfriend could just cut out the middleman and hook up with Shteyngart directly. The fact that he was an Igor before moving to Gary adds a dangerous note, as does the stock photo of him with a bear cub.

The Petty Demon

Mel'kij Bes
Fyodor Sologub

This strange little book was a runaway bestseller in its time, but over time it has fallen further and further into obscurity, to the point where even many Russians haven't heard of one of their greatest Silver Age authors. Set in a grotesque provincial town, the story follows the decline into madness of Peredonov, a malevolent schoolteacher who for inexplicable reasons is also the town's most eligible bachelor. The characters are almost uniformly horrible people, which led many contemporary readers to treat it as straight-up social commentary, but they're also elements in Sologub's complex metaphysical system. Part of the fun of re-reading the book is peeking under the lid to watch the intricate system of moving parts. Sologub is a brilliant writer on top of his mystical streak, and he takes care not to make the book all ashes and gloom—at the center of the novel is a most likable 12-year-old boy and the irresistible young woman who befriends him, takes to dressing him up in girls' clothing, spraying him with perfume, and kissing him all over. Hot stuff for 1905. Highly recommended. And for all the reprobate nature of the main characters, the prose is beautiful—Sologub's day job was as a poet, and it shows.

Happy reading! And let me know if any of these actually work.

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