Quentin Blake: From the Studio @ the House of Illustration

Sir Quentin Blake helped set up the House of Illustration which opened in 2014. One of the perks is that the third and smallest of the exhibition spaces is a permanent Quentin Blake gallery which is given over to a rotating series of small exhibitions and displays.

At the moment it’s hosting the latest iteration of a project titled simply ‘From the studio’. England’s favourite illustrator (born in 1932 and so now 87 years old) draws every day. In this little L-shaped room are gathered samples of several of his recent projects.

The mouse on a tricycle

Words cannot really convey how fantastic Blake’s work is. With a few strokes of the pen he creates characters and situations which transport you. Not only that, but almost everything he draws is funny.

Take the adventures of the mouse on a tricycle. That’s just a brilliant idea, but he then submits it to a series of hilarious variations, with the eponymous mouse, a tiny figure on his little trike, being: cheered on by football supporters with rattles and a megaphone; inspiring a flowery poet to song; having his photo taken by the paparazzi; being given a stern telling off by an elderly teacher; being made the subject of a learned disquisition by a science professor to his students accompanied by a barrage of graphs and statistics by a businessman, and so on.

Each one is brilliant. The cumulative effect is genius.

The Mouse on a Tricycle by Quentin Blake

The art of conversation

Just as simple is the idea of ‘the conversation’, which gives rise to a florid variety of different people conversing in wildly different ways, from muttered asides, to arm-waving rants, to jolly chaps with legs crossed in the park, to two people talking over the head of a disgruntled neighbour at a dinner party.

The Art of Conversation by Quentin Blake

In fact both mouse and conversation are part of a series QB has been published called the QB Papers, relatively short, large format paperbacks containing a series of drawings based on a single topic. There is no text and no story, so you are free to browse and free-associate. To date the Art of Conversation and Mouse on a Tricycle have been joined by Constant Readers, Scenes at Twilight, A Comfortable Fit, Free in the Water and so on.

The King of the Golden River

Blake has previously shown some of the illustrations he’s done for a luxury edition of John Ruskin’s 1842 children’s story, The King of the Golden River. This time round he’s showing the coloured versions, and explains that he waited some time after doing the initial drawings, for the correct colouring schemes to come to him.

Illustration for The King of the Golden River by Quentin Blake

The Lost City Challenge

There are drawings done for the Lost City Challenge, which was an instagram campaign organised by Greenpeace, the ‘lost city’ being the vibrant ecosystem surrounding chimney-shaped hydrothermal vents located in the middle of the Atlantic which are under threat from mining companies planning to extract rare earth minerals from the area. Blake contributed a picture of a vibrant oceanic scene and another one showing a lifeless seascape after the drilling has killed everything.

Moonlight travellers

This began as a personal project in 2017, the notion of a group of anonymous people journeying through a moonlit landscape. Slowly they grew into a series of watercolours depicting journeys through unknown landscapes which capture, with vivid immediacy, the mystery and intrigue of the dead of night. This years the series was published accompanied by a prose text by novelist Will Self mediating on the mystery of the moonlight.

Illustrations to Moonlight Travellers by Quentin Blake

There are only twenty or so drawings and watercolours in all, but every single one is a thing of pure delight.


Related links

Reviews of other House of Illustration exhibitions

My Uncle Oswald by Roald Dahl (1979)

‘Is this exactly what happened?’ Sir Charles asked me.
‘Every word of it, sir, is the gospel truth,’ I lied. (p.45)

Apart from his well-known children’s novels, Dahl also wrote movie screenplays, TV scripts, and some fifty-four short stories for adults which appeared in various magazines throughout his career, the first in 1942, the last in 1988. It was these which formed the basis of the Tales of the Unexpected TV series I watched as a teenager in the 1970s.

My Uncle Oswald is his only full-length novel for adults, sort of. The fictional character of Oswald Hendryks Cornelius is described as:

‘the connoisseur, the bon vivant, the collector of spiders, scorpions and walking sticks, the lover of opera, the expert on Chinese porcelain, the seducer of women, and without much doubt, the greatest fornicator of all time.’

He first appeared in two short stories, The Visitor and Bitch, first published in Playboy magazine and published in book form in the 1974 collection Switch Bitch, which I’ve reviewed.

It’s no surprise that Uncle Oswald eventually had a novel devoted to him, indeed it’s a surprise it took so long, he is such a garish, larger-than-life and transgressively monstrous creation.

As ‘the greatest fornicator of all time’, by the age of seventeen he’s already ‘had’ some fifty English lovelies, and goes to stay in Paris, where he swives nubile French daughters (Madamoiselle Nicole), the wife of the British ambassador (Lady Makepiece) and an energetic Turkish gentlelady.

After you adjust to the bantering tone about sexual conquests and the deliberately obscene subject matter, you begin to realise that arguably the real appeal of the book is the deliberately dated and nostalgic setting. The nameless narrator claims to be quoting verbatim from scandalous Uncle Oswald’s multi-volume diaries, specifically Volume XX, written in the 1938 when Oswald was 43 years old and much of the texture of the book is filled with young Oswald’s appreciation for fine wine, gourmet meals, and very early motor cars.

Thus the opening sequence is set as long ago as 1912, during the pre-Great War imperial heyday, when a chap could still travel the world flourishing his big British passport.

1. The Sudanese Blister Beetle aphrodisiac (1912)

The first story tells how Uncle Oswald made his fortune by learning, from a disreputable relation of his, about the most powerful aphrodisiac in the world made from the ground shells of the Sudanese Blister Beetle. Inspired, he sets off himself to the Sudan where he does a deal with the head porter at his hotel to get a few bags full of the precious powder, and brings it back to Paris.

Here he is staying with friends of his posh father (William Cornelius, member of the Diplomatic Service) and sets up a little chemistry lab in the rooms he’s been allotted, and proceeds to produce home-made aphrodisiac pills which, with an eye for marketing, he describes as products of a certain Professor Yousoupoff’s secret formula (foreign names impress the gullible).

Put in summary form like this, you can see that – although the theme is supposedly pornographic, as Oswald couples with women tall and short, foreign and British – in fact the basic ideas and the childish way they’re described (‘the greatest fornicator in the world’, ‘the most powerful aphrodisiac known to man’) are closely related to his children’s books (Danny the Champion of the World, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), and so is the often funny and deliberately ludicrous way he describes his umpteen couplings:

‘Were you ever a gym teacher?’ I asked her.
‘Shut up and concentrate,’ she said, rolling me around like a lump of puff pastry. (p.34)

Also played for laughs is the conceit that Oswald is subject to vivid hallucinations while he is on the job – thus the second time he swives the nubile 19-year-old daughter of his hosts in Paris, we are treated to an extended and deliberately comic comparison of the whole thing to a medieval tournament, in which he appears as a knight in armour with an unusually long, firm lance and goes about his business to the enthusiastic cheers of the crowd – ‘Thrust away, Sir Oswald! Thrust away!’ (p.27)

There is also a good deal of humour at the expense of national stereotypes, especially in the dinner he gets invited to at the British Ambassador’s residence in Paris, attended by ambassadors from Germany, Russia, Japan, Peru, Bulgaria and so on, each a lively cartoon version of their national stereotype from the short, ultra-polite Japanese to the gruff German with his thick accent. It is to this assembly of bemedalled men that Oswald first explains the nature of the powerful aphrodisiac he has discovered.

The little Mexican clapped his hands together hard and cried out, ‘That is exactly how I wish to go when I die! From too much women!’
‘From too much goats and donkeys iss more likely in Mexico,’ the German ambassador snorted. (p.43)

When we are told (a bit later on) that a sexy young woman student he embroils in his schemes is named Yasmin Howcomely (p.90) we remember that Dahl worked on two movie adaptation of Ian Fleming novels – You Only Live Twice and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (the female lead of which is named Truly Scrumptious). And these connections made me see the gruff and candid German ambassador in this scene being played by the fabulous Gert Fröbe, who plays Goldfinger in the film of the same name, and the cartoon dictator, Baron Bomburst, in Chitty Chitty

Anyway, Oswald manages to enchant these rich VIPs with visions of the staying power afforded by his aphrodisiac pills and (very cannily) gives them each a free sample presented on a puff of cotton wool in a stylish little jewellery box. Soon they are coming back for more and he sells them for an outrageous amount (1,000 Francs) to the national ambassadors and, by word of mouth, to their fellow countrymen who come flocking.

So that’s how wicked Uncle Oswald made his first fortune.

2. The freezing sperm scam (1919)

The Great War comes, Oswald serves his country and ends the war as a captain with a Military Cross. He goes up to Cambridge and studies Chemistry with a brilliant if rather shabby tutor, A.R. Woresley, whose moustache is coloured yellow by his pipe.

One evening, over a fine bottle of port (Oswald who is, as you might expect, a confident connoisseur of wines and spirits) Woresley tells him a cock and bull story about how he has carried out extensive experiments and perfected a method for freezing sperm, specifically bull sperm.

This is the pretext for a grotesque story about the tutor and his brother stealing the sperm of the prize bull of his brothers neighbouring farm, by taking along an in-heat cow one night, smuggling it into the field with the bull and, as the bull gets and erection and goes to cover the cow, instead manhandling his pizzle into a fake rubber cow vagina, which then captures the bull’s ejaculate, with the tutor then getting onto his pushbike to wobble off along country lanes carrying a bag with a fake cow vagina full of bull semen back to the lab they’ve rigged up at his brother’s farm complete with liquid nitrogen to freeze the semen.

(In case it wasn’t obvious before, this story makes you realise the book is not intended as pornography, even soft pornography, but is instead a Rabelaisian satire on the whole preposterous subject of sex and its indignities and absurdities.)

Student Oswald goes home and lies in bed at night pondering the implications of his tutor’s experiment and realising… there is a fortune to be made selling the frozen semen of Great Men and Geniuses to women who want to be the mothers of the children of Great Men.

He recruits a lively young filly from Girton – the half-Persian Yasmin Howcomely mentioned above – who is sex incarnate.

The plan is for her to seduce the great and the good, writers and discoverers and scientists, with a sideline in the kings of Europe – slipping them each a dose of beetle powder, then clapping a sturdy rubber johnny over their manhoods as they attain rutting speed, in which the precious spermatazoa can be collected, before she makes her excuses and dashes back to Uncle Oswald who’ll be somewhere with the liquid nitrogen ready to pack and store the precious fluid.

What could possibly go wrong with such a hare-brained scheme?

The tutor thinks it can’t possibly work, at which point Oswald – who loves a challenge – makes Woresley his first conquest, sending Yasmin to him, getting him to sign a form for her (supposed) autograph book, and then to eat a chocolate with the fateful beetle powder in it. From his concealed position Oswald watches while stuffy, staid old Woresely is transformed into a virile stud and ravishes young Yasmin, who manages to collect a rubber johnny full of his sperm. Next day Oswald brandishes a container of the sperm and his signature in the tutor’s face. QED. Theory proved.

So they form a team and draw up a hit list of the Great Men of the age (an interesting list in itself). When it comes to the royals, Oswald reveals that he has faked introductory letters from King George V to all the crowned heads of Europe introducing Yasmin as an aristocratic lady in need of a private audience about a sensitive matter.

Imagine a particularly bawdy, not to say crude pantomime, and you have the spirit of the thing. The whole world of the arts and sciences is reviewed not in terms of achievement, but their potential spunk donations. The only snag is that the list of Great Men to be despunked includes some rather elderly ones that they worry might have a heart attack during the process.

‘Now see here, Cornelius,’ A.R. Woresley said. ‘I won’t be a party to the murder of Mr Renoir or Mr Manet. I don’t want blood on my hands.’
‘You’ll have a lot of valuable sperm on your hands and that’s all,’ I said. ‘Leave it to us.’ (p.115)

Woresley will remain Cambridge, doing his day job but also setting up the permanent sperm bank, while Oswald and Howcomely tour Europe collecting the sperm of Great Men!

So they set off on a grand tour of Europe and the first king to be milked is King Alfonso of Spain who, we discover (in this scandalous fiction at any rate), has a clockwork sofa which moves up and down and so does all the hard work for him while he remains more or less motionless ‘as befits a king’. Yasmin bounces out of the palace a few hours later with a johnny full of royal sperm and Oswald motors her back to the hotel where he’s set up a small lab to mix it with preservative, and then freeze it in liquid nitrogen.

And that sets the pattern for the following fifty or so pages. Next up is 76-year-old Renoir who is confined to a wheelchair, but still manages to deliver the goods and who leaves Yasmin in raptures about his greatness.

Followed by: Monet, Stravinsky, Picasso, Matisse, Proust (for whom Yasmin dresses like and pretends to be a boy, the seduction treated like a Whitehall farce), Nijinsky, Joyce, and then Puccini in his Italian villa – in the moonlight by the lake where Oswald prepares Yasmin by teaching her one of the maestro’s favourite arias. Thus when she starts singing it outside his window, Puccini is smitten, and swiftly has his way with her, but is charming and amusing and courteous.

Compare and contrast with Sigmund Freud, who admits this troubled young lady to his consulting rooms who promptly gives him a chocolate (laced with the aphrodisiac), the whole encounter a broad satire on Freud (who Dahl obviously despises).

And so on. It might have seemed a funny idea at the time but this litany of encounters with famous men soon pales, not least because the pattern is the same time – Yasmin introduces herself, offers them a chocolate spiked with beetle dust and precisely 9 minutes later they are stricken with untamable lust, she pops a rubber johnny over their member, then lets herself be ravished, then finds some way to extricate herself (sometimes being forced to use a hatpin to jolt the man off her) before rushing outside to hand the johnny full of Great Man sperm over to Oswald, who motors them both back to his hotel room where he mixes it with a preservative, secretes it into tooth-pick thin straws (a convenient way of dividing up the sperm), then pops these into the cabinet of liquid nitrogen.

In Berlin they harvest Albert Einstein – the only one of the victims to smell a rat – and then worthy-but-dull Thomas Mann, before returning to Cambridge to deposit the straws of frozen semen at the master vat kept by Dr Woresley. And then an English tour taking in Joseph Conrad, H.G. Wells, Kipling, Arthur Conan Doyle and an extended passage satirising pompous, opinionated, dray-as-dust vegetarian George Bernard Shaw.

I suppose a lot of the pleasure of the book is meant to come from a) the outrageousness of the central premise, compounded by b) satirical portraits of various great men, plus c) the comic vulgarity of the actual sexual descriptions, which often sound like a grown-up children’s story. Of the encounter with George Bernard Shaw:

‘There’s only one way when they get violent,’ Yasmin said. ‘I grabbed hold of his snozzberry and hung on to it like grim death and gave it a twist or two to make him hold still.’
‘Ow.’
‘Very effective.’
‘I’ll bet it is.’
‘You can lead them around anywhere you want like that.’
‘I’m sure.’
‘It’s like putting a twitch on a horse.’ (p.182)

In the book’s closing passages Oswald and Yasmin embark on another European tour, milking the kings of Belgium, Italy, Yugoslavia, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Denmark, Sweden but are finally brought up short with the king of Norway (the country of Dahl’s parents). For here Yasmin makes her first mistake and is merrily badmouthing the King of England and even pointing out the queen’s lovers, all on the basis that the beetle powder will kick in and transform the king when… the beetle powder kicks in on her. She has taken the wrong chocolate! She tries to jump on king Haakon and ravish him but he has his guard throw her out, where she reports all to Oswald and they decide to make a quick getaway to Sweden and so back to Cambridge.

And here the partnership falls apart. Yasmin has had enough, and who can blame her. Oswald wants to press on to America – Henry Ford, Edison, Alexander Graham Bell – but Yasmin insists on a month long break and says she’s going to stay with an uncle in Scotland.

They agree to reconvene in a month’s time and Oswald buys tickets on the Mauretania to sail to the States. Then he goes on a massive bender in London, bedding a different member of the aristocracy every night. Until a terrible day. He is dallying in the bath with a duchess who decides she’s had enough and wants to go home. Oswald is unwisely rude to her and she – having got out the bath, dried and got dressed – contrives to lean over the bath and play with his parts while secretly removing the bath plug. Result: there is a sudden tremendous suction of water and Oswald’s goolies are sucked down the hole. His screams of agony can be heard all across Mayfair! Which leads him to warn us against aristocratic women or, as he puts it in a long-cherished motto:

Ladies with titles
Will go for your vitals

It takes weeks to recover and he is still hobbling with swollen privates when he arrives back in Cambridge at old Woresley’s house to discover a note pinned to the door. They’ve scarpered! Yasmin has married Worsely! And they’ve done a bunk with all the Great Men sperm. All except Proust that is, who Yasmin didn’t take to at all.

Oswald goes mad and trashes Woresley’s house, demolishing every single piece of furniture. Then conceives his final plan. On the last page of the book he tells us how he finally made his fortune. He goes back out to Sudan and buys up the entire area where the rare Blister beetle breeds, sets up plantations with native labour and builds a refining factory in Khartoum. He establishes secret sales operations in the world’s leading cities (New York, London, Paris etc)

There is some last-minute throwaway satire on generals, for Oswald discovers that retired generals are his best sales agents. Why? Because there are retired generals in every country; they are efficient; they are unscrupulous; they are brave; they have little regard for human life; and they are not intelligent enough to cheat him.

If you add this to the page or so satirising aristocratic ladies a few pages earlier, it confirms your sense that, although the theme of the book is sex, its real purpose is to be a scattergun, blunderbus satire against all respectable values, people and institutions.

Kings, queens, aristocrats, inventors, Oxbridge dons, men and women all come in for Uncle Oswald’s robust, take-no-prisoners attitude. It is a bracing and hilarious read and like many an older satire, if the narrative structure, if the ‘plot’, feels patched together and made up as he goes along, that, too, is part of the satirical intent.

If the reader was expecting anything remotely serious or dignified or carefully planned, then the joke is on us, too.

Credit

My Uncle Oswald by Roald Dahl was published by Michael Joseph Ltd in 1979. All references are to the 1980 Penguin paperback edition.


Related links

Related review

The Good Soldier Švejk, Volume Four: The Glorious Licking Continues by Jaroslav Hašek (1923)

Chapter One – Švejk in a transport of Russian prisoners

At the end of Volume Three, Švejk, acting as orderly to the 11th march company of the 91st Infantry Regiment of the Austrian Army, had been sent ahead by his commanding officer, Lieutenant Lukáš, to scout out a village in Galicia, southern Poland, where the command could billet.

Švejk ended up on his own and came across a Russian prisoner of war who had a) escaped from his captors b) stripped off by a lake to go skinny-dipping. Terrified, the Russian gets out further along the lake and legs it. Like a numpty, Švejk tries on the Russian’s uniform for fun and is promptly arrested by a passing troop of Hungarians.

Švejk tries to explain that he’s a Czech, a fellow subject of his Imperial Highness, but the Hungarians don’t speak Czech and, reasonably enough since he’s wearing a Russian uniform, take him for a captured Russian.

It’s only at a roll-call later, when the officer asks if anyone speaks German and Švejk steps forward, that he is able to explain to someone that he is actually a Czech not a Russian. However, the officer Švejk explains all this to, an ‘interpreter sergeant-major’, doesn’t believe him and insists he is a Jew since all the German-speakers they’ve caught have been Jews.

(There is a digression while the sergeant demonstrates how perfectly he has his orderly trained, by making him walk round the office on all fours and bark like a dog.)

And since the Jews are ‘intelligent’, the ‘interpreter sergeant-major’ sets ‘Švejk the Jew’ to record the name of all the other prisoners in the camp. This leads to comedy since the prisoners come from a broad cross-section of nationalities and have weird and garish names, like Muhlahaley Abdrachmanov or Davlatbaley Nurdagaljev. Which leads Švejk to tell them all off for not having sensible easy-to-pronounce names like him and his fellow Czechs. Not that any of them understand him.

‘Švejk had experienced much in his life, but all the same these Tartar, Georgian and Morodvin names simply would not stick in his head’

Švejk returns to the office to find the interpreter sergeant-major drunk (as he had got sloshed he had taken to his favourite habit of setting adverts from the newspapers to the music of the Radetzky March and singing them at top volume, p.676). Švejk tries to explain his predicament again, but the sergeant-major slowly falls asleep and then off his chair onto the floor.

Next morning Švejk is sent to help with the rebuilding of the huge fortress at Przemyśl. This is being supervised by one Major Wolf. Wolf asks the assembled prisoners if any of them speak German and Švejk steps forward, but when he explains that he is in fact Czech, Wolf immediately jumps to the conclusion that he’s one of the many Czechs who have defected to the Russians and got caught.

Wolf is all for hanging Švejk there but is prevailed upon to carry out a minimum of formalities and so sends Švejk to garrison command, hoping to gain merit from his astuteness. Here Švejk is thrown into a dirty cell, kicking out a Polish prisoner who shouts something rude at him in the process. There are lots of mice in the cell which make a comfortable home in Švejk’s mattress, which he doesn’t mind, and triggers a digression about cats in the military, how some good mousers were given medals, while other cats which failed in their mousing duties were hanged.

The door opens and another Czech is thrown into Švejk’s cell. It becomes clear to the reader that he is an agent provocateur, who’s been tasked with entrapping Švejk by getting to talk about how he defected to the Russians. A bit of exposition explains that the Austrian authorities knew Czechs were deserting but didn’t know how many or whether they were being organized into regiments under the Russians. All this the spy hopes to extract from Švejk but Švejk, of course, is too simple, or simple-clever, to fall for his game and replies with a selection of characteristically long-winded and confusing stories, anecdotes about people he knows back in Prague, sticking to his story that he changed into a Russian uniform for a laugh and this is all a big misunderstanding, which eventually convinces the spy he is a simpleton.

Švejk is then hauled in front of a kangaroo court which uses ‘evidence’ gathered by the informer to incriminate him, but once again Švejk sets off on a long rambling story, this one about a Mr Božetěch who got into trouble for going for a swim in a lake and meeting a nice man and splashing about for ages, till the man made his excuses and left and when nice Mr Božetěch got out, he found a note where his clothes had been, saying the other man was a tramp who’d apologetically stolen his clothes. Mr Božetěch reluctantly got into the tramp’s dirty clothes and on the way back into Prague was arrested for vagrancy.

