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.

Twenty, twenty-five years later, the books are addictive, moreish, still fresh, thin textured, a little unsatisfying (perhaps that goes with their addictiveness) and obvious. I read the new book – less a novel than a novelina – and its five immediate predecessors. They feel like comfort reading, which is perhaps the fate of radical writing in age. What Kundera does is not all that different from the collage procedure loveably outlined by Gottfried Benn sixty or seventy years ago: ‘In the hands of a proper poet, you can lift one stanza out of a railway timetable, the second from a hymnbook, and the third one a joke, and the result will still be a poem.’ The books are put together from self-contained, sometimes numbered or titled sections of a page or a few pages, as much explanation or exploration as narrative. Their thrust is less uncomplicatedly forward than it is sideways, or up and down, sometimes even backwards, in digression or amplification. Often, the end of the novel is tucked into the middle of the action somewhere, and vice versa (it happens in The Unbearable Lightness of Being). The books live in their spaces and leaps. (If Kundera has a century, it is the 18th. You feel the watchmaker novelist everywhere.) They put you in mind of the model – with rods and orbs, drinking straws and different-sized polystyrene balls – of a complicated chain molecule, a hydrocarbon or whatever. Or – a suggestion probably from Kundera himself, son of a musician, a musician himself, and anyway a Czech (‘But what if a Czech had no feeling for music?’ he wonders in The Unbearable Lightness of Being: ‘Then the essence of being Czech vanished into thin air’) – of 12-tone composition. They are aleatory and feel disciplined, or feel aleatory and are disciplined. There is a constant cool temperature, a distance, a willingness to manipulate, an inquiry, the testing of this or that hypothesis. There is nothing they abhor so much as the novel’s standard vice and stand-by, overwriting. Kundera may occasionally be didactic or self-indulgent or not as interesting as he thinks he is, but he never overwrites. It is strange to think that Kundera began as a poet; less strange, maybe (intellectualist prestidigitations have remained his thing), that it was as a Surrealist poet. It is the trim sentence, the absence of fluff and dirt (not in the sense of smut – of which more later – just ‘matter out of place’), that makes everything else possible.

Kundera started out as a Czech humourist of the leaner sort (not a Skvorecky, not a bonhomous Hrabal), and the contradictory economics of the joker – the cut-to-the-chase of the set-up, the delay of digressiveness – have stayed with him. You slow down from time to time, but always on his terms; generally, the pace is brisk. As in a joke, the plot either generates or stands in for everything else: character, setting, detail, literary-historical (Goethe, Schoenberg) or mythic (Odysseus) parallels, shape, movement, moral. The books are wheels within wheels, plotty improvisations on plot. Without the plot, you would have no novel (that’s pretty much what happens in The Festival of Insignificance); the plot is the boiler that drives both Kundera’s commentary and a sort of situational psychology that is not much more than geometry (Kundera has said: ‘My novels are not psychological.’ What he means is that the action generates the psychology, rather than vice versa; without his or her personal predicament, no figure in any of his books would be distinguishable from any other). The figures come with Christian names (and a few of them have occupations as well), but little more. Even then, they barely deserve them, and you feel that it’s a courtesy to the reader that they’re not called A, B and C, or Englishman, Scotsman and Welshman, or Oxygen, Hydrogen and Carbon. The names are like the names given out at a wife-swapping party: useful handles for continuity. It’s not a great surprise either that minor characters in some of the books have Tintin-ish comedy names: Quaquelique in the new one, Berck and Duberques in Slowness, Professor Avenarius in Immortality. Beyond seeming at each stage a little younger than their creator, they don’t have ages, their outsides are left blank, they have no inner lives. Basically, they are lo-spec, hi-functioning bodies. A Kundera book is a northern holiday from standard domestic fiction: there are probably more engrossing things to do somewhere else, but hey! it’s a holiday.

