Stalin is a joker

Michael Hofmann

  • The Festival of Insignificance by Milan Kundera, translated by Linda Asher
    Faber, 115 pp, £14.99, June 2015, ISBN 978 0 571 31646 5

Younger readers – how I’ve dreamed of beginning a review with those snitty Amis/Waugh-type words – will need reminding that in the 1970s and 1980s there was no getting round the French-Bohemian (actually Moravian) novelist Milan Kundera, who was to those decades what Sebald and Knausgaard were to be for those following. There was about these authors something chic and brainy and radical: three qualities the English have on the whole preferred to import as required rather than mass-produce at home; better to bring them in (like a playmaker, a trequartista) on a whim and a sufferance (give them a work visa, a translation contract or an import licence) than set up anything like an assembly line. These authors coloured the aspirational, slightly fey cosmopolitanism of the times; Europe was still pretty new; people sighed, did they but know it, in Franco-Bohemian (or Franco-Moravian), in German (very strangely), in Norwegian. What you got out of these writers, like the wrong kind of leaf, or the wrong kind of snow (though these were native productions), was the wrong kind of novel.

The 1980s in particular were Kundera’s decade. The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), a highly conceptual and not really catchy title, relaunched the Kundera backlist: The Joke (1967), the short story collection Laughable Loves (1969), The Farewell Party (1972), Life Is Elsewhere (1973), The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1979). If you weren’t reading the new book, you were catching up on one of the others, or feverishly waiting for the next one. (The good news was you didn’t have long to wait, because Immortality, Kundera’s longest novel, came out in 1991.) If you saw a book left as a conversation piece in a film or TV play of that period, chances are that it was The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I cringed for my former self when I saw Philip Kaufman’s 1988 adaptation again. Everything about it was wrong, from the opening shots of crumbling plaster and dim lightbulbs in the stairwell of a Prague tenement (three of Kundera’s bugbears in The Art of the Novel are verisimilitude, realistic settings and chronological order). And then on top of that a mal-coiffed Daniel Day-Lewis – a brain surgeon, if you will – and his reiterated and creepily effective ‘Take off your clothes!’

Younger reader, I read no more. Or at least no more Kundera. He had settled in France, where he went into exile in 1975, taken French citizenship, resolutely cultivated his privacy (odd for such an alert and opinionated and interesting man, a one-man talk-show in another world: ‘A Word in Edgeways’, as it might be, ‘with Milan Kundera’), wrote (in French) a few mostly short novels with (in English) forgettable, mostly single-word (and if not, then nonsensical) titles mostly beginning with ‘I’: Slowness (the exception), then Identity, Ignorance and now The Festival of Insignificance. You’re tempted to develop on the theme yourself: Intemperance, Interest Interest Interest, Farewell to the Intransigent, The Book of Invariability. The Kundera product seemed to have become arch, stylised, autonomous, its own sort of neo-kitsch: as much the outcome of a long-established series of noes as of a different and wholly original set of yeses.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in