Because of language difficulties the prosecuting officer decides this Mr Božetěch must be a dangerous traitor, too!

Leading the kangaroo court is General Fink von Finkenstein (p.690) who has been put in charge of rebuilding Przemyśl fortress. His favourite hobby is hanging people and the text quotes a letter he’s written to his wife describing the jolly larks he has hanging people who sometimes manage to escape or evade punishment. Fink closing the letter with love and kisses for his son, little Willi (p.691).

This is one more example of the numerous places where the book is spookily prescient of the horrors of the Second World War. Again and again Hašek describes the complete lack of respect for human life, and – as here – the positive enjoyment anyone in a position of power on the Eastern Front appears to have taken in humiliating, tying up, kicking, beating, hanging or shooting anyone more vulnerable and helpless than them. The reader remembers the poor Ruthenians who were being rounded up from far and wide, tied up, kicked and beaten and probably worse, which Švejk’s regiment saw from their train in Volume Three.

It’s also the second example of someone in power innocently writing home and expecting their wife to revel as much in torturing and killing people as the letter-writer does, without recognizing any clash or incongruity.

The point is, many people wring their hands to this day wondering how the smart and sophisticated Germans, the country of Bach and Goethe blah blah blah, could have carried out the Holocaust.

One not very funny conclusion to draw from The Good Soldier Švejk is that many, many officials, all across the Bloodlands of Eastern Europe, held these same inhumane attitudes, demonstrated a complete indifference to human life and suffering, decades before the Holocaust and all the other horrors of the East commenced.

In a way, you could say that the Holocaust was like the values of Eastern Europe (of Russia with its generations of pogroms and Poland with its entrenched anti-semitism) as demonstrated in this book and others like it, encroaching into central and western Europe.

In the end a persistent major in the kangaroo court insists that they try and contact this 11th march company of the 91st regiment that Švejk keeps going on about, to check his story. Fink is forced, grumpily, to acquiesce.

The chapter ends with some comedy about a new character, one Chaplain Martinec. Chaplain Martinec is ‘one of those few who still believe in the Lord’ and was so disgusted by the drunken antics of his vicar that he volunteered to join the army to get away from him.

This was, of course, jumping out of the frying pan into the fire, as he is appointed to the command of General Fink, who turns out to be another drunk and womanizer. Under his influence Martinec finds himself coerced into joining the general for drinks on a daily basis, which sometimes lead him to get completely drunk, at which point the General orders up a couple of pretty fillies to entertain them. Afterwards the chaplain feels disgusted with himself, and is starting to believe he deserves a daily flogging.

General Fink calls the chaplain in, tells him they’ve got a chap in gaol he’d like to hang and be done with it (Švejk) but he’s a Catholic so, reluctantly, he’s agreed to let him (Švejk) have some ‘spiritual consolation’ before they string him up. Fink sends Martinec to tender to Švejk’s spiritual needs.

Chapter Two – Spiritual consolation

The shortest chapter in the book, at a mere nine pages, is a kind of set-piece example of how Švejk’s good-humoured idiocy, and his non-stop barrage of long, inconsequential stories, can reduce even the strongest man to blubbering bewilderment.

Švejk and Chaplain Martinec at the optimistic start of their relationship

For example, Martinec barely manages to explain that he’s a chaplain before Švejk leaps in to commiserate with him for being banged up in prison, asks him to sit beside him on his prison bunk and launches into a complicated story about five chaplains he once knew.

Then the chaplain has barely offered him a cigarette before Švejk launches into another long story about waitress of easy virtue who brought a paternity suit against eighteen of the customers of the café where she worked, and when she had twins, they each turned out to have genetic elements of all eighteen, plus the café owner thrown in for good luck.

Martinec had prepared a long speech full of worthy sentiments about how the Emperor was Švejk’s lord and master on earth and he owed him his loyalty etc, but is now finding it hard going against the vast tide of Švejk’s peasant eloquence. He just about manages to utter that he’s here for ‘spiritual consolation’, which Švejk hilariously misinterprets to mean that the chaplain is seeking spiritual consolation from him, Švejk.

Which triggers a really long anecdote about a Mr Faustyn who was a porter in a local hotel to Švejk in Prague and used to procure women for the hotel’s guests. He prided himself on taking highly specific orders – for fat or thin women, tall or short, clever or dumb, blonde, brunette or redhead – and being able to fulfil it in ten minutes flat.

He always prided himself on not taking money from the women – he was not a common pimp – though he did present the hotel customers with carefully itemised bills. Now, in the story, he turns up on Švejk’s doorstep, distraught. Someone has accused him of behaving like a common bawd, him! Mr Faustyn! Who has such high standards!

Now he shares a bottle of rum with Švejk then asks him to throw him out of the third floor window and end it all, he can’t cope with the shame. So Švejk being Švejk, simply agrees, manhandles drunk Mr Fausyn over to the window and throws him out. To demonstrate how he did it, Švejk grabs Chaplain Martinec, pulls him up to where he’s now standing on his bunk and then…. drops him onto the floor.

Because, Švejk goes on to explain, drunk Mr Faustyn had forgotten that Švejk had moved flat, to the ground floor. Švejk had simply pushed him out the ground floor window and the drunk had rolled onto the pavement. As he has just dropped Chaplain Martinec to the cell floor.

Martinec is realises that he is dealing with a madman and bangs on the door and shrieks to be let out. Švejk watches through the bars as the chaplain goes across courtyard accompanied by guards and gesticulating wildly. Obviously a madman, thinks Švejk, probably taking him off to the mental ward. And he starts singing merrily.

As I say, a textbook example of how Švejk’s a) stolid unflappability and b) relentless cheerfulness and c) unstoppable torrent of long inconsequential stories, reduces character after character to drivelling idiocy.

The chaplain reports to General Fink’s office to find a number of other officers drinking heavily attended by ladies of the night who, the more the chaplain complains about Švejk and how he obstructed his plans to give him spiritual succour, laugh louder and louder and throw cigarettes at him and put their legs up on the table so he can see their knickers, and Chaplain Martinec feels the claws of Beelzebub reaching out for him!

Chapter Three – Švejk back in his march company

Ah, there was me thinking the Russian uniform gambit would mean abandoning forever all the other characters we’d come to know so well. But hooray! Švejk is reunited with them!

The major who had argued they don’t hang Švejk straight away was attending the party at the General’s. In the middle of it he leaps to his feet and drunkenly declares he’s going to interview the prisoner, blusters and insults his way past the guards and sits on Švejk’s bunk, demanding to know where the prisoner. ‘Sir, humbly report I am the prisoner,’ Švejk replies, and the major passes out on his bed.

Alcohol, drinking to excess and passing out really are the recurrent troop in the novel.

Next morning the major wakes up horribly hungover to have Švejk tell him a typical story about a man he knew back in Prague, a professional mourner who’d come to the pub and get drunk but somehow manage to sleep on his formal top hat without ever denting it.

The major brushes Švejk off and makes his way back to his apartment where he discovers General Fink strangling his batman (once again, we note the casual brutal violence of the entire officer class) in a bid to discover the major’s whereabouts. We discover the major is named Major Derwota,

The General furiously throws at the major a telegram ordering that Švejk be sent to his company at the Galician town of Wojalycze. They summon Švejk and make him tell his story again. The General says out loud that the man must be an idiot, prompting a classic exchange:

‘The fellow is a complete imbecile,’ said the major to the general. ‘Only a bloody idiot would put on a Russian uniform left on the dam of a lake by goodness knows whom and then get himself drafted into a party of Russian prisoners.’
‘Humbly report, sir,’ Švejk said, ‘you are right. I do sometimes notice myself that I’m feeble-minded, especially towards evening when…’
‘Shut up, you ox,’ the major said to Švejk and turned to the general to ask what they should do with him.
‘Let his brigade him him,’ the general decided. (p.716)

This little exchange summarises the essence of the book: Švejk confronted by angry officials, his harmless deflection of their anger with his idiot’s simplicity, his tendency at the slightest provocation to set off on another long wandering anecdote, and the casual, sweary brutality of the official response.

So the hanging general is forced to let Švejk be despatched back to his regiment at Wojalycze.

Švejk is put under the supervision of four soldiers each of different nationality, an epitome of the multicultural Empire – a Pole, a Hungarian, a German and a Czech. I found it very telling that the corporal in charge (the Czech, as it happens) is described as being a) a cowman i.e. an illiterate peasant, and that therefore b) he is very brutal. He is not intelligent to win respect by intelligent decisions; all he has is his jumped-up power. Extend that principle across millions and millions of junior officers and petty tyrants right across Eastern Europe and the region’s tortured history makes more sense.

I laughed at the way the Hungarian only knew two words of German, Jawohl and Was?, so that the German explained things at great length to him, the Hungarian nodding and saying Jawohl, Jawohl all the way through, and then when the German had quite finished, saying Was?, so that the German started all over again.

They escort him by train to Wojalycze where, after some typical confusion at the station, Švejk eventually, by page 720, arrives at brigade headquarters for his regiment. He finds that command of brigade staff has been given to Colonel Gerbich who is an affable incompetent who suffers from bad gout. When it hurts he shouts and yells at everyone. When it fades away, he invites all the officers to his rooms to tell them dirty stories.

Now, as Švejk is ushered into the colonel’s presence, we discover that irascible Lieutenant Dub is in the room, who promptly leaps to his feet and starts berating Švejk as a deserter etc while Švejk bemusedly puts his side of the story in his usual placid, untroubled way.

Lieutenant Dub ranting at the Good Soldier Švejk in front of gouty Colonel Gerbich

(By the way, we learn that in the few days that Švejk’s been absent Lieutenant Dub a) made a recovery from his cholera attack and b) was showing off his horsemanship skills when  he rode into a marsh where he had to be rescued by soldiers with a rope during which he suffered a mild concussion and as a result is even more angry than usual.)

The gouty colonel overrules Lieutenant Dub’s ranting and orders Švejk to go and get a proper uniform, collect some pay, and catch a train back to his company.

Švejk arrives in Żółtańce to find real confusion – he is near the front line now and sees baggage and artillery trains, soldiers from all regiments milling about. Disturbingly the so-called ‘Reich Germans’ (Germans from Germany, not Austria) are far better provisioned and turned out than the scruffy Austrians, strolling round in their gleaming boots, handing out cigarettes and chocolate to their poor colleagues – but what makes it disturbing is that Hašek crowds of Jews milling round, waving their hands and lamenting the burning of their villages, and ‘every moment’ gendarmerie patrols bring in another terrified Jew who they accuse of spreading false news, and then proceed to beat and whip them till their backsides are ‘lacerated’ (p.725).

After being shouted at by more army bureaucrats, a rare friendly officer tells Švejk his company are billeted in the village of Klimontów. He makes his way there to discover them in the biggest building in the village, a school (which, he waspishly points out, was built by the Polish authorities in this predominantly Ukrainian region in order to increase Polish influence: it’s hard not to see the Austro-Hungarian Empire as a kind of permanent battlefield between competing national groups).

We have seen Jews being whipped, it’s true, but in Volume Three we also saw entire communities of Ruthenians being rounded up, tied up, and beaten. Now we learn that on the tree outside the school was recently hanged a Greek Catholic vicar.

Here Švejk is reunited with his friends and we re-encounter big bearded Baloun, permanently starving hungry who is just getting into a fight with the occultist cook, Jurajda, who is making sausage meat in the school kitchen. Upstairs Captain Ságner is cursing the Jewish merchant who’s sold the regimental officers a concoction of crude corn spirit coloured yellow with onion peel juice which he claimed was finest Napoleonic brandy.

Švejk strolls into the battalion office which is empty except for the one-year volunteer, Marek, who you will remember has been commissioned to write a history of the regiment and has risen to the occasion with glee, fabricating all sorts of heroic escapades for the regiment as a whole and inventing all kinds of glorious deaths for its members. This is a simple idea which I found epically funny as it allows Hašek to satirise all sorts of heroic writing which glorifies war.

Obviously, they’ve barely got chatting before Švejk is off telling numerous digressive anecdotes – ‘There was a preacher who…At U Brejsku there was a cellarman years ago…In Nusele there is a certain Mr Hauber and…’ plus an off-colour story about a soldier who comes across a woman on all fours scrubbing the floor, spanks her once on his vast bum, spanks her twice, spanks her a third time and since she doesn’t move, hoiks up her skirt and has his wicked way with her… only for her to turn round at the end and reveal the face of a 70-year-old and cackle.

Marek says Švejk hasn’t changed at all, and Švejk goes upstairs to the first floor where the officers are awaiting the arrival of the feast prepared by the occultist cook. He walks in just as his name was being mentioned and takes Captain Ságner and Lieutenant Lukáš by surprise, the latter once again horrified and appalled at the reappearance of his bad penny.

They throw things and swear at Švejk until he retreats back to the kitchen where he’s reunited with the rest of the boys. Here Baloun tries to wangle some of the roast meat and sauce which the occultist is preparing, giving long descriptions of meals from freshly slaughtered animals back home, but Jurajda kicks him out and gives a morsel of bread dipped in sauce to Švejk (p739).

Quartermaster Sergeant-Major Vaněk is plunged into gloom at Švejk’s return because it is going to throw his carefully calibrated company accounts, based on Švejk’s disappearance. He was hoping Švejk had drowned 🙂

Marek bursts through the door to announce that Lieutenant Dub with the young puppy, Cadet Biegler. Dub is furious as usual, and lays into Švejk who is his usual imperturbable self. There’s a very funny account of how Cadet Biegler has survived the supposed cholera (which he never had, as explained in volume three, chapter one) but has emerged from prolonged treatment in cholera hospitals with such weakened bowels that he has to visit more or less every WC he sees, and missed every train and every connection because he was visiting all the WCs between the hospital and regiment, but he finally made it back, brave boy! This fact, that Cadet Biegler is, from now onwards, going to be condemned to get stuck in every possible public convenience is rich with comic potential, made all the more preposterous because we are told that Biegler spends all these hours on the can replaying the great battles of the Austro-Hungarian army throughout history.

In a flashback we learn that Lieutenant Dub and Cadet Biegler have had the most ferocious argument, which began when Biegler was camped out in a WC which Dub wanted to use, and then continued on into the car which they got to drive them from brigade HQ out to the regiment, and got worse on the way.

As Dub and Biegler pursue their argument upstairs to the officers quarters, in the kitchen the lads have finished feasting deep on the pork soup he occultist cook has made and conversation has a rich, post-prandial feel to it, with the cook revealing that he used myrtle instead of marjoram in the soup, in fact myrtle he found in the rather dried-up wedding garland hanging in a village house. The owners didn’t take too kindly to him impounding it.

The occultist cook Juradja requisitioning the wedding garland of myrtle from Galician peasants

This leads into a discussion about herbs and spices in cooking, which triggers an anecdote from Švejk about a butcher who one drunk day mixed up his spice box with a packet of insect powder which he tipped into the sausage meat and to his amazement it went down a treat, people stormed his shop to get it and, funny to tell, it also killed all the insects and bugs so that the town where it happened became one of the cleanest in Bohemia.

Then Marek goes on about the delights of iced soup, Vaněk mentioned frozen goulash, and Švejk is just starting a story about a Lieutenant Zákrejs who was always aggressively threatening to turn poor squaddies into various forms of food (like beaten steak or mashed potato) when there’s a piercing scream from upstairs.

It is the continuation of the argument between Dub and Biegler. Dub was greeted with a great roar when he entered the room because a) all his brother officers were by now very drunk on the filthy liquor supplied by the Jewish merchant and b) they are all taking the mickey out of him for his riding accent with merry yells of ‘Welcome cowboy!’ and the like.

A little offended, Dub is soon handed a glass of the ‘cognac’ while poor Biegler is more or less ignored, and finds a chair in the corner. Dub meanwhile, beginning to be affected by the booze, raps on the table and stands to make a speech about patriotism.

And that is where the book ends abruptly, Jaroslav Hašek dying suddenly of heart failure on 3 January 1923. Thank you, Jaroslav.

Thoughts

And you know the quirkiest thing about this 750-page-long novel about the First World War? Švejk never hears a shot fired in anger. He never actually arrives at ‘the front’. He never sees any fighting (the aftermath of shelling, networks of trenches and damaged buildings, for sure, but no actual fighting). In fact, I think that nowhere in the novel is a shot actually fired at all. It is a 750-page-long novel without any actual fighting in it!

OR maybe that’s part of its satirical intent. Because as you reflect back over the long sprawling text, you realise most of the conflict, of the violence, came not between nations; although there is doubtless vast bloodshed and massacre going on between nations, what we mostly see is violence between classes, the most obvious violence of the book being carried out by furious police, state officials and army officers against ordinary citizens and ordinary soldiers.

Credit

This translation into English of The Good Soldier Švejk by Cecil Parrott was first published by William Heinemann in 1973. All references are to the Penguin Modern classic edition, published 1983.


Related links

The Good Soldier Švejk

The Good Soldier Švejk, Part Three: The Glorious Licking by Jaroslav Hašek (1922)

Volume Three finds the good soldier Švejk comfortably surrounded by a cohort of characters we’ve got to know by now – long-suffering Lieutenant Lukáš, Quartermaster Sergeant-Major Vaněk, clever one-year volunteer Marek (to some extent a self-portrait of the author), choleric Colonel Schröder, fat Baloun who can’t stop eating, the occultist cook Juradja, Chodounský the scared telephonist, and so on.

I am realising that summarising the ‘plot’ or ‘action’ of the story, while not utterly useless, nonetheless conveys very little for the reading experience. For the real core of the novel is the stories which the characters tell each other, endlessly, on every page.

‘It’s always best to have plenty of chat…No soldier can do without a chat. That’s how he forgets all his tribulations.’ (Švejk to Lieutenant Lukáš, page 633)

In a way the entire novel is about storytelling and the multitudinous often utterly inconsequential stories people tell. You could probably have a go at cataloguing the different types (stories told from personal experience, ones you heard from parents, ones you heard from relatives, something heard from friends, read in a paper etc). And then you could catalogue them by subject matter or maybe the purposes of the different stories. It would build up into an impressive list, I wonder if anyone’s tried it.

Maybe the ubiquity of storytelling reflects the fact that army life involves a lot of travelling with people you’re thrown together with and have to pass the often very boring time with. Except that it started before that, it started on page one with Švejk telling stories about people named Ferdinand in response to hearing the news about the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

For example, Švejk asks the occultist to explain the transmigration of souls, and then goes on to give his own illiterate idea of what it entails. The fact that the telephonist is named Chodounský reminds Švejk of a long story about a detective agency of the same name and how a detective set to catch a couple in flagrante is himself caught in flagrante. And so on. One inconsequential arbitrary story follows another like rain across a field.

Chapter one – Across Hungary

A troop train has carried the 91st Infantry Regiment (of which Švejk is a part) south from Prague to České Budějovice, on past the outskirts of Vienna, to the border with Hungary at Bruck an der Leithe (the Leitha being the river which forms the border), on to a stay of several days in Budapest, and now it reaches the town of Mošon.

The officers are all engrossed in a novel by Ludwig Ganghofer titled The Sins of The Fathers, specifically page 162. This is because of extended sketch in which the pompous fool Colonel Schröder has told them all he has invented a fiendishly complicated cipher. In fact the scheme is retailed to them by the none-too-bright Captain Ságner. The cipher is based on receiving a message of random words. They check where these words first occur on page 161 of the novel, for example the word ‘thing’ is the 52nd word. So they look up the 52nd letter to occur on page 160 (which is O). And so on till the message is deciphered.

It takes the insufferably priggish Cadet Biegler to point out that system is a bust because The Sins of The Fathers was actually published in two volumes and, whereas the colonel has worked out is system using pages 160 and 161 of Part II, all the officers have been issued Part 1. In fact Cadet Biegler goes further and points out that the entire idea has been copied from a book of military strategy published a generation earlier. He is not so thick after all (pp.464-470).

Cadet Biegler pointing out the mistake in the cipher to pompous Captain Ságner

Meanwhile Lieutenant Lukáš has been looking increasingly twitchy. As soon as the meeting is over he rushes off to the van (of the train) where Švejk is comfortably chatting with the other aides and orderlies. Just as the train pulls into Raab, Lukáš bursts in and confronts Švejk. Because it was he, Lukáš , who ordered Švejk to get hold of copies of the damn book, Now Švejk placidly explains that he used his intelligence and, knowing that you start a book by reading volume one, order a dozen copies of volume one for the officers. Why, did I do wrong? asks Švejk, all characteristic innocence.

As so often, Lieutenant Lukáš hangs his head in his hands.

There was no sign of anger in his pale face. There was just hopelessness and desperation. (p.473)

There follows a lengthy section in which, triggered by Baloun and his insatiable appetite, the soldiers and Švejk tell each other all kinds of stories based around food in different wars and situations.

This eventually morphs into an account of how Captain Ságner discovers that Cadet Biegler has been drafting titles of books about military strategy, and also has drawn lots of diagrams of famous battles. He fancies himself as the next Napoleon (pp.489-90).

Instead Captain Ságner comprehensively ridicules and humiliates the Cadet, who crawls off the WC, cries his eyes out, returns to the van where Švejk and the other orderlies are playing cards, and proceeds to drink himself into a stupor. In his drunken sleep he has a series of colourful dreams. In the most vivid one he is a general being driven towards the front by a chauffeur and when the car is directly hit by a shell and split in two, they continue nonchalantly driving up to heaven, motoring past Mars and arriving in heaven only to find that it consists of an enormous parade ground where newly recruited angels are being bawled out by sergeant-major angels, and that God is none other than… Captain Ságner, who starts yelling at him!

Unfortunately, during his sleep, Cadet Biegler shits his pants – as the other soldiers are not slow to notice. Which of course gives rise to a flood of stories about shitting yourself during wartime, especially at the Front during an attack.

We are introduced to Doctor Friedrich Welfer, a military doc who put off becoming qualified for as long as possible since a dead uncle had left him a generous allowance as long as he was studying for his medical exams (and to cease, one he had qualified). Welfer spent years ‘studying’ while he drank and whored and fought duels with officers and generally developed a terrible reputation. Till war broke out and his relatives – who stood to benefit from him finally stopping drawing large sums from the uncle’s bequest – cunningly got him fast-tracked and awarded an emergency wartime medical degree.