People in Kundera novels eat (a little, decorously), drink (a little more, with enthusiasm), make love (unfeasibly) and talk (beyond all reason). Beyond that, they walk, drive cars and motorbikes, listen to the radio, and not much else. Their lives, like their characters, are thinly accoutred: no surplus aunts, no contents of mantelpieces, no quality of light. Their existence is exemplary, elaborated, hypothetical, or even contingent; it is to prove a point, or to hang an argument on. Perhaps even less than that: to spin an entertainment from. A man ‘standing at the window of his flat and looking across the courtyard at the opposite walls, not knowing what to do’ becomes Tomás in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and acquires – by Kundera’s typical yea or nay binary methods – connections, complications, a profession, a dog and three hundred pages. An older woman with an arrestingly girlish way of waving becomes Agnes in Immortality. The four friends in The Festival of Insignificance refer to Kundera as ‘our master’, and he gives them a book to read, about Khrushchev. They have broken through into being – or, more likely, into seeming. (They exist about as much as the bathtub exists in the archaic sets of school calculations about how quickly it fills.) It never ceases to amuse me that the best-known and best-loved scene in all Kundera’s books – better known and certainly better loved than any of the sex scenes – is the death of Karenin the dog in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. As though Kundera had bethought himself, thrown out his philosophising and his cerebral methods, and written a heart-wringing doggy version of Little Nell. (What I imagine happened is this. Kundera thinks: ‘I’m bored. I need a challenge. What if I take someone who doesn’t exist, give them a dog that doesn’t exist either – and kill off the dog? I’m thinking a three-hanky job, minimum. Of course it’s all a game, though heaven help me if they ever find out.’) But then I don’t much like dogs.

Kundera has an old – and I would say, a dated – trust in sex. Sex as the expression of or the stand-in for or the earthly (or heavenly) representative of personality or inner life. It all feels about as old as the Emmanuelle films (which it broadly is). He sets store by sex the way we nowadays have learned to set store by accessories or fitness. The books lead up to sex, or tramp or wallow through sex, or stop every so often and delicately nibble at sex. It is never far to seek, and it is forever being sought. The characters are not distinguished by style or voice, they all have a basic attractiveness and a basic intelligence (and a basic stupidity), they react (without panic, without heat) to the things that happen to them; where they differ – supposedly – is in bed. Bed finds them out. Different things get them there, and once there, they do different things. The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Immortality are basically the sexual biographies of Tomás, Tereza and Sabina, of Paul and Agnes and Laura and Bernard and Rubens – whose sex life (Kundera does love his taxonomies) goes through five phases, from ‘the period of athletic muteness’ to something called (coyness is also of the process) ‘the mystical period’. Slowness runs a typically ferocious 18th-century story of a young man being exploited one night by a noblewoman (it’s called Point de lendemain or No Tomorrow) against a chaotic contemporary one where Vincent meets Julie, they get undressed (‘Take off your clothes!’) by a hotel swimming pool, he promises her ‘a huge happening right under the eyes of those under-fucked losers!’ and the whole thing ends with a whimper, random fisticuffs and a whimper. On the one hand, the ostensibly prim and slow, but actually vicious and fearless 18th century; on the other, our recently deceased 20th, all hat and no cattle and not finally delivering; purposeful discretion and risible openness; sex and violence. One might take the outcome here, and apply it to Kundera more generally: picture his characters between calèche and four-poster bed, in full-bottomed wigs; with cambric handkerchiefs and minuets and beauty spots and a hearty reek. Whoever they are, sex tests them and keeps the score. Do they use rude words or not? Do they prefer darkness or do they like to leave the lights on? Do they shut their eyes or keep them open? Are they thinking of the person they’re with, or of someone else? Kundera is touchingly interested and trusting in what he finds out: they are about the only stage directions you get in his books. Where other observers might contend our species is at its most generic in bed, and any differences we might display there are either faddish or not interesting, that, for example, the way we like to shop is altogether more expressive and revelatory, Kundera takes another view. He deserves the label ‘erotic politician’ more than Jim Morrison ever did.

*

The mode of the books is basically serious farce. Kundera’s devices run the gamut from chance meetings and spontaneous seductions to coincidence to car crashes and dead infants to suicides threatened and attempted, and on a couple of occasions a nastily whimsical type of murder by suicide (one involving a car in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, one a drowning in The Festival of Insignificance). All these are basically elements of farce: rapid, randomising action. The blender. What may seem at moments to look like a world is all along a laboratory whose purpose is the making and breaking of couples. Kundera regularly gets clobbered for misogyny – or recently, more mildly, by Jonathan Coe in the Guardian, for ‘androcentrism’ – but I don’t think it’s that. If you wanted a word it would be gamogenetic: it’s about couples and coupling. Everyone in his books is a sexual actor or a sexual cipher, the men as much as the women. People pair up and pair off, much as they do in the world of operetta, or West End farce. It’s form, not content; the way that particular game happens to be played. In Ignorance (2002), the book before The Festival of Insignificance, and for me the revelation among the Kundera novels I’ve reread, the heroine, Irena, is having drunken sex in a Prague hotel room with Josef, a man she thinks she remembers from before (she has been living in Paris for a long time, he in Denmark, both are émigrés, it is their first time back, they met at the airport on the way out, and arranged to have lunch together on their last day), while at the same time Gustaf, her older Swedish businessman boyfriend, an ardent Czechophile, is being seduced by her mother in the Kafka was born in Prague T-shirt she (the mother) gave him. What drink is to the one, the mirror is for the other – distancing, deniability almost, disinhibiting, the wishful sense that ‘this isn’t happening to me’:

As they danced, the mother led him towards the great mirror on the wall, and the two of them turned their heads to watch themselves. Then she let go of him and, without touching, they improvised routines facing the mirror; Gustaf was making dancing gestures with his hands and, like her, never took his eyes off their reflection. So he saw the mother’s hand come to settle on his crotch.

