Apr. 1, 2004

Flying Lesson

by Julia Kasdorf

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Poem: "Flying Lesson," by Julia Kasdorf, from Eve's Striptease (University of Pittsburgh Press).

Flying Lesson

Over a tray of spent plates, I confessed
to the college president my plans to go East,
to New York, which I'd not really seen,
though it seemed the right place
for a sophomore as sullen and restless
as I had become on that merciless
Midwestern plain. He slowly stroked
a thick cup and described the nights
when, a theology teacher in Boston, he'd fly
a tiny plane alone out over the ocean,
each time pressing farther into the dark
until the last moment, when he'd turn
toward the coast's bright spine, how he loved
the way the city glittered beneath him
as he glided gracefully toward it,
engine gasping, fuel needle dead on empty,
the way sweat dampened the back of his neck
when he climbed from the cockpit, giddy.
Buttoned up in my cardigan, young, willing
to lose everything, how could I see generosity
or warning? But now that I'm out here,
his advice comes so clear: fling yourself
farther, and a bit farther each time,
but darling, don't drop.

Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is April Fool's Day, a holiday celebrating practical jokes of all kinds. The British collection of folk wisdom known as Poor Robin's Almanac (1662) says:

"The first of April, some do say,
Is set apart for All Fools' Day.
But why the people call it so,
Nor I, nor they themselves do know.
But on this day are people sent
On purpose for pure merriment."

One theory about the origin of April Fool's Day is that it started in France in 1582. Up until then, New Year's Day was celebrated on April 1, but when Europe adopted the Gregorian Calendar, New Year's Day was moved to January 1. At the time, news of such things traveled slowly, and it took many years for everyone to get up to speed. People who continued to celebrate New Years on April 1 came to be known as April Fools.

It's the birthday of playwright Edmond Rostand, born in Marseilles, France (1868). He's best known as the author of the play Cyrano de Bergerac (1897), based on an actual person. Cyrano de Bergerac was famous in his day for his heroism on the battlefield, but after he survived a stab wound in the neck, he decided to study astronomy, and later wrote a satirical novel about traveling to the moon.

Rostand often embellished the details in his historical plays, and he decided to exaggerate historical accounts of Cyrano de Bergerac's large nose. In the play, Cyrano is the most dashing, brave and romantic man in France, able to compose sonnets while engaged in a sword fight, but he also has the largest nose anyone has ever seen. Because of his huge nose, he decides he can never win over Roxanne, the love of his life.

Edmond Rostand was in love with the famous actress Sarah Bernhardt when he wrote the play, and he wrote the part of Roxanne with Bernhardt in mind. Bernhardt never performed the role, but the play still became a huge hit in France. The audience loved it so much on opening night that the standing ovation lasted for a full hour, with the audience calling back the cast for bows more than forty times. Cyrano de Bergerac is now one of France's most beloved characters.

In the play, Cyrano says of his nose, "A man ought to be proud, / Yes, proud, of having so proud an appendix / Of flesh and bone to crown his countenance, / Provided a great nose may be an index / Of a great soul."

It's the birthday of novelist Milan Kundera, born in Brno, Czechoslovakia (1929). His father was a famous pianist and musicologist. Kundera started out wanting to be a musician, but he began writing poetry in his teens. He was still in high school when the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia, and since he knew that the Nazis hated the Russians, he began to study Russian language and literature. After World War II, he became a passionate member of Czechoslovakia's ruling Communist Party.

At the time, the communist government believed that artists should only produce art that dealt with the "proletarian movement," and the "progression of society toward communism." Kundera began to rebel against these standards and speak out against censorship. He said, "[Censors] are quite capable of turning their country into a wasteland with no history, no memory, no echo of beauty." The government later attacked and censored two collections of his poems, Man: A Broad Garden (1953) and Monologues (1957), because they were all about love affairs and had nothing to do with class struggle.

Kundera decided to write a novel about his experiences with the Czech government. The result was his novel The Joke (1967), about a man who ends up in a prison labor camp because he makes a joke about communism in a postcard. The novel was published just as Czechoslovakia was moving toward a more democratic government, and it became a bestseller. Then, in August of 1968, Soviet troops invaded the country to crush all democratic reforms. Kundera said, "If someone had told me as a boy, 'One day you will see your nation vanish from the world,' I would have considered it nonsense . . . but after the Russian invasion of 1968, [I] was confronted with the thought that [my] nation could be quietly erased from Europe."

Under the new Soviet rule, Kundera was stripped of his teaching position, his books were banned from bookstores and removed from libraries, and he was forbidden to publish anything new. He moved back to his hometown and supported himself by secretly writing an astrology column for a local newspaper. At first, he was miserable that he'd been forbidden to publish his work, but then he realized that if he couldn't publish in his country, he couldn't be censored either. For the first time in his life, he was free to write whatever he wanted. He wrote a novel called The Farewell Party (1976), which was published in France and won a major literary award there. He was allowed to travel to France, where he got a position teaching literature.

In exile from his home, he began to work on a novel called The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1979), about totalitarian attempts to erase the past and the ways people resist oppression through their sense of humor. He said, "I learned the value of humor during the time of Stalinist terror. . . . I could always recognize . . . a person whom I needn't fear by the way he smiled. A sense of humor was a trustworthy sign of recognition." The book made him an internationally known author, and he went on to write many more books, including The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984). His most recent novel is Ignorance (2000).

He wrote, "The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting."

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