Now he diagnoses that the Cadet has wolfed down all the cream rolls sent to him from home (top of page 504) which, along with the bottle of cognac he downed in the toilets, led his bowels to rebel. Captain Ságner can either write that his Cadet shat himself or is a sad victim of dysentery – his choice. The officers choose the latter as it reflects better on the regiment, and the unfortunate cadet finds himself packed off to a cholera hospital where he is cruelly mistreated (pp.504-507) though he doesn’t actually die, which does happen to countless other victims of bureaucratic cock-ups and injustices who we’ve met in other stories.

Chapter two – In Budapest

They have now arrived at barracks in Budapest. There’s some more fol-de-rol with Lieutenant Lukáš’s batman, the insatiably greedy Baloun, who eats up all the Lieutenant’s fois gras, tin foil and all.

But the real event is the news that on 23 May 1915 Italy enters the war on the Allies’ side. This triggers a huge amount of chat and speculation, from the men and the officers, the soldiers wandering off subject to discuss Italian cuisine and then a long complicated irrelevant story about a pharmacist who wanted to collect urine samples from his villagers (?).

And a new character emerges, the angry, officious former schoolmaster Lieutenant Dub (pronounced Doop) with his catchphrase, ‘Do you know me? You don’t know me yet. Until now you’ve only seen my good side. You don’t want to see my bad side.’

While the train is parked in a station in Budapest the troops are encouraged to stretch their legs. Some meet the deputation of shrivelled old patriotic ladies who they take to be very dried-up prostitutes (pp.523-4).

‘The venerable ladies passed down the line of soldiers and one of them could not resist patting a bearded soldier on the cheek.’

Hašek mocks the authorities. He includes the texts of two blood-curdling pro-war prayers composed by the Archbishop of Budapest, printed and handed out to the troops by patriotic volunteers (p.523). The troops are inspected by a senile old general they nickname ‘old death-watch’.

Lieutenant Dub reprimands Švejk until he learns that Švejk is now company orderly. So he goes roaming round the train station till he finds two privates haggling with prostitutes and proceeds to give them a dressing-down.

Lengthy descriptions of corruption endemic across the army, specifically when it comes to quartermasters creaming off rations and keeping them for themselves or selling them on the black market which is conveyed, as usual, via long yarns told by various characters.

It was certainly true that the whole military administration was bursting at the seams with case like this. It started with the quartermaster sergeant-major in some unfortunate company and ended with the hamster in general’s epaulettes who was salting away something for himself for when the war was over. (p.533)

Another senile general turns up to inspect the troops and tries to implement a mad scheme whereby they have their evening meal at 6pm sharp so that they all visit the latrines by 9pm. According to this old fool, the Austrian army will triumph due to the regularity of its bowels. (pp.533-41). This gives rise to one of the rare, and always amusing forays into conveying the linguistic mish-mash of the empire.

And the general turned round to Švejk and went up to him: ‘Czech or German?’
‘Czech, humbly report, sir,’ Švejk replied in German.
‘Goot,’ said the general, who was a Pole and knew a little Czech, although he pronounced it as though it were Polish and used Polish expressions. ‘You roars like a cow doess for hiss hay. Shot op! Shot your mog! Dawn’t moo! Haf you already been to ze latrines?’ (p.536)

The persecution of poor hungry Baloun continues unabated – his stealing the lieutenant’s food highlights the general incompetence about serving adequate portions, or when they’re promised. Next morning the train is still standing in Budapest station, despite umpteen rumours and counter-rumours about when they’ll set off.

Švejk is caught stealing a hen off a civilian couple, and marched back to the train where Lieutenant Lukáš is obliged to discipline him although Švejk tells a typically blank-faced, honest-sounding account of how he tried to pay the couple and only bought it for the lieutenant. The lieutenant lets him off with a bollocking and Švejk takes the chicken back to his orderly’s van to share with the lads, despite Lieutenant Dub putting in an appearance to reprimand him.

A parting shot from Dub gives rise to soldierly chat and stories about homosexuals and paedophiles, a casual appearance of a subject we, in 2019, are obsessed with, but the soldiers discuss for a bit then move on, in fact it morphs into the improbable story of two women nymphomaniacs who kidnap men and shag them to death.

The one-year volunteer Marek turns up (p.558), reunited with the regiment and pompous old Captain Ságner tells him they’re going to make use of his education and intelligence by making him the regimental historian, a task he looks forward to with satirical malice!

More teasing of Baloun after he eats the lieutenant’s tin of sardines, with the various characters recalling stories of adjutants and batmen who were eaten by their officers in sieges throughout history, making big, guilty, sensitive Baloun tremble with fear.

The train finally steams off, not without leaving a few soldiers behind who were still stretching their legs, or in Sergeant-Major Nasáklo’s case, beating up a prostitute.

Chapter three – From Hatvan towards the Galician frontier

As the army chapters have progressed they have increased in arbitrariness and randomness. The reader strongly suspects they are little more than rehashes of Hašek’s own experience on a troop train which shuffled slowly towards the front via endless delays and confusions.

For example, there’s a little passage about a field latrine that gets left behind in Budapest and how two companies now have to share one and the bad blood it prompts.

Or the wrecked artillery and planes on trains heading back from the front which the authorities try to persuade them are victims of our gallant army, even though they have Made in Austria printed on the side (pp.566-8). Lieutenant Lukáš comes across this scene and walks away convinced that Dup is ‘a prize ox’.

Or the terrified Polish sentry who Lieutenant Dub unwisely approaches one night and starts yelling, ‘Halt! Halt! I’m going to shit! I’m going to shit!’ (p.572)

That evening the train moves off towards Ladovce and Trebisov and Hummené where for the first time they see the widespread destruction caused by war. They also see the first signs of warzone brutality, because loads of Ruthenian peasants and priests have been rounded up because they share ethnic roots with the Russians who temporarily invaded the region, and now the Ruthenians are being punished by being roped together, kicked, punched and beaten.

The sight sickens Lieutenant Lukáš who sends Švejk out to buy some illegal cognac being flogged by Jewish black market vendors beside the track. Lieutenant Dub is snooping round and catches Švejk with a hidden bottle which Švejk claims is simply drinking water from a nearby pond and, to prove it, drinks the bottle down in one. Lieutenant Dub refuses to believe it and demands a bottle from the scared Jew, takes it to the pond and fill it and drinks it and his mouth is flooded with the taste of mud and horse pee. He realises he’s made a complete fool of himself. Švejk staggers back to the orderly’s van and passes out on a bench while the others continue their never-ending conversation (pp.575-579).

As Švejk falls asleep, Vaněk goes over to watch the one-year volunteer Marek who gleefully explains that he’s been concocting the future history of the regiment, describing its glorious achievements in the upcoming battles and allotting heroic deaths to each member of the van: one by one he asks them how they want to be remembered and sketches out glorious deaths and medals they will win (pp.580-585).

In the usual, easy-going fashion this morphs via a comparison with lizards which grow their tails back, into surreal speculation about what would happen if humans could do that and if, following every massacre of the Austrian army, all the fragments of body would regrow till the army was recreated treble, tenfold (p.585).

Lieutenant Dub gives a rocket to a private who’s looted the metal door of a pigpen to protect himself in the trenches.

Lieutenant Dub and Captain Ságner berating a private who’s looted the metal door of a pigsty

Švejk chats to Dub’s batman, Kunert and disingenuously praises his master.

As the train advances, the landscape becomes more ruined and the tone of the narration unavoidably more serious. the characters carry on acting like idiots, though. For example, Lieutenant Dub, after the chicken incident and the cognac incident is desperate for any excuse to find Švejk guilty of treacherous talk or anything he can punish him for. After another failed attempt to catch him out as Švejk stands chatting with some other soldiers on an embankment looking at the detritus the retreating Russians have abandoned, Švejk wanders off attempting to place Dub precisely in the carefully graded hierarchy of army idiots, which Hašek proceeds to explain (pp.600-601). He decides Dub is ‘a semi-fart’.

Almost immediately Švejk gets his own back by coming across Dub’s batman who he’s just beaten about the face so hard it’s all swollen up. And so Švejk feels duty-bound to report it to Lieutenant Lukáš, who is embarrassed but finds himself forced to remove the batman from Dub’s ‘care’.

And so the train rolls steadily on through increasingly war-torn countryside, presenting ever-more surreal vistas of destruction,

Baloun falls into an oversized cauldron with dregs of goulash in the bottom, licks the thing clean, and is happy for the first time since he joined the army (p.609).

They see a Red Cross train which has been blown off the rails which prompts the volunteer to compose a glorious death for Quartermaster Sergeant-Major Vaněk, captured while derailing enemy trains, sentenced to death by firing squad, and asking for a last message of encouragement to be sent to his brave regiment.

The idea of having the volunteer compose a history of the regiment before it goes into battle in which he makes up wild battles and extravagant fates for all the other characters, was a stroke of comic genius.

The occultist cook, Jurajda, has nicked a bottle of cognac from the officer’s mess. He accompanies this with an explanation that he was predestined to steal it, because he was predestined to be a thief, to which Švejk replies that the others were all predestined to help him drink it.

Just to be clear the ‘company’ in this cosy little van consists of Švejk, Quartermaster Sergeant-Major Vaněk, Jurajda the cook, Baloun the hungry batman, the telephonist Chodounský, and the satirical volunteer.

They polish off the cognac according to the complicated system they’ve worked out then turn to playing a card game named three-card Zwick, the volunteer wins every hand and accompanies his wins by stirring quotations from the Old Testament. The telephonist loses half a year’s pay but Švejk tells him to cheer up: with any luck, he’ll be killed in battle and never have to pay.

Chodounský trembles in fear and claims that telephonists always work behind the lines and are never injured, at which all the others pile in with factual or far-fetched stories about telephonists in war, or even in peace, Švejk capping them all with the story that the telephonist on the Titanic, even after it had sunk, put a call through to the kitchen to ask when lunch would be ready.

Chapter Four – Forward March!

The train carrying the 91st regiment arrives in Sokal to discover the Iron Brigade has based itself here, albeit 150 miles behind the current lines. There is great confusion as different divisions and brigades are all arriving at the wrong times, and kicking each other out of their respective billets. The 91st is put up in a secondary school, complete with chemistry labs etc. and a collection of rare minerals which has already been comprehensively looted.

The staff in charge of this chaos are a couple of gay dogs led by Captain Tayrle who introduce Captain Ságner to the cafés and brothels they’ve set up in Sokal. This leads to a big incident where moronic Lieutenant Dub barks at all the soldiers that if he finds any of them in a brothel they’ll be given a drumhead court martial, and goes off to check them for himself, of course getting drunk and into bed with a girl at the first one he comes to.

Staff hold a big conference and Lieutenant Dub is required so Lieutenant Lukáš despatches Švejk to fetch Lieutenant Dub who he finds very drunk and half-naked on a sofa with a fille de joie named Ella. It’s an interesting sequence because it paints a vivid picture of a wartime brothel which had been expanded out of an ordinary café and has its own class hierarchy i.e. ordinary men in cubicles on the ground floor, officers in rooms on the first floor.

Anyway, Švejk forces the comically drunk Lieutenant Dub into his uniform and along to the conference where he announces to the room that he is totally drunk and puts his head on the table.

The brigadier gives a nonsensically pompous speech to the troops assembled in the town square and then they march off for the front, to be precise, towards Tyrawa Wołoska, like cattle to the slaughter, a favourite Hašek simile.

It is very hot. Lieutenant Dub is still very hungover and riding in the horse-drawn ambulance. The regiment quickly becomes disorganised, men walking in the ditch or on the fields, Lieutenant Lukáš trying to keep them in order.

They arrive at Tyrawa Wołoska and rest easy. Švejk explains to Lieutenant Dub how he found him in a brothel, along with loads of interjected stories about other alcoholics and frequenters of brothels who hes known. Only at the end of the account does Lieutenant Dub realise that Švejk has been subtly insulting him all the way through. He thinks. You can never tell with Švejk. That’s the beauty of him as a character.

Lieutenant Dub asks his batman, Kunert, to find him a jug of water which Kunert does by stealing a jug from a vicar and then breaking open a well which had been sealed up with planks. This is because it is suspected of having cholera, though Kunert is too thick to realise it, and takes the filled jug back to Lieutenant Dub who drinks it in one go.

Lieutenant Lukáš tells Švejk, Baloun, Vaněk and Chodounský to go across country to a nearby village, Liskowiezc, where the company is to be billeted.

A vicar hands out copies of a touching religious prayer about the Virgin Mary, thoughtfully translated into all the languages of the empire. As the same troops visit the latrines they discover countless copies of this touching holy prayer used as toilet paper. This practical application for printed paper carrying uplifted poetry or prayer is repeated several times through the book (e.g. Books as toilet paper p.475).

Night is falling as our little company (Švejk, Baloun, Vaněk and Chodounský) carry out their mission, and end up talking, as so often, about Baloun and his vast appetite, and he laments they way he eats so much but so little comes out the other end, he’s even poked about in his poo on occasion to figure out what went in and what’s coming out.

This cloacal obsession reminds me of Rabelais. When it comes down to it, human beings are eating and shitting machines.

Our chatty heroes eventually arrive at the village to be greeted by enthusiastic dogs hoping they’ll be given bones, like by the Russians who have just withdrawn from the area, and Švejk has to cope with the comically cack-handed attempts of the village headman to persuade them that it’s a very poor village and their gracious honours would do much better to put up at another village half an hour away which is overflowing with milk and vodka.

Eventually Quartermaster Sergeant-Major Vaněk cuts through the blather and insists that the ‘mayor’ shows them round. This allows Hašek to convey the sense of a medium-sized village in Galicia which has been impacted by war, foreign invasion, and flooded with refugees from other villages. As many as eight families are now living in one cottage.

Throughout the tour of the village there is comedy because Baloun sticks his nose in everywhere and steals and eats everything even uncooked dough and raw gherkins, with the result that his stomach bloats up like a balloon. Quartermaster Sergeant-Major Vaněk lights a fire under a cauldron of water but they scour the village in vain for a pig or even a chicken to boil. Eventually they find a Jew who sells them the scraggiest, mangiest cow in history.

It’s worth stopping a moment to consider the role of Jews in The Good Soldier Švejk. Basically, whenever they appear Jews are treated with contempt. They are always portrayed as snivelling shysters – from the village Jew in this scene, who gets down on his hands and knees and clasps the legs of the foraging soldiers, to the Jew who was selling illicit liquor back in Budapest. They are all portrayed wearing stylised clothing:

Jews with hanging curls and in long kaftans… (p.724)

And the illustrations by Josef Lada give the Jewish characters all the aspects of Jewish stereotype, the black clothes, the long hooked nose, the swarthy beard.

The Jew Nathan tells his wife Elsa how clever he’s been in selling the mangiest cow in history to Švejk’s regiment

All this said, the Jews are not the only subjects of either Hašek’s scorn, mockery and satire; and they are also not the only victims of casual violence. Everyone is the victim of casual violence, Jew and Gentile alike, and we have seen how the biggest butts of Hašek’s satire are the totally Gentile officials of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, its shouting ranting police, gendarmes, doctors and above all army officers. Everyone is stereotypes and satirised. Still. We know what happened later in the 1920s and 30s, so it is impossible to read the scenes which feature a stereotyped, crawling Jewish stereotype, without a profound sense of unease and misgiving.

When the doleful Vaněk and Baloun come to tell Lieutenant Lukáš that the stew is so inedible that Baloun has cracked a back molar on it, they discover Dub groaning slumped in a chair in Lukáš’s room. Remember that drink from the boarded-up well which his batman got him? Seems like it did give him cholera.

Chodounský writes some love letters home to his wife, the comic aspect being that he quickly becomes jealous and threatens to eviscerate his wife if he hears about her messing around, before closing with love and kisses, ever yours.

Bored, Lieutenant Lukáš asks Švejk to tell him some stories and immediately regrets it as Švejk launches into a series of typically long, convoluted and inconsequential yarns, starting with the respectable lady who was always claiming that every man she met made indecent proposals to her. One of them did make me laugh out loud about a Mr Jenom who starts walking out with the daughter of a respectable bookbinder named Mr Bílek. When Jenom calls round, in the hallway Bílek starts yelling abuse at him, over my dead body etc, at which moment Jenom lets out such a thunderous fart that it makes the grandfather clock stop. At which Bílek bursts out laughing, shakes his hand and welcomes him into the home. Unfortunately, when they tell Bílek’s wife about the occurrence she is not impressed (spits and goes out) and the daughter whose hand he came for also recoils. So the two men eat the sausage and beer laid out on the kitchen table and become the best of friends.

Then he tells the long story about a magazine editor who is friends with a police sergeant and one evening gets the sergeant so drunk he passes out and the editor takes off his clothes and puts them on and goes out into the streets as a vengeful police sergeant, terrorising a respectable couple walking home from the theatre etc.

Appalled that he is listening to such tripe, Lieutenant Lukáš spurs his horse and gallops off because somewhere amid this torrent of gossip and anecdotes, the night has passed, the regiment has woken up the next morning, been issued with black coffee, and set off on a march towards Stara Sol land Sambor (p.656).

Somehow Švejk ends up telling yet another series of tall tales to Lieutenant Lukáš, including the one about a certain Lieutenant Buchanék who got an advance for getting married from a prospective father in law, but spent it all on prostitutes, so got an advance from another father-in-law, but gambled all that away, so he approached a third father-in-law… at which point Lieutenant Lukáš threatens to throw Švejk in a ditch if there’s a fourth advance but, No, Švejk assures him the lieutenant ended up shooting himself, so it all ended happily.

Although he goes on to explain that Lieutenant Buchanék was always explaining to them about astronomical distances and how far away Jupiter was, at which point a schoolmaster squaddie interrupts to correct his science and explain how easy it would be if they were all marching on the moon and their packs only weight a sixth as much! At which point Lieutenant Buchanék gave him a punch in the mouth and had him sent to gaol for fourteen days. Soldiers must respect, obey and fear their superior officers!

Now a messenger rides up to order that the 11th company (Švejk’s company) change the direction of its march towards Felsztyn. Lieutenant Lukáš orders Švejk and Vaněk to go ahead to Felsztyn and see about billets. As the third volume reaches its conclusion three things happen:

1. The landscape changes as Švejk and Vaněk enter the area of desolation around the vast battlefield of Przemysl, a spooky eerie landscape. Švejk makes the simple pint that there’ll be good harvest here because of all the bones buried, all the dead soldiers will fertilise fine crops. It’s all the more poignant because Švejk says it in his flat, factual way. (Even here he has time to tell a silly story about a decent, understanding officer whose men all despised him because he didn’t shout and swear at them.)

2. Švejk and Vaněk get lost, come to a crossroads and disagree about the best way to get to Felsztyn and split up, going their separate ways, though not before Švejk has told a story about a man in Prague who insisted on sticking to the map, got lost, wandered miles out of town, and was found dead of exposure in a field full of rye.

3. In the afternoon Švejk comes to a small lake and startles a Russian prisoner of war who’d escaped from his Austrian captors, wandered lost and had stripped off for a swim. The Russian runs off naked leaving his uniform behind. As a lark Švejk decides to try it on for size and struts up and down pretending to be a Russian. He is arrested by a patrol of Hungarians who can’t understand a word he’s saying, so they drag him off to their staff command miles away, and chuck him in among a load of other Russian prisoners.

And so, presumably, that’s the end of the friendships Švejk has built up with all the characters from the first three volumes, particularly the love-hate relationship with Lieutenant Lukáš, the glinting satirical intelligence of the one-year volunteer, and the bottomless hunger of Baloun.

Shame. But every goodbye is a new beginning. What is going to happen in Volume Four?

Credit

This translation into English of The Good Soldier Švejk by Cecil Parrott was first published by William Heinemann in 1973. All references are to the Penguin Modern classic edition, published 1983.


Related links

The Good Soldier Švejk

The Good Soldier Švejk – Epilogue to Part One (1922)

Hašek included a three-page Epilogue to Volume One of The Good Soldier Švejk, which is interesting for a number of reasons (pp.214-216 of the Penguin edition).

First and foremost it shows that even when he was not being ‘literary’, he wrote in the same blunt factual way as in the novel, for example using the kind of sententious truisms which could have come straight from the mouth of Švejk:

Life is no finishing school for young ladies

The epilogue is predominantly concerned to defend Hašek’s use of coarse language including swearwords. He bluntly tells us he disdains the use of circumlocutions or asterisks as ‘the stupidest form of sham’.

The argument from realism He, Hašek, has simply reported how real people actually talk.

Life is no finishing school for young ladies. Everyone speaks the way he is made… This book is neither a handbook of drawing-room refinement nor a teaching manual of expressions to be used in polite society. It is a historical picture of a certain period of time.

He doesn’t develop any reason why but just takes it for granted that a realistic depiction of the world, and of how people actually behave and actually speak, coarse language and all, is a good in itself and doesn’t need justification. What he is describing is ‘perfectly natural’ and therefore, by implication, writing about it is the same terms is ‘perfectly natural’, too.

The argument from hypocrisy Hašek proposes that the only people who are ashamed of ripe or bawdy language in a novel are hypocrites, the ones with the most to hide, ‘the worst swine and the experts in filth’.

It is the people who most loudly proclaim their moral indignation in public who take pleasure in frequenting public toilets in order to read the graffiti. It is those who would like to turn the whole country into a refined drawing room who in fact, in secret, practice the worst vices.

To the pure in heart everything is pure. Or, as he puts it, the well-brought-up man may read anything.

The argument from strength Then he tries another tack – that the easily offended are weak.

Those who boggle at strong language are cowards, because it is real life which is shocking them.

He, Hašek, has simply reported how actually people actually talk. Not his problem if some readers and critics – if ‘weaklings like that’ – are too sensitive to face the truth about the world.

The argument from cultural health But, says Hašek, the net impact of these ‘cowards’ and ‘weaklings’ is not neutral: it causes actual harm. They are the people who:

cause most harm to character and culture. They would like to see the nation to grow up into a group of over-sensitive people – masturbators of false culture…

Again the idea is only glancingly referred to and not explored, but clearly implies that

  1. a nation should be strong
  2. that literary realism or culture which faces up to how real people actually speak and behave requires a kind of moral and aesthetic strength
  3. and that this facing up to reality builds that kind of moral and aesthetic strength in a ‘nation’

The argument from character building It’s only referred to in one word, but Hašek slips in the idea that the kind of censorship and repression his critics promote is damaging not only to (national) culture, but to character. Implicit in that phrase is the idea that reading strong language spoken by ‘real’ people toughens the reader up and is character building.