One event on its own might have been serious; two are farcical, a perverse form of tidiness. The author has taken care of some loose ends. The two couplings are scandalous, monstrous, just – and probably, as in the 18th-century tale in Slowness, without consequences.

Probably which Kundera novel most appeals to you is a function of its subject area. Dogs, as I said, I can take or leave; slowness, immortality, lightness, ditto. Ignorance is the novel where he takes on things that interest me: exile, and the change of language. For a Kundera novel, it is unusually well stocked – not the invention of dice and plot-cards, for once. Then there is the emigration dream, which may go like this: ‘Another time she is strolling in a small French city when she sees an odd group of women, each holding a beer mug, run towards her, call to her in fake cordiality, and in terror Irena realises that she is in Prague. She cries out, she wakes up.’ There is the moment she is caught out by unseasonably warm weather in Prague and buys a schoolmarmish floral dress ‘for a ridiculous price’. She happens to see herself then in a mirror – again! – and the person she saw

was not she, it was somebody else or, when she looked longer at herself in her new dress, it was she but she living a different life, the life she would have lived if she had stayed in Prague. This woman was not dislikeable, she was even touching, but a little too touching, touching to the point of tears, pitiable, poor, weak, downtrodden.

To Josef, meanwhile, it is the Czech language that seems to have changed:

What had happened to Czech during those two sorry decades? Was it the stresses that had changed? Apparently. Hitherto set firmly on the first syllable, they had grown weaker; the intonation seemed boneless. The melody sounded more monotone than before – drawling. And the timbre! It had turned nasal, which gave the speech an unpleasantly blasé quality.

There is his family and hers, there is an old communist, ‘the Red Commissar’, widowhood and widowerhood, the provinces and the capital, an old retro-avant-garde painting that was in his possession, the incommunicability of exile (it is very funny about the French), memories, memories, memories … In the context of Kundera, whose books can seem schematic and scrawny, it reads like a Victorian double-decker.

And The Festival of Insignificance – perhaps like a scarecrow. It reads like something one of Kundera’s enemies might have written, and passed off as his. It is hard to point to an incident, a sentence, a word that is interesting, that is not perfunctory, that is in any way noteworthy. (I remember J.M.R. Lenz in my father’s story of that name, trying to get his father interested in a manuscript: ‘Look – a comma!’) Julie puts in an appearance – perhaps held over from Slowness: ‘The motion of her behind was both a greeting and an invitation.’ You grit your teeth. Quaquelique is the latest in the line of Kundera’s uncharismatic seducers. You dutifully make a note of it. ‘The twilight of joking! The post-joke age!’ someone exclaims. You think Kundera may be onto something here. But Ramon, Charles, Alain, the female navel, the ‘Pakistani’ waiter, Kalinin and his prostate problem, a very old bottle of Armagnac falling off a cupboard and smashing, a story of a hunting exploit of Stalin’s, someone’s mother falling ill? They all seem like seconds, and the way they are linked – not linked – is certainly second-rate. Perhaps there are two things left. The very last of Kundera’s mercurial connections seems to propose that Stalin is a joker, is – not to put too fine a point on it – Don Quixote. Then the ends of Kundera’s world would have shaken hands and swung round, would have castled. The other is the last ten lines or so of the book. No, they’re nothing special, but their constituent parts – children, music, the Luxembourg Gardens, a carriage waiting to leave, the ‘Marseillaise’ – perhaps they’re something like a thank-you note to France for its hospitality of the last forty years, a farewell party:

The children’s chorus has already formed a perfect half circle and their conductor, a boy of ten dressed in a tuxedo, baton in hand, prepares to give the signal for the concert to begin.

But he must wait a few moments, for a little carriage painted red and yellow, drawn by two ponies, comes clattering up. The moustachioed man in his worn parka raises his long shotgun. The coachman, a child himself, obeys, and stops the carriage. The moustachioed fellow and the old man with the goatee climb in, sit down, send a last salute to the audience, who wave their arms in delight while the children’s chorus begins singing ‘La Marseillaise’.

The little carriage sets off, and along a broad pathway leaves the Luxembourg Gardens and disappears slowly into the Paris streets.