Review: Life is Elsewhere


Even though I’ve spent half of my adult life in graduate school studying literature, and the other half working in a library, there’s still a lot of classic books and authors I’ve managed to miss. Milan Kundera is one of them, so I was super-excited to see one of his titles on the crowdsourced summer reading list. Intrigued by the fact my colleague had chosen something other than The Unbearable Lightness of Being, I dived into Life is Elsewhere (thanks, random number generator!).


Life is elsewhere. Click to read more about Kundera's life and work.

Click through for more information on Kundera’s life and work.

The novel revolves around Jaromil, a Czech poet, and his extremely overbearing mother, referred to throughout the narrative only as “Mama.” Mama’s marriage is unsatisfying, so she channels all her love and energy into little Jaromil, which makes for some warped relationships with women as he grows up. Mama’s also convinced Jaromil is special and destined for greatness, which he tends to believe, thus rendering him, upon more than one occasion, an insufferable ass.

So, why stick with these unlikeable characters? Because Jaromil, put-upon and jerk-tastic as he is, really does have a poetic sensibility, one that manages to flourish a little despite Mama’s smother-love. His alter ego, Xavier, is a creature of pure dream, a representation of his best self. Xavier is the part of Jaromil Mama can’t warp, and from time to time Xavier’s voice makes itself known in Jaromil’s work. He’s downright annoying, and yet at the same time you pity him, because of the wasted potential.

Kundera uses examples from other places and times to demonstrate just how stilted and restrained Jaromil’s own work is. Even Jaromil’s death is stupid rather than tragic or romantic (and, arguably, his own darned fault). The world, however, goes on without him, and holds hope of other ways of being and relating, as we learn through Jaromil’s ex-girlfriend after the poet’s death (a story I most definitely will not spoil).

Through it all, the narrative voice is wise, knowing, omniscient, and filled with hope, even as Jaromil and Mama struggle like insects pinned to a card, trapped in their destructive little dance. There’s the human world, and then there’s the poetic realm, and sometimes in one we get a glimpse of the other. Which is why, in spite of everything, people still try to be poets.

Having had this reading experience, I now understand why people praise Kundera so highly, and I will definitely be trying his other works. Recommended for literary fiction fans and poetry lovers alike.


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