The argument from political dissent He then goes on to say that the person the landlord Palivec is based on got in touch with Hašek when he learned he was in the book, and bought twenty copies, and frankly admitted to being well known for his foul language.

But, Hašek asserts, it is not just bad language. Palivec is a representative social and political figure. His crude language expresses ‘the detestation the ordinary Czech feels for Byzantine behaviour’ and their ‘lack of respect for the Emperor and for fine phrases’.

So in this sentence fine and polite and refined language is associated with the Imperial Court and its oppression of the Czech people, and crude language is associated with opposition to Austrian rule.

Hašek’s characters’ effing and blinding are acts of linguistic rebellion against the Austro-Hungarian ascendency and its effete and hypocritical manners.

To summarise, literary realism of the type Hašek practices:

  • describes the real world
  • avoids hypocrisy
  • is strong and healthy
  • makes the reader strong and healthy
  • helps create a strong and healthy national culture

The kind of disapproval and censorship his critics call for:

  • would result in works painting a deceptive picture of the real world
  • is the cry of hypocrites who promote beauty but are themselves leading experts in ‘filth’
  • is the cry of weaklings and cowards
  • whose censorship, if put in place, would weaken and undermine both individuals and the national culture

Hašek’s aim

Very briefly, he says he’s not sure his book will achieve its aim. Well, what is its aim? Hašek explains it in this way:

The fact that I have already heard one man swear at another and say ‘You’re about as big an idiot as Švejk’ does not prove that I have. But if the word ‘Švejk’ becomes a new choice specimen in the already florid garland of abuse I must be content with this enrichment of the Czech language. (p.215)

Thoughts

1. It is interesting that Hašek chooses to defend his book entirely from the accusation of bad language. As I make clear in my review of Volume One, I barely noticed that the characters saying shit or bollocks – the kind of language I’ve read in thousands of novels since, especially from the 1960s onwards.

What I did notice was the casual violence they show to each other, the frothing anger of all the officials which underpins the incidents of kicking, hitting and flogging we witness along with much worse tortures and even executions (which, it is true, we don’t tend to see, but have amply reported to us).

About this no-one seems to have complained, and Hašek doesn’t feel compelled to justify. In a way, this is the most shocking thing about this little epilogue.

2. I don’t accept the idea that Hašek went to all this trouble just to add the word ‘Švejk’ as a term of abuse to the Czech language. There’s a lot, lot more going on in his big novel, most notably his fierce satire on everything Austro-Hungarian, namely its stupid bureaucracy and its incompetent army but by extension, with everything bourgeois and fake.

Then there are the fierce statements about the horror of war, all the more bitter for their often throwaway character.

And then there’s the motivation all comedians share, to make people laugh – to make them laugh and maybe do other things too, like reflect on war and society – but first and foremost, to amuse and entertain them.


Related links

The Good Soldier Švejk

The Good Soldier Švejk, Part One: Behind the Lines by Jaroslav Hašek (1921)

Švejk or Schweik, Shveyk or Schwejk (pronounced sh-vague) is a cultural icon in his native Czechoslovakia. His name is a byword and forms the basis of an adjective – Švejkian – which describes the insouciance and devil-may-care attitude of the common man in the face of hostile officialdom.

Švejk is a survivor, an amiably simple-minded, middle-aged man who never takes offence or gets angry, who walks through life with a sweet smile on his face, who faces down the various jumped-up officials and army officers who try to break him with a calm, imperturbable gaze, a survivor with a ready fund of cheerful stories about friends and acquaintances, which are appropriate for every situation he finds himself in, no matter how challenging, happy as long as he has a pint in one hand and his pipe in the other.

The Good Soldier Švejk as drawn by Joseph Lada

The Good Soldier Švejk is a very long book at 750 pages in the Penguin paperback translation by Cecil Parrott. But, unlike many supposedly ‘comic classics’, it is actually genuinely funny, in the way that Švejk’s imperturbable good humour either disarms or drives mad the endless stream of policemen, coppers’ narks, prison warders, lunatic asylum officials, army officers, chaplains and so on who confront and try to break him.

Švejk just doesn’t care. He lives in a shabby boarding house, frets about his rheumatism, and trades in mongrel dogs which he blithely tells everyone are thoroughbreds and pedigrees although they’re nothing of the sort. Some years earlier he had done military service in the 91st regiment but been kicked out for idiocy. He has a certificate to prove it – a certificate of imbecility – which he is liable to bring out and present to perplexed officials in the spirit of being helpful, ‘Yes, your worship, I am a certified idiot, your worship’.

Plot summary, part one

The story begins in Prague with Švejk’s landlady Mrs Müller, giving Švejk news of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo that precipitates World War I. Švejk sets the tone by not grasping the importance of any of this, and mixing the archduke up with several other Ferdinands of his acquaintance.

He goes to the local pub, the Chalice, landlord Mr Pavilec, where a police spy, Bretschneider, is encouraging the drinkers to speak their minds about the news, and then promptly arresting them for treasonous talk.

Švejk is arrested and taken off to police headquarters where he discovers numerous other innocents are filling the cells. He hears their stories which reflect the absurdity and randomness of police and official procedures, one of the guiding themes of the book. (Later he learns that the completely harmless landlord Pavilec was arrested at the same time as him but convicted and given ten years.)

But it is also where Švejk first demonstrates his uncanny ability to stay calm and reasonable in the face of ranting officials, like the police inspector shouting abuse at him for being a dirty traitor.

Švejk being yelled at by ‘a gentleman with a cold official face and features of bestial cruelty’

Švejk is taken before an examining magistrate, then back to the cells, and is then paraded before medical experts who have to decide whether he really is such an idiot as he appears.

They refer him to a lunatic asylum, which he enjoys a lot despite being forced to wear a white gown and where he is inspected by another set of experts, this time psychiatrists.

Eventually Švejk is kicked out and taken by the police back to another police station. Here he’s put in a cell with an anxious middle-class man who’s been locked up for doing something disreputable and is pacing up and down cursing the impact it will have on his wife and children. Švejk tries to calm him by telling some of his endless fund of stories about people he’s met or known or heard of, though some of the stories are comically inappropriate like the tale of the man who hanged himself in a police cell.

Švejk is then released from custody but is being accompanied through the streets by a policeman when they see a small crowd around a poster of the Emperor on the wall and Švejk gives vent to a patriotic cheer, which prompts his rearrest and return to the police station (for stirring up crowds, causing civil unrest).

Švejk is brought before yet another police official who listens to his excuses and, in an unusually piercing scene, looks into his wide-foolish, baby blue eyes for a long moment and… decides to release him. Švejk walks forward, kisses his hand, and then exits the police station and makes his way back to the Chalice pub where this whole sequence began.

Commentary

All this happens in the first 50 or so pages, the first quarter of volume one – and you can see straightaway that the ‘plot’, such as it is, consists almost entirely of Švejk the little man being dragged before an apparently unending sequence of police, warders, investigators, magistrates, doctors, and psychiatrists.

It is, essentially, the same scene of the little man facing down officialdom, repeated again and again.

Plot summary, part two

Švejk discovers that Mrs Müller has taken lodgers into his room while he was away. Švejk kicks them out and life returns to its easy-going normality for a week or so. But then Švejk receives his call-up papers to report to the nearest army barracks.

Incongruously, and memorably, he gets Mrs Müller to wheel him to the recruitment offices in Prague in a wheelchair, while he clutches his crutches, teporarily unable to walk because of his rheumatism.

Švejk is transferred to a hospital for malingerers because of his rheumatism, where he discovers the inhumane and brutal treatment the poor and sick are subjected to (and which some die of). He attends a compulsory church service for the malingerers, where they are given a sweary drunken sermon from the disreputable chaplain, Otto Katz.

Švejk bursts into tears at the constant swearing and emotional battering of Katz’s sermon. Surprised, Katz asks to see him, then takes him on as his assistant.

Švejk is inspected by the learned doctors

This pair have various adventures containing broad satire at the church’s expense – bluffing their way through Catholic services they don’t understand, being too drunk to remember the words, losing various bits of holy equipment (particularly the scene where Švejk is sent to buy Holy Oil and ends up in an art shop where he is sold painters’ oil).

Then Katz drunkenly loses Švejk at cards to Lieutenant Lukáš, an army officer much given to drinking, womanising and gambling.

Lieutenant Lukáš and Švejk proceed to have a series of adventures of their own, the most memorable being:

  1. when one of the lieutenant’s innumerable lovers and mistresses turns up unexpectedly and demands to move into the lieutenant’s rooms, until Švejk has the simple idea of telegraphing her husband to come and collect her, which all goes off with surprising civility
  2. and when Švejk obtains a pet dog for the Lieutenant by the simple expedient of getting one of his mates in the dog-catching underworld to steal one for him

Lieutenant Lukáš is delighted with his new dog until he bumps in the street into its former owner, one Colonel Friedrich Kraus von Zilllergut, to whom the dog, of course, goes running, and who – alas – turns out to be Lukáš’s senior officer.

Furious, Colonel Friedrich promises to get Lukáš moved up to the front immediately. Lukáš returns to confront Švejk with the fact he concealed that the dog was stolen, and has gotten him (Lukáš ) turfed out of his cushy life and sent into danger. But when Švejk looks at him with his mild clear eyes Lukáš, like everyone else who tries to get angry with him, feels his fury fizzle out in the face of such stolid, good-tempered imbecility.

And so volume one ends with the promise that volume two will follow the adventures of Švejk and Lukáš to war!

Religion

Hašek’s attitude towards religion is unremittingly satirical. All religion is an empty con, as far as he’s concerned, and if it had any meaning or content that was all finished off in the Great War.

Preparations for the slaughter of mankind have always been made in the name of God or some supposed higher being which men have devised and created in their own imagination… The great shambles of the world war did not take place without the blessing of priests… Throughout all Europe people went to the slaughter like cattle, driven there not only by butcher emperors, kings and other potentates and generals, but also by priests of all confessions… (p.125)

A central character in this first volume is the alcoholic, womanising, sceptical army chaplain Otto Katz who takes Švejk as his assistant and stars in a number of comic scenes:

  1. the first one is when he gives a rambling drunk sermon to a congregation of prisoners from the punishment barracks, who all nudge each other in anticipation of the chaplain’s regular drunken ranting
  2. in another he and Švejk get a visiting chaplain (who actually seems to believe in God and all that nonsense) blind, rolling drunk, until it’s safe for Katz to explain to him (the drunk chaplain) that he (Katz) only masquerades as a chaplain because it’s a well-paid, safe way of avoiding being sent to the front.

Satirical contempt is Hašek’s attitude to religion, and he yokes in the religions of the Incas or primitive tribesmen or Mongols to show how the same con has been pulled time and time again, marauding killers inventing some God in whose name they can commit whatever atrocities they like.

Švejk and the two drunken priests, the sincere one on the lft, Otto Katz on the right

Brutality

As I said, The Good Soldier Švejk is genuinely funny and yet, at the same time, it is surprisingly brutal. If I think of Edwardian comedy I tend to think of H.G. Wells’s comic novels featuring bumptious counter-jumpers like Mr Polly who are sort of comparable to Švejk, or the lighter moments of E.M. Foster, or the first novels of Aldous Huxley (1921, exactly same year as Švejk) – light comedy about vicars or chaps falling off bicycles.

By contrast Hašek’s book describes a world which, even in its civilian incarnation, is astonishingly harsh and brutal. Anyone in even the slightest position of authority seems to think it acceptable to shout and scream at anyone junior to them. All the characters find it acceptable to punch others across the mouth or box their ears or kick them downstairs. There are continual references to flogging as a casual form of punishment.

Švejk kicks the moneylender out of the house of Chaplain Katz

There is a generalised atmosphere of physical abuse which becomes a bit oppressive. On more or less every page people are kicked or hit or flogged:

  • p.163 Švejk tells the story of the trial of an army captain who was tried in 1912 for kicking his batman to death
  • p.165 the narrator describes informers who delight in watching fellow soldiers be arrested and tied up
  • p.167 Lieutenant Lukáš is described as routinely hitting his batmen across the jaw and boxing their ears

And the brutality applies not just to humans. When Švejk enters the employ of Lieutenant Lukáš we are told that all the Lieutenant’s previous servants tortured the his pets, starving the canary, kicking one of the cat’s eyes out, and beating his dog. Soon after starting work for him, Švejk even offers to flay the lieutenant’s cat alive, or crush it to death in a doorway, if he wants (p.167).

Or take Hašek’s detailed description of the physical assaults and torments to which supposed malingerers are subjected to by the medical authorities, described in chapter 8, page 62.

  1. cup of tea plus aspirin to induce sweating
  2. quinine in powder
  3. stomach pumped twice a day
  4. enemas with soapy water
  5. wrapped up in a sheet of cold water

More than one patient is described as having died from this treatment.

Maybe it’s a prejudice in me, but I can’t really recall this kind of thing, this level of violence and personal physical abuse, in any English novels of this era, certainly not in the comic novels – or when they do occur it is to highlight the psychopathic savagery of the exponents.

But here everyone behaves like this.

And this permanent background hum of punches and kickings and floggings occasionally rises to scenes of real horror. For example, in the barracks prison Švejk can hear other prisoners being beaten and tortured. He can hear the long, drawn-out screams of a prisoner whose ribs are being systematically broken (p.95).

And in the office of Judge Advocate Bernis are photos of the ‘justice’ recently meted out by Austrian soldiers in the provinces of Galicia and Serbia.

They were artistic photographs of charred cottages and trees with branches sagging under the weight of bodies strung up on them. Particularly fine was a photograph from Serbia of a whole family strung up – a small boy and his father and mother. Two soldiers with bayonets were guarding the tree, and an officer stood victoriously in the foreground smoking a cigarette. (p.93)

Goya’s drawings of the Horrors of war described all this a century earlier. What changed, maybe, was that the First World War was fought by civilian armies and so entire populations were subjected to horrors and atrocities with large numbers of soldiers either actively ordered to torture and murder civilians, or forced to stand by while it took place. Did anything like this happen in the West, I mean did the English army systematically torture and hang civilians in Flanders?

Kafka compared with Hašek – people

Bertolt Brecht pointed out that Josef Švejk is the identical twin but polar opposite of Kafka’s Joseph K.

Mulling over this remark, I realised this is because, for Kafka, other people barely exist: they are are sort of mirrors, or maybe extensions of the central protagonist’s own terror and anxiety, shadows dancing through the central figure’s endless nightmare.

Whereas Švejk’s life is full of other people – a steady stream of officials, doctors, police and army officers who try to break him, as well as the endless list of people he knows about or has met or heard or read about and who provide the subjects of the huge fund of stories, gossip and cheery anecdotes which he can produce at the drop of a hat to suit any situation.

So, at first sight they are indeed polar opposites – Kafka describes a haunted terrain of ghost figures, Hašek’s book is thronged with real substantial people, and can, up to a point, be taken as presenting a panoramic view of Austro-Hungarian society.

Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy

In chapter seven of The Castle the village mayor explains to K. how mistakes in the vast and complex bureaucracy up at the Castle have led to him being summoned to work as a Land Surveyor even though another department of the Castle had specifically cancelled this same request – but news of the cancellation didn’t come through in time. Now K is floating in limbo because the badly-run bureaucracy has both requested and not requested him, employed and not employed him: there is a reason for him being there, and no reason; hence his feeling of being a non-person, stuck in limbo.

Well, I was very struck when something almost identical happens in Chapter Nine of The Good Soldier Švejk. Here the narrator describes how Švejk comes up before Judge Advocate Bernis, and then proceeds to describe how, despite being ‘the most important element in military justice’, this Bernis is a masterpiece of ineptitude and incompetence.

Bernis keeps a vast pile of muddled documents which he continually loses and misplaces, and so simply makes up new ones. He mixes up names and causes and invents new ones as they come into his head. He tries deserters for theft and thieves for desertion. He invents all kinds of hocus pocus to convict men of crimes they haven’t even dreamed of. He presides over ‘an unending chaos of documents and official correspondence.’

But not only this. We learn that Bernis has a fierce rival and enemy in the department named Captain Linhart. Whenever Bernis gets his hands on any paperwork belonging to Linhart, he deliberately removes papers, swaps them with others, scrambles it up in the most destructive ways possible. And Linhart does the same to Bernis’s papers.

Thus their individual incompetence is compounded by active malevolence. And these are just two of the hundreds of thousands of incompetent fools who staffed the vast Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy. (In a satirical parenthesis we learn that the papers on Švejk’s case weren’t found till after the war, and had been wrongly filed in a folder belonging to JOSEF KOUDELA, and marked ‘Action Completed’.) (pp.91-92)

The Bernis-Linhart passage isn’t the only place in the novel where the bureaucracy of the police, legal system, medical authorities or army is described as being rotten and inept. In a sense, this vision of bureaucratic incompetence underlies the entire novel, with Švejk being an everyman figure sent on an endless picaresque journey through a landscape of muddle and confusion, which builds up into a powerful overview of a society in the grip of stasis and decay.

Indeed, even a casual search online turns up articles which paint a breath-taking portrait of the huge scale, byzantine complexity, and elephantine inefficiency of the Austro-Hungarian Empire:

Kafka compared with Hašek – bureaucracy

Anyway, the recurring presence of various wings of the state bureaucracy in The Good Soldier Švejk has two big impacts on our reading of Kafka.

1. Many critics praise Kafka for his ‘unique achievement’ in describing a vast, spookily endless and all-powerful bureaucracy. But Švejk is teaching me that such an enormous, omnipresent and incompetent bureaucracy really did exist in the late Austro-Hungarian Empire; that it is less a product of Kafka’s mind than we at first thought, that the general sense of decay which Kafka conveys was the actual state of the Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy in its dying days, even down to the details of the absurdity caused when different sections of the bureaucracy failed to communicate with each other.

2. Insofar as they are both dealing with more or less the same entity – this vast bureaucracy – then it makes us reflect on the differences between the ways Kafka and Hašek describe it, which can summed up as the inside and the outside:

Kafka describes the personal and psychological impact of a huge faceless bureaucracy on its victims (Joseph K and K) – we see it from inside their minds and we experience along with them the nightmareish sense of helplessness, anxiety and stress it causes them.

Whereas nothing at all upsets Švejk. The Good Soldier Švejk is, to a surprising extent, just as much of an indictment of the stupid, all-encompassing, vicious and inefficient Habsburg bureaucracy, but it is described entirely from the outside, in objective and comical terms. The effect on the reader is like reading a journalistic report in a satirical magazine. The continual atmosphere of blundering officialdom, cruelty and sometimes really horrible violence, is kept entirely under control, remote and detached by the tone of brisk satire, and above all by the burbling presence of the indefatigable, unflappable, undefeatable figure of Švejk. Without Švejk it would be a horror show.

Conclusion

I need to read a) other novels of the period b) some actual history of the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to discover just how true this was.


Related links

The Good Soldier Švejk

The Festival of Insignificance by Milan Kundera (2014)

The Festival of Insignificance is by far Milan Kundera’s shortest book at just 115 pages. Four men live in Paris, four men of varying ages, pottering round, bumping into each other, in the street, at parties, having thoughts and conversations.

Alain is walking down the street fascinated by the way all the girls these days wear low-slung jeans and crop tops, showing off their navels. Ramon strolls through the Luxembourg Gardens. D’Ardelo visits his doctor with a heavy heart, convinced his symptoms are cancer. The doctor assures him they’re not.

Moments later D’Ardelo bumps into Ramon in the Luxembourg (they use to work in the same institute) and D’Ardelo a) asks Ramon whether he knows someone who can organise a little cocktail party to celebrate his (D’Ardelo’s) birthday and b) deceitfully tells Ramon he has just been diagnosed with cancer. His friend commiserates. As he walks away even D’Ardelo doesn’t understand why he lied.

An hour later Ramon is at Charles’s apartment and asks if he and his partner, an unemployed actor named Caliban, can cater for this cocktail party. Sure. Ramon explains the client with a story designed to show the difference between Brilliance and Insignificance. D’Ardelo is at a party preening like a peacock and spinning jokes, whereas Quaquelique is a discreet, quiet presence. Not silent, just uttering the occasional platitude. Ramon explains how D’Ardelo’s brilliance intimidates the women he talks to, they struggle to rise to his repartee.Whereas it is Quaquelique who leaves with the beautiful woman at the end of the party.

Insignificance trumps brilliance.

Part two – the marionette theatre

Introducing the anecdote Stalin told the Politburo about how, when he was a boy, he came across 24 partridges sitting on the bough of a tree. He had his shotgun with him, but only 12 cartridges. So he shot the first twelve birds, then walked home with the bodies, collected 12 more cartridges, walked back to the tree to find the other 12 partridges sitting there peacefully and shot them too. The Politburo listened in stunned silence. Only after the meeting had ended and they all went to the loo, while Stalin went off to his private room, did the Politburo burst out in guffaws of outraged laughter at Stalin’s outrageous lies.

We know the story because it is told in Khruschev’s memoirs which Charles owns a copy of. On another occasion Charles explains why the Russians renamed Koenigsberg Kaliningrad. It’s because of a Politburo member Kalinin, in fact president of the Supreme Soviet, who had a particularly weak bladder, and Stalin liked to keep waiting or late at meetings until he wet  his pants. Naming a city after this man was the whim of a dictator who felt something like genuine affection for this poor weak man.

Part three – Alain and Charles often think about their mothers

Alain, still thinking about girls’ navels, has a memory of being ten, of his mother paying a rare visit to the family home, of him climbing out of the family swimming pool and going over to where she’s sitting, and of her reaching out and touching  his navel.

There is an unexplained cut to an unnamed woman who drives to a bridge over a river and jumps in, attempting to drown. She hears a man’s voice, a man dives in and swims out to rescue her. Vengefully she drags the man down under the surface, lying athwart his body till he is still, then swimming up to the surface, walking wetfoot to her car, driving off…

On his way to his apartment, Alain is jostled by a brisk young woman who calls him an idiot. He phones Charles who tells him about his sick mother. Alain for some reason imagines her as an angel, and this leads to a brief consideration of angels, and a mild comparison of Alain, who’s mother left him when he was a baby, and Charles’s mother, who he’s known all his life and is now old and frail and a burden.

Part four – They are all in search of a good mood

Caliban the unemployed actor decided that, if he was going to work as a waiter for Charles, it would be fun to act a role, and so pretends to be from Pakistan. They get dressed up in waiter costume and drive to Madame D’Ardelo’s, unpack food and drink, get it ready to be presented etc. There’s a Portuguese waitress there (who hates speaking French) and, somehow, she gets into speaking to him in Portuguese while he replies to her in (largely made-up) Pakistani. Despite talking at complete cross-purposes (as so many Kundera characters do) they sort of fall in love.

Meanwhile, Alain is in his apartment which is decorated with just one photo, of the mother who didn’t want to have him. She told his father to be careful when making love but he came inside her nonetheless (making the modern reader realise this act of love happened before the coil or the pill i.e. in another universe).

She, we now learn, is the young woman who jumped into the river, because she was pregnant and didn’t want it. The drowning of the man is just one of the many fantasies Alain projects onto the mother he never knew. He talks to the photo and, in a mild outbreak of magical realism, she talks back. He reflects that, being gentle and weak, and yet an intruder into his life, he was born to be an Apologiser.

Ramon arrives at the party. He hates these posh people. He’s retired i.e. older than D’Ardelo. He watches an amusing scene in which some grande dame, Madame Franck (whose husband recently died) stuffs a canapé in her face while rudely ignoring the pushy, social-climbing daughter of M and Mme D’Ardelo.

Alain is pleased to bump into his old friend, Quaquelique, on the scout, as ever, for a new girlfriend. Alain bumps into a woman he knows, Julie, who flirts with him, then walks away waggling her bottom.

Part five – A little feather floats beneath the ceiling

The narrative becomes slowly more fantastical. Charles the bartender is looking up at a tiny feather drifting down from the ceiling. Remember the conversation earlier about angels? He wonders if this is a tiny token of an angel. Madame Franck notices it too and holds out her finger for it to land on.

Somehow this scene morphs into the Politburo standing round while Stalin calls them to order and then laughs at his own joke of renaming Koenigsberg after pitiful comrade Kalinin.

Ramon engages in conversation with Caliban, agreeing that their tactic of speaking in ridiculous languages does, to some extent, mollify the humiliation of making their living by being lackeys at parties of the rich.

We’ve known for a long time that it was no longer possible to overturn this world, nor reshape it, nor head off its dangerous headlong rush. There’s been only one possible resistance: to not take it seriously. (p.75)

But now he wonders if we are in a post-joke era. As if to confirm it they both notice a man who appears to be eavesdropping on them, on Caliban. Suddenly he is seized with anxiety: what happens if a French security man or policeman realises he is a Frenchman masquerading as Pakistani? Arrest. Interrogation. Prison, Deportation. (This seems to me a bit weak; if Kundera wanted to raise the spectre of 9/11 and the war on terror, why not have a Muslim or Arab character?)

Which leads Ramon to remind them of the story of Stalin and the partridges. One way of interpreting it is that Stalin didn’t expect to be believed, he was telling a joke, but the Politburo didn’t get it because they were too sacred. Ramon grandly announces that this moment symbolised the start of the Post-Joke Age (p.77). This is such palpable bollocks it barely seems worth engaging with. Do you think we live in a Post-Joke Age?

Madame Franck finally catches the feather on her finger and announces it is a symbol. Ramon slips out the door and hails a taxi in the street. Alain’s mother speaks to him from her photo, describing an enormous fantasy in which all humanity is still connected via their umbilical cords back to their mothers who are connected back to their mothers and so on in a vast tree back to Eve. Alain’s mother wanted to destroy the tree and wipe out the memory of humanity.

Part six – Angels falling

The party is over. Charles and Caliban change back into their ordinary clothes. The young waitress, whose name is Mariana, adores Caliban even more. She intercedes with Charles to speak on her behalf, but then Caliban walks over and kisses her. But she remains chaste and rushes off. The two men reflect on chastity.

Caliban wants to go see their friend Alain and drink to chastity. They call up from the street, Alain lets them in, Caliban teeters on a chair to reach the bottle of vintage Armagnac brandy Alain has placed high on his armoire, but the chair breaks and Caliban topples to the floor, mashing the brandy.

Meanwhile, the narrative cuts back to an extended sequence with Stalin and Politburo. First of all he asks them if they know what Kant’s great idea was: It was the Ding an sich, the notion that there is a reality out there, but we can never know it. Against this he describes the central idea of Schopenhauer, namely that the world is made of Will and Representation. Everyone in the world has their different representations of it. Which ones triumph depends on the force of will. And he, Stalin, has done more than any man in history to impose his Will, and his Idea, on humanity.

But now he feels tired and, looking round at the imbeciles in the Politburo, he wonders what he sacrificed his life to. He thumps the table which shakes.

That thump coincides with Caliban falling off the chair in Alain’s flat with a bump.

And the door closing in Julie’s flat. Without quite understanding how, she seems to have left the party with Quaquelique and to have slept with him.

But the Politburo are distracted by an amazing sight. Outside the Kremlin window, from high in the air, angels are falling. What does it mean? While they are distracted Stalin changes into his hunting gear, grabs his shotgun, and goes stalking off down the Kremlin corridors.

Part seven – The festival of insignificance

It gets weirder and weirder, and more fantastical and inconsequential.

It’s the morning after the party. Alain gets on his motorbike and feels the presence behind him of the mother he’s never known. She now reads him a bitter lecture about people, humans and the way none of us asked to be born, the way we have our existence, our gender, our physical characteristics, and the era we’re born into, thrust on us. After all that how can there be a thing called ‘freedom’?

Alain arrives at the Luxembourg Gardens to meet Ramon. They had planned to go the Chagall exhibition at the museum but, once again, the queue is too long and puts Alain off. Instead they stroll, and Alain takes the opportunity to expand on his theories about the navel. Previously, he said, women’s bodies had three distinct erogenous zones, the breast, buttocks and thighs. These were individual and distinctive. Now, Alain claims, we live in the era of the navel (two young women walk past displaying their navels as he speaks) and the navel is anonymous and identical. We live in an era of uniformity. Everyone must conform to the same values and music and fashion. We live in a culture which promotes all the values of ‘individuality’ and yet… there is no individuality left.

In the past, love was a celebration of the individual, of the inimitable, the tribute to a unique thing, a thing impossible to replicate. But not only does the navel not revolt against repetition, it is a call for repetitions. And in our millennium we are going to live under the sign of the navel. (p.107, italics added)

I think he means endless pointless reproduction, and mass uniformity.

D’Ardelo arrives and he and Ramon greet each other warily. All three are interrupted by two events. One is a flood of children streaming into the gardens who arrange themselves in a circle to take part in some kind of musical performance.

Much more striking is the arrival of Stalin in his hunting gear. Yes. Josef Stalin runs into the scene, looking manly and virile.

All around people stop and watch, startled and sympathetic. (p.110)

His appearance is that of a ladies’ man, a village rake, an adventurer. The morning crowds in the Luxembourg warm to this fellow (is this satire? on how the conformity of the modern world is preparing the way for new dictators? or whimsy?).

He takes up his shotgun and fires at one of the many statues of French queens in the park, blowing the nose off Marie de Medici. Why? Because Kalinin – remember him of the weak bladder – is having a pee behind it. Stalin explains that pissing in the park is illegal and roars a great Georgian laugh and the crowd warms to his honest, free-spirited hi jinks.

He bursts into laughter, and his laugh is so gay, so free, so innocent, so rustic, so brotherly, so contagious, that everyone around, as if relieved, starts laughing as well. (p.111)

From time to time the narrative has told us that Charles dreams of putting on a play, maybe a play performed by marionettes. Now Ramon turns to Alain and says, ‘Does the hunter remind you of anyone?’ Yes, Charles.

‘Yes. Charles is here with us. It’s the last act of his piece.’ (p.112)

‘His piece’? What piece? Is the implication that some or more of the text is part of Charles’s ‘play’? Surely not. So is it really Charles or really Stalin? Charles, apparently. Both men conclude the Stalin and the Kalinin are the high jinks you’d expect of two actors trying to keep in practice.

Then Ramon delivers a long speech about the subject of the novel:

‘Insignificance, my friend, is the essence of existence. It is all around us, and everywhere and always. It is present even when no one wants to see it: in horror, in bloody battles, in the worst disasters. It often takes courage to acknowledge it in such dramatic situations, and to call it by name. But it is not only a matter of acknowledging it, we must love insignificance, we must learn to love it. Right here, in this park, before us – look, my friend, it is present here in all its obviousness, all its innocence, in all its beauty. Yes, its beauty. As you yourself said, the perfect performance [referring to the actors dressed as Stalin and Kalinin]… and utterly useless, the children laughing… without knowing why, isn’t that beautiful? Breathe, D’Ardelo, my friend, inhale this insignificance that’s all around us, it is the key to wisdom, it is the key to a good mood…’ (p.113)

Alain’s mother whispers in his ear that she is truly happy. Ramon sees that his speech about insignificance has not pleased D’Ardelo, a man who is more attracted by the weighty and the significant. So he changes tack and flatters him by telling him he saw how much Madame Franck was eyeing him at the party last night: surely they must be secret lovers – which sends D’Ardelo off with a spring in his step.

And an old-fashioned horse and carriage draws up, and ‘Stalin’ and ‘Kalinin’ climb into it, waving to the crowd, as the children’s choir strikes up a rendition of La Marseillaise.

Thoughts

By the end I think you’re meant to have realised that the entire book is a festival of insignificance. To use the comparison explained by Ramon back at the start, it avoids the off-putting brilliance of a D’Ardelo, and adopts the steady unobtrusive burbling of a Quaquelique, and wins the pretty girl in the end.

But no, that can’t be right. Because the whole short narrative is far from unobtrusive burbling: it is made up of bravura displays and performances – the sudden unexplained story of the woman who tries to drown herself but drowns her would-be rescuer – the story of Stalin terrifying the Politburo – Caliban’s jokey adoption of Pakistani – the way Alain’s photo of his mother regularly talks to him and holds conversations. And from time to time the characters mention their Master, who I didn’t immediately understand meant the author, the man who dreamed them up and is manipulating them as they speak and act.

These are not quiet and unobtrusive events, they are surreal or magical realist tokens: they strike me as being displays of whimsical narratorial brilliance.

But why? Why choose Stalin to be a central figure in his last novel? Why not some figure from Czech history? Is it a poke in the eye at all the people who expect him to write about Czech history and issues, who expect him to conform to what their idea of a political writer or an émigré writer should be (as the Czech émigré Irena is irritated by all the French people telling her how much she ought to be caring about her homeland when communism collapses in 1989)?

Is he demonstrating the complete freedom of the novelist to write about whatever takes his fancy? Is the insignificance of the entire story part of its resistance to the forces of Kitsch and earnest conformity, which he identifies in his earlier novels?

Maybe. But I can’t help feeling there’s a quality of disappointment about these later novels. I mean that, when you hand over your time and effort to a writer, you expect, to some extent, a kind of rounded experience, one with a beginning, middle and an end.

That sounds crude, but what I’m driving at is the way this book, like Slowness and Identity, starts off with high hopes and expectations, with promising and interesting characters and immediately hits you with some of his trademark meditations about ideas and notions about the meaning of life and memory and love and so on…. but then, somehow, lose their way, fails to deliver, fizzle out – as Slowness leads up to Vincent’s frustrated copulation by the pool of the hotel and the last third of Identity, even worse, turns out all to have been a dream.

Somehow the cleverness of the meditations and digressions, and of many of the incidents, is not, ultimately, matched by a cleverness of form or shape. That’s what I mean by disappointing. They don’t quite deliver the intellectual or imaginative punch they start out promising.

But maybe, again, he is reacting against giving the audience what is expects. If that’s what we want, maybe we should go watch a Hollywood movie. Fiction does something different. It intrigues and beguiles. And puzzles… Maybe this book is intended to be an entertainment, a beguilement and a puzzle… Pretty obviously it is saying: ‘If you want a serious message… my serious message is… that nothing is serious :)’

Credit

The Festival of Insignificance by Milan Kundera was first published in the English translation by Linda Asher by Harper Collins in 2015. All references are to the 2016 paperback edition.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2002 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

Ignorance by Milan Kundera (2002)

This is a really enjoyable book and feels like a return to form for Kundera. I hate to say it because it sounds like such a cliché, but it feels that the reason for this is simply to be that, after three novels set predominantly in France and in a Western consumer capitalist culture which Kundera can’t help but loathe and despise – this one returns to Czechoslovakia, to his homeland – and feels significantly more confident, relaxed, integrated, deep and thoughtful as a result.

It’s a novel about returning from exile. It’s set soon after the collapse of communism in 1989 and the liberation of Czechoslovakia from Russian rule, and describes the journeys back to newly-liberated Czechoslovakia of two émigrés, one man, one woman.

But it is a Kundera novel, so the narrative, such as it is, is routinely interspersed with digressions and thoughts and analyses, primarily about the characters’ perceptions and feelings, then of their personal situations, then of their positions as symbols of ‘the émigré’, then explanations of the broader historical background to their situation, and then, stepping right back from the present, Kundera aligns their ‘returns’ with a) the classical legend of Odysseus, maybe the greatest symbol in European literature of the Returner, and b) with passages about the different words in European languages which attempt to convey the many feelings of the returner, nostalgia, longing for home, and so on.

Ignorance

Thus we discover he is using the word ‘ignorance’ not at all in the common or garden sense of ‘lack of knowledge or information’, but in a subtler sense moderated by placing all around it words from other languages (such as the German Sehnsucht and the Czech stesk) which express ‘nostalgia’, longing, the act of missing something or someone – then by examining its Latin root, to produce a wider deeper definition:

To be unaware of, not know, not experience; to lack or miss. In that etymological light nostalgia seems something like the pain of ignorance, of not knowing. You are far away, and I don’t know what has become of you. My country is far away, and I don’t know what is happening there. (p.6)

Arguably, the rest of the text is an extended mediation on the meaning of this concept, the suffering of the exile, and the bewilderment of return.

Odysseus is doubly relevant: not just as a returner, but a returner after an absence of twenty years, he is surprisingly close to Kundera’s fictional character. It was in 1968 that the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia and suppressed of the Prague Spring, but only in 1969 that they imposed their new government which proceeded to implement its harsh crackdown on all liberals and dissidents. So it was 20 years later that Russian communism collapsed and the Russia-backed Czech communist government fell.

And Odysseus was away from his homeland (Ithaca) for a long 20 years: 10 years fighting at Troy, three wandering across the Mediterranean and having the extraordinary adventures all children learn about; then seven trapped by the magician Calypso, who was also his lover.

Now these disparate elements – geopolitics, personal stories, etymological precision and ancient myth – could easily have hung apart and pulled in different directions. In my opinion his use of these kinds of disparate elements, or different levels, failed to gel in the previous couple of novels.

But here they meld perfectly. All four of these levels or themes naturally complement each other. The feelings and experiences of the present-day émigrés really does illuminate your understanding of how Odysseus must have felt, pitching up in his homeland twenty years after leaving it. And Kundera’s subtle insights into Odysseus’s plight really does help to amplify the bitter experiences of his émigrés in the present day.

To both of them Kundera applies his insights about memory and forgetting, namely the idea developed in Identity that part of the point of friendship it to tell each other stories about the old days and keep memories alive. Exiled to a foreign land, with no friends, those memories atrophy and die. The more intense Odysseus’s longing for his native land – the less he can remember anything about it.

Émigrés gathered together in compatriot colonies keep retelling to the point of nausea the same stories, which thereby become unforgettable. But people who do not spend time with their compatriots, like Irena or Odysseus, are inevitably stricken with amnesia. The stronger their nostalgia, the emptier of recollections it becomes. (p.33, emphasis added)

Plus (as a big history fan) I am fascinated by the light Kundera sheds on the political and social and cultural changes which took place in a communist-dominated society, how it changed so quickly after the fall of communism, and the myriad little insights thrown up as his two protagonists move among this familiar but alien world.

For me, all of these elements come together to make a really fascinating and engaging book.

The characters

Irena

The woman protagonist, Irena, fled Czechoslovakia with her husband Martin, with one little girl and pregnant with another, back in the 1970s. Émigrés from communist countries weren’t all that welcome in the Paris of the 1970s, dominated by its communist party and the fashion for left-wing students. Her husband fell ill and died, and she had a hard time bringing up the girls (cleaning houses, caring for a paraplegic, p.28).

Emigration-dreams

All the émigrés have them, both she and her husband are plagued by them, dreams in which you are wandering the streets of a strange city and the see the uniforms of the Czech police and awake sweating in panic. Dreams like that. Sometimes they came during the day, in the middle of a meeting, a sudden shaft of memory, walking through a green part of Prague, for a moment, becomes more real than the real world. The continual eruption of the unconscious.

Gustaf

Then she met Gustaf, a Swede who’s fled his homeland to get away from his homeland. They become friends then lovers, then partners. He disconcerts her by saying his company are going to open up a small office in Prague. She wants to get away from the old life, not have it hanging over her all the time. Especially her self-centred, garrulous mother. After the fall of communism his company expands this to buying a house in central Prague, with a flat in the eaves where Gustaf stays on his business trips.

Now Irena flies back to Prague and is able to stay there, while she looks up her old friends and has a sort of hen night for women friends only. This scene registers their different reactions, some jealous, some bitter, everyone keen to tell how much they suffered, the ‘suffering contests’ (p.41).

All of this is interesting and moving and subtly described – very unlike the sex comedy shenanigans of the previous novels, Slowness and Identity, which I didn’t like. When references to Odysseus’s experiences as an exile returning after twenty years are interleaved with Irena’s it doesn’t feel contrived or arch; the two complement each other really well.

Josef

In the airport Irena spots a man she knew twenty years earlier. He had been someone else’s boyfriend who she had flirted with at some party downstairs in a bar in Prague. But then she got married and left the country. But she’d always wondered what would have happened. When she introduces herself to him, he is flustered and shy.

Then we cut to his point of view and learn why he is flustered. He is called Josef and he has absolutely no memory of her whatever, can’t even remember her name. He also fled Czechoslovakia, settling in Denmark and marrying. Now his wife is dead and he is making the pilgrimage home.

The great broom

He wriggles free of her and goes on his own quest in Prague, his own odyssey. He goes to the cemetery where his parents are buried and is appalled by how cramped it is, overshadowed by high rise blocks and freeways. He reflects than an invisible broom has swept across the landscape of his childhood, wiping away everything familiar.

And it seems to be getting faster. Things changed slowly ‘back in the day’, now they change before your eyes. This is brought home in the dining room of the hotel where he’s staying and he realises spoken Czech has changed in intonation and tone in the twenty years he’s been away. Now it feels like ‘an unknown language’ (p.55)

Josef’s brother

Then Josef goes on to meet his brother and the sister-in-law who never liked him. I really liked this scene, the way his sense of the feelings of the other two fluctuate, how Kundera captures the changing mood, the sudden embarrassing silences. He realises he must have been seen as The Betrayer, the lucky younger son who ran away. His flight bedevilled his brother’s career as a surgeon, casting a blight over it. Josef had turned his back on a career as a doctor (turning his back on the family tradition pursued by his grandfather and father) in order to become a vet. The motives for his flight are examined.

Josef left in a hurry and mailed his brother the key to his apartment, saying take what he wanted. Now his brother gives him a bundle of notes and journals and diaries and letters. Back at his hotel he goes through them. He realises he has forgotten most of his childhood.

The law of masochistic memory: as segments of their lives melt into oblivion, men slough off whatever they dislike, and feel lighter, freer. (p.76)

He is disconcerted at the combination of ‘sentimentality and sadism’ (p.83) displayed by the diaries of himself as a frustrated virginal teenager.

The teenage girl

Kundera now creates ‘out of the mists of the time when Josef was in high school’ a virginal girl his own age who has just split up with her first boyfriend. She enjoys the fist pangs of ‘nostalgia’, the first teenage tryouts of that feeling of wanting to ‘go back’ (in her case to the happy days when she was going out with X; but you see how this mention of nostalgia ties in with the book’s theme).

She goes out with young Josef. He is petulant and frustrated. When she announces she is going off on a school skiing trip he has a tantrum and dumps her.

Josef tears up his diary and throws the pieces away. But,

The life we’ve left behind us has a bad habit of stepping out of the shadows, of bringing complaints against us, of taking us to court. (p.90)

Gustaf and Irena’s relationship decays

I thought the book was about Irena’s first and major visit back to Prague, but this passage makes it clear that, her partner Gustaf having opened an office in the city, she found herself spending more and more time there, watching as Prague rapidly becomes westernised, repaints itself and fills up with tourists.

Meanwhile her relationship with Gustaf peters out. They stop having sex. They stop even talking because he enjoys talking in American English, talking loud and long, whereas she clings to the French she had learned in Paris, and behind that to the Czech she grew up with, neither of which Gustaf understands. Now, meeting the strange man (Josef) in the airport has revived something in her. He had given her the number of his hotel and when she gets through after trying half a dozen times, she is thrilled and aroused at his voice.

All this contrasts with the gabby loudmouth Gustaf who she can hear downstairs keeping her horrible chatterbox mum in stitches. Josef represents escape from two people she’s come to loathe.

The teenage girl attempts suicide

The narrative cuts back to that teenage girl after her second boyfriend cruelly dumps her. We are intended by now, I think, to realise that the sentimental and sadistic boyfriend was none other than Josef, and I think the distraught girl was a young Irena.

We are told how the teenage girl goes on the school ski trip, one evening walks away from the chalet, as far as she can, swallows a bunch of sleeping pills she’s stolen off her mother, and lies down in the snow to die.

Burying the dead

This narrative breaks off to revive a thought that had been mentioned earlier (and which recurs in Kundera’s later fiction) which is the correct disposal of the dead. When Josef’s wife dies, he fights an almighty battle to stop her family claiming the body and burying it in the family plot. Josef feels she would be abandoned among strangers. (This parallels Chantal’s anxiety in Identity about what happens to the bodies of the dead the instant they’ve gone i.e. they lose all privacy and pored over by pathologists and police and strangers, cut open and humiliated. Which is why she insists on being cremated.)

The suicide survives

She had lain down under a beautiful blue Alpine sky, her head woozily full of images of a beautiful death. She wakes up under a black night sky feeling awful and in fact unable to feel half her body. Evidently she is not dead, and she staggers back to the ski chalet where the doctor diagnoses her with frostbite and says part of her ear will have to be chopped off. Word goes round the other kids and teachers about the girl who tried to kill herself. She is mortified. Now her life divides into two halves – the innocent years under the blue sky of childhood, and the years of knowledge under a black sky.

The implications of human lifespan

There now follow some fascinating passages about the human condition. Nothing impenetrable or difficult, it’s all very accessible. It’s as if he’s made philosophy entertaining. It’s like Heidegger turned into a newspaper editorial.

First idea is a consideration of how much our lifespan – say 80 years – affects meaning. If human beings lived for, say 160 years, then the notion of a Great Return which his book is about, would dissolve into just one of the many peregrinations 180 year-olds would be prone to.

Human memory

Next, Memory. The fact is that human memory retains no more than a millionth, maybe a hundred millionth of our actual lived experiences. If human beings remembered everything they would cease being human and be a different species. One of the things that defines us is the way we forget almost everything.

And why do we remember some things and not others? Because they are part of the complex narratives we tell ourselves about our lives. And these narratives, obviously, vary hugely from person to person.

It’s not just that people remember the same event differently (as Kundera has given us ample examples of throughout his work), but that quite often two people don’t even remember the event at all. Thus Irena powerfully remembers her first meeting with Josef, and remembers him as a symbol or talisman of the single life she left behind when she married her husband soon after. Whereas Josef doesn’t remember her at all.

Kundera evinces both Irena’s experience after he husband died and Josef’s after his wife died: for both of them the shared memories which made up their relationships required constant discussing and sharing. Once the sharing ended, the memories started to decay, worryingly quickly.

Kundera’s discussed some of these issues before but, as I’ve said, they seem to arise more naturally from the subject matter and setting in this book than they do in its immediate predecessors. The result is that it feels more graceful. There are fewer abrupt handbrake turns.

Back to the narrative

Irena goes strolling round Prague, revising the middle class area where she grew up. She walks through woodland to the back of the famous castle. She thinks about her upbringing, the poets and storytellers and the little theatres with their humour – the ‘intangible essence’ of her country.

Josef reflects

He drives out into the country. He reflects on the destiny of the Czechs, a small nation, whose history has been one of fear and domination, yet have refused to bow to their larger neighbours, like the Danes he has settled among.

He and his sister-in-law had bickered about a painting, a painting by a painter friend of his depicting a working class neighbourhood in the flamey colours of the Fauves. Now he realises he doesn’t want it anyway. It would be a splinter of old Prague in his clean, windswept Danish existence. Out of place.

Man cannot know the future because he doesn’t understand the present

This point is made very amusingly though the example of Schoenberg the revolutionary Austrian composer. In the 1920s he announced that his new twelve-tone system would ensure the dominance of German music for a century. Barely ten years later he, a Jew, was forced to flee Nazi Germany, to America. Here he continued to write and developed the fans and acolytes who were to dominate post-war classical music and impose the atonal ‘system’ onto serious music until well into the 1970s.

But where is he now? In Kundera’s view forgotten and ignored (I’m not sure that’s quite true, but his system certainly doesn’t dominate classical music the way it used to).

Anyway, Kundera introduces another level to explain what he means. Imagine two armies meet to determine the fate of the world but unknown to either one carries the plague bacillus which will wipe out the civilisation they’re fighting over.

Same with Schoenberg and his arch-enemy Stravinsky who he spent fifty years slagging off. In the event both were blown away by radio. The advent of radio in the 1920s was the start of the great plague of noise and din and racket which, in Kundera’s view, has ruined music forever. Kundera lets rip with some classic cultural pessimism:

If in the past people would listen to music out of love of music, nowadays it roars everywhere and all the time, ‘regardless of whether we want to hear it’, it roars from loudspeakers, in cars, in restaurants, in elevators, in the streets, in waiting rooms, in gyms, in the earpieces of Walkmans, music rewritten, reorchestrated, abridged, and stretched out, fragments of rock, of jazz, of opera, a flood of everything jumbled together so that we don’t know who composed it (music become noise is anonymous), so that we can’t tell beginning from end (music become noise has no form); sewage-water music in which music is dying. (p.146)

So who cares any more whether Schoenberg or Stravinsky was right. Both have gone down under a tsunami of sewage-water music.

Irena and music

As so often in Kundera, having shared a thought or idea with us for a couple of pages, he then applies it to one of his walking experiments, also known as ‘characters. Thus we eavesdrop on how much Irena hates the way music blares from every outlet, how much she wants to get away from it to a realm of quiet. On one side of her the bedside radio which, even in its speech programmes, contains snippets of sewage music; on the other side Gustaf snoring like a pig. (This trip to Prague has crystallised how much she hates him.)

She is tense because it is the day when she’s made an appointment to meet Josef.

Josef and N

Before he left the country, Josef had been helped by N., a devout communist who stood up for people like him. Josef goes to meet him, his head full of questions about how he felt about collaborating in the oppression of his people, how things changed towards the end, what he feels now. But N.’s house is packed full of his grown-up kids milling around and he and Josef can’t manage to get a conversation started. He laments the capitalist commercialisation he sees all over the country. N. nods his head. ‘National independence has been an illusion for some time, now.’

Josef abandons his plans to engage in Weighty Conversation and, as soon as he does so, experiences a sudden release and sense of liberation. Suddenly he and N. are like two old friends chatting and gossiping about the past. (There is a certain polemical purpose in the notion that Josef the émigré has more in common with a former communist than with his own brother. His brother represents bitterness, and his wife, Josef’s sister-in-law, would string up the old communists if she could. Josef’s relaxed and warm conversation with his old friend shows how irrelevant that witch-hunting mentality is to the situation. Celebrate what we have in the here and now. Not least because ‘they’ – N. nods towards his adult children – have no idea what they’re talking about.)

The memory theme reappears because N. thanks Josef for acting as his alibi to his wife, on an occasion when N. was off with his mistress. Josef has absolutely no memory of this happening and doubts it was him, but acquiesces in the story. Earlier, his brother had reminded him of some boyhood lines he had supposedly uttered, and his sister-in-law reminded him that he used to scandalise the family with his anti-clerical sentiments. Josef remembers none of this, none of it.

Irena and Josef

They meet at his hotel. They chat and get on. She describes how alien she feels in Prague and yet how she has been cold-shouldered in Paris. The French accepted her and Martin as Heroic Exiles. When the wall came down and she could go back, she realised her few friends slowly lost contact with her because she was no longer interesting.

The suicide girl grown into a woman

I was wrong about the suicide teenager being Irena. It’s her best friend from the old days, Milada, who alone of the cackling women at the hen night reception for Irena, makes the effort to talk to her and understand her. At the time Kundera had told us that she had a very particular hairstyle, the hair cut to perfectly frame her face. Now we realise it is to hide the ear she had cut off because of the frostbite. For her, while Josef and Irena get to know each other in the Prague hotel bar, it is another boring day driving out to a suburb, having a beer and a sandwich alone in a bar.

Except that she has learned that he has come back, the teenage boy who rejected her and prompted her suicide attempt and the loss of her ear. Him. Josef.

Irena and Josef

It’s so noisy with sewage-water music in the bar that Josef invites Irena up to his bedroom. He’s reading the Odyssey. They explicitly compare Odysseus’s 20 year exile with Irena’s own. Talk swiftly moves to Odysseus and Penelope’s first night back in bed. Irena describes it then, half drunk, describes it again using coarse sex words. Both are immediately aroused and tumble into bed. Yes. It is a Milan Kundera novel where, no matter how artful, erudite and thought-provoking the ideas and discussion, straightforward heterosexual penetrative sex is never far away.

It was the sound of those rude words in their native Czech. Both have been married to or living with people who don’t speak Czech. The sound of those words in their native tongue, certainly stimulates Irena to ecstasies of sexual abandonment, she wants to do everything, try every position, and then describe out loud her crudest fantasies, voyeurism, exhibitionism (to be honest, in the era of Fifty Shades of Grey, these do not sound like the wildest fantasies).

Gustaf and Irena’s mother

She is a loud bossy vulgar woman who Irena has been trying to escape all her life. She lives in one of the rooms of the big house Gustaf’s company bought after the liberation. He gets back after a heavy lunch with clients. She has put on some dance music and playfully dances round the room. She takes his hand and makes her dance with her. She pulls him over towards the wall-length mirror. She places her hand on his crotch. They continue dancing. She lets her robe fall open so he can see her breasts and pubic triangle. They continue dancing. She slips her hand down his trousers to touch his hardening member.

Irena and Josef

Irena is exhausted and drunk. She bursts into tears. One thing leads to another and suddenly she realises the awful truth – he doesn’t know who she is. He didn’t on the plane, or in their follow-up phone calls, or downstairs in the bar, or now. She stands and demands he tell her her name. He is silent. Oh dear.

Gustaf and Irena’s mother

Gustaf withdraws from Irena’s mother’s quavery wobbly body. In the darkness she intones that he is quite free to make love to her whenever he likes, but under no obligation. Now, throughout the book we’ve been gently reminded that Gustaf is a bit of a mother’s boy, who fled the responsibility of his wife and child. Now, we realise, he has finally arrived home. Irena’s mother offer him precisely the reassurance and mother love he’s always sought. He reaches out to stroke her cellulite-wobbly buttocks.

Irena and Josef

Abruptly drunk tearful Irena collapses on the bed and passes out. She starts snoring. Josef knees beside her naked body and wonders: could he spend his life with her? she is so obviously in love with him? is she the sister-lover he’s been seeking (on and off) throughout the book?

The suicide girl

Alone and sad, she is in her flat, she is a vegetarian because she is terrified by the thought of eating bodies, that we are all bodies, that she is a body. She has a sad snack dinner and looks at herself in the mirror. She lifts up her hair and looks at her damaged ear. She became a scientist and dreams about flying off into space to find a world where people don’t have bodies.

I thought she and Josef would have had some dramatic reunion in which she blamed him for ruining her life (after he, the selfish teenager, dumped her, she made her suicide attempt, then had part of her ear cut off due to frostbite and gangrene, then she was too scared to show herself to men and never married). But it doesn’t happen, and it feels like an opportunity (deliberately) missed. Remember when he wrote:

The life we’ve left behind us has a bad habit of stepping out of the shadows, of bringing complaints against us, of taking us to court. (p.90)

I thought this was a strong hint that the jilted girlfriend was going to step out of the shadows to confront Josef. Shame. It feels a little like coitus interruptus, a little like the flirting with the reader Kundera does in all his books, promising big things which, somehow, don’t quite come off.

Josef leaves

He writes sleeping snoring Irena a brief sincere note, telling her she has the hotel room till noon the next day. Then packs his bags, goes downstairs, tells reception there’s a guest sleeping in the room who’s not to be disturbed, takes a taxi to the airport and catches his flight. The plane flies up through the clouds and into the big empty black empyrean of night dotted with stars.

Credit

Ignorance by Milan Kundera was first published in the English translation by Linda Asher by Harper Collins in 2002 All references are to the 2003 paperback edition.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2002 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

Identity by Milan Kundera (1998)

This is a detailed summary of the plot of Identity by Milan Kundera. It aims to recreate the experience the reader has of only slowly discovering who it concerns and what it’s about and what happens, and also to recreate the continual sense of slight disorientation the book gives you – a feeling which snowballs in the second half, where the reader eventually realises that the book has actually crossed the line from ‘reality’ into ‘fantasy’, and is prompted to go back and try to figure out where it happened.

In other words, Identity is a clever, playful and deliberately teasing little book.

But it all starts very modestly with a middle-caged couple going to spend a weekend in a hotel in Normandy…


Chantal at the hotel

Jean-Marc and Chantal are going to spend the weekend at a small hotel on the Normandy coast. Chantal arrives first, freshens up and goes into the dining room. She overhears the waitresses discussing the disappearance of some rich person as described on a popular TV show Lost To Sight. She wonders how anyone can go missing in a world where every move is monitored by CCTV camera, where privacy is dying. She imagines losing Jean-Marc that way one day.

Jean-Marc visits an old friend

Meanwhile Jean-Marc has gone to Brussels to see an old school friend, F, because he is dying. They were close until he heard that F. refused to stand up for him in a meeting where he was universally attacked. At that point he completely cut F. out of his life. Looking down at F’s wasted body Jean-Marc realises how stupid that was. F. describes having an out-of-body experience.

F. describes some incident from their school days which Jean-Marc can’t remember. Suddenly it dawns on him that the purpose of friendship is to keep old memories alive.

Chantal and the daddies on the beach

After a bad night’s sleep troubled by a dream, Chantal walks down to the beach. On the way she observes fathers festooned with sacks and slings carrying babies and pushing prams. They have been daddified. On the beach she watches more dads flying enormous kites. She reflects that none of these absorbed men will turn and look at her, flirtatiously. Men don’t turn and stare at her any more 😦

Types of boredom

Jean-Marc has driven from Brussels to Normandy and parked at the hotel. He walks down to the beach, passing a girl wearing a Sony Walkman and half-heartedly jiggling her hips. Being a Kundera character he has to analyse and categorise everything, so he posits three kinds of boredom:

  1. passive boredom – the girl dancing and yawning
  2. active boredom – the men flying kites
  3. rebellious boredom – kids smashing up bus shelters

Down on the beach he comes across sand yachts being raced. Suddenly he sees one hurtling at high speed towards Chantal far out on the beach. He runs towards her trying to warn her. In the event, the sand yacht passes wide of her and, as he catches up with her, he realises it isn’t her at all.

Chantal is menaced in the café

This is because Chantal had got bored of the beach and gone up to a café complex perched on a cliff. It’s empty apart from a surly waiter and his mate, who deliberately intimidate her, turn up the rock music loud, block her way and threaten to prevent her from leaving. At the last minute they laughingly step aside so she can exit, her heart pounding with fear.

Men no longer turn to look at Chantal

Jean-Marc is appalled that he couldn’t tell his lover’s reality from a distance. He arrives back at the hotel and goes up to the room they’ve booked to find Chantal waiting. She is still in shock from the encounter in the café but she is also having a sustained hot flush. I surmise this is from the menopause, though Kundera doesn’t use the word; all we know is she is ashamed of feeling hot and perspiring. She tries to distract him by blaming her odd mood on the thought she had earlier – men no longer turn to stare at her.

Chantal’s work in advertising

A few hours later they’re at dinner, discussing her work in an advertising agency. She describes her two faces, the mocking one which thinks advertising is ridiculous, and the hard-faced professional one which has allowed her to succeed.

Now the company has got a brief to come up with adverts for a funeral parlour. This allows the characters to quote poems about Death, namely some lines from Baudelaire, as you do.

Chantal’s dead son

Talk of death makes her think of her son by her first husband, who died when he was just five. Her husband and his family told her to hurry up and have another one so that she would forget. This filled her with so much loathing that she vowed to divorce him and so a) she went back to work, not as a teacher as she had been but in advertising and b) as soon as she met Jean-Marc and was sure he was the one – she left her husband.

That night Jean-Marc has a dream in which Chantal appears to him vividly in every detail, except for her face. How do we know when someone is the person we love? If their face completely changed, would it still be the same person?

Existence and identity

By this stage (page 32) the reader has realised that the novel is a classic Kundera production, insofar as it is a prolonged meditation on a theme of existence, an aspect of the human condition. There’s no secret about it. The title broadcasts it. The theme is identity, what it is, and how fragile it is, how it can vanish and reappear from moment to moment in our quotidian lives.

Chantal in the bathroom, in the boardroom

The next morning Jean-Marc wakes up to find her already in the bathroom cleaning her teeth. For a moment he watches her unobserved being functional. Then she notices him and her whole body changes into the softness of love. They drive back to Paris and he drops her at work. Later, that evening, Jean-Marc arrives at Chantal’s advertising agency, and catches a glimpse of her being swift and professional with two colleagues and wonders at the change in her identity.

That morning, in the bathroom, he had recovered the being he’d lost during the night, and now, in the late afternoon, she was changing again before his eyes. (p.33)

By this stage, the reader realises the point of the book is just these fine distinctions, the way the two central characters, and the author, notice and analyse the myriad fine shifts in identity, from moment to moment, and across larger periods, during the change in their relationship.

Chantal’s fantasy about being a rose

When she was a girl Chantal had a fantasy about being as powerful and ubiquitous as a fragrance which would spread through the lives of men. But she was not by nature promiscuous and, as she’d grown older, had become more monogamous. So monogamous and devoted to Jean-Marc that she began to have feelings about her dead son where she was glad he was dead. Why? Because it meant her devotion to Jean-Marc, to her chosen one, was total.

The anonymous letter

One morning she receives an unsigned unmarked letter with the text: ‘I follow you around like a spy – you are beautiful, very beautiful’, which upsets her all day. Luckily, when she gets home, her letter is trumped by one from the hospital telling Jean-Marc that his old schoolfriend F. has died. This triggers a couple of pages on ‘the meaning of friendship’ i.e. to keep memories alive, memories being necessary for maintaining ‘the whole of the self’.

With typical morbid negativity, Kundera (well, his character) considers that friendship is dying and that modern friendship is merely ‘a contract of politeness (p.46).

Leroy, head of the advertising agency

CUT to a different type of scene and a new character, Leroy, who is supposed to be the whip-smart head of the advertising agency where Chantal works. Every week he does a presentation analysing a campaign which is in the media. Having worked in TV for 15 years I don’t recognise anything Kundera describes about TV, his version is far more casual and chaotic than the well-organised, budgeted and crewed TV productions I worked on. Similarly, I don’t believe this portrayal of an advertising agency. The character Leroy instead comes over as a sexed-up university lecturer, a type Kundera was familiar with since he was an academic for decades. The ‘analysis’ Leroy gives is about sex sex sex – the humanities lecturer’s favourite subject and not, as the advertising and marketing people I’ve met, about ratings, audience segments, personas channels and ratings. Leroy doesn’t sound anything like an advertising exec. He sounds like a film studies lecturer:

‘The issue is to find the images that keep up the erotic appeal without intensifying the frustrations. That’s what interests us in this sequence: the sensual imagination is titillated, but then it’s immediately deflected into the maternal realm.’ (p.50)

He goes on to tell his staff that new film footage shows the foetus in the womb sucking its own willy, fellating itself. Can you imagine a modern advertising executive playfully mentioning that in a presentation about a new campaign? No.

The self-fellating foetus

Amazingly, at the end of the day, when she climbs the stairs to the accompaniment of loud banging and drilling (because the lift is out of order), and in a menopausal flush, the self-fellating foetus is what she chooses to tell Jean-Marc about. Which prompts his clever-clever thought that the foetus feels a sexual impulse before it can even think of pleasure.

So our sexuality precedes our self-awareness. (p.53)

Modern society spies on everyone

But she has a different take on it. Chantal is appalled that even in the womb, ‘they’ can spy on you, that nowhere is safe nowadays from the prying eyes of the media, and she tells macabre stories of how they cut off Haydn’s head after his death to analyse his brain and various other famous clever people whose brains were experimented on after their deaths. Influenced by her hot flushes, she blurts out that only the crematorium, only being burned to ashes, means you will be finally, completely safe from them.

At the grave of her son

Next day she visits her son’s grave and talks to him. She realises that, if he still lived, she would have to have engaged herself with the horrible world and accepted all its stupidities. His death freed her to revolt against a world she hates, to be truly herself. She silently thanks her dead son for this gift.

The second anonymous letter

Chantal receives a second, longer anonymous letter, the author has been following her movements. It’s signed C.D.B. The reader reflects that this is another aspect of identity, where identity is withheld, the letter is from someone but a person with no name.

Jean-Marc remembers giving up medicine

Jean-Marc recalls his dead friend F. telling him about a boyhood memory he (F.) has of Jean-Marc, namely that at age 16 or so Jean-Marc was disgusted by the eye, by the eyelid sliding over the cornea. Jean-Marc went on to choose to study medicine aged 19, but after three years realised he couldn’t face blood and guts, the body, its decay and death.

The letter suggests she wears cardinal red

Chantal receives more letters, which are becoming more passionate, in a French way. The writer dreams of wrapping her in a red cardinal’s costume and laying her gently down on a red bed. So she buys a red nightdress, as you would do if an unknown man was writing you anonymous letters, and is wearing it when Jean-Marc comes home one day, and she sashays round him, seducing him, and so he ravishes her and, thinking of the letter, she climaxes. She shares the fantasy of wearing cardinal red in a crowd and, aroused a second time, he makes love to her again. I admire the rapid recovery time of his penis. Or is he just an empty cipher for the author’s psychological-erotic fantasies?

The obsession of all Kundera’s books with love-sex is wearing me down. There is so much more to life than love-sex.

Is the letter writer the young man in the café?

At first Chantal thinks the author of the letters is a moony young man who’s often in the local café. But one day she walks boldly almost up to him as he sits outside nursing a glass of wine, giving him ample time to at least smile, but he doesn’t register her existence at all.

Is the letter writer the beggar in the square?

Then she suspects it’s the incongruously well-dressed beggar who hangs about in their square, near the big lime tree. To test her theory she goes up to him and offers money into his outstretched hand, only at the last minute realising she doesn’t have any coins then, worse, that the only paper she has is the ludicrously large sum of 200 Francs. The beggar is flabbergasted and she realises it isn’t him.

Or is the letter writer Jean-Marc?

Then she begins to suspect it is Jean-Marc, specially when she realises that the pile of bras she’s been hiding the letters under has been riffled through, then carefully restored.

And indeed, on page 88 this suspicion is concerned as we flip over to Jean-Marc’s point of view, and are told why he wrote her an anonymous letter. It was to cheer her up when he saw she was depressed, after she had said that men no longer turn to look at her in the street i.e. she has become middle-aged and unattractive. That’s why he playfully signed the second one C.B.D. short for Cyrano de Bergerac, the lover who hid behind the mask of another. Soon he wrote another one, and soon he became hooked.

How writing the letters changes Jean-Marc’s view of himself and of Chantal

And as he did so, it created a different idea of Chantal in his mind. The fact that she has kept and hidden the letters from him, suggests she might countenance an affair with an anonymous letter writer. She is ready to be unfaithful.

For her part, Chantal has a whole fleet of complicated reactions (the point of a Kundera novel is to place the characters in a situation and then analyse their motives and reactions to the nth degree), the main one being the disturbing suspicion that Jean-Marc is trying to trap her. But why? Because he is going to dump her for a younger model.

The flush

Worth pausing to consider The Flush. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being a key incident was that, after turning up on his doorstep from her remote provincial town, Tereza a) made love with Tomas but then b) came down with a heavy flu fever. He was forced to nurse her back to health and during that nursing discovered all kinds of emotions within himself he didn’t know he had. That fever recurs again and again through the story, as the characters reassess its importance and consequences.

Kundera uses the same technique here with respect to Chantal’s hot flushes. The first time the couple met was at a conference at an Alpine hotel, where he was a ski instructor and invited along to mingle with the guests after a session. They were briefly introduced and made a little small-talk then went their ways. But the next evening he went back determined to find her again, and the moment she spotted him, she flushed crimson all across her chest and breasts. That flush decided their love, for both of them.

Now she is flushing again, although it is due to the menopause, her physiology confusing, or sending confusing signals, over the terrain and memory of that initial, primal flush. This is a key element of a Kundera narrative, repetition with variations, variations of interpretation.

Back to the narrative

Jean-Marc is sad because by creating a simulacrum of a lover, he has conjured into being a simulacrum of Chantal. And if Chantal is not real, but a simulacrum, then so is their relationship. And in fact so is his life, which he has committed to her. He decides to end the whole thing and writes a farewell letter.

He’s just about to post it in the apartment building mailbox when he is accosted by a woman with three children – it is Chantal’s sister-in-law, the (rather bossy) sister of Chantal’s first husband, the one who blithely said let’s have another child to help us forget the one that’s just died.

The fantasy

Quite abruptly the book changes tone and pace. Up till now this couple had been drifting peacefully from episode to episode, a morning here, arriving at work there, cleaning teeth, hiding letters – and Kundera has been cascading his own thoughts and their thoughts and analyses of each others’ feelings like confetti in the breeze.

All of a sudden the pace picks up and it turns into a farce, then a fantasy, then a kind of nightmare all happening in real time i.e. in one extended breathless fifty-page-long passage.

The sister-in-law’s unruly children

The sister-in-law’s kids run riot in Chantal’s room and Jean-Marc feebly tries to get them to leave. He is distracted by the sister-in-law flirting with him (in KunderaWorld a man and a woman cannot be in the same space without flirting and talking about sex), she even leans forward and whispers the bedroom secrets of Chantal and her first husband in Jean-Marc’s ear.

At which moment Chantal herself arrives in the door. She is livid. She bought this place to get away from her wretched sister-in-law and her brood. And then she sees that the kids have rifled through her pile of bras which are all over the floor, one of them on one of the kids’ heads, and the mystery letters are scattered all over the floor. She orders them to leave, all of them, orders her sister-in-law to leave.

Chantal and Jean-Marc argue

She and Jean-Marc have a blistering argument in which she asserts that she bought this flat so as not to be spied on, with the heavy implication that his letters say he is a Spy and, worse, she knows that he has been searching her room till he found her stash of his letters. And he realises she knows and is crushed. And in a few swift exchanges they reduce their relationship to ashes.

Chantal packs her bags and leaves for London

With steely self-control she goes into her bedroom, closes the door and doesn’t come out all night. Jean-Marc is forced to sleep on the spare bed. Early in the morning she has packed her bag and declares she is off to a conference in… in… London springs to mind, yes, London. In fact her office had been planning a trip to London, but not for three weeks. Several points:

  1. Earlier in the novel the seed of this was planted when Kundera invented an ageing English lecher who hit on Chantal on a visit to her office and left his card. They often joked about this figure who they blew up into a master of monstrous orgies, and gave him the nickname Britannicus.
  2. This had led Jean-Marc in the final letter, to suggest that he was ending the series because he had to leave to go to, to… on a whim he had written London.
  3. Incidentally, Chantal sleeps badly because, being trapped in a Milan Kundera novel she has all sorts of inappropriately intense erotic dreams. The narrator wonders whether all virtuous women have to combat erotic orgiastic fantasies all night long, before showering and facing the day with a straight face (p.115). Let me ask my female readers: Do you struggle every night with erotic fantasies of sexual promiscuity? In my opinion, this is more ageing male sex fantasy.

In fact Chantal has no plan but stumbles out the house and onto the first bus which comes along. As it happens it is going to the Gare du Nord from which trains head to London, she at first imagines she won’t get off at that stop, then she does, then she buys a ticket, then she bumbles down onto the platform where – in a coincidence which doesn’t make sense in any rational terms – she discovers her entire office waiting for her! What! How, why?

On the Eurostar

Onto the Eurostar they get and Chantal finds herself seated opposite the self-style super-clever boss of the advertising agency, himself sitting next to a middle aged female admirer. (Makes it sound more like a cult than a professional place of work.) Remember how Leroy regaled his staff with stories about the foetus that could self-fellate in the womb? Well, now he treats Chantal and the older woman to a prolonged analysis of the command in the Book of Genesis (‘Go forth and multiply’) which boils down to the categorical imperative that everyone must fuck. Chantal is wet and aroused. She admires Leroy for his ‘dry as a razor’ logic (while this author thinks he’s a dickhead).

Chantal fantasises about forcing the prim woman into an orgy

Down into the black hole of the Channel Tunnel the train hurtles as Leroy continues his prolonged sermon on the important of sex and coitus and coupling and fucking, while the middle-aged woman wails about ‘the grandeur of life’ etc, and Chantal sitting opposite her fantasising about leading this prim and properly dressed lady to Leroy’s bed, which is set on a grand stage amid smoke and devils.

Jean-Marc decides to head off Chantal at the Gare du Nord

Meanwhile, Jean-Marc had woken up to discover Chantal gone and himself packed his bags, he knows when he’s not wanted. He leaves his keys on the coffee table, slams the door and blunders out into the street. London? OK, London, he hails a cab and asks it to take him to the Gare du Nord. Here he blunders up to the ticket desk, buys a ticket to London, and is the last person to board the Eurostar, setting off through the carriages to find Chantal.

Jean-Marc sees Chantal behaving like a different person on the Eurostar

He does, spotting the back of her head as she engages in the long ‘razor sharp’ fantasy about fucking and deflowering the prim lady. Jean-Marc is appalled (yet again) at how unlike his Chantal she seems, animated and confident and professional. Though he doesn’t know that Chantal is now consumed with eroticism, imagining the middle aged lady stripped naked and forced to take part in an orgy while all around naked bodies couple and bump (p.134).

Jean-Marc tried and fails to reach Chantal in the London terminal

The train arrives in London and everyone disembarks. Chantal goes off to a phone booth to make a call (we are still before the era of mobile phones) and when Jean-Marc tries to get to her he is blocked by a film crew (film crews often play this role as frustraters, getting in the way, as in Slowness and the Farewell Party) filming a group of oddly dressed children, presumably for a commercial, and when he tries to push through he is firmly restrained by a policeman. By the time he’s let go, Chantal has disappeared.

Jean-Marc wanders the streets of London

Now Jean-Marc is lost, walking the streets of London, and he feels he has returned to his true self, a drifter, a loser – Chantal always made five times what he earned, he was always dependent on her charity. Now he’s homeless and looking for a bench to doss down on.

He finds one in a typical Georgian London square, opposite a big house with a grand portico and when the lights go on inside he knows this is the house where Chantal has come to attend the orgy, the orgy led by that lecherous Englishman who visited her in Paris, ‘Britannicus’.

Jean-Marc enters the house where the orgy is happening

Jean-Marc opens the door (unlocked) and goes up the stairs to a first floor where a huge clothes rack holds the clothes of all the people he knows are stripped off and fornicating like wizards in a room not far away. But at this point a tattooed bouncer in a t-shirt appears and manhandles him back down the stairs and into the street. I couldn’t help warming to this bouncer, one of the few characters in the book not overloaded with smart-alec psychological analysis.

Chantal at the (largely invisible) orgy

Chantal is in the middle of an orgy, or is dominated by the image of an orgy where, at the moment of climax, all the participants turn into animals. She opens her eyes to find she is naked and a blonde woman is trying to drag her somewhere for a sexual encounter but the spittle in her mouth makes Chantal want to gag (as in fact, we have seen her revolted reaction to the thought of the saliva in other people’s mouths throughout the novel; the Saliva theme is up there with the Flushing theme as a recurring image throughout the book).

Chantal and the septuagenarian orgy impresario

Then she is alone in a big cavernous room with the host, Britannicus, who is of course fully clothed and pulls up a chair and starts reassuring her that she is perfectly safe. He calls her Anne and she protests it is not her name, they are stripping her of her identity, but she can’t remember what her name is, she can’t remember anything about herself, she can’t she can’t…

And then she wakes up and it was all a dream.

Seriously. It was all a dream. ‘Wake up, wake up,’ Jean-Marc is shaking her awake and she wakens, hot and sweating and terrified from this long elaborate dream and everything is alright and she is safe in his arms.

Now, on the last page, Kundera invites the reader to decide at just what point his story ceased being ‘realistic’ and turned into this rather delirious dream, just where ‘reality’ crossed ‘the border’ into ‘fantasy’: was it when the train went into the Channel Tunnel? when Chantal announced she was leaving for London? maybe even when Jean-Marc began sending those letters?

Who knows 🙂 and it is difficult to care enough to try and decide. As if he himself can’t be bothered, Kundera only devotes a short paragraph to the questions and, unusually for him, doesn’t dwell on them.

Instead, in the last paragraphs, Chantal and Jean-Marc are in bed together. Once she has totally woken up, she vows she will henceforth sleep with the light on every night, so she can see him.

And that’s it. Finis.

Conclusions

This is a very strange book.

Having read his book of essays on the theory of the novel I understand how Kundera regards the novel as an investigation of aspects of human existence. That explains why, having chosen ‘identity’ as the theme of this one, he then crams every possible permutation on the theme into this little text. And yet, even on that basis – as a self-consciously contrived experiment – it seems oddly… limited. After years of thought, is this little story of two lovers who have an argument the most thorough investigation he can think up of the theme of identity in the modern world? Very limited…

Early on, the book contains some very sensitive moments, moments which genuinely capture the strange and evanescent feelings you might have for a lover or someone you’ve been married to for years, sudden distances and misapprehensions. These are delicately done. When Jean-Marc mistakes the woman on the beach for Chantal, or sees another side to his lover when she’s at work, these are novelistically interesting and on-point for his theme.

The trouble is that these early subtle moments are lost in a story a) whose scaffolding i.e. the plot, becomes more and more crude and stupid as it progresses, and b) are set next to examples of blundering crudity – for example, the extremely crude and horrible sex soliloquies of the monstrous head of her advertising agency, Leroy, yuk, what an idiot, and what crude bluster.

These are so bad and boorish and coarse that they tend to destroy the delicate filament of the earlier, subtler perceptions, blowing them away like a gossamer spider web in a hurricane.

The abiding memory of Identity is not so much of pornography – in a way straightforward pornography might be refreshingly honest, but the striking thing about the orgy scene is that there is, in fact, no description at all of an actual orgy – but of a sensibility which is obsessed with the erotic urge, which can’t conceive a human character without having him or her immediately thinking erotic thoughts, waking from steamy dreams, flushed by arousal, fantasising about whispering erotic provocations in the ears of the daddies on the beach (as Chantal does), imagining each other’s former sex lives, even the ghastly sister-in-law is within minutes flirting outrageously with Jean-Marc, leaning forward to whisper Chantal’s sexual practices with her first husband in his ear… not pornography so much as lust lust lust.

And this crude hectoring about sex and eroticism and fantasy and orgies, for me, eclipses and overshadows the more subtle insights Kundera has about identity in a relationship. Shame.

Is Kundera flirting with the reader?

Are Kundera’s books flirtations? Does Kundera flirt with his readers? I am not using the word in its ordinary sense, but as he himself defines it in The Unbearable Lightness of Being:

What is flirtation? One might say that it is behaviour leading another to believe that sexual intimacy is possible, while preventing that possibility from becoming a certainty. In other words, flirting is a promise of sexual intercourse without a guarantee. (The Unbearable Lightness of Being, p.142)

‘A promise of sexual intercourse without a guarantee.’

Throughout the book there is a permanent erotic charge and expectation, from Chantal imagining trying to seduce the daddies on the beach on page three or four, onwards. The night after she has the big argument with Jean-Marc, she is plagued with all manner of erotic fantasies. Then, on the Eurostar, she can’t control her fantasies about stripping and serving up the prim middle-aged woman to her boss at the advertising agency to be raped on a stage amid smoke and devils. That’s quite steamy, wouldn’t you say?

And then the entire fantasy sequence which constitutes the final third of the novel climaxes in her attendance at an orgy which is paralleled by Jean-Marc’s feverish jealous fantasies about what she is doing in the big smart house, and what is being done to her, at the orgy.

Except that… there is no orgy. She awakes (strangely, with no explanation of how she got there or why she’s naked) in a remote room in the big house in London, where no sex is going on at all, and she is alone. She (and we) actually sees no sex taking place, she has no sex with anyone, no contact with any man at all. Her only contact is with a blonde woman whose only role is to remind Chantal of her long-running aversion to saliva and French kissing, yuk.

So both of the key characters fear and fantasise about a gross, mass orgy and yet… we never see a single breast or penis, and no sex of any kind is described.

In this sense, then, the entire book can be seen as a prolonged promise of sex, ‘without a guarantee’. In other words, the entire novel can be seen as Kundera engaging in a prolonged ‘flirtation’ with the reader.

Credit

Identity by Milan Kundera was first published in Linda Asher’s English translation by Faber and Faber in 1998. All references are to the 1999 Faber paperback edition.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

Immortality by Milan Kundera (1990)

Kundera’s first novel fully in, and of, the West

Immortality was published in 1990 and it’s by far Milan Kundera’s longest novel, at a hefty 386 pages in the Faber edition. Both these facts are significant.

By 1990, 42 years had passed since the Communist seizure of power in 1948 which is the backdrop to his first two novels, and 22 years had passed since 1968, when the Russians invaded and crushed the Prague Spring, a trauma which formed the backdrop to The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and The Unbearable Lightness of Being. 15 years earlier, in 1975, Kundera had finally abandoned all hope Czech communism could be ‘reformed’, and left his homeland to go into exile in France. A lot of time had passed since all of these traumatic events.

And it shows. Immortality feels like the first of Kundera’s novels which is fully set in the West and which isn’t dominated by theories of History, the Communist Party, and the awful political events of his homeland.

The results, though, are not necessarily beneficial, and represent a definite falling-off in imaginative power and charge. I can identify three:

1. Instead of political insight, moaning

This long novel is full of all-too-familiar Western griping. The first-person narrator, who makes his first in-person appearance on page five:

  • dislikes the phrase ‘consumers’ (p.6)
  • dislikes the rock music pounding at him from every direction
  • dislikes the way everything is photographed (‘the lens is everywhere’, p.32. ‘God’s eye has been replaced by a camera,’ p.33)
  • he hates ‘what is sadly called fast food‘ (p.21)
  • he loathes the way the pavements of Paris are crowded to overflowing with people prepared to just walk right over you, forcing you to step onto the road (‘The cars that have filled the streets have narrowed the pavements…Their omnipresent noise corrodes every moment of contemplation like acid. Cars have made the former beauty of cities invisible.’ (p.271)
  • he has learned of something called a “soundbite” which he spends a page or so satirising (p.60)
  • even the border between the unimportant and the important has been erased by the universal unending BLAH of the media (p.372)

In other words, Kundera has gone from sounding like a cool and sexy lecturer to sounding like your moany old grandad.

2. The narrator suddenly sounds old

Listening to the plaints of this grumpy old man prompts you to reflect on what made his Czech-era fiction so great. Obviously there was the seriousness and intensity of the political backdrop and the fear and edge it gave to everyone’s lives.

But I wonder if it’s also because the protagonists of his earlier novels are young. Reading Immortality made me realise that part of the reason I like The Joke so much, maybe more than the famous later novels, is because its main protagonist, Ludvik, is young and tough. Although terrible things happen to him, he is a survivor, and although it turns out that he has misunderstood just about every important thing that ever happened to him, nonetheless it is in a proactive, uncomplaining way, which is inspiring and invigorating to read. His plan to humiliate Helena Zemanek may be immoral in all kinds of ways, but it is lively and funny.

The narrator of Immortality (pretty much the same meandering, opinionated narrator as in the previous two or three novels – basically, Kundera – or Kundera-as-he-presents-himself-in-his-novels), by contrast, sounds tired and and pissed off. Bloody lifts. Bloody muzak. Bloody paparazzi everywhere. Bloody packed pavements.

The essence of the ‘grumpy old man’ is that he’s given up. He just can’t be doing any more with muzak and the endless traffic and the crowds on the pavement. He put up with it for a certain amount of time but now…

And so an air of defeat sits over the book. It makes you realise that one of the inspiring things about the earlier books was their air of defiance – defying the communist authorities, defying conventional wisdom, defying the scorn of women, his heroes may well be wrong in their interpretation of their lives, but they are cocky and confident (Ludvik and Tomas) which is life-affirming – whereas the tone of Immortality is defeated and sad.

3. All too familiar

Another aspect of Kundera’s settled dislike of numerous aspects of the ‘free world’, is that we already know about it. When Kundera was writing about the kind of tyranny, fear and power plays which took place at all levels of society in a communist society, it was news, it was like reports from another planet, he was presenting fascinating and deep insights into situations which had a weird compelling logic all of their own and which we, in the West, had never experienced.

But when he moans about the busy traffic and packed sidewalks of Paris, or about the intrusiveness of the paparazzi, or how modern politicians don’t even bother to make coherent arguments in their speeches but just repeat sound bites worked out by their PR teams… that’s the kind of moaning about the modern world which we in the West grew up in. He sounds like lamenting editorials in the Daily Telegraph or Spectator.

4. Prolix

The stereotype of old men is that they go on and on, they are prolix, which Google defines for me as ‘tediously lengthy’. Well, as you read into it you realise part of the reason this book is his longest one is because many of the digressions and historical or cultural references which he’d have made into a snappy half-page in the earlier books, in this one go on for pages and pages.

I wonder if it was something to do with his editors or publishers. I wonder if there was some external constraint requiring the earlier books to be pithy and concentrated. Whatever the reason, it feels like someone has said you him, ‘Right you’re in the Free West now, you can write as much as you want.’ It feels like Kundera has undone his belt… and it’s all come flooding out, fifteen years-worth of everything he hates about the decadent West, its pampered narcissistic populations, and their horrifying shallowness, flowing and flooding into this great grumpy purge of a book.

Part One – The Face (44 pages)

Kundera tries to get us interested in a middle-aged woman he names Agnes. He explains how the idea for her character came to him after watching the wave of an older woman at a swimming pool to her young instructor. (This is not new. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being he candidly explains how the seed of Tereza’s character was sown when he heard a woman’s tummy rumbling inappropriately and trying to cover it up. The entire idea for the character of a woman ashamed of her body came to him in one flash.)

Agnes is married, she has a husband Paul, they discuss big ideas in dialogues of concentrated, pointed wit which could only exist in a novel or play.

Agnes drives to her sauna and health club. She has memories of her Father who everyone thought would die, but it was her Mother who suddenly died, her Father lingered on, when her sister came upon her Father having apparently torn up the photos of his marriage, the sisters had a furious argument and falling out.

Kundera projects his own ageing disillusionment onto her. God, the traffic! And the noise! And the endless yapping of the women at her health club! No surprise that she feels completely alienated, that she has

‘the feeling that she had nothing in common with those two-legged creatures with a head on their shoulders and a mouth on their face’. (p.43)

No wonder she compares human beings to Renault cars, mass produced variations on the same basic design, who can only just about be told apart by their faces, a unique combination of familiar elements (much the same as a machine’s serial number is a unique number though made up of familiar digits, p.13)

The close association of Agnes’ gripes with Kundera’s makes the reader feel that she is pissed off because her creator is.

Part Two – Immortality (45 pages)

Then suddenly we are whisked off into History.

In a sudden jump, we are shown the scene where Goethe, the great German poet, met Napoleon, in 1811. Briefly, though, as the great general is mostly distracted with aides and assistants running in and out. Having dwelt at length on the evils of the paparazzi and the ubiquity of cameras, Kundera wittily imagines their meeting being snapped by (invisible) cameras, and scripted by PR people. So much attention is paid because both sides realise this meeting might go down in Posterity. It might become immortal.

Having broached the idea of the immortality of the famous, this section settles into a long and – for Kundera – unusually uninterrupted sequence describing the dogged devotion of Bettina von Arnim for the ageing Goethe. We get her full biography, an explanation of how she is the daughter of a woman Goethe had a passion for when he was a young man. The point of the thirty or so pages detailing her story is that her obsessed fan worship came close to stalking. She bombarded the older man with letters and guarded his replies. Kundera subtly takes us into the mind of the old poet, presenting his awareness that she is more of a threat than a love interest, and explaining the changes in their relationship over the decades as he tries to ward her off.

Where all this is heading is the way, after the poet died in 1832, Bettina got her letters back and then proceeded to doctor all of them, and all Goethe’s replies, to make him sound much more in love with her than he ever was, and then published them in a volume titled A Child’s Correspondence with Goethe. The von Arnim version became part of the Goethe legend for a century, profoundly affecting biographers’ views of the great man until, by chance, in the 1920s the original letters were discovered, published and the record was set straight.

Fascinating though all this is as a chunk of biographical speculation about an interesting historical figure, its real impact is that it operates at a higher level.

For it can’t help making you reflect that, while Kundera was in Czechoslovakia – or imaginatively dominated by its political history – his fiction had an urgency about its subject matter. It was telling important truths about the plight of oppressed Europe. But by the time he was writing Immortality he had been living and writing in the West for nearly 15 years, and had been fully subjected to the capitalist West’s celebrity machine, with its never-ending round of press and PR stunts and book festivals and interviews and TV documentaries. And reading this long, long section about a woman obsessed with writing a book about a great German poet, and about the later writers who wrote books about the book the woman wrote about the great German writer – you can’t help feeling Kundera has become just another Famous Writer writing books about what a pain it is to be a Famous Writer.

Which just feels like a really over-familiar, tired and boring subject, the subject of far too many already-existing novels and novellas and short stories and plays and films about famous writers obsessed with other famous writers. It feels like Kundera was once out there, reporting on the world. But now he has entered The Literary Bubble, and is talking about himself and other people like him.

In a surreal twist, in the last three short sections of this part, Kundera imagines Goethe in heaven, strolling along and chatting to, of all people, Ernest Hemingway. Why? Because among 20th century authors Hemingway has probably come in for more criticism of his personal life and attitudes – show-off, womaniser, misogynist etc – than any other. So he makes a fitting companion to discuss the perils of immortality. For, as Goethe sadly comments: ‘That’s immortality. Immortality means eternal trial.’ (p.91)

Again, I couldn’t help thinking that Kundera was also discussing his own plight. While in the East he was a persecuted dissident speaking truth to power, and the supposed ‘bravery’ of his writings – the fact that they were suppressed in his home country, gave him tremendous cachet and glamour in Western literary circles.

But now he’s happily ensconced in the West, he is as free as the rest of us to write what he pleases and… just as likely to be criticised and pawed over by the enormous army of critics looking to make a reputation by slamming the famous, as well as dissected to pieces in a hundred thousand university seminar rooms and, of course, comprehensively vilified by feminists, who find his depiction of predatory men, the male gaze and his sexualisation of pretty much every female character in his oeuvre, a symptom of his gross misogyny.

So the conversation between Goethe and Hemingway doesn’t come across as inventively as intended; it sounds like more Kundera complaining about his own situation. Moaning about it.

Part Three – Fighting (110 -ages)

This is the longest section, made up of lots of sub-sections, which overflow with characteristic Kundera ideas.

First and foremost it returns us to 20th century France and to the female characters, Agnes and her sister Laura. (Back from early 19th century Germany – by the way, it’s odd how attracted Kundera is to Germany and German culture, the way Beethoven crops up in several of the stories and not, for example, the Czech composers Dvořák or Janáček. Maybe it is symptomatic of the way that, not only does he not want to be pigeonholed as a political novelist, he doesn’t even want to be labelled a Czech novelist: he is aspiring to be a European novelist.)

Agnes and Laura are a dyad and, since Kundera’s ideas generally come in very neat binary opposites, no-one is surprised that he sets up Laura and Agnes as opposites in a whole range of ways: they wear sunglasses for different reasons; have opposite attitudes towards their bodies, and towards sex (Laura’s profound at-homeness, her permanent eroticism – p.178 – versus Agnes’s preference for only occasional excitement). And so on. Maybe it’s me, but I found all this profoundly unengaging.

At a higher level than the actual story, what interested me more were the signs and symptoms in the text of the issue I’ve identified above – namely, all the ways in which this is Kundera’s first Western novel.

I kept finding signs of one big symptom, which is the way he feels overwhelmed by life in the West. There is just too much of everything. This sense of overmuchness comes out in all kinds of remarks and ‘insights’.

In our world, where there are more and more faces, more and more alike, it is difficult for an individual to reinforce the originality of the self and to become convinced of its inimitable uniqueness. (p.111)

Brought up in a small, sparsely populated country, under the pitifully austere conditions first of the war, then of communist tyranny, he is completely unprepared for the monstrous affluence, scale and bombardment of the free world, and this is revealed in lots of touches and ideas.

  • the notion that people are like Renault cars, variations on the same mass-produced model
  • the way there are hundreds of radio channels, but they all sounds the same, and the latest ad jingle is indistinguishable from the latest pop hit (p.90)
  • you just can’t find anywhere to park in Paris, these days (p.151)

And the notion that, although there are so many people, there is only a finite set of ideas. So many people, so few ideas (p.113), with the result that you end up hearing people repeating the same clichés as if they’ve just invented them themselves.

He moans about modern journalists who don’t report events but, more and more, just interview people, and like gladiators paid to goad and humiliate their interviewees. Again this sounds like sour grapes. You can’t help feeling Kundera has been ‘monstered’ by French journalists and is now getting his revenge (pp.121-124). The protagonist listens to a radio programme where an interviewer has got a film actor on but only wants to talk about his private life. Can’t we talk about my films, the actor asks. What are you trying to hide? the interviewer asks, insidiously. No escape from the ghastly insinuations of the all-powerful media (p.138)

He complains that political discourse has been taken over by Imagology which is run by imagologues (p.127) meaning the people who advise politicians on how to advertise and promote themselves, who run opinion polls which determine what everyone thinks is going on, who determine advertising campaigns and fashion, who determine what appears in newspapers, on TV and the radio, and how it is presented.

He laments that his grandmother in Moravia knew everyone in her village and what everything was made of, from her quilt to her house, to her meals, and knew all the neighbours – whereas his neighbour in his Paris flat drives to work, sits silently across from a colleague all day, then drives home and turns on the TV and believes everything it tells him (p.128). Tut tut, modern life, eh?

This grumbling is half-heartedly turned into ‘fiction’ by having the ‘imagologues’ in charge of the advertisers who fund the radio station Paul (Agnes’ husband) works for, tell its director, nicknamed the Bear, to sack him from his weekly radio talk. Although he carries on his main job as a lawyer, the sacking has a subtle effect, making him realise he is not as young and amusing as he likes to think he is.

Paul has a young friend at the radio station, an interviewer named Bernard, who has started to date Laura, Agnes’s older sister. Both are thrilled because they are being oh-so-naughty (him dating an older woman, she going out with a toyboy).

Paul and Agnes have a grown-up daughter, Brigitte. She is spoilt. Paul manned the barricades in Paris in 1968 (well, for a few days), and for him the boy poet Rimbaud was part of a gestalt which included Che Guevara, Mao and Jean-Paul Sartre. He was against comfortable bourgeois lives. Now he is bewildered by the way his daughter is all in favour of comfortable bourgeois lives, and enjoys living one at her parents’ expense.

One day, out of the blue, a stranger walks into Bernard’s office and hands him a scroll of paper, a certificate declaring him a Compleat Ass, then walks out. Bernard is astonished. It’s one of the few blocks or negatives he’s encountered in a lifetime of easy success. He is so preoccupied with this fate that he begins to neglect Laura, who begins to suspect he has taken a mistress. (There are a few pages detailing how Laura thinks she ‘knows’ Bernard because she has given herself so completely to him; but in fact she doesn’t know him at all: Kundera’s, by now, stock take on human relationships.)

He begins to distance himself from Laura (they don’t actually live together). She notices and becomes querulous. He begins to think of her as a nuisance. She follows him on one of his weekends away to write. He is angry. She is angry. She throws herself on him and they have one of those joyless Kundera couplings, both trying to outdo each other in their fury as they put each other through a humiliating roster of punishing positions.

Bernard announces he is going to Martinique for his annual getaway (nice lives these characters lead, don’t they? They are members of the privileged haute bourgeoisie, another reason not to like this book.) And Laura agonises about whether to go, whether to precede him, whether to commit suicide so he finds her body in his holiday home. She drags Paul and Agnes into her agonising, and then phones them from Martinique, claiming to have found a gun and to be about to shoot herself, and generally exhausting everyone by her histrionics. Days later she returns to Paris and turns up in Paul and Agnes’s apartment, leading to a furious argument between the sisters.

Hard to care.

Part Four – Homo sentimentalis (32 pages)

Kundera mixes up a great meringue of a disquisition about love and the soul and sentiment. He

  • invokes the story of Bettina’s love for Goethe
  • how it was interpreted by three 20th century authors (Rilke, Romain Rolland and Eluard – each in favour of Bettina and against Goethe’s apparent coolness [and each contemptuous of his fat peasant wife])
  • swoops from the troubadours of 12th century Provence to an analysis of the love affair at the heart of Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Idiot, to interpretations of love scenes from Don Quixote

He splits hairs, and refines definitions, and makes learnèd references in a mighty impressive way, but this is the first sustained passage in all Kundera which I found boring and pointless.

He discusses the nature of sentimentality at length without, I felt, really clarifying it very much. He then reverts to the relationship with Bettina von Arnem and, in particular, to Romain Rolland’s interpretation of a famous anecdote which Bettina recounted in her memoirs, but many scholars now think she made up.

One day Beethoven was visiting Goethe in Weimar and the two great men took a walk and they saw the Empress i.e. wife of the ruler of Weimar coming towards them with her entourage. Goethe stopped and ceremoniously swept off his hat and bowed. But Beethoven pulled his hat down harder over his head and continued walking, hands firmly behind his back.

This became a commonly repeated anecdote even though Bettina probably made it up. Kundera repeats it a number of times, and lays out various possible interpretations of its meaning.

I began to be irritated by the way Kundera repeatedly talks about European History as if it is a history of ideas and Great Art, as if the motor of history was Ideas like Romanticism or Sentiment. This just seems to me stupid. For me the important things about European history are its incessant wars which themselves derived from endless competition, and it was this ceaseless competition for power and one-up-manship which drove an unprecedented inventiveness in a) technology and engineering b) trade and economics, and which led directly to c) the conquest of foreign colonies and centuries of imperialism.

Kundera mentions none of this. Instead a made-up anecdote about two Great Men is meant to tell us about the nature of the European Soul.

I know this kind of focus, angle, approach appeals to a cohort of other writers, critics and readers, who think reality should be approached via stories and anecdotes about Great Writers and Artists. Maybe I thought so too, when I was young. But now I believe that it’s not only not an adequate approach to the complexity of life and history, but – worse – that it runs the risk of obscuring truths about the world, deeper understanding about the world, rather than enlightening its readers. It helps to create and sustain the Happy Bubble of Literary Consensus, while the real world crashes and bangs around us, inexplicably.

Once again the section ends with a jokey chat between Goethe and Ernest Hemingway in heaven. Goethe says he’s moved on now. He went to watch his Eternal trial and realises he doesn’t care. He realises now that as soon as he died not only did he, as a person, cease to exist, but his personhood fled from his books. They just became books like all the other books, which don’t contain his essence or anything like it.

Part Five – Chance (55 pages)

A chapter about the meaning of coincidences. In his Frenchified, endlessly theorising manner, Kundera suggests that there are five types of coincidence:

  • the mute coincidence
  • the poetic coincidence
  • the contrapuntal coincidence
  • the story-generating coincidence
  • the morbid coincidence

He discusses this with his companion, Professor Avenarius, an entirely fictional creation with whom he can have these kinds of mock-intellectual conversations. Now we learn that it was this Avenarius who marched into the office of Bernard the radio broadcaster and handed him the certificate declaring him a Compleat Ass.

Cut to Agnes: she wants to leave Paul and Paris and move back to Switzerland where she grew up. When her company open an office in Bern they offer her a job there and she leaps at the chance. In several passages scattered through this part, we see her thinking as she lies in bed in a Swiss hotel, reminiscing about her childhood, and about her last days with her dying Father – all taking place on this trip to Switzerland, before she gets into her car to drive back to Paris.

Meanwhile Kundera is enjoying a hearty meal (of roast duck) with the professor, at which he elaborates on his notion of the novel, namely that it should resist being able to be translated into other media – film, TV, cartoons. It should resist being reduced to one single line of events. That kind of novel is like whipping your characters down a narrow street towards one dramatic climax where the entire preceding text goes up in the flames of a ‘resolution’. No, a novel should be more fragmented and digressive.

A novel shouldn’t be like a bicycle race but a feast of many courses. (p.266)

Professor Avenarius shares with the narrator his night-time hobby. He goes jogging with a big carving knife and slices up the tyres of all the cars in his neighbourhood, doing so in a structured geometric way. He tried to interest an environmental group into organising a tyre-slashing commando but they booed him and drove off to protest the building of some nuclear power plant.

Then they discuss a troubling news item the narrator had heard on the radio. It concerned a teenage girl who attempted suicide by walking out of town and into the middle of a busy road and sitting down waiting to be squashed. Unfortunately, the radio explains, a number of cars swerved to avoid killing her and so crashed into the verge or ditch, killing and injuring numerous motorists.

Kundera enters sympathetically into the mind – or at least makes a systematic attempt to imagine the weak character, and the snubs and humiliations she’s received, which lead the girl not to proactively jump off a high building or poison herself, but to want something else to make it all stop.

Anyway, having heard the radio account, now Kundera treats us to a vivid description of three cars screeching off the road to avoid hitting her, all crashing at speed, bursting into flames and filling with the screams of people burning to death.

Meanwhile back in Paris, Professor Avenarius tries to persuade Kundera to come tyre stabbing with him, but the author is tired (after their big, boozy dinner) and walks home. Avenarius is just about to attack yet another tyre when a woman walks round the corner, almost bumps into him, and starts screaming. A crowd gathers. Avenarius is arrested.

As he is taken away a dazed man emerges from an apartment block and, seeing the arrest, hands Avenarius his business card saying he’s a lawyer, then goes over to the most recent car Avenarius has slashed and, seeing the shredded tyre, bursts into tears.

It is Paul. He’s just had a phone call from a provincial hospital saying his wife is there, seriously injured. When he staggers downstairs to get into his car he is appalled to discover its tyres have been slashed (unbeknown to him, by the big paunchy man who’s just been arrested and whose card he’s just given him). He calls Bernard to beg for a lift, but in the event his grown-up daughter Brigitte turns up, and as soon as he’s told her the news, they get back in her car and head off at top speed.

Agnes dies fifteen minutes before they get to the hospital.

Part Six – The Dial (64 pages)

After an unpromising start, this turns into the best thing in the book, worth reading almost by itself, as a short story or – given that this is Kundera – almost a parable in its smooth neatness.

It concerns the erotic life of a man who acquired the nickname ‘Rubens’ at school for his precocious ability at art.

The dial in question is the zodiac, for astrology, although not literally indicative of your life, is a metaphor for the way your life has a pattern, certain set themes, and you can’t escape them. The theme is elaborated via the early erotic career of this young man, Rubens. After a promising start, his artistic career sputters out and so he decides to devote his life to the pursuit of women.

There follow pages of subtle distinctions, categorisations and paradoxes to do with sex, and the different phases of the erotic life:

  • the period of athletic muteness
  • the period of metaphors
  • the period of obscene truth
  • the period of Chinese whispers

And a lot of chatter about different types of love – true love, fake love, high love, low love, love itself, devotional love – which initially repelled me.

But these early passages are worth reading through, because Rubens, as he pursues his erotic career, devoting his life to what seems like a highly improbable sequence of sexual adventures with an endless sequence of willing women, begins to discover strange and troubling things about human nature.

As he grows older he realises he can’t remember most of the hundreds and hundreds of couplings he has taken part in. Or remembers odd quirky details. He can’t remember the most sensational of the escapades, but, for some reason, it’s often the most plain with the most plain partners which haunt him. Why? It puzzles him.

Then, in Italy, visiting art galleries, he bumps into a woman he’d met way back, when she was just 17. He nicknames her the lute player on the spot, and, for years to come, whenever he’s in Paris (her home city) they meet up, two or three times a year, and make love.

Once, they nearly have a ménage à trois but, at the last minute, he sends the other man, his best friend, away. But not before they have stood all three, before the cracked old wardrobe mirror, and he noticed the lute player’s distant gaze, not seeing the scene in front of her, gazing into some remote infinity.

It is moments like that that haunt him, even as he notices his powers failing with other women. Ad as his powers decline, so does his interest. It becomes harder and harder, not to make love as such, but to care.

I thought it was a vivid insight when Rubens realises, after one particular failed encounter, that he has crossed a Rubicon and that, from now on, he will find his erotic fantasies only in the past.

When he was young he thought he had the whole world ahead of him, in chagrin at failing to make a career in art, he decided instead to ‘live life to the full’. But now, as he ages, he realises, when he looks back over his sexual career, that he can hardly remember any of it. The ‘fullness’ to which he has devoted his life, turns out to be empty. Or, not quite empty, but a series of random snapshots and moments. It is not the fullness he expected.

He had become used to phoning the lute player every time he was visiting Paris, to make an illicit rendezvous. He knows she’s married, it doesn’t bother her or him (it never does in Kundera novels). One day she says she can’t see him. She can’t see him ever again. His puzzlement feels genuine because it’s one of the first things in the book which isn’t explained. She just says no. He tries to talk her round, he gets a little cross, she just says ‘No’ to meeting.

He finally accepts it and gets on with his life and with his several other women, and we are told about his increasingly problematic relations with them – especially a young lover who he just can’t satisfy, no matter what he does. He can’t read her. He has no idea whether she’s satisfied or not by their sessions. He has no idea whether he’s satisfied, he’s just doing it because… because… well, why?

On a whim he phones the lute player, after years of silence. An unknown woman’s voice replies. He asks where she is. Where is Agnes? And the woman replies that Agnes is dead. Rubens rings off in shock, but we are moved, as well. All this time the lute player was the Agnes who has been the lead protagonist through all the modern part of the story.

In the final pages Rubens rifles through all the memories he has of his time with her, from their meeting and dancing at some disco when they were 17, through to their chance re-encounter in Rome, and then their settled routine of adulterous afternoons in Paris hotels. And now he envisions her body being cremated, going up in flames except that in his dream of it, Agnes sits up amid the flames, and her look is the same one she had in the mirror of the hotel with him and his friend, staring off into the distance, penetrating some private infinity.

The story ends there, and is the best part of the novel, because, although still packed with rather tiresome ratiocination, it seemed to me to contain more of humanity, of ‘the crooked timber of humanity’, of the strange depths and unexpected shallownesses and unpredictability and puzzling obstinate difficulties, of life as most of us experience it. It still has many of the qualities of the fairy tale or fable, which most Kundera fiction has about it, a too-pat and just-so quality. But, for me at any rate, it also had real emotional and psychological depth.

Part Seven – The Celebration

A sort of epilogue. The narrator is sitting in his health club, high in some building, with a view over Paris, chatting to Dr Avenarius over a bottle of wine, when in walks Paul. It appears to be years later for Paul is now married to Laura, Agnes’s sister. He is drunk. Kundera gives him a drunken philistine speech in which he says he never reads novels, he only reads biographies, and this is part of a conscious effort to overthrow the enormous aesthetic efforts of the Great Artists and break the symphonies down into bite-sized chunks which can be used in toilet paper ads, and the novels become merely replicas of their author’s lives, which are far more interesting and gossipy to read about.

The narrator / Kundera is appalled. All this is probably displacement of the frustration he’s feeling with his situation. His daughter, Brigitte, ran away when he married his dead wife’s sister, Laura. But has recently returned, with a baby. Once again they are at permanent daggers drawn and Paul is caught in the middle. Avenarius and the narrator sympathise.

Paul eventually goes off, following his wife into the changing rooms. We are told that Avenarius, big fat Avenarius, is having an affair with Laura behind Paul’s back. We learn that, on the night when he was arrested for apparently threatening a woman with a knife (when he was in fact slashing car tyres), Avenarius took Paul up on his offer to act as his lawyer, and that Paul got Avenarius acquitted.

It is typical of him that he was prepared to go to gaol as a rapist rather than to tell the truth about how he was really slashing people’s car tyres that evening. (And we, the reader, get the irony, that, if he had told Paul he was the tyre slasher i.e. that it was on account of Avenarius slashing Paul’s tyres that Paul missed his wife’s death by fifteen minutes, that Paul might well have strangled him to death.)

Before he leaves, Paul demonstrates the arm gesture which first attracted him to Laura. It is the same gesture with which Kundera created the character of Agnes at the start of the book. The narrator tells us it is two years to the day since he saw the middle-aged woman swimmer make that gesture and began writing the novel and now it is finished.


Conclusion

I found it difficult to review the Unbearable Lightness of Being because it felt so overflowing with ideas that it was impossible to capture them all, to pin them all down – and it combined this fizzing emporium of ideas with a highly charged and emotional narrative, and with plausible and, by the end, highly sympathetic characters.

I felt the exact opposite with Immortality.

There are two strands, one set in the present concerning the trivial characters of Laura and Bernard, Paul and Agnes, and their daughter Brigitte, and I found it impossible to care very much about these spoilt French bourgeois.

The other strand concerns Goethe and the misleading image of him created for posterity by his stalker-admirer, Bettina von Arnem. I found the biographical facts about Goethe mildly interesting, but the level of attention paid to the precise ways in which Bettina distorted the record, and then how her later admirers defended her at the great man’s expense, increasingly difficult to care about.

Part of the problem is the choice of Goethe as centrepiece. Generations of critics have pointed out that Goethe represents a great blind spot in English culture; he is a vast influence on the continent and yet he has never made much impression over here. His poetry doesn’t translate very well, if at all, and all the scientific explorations he made – into early chemistry, astronomy, the theory of light – were carried out much more definitively by British scientists. So at the centre of the novel is a detailed study of a key memoir which shaped the image of a great European cultural reference point about whom we in England know little and care less.

A novel about a gaggle of spoilt, upper-middle-class French, and a German poet no-one reads. Put like this, you can see why Immortality is a disappointment compared to its predecessors.

Another way of putting it is that the political and psychological intensity of Laughter & Forgetting and Unbearable Lightness made those books feel compelling and important. Somehow, this book, although it uses all the same techniques – the lecturing narrator, with his stylish insights and digressions – the invocation of Great Names from European Culture – its thoughts about the Contemporary World – somehow this novel never manages to get much beyond the merely interesting.

Put yet another way, it boils down to its final scene: Rarefied, very clever, highly literate, obsessed with sex, and high above the crowds whose mass culture they hate and despise, two old men ramble on about Goethe and literary reputations and adultery, making huge and sweeping generalisations about European History and European Society and the Romantic Era and a thousand other subjects, while being completely ignored by the world around them. When push comes to shove, I find the multifarious ever-changing world round them much more interesting than the rarefied and self-satisfied characters in this novel.

Credit

Immortality by Milan Kundera was first published in the English translation by Peter Kussi by Faber and Faber in 1991. All references are to the 1992 Faber paperback edition.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

%d bloggers like this: