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.

Worth stopping a moment to consider the role of Jews in The Good Soldier Švejk. Basically they are treated with contempt and always portrayed as snivelling shysters, from the village Jew here getting down on his hands and knees and clasping the legs of the foraging soldiers, to the Jew who set up the stall selling illicit liquor back in Budapest. 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

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 happens 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, Part Two: At The Front by Jaroslav Hašek (1922)

In Volume One of The Good Soldier Švejk we were introduced to the implacably calm, unflappable anti-hero Josef Švejk, placid and middle-aged denizen of Prague under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a former soldier discharged on the grounds of incurable idiocy.

Volume One chronicles Švejk’s various difficulties with the authorities until, towards the end, he is called up to rejoin the army at the outbreak World War One, is assigned to one Lieutenant Lukáš of the 91st Imperial and Royal Infantry Regiment as his batman and, right at the end of Volume One, they are both ordered off to the Eastern Front to fight against the Russians.

In other words, if you only want to read about Švejk’s adventures in the actual war, you could easily skip Volume One.

The plot

Chapter 1 Švejk’s misadventures on the train

The story resumes with the Good Soldier Švejk already in trouble with his boss, because he’s mislaid some of his luggage as they entrain for the Front. In a gesture of typical dimness, Švejk was left to guard it but got bored and went to tell Lieutenant Lukáš it was all safe and sound but when he’d got back discovered someone had nicked one of the cases.

Once aboard the train, Švejk gets into trouble again. He speaks very freely back to Lieutenant Lukáš, and then makes some rude comments about the bald-headed old man who’s sharing their train compartment… until the old man erupts in a fury and reveals that he is Major-General von Schwarzburg and proceeds to give Lukáš a rocket. Trembling, Lukáš tells Švejk to get lost so the harmless dimwit wanders down the corridor to the guards van, where he gets chatting to the railwayman about the alarm signal and next thing they know, they have pulled it and the whole train comes to a thundering halt.

Švejk and the railwayman pull the emergency chain

Švejk is identified as the culprit, and at the next station is taken off the train to report to the station master and be fined. While this is taking place, the train puffs off and Švejk is left on his own, with no luggage and – crucially – no documentation, pass and identification, as it’s all with the Lieutenant.

A sympathetic crowd gathers round Švejk and one offers to pay his 20 crown fine and gives him the name of some useful contacts if he ever finds himself captured by the Russians. When he discovers that Švejk doesn’t even have a train ticket to catch up with his regiment, he gives him ten crowns to buy another.

A lot of the power of the novel comes from the circumstantial details: thus in this fairly simple little scene

  1. we are shown civilians sympathising with soldiers who they think are being harassed and bullied (from which we deduce that soldiers being bullied was a common sight)
  2. but at the same time a gendarmerie sergeant descends on the crowd and arrests someone (a master butcher, it turns out) who he claims was traducing the emperor (a typical example of the heavy-handed and over-officious attitude of the authorities which Hašek documents throughout the book)
  3. and in another detail, although none of the customers in the third-class bar where Švejk goes for a drink, saw the scene of his fine they have all made up far-fetched stories about how a spy had just been arrested or a soldier had a duel with someone about his lady love – in other words typical wartime paranoia and scaremongering

My point is that many of the scenes involving Švejk also feature bystanders, customers in pubs, other people in the police station or his cell, cops who take him back and forward, and then the numerous other soldiers he meets. It is a very sociable book, it has many walk-on parts for all kinds of men and women and this slowly builds up the impression of a whole world, a world in which people make up rumours, get arbitrarily arrested, help each other out or get shouted at by angry stationmasters.

Lots of the scenes involve or end with one of the central themes, which is Booze. More or less everyone drinks, often to excess. Švejk is continually ducking into pubs for a quick one, continually making friends with complete strangers over a jar. And thus it is that this scene ends with Švejk blithely drinking away the ten crowns the nice man gave him to buy a train ticket with, in the company of another war-weary fellow soldier, a Hungarian who doesn’t speak Czech or German, but conveys his unhappiness at having to abandon his three children with no income and nothing to eat.

Military Police turn up and drag Švejk before a young lieutenant at the nearby army barracks who is in a bad mood because he’s chatting up the girl in the telegraphy office who keeps turning him down (p.235).

Švejk recounts his story to date with such blank idiocy that the lieutenant (as so often happens) is disarmed enough not to charge him with anything, but has him taken back to the station and put on the next train to rejoin his regiment at České Budějovice (the capital city of South Bohemia) where the 91st regiment and Lieutenant Lukáš were heading.

But the escort and Švejk are back ten minutes later because the stationmaster won’t sell him a ticket because he’s a menace and so – the lieutenant tells him he’ll just have to walk to České Budějovice to catch up with his regiment.

Chapter 2 Švejk’s Budějovice anabasis

An ancient device of satire is to compare small and trivial things with mighty and venerable things, to create a comic disproportion. Švejk’ predictably enough, gets completely lost in his attempts to reach České Budějovice and so, for comic effect, Hašek compares Švejk’s chapter-length adventure to the anabasis of Xenophon, one of the most famous, and heroic, journeys of the ancient world.

The seven-volume Anabasis was composed around the year 370 BC, is Xenophon’s best known work, and ‘one of the great adventures in human history’ (Wikipedia)

České Budějovice is due south from the train station where Švejk was detained but, characteristically, he sets off with a brave and determined stride to the west and gets utterly lost in the wintry countryside of south Bohemia for several days. In the course of his peregrination he meets a sequence of characters, mostly poor villagers and peasants, who help him out, spare a drink or their food with him, recommend friends or relatives at towns along the way for him to call in on and generally provide a lot of human solidarity.

The reader remembers that Hašek himself was a notorious vagabond and long distance hiker who had plenty of experience of the kindness, or hostility, of strangers. Švejk’s jollily titled anabasis allows Hašek to depict the kindness which exists among the poor and downtrodden and outsiders:

  • the kindly old lady who gives him potato soup and bacon and guidance to find her brother who’ll help him
  • an accordion player from Malčín who advises him to look up his married daughter whose husband is a deserter
  • in Radomyšl the old lady’s brother, Father Melichárek, who also thinks Švejk is a deserter
  • near Putim a trio of deserters taking refuge in a haystack who tell him that a month earlier the entire 35th regiment deserted
  • one of them has an aunt in Strakonice who has a sister in the mountains they can go and stay with – give him a slice of bread for the journey
  • near Stekno he meets a tramp who shares a nip of brandy and gives him advice about evading the authorities, and takes him into town to meet a friend, even older than the tramp, and the three sit round a stove in the old gaffer’s cabin telling stories (p.277)

The Good Soldier Švejk with the two tramps

The adventure ends when Švejk finds himself circling back and re-entering the village of Putim where he is arrested and interrogated by a very clever gendarmerie sergeant Flanderka who lectures his subordinates at length about the correct and wise way to interview suspects and who thinks he can get Švejk into confessing that he’s a spy.

The thing about Švejk is that he is absolutely honest. He literally tells the truth, that he got detained by a stationmaster after pulling the emergency, cord, drank away the money he was given to buy a ticket, then they wouldn’t give him a ticket anyway, then set off on a long rambling walk all round the region – until the sergeant becomes convinced that no-one could be this ingenuous, wide-eyed and innocent – and therefore that he must be a most dangerous spy!

They keep a paranoid close guard on our hero, accompany him to the outside toilet, order a fine dinner from the local pub. Oblivious of the sergeant’s ludicrous paranoias, Švejk has a whale of a time and the sergeant and the lance-corporal he’s bullying get so drunk they pass out.

Next morning, badly hungover, the sergeant writes a preposterous report about Švejk, for example arguing that his lack of a camera just shows how dangerous he would be if he had one, and sends him off under armed guard to the District Command in Písek. As always happens, it doesn’t take much persuasion to get the lance-corporal accompanying Švejk to pop into a roadside pub along the way, and they proceed to get plastered, telling the landlord to keep them company drink for drink (p.277)

They set off again completely trashed, way after dark and, as the corporal keeps slipping off the icy road and down the slopes either side, decide to handcuff themselves together. In this state they arrive at the gendarmerie headquarters at Pisek where Captain König takes one look at them and is disgusted. He is fed up with being bombarded by useless bureaucratic edicts and now the moronic sergeant from Putim is chipping with crazy accusations like this one, that the drunk soldier in front of him is a master spy when he’s obviously a common or garden deserter.

König briskly orders Švejk put on the next train to České Budějovice and supervised by a gendarme who is to accompany him at the other end, all the way through the streets of the town to the Marianske Barracks. This he does, so that Švejk calmly walks through the door of the barracks main office just as Lieutenant Lukáš is settling into another shift. At the sight of Švejk rises to his feet and faints backwards (onto a junior soldier).

When he recovers the lieutenant informs Švejk an arrest warrant has been made in his name for desertion and he must report to the barracks prison. So off he goes, under guard, innocent and docile as usual.

In his cell he meets a fat one-year volunteer – whoe name we learn is Marek – who is more educated than most of Hašek’s characters and has a fund of stories to tell about soldiers being bullied, mistried and massacred, as well as scathing criticism of the authorities and of Austro-Hungarian authority which he sees as doomed to collapse (p.293).

All along the line, everything in the army stinks of rottenness.

Maybe he is a self-portrait of the rather tubby author (confirmed when he says that he was at one state the editor of a magazine named The Animal  World – as was Hašek).

He and Švejk get on like a house on fire and end up singing various bawdy ballads at the tops of their voices and keeping the other prisoners awake. In the morning they are both interrogated by a pompous officer named Colonel Schröder, an episode which satirises military incompetence and prejudice, before Schröder sentences the volunteer to the kitchens peeling potatoes and Švejk to three days ‘hard’. Schröder then drops by the office of Lieutenant Lukáš to tell him he’s given his batman three days hard but don’t worry, after that Švejk will be sent back to him.

Lieutenant Lukáš drops to his knees in despair. One of the funniest things about the book is Lukáš’s complete inability to shake off Švejk who, without consciously trying, makes his life a misery and destroys every one of his plans.

One element of comedy is predictability, generated by the audience becoming familiar with the way certain characters always behave, coming to expect it, and being delighted when they behave that way, or say that ting, again. Hence the joy of catchphrases, of hearing Corporal Jones cry ‘Don’t panic, don’t panic’. In this way, the ever-deepening chagrin of Lieutenant Lukáš becomes a core comic theme from this point onwards.

Chapter 3 Švejk’s adventures in Királyhida

Švejk and the one-year volunteer are marched along with the rest of the 91st Regiment to the České Budějovice railway station. Here things are chaotic and they get mixed up with Father Lacina, a chaplain, who has been roaming among various regimental messes the night before gorging himself and drinking himself insensible. Lacina hitches a lift into Švejk and the one-year volunteer’s train carriage, where he promptly passes out.

Švejk and the one-year volunteer had been accompanied and guarded by a timid lance-corporal and they now set about remorselessly teasing him, bombarding him with rules and regulations about the protection of prisoners which he has broken without realising it, including letting an unauthorised person (the drunk chaplain) into the prisoners’ van, and so on.

They also tell a wealth of stories covering a range of experiences and people: how a black entertainer slept with a posh white Czech lady who had a little black baby; about miscegenation between races, and how the war is leading to rapes of civilian women by occupying armies.

It is here that the one-year volunteer tells us at length about his spell as editor of the magazine The Animal World and how he got into trouble for writing articles about fictitious animals (pp.323-328).

The train draws into the outskirts of Vienna (p.347), where it is greeted by a tired welcoming committee patriotic old ladies (p.348). Hašek describes how the initial enthusiasm for the war, which saw huge crowds cheer the trains full of soldiers off to the Front, has long since waned.

Švejk and the volunteer are ordered along with all the other soldiers to report to the mess kitchens. Here Svejk, in the course of nicking a coatful of grub, bumps into Lieutenant Lukáš and tells him he was bringing it to him.

The narrative cuts rather abruptly to night over the army barracks at Bruck (p.350). It does this quite often. I found myself having to go back and figure out where we were in many of the scenes, and work out where the travel from one place to another took part. Maybe a function of the text having originally consisted of discreet short stories.

Bruck an der Leitha is also known as Királyhida, and hereby hangs a tale. The River Leitha formed the border between what was then Austria and Hungary. The town on the Austrian side was called Bruck an der Leitha, the town on the Hungarian side was called Királyhida. The Austrians referred to the land their side as Cisleithiana, the territory the other side as Transleithiana. And the Czechs were alien to both countries.

The central incident of this chapter is based on the simmering ethnic tensions and resentments between these groups. Švejk has now been released from the prisoners van (he was only sentenced to three days’ detention, if you remember) and has been restored to Lieutenant Lukáš as his batman. That evening Švejk is having a fag with the pock-marked batman of another officer from down the corridor of their temporary barracks, when Lieutenant Lukáš stumbles back from a drunken evening out.

He and a bunch of other officers went to a cabaret where the Hungarian dancers were doing high kicks and wearing no stockings or knickers, and had ‘shaved themselves underneath like Tatar women’ (p.356). Lukáš didn’t really like it and on the way out the theatre saw a high-minded woman dragging her husband away. They exchanged a meaningful look. Lukáš asked the cloakroom attendant who she was and finds out she’s the wife of a well-known ironmonger and her address. He goes onto a nightclub where he writes an elaborate and fancy letter basically asking if he can come round and have sex with her the following day. He drunkenly hand the letter to Švejk, goes into his room, and passes out.

Next morning Švejk wakes the Lieutenant to check he still wants the letter delivered, gets a sleepy Yes, and sets off to the ironmonger’s address. Unfortunately, he makes the mistake of letting a fellow soldier, Sapper Vodička, accompany him. The whole way Vodička informs Švejk how much he hates Hungarians, what cowards they are, and bullies, and how easy it is to shag their disreputable woman.

By the time Švejk politely knocks on the door of the house, and politely hands the little girl who answers a letter for her mummy, Vodička has worked himself into a fury and when they hear a rumpus from the living room and the woman’s husband emerges in a froth of indignation, the scene is set for a massive fight, which spills out onto the street, and which passersby and other soldiers all get caught up (p.355).

The fight over the ironmonger’s wife

Chapter 4 New sufferings

It is very funny when, as a result of this, Lieutenant Lukáš finds himself woken up and summoned to the office of Colonel Schröder who reads him out a series of reports of this riot in all the Hungarian newspapers. Not only that but the papers have taken it as an opportunity to complain about the hordes of rampaging Czechs infesting their streets and to castigate Czech character generally.

The Colonel makes Lukáš read out every word of every report, and we are wondering whether he, Lukáš, will be cashiered before the whole tone shifts and we discover the Colonel secretly sympathises. He says the incriminating letter was found on Vodička, so everyone knows about his proposition to the ironmonger’s wife. Had he slept with her yet, the Colonel asks, only increasing the Lieutenant’s discomfiture. The Colonel tells him he was once sent on a three-week geometry course in Hungary and slept with a different Hungarian woman every day. The Colonel pats him on the shoulder and says All Hungarians are bastards, we’re not going to let them get you.

And then he sets off on a new tack saying how admirably the good soldier Švejk defended him. When the police showed him the incriminating letter he first of all claimed to have written it himself, and then ate it. Good man, that, says the Colonel. And to Lieutenant Lukáš’s unmitigated horror, the Colonel proceeds to assign Švejk to him as the new Company Orderly! (p.378)

But first Švejk and Vodička are temporarily thrown in the clink where they bump into their old friend, the one-year volunteer. As usual there is a huge amount of yarning and story-telling before they are hauled up before Judge Advocate Ruller. He is another stern disciplinarian but, on the recommendation of Colonel Schröder, lets them go.

In a parody of farewell scenes from umpteen romantic novels, Švejk and Vodička now go their separate way, calling out across the ever-widening distance between them. Švejk tells him to come to The Chalice pub any evening at 6pm after the war’s ended.

Chapter 5 From Bruck an der Leitha to Sokal

To replace Švejk as batman, Lieutenant Lukáš has been given a big fat heavily bearded soldier named Baroun. He turns out to have an insatiable appetite and repetition comedy results from his inability not to eat everything in sight, including all of Lieutenant Lukáš’s rations and treats.

the first time this happens, Lieutenant Lukáš orders Baloun to be taken to the barracks kitchen and tied to a post just by the ovens so he can smell all the food for hours and not be able to move. Cruel, eh? (p.398)

Quartermaster sergeant Vanek expects to be able to lord it over Švejk  so it surprised when the latter announces he is now regimental orderly, clearly a post of some authority and respect.

There follows a prolonged (20+ pages) comic sequence based on the idea that Švejk now has access to the company telephone, and that the barracks operates an early primitive phone system on which he can overhear the conversations of everyone in the barracks. He is given orders to send ten troops to the barracks store to get tines of meat for the upcoming train journey but, as you might expect, this quickly turns into chaos and confusion.

Švejk having 40 winks between causing mayhem on the regimental phone line

Meanwhile Lieutenant Lukáš is absent at a prolonged meeting convened by Colonel Schröder at which he is holding forth at great length a series of military theories and ideas which have all been completely outdated by the war (‘He spoke without rhyme or reason…’ p.421). In his absence Švejk and some of the other soldiers, notably the Quatermaster, chew the fat, telling stories at great length, getting tipsy and falling asleep.

In fact it’s a characteristic of volume two that as Švejk gets drawn more into the army bureaucracy we encounter an ever-expanding roster of military characters, who come and go in the various offices, stopping to have long conversations, swap stories, moan about Hungarians or women or the senior officers. Quite often it’s difficult to remember where in the ‘story’ you are, after pages and pages of reminiscences about the old days, or about characters back home, or about something they once read in the paper or heard, told by one or other of the numerous soldiers.

It’s a new morning but the never-ending meeting convened by Colonel Schröder resumes. On the table is a big map of the front with little wooden figures and flags for troop dispositions. Overnight a cat kept by the clerks has gotten into the meeting room and not only knocked all the markers out of alignment, but also done a few cat poops on the map. Now Colonel Schröder is very short-sighted so the assembled officers watch with bated breath as he moves his hand airily over the map, getting closer and closer and then… yes! poking his finger into a pile of fresh cat poo! And goes charging into the clerks’ room to give them hell (p.437).

In this last section there’s a humorous grace note about the regimental cook who was, in civilian life, an author of books about the Occult and takes a supernatural approach to cooking.

Everyone is in a state of suspense. Are they going to move out to the Front, and when? Marek, the one-year volunteer appears, still in detention and awaiting some kind of sentence from the authorities. On the last page of volume two, while Švejk is telling yet another long story to Quartermaster Sergeant-Major Vaněk, Lieutenant Lukáš is in his office painfully decoding a ciphered message he’s received. The regiment will be proceeding to Mošon, Raab, Komárno and so to Budapest.

Here ends Volume Two of The Good Soldier Švejk.


Themes

Anti-war bitterness

Volume one tends to focus on the arrogance, aggressive behaviour and stupidity of a wide range of officials encountered in everyday life. As you might expect, once he’s re-enlisted in the army, Volume two focuses on all aspects of the stupidity and futility of war.

The young soldier gave a heartfelt sight. He was sorry for his young life. Why was he born in such a stupid century to be butchered like an ox in a slaughterhouse? (p.153)

And contains some really effective passages, visions of the desolation and deathliness of war.

Before the arrival of the passenger train the third-class restaurant filled up with soldiers and civilians. They were predominantly soldiers of various regiments and formations and the most diverse nationalities whom the whirlwinds of war had swept into the Tábor hospitals. they were now going back to the front to get new wounds, mutilations and pains and to earn the reward of a simple wooden cross over their graves. Years after on the mournful plains of East Galicia a faded Austrian soldier’s cap with a rusty imperial badge would flutter over it in wind and rain. From time to time a miserable old carrion crow would perch on it, recalling fat feasts of bygone days when there used to be spread for him an unending table of human corpses and horse carcasses, when just under the cap on which he perched there lay the daintiest morsels of all – human eyes. (p.230)

There’s more where that came from. Not particularly intellectual or stylish. But all the more effective for its blunt simplicity.

Casual brutality

The book is permeated by casual violence. All the officers take it for granted that they can slap, punch, hit in the mouth or round the ears, order to be tied up and even flogged whichever soldiers they wish. And the soldiers accept it too.

The old beggar tells Švejk about begging round the town of Lipnice and stumbling into the gendarmerie station by accident, because it was in an ordinary looking house. And the police sergeant leaping up from behind his desk, striding across the room, and punching the tramp so hard in the face that he is propelled back through the door and down the wooden steps. (p.251)

The same old man remembers stories his grandfather told about the army in his day, how a deserter was flogged so hard that strips of skin flew off him. How another was shot for desertion on the barrack ramparts. but not before he’d run the gauntlet of 600 soldiers who all beat and hit and whipped him as he ran through the human tunnel they’d formed. (p.247)

In the prisoners’ van Švejk watches the escorts playing what appears to be a popular game in the Austrian army. Called simply ‘Flesh’, where one soldier takes down his trousers, bares his bottom, and the other soldiers belt him as hard as they can on his bare buttocks, and the soldier has to guess which of his companions it was who hit him. If he guesses right, that colleague has to take his place. That’s the game. (pp.322-3)

There’s satire on military stupidity, like the story of a certain earnest Lieutenant Berger who hid up a pine tree during an enemy attack, and refused to reveal himself or come down till his own side counter-attacked. Unfortunately that took fourteen days, so he starved to death (p.256)

There are many stories like that, of ‘heroes’ who get awarded medals after they’ve been blown to bits or cut in half by a shell or blinded or maimed, and they come under the heading of Stupid propaganda with Švejk ending up in various offices where he sees posters proclaiming the bravery of our proud Austrian boys, and so on, or is handed leaflets describing glorious deeds of valour, or reads articles about gallant officers rescuing entire regiments.

Like most of his mates, he ends up using these handouts as toilet paper.

But they also form part of the vast, unending continuum of stories, of the stories working class men tell each other in pubs and bars and police stations and cells and barracks and trains, and they all evince the same bloody-minded, hardened attitude of the common soldier, squaddie or grunt who carries on living his heedless working class life despite all efforts of shouting sergeants and poncy officers to reform him – a life which tends to revolve around food and fags, booze and sex.

Drink

Thus all the characters are fond of not only drinking but getting drunk, obviously Hašek and his working class pals, but also a high proportion of the officers and even generals, starting with Lieutenant Lukáš who a) wins Švejk at a game of cards b) is an inveterate womaniser c) routinely gets plastered.

Almost every escort charged with escorting prisoner Švejk anywhere lets itself get talked into nipping into the first pub they pass and proceeding to get legless.

And there’s a special satirical edge to portraying the scions of morality, the army chaplains Katz and Lacina as hopeless drunks, Lacina no sooner being introduced than he passes out.

But booze is seen as the universal solvent of society, having a drink a bombproof way of getting to know your companion or settling differences.

Sex

Actually there’s less sex than you might expect. There are far far more stories about the brutal fates and mishaps of characters in the stories the lads tell each other, than sexual escapades. the cabaret where the girls do high kicks without knickers is a rare occurrence of sexy sexiness, and the Lieutenant’s attempt to seduce the ironmonger’s wife ends in farce, as we’ve seen.

One soldier tells an admiring story about a captain who knows three sisters who he’s trained to bring round to the officers mess and dance on the tables before presenting themselves on the sofa (presumably for the officers’ use and in what posture is left to the imagination).

And Colonel Schröder shows off to Lieutenant Lukáš about the time he went for training in Hungary and boffed a different woman every day for three weeks.

But these are a handful of sexy stories amid a vast sea of hundreds and hundreds of other stories about numerous other subjects. If sex is present it’s more as a steady hum of prostitutes in the background, and at random moments soldiers are discovered bargaining with the whores who hang around the railways stations where the troop trains stopped.

Bureaucracy

An army is, almost by definition, a kind of quintessence of bureaucracy and the satire on incompetence of Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy is now applied to the army, in spaces. At various moments harassed officers are shown drowning in bombardments of new regulations and memos, all of which are incomprehensible or irrelevant.

The text gives a list of the orders sent to Sergeant Flanderka, the pompous gendarme at Putim, which includes orders, directives, questionnaires, instructions and directives, including an index of grades of loyalty to the Emperor, according to which citizens who are interrogated must be classified as either Ia, Ib, Ic, IIa, IIb, IIc, IIIa, IIIb, IIIc, and so on. (p.259) which leads into how Sergeant Flanderka tried to recruit the village idiot Pepek as a spy on the local population and, when that fails, simply invents an informer, makes up reports he attributes to this invention, and claims an extra fifty crowns a month pay to fund him, which the sergeant pockets himself. (The same kind of problem – operatives who invent informers or spies so they can claim extra money – crops up in Somerset Maugham’s brilliant fictionalisation of his spying days during the Great War, Ashenden, and in John le Carré. Obviously, an occupational hazard.)

(Incidentally, the village idiot Pepek can barely speak and when, on his first report back, he simply parrots back all the incriminating phrases Sergeant Flanderka told him to listen out for, Sergeant Flanderka promptly has Pepek arrested as a traitor, tried and convicted to twelve years hard labour. That’s very much the helpless, heartless tone of the countless stories and anecdotes which make up the actual text of Švejk.)

The captain of the gendarmerie at Pisek was a very officious man, very thorough at prosecuting his subordinates and outstanding in bureaucratic manners. In the gendarmerie stations in his district no one could ever say that the storm had passed. it came back with every communication signed by the captain, who spent the whole day issuing reprimands, admonitions and warnings to the whole district. Ever since the outbreak of war heavy black clouds had loured over the gendarmerie stations in the Písek district. It was a truly ghostly atmosphere. The thunderbolts of bureaucracy rumbled and struck the gendarmerie sergeants, lance-corporals, men and employees. (p.279)

One moment in particular stood out for me as a sudden bit of Kafka embedded in Hašek, where Švejk is listening to yet another rodomontade from the furiously angry Sapper Vodička, who is wondering when the pair will finally be brought to court for their involvement in the riot with the Hungarian ironmonger.

‘It’s always nothing but interrogation’, said Vodička, whipping himself up into a fury. ‘If only something would come out of it at last. They waste heaps of paper and a chap doesn’t even see the court.’ (p.387)

The nationalities question

It is a crucial element of the situation in the Austro-Hungarian Empire that its constituent nationalities cordially dislike each other. Švejk buys the poor Hungarian soldier a drink but happily calls him a Hungarian bastard; the Hungarians slag off the Czechs for surrendering en masse as soon as the fighting starts (apparently this actually happened); the Czechs resent the Hungarians for being better soldiers; and everyone hates the stereotype of the furiously angry German-speaking Austrian officer.

This is broadly comic in the sense that all mechanical national stereotypes are comic. One aspect of it is language and here there is a Great Tragedy: the book’s translator into English, Cecil Parrott, makes clear in his wonderful introduction that a great part of the pleasure of the text in its original version is the interplay of languages of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Different characters may speak Czech, Hungarian, German or even Polish, and within those languages they may use polite and formal registers, or common and demotic registers, or may be non-native speakers mangling the language.

Almost none of this art and pleasure comes over in translation. Damn! Only at a handful of moments does the multicultural nature of the society being depicted, and of the most ordinary human interactions, become prominent. For example when Švejk and Vodička arrive at the house of the Hungarian ironmonger to hand over Lieutenant Lukáš’s letter. Bear in mind that they are in Királyhida, just across the border into Hungary proper.

The door opened, a maid appeared and asked in Hungarian what they wanted.
Nem tudom?’ said Vodička scornfully. ‘Learn to speak Czech, my good girl.’
‘Do you understand German?’ Švejk asked in broken German.
‘A leetle,’ the girl replied equally brokenly.
‘Then tell lady I want to speak lady. Tell lady there is letter from gentleman.’ (p.366)

If only Parrott had tried to capture the mix of languages and mishmash of registers which are obviously omnipresent in Hašek’s original, it would have made for a very different reading experience because, in the handful of places where he tries it, it really adds to the texture of the book, and is often funny.

Communism

The Good Soldier Švejk was written in the very early 1920s, so with full knowledge of the Bolshevik Revolution, of the end of the Great War, the complete defeat of the Alliance powers, Germany and Austria, and the collapse of their Empires – the German Kaiser going into exile and the Reich declared a republic, and more dramatically the farflung Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsing overnight into a collection of independent states.

Opposition to, or at the very least strong scepticism about, the Empire and the rule of the Hapsburg Dynasty, are expressed in different ways, at different levels of literacy, by numerous characters across the sprawling novel — but one moment stood out for me, a suddenly resonant moment when Hašek has the old shepherd Švejk encounters on his anabasis, prophesy the future:

The water in which the potatoes were cooking on the stove began to bubble and after a short silence the old shepherd said in prophetic tones: ‘And his Imperial Majesty won’t win this war. There’s no enthusiasm for it at all… Nobody cares a hell about it any more, lad… You ought to be there when the neighbours get together down in Skočice. Everyone has a friend at the front and you should hear how they talk. After this war they say there’ll be freedom and there won’t be any noblemen’s palaces or emperors and the princes’ll all have their estates taken away.’ (p.248)


Related links

The Good Soldier Švejk

The Nightmare of Reason: The Life of Franz Kafka by Ernst Pawel – part one (1984)

‘What do I have in common with the Jews? I hardly have anything in common with myself and should stand very quietly in a corner, content that I can breathe.’
(Franz Kafka, 8 January 1914)

This is a hugely enjoyable biography of Franz Kafka, chiefly because it is itself so unKafkaesque, so informative and logical and entertaining.

Although the subject matter and settings of Kafka’s novels and short stories vary, what all Kafka’s works have in common (well, apart from the really short stories) is the long-winded and often convoluted nature of his prose which seeks to reflect the over-self-conscious and over-thinking paranoia, anxiety and, sometimes, terror of his protagonists, narrators or characters.

Pawel’s book, by contrast, is a wonderfully refreshing combination of deep historical background, penetrating psychological insights, fascinating detail about the literary and cultural world of turn-of-the-century Prague, and hair-raising quotes from Kafka’s diaries, letters and works, all conveyed in brisk and colourful prose. Pawel is about as variedly entertaining as prose can be, which came as a huge relief after struggling through the monotone grimness of a story like The Burrow.

Three ethnicities

If you read any of Kafka’s works it’s difficult to avoid blurbs and introductions which give away the two key facts of his biography – 1. his lifelong fear of his father, Herrmann, and 2. how he spent his entire working life in a state insurance company, itself embedded in the elephantine web of Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy.

The Workmen’s Accident and Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia was an integral part of the pullulating Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy that, like a giant net of near-epic intricacy, covered the entire Hapsburg domain. (The Nightmare of Reason, page 183)

Between them these two facts can be used as the basis of entry-level commentaries on Kafka’s stories, interpreting them as being about either:

  1. anxiety and dread of some nameless father figure who inspires an irrational sense of paralysing guilt
  2. or (as the two famous novels do) as unparalleled descriptions of vast, impenetrable bureaucracies which the helpless protagonists can never understand or appeal to

So far, so obvious. What I enjoyed most in this biography was all the stuff I didn’t know. First and foremost, Pawel gives the reader a much deeper understanding of the history, the politics and, especially, the ethnic make-up of Bohemia, where Kafka was born and lived most his life, and of its capital city, Prague – and explains why this mattered so much.

What comes over loud and clear is the tripartite nature of the situation, meaning there were three main ethnic groups in Bohemia, who all hated each other:

1. The majority of the population of Prague and Bohemia was Czech-speaking Czechs, who became increasingly nationalistic as the 19th century progressed, lobbying for a nation state of their own, outspokenly resentful of the Austrian authorities and of their allies in the German-speaking minority.

2. A minority of the population, around 10 to 15%, were ethnic Germans. They regarded themselves as culturally and racially superior to the Czechs, who they thought of as inferior ‘slavs’. The Germans were bolstered 1. by their proximity to Germany itself, with its immense cultural and literary heritage, and 2. because they spoke the same language as the Austrians who ruled the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Most schools in Bohemia taught German as the official language, resulting in a state of civil war between the two languages and low level conflict between the two cultures – Pawel describes it as an ‘abyss’ (p.140).

Kafka, for example, although he was complimented on his spoken Czech, never considered himself fluent in it, and was educated, preferred to speak and wrote in German. In reference books he is referred to as a master of German prose.

3. And then there were the Jews. Pawel goes into great detail and is absolutely fascinating about the position of Jews in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Bohemia in particular. He goes back to the Emperor Joseph II’s 1781 Patent of Toleration, which allowed Jews and Protestants for the first time to practice their religion in the Empire, and the charter for religious freedom granted the Jews of Galicia in 1789. From these statutes dated a series of other laws enacted throughout the nineteenth century designed to ’emancipate’ the Jews from a range of medieval laws which had placed huge restrictions on how they could dress, where they could go, what jobs they could hold.

But this so-called emancipation was a double-edged sword, because it also abolished the communal autonomy which the Jews had enjoyed, it forbad the wearing of traditional Jewish clothes, and it enforced the Germanisation of Jewish culture.

The effect of all this was that, through the 19th century, successive generations of Jews tried to break out of the squalor and poverty of their predominantly rural settlements, emigrated to the big cities of the Empire, dropped their traditional clothing and haircuts, learned to speak German better than the Germans, and in every way tried to assimilate.

Both [Kafka’s] parents belonged to the first generation of assimilated Jews. (p.54)

Unfortunately, this ‘aping’ of German culture mainly served to breed resentment among ‘true’ Germans against these cultural ‘impostors’, with the net result that, the more the Jews tried to assimilate to German culture, the more the Germans hated them for it.

Thus, in a bitter, world-historical irony, an entire generation of urbanised, secular Jews found themselves in love with and practicing a Germanic culture whose rightful ‘owners’, the Germans, hated them with an unremitting anti-semitism (pp.99, 149).

And these hyper-intelligent Jews were totally aware of the fact, bitterly reminded of it every time another anti-semitic article was published in their newspapers or anti-semitic ruit took place in their towns. And so it helped to create a feeling that if only they weren’t Jews everything would be alright. It helped to create the phenomenon known as Jewish self-hatred, a condition Pawel thinks Kafka suffered from, acutely, all his life (p.108).

(Though not as much as the journalist Karl Kraus. In a typically fascinating digression, Pawel devotes an excoriating passage to Kraus, a secular Jew born into a wealthy industrialist family, who became a leading satirical writer and journalist, and devoted his flaming energies to protecting the ‘purity’ of the German language, and – according to Pawels – castigating ‘the Jews’ for importing provincial jargon and Yiddishisms. Kraus was, in Pawel’s view, ‘the quintessential incarnation of Jewish self-hatred’ (p.226).)

And don’t forget that, all the while they were the subject of German anti-semitism, the Jews also got it in the neck from the other side, from the nationalist Czechs, the more Germanic the Jews strove to become, the more the Czech nationalists hated them for sucking up to their oppressors. The Jews got it from both directions.

I knew about Austrian anti-semitism, not least from reading biographies of Freud. But I didn’t know anything about the distinctive dynamic of Czech anti-semitism.

The emancipation of the Jews

Pawel describes all this in such depth and detail because it explains the impact on Kafka’s own biography – namely that Franz’s father, Herrmann, was one of that generation of Jews who, in the mid-nineteenth-century, escaped from the grinding poverty of the rural shtetl, migrated to the city, and finagled the money to set himself up in business, to try to rise in the world.

One of the best-known things about Kafka is how he lived in abject fear of his father, who instilled a permanent sense of terror and anxiety in him, but Pawel explains brilliantly how Kafka senior was a highly representative figure, just one among a great wave of Jews of his generation who escaped rural poverty, migrated to the city, became more or less successful businessmen and… sired sons who despised them.

He wasn’t alone. Pawel shows how it was a pattern repeated across educated Jewry (p.98).

Seen from this historical perspective, Sigmund Freud (born 1856 in Příbor in what is now the Moravian province of the Czech Republic) is a kind of patron saint of his and the slightly later generation (Kafka was born in 1883) for Freud’s father, Jakob, was the son of devout Hasidic Jews, who, in the classic style, moved from his home district to the big city of Vienna where he struggled to run a business as a wool merchant, rejecting along the way all the appurtenances of the rural Judaism which were so associated with poverty and provincialism. It was as a result of Jakob’s deracination, that his son decisively broke with any religious belief, and became the immensely successful and highly urbanised founder of psychoanalysis.

Same or something similar with a whole generation of Jewish-German writers artists and composers – Kafka, Brod, Hermann Broch, Wittgenstein, Karl Kraus, Walter Benjamin, Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg and so on (pp.98, 99). It was a world of staggering artistic brilliance – this was the generation which contributed to and helped define the whole idea of Modern Art. But it was all built on a volcano, the fierce hatred of ‘genuine’ Germans for the ‘cosmopolitan’ Jews who (they thought) were appropriating their culture.

This was the atmosphere of Kafka’s world, dense with hate. (p.44)

Judaism is replaced by literature

A further consequence emerges from Pawel’s historical approach which is that this generation, the first generation of truly urbanised Jews, which had largely lost its religious faith in the process, nonetheless continued, like their rabbinical forefathers, the Jewish obsession with the written word.

Only instead of devoting their lives to interpreting the Holy Scriptures as their Hasidic forefathers, rabbis and holy men had – these largely irreligious urbanites now nagged and worried about secular types of writing – namely literature and philosophy and criticism and aesthetics. God may have been declared dead and words no longer used to pray and worship – but instead, the endless finagling of rabbis and commentators was now applied to existence itself, to a scrupulous cross-examination of modern life in the hurly-burly of hectic cities.

The Jewish intelligentsia on the whole remained isolated, inbred and inward looking…Theirs was a paradoxically communal shtetl of cantankerous individualists huddled in the warrens of their self-absorption, with literature as their religion and self-expression their road to salvation. (p.153)

As Pawel puts it with typically colourful rhetoric:

Kafka’s true ancestors, the substance of his flesh and spirit, were an unruly crowd of Talmudists, Cabalists, medieval mystics resting uneasy beneath the jumble of heaving, weatherbeaten tombstones in Prague’s Old Cemetery, seekers in search of a reason for faith. (p.100)

The same intense scrutiny the forefathers paid to every word and accent of the Talmud, their heirs now devoted to the production of texts exploring the experience of the modern world which boiled down, again and again, in the hands of its most dogged exponents, to an investigation of language itself.

And so we find Kafka in December 1910 making one of the hundreds and hundreds of diary entries he devoted obsessively to the subject of writing, of words, of prose, of literature:

I cannot write. I haven’t managed a single line I’d care to acknowledge; on the contrary, I threw out everything – it wasn’t much – that I had written since Paris. My whole body warns me of every word, and every word first looks around in all directions before it lets itself be written down by me. The sentences literally crumble in my hands.

‘Every word first looks around in all directions before it lets itself be written down by me’! In Kafka’s hands, even language itself is gripped by fear.

Kafka’s diet

Kafka was a lifelong hypochondriac who also happened to suffer from actual illnesses and conditions. From early in adulthood he experimented with a variety of cures from surprisingly silly quack doctors. He became obsessed with diet, first becoming a vegetarian, and then implementing an increasingly complicated regime of diets, which Pawel describes in detail.

But once again Pawel uses this to make the kind of socio-psychological point for which I really enjoyed this book, when he points out the following: In the Jewish tradition, strict adherence to kashrut or traditional Jewish dietary law linked the individual to the community, made him one with a much larger people and their heritage – whereas the dietary rituals Kafka made for himself completely cut him off not only from the Jewish tradition, but even from his own family, and ultimately his own friends. Later in life Kafka:

gradually got into the habit of taking all his meals by himself and intensely disliked eating in anyone’s presence. (p.209)

Like everything else in his life, even eating became a source of anxiety and dread and shame.

Hermann Kafka and his family

Although Pawel records the lifelong terror and feeling of humiliation which Herrmann inculcated in his over-sensitive son, he injects a strong dose of scepticism. As you read Franz’s Letter to his Father, the sustained thirty-page indictment of Herrmann which poor Franz wrote at the age of 36, you can’t help beginning to feel sorry a bit sorry for Herrmann. It wasn’t his fault that he emerged from grinding poverty all but illiterate and had to work hard all his life to support his family. Whereas Franz enjoyed 16 years of education and wangled a cushy job at the Workers Insurance Company thanks to a well-connected uncle. From one point of view, Franz is the typically ungrateful, spoilt son.

And in a subtle reinterpretation of the traditional story, Pawel wonders if it wasn’t Kafka’s mother, Julie, who did most damage to her son. How? By being totally aware of young Franz’s hyper-sensitive nature, but doing nothing about it – by effectively ignoring his hyper-sensitive soul in order to suck up to her bullying husband.

Because, as Pawel points out, Kafka gave the notorious Letter to His Father to his mother to read and then pass on to the family ‘tyrant’. She certainly did read it but never passed it on, returning it to Franz after a week and, well… Franz could easily have handed it over to his father by hand – or posted it. But he chose not to. That, Pawel speculates, is because the letter had in fact achieved its purpose. Not to address his father at all, but successfully implicating his mother in his childhood and teenage trauma. After all:

All parents fail their children, and all children weave their parents failure into the texture of their lives. (p.82)

As this all suggests, Kafka’s story was very much a family affair, a psychodrama played out in the claustrophobic walls of the Prague apartment he shared with his mother, father and three sisters.

Indeed it is a little staggering to read Pawel’s description of the apartment the family moved to in 1912, whose walls were so thin that everyone could hear everyone else cough or sneeze or open a window or plump a book down on a table – let alone all the other necessary bodily functions. What a terrible, claustrophobic environment it was (and we know this, because we have hundreds of diary entries made by Franz moaning about it) and yet – he didn’t leave.

More than once Pawel suggests there is something very Jewish about this smothering family environment and the way that, although he could easily have left once he had a secure job, Kafka chose to remain within the bosom of his smothering family.

It’s aspects of Kafka’s psychology and life like this which drive Pawel’s frequent comparisons and invocations of Freud, dissector and analyst of the smothering turn-of-the-century, urban, Jewish family, investigator of the kind of family lives that the young women of his case studies made up hysterias and neuroses, and the young men made up violent animal fantasies, to escape from.

But here, as in other ways, Kafka stands out as taking part in a recognisable general trend – but then going way beyond it – or moulding it to his own peculiar needs – because at some level, deep down, he needed to be smothered.

Anti-Semitism and Zionism

And all around them, surrounding the anxieties of family life, were the continual ethnic tensions which regularly broke out into actual violence. Sometimes it was Czech nationalists rioting against their Austro-German overlords in the name of Czech nationalism – as they did in the so-called Prague Pogrom of 1897 when Czech nationalists started off by ransacking well-known German cultural and commercial establishments, but ended up devoting three days to attacking Jewish shops and synagogues and anyone who appeared to be a Jew.

Slowly, over his lifetime, Kafka noted the situation getting steadily worse. Fifteen years later, the 60th anniversary of the accession of the Emperor Franz-Joseph led to violent attacks organised by the Czech National Socialists on German properties, which led to troops being sent in and the imposition of martial law (p.298).

But whether it was the Germans or the Czechs, and whether it was the journalistic or bureaucratic attacks of the intelligentsia, or crude physical attacks on the street (and street fighting occurring on an almost weekly basis, p.205):

The extremist demagogues prevailing in both camps were equally vocal in their common hostility to the Jews.

This pervasive fearfulness among Jews helps explain the origins of Zionism, first given theoretical and practical expression by Theodor Herzl, another urbanised and ‘assimilated’ Jewish son of poorer, more rural parents, from the same generation as Freud (Herzl was born a year later, in 1860).

In 1896, deeply shocked by the anti-semitism revealed by the Dreyfus Affair in France (1894-1906), Herzl published Der Judenstaat, in which he argued that anti-semitism in Europe couldn’t be ‘cured’ but only avoided altogether, by leaving Europe and founding a state solely for Jews.

The theme of Zionism looms large in Kafka’s life. Many of his school and university friends became ardent Zionists – including his good friend and literary executor, Max Brod, who managed to escape Prague on the last train before the Nazis arrived, and successfully made it to Palestine. Zionism it was one of the big socio-political movements of the time, along with socialism, anarchism, and Tolstoyan pacifism. (pp.61, 290)

And it was a practical movement. The Bohemian Zionists didn’t just campaign for the establishment of a foreign homeland; closer to home they organised the community, publishing a weekly magazine named Self Defence edited by Kafka’s friend Felix Weltsch (one of the many writers, journalists, critics and poets who Pawel tells us about).

Above all, they preached the idea that all the Jewish hopes for ‘assimilation’ were a fantasy: the Jews who worshipped German culture were adulating their abuser. There could never be full assimilation and the sooner the Jews realised it and planned for their own salvation the better. Tragically, the Zionists were to be proved entirely right.

So from Kafka’s twenties onwards, Zionism was one of the half dozen cultural and political themes of the day. Late in life Kafka encouraged his sisters to develop agricultural skills preparatory to emigrating to Palestine. It was a constant possibility, or dream of his, mentioned in diaries and letters although, being Kafka, he knew it was not a dream he would ever live to fulfil.

Multiple reasons to be afraid

Thus it is that Pawel’s book brilliantly conveys the multiple levels or sources of Kafka’s terror.

  1. He was born over-sensitive and anxious and would have had a hard time adapting to real life anywhere. He was painfully shy and morbidly self-aware.
  2. His father was a philistine bully who ridiculed his son’s weakness and intellectual interests, exacerbating the boy’s paranoia and anxieties in every way.
  3. In newspapers and even in lectures at the university he attended, Kafka would routinely read or hear the most blistering attacks on the Jews as enemies of culture, emissaries of poverty and disease from pestilent rural slums, Christ-killers and followers of an antiquated anti-Enlightenment superstition.
  4. And then, in the streets, there would be periodic anti-Jewish riots, attacks on individual Jews or smashing up Jewish shops.

In the midst of explaining all this, Pawel makes a point which it is easy to miss. He notes that in Kafka’s surviving correspondence with Max Brod or with his three successive girlfriends, Kafka rarely if ever actually alludes to anti-semitism, or to the street violence, clashes, public disorders and growing power of the anti-semitic nationalist parties in Prague. Pawel makes what I thought was a really powerful comment:

It was only in his fiction that he felt both safe and articulate enough to give voice to his sense of terror. (p.204)

An insight I thought was really worth pondering… something to do with the way fiction, or literature, can be a way of controlling and ordering the otherwise chaotic and overwhelming, the personally overwhelming and the socially overwhelming…

Anyway, that’s a lot of sources of fear and terror to be getting on with, before you even get into Franz’s more personal anxieties – not least about sex and everything sexual, which sent him into paroxysms of self-disgust.

Sex

I had no idea that Kafka was such an habitué of brothels. I mean not now and then. I mean routinely and regularly, as well as having sexual escapades with all sorts of working class girls, serving girls and servants and waitresses and barmaids and cleaning women in the many hotels he stayed at on his business trips. We know this because it is all recorded in the copious diaries he kept, and in his extensive correspondence with Max Brod and he even mentions it in letters to his various fiancées.

The subject prompts another one of Pawel’s wide-ranging cultural investigations which I found so fascinating, this time a lengthy description of the way the madonna-whore dichotomy experienced a kind of ill-fated, decadent blossoming in turn of the century Austro-Hungary – in the Vienna we all know about with its Klimt and Schiele paintings, but also in Germanic Prague.

Sex… was the sinister leitmotif dominating literature, drama, and the arts of the period. And beyond the poetic metaphors loomed the brutal real-life affinity of sex and death – botched abortions, childbed fever, syphilis, suicides. (p.77)

All his friends were at it, they all slept with prostitutes: we learn that Max Brod’s marriage got into trouble because he simply refused to carry on sleeping with every woman he could. The women – we learn – came in different grades, from professionals in brothels, to semi-pros in doorsteps, to amateurs – cleaners and suchlike – who would give you a quick one for cash.

All of which exacerbated the aforementioned Madonna-Whore complex, whereby women were divided into two categories – the generally working-class whores you paid to have dirty sex with – and the pure, high-minded and chaste young ladies you accompanied to concerts and were expected to marry (p.180).

To an astonishing extent, Kafka was a fully paid-up member of this club and had an extraordinary number of casual sexual partners – innumerable encounters which he then followed up with the predictable paroxysms of self-loathing and self-hatred. In this respect he was surprisingly unoriginal.

There is a lot more to be said about the relationship between Kafka’s intense but guilt-ridden sex life and the peculiar relations his two key protagonists have with women (in The Trial and The Castle) but that’s for others to write about. I’m interested in history, and language.

The Workmen’s Accident and Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia

It is a revelation to discover that Kafka was good at his job in this insurance company. Not just good, vital. His quick intelligence and pedantic attention to detail were just what was needed. He was tasked with auditing safety regulations about a whole range of industrial processes, a job which required him to travel extensively around the country, staying in hotels (shagging chambermaids if possible) and visiting a huge range of factories and workplaces.

His annual reviews still survive and glow with praise from his superiors and colleagues. He started work at the company’s offices in 1908, was promoted within a year, given full civil service tenure in 1910, advanced to Junior Secretary in 1913, to Secretary in 1920, and senior Secretary in 1922. His immediate superior, Chief Inspector Pfohl, wrote that without him the entire department would collapse. He was a model employee, prompt, intelligent, diligent and polite, as all the testimony from his colleagues confirms.

Fourteen years of following bureaucratic procedures in an institute which was itself part of the wider bureaucratic Empire. And of writing official reports in the tone and style of a senior bureaucrat. You’d have to be quite dense not to link these factors with a) the visions of a vast topless bureaucracy which form the core of the two great novels, and b) with the parody of official, academic-bureaucratic style which is so omnipresent, especially in the later stories.

Kafka’s officialese

Commenting on the contradiction between Kafka the florid hypochondriac and Kafka the smartly turned-out insurance inspector, a contemporary Prague’s literary circle, Oskar Baum, is quoted about how the mental or intellectual structures of the workplace, of its official and stern prose, mapped very handily onto Kafka’s intensely personal obsessions with writing.

By nature he was a fanatic full of luxuriating fantasy, but he kept its glow in check by constantly striving toward strict objectivity. To overcome all cloying or seductive sentimental raptures and fuzzy-minded fantasising was part of his cult of purity – a cult quasi-religious in spirit, though often eccentric in its physical manifestation. He created the most subjective imagery, but it had to manifest itself in the form of utmost objectivity (quoted on page 133)

It’s easy to overlook, but this is a profoundly distinctive aspect of Kafka’s art which is easy to overlook: that all these delirious and often visionary stories are told in very formal and precise prose, and in a style which, in the later stories, becomes really heavily drenched in bureaucratic or academic or official rhetoric.

Pawel’s lurid style

So I found the way Pawel’s factual information about the social, economic and political changes in Bohemia leading up to Kafka’s birth – specifically the changing role of Jews in Bohemian culture – and then his detailed account of Franz’s family life and how that was woven into the complicated social and intellectual currents of the time, really built up a multi-layered understanding of Kafka’s life and times.

But curiously at odds with all this is Pawel’s own very uneven style. One minute he is describing statistics about industrial production or the percentage population of the different ethnicities in the tone of a government report or Wikipedia article:

Prague’s German-speaking minority was rapidly dwindling in proportion to the fast-growing Czech majority, from 14.6 percent in 1880, when the first language census was taken, to 13.6 percent in 1889, Kafka’s first school year. The city’s population totaled 303,000 at the time; of these, 41,400 gave German as their first and principal language. (p.31)

Or:

Between 1848 and 1890, Bohemia’s share in the total industrial output of the monarchy rose from 46 to 59 percent. By 1890, Bohemia and Moravia accounted for 65 percent of Austria’s industrial labour force. (p.37)

The next, he is writing wild and extravagant similes which seem to belong to another kind of book altogether. Here he is describing one of Kafka’s teachers:

Gschwind, author of several studies in linguistics, was rightfully regarded as an eminent classicist, and one can only speculate on the reasons that led him to waste his scholarly gifts and encyclopedic knowledge on a gang of recalcitrant teenagers who, as a group, progressed in classical philology with all the speed and enthusiasm of a mule train being driven up a mountain. (p.73)

Here he is describing Kafka’s anxiety about his end-of-school exams:

The prospect of those apocalyptic trials turned the final school years into a frenzied last-ditch effort to shore up the crumbling ramparts of knowledge, retrieve eight years of facts and figures, and prepare for a bloodbath. (p.76)

Once he starts engaging with Kafka’s stories, Pawel often adopts their phraseology, or at least their worldview, in over-the-top descriptions which could have been penned by Edgar Allen Poe.

Kafka’s impulse was basically sound – that of a trapped, starving animal wanting to claw its way out and sink its teeth into a solid food. (p.114)

Here he is describing the ferociously competitive literary world of Edwardian Prague:

In their panic it was every man for himself, a wild stampeded of gregarious loners grappling with monsters spawned in their own bellies. (p.155)

Or describing the detailed and self-punishing diaries Kafka kept all his adult life.

These so-called diaries assumed many forms and functions, from the writer’s version of the artist’s sketchbook to a tool for self-analysis; they were a fetishistic instrument of self-mutilation, a glimpse of reason at the heart of madness, and an errant light in the labyrinth of loneliness. (p.213)

In fact you can watch Pawel’s style go from sensible to overblown in just that one sentence.

I’ve read criticisms of the book which ridicule Pawel’s purple prose and certainly, from a po-faced academic point of view, much of his writing can sound a bit ludicrous. But as a reader I found it deeply enjoyable. It made me smile. Sometimes it was so over the top it made me laugh out loud.

I liked it for at least two reasons: after struggling with the long-winded and often very official and bureaucratic prose of late Kafka, reading Pawel’s juicy similes and purple paragraphs was like going from black and white to colour.

Secondly, it matches Kafka’s own hysteria. Kafka really was a very, very weird person. His letters abound in the most extreme language of paralysing fear and inchoate terror and crippling anxiety.

My fear… is my substance, and probably the best part of me.

He describes not being able to stand up for fear, not being able to walk for fear, not being able to face people or say anything because of the terror it caused him.

This craving I have for people which turns to fear the moment it reaches fulfilment (letter of July 1912)

– all symptoms of what Pawel calls his ‘near-pathological sensitivity’.

Kafka describes the way words crumble at his touch, his heart is going to explode, his head is too heavy to carry. He talked and wrote regularly about suicide (except that, in typical Kafkaesque fashion, he wrapped it round with paradoxes and parables).

Always the wish to die, and the still-just-hanging on, that alone is love (Diary, 22 October 113)

In other words, much of Pawel’s lurid and melodramatic writing, while not in the same league as Kafka’s, while much more obvious and pulpy and sometimes quite silly – nevertheless is not an unreasonable way to try and catch the permanent atmosphere of extremity and hyperbole which Kafka lived in all the time. I thought it was a reasonable attempt to translate Kafka’s own worldview from Kafkaese into phraseology which is easier for you and me to process and understand.

Fear, disgust, and rage were what this recalcitrant bundle of taut nerves, brittle bones, frail organs and coddled flesh had aroused in him from earliest childhood.

And sometimes Pawel’s phrases are so colourful and exaggerated that they’re funny. And humour, real laugh-out-loud humour, is in short supply in this story.


Related links

Related Kafka reviews

Dates are dates of composition.

Käthe Kollwitz @ the British Museum

This is a really brilliant exhibition. Kollwitz is a genius and this is a searing, dazzling, breath-taking exhibition of 48 of her best prints – and it is FREE! You should go see it.

Biography

Kollwitz (1867–1945) was the fifth child of Karl Schmidt, a radical Social democrat, and Katherina Schmidt, daughter of a freethinking pastor. She was born and raised in Koenigsberg in East Prussia. Two key points: her family were committed socialists who exposed her to the social realist novels of Zola et al, as well as discussing the social issues of the day – supported her through her art school studies.

The result was that her work, throughout her life, was devoted to the suffering of the poor – especially poor women – and a particular interest in moments of rebellion and uprising and social conflict.

Plate 2 Death from A Weavers Revolt (1893-97) by Käthe Kollwitz © The Trustees of the British Museum

Berlin

After studying art in Berlin and Munich, in 1891 Kollwitz moved permanently to Berlin, when she married Karl Kollwitz, a doctor. They lived near his practice in a poor working class district of the rapidly growing city. They were both politically committed special democrats, and it shows, God it shows, in a series of dark, raw and intense prints showing the harrowing poverty and squalor of working class life.

Between 1908 and 1910 she made fourteen drawings in this realist style for the satirical magazine Simplicissimus, on social realist themes such as unemployment, alcoholism, unwanted pregnancy and suicide, including this one.

Unemployment (1909) by Käthe Kollwitz © The Trustees of the British Museum

One of the captions refers to the plasticity of her style, the superb modelling of faces and bodies. In a work like Unemployment this comes over in the dramatic contrast between the faces of the two toddlers and the baby on the bed, and the sparseness and vagueness of other areas of the composition, notably the hard troubled faces of the two adults. These key areas are soft and sensitive, while the surroundings – and the brooding figure on the left – feel harsher, darker, rebarbative.

As early as 1888, aged 21 and at the Women’s Art School in Munich, she had realized her strength was not as a painter, but a draughtswoman, and the strength and shape and depth of all the compositions here is wonderful. Thus her increasing focus on the techniques of etching, lithography and woodcuts.

Series

Paintings are often one-off affairs which can be sold at a premium (especially if commissioned by a rich patron), but the effort required in making prints, etchings and woodcuts has meant that artists often conceive of them as series, to be produced and sold in limited runs, and maybe collected into books.

The Weavers – Six prints, 1897-8

Kollwitz based her first series on a play by Gerhart Hauptmann, The Weavers, which dramatized the oppression of the Silesian weavers in Langenbielau and their failed revolt in 1844. She produced three lithographs (Poverty, Death, and Conspiracy) and three etchings with aquatint and sandpaper (March of the Weavers, Riot, and The End). See the grim image which opens this review. When they were exhibited in 1898 they made her name.

The Peasants War – Seven prints, 1902-1908

Kollwitz’s second major cycle of works was the Peasants War which occupied her from 1902 to 1908. This was another rebellion of the workers, in this case the maltreated peasants who rose up against their feudal lords in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, in 1525, and were eventually defeated in a bloodbath.

Plate 5 Outbreak from The Peasants War (1902-3) by Käthe Kollwitz © The Trustees of the British Museum

At first sight there is a tremendous dynamism in this image, with the figure of the woman rousing and encouraging the men dominating the foreground. Looking closer I was struck by the ape-like clumpiness of many of the peasants – look at the man on the right. This heaviness, this simian Neanderathal appearance, seems to bespeak their status as oppressed serfs, as people who are in fact, barely human, so low have they been degraded.

All the images are tremendous but I was thrilled by Arming in the vault where she uses dark and light to convey the sense of a great horde of proletarians emerging from the underworld, armed to the teeth, ready to cause havoc.

And there is a detailed and devastating print titled simply Raped which shows the foreshortened body of a woman lying amid dead leaves in an orchard or garden, wearing a skirt but her hard peasant’s feet and calves and knees towards us, while lost in the overhanging trees, her young son looks down at her ravaged body. Note how the woman’s head is set at an unnatural angle, lying back into the leaves.

Sensuality

But alongside the historical-political series, Kollwitz also produced images of startling sensuality. They date from the early 1900s after she had made several trips to Paris and been amazed at the colourfulness and vivacity of its streets and social life as well as its brilliant Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painting. The experience inspired experiments in sensual and also with colour. This female nude is stunning. I found the pinpoint accuracy of the draughtsmanship breathtaking.

Female nude seen from the back with green shawl (1903) by Käthe Kollwitz © The Trustees of the British Museum

Self portraits

Kollwitz made a total of 275 prints, in etching, woodcut and lithography, of which about 50 are self-portraits. The wall labels tell us that she also kept extensive diaries and wrote many letters describing and analysing her own feelings, her art and career.

One wall of the show is devoted to half a dozen or so self-portraits which showcase her tremendous draughtsmanship and accuracy, along with a deep brooding gaze, and the ability to capture mood and personality to a spooky extent. She is as harsh and unforgiving on herself as she is on her grim peasants and mourning mothers. What technique! What a godlike gift for capturing the intensity of the human soul!

Self Portrait (1924) by Käthe Kollwitz © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Great War

Then Europe went to war and her youngest son, Peter, aged 18, volunteered, marched off, and was killed in October 1914. The suffering of poor mothers had been a constant topic of her social-realist work, and – eerily enough – a decade earlier she had created this haunting image of a mother cradling a dead son, for which she had herself modelled, holding the self-same Peter as a seven-year-old boy.

Woman with dead child (1903) by Käthe Kollwitz © The Trustees of the British Museum

In fact the exhibition contains three of the eight working versions of this work, which demonstrate how she created, modelled and evolved her way towards the final image, a fascinating insight into her technique.

The War series – Seven woodcuts, 1922-23

The loss of her son, and the slow strangulation of Germany caused by the Allied blockade, the loss of so many sons and husbands, as well as the gradual impoverishment of the entire nation, burned and purified her art to its essence, resulting in the scathing series of woodcuts she titled simply War.

God! How searing and blistering are her stark woodcut prints of mourning mothers and starving people, carved out of what look like blocks of coal, or ancient fossilised trees, images which reach right down into the roots of the earth, deep into the lineage of human experience.

All the light and shade, the modelling and depth and (sometimes brutal) sensuality of the earlier works has been burnt away in the fires of war. Now Anguish speaks in stark flat images dominated by lignite black, from which lined and haggard faces emerge like nightmares.

Plate 7 The People from the War series (1922) by Käthe Kollwitz © The Trustees of the British Museum

All seven of the War prints are here – The Sacrifice, The Volunteers, The Parents, The Widow I, The Widow II, The Mothers, and The People – ranged along the opening wall, bringing a new visual intensity to her approach.

It’s that emotional intensity and the stark black and white of the images which leads some histories to group her with the German Expressionists, except that the Expressionists were mostly a pre-war movement, and Kollwitz’s pre-war images had been much more smooth and naturalistic, as we have seen.

In fact Kollwitz went on producing work into the 1930s and indeed up till her death, in 1945. Her last great series of prints was the Death cycle of the mid-1930s.

Death Cycle, Eight prints, 1930s

Her last great cycle rotated around the figure of Death and consisted of: Woman Welcoming Death, Death with Girl in Lap, Death Reaches for a Group of Children, Death Struggles with a Woman, Death on the Highway, Death as a Friend, Death in the Water, and The Call of Death.

It marks a return to lithographs, with their ability to give depth and shade, unlike the medieval starkness of the war woodcuts. And also a return of the Neanderthal or simian quality which recurs throughout many of the harsher works, gaunt images of creatures who are barely human, with thick, knotty hands and feet. Big, clunky hands and especially feet, bony feet, huge knuckled feet, used to carrying burdens and long days of physical labour, are a trademark feature of her work, even in so ‘tender’ an image as Woman holding a dead child, the knees and feet are prominent and brutal.

Plate 8 Call of Death from the Death series (1937) by Käthe Kollwitz © The Trustees of the British Museum

This one, Call of Death, reminded me of Holocaust or Gulag or prisoner of war imagery. Homo redux, reduced by the crimes and the atrocities of the twentieth century to a bare minimum, barely human rump. And of the great poem, Death is a Master from Germany, written at the end of the war by Paul Celan.

death is a master from Germany his eyes are blue
he strikes you with leaden bullets his aim is true

Summary

All of the images in this exhibition are brilliant. I honestly can’t think of another exhibition I’ve ever been to where the quality of all the works is so uniformly high. The images of peasants pulling ploughs in muddy, wet fields, with harnesses round their necks are searing.

The barely human, half-apes sharpening their scythes from the Peasants War series are terrifying.

The woodcut she made commemorating the funeral of Communist agitator Karl Liebknecht is a great piece of popular art, albeit in a dubious cause (Liebknecht wanted to bring Leninist rule to Germany, but was murdered by right-wing militias in 1919 during the chaotic street fighting which followed the collapse of the German Empire. Same year Kollwitz was the first woman elected to the Prussian Academy of Arts. In letters she is recorded as explaining she had no sympathy for his cause, but was moved by the huge crowds of working class mourners who attended his funeral, the class she had been depicting for decades.)

Even before the Great War she was a well-established artist in her genre, which was acknowledged by her receiving the position at the Prussian Academy immediately it ended. But between the wars she developed a reputation not only in America (land of the rich collector) but, amazingly, in inter-war China, riven by civil war and Japanese invasions, where her blistering images of the poorest of the poor peasants working the land influenced the Woodcut Movement among socially conscious artists in that vast, peasant-based country. Her Peasants War work was seen by, and directly influenced, the Chinese artist Li Hua, who founded the Modern Woodcut Society at the Guangzhou Art School in 1934.

Struggle (1947) by Li Hua © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Campbell Dodgson collection

Kollwitz made a total of 275 prints, in etching, woodcut and lithography. This exhibition features 48. Why these 48 and no others? Because these prints were collected by Campbell Dodgson, former Keeper of the Department of Prints and Drawings (1893–1932) who then bequeathed them to the British Museum in 1948. Dodgson was influenced by his colleague Max Lehrs of the Dresden and Berlin Print Rooms – Kollwitz’s first and greatest champion – and acquired as many of her works as he could.

And then donated them to the museum. And now all 48 are on display here, along with generous picture captions and labels which give full explanations of her life and work and the motivation and process behind each one of these wonderful works. She is a really great, great artist. This exhibition is FREE. I can’t recommend it too highly.

Death and woman (1910) by Käthe Kollwitz © The Trustees of the British Museum


Related links

Germany between the wars

Art and culture

History

Victorian poverty and violence

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

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

The fall of the Berlin Wall and the historical sense

The World This Week

From 1987 to 1990 I worked on Channel Four’s international current affairs TV programme, The World This Week, initially as a researcher, then an assistant producer, researching and producing discussion items about the end of the Iran-Iraq War, perestroika and glasnost, the Tiananmen Square protests and many more of the major international events of the period. Right at the end of my time there I produced weekly discussion items about Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and then the First Gulf War (August 1990 to February 1991).

I specialised in political events in Asia – from Baghdad to Beijing – so it was my colleagues who covered the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union, but I watched with informed interest, and was occasionally drafted in to help research and produce news and discussion items as events unfolded.

What struck me then, as I watched the wall come down and thousands then hundreds of thousands travel into the West, and has stayed with me ever since, was how, in just a few days, the entire era of the Cold War into which I’d been born and come to political consciousness, was made redundant overnight.

The Cold War atmosphere

My generation had worried about nuclear Armageddon, about the siting of cruise missiles at Greenham Common, about Reagan with his finger on the button. We had protested on behalf of umpteen dissidents in the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc. How we celebrated when the dissident poet Irina Ratushinskaya was allowed to leave for the West, or signed petitions to free Andrei Sakharov. How Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s brave example shone to us like a beacon of integrity.

Suddenly, at a stroke, that entire world with all its braveries and defiances, vanished. Suddenly, they in the East could travel over here and/or enjoy Western freedoms and lifestyles to their heart’s content. And they did. Cars, TVs, fridges, rock music, drugs and prostitution flourished. Within a month MacDonalds had opened branches in Moscow and had plans for all the other capitals of Eastern Europe. Mediterranean beaches were suddenly packed with newly rich Russians, covered in bling, trophy wives on their arms, arriving on vast super-yachts as vulgar as any Greek millionaire’s.

The Cold War made stars of dissidents

The cruel oppressions of the communist system had given its writers and artists a peculiar prominence. The best of them could hardly help becoming involved in human rights movements or writing poems and plays and novels which dealt with Weighty Issues of Freedom and Human Dignity. For us in the West, they were not only Nobel-Prize-winning symbols of protest, but their writings had a Seriousness and Weightiness unavailable to us in the West, who were drowning in the thousand lifestyle choices of consumer capitalism. While we lay on some Greek beach worrying about our tans, Václav Havel or Andrei Sakharov were defending Human Dignity.

But when the wall came down, at a stroke ‘they’ turned into ‘us’ – just more people adrift in the vast lifestyle choices of consumer capitalism. The privileged platforms they’d enjoyed by virtue of their persecution evaporated. They stopped being Representatives of their Oppressed People, and turned into old bores.

The fall of Solzhenitsyn

This had all been anticipated in the fate of Solzhenitsyn, who was the Nelson Mandela of his day, a world-bestriding symbol of One Man Standing Up To Tyranny. Except that when he was booted out of the Soviet Union in 1974, and arrived in leafy Vermont, he turned out to be far from the enlightened progressive his Western supporters had hoped for. He turned out to be a deeply conservative Russian nationalist, of a rather scary kind. He turned out to be a grumpy old man who hated mini-skirts and pop music and fast food and 24-hour TV, loathed it, despised everything the West had to offer, and wanted to be left alone in his remote forest to get on with writing his multi-volume epic about the Russian Revolution.

So when the Berlin Wall came down, I realised the entire political structure I had been brought up in was disappearing before my eyes. In a generation’s time every book produced between 1917 and 1989 was going to require footnotes or an introduction explaining what the Cold War was, why there had been this permanent looming sense of fear about nuclear Armageddon, why the fear of your country turning into a police state was no empty rhetoric because there were police states just a few hundred miles away, and who these heroes from the East were. All of it would rapidly stop making any sense, meaning anything or, ultimately, mattering…

The indifference of children

And I was right. My children (born 1997 and 2000) have no idea what I’m on about, no sense of what communism really meant, no sense of how creepy and numbing a real surveillance society really was, no sense of what human rights mean.

It isn’t even ancient history to them – that would imply that it means something, they learned it at school maybe, and all it needs is a bit of digging up and refreshing. It’s worse than that. It just doesn’t exist for them. It’s nothing. The history and politics and endless arguments about communism, socialism and capitalism which I engaged with throughout school and university, which won me awards for political essays or debating society prizes – it’s all gone, vanished as if it never was.

When I reread Solzhenitsyn or Kundera it is like revisiting the lost world of my childhood, the houses where I grew up and which have been demolished to make way for estates or blocks of flats, the grammar school which became a comprehensive and then an academy, where everyone who taught me is long retired or dead.

And I feel like my entire past has disappeared, has turned to smoke and been blown away, and that I am a ghost, still applying the old categories – communism, capitalism, police state, human rights, dissident – to a world which has moved on. I feel like I have been run over by History.

How history works

Maybe that sounds too dramatic. Maybe it’s more accurate to say, that now I feel I know how History works. It confirms something I’d observed before, in other contexts – that old political or cultural or philosophical ideas are rarely decisively disproved – they just become irrelevant to the needs of contemporary society and so disappear from sight.

The student in Foyles

Decades ago, around 2000, I had a project to reread the French theorists of the 1960s and 70s. I ploughed through all of Roland Barthes, tried some Deleuze and Guattari, struggled with Jacques Derrida. I was in Foyles bookshop in London which was still, in those days, a disorganised rabbit warren staffed by poor students, and I came across a typically hairy, bearded student supervising the POLITICAL THEORY section and I asked him if they had any books by Louis Althusser, the notorious French Marxist philosopher. And he replied: ‘Why do you want to read him? He’s just a boring old Marxist,’ – which obviously wasn’t any kind of intellectual rebuttal of Althusser’s elaborate structuralist rereadings of Marx but which made an eloquent point. Old political and philosophical theories are rarely disproved or rebutted; they just become unfashionable, and then irrelevant, and then are forgotten. Until, decades, or sometimes centuries later, when they may be rediscovered and revived, given a shower, a shave and presented in a new suit, if some or other aspect of them seems, now, to address current concerns.

The past is an antique shop

The past – the intellectual and cultural past – is like a vast antique shop, an enormous old curiosity shop, in which hundreds of thousands of obsessives and collectors are rummaging through vast piles of dusty rubbish. In among all the tat and kitsch, and broken furniture, you occasionally find real gems, treasures which suddenly spring to life and explain current problems or anxieties. No-one can predict how or why.

I remember when the writings of Solzhenitsyn and Havel and Kundera were telling us urgent truths about our present. Then all of a sudden they became irrelevant. What help could Charter 77 or Solidarity or Ivan Denisovich give us in a world where state monopolies were sold off to a new class of post-communist oligarchs, where East European mafias established networks of people and drug smuggling across Europe, and where the Eastern nations became prone, not to left-wing tyranny but to the right-wing nationalism which has become more and more powerful?

None. Their individual bravery may remain inspiring. And their writings have historical interest and, in the case of the best literary writing, enduring beauty i.e. psychological penetration and beauty of composition and shape.

But even as I watched the joyful crowds smash down the Berlin Wall with hammers and then with big industrial diggers, I knew I was watching the destruction of an entire mindset, and entire culture, an era of cultural history, and that at the same time as opening up political and economic freedoms from hundreds of millions of oppressed people, it was also demolishing the framework which gave meaning and urgency to so many of the books and films and conversations of my youth, and not only mine – of hundreds of millions of other people. All those urgent thoughts and discussions became ashes overnight.

And then those ashes became invisible, and my children don’t even know they’re there. And that is how History works. By the obliteration of the past.

What historians miss about the past

Officials paid by the state or, at one remove, by universities, are continually categorising and measuring and recording events political and cultural. They create headings and sub-headings as in a thousand official documents and PowerPoint slides and web pages. Anyone can google ‘Berlin Wall’ and read all the facts.

But the atmosphere, the mood, how it felt, the pressure of ideas and issues as presented day-in, day out by TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, books and films and conversations with friends (and enemies) and as they bore down on all of us – the real lived experience, of the external world and inside our imaginations – that is what has been lost, that is what is gone for good, that is what no amount of introductions and footnotes and scholarly exegesis can ever recover.

The historical sense

And it is an understanding of this sense – this sense of how events create a mental atmosphere which bears down on everyone living at a particular time – which I try to reconstruct, which I try to understad, which I try to feel, in my own reading of history.

Understanding that people did not act in 1939 or 1918 or 1870 or 1848 or 1789, with our sense of priorities and rights and expectations, and certainly with no knowledge of what the future held. They acted in the light of the imaginative and cultural atmosphere which made up their entire world.

And I think the true historical sense is the ability to feel your way back into those mindsets or moods or atmospheres, and try to understand what they felt to be at stake. Not what we, now, know to have been at stake. And above all, not to judge them by what we pride ourselves on being our own vastly superior liberal progressive politically correct views.

Back then, there, in Rome in 44 BC, what was at stake when the conspirators decided to assassinate Julius Caesar? What was it that forced some of them to do it, against their wills? What were the forces bigger than their individual lives which they thought were compelling them?

What mattered most to rulers who organised the first crusade? What forces were they struggling to master, what goals were they striving to achieve? What cultural and religious and political assumptions did they all share – assumptions and values which have since evaporated and are so hard to recapture and re-imagine.

Maybe what I’m trying to say is that, having lived through the utter evaporation of a huge, global, political and cultural mindset – and appreciating it for what it was – has helped me understand how quickly and how totally other mindsets have a) dominated their age, to the suppression of all other possibilities – and then b) suddenly evaporated overnight, leaving the survivors blinking in amazement.

The collapse of the English Republic

Something very similar must have happened with the swift collapse of the English Republic after Oliver Cromwell died in 1658. A series of events was set in motion which gathered speed till nobody felt in control – his son Richard succeeded to the role of Protector, prompting rebel groups to rise up, while political factions began conspiring with renewed hope for the return of the king. Political chaos at the centre (London) led General Monck, head of the Parliamentarian army in Scotland, to march south in order to restore order and issue an invitation to Charles II to return. And within a few months Charles was back, marching triumphantly from Dover to London. The monarchy, the House of Lords and the Bishops were all restored, amid scenes of rejoicing and jubilation. Just like the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The Puritans, the Roundheads, the revolutionaries, must have looked on not just in horror but in bewilderment. The enormous cause, justified by God, to which they had devoted their lives, for which they had fought two English civil wars and countless campaigns in Ireland and Wales, had not just been defeated, it had evaporated almost overnight.

Die-hards lingered on, and the consequences of the revolution played out in unexpected ways for the next thirty years or so, but the core of the Good Old Cause disappeared like dew in the sunshine, and their children grew up without a clue what their parents got together to furtively discuss late into the night – the tribulations of the 1620s, and Charles I’s suspension of Parliament, and the arguments over Ship Money, and the heroism of John Hampden blah blah blah.

The whirligig of time

All swept away in the whirligig of time, overnight shunted off to become part of the vast Curiosity Shop of History, where antiquarians and collectors of curios get on with their quiet fossicking, harmless rummagers, not bothering anyone, until, now and then, some previously neglected part of the past, some gem from its vast array of ideas and theories, once again becomes useful, is dusted off and presented to the world to help explain this or that contemporary issue and anxiety, becomes part of the living fabric of contemporary debate and imagination.


P.S. Milan Kundera on the withering of communism

After writing the above I came across this passage in Milan Kundera’s novel, Ignorance:

Josef recalled a very old idea of his, which at the time he had considered to be blasphemous: that adherence to Communism had nothing to do with Marx and his theories; it was simply that the period gave people a way to fulfil the most diverse psychological needs: the need to be non-conformist; or the need to obey; or the need to punish the wicked; or the need to be useful; or the need to march forward into the future with youth; or the need to have a big family around you.

In good spirits, the dog barked and Josef said to himself: the reason people are quitting Communism today is not that their thinking has changed or undergone a shock, but that Communism no longer provides a way to look nonconformist or obey or punish the wicked or be useful or march forward with youth or have a big family around you. The Communist creed no longer answers any need. It has become so unusable that everyone drops it easily, never even noticing.
(Ignorance by Milan Kundera, page 154)

Life Is Elsewhere by Milan Kundera (1969)

And all the secrets we discovered were
Extraordinary and false
(from August for the people by W.H. Auden)

Kundera’s second novel, Life is Elsewhere, is – at least to begin with – a bit of a disappointment after the pyrotechnics of his first, The Joke. The former book was packed with sophisticated ironic effects by virtue of being told by half a dozen narrators who all had different perspectives on the central event. If nothing else, this made for a dynamic reading experience, as the reader was often ahead of various characters in understanding what was going on, or was enabled to assemble the ‘meanings’ of various events from multiple points of view – the cumulative effect being to produce a narrative not only of events, but of what those events ‘meant’, how the meaning of the events was continually changing and, by implication, a sustained meditation on the meaning of ‘meaning’.

Life is Elsewhere is much more traditional and boring in this respect, being told by one, omniscient narrator who has a rather smothering claustrophobic presence. And the story itself takes the time-honoured shape of the Bildungsroman, a straightforward, linear description of the ‘psychological and moral growth’ of a central character.

So there’s only one central character. And we are told his story in chronological order.

The character in question is a fictional poet, who Kundera names Jaromil. We are told how his parents met and married, how he was conceived, and his precocious way with words when still a toddler. This is all set in the early 1930s, not very distant from Kundera’s own birth year of 1929. Jaromil is the apple of his mother’s eye. She makes posters of his childish sayings and hangs them on the wall of the room he is given when still a boy. And he himself shows a precocious ability at drawing although, for some reason, he gives all his human figures dogs heads – a childish eccentricity.

Then, suddenly, it is 1938 and France and Britain hand over the Sudetenland to Germany without a fight. A year later German troops are in Prague, and then the Nazis start rounding up students, communists, socialists and shipping them off to concentration camps. We are told about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi Stellvertretender Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia, in June 1942 and the ferocious reprisals the Nazis carried out.

But Jaromil and his Mother are too young to be caught up in all this and go to a spa, where they meet an artist who gives a professional opinion on the young boy’s youthful drawings.

The novel is 300 pages long and feels long. But what struck me is its fairy tale quality, the feel of a fable. In the real world, work and the hassles of parenthood fill up time with a never-ending sequence of harassing demands. Whereas a fiction like this is able to alight on certain key moments – the moment of Jaromil’s conception, the moment his mother begged his father to inseminate her once again so she could have a baby girl, but the father withdrew and curtly announced he wanted no more children.

These are talismanic moments, selected like the ones in a fairy tale because they are key to the overall fable, while all else is rejected.

We selected this episode out of dozens in order to show that the pinnacle of happiness Jaromil had experienced up to this point in his life was having a girl’s head on his shoulder. (p.110)

It comes as no surprise, when Jaromil and Maman arrive at the spa that they find it in a beautiful rural setting, so much so that it appears to young Jaromil to be ‘a fairy-tale world’ (p.29), in fact, once I’d noticed it, I realised that a succession of milieu through which Jaromil moves are described as magical or fairy tale.

  • Through the magic of poetry (which is the magic of inexperience)… (p.111)
  • A poem is a magical land where rivers change their course. (p.194)
  • ‘The magical thing about it is, ‘continued Jaromil… (p.196)
  • Tears signified to him a magic elixir… (p.257)
  • Through the magic of poetry all things become the truth… (p.271)
  • It seemed to him that the magic moment was returning, the magic evening when he had sat in her room and they had had eyes only for each other… (p.293)

His nursery. His infant school playground. The spa. The artist’s studio. All these settings are just so, just exactly the ones required to tell a story like this, of the psychological and spiritual evolution of a sensitive soul. Moments are selected like jewels, spangling against the grey cloth of the everyday, and presented for the reader’s delectation, along with authorial commentary.

Maman ends up having an affair with the artist – that’s to say he successfully seduces her, and then submits her to an interesting, amusing and erotic series of transformations. He doesn’t just paint or draw her, he paints on her, stripping her and decorating her body with modernist lines, and then taking photographs of her. Then making passionate love to her. Pages are taken up with Maman’s bewildered reflections on these events.

Meanwhile, Jaromil hits an early puberty and begins to fantasise about the body of the family’s maid, Magda. There is an extended, mildly comical account of one night at home, when his parents have gone out, and he knows Magda is taking her evening bath, and Kundera describes the more and more contorted pretexts Jaromil tries to contrive to enable him to walk breezily into the bathroom, see the maid’s naked body, and walk out again. But he fails to carry them through. He is too shy.

Xavier

Part two of the book, commencing on page 65, is titled Xavier and is deeply confusing. A young man bursts through a woman’s window and reassures her that he means no harm, but at that moment her husband lumbers upstairs towards the bedroom, so the young man hides under the bed, the big husband carries the woman to the bed, the young man sneezes, the big husband hears and goes to the wardrobe to see if a man is hiding there, the young man bursts out from under the bed and pushes the husband into the wardrobe and locks it, and grabs the young woman and takes her on an adventure, he wakes up in another room and…

And so, slowly and confusedly, we realise the entire section is made up of the never-ending adventure of this character, Xavier, who goes from one half-fulfilled dream to another, repeating the same general contours of adventure and excitement and rescuing young damsels against an ever-changing backdrop.

It’s only well after the section has concluded, back in a section about Jaromil, that we discover the by-now teenage poet invented a character named Xavier and wrote down his poetic adventures. So what we have just read is a version of Jaromil’s journal. OK. It was bewildering and left-field when it first appeared…

Other lyric poets

When we return to Jaromil’s story it is to discover that his father is arrested and executed by the Nazis just before the end of the war. But the real innovation in this section, something which dogs the rest of the story is the appearance alongside Jaromil, of a shopping list of the greatest lyric poets from the entire European tradition.

The narrator makes explicit comparisons between Jaromil’s background, upbringing, family situation, early life experiences and shows how closely they mirror those of the great lyric poets such as the Czechs Frantisak Halas and Jiri Wolker, the Germans Rilke and Hölderlin, the Russians Esenin, Mayakovsky, Blok and Pushkin, the Englishman Shelley, the Frenchmen Baudelaire and de Nerval, but most of all  the French boy wonder poet, Rimbaud, and the short and easily offended Russian poet, Lermontov.

(It is Rimbaud who gives the book its title, a quote from one of the prose poems he wrote in a storm of creativity when he was just 17: La vrai vie est absente – the real life or just ‘real life’ is absent. I wonder why Kundera shortened this to ‘life’ is absent.)

These other lyric poets start out as comparators for Jaromil, but quite soon they start to take over the text. I mean that, after many sections describing this or that about Jaromil, a new section will set off describing ‘him’ and you have to have your wits about you to realise it’s now describing an event in the life of Rimbaud or Lermontov. More and more their names are scattered across the text as Kundera uses the events in  Jaromil’s fictional life to bring out the resemblances between the lyric poets – Baudelaire, aged 40 and still scared of his mother, de Nerval mesmerised by the mother who died when he was a boy, and so on…

Jaromil, we come to realise, is not-that-subtly being presented as a type, as a category of European thought. The Lyric Poet. And the essence of the Lyric Poet (in Kundera’s view) is that he is an immature mummy’s boy.

  • The lyric poet spends a lifetime searching for signs of manhood in his face. (p.97)
  • Tenderness is the fear of maturity. (p.112)

Jaromil wants to be a man, a real man. He wants to possess a woman, many women. He wants to write great poetry, he wants to be accepted by the other poets.

In the last third of the book Jaromil is a young man and is introduced to writers and poets through the artist, the one he had the lucky meeting with at the spa when he was a boy, the one he went to for art lessons, the one who seduced, stripped, painted and photographed his mother (in what are, arguably, the book’s most memorable scenes).

The poets meet upstairs in a pub, argue and get drunk a lot. The format of their arguments is uncannily like the format of the rhetorical questions the narrator asks all through the text: is Surrealism a revolutionary movement? Can poetry help build the new socialist society? And so on.

On the periphery of the poets he meets a sweet and soulful young woman. But she is as innocent and virginal as Jaromil and many pages are spent describing their painful and embarrassing fumbles. These are counterpointed with his now-adult encounters with the artist, and his bohemian coterie, who Jaromil shocks with the vehemence of his revolutionary nihilism, and with the arguments of the established, published poets, who grumble on during the era of the 1948 Communist coup and beyond, endlessly nagging at what kind of poetry is revolutionary, whether it’s kitsch rhymes for the masses, or the hyper-modern Russian avant-garde style poetry which rejects all the old bourgeois forms.


Kundera the narrator

A highly intrusive narrator

Kundera’s narrator doesn’t just intrude a bit on the story: he selects, presents and displays events for our delectation. He whips the text up out of nothing. He is an impresario of the text.

The most obvious symptom of this is his use of rhetorical questions to set up each new section or scene, a tactic which is present from the very first sentence of the book.

Exactly when and where was the poet conceived? (First sentence, page one)

and litters the text thereafter:

  • And what about her son’s soul?
  • But why did Jaromil continue to be an only child? (p.24)
  • And how did Jaromil fare with his unique inner world? (p.33)
  • Was she thus telling him the real truth at last? (p.54)
  • For Jaromil it [the concept of death] was infinitely far away; it was abstract; it was not reality, but a dream. What was he seeking in that dream? (p.104)
  • What was the source of her sorrows? Who knows… (p.143)
  • If Jaromil had become a zealous functionary, whose work affected the fate of adults, can we still maintain that he was on the run? (p.163)

All these rhetorical questions are a bit reminiscent of a certain type of academic presentation, of a lecture, reminding us that Kundera was indeed a professor of literature for many years (1952-75). They cut to the chase. They eliminate the need for hundreds of sentences setting up a location and a time of day, and a place wherein a great spiritual turning point is going to happen. No, Kundera can simply ask, ‘And how did Jaromil fare with his unique inner world?’ and then get on with answering his own question.

Not having to paint in any kind of background or set any scenes liberates Kundera to get right to the psychological point he wants to make about his characters. It makes the text very cost-effective.

The royal ‘we’

Related to this is the way Kundera he freely uses the royal ‘we’, the authorial ‘we’, to establish his own narratorial omniscience, and to forge a knowing acquaintance with the reader, the ‘we’ coercing us to acknowledge shared assumptions and experiences. The rhetorical questions are often answered by the authorial ‘we’. Why was Jaromil unpopular at school?

  • We are almost embarrassed to say: it was not wealth, it was mother love (p.20)
  • We don’t know why she laughed. [the young woman Jaromil was feebly trying to make love to] (p.133)
  • If we were to ask Jaromil how old the two characters were [in a long poem he’s just written] he’d stammer in embarrassment… (p.138)

And

  • Other [pictures] of certain scenes which we had better pass over. (p.36)
  • We don’t wish to imply that Jaromil was not interested in bodily beauty. (p.110)

Which is related to the use of the phrase ‘let us’, in the sense of ‘let us explore this moment  / word / event a little further’, which also brings out a strong scholarly, academic tone of the narrator.

  • He was one of the elect. Let us examine this word a little closer. (p.99)
  • Ah, let us mercifully skip over some fifteen or twenty minutes of Jaromil’s torment. [he is trying to undress a young woman who is refusing to help] (p.132)
  • Let’s keep Jaromil’s picture before us a while longer. (p.219)
  • Let us also recall the historical context… (p.230)
  • Let us leave our novel for a little while, let us carry our observatory to the end of Jaromil’s life… (p.271)

This ‘we’ is not embarrassed about picking up the narrative, fiddling with it, and plonking it back down right where he wants it.

  • At the end of the last section we left Jaromil in the redhead’s bed. (p.186)
  • Do you hear the distant sound of Death, impatiently stamping its feet? Let it wait, we are still here in the flat, in another novel, in another story… (p.286)

Analysis and italics

Kundera is the kind of author – or thinker about his stories and characters – who is continually analysing their every thought and gesture and turn of mind and habits. One tell-tale sign of this is his use of italics. He is keen not just to explain what they’re thinking or doing, but to delve ever deeper, to really dig down into their psychological sub-strata. In doing so he is keen to clarify the ideas and motivations of the characters he has invented and displayed for our entertainment. And to do this he often finds himself writing like an expository writer, rather like the new theory French writers of the 1960s, who felt compelled to show where they’d revealed a new depth of analysis, by writing it in italics.


The plot part two – History intrudes

I enjoyed the second half of the book more because it moves away from the cloyingly claustrophobic relationship between mother and son which dominates the first half, and focuses increasingly on politics and the tragic political, social and personal consequences of the Communist takeover of power.

Kundera has by now established that all the great mummy’s boy lyric poets were enraptured by the idea of Death and ran off to be soldiers with no idea of the reality – from Shelley travelling to Dublin with pockets stuffed with incendiary pamphlets designed to spark an insurrection (p.175), to Lermontov, a sickly misfit who insisted on joining the Russian army and died in a pointless duel, from Rimbaud who fantasised about manning the barricades during the Paris Commune of 1870 (but was too young) and who instead terminated his precocious poetic career by going off to become a gun-runner in Africa, to Byron who fantasised about joining the great Pan-Hellenic Fight For Freedom, but ended up dying of a mosquito bite in Missolonghi. They were sickly and died pathetically young, like John Keats coughing his lungs up in Rome.

All mother’s boys, all struggling to escape the apron strings, and above all, to prove themselves real men. Kundera throws in withering comparisons with the students of his day – 1948 in Prague – and at the time he was writing the novel – 1968 in Paris – who wrote lyrical slogans all over the walls, calling for a new world, revolution and overthrow.

Slowly we realise what form this wish – the primal wish of the lyric poet to hurl himself into a Cause, to run towards battle and engage with the real world and wrestle with death and stop being a mummy’s boy and become a Real Man – will take for Jaromil.

In the context of the Communist takeover of power in Czechoslovakia, it means he wilfully becomes hard-hearted, he joins the young zealots, he publicly derides the art and poetry of his mentor, the old artist. He derides his own earlier poetry. He quotes the Soviet poet Mayakvsky, who said he stamped on the throat of his own, earlier, bourgeois poetry. Jaromil writes Stalinist poems for workers.

And now Kundera skillfully uses the interplay he’s created between his fictional poet and the real-life poets and the events of 20 years later – 1968 – to begin to scathingly criticise the unthinking, stone-faced, hard-hearted zealotry of the young. For:

Revolutions are lyrical and in need of lyricism. (p.193)

Counter-intuitively, and to the reader’s great surprise, it turns out that the entire book is going to be a condemnation of lyric poetry and of the role it plays in revolutions; is devoted to showing the linkage between the immature absolutism at the heart of revolutions and of youthful lyricism. The way both are totalising, both want to overthrow the complex messy real world, and create a new one of compulsory beauty and harmony and order.

Kundera dissects the psychology behind the lyric impulse: Unable to confront the complexity of adult life, the lyric poets create an alternative world, beautiful and perfect and utterly unreal.

This is the basic situation of immaturity. The lyrical approach is one way of dealing with this situation: the person banished from the safe enclosure of childhood longs to go out into the world, but because he is afraid of it he constructs an artificial, substitute world of verse… He becomes the centre of a small universe in which nothing is alien, in which he feels as much at home as an infant inside its mother… (p.219)

The rousing slogans Jaromil finds himself called upon to create for revolutionary youths marching in the streets of Prague in 1948, are identical to the ones the zealous French students of 1968 will paint all over the walls of the Sorbonne (p.172) calling for the complete overthrow of the existing order and the installation of something which is only a dream and a fantasy, slogans like:

  • Beneath the pavement, the beach!
  • Be realistic – demand the impossible!

In everything I’ve read about the Paris évènements (simply the French word for ‘events’) of 1968, in every documentary, every film, and every art exhibition I’ve seen which references them — the presenters, producers and curators are one hundred per cent behind the students and nostalgic that they themselves weren’t there during this heady lyrical revolutionary time!

It is a bracing surprise and antidote to come across a noted and world famous liberal’ author – who is wholeheartedly against the students and their high-minded slogans, and has gone to such trouble to create such an extended and scathing indictment of the youthful, revolutionary, lyric impulse as an entity.

In amidst the confusion of the 1948 coup and its aftermath, Jaromil has dumped the frigid girlfriend, but then wasted a huge amount of time fixating on a pretty blonde shop assistant from a department store. He tails her everywhere like a useless puppy, and, back in his bedroom, masturbates continually as he imagines finally losing his virginity to her. One evening he is waiting at the department store when her not-so-pretty red-headed friend exits and, before he can bolt, she walks right up to him. She claims to know that he has a crush on her. She’s noticed him looking at her in the shop. She’s noticed him hanging round the shop every evening. On one notable occasion Jaromil had followed the blonde home to her apartment and hung around in the street hoping to catch a glimpse of her – only to see the red-head at the window. And she saw him!

Of course she has utterly misinterpreted the situation when she thinks Jaromil carries a torch for her, but Jaromil is too terrified to put her right.

They walk and before he knows it are kissing, she invites him up to her place and he is about to go through the usual existential agonies when she simply puts her hands between his legs and touches his penis. Which is rock hard. The rest follows like clockwork. Afterwards, as they lie in bed, she asks how many women he’s had and our lyric poet smirks and remains mysteriously silent. The reader laughs because we know the answer is ‘None’ and that he has just lost his virginity.

But, as is always the way with Kundera characters, with Kundera men, as soon as Jaromil has acquired a basic fluency at sex (and above all mastered the technique of undressing a woman, something which has caused him agonies of embarrassment throughout his adolescence) he becomes dissatisfied with the redhead. She natters on all the time. Especially about her family.

The janitor’s son

At school Jaromil had been picked on as a weakling and had formed only one friendship, with the janitor’s son. Now, years later, the janitor has risen to become a senior policeman. He makes a friendly call on Jaromil’s mum, leaves an invitation. So Jaromil goes round to the big building of National Security, signs in his name, and is met by the janitor’s son. (I don’t think we ever learn his name. He is always referred to simply as the janitor’s son, presumably to keep ever-present in our minds the way he, too, is taking revenge for having been an outsider and bullied at school.)

They settle into his office and the man swanks about his heavy responsibilities and the challenge the police face in these difficult times, rounding up enemies of the revolution.

Kundera emphasises that Jaromil, living in a lifelong bubble of mummy’s love, is blissfully unaware that tens of thousands of his fellow Czechs have been arrested, many of them tortured, some of them executed, all on trumped-up charges. All Jaromil sees is the janitor’s son’s manliness. He is a real man. He has manly responsibilities. He has a gun strapped to his belt. This is the real life Jaromil’s been seeking all his years. The Real Life that Shelley and Rimbaud and Lermontov were ever-seeking. A life of Action and Responsibility.

And thrown into the mix, is the long long long, very long list of humiliations public and private which Jaromil has lived through and the book has described, from being bullied at school, to not knowing how to take a girl’s bra off, from being ridiculed in assemblies of mature poets and authors, to being mocked by editors and publishers for being one more among thousands of aspiring poets, and – in a tragi-comic scene towards the end of the novel – being forced to turn down the offer of sleeping with a beautiful woman film-maker because he is crushingly conscious that he is wearing the big grey flannel pants which his mother still lays out for him every morning, as if he were still a schoolboy!

The zealot, Kundera suggests, is overflowing with a thirst for revenge. But not the wide-minded, imaginative revenge which helps to usher in a New World. Just revenge. Just punishment. Just the ability to threaten, intimidate, bully, arrest and, if necessary, torture all those who mocked and persecuted him when he was a boy.

The revolution hands over the running of society to small-minded bullies.

The betrayal

Jaromil is invited to an evening of poetry at a police academy in the countryside arranged by his friend the janitor’s son. Improbably, he is a fan of Jaromil’s Stalinist poetry. A dozen poets attend and Jaromil finds himself drawn into the intense question and answer session which follows the recitals. At the front of the audience is a stunningly gorgeous woman who keeps looking at him. The last stretch of the novel is characterised by Jaromil’s hapless attempts to sleep with her. On the occasion referred to above she invites him up to her apartment but at the last minute he is embarrassed at the thought of his big grey pants. Then he is invited to take part in a film, where he is taken to some country location and asked to recite his poems amid bucolic scenery. But Jaromil is so terrified of her and of the whole situation that he forgets the words to his own poems and, while the whole crew mocks him, is eventually ordered just to stand dumbly opening and closing his mouth while the director assures him they’ll dub the poems on later. Humiliation.

It is in this mood of maximum frustration and humiliation that the tragedy occurs. The redhead is late for their next meeting and Jaromil flies into a fury. She at first says she had to stay late to comfort a colleague who’s having trouble in love. Jaromil is even more angry that some shopgirl comes before his feelings, so the redhead quickly retraces her steps and says she is in fact late because she was saying a final goodbye to her brother (the one she once shared a room with, to Jaromil’s intense immature jealousy, and who she’s always wittering about).

Now she tells him that her brother is planning to flee the country illegally the next day. This triggers a tremendous argument in which Jaromil says how can she be such a traitor – she should have told him the truth straightaway – she doesn’t really love him if she’s prepared to lie to him. He reduces the woman to tears, which (obnoxiously) he finds magical and soothing.

By this stage, I think we are safe in concluding that Jaromil is a thorough-going sneak and bastard.

Next day he dresses smartly and goes to see his friend the janitor’s son at the building of National Security, looking across the table at him ‘as one tough-minded adult faces another; equal to equal; man to man.’ And he calmly betrays his girlfriend and her brother to the security police. The janitor’s son calls in other officials. They take down the girlfriend and her brother’s names and details. Jaromil feels like he is in the real world now, this is Real Life. Jaromil leaves the building feeling Big and Full of Destiny.

He goes home and tries to write a poem but then gets restless and takes a tram to the redhead’s apartment and is surprised to see two men waiting outside it. He hides. When she turns up around 6pm, from work, the two men approach her, they talk for a moment, then they take her to a waiting car and drive off. He goes home troubled. Next morning he goes to see the janitor’s son who thanks him profusely for his prompt and patriotic action, and sends him off with a pat on the back. For the last few pages of this section Kundera shows us the inner workings as the despicable Jaromil decides that the sacrifice of one skinny freckled red-haired girl is well worth it in order to create a better future, a perfect future, in which politics and love will be identical and everyone will do the right thing.

The red-headed girl

The penultimate section up sticks and shifts perspective to years later, telling what happened next.

The redheaded girl was locked up in prison for three years. In this short epilogue, upon release from prison she goes to the train station to take a train to her home town but then hesitates… and decides instead to go to the apartment of… her older lover. He is forty. They met when she was seventeen, erotically talented and eager to please an older man. Not only herself, but she organised some straight and some lesbian orgies for his pleasure. Then she met and fell in love with a young poet, obviously Jaromil, though he goes unnamed.

The older man was happy; he didn’t want any of his mistresses becoming too dependent on him. He guided her through their courtship, gave her advice, and kept the poems Jaromil wrote her, though he despised them.

Then one evening she came to tell him she was leaving him, that she really loved the young poet and was going to dedicate her life to his. She was late leaving and late arriving for her date with the poet. He was cross. She made up an excuse about a colleague at work and when that didn’t wash, invented a story about her older brother preparing to flee the country. She had no inkling that the poet would report her and her brother to the police, or that she’d be arrested, or sentenced to prison.

Now the older man tells her that the poet died soon afterwards. He just got ill and died, nothing dramatic or lyrical. His mother moved away. Nobody remembers him anymore.

The redhead turns away: even her plans to cold shoulder and ignore the poet have come to nothing. It was all a meaningless nightmare. For nothing.

And suddenly the older man realises why she hesitated at the train station about whether to go straight home, and then… and decided to come and see him first. Her brother, totally innocent, was also arrested. She thinks he is still in prison somewhere. So that when she finally faces her family, how will they believe that it was not her who betrayed him and destroyed their family, but some unknown young man who isn’t even alive any more?

Overcome with pity, the man stretches out her hand to touch her cheek… and she bursts into tears.

For me, these last fifteen or so pages were better than all the rest of the novel put together. Jaromil is a vile creature and creates a slow-building sense of contempt and anger. And somehow, intertwined with this, is all the tricksiness of Kundera’s narratorial devices and conceits, the transposition of eras and the merging of Jaromil’s story with episodes from all the other lyric poets of the European tradition. Very clever.

Whereas this short section feels like a straightforward account of a terrible event. Most of Kundera’s stories are cerebral, detached, witty and paradoxical. They prompt admiration. But this tragic epilogue, like the coalmining scenes in The Joke, convey you to a genuine time and place in history where life was terrible, and so have real emotional depth.

The final end

In the short final passage we learn how Jaromil died. He was not yet 20. He is invited to a party at the film director’s. It is full of literati and artists. One of them, a big bluff fellow, confronts Jaromil and asks him if he knows what’s happened to the old artist, the one we saw spot Jaromil’s talent at the spa and then paint his mother? He was declared a a bourgeois enemy of the people, deprived of his studio and paints, and forced to work on a building site. Unlike Jaromil, who has become a Stalinist lickspittle. Jaromil takes a feeble mummy’s boy swipe at the big man, who grabs his arm, turns him round, picks him up by the collar and seat of his pants, and throws him out into the freezing cold (it is a Christmas party).

Absolutely humiliated, and without his coat or jacket, Jaromil can’t leave and travel across town, but he is too frightened to go back into the party, not for hours, not until the last guest has left. By that stage he is shivering uncontrollably. He tiptoes in, collects his jacket and coat and staggers home where he takes to his bed, hallucinates a bit, looked after and tended, as always, by his loyal dutiful Maman. And dies.

Concluding thought

What actually remains of that distant time? Today, people regard those days as an era of political trials, persecutions, forbidden books, and legalised murder. But we who remember must bear witness: it was not only an epoch of terror, but also an epoch of lyricism, ruled hand in hand by the hangman and the poet. (p.270)

This is a complicated thesis, and the book presents a complex case: it seems to be arguing that youth, and the vigour and idealism of youth, and its partner – wonderful, boundless, inspiring passionate lyrical poetry – are all intimately tied in with the crushing annihilating force of the police state which is always unleashed by revolutions: in France, in Russia, in Iran, in the Arab Springs – the intoxicating, life-affirming springtime of peoples is always followed by mass imprisonment and the zealous repression of anything and anyone who doesn’t conform to the revolutionaries’ impossibly other-worldly and lyrical ideas.

Thus this long densely argued book conveys a bleak lesson, but one which Kundera himself lived through, so his testimony carries weight.

Enough weight to overthrow the prejudices and conventions most of us have accepted most of our lives, that lyric poetry is inspiring and uplifting?

Maybe not to overthrow it… but certainly to trouble it.


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

The Penguin History of Latin America by Edwin Williamson (revised edition 2009) (1)

Because it comes with the bright orange and white spine of the new-style Penguin histories, and because it said ‘New Edition’ on the front cover, I hadn’t quite grasped that the main body of this hefty 700-page history of Latin America was completed by 1990. The new edition is ‘new’ because it adds a 40-page chapter at the end, summarising events in Latin America between 1990 and 2008.

The text is divided into three big parts:

  • The Age of Empire pp. 3-192 (189 pages)
  • The Challenge of the Modern World pp. 195-310 (115 pages)
  • The Twentieth Century pp. 313-566 (253 pages)

Note how the section on the 20th century, plus the forty pages of the ‘new’ chapter, is as long as the first two parts put together. Here, as everywhere, the more recent the history, the more of it there is, the more people there have been (the higher the population) and the more records have been kept, until we reach the present age where every phone call, every text and every photograph anyone in the world takes is recorded and stored.

Conquest of the Aztecs and Incas

Williamson dives right in with the early, legendary history of the Aztecs, when they were a group of nomads traipsing round central Mexico, before they established the largest empire in pre-Colombian America around 1400. Their only rival was the Inca Empire, down in modern-day Peru.

There is, of course, a lot to say about both, but the thing that struck me was the way both of them were empires carved out by one particular tribe or ethnic group which subjugated all their neighbours, and demanded tribute in food, precious metals and slaves (some devoted to grisly human sacrifices).

Both generated complex religious ideologies accompanied by fascinating and complex theories of time – that it moved in cycles and was marked by moments of great significance – but the bottom line was that both the Aztec ruler and the Inca emperor believed they derived their authority from the gods, and were backed up in this conviction by the class of priests and the warrior castes which surrounded and defended them.

Of course the vast majority of the population was peasants, mostly living in abject serfhood, who slaved away for their entire short, unhealthy lives, producing the surpluses which paid for the elaborate costumes and rituals and treasures passed up to their rulers. And the entire populations of conquered tribes, for both the Aztecs and Incas lived by war, and by conquering, subjugating and exploiting neighbouring peoples.

The other striking thing was their backwardness. Both Aztecs and Incas, and all the hundreds of other tribes scattered across central and south America, were illiterate. The Aztecs and Incas had no written language, just a primitive system of markers, and so the important knowledge about the stars and the gods was handed down by word of mouth, and hence the semi-divine regard for the caste of priests who, alone, knew this vital celestial information.

They didn’t have the wheel, nor beasts of burden – no horses or donkeys or camels or bullocks. Therefore they had to carry everything by hand. It is staggering to realise that the awesome Inca city of Machu Picchu was built by massive stones, carried 2,430 metres above sea level, by human power alone.

All this was doomed to come crashing to an end when the Europeans arrived. Williamson describes in detail the four successive voyages of Christopher Columbus, his first landfall in 1492, the chaotic mismanagement of the first islands he and his men settled – Hispaniola – the slow, establishment of colonies and extension of Spanish rule onto neighbouring island, and then, 27 years later, Cortez’s expedition to the mainland against the Aztecs (1519-21).

The eeriest thing about Cortes’s conquest of the Aztec Empire, and then Francisco Pizarro’s conquest of Peru in 1532, is the theory that the rulers of both empires were too puzzled and confused by the invaders to respond adequately. They couldn’t believe these little gangs of a few hundred men were serious about planning to overthrow their empires of tens of thousands of warriors – but they couldn’t figure out what it was they really wanted. Williamson attributes the conquistadors’ success partly to guns and horses but shows that in both cases, the conquerors really had very few – when Pizarro finally met with the Inca emperor Atahualpa, in nothern Peru, he had a force of just 110-foot soldiers, 67 cavalry, three arquebuses and two falconets.

More decisive was the Europeans’ superior grasp of strategy, in particular realising that the empires they were encountering were themselves highly stressed, riven by faction fights or stretched by the continual need to control their subject peoples. The Spanish made alliances with enemies and groups wishing to be liberated. They were good at building coalitions.

He doesn’t say it in so many words, but the idea emerges that the Europeans triumphed because they were just more intelligent about strategy and warcraft.

The role of European diseases

Then there’s our old friend disease. As explained at length in Jared Diamond’s classic 1997 study Guns, Germs and Steel, wherever European explorers went they took with them the infectious diseases which, over thousands of years, we had built up immunity to – but which ravaged native populations which had no immunity to them.

This view is reinforced by the revisionist history of America told by Alan Taylor in American Colonies: The Settling of North America (2001). In this Taylor explains how the entire native civilisation of the Mississippi valley was wiped out by diseases, most probably smallpox, brought by a few shipwrecked Spanish sailors to the mouth of the Mississippi delta but which then spread catastrophically so that when, a century later, the first Anglo-Saxon explorers entered the region, they discovered entire cities with complex layouts, large palaces and temples and canals… all abandoned and overgrown by forest.

Indeed, Pizzaro’s job of conquering the Incas was made easier because the Incas were themselves in the middle of a bloody civil war, which was complicated by the fact that not one but two rival claimants to the throne had died from smallpox. Over the decades after the Spanish arrived, there was a catastrophic collapse in native populations caused by the invaders’ diseases. Some experts estimate as much as 90% of the native population of Mexico was killed by European disease within fifty years.

Still, Williamson is always at hand to say that in this, as in everything else, the reality on the ground, and across such vast areas as all of Mexico, Central America and Peru, were far more complex and uneven that contemporaries and many historians realise. Many many other areas of the continent remained relatively untouched and life went on in the same old way, only now you had to pay a tribute of your produce to a new boss, who wore armour and rode a horse.

The geographic limits of Spanish settlement

The book is packed with thought-provoking ideas and insights. I was fascinated to understand more about the geographic limits to the spread of Spanish rule.

When the Anglo settlers arrived in North America in the 1600s they found it relatively easy to spread out into New England and all along the Atlantic coast. But the Spanish, having established their key centres of administration in Mexico City and Lima a century earlier, with waystations and ports in the Caribbean, found it difficult to expand beyond them. Why?

North of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital which the invaders had renamed Mexico City, lies a vast area of arid desert – the territory which centuries later would become Arizona and New Mexico – where the Spanish explorers discovered nothing but impoverished villages of Indians surviving on subsistence agriculture.

Over to the east there were repeated attempts to explore the peninsula they named ‘Florida’, but the Spanish found it consisted of endless everglades with few settlements and nothing to plunder.

Heading south, the Spanish took over the coastal strip west of the Andes, conquering the Inca empire, but found the Andes mountains themselves too high to settle. Only a handful of expeditions went over the Andes to explore east. Williamson describes these expeditions, which got lost in the vast Amazon rainforests, and encountered only the most primitive tribespeople, if, indeed, they lived to tell the tale.

So, in a nutshell, central and south America were more difficult for the Spanish to settle than North America would turn out to be for the Anglos. And this explains the quite startling fact that some parts of South America – Williamson singles much of the interior of what is now called Argentina – weren’t really settled at all until the 20th century.

The other factor which limited the area of settlement was the Spaniards’ motivation. The conquistadors were adventurers, often from the very lowest parts of society. No nobles or aristocrats ventured their lives in the New World. Poor youngest sons of noble families led gangs of criminals and proles. None of them were the type of people who wanted to stake a claim and build a farmhouse and work the land – as the Anglo settlers were to do up north a hundred years later.

Instead, the Spanish wanted to exploit and loot as much wealth as they could from the New World before returning home and buying land, a house and a title. They came to loot. And here’s the important thing – you can only loot people who are already rich. The Spanish took over the two big empires, the Aztec in Mexico and the Inca in Peru, because an infrastructure was already in place whereby the native emperors and the upper class exploited large numbers of peasants in a well-organised system. The Spaniards simply took over the system, co-opting the best of the agricultural produce and all the treasure and artefacts for themselves.

It is this factor – the Spanish approach to colonisation – which explains the limited and very patchy nature of Spanish settlement. In the deserts of north Mexico, and in the south of the area they named California, were only desert dwellers, scraping a subsistence living from the soil by dint of elaborate water works. Nothing to steal. In Florida, endless swamps inhabited by scattered villagers. Nothing to steal, and no ‘society’ worth taking over. Ditto the Amazon rainforests. Nothing like an organised society whose power structures and tributes they could simply appropriate.

The Spanish only settled where there were established and relatively advanced societies which they could parasite onto.

How the Reconquista mindset was applied to the New World

Williamson lays out with beautiful logic and clarity just how that imperialist approach to colonisation had arisen in Spain.

It is an enormous historical coincidence that the year that Columbus made landfall in the Bahamas, 1492, just happened to be the very same year that – after nearly 800 years of war and crusade – the Spanish finally kicked the very last Muslim Moorish presence out of the south of Spain. (Muslim forces had crossed the Straits of Gibraltar to seize Spanish territory way back in 711 – the fightback is traditionally dated to their first defeat by Christian forces, in 718 – and it took nearly another 800 years, of slow painstaking battles and piecemeal conquest, for native Christians, sometimes fighting alongside Christian warriors from the rest of Europe attracted by the periodic ‘crusades’ against the Muslim –  to finally expel all the Muslim chiefs, emirs and so on from the final southern enclaves.

The point of this historical background is that expelling the Muslims from Spain wasn’t achieved by a modern-style mass army, and in a few years of continuous campaigning – but by ad hoc campaigns led by local Spanish warriors and adventuring knights, which liberated bits and pieces of territory, over a very long period of time.

As and when they seized territory from the Muslims, they applied to the king to rule it. (Spain itself was a very fractured entity, with a number of different kingdoms. It was only as the Reconquista reached its conclusion that the marriage of King Ferdinand of Aragon with Queen Isabella of Castile united most of Spain’s territory to form the basis of one unified Spanish monarchy.)

Sometimes large areas of land would be conquered and the new lords were granted what were known as latifundia, originally a Roman word describing a vast agricultural estate. The new owners co-opted the existing inhabitants as serfs to work the land, but often much of the original or Muslim population had fled and so the lords had difficulty filling them with workers and had to advertise for new workers to come in.

The point is that the Reconquista established a model for settling new lands, freshly conquered from the infidel, which was then applied wholesale to the new territory discovered by Columbus and his Viceroys across the ocean, and by the conquistadors and adventurers who followed them.

The Reconquista established the pattern of the monarch granting complete control over large swathes of territory, and all the people on it to, the conqueror or adelantado who had seized it. This resulted in a handful of rich swaggering lords riding among the large population of impoverished peasants working vast areas of land. In the New World it became known as the encomienda system and the grant holders encomenderos.

In fact it was a bit more complicated than that: the native Indians remained, nominally, free subjects of the Crown, which awarded encomenderos the right to enforce labour from the natives, but not complete power of life and death over them. That was the theory, anyway.

Williamson – once he has reported the main military and political events of the conquest – moves briskly on to discuss in considerable detail, this and all the other legal and administrative measures which the Spanish implemented in their new lands.

In fact, the ‘excitement’ of the narrative of Columbus’s voyages and the initial conquests of the Aztecs and the Incas which open the text, might give the reader quite a misleading impression of the book. Williamson is much more a historian of constitutional and administrative systems than he is a chronicler of exciting battles and against-the-odds expeditions. A lot of this book is quite dry. But he develops the constitutional and legal aspects of the conquest in such detail that, to my surprise, the conflicts between the settlers, and in particular between the Viceroys appointed to govern the new provinces and the monarchy back in Spain – and between both of them and Catholic church – at moments become quite gripping.

The Crown protects the Indians One counter-intuitive learning is that the Spanish crown, right from the start, was concerned about protecting the rights of the native Indians, indeed became their chief protector.

As Spanish adventurers opened up new territory and conquered more and more native peoples, the monarchs became concerned to make sure they were not simply enslaved. Queen Isabella personally forbade the enslavement of the natives, and a series of ‘Laws of the Indies’ tried to stem abuses wherever they were found. Encomenderos may have enjoyed almost complete power over the populations of their vast estates, but Spanish laws commanded them to also set up schools and hospitals, to educate the Indians, protect them from wars and raids, and to enact justice. This effort continued for the rest of the 16th century, for example with the ‘New Laws of the Indies for the Good Treatment and Preservation of the Indians’ of 1547, which explicitly forbade all forms of enslaving the native population. The New Laws prompted violent opposition among the oligarchies of Spanish settlers.

The Church takes the Indians’ side It’s also surprising to read about the broadly sympathetic line taken by the Catholic Church. The Pope and the Catholic organisations which sent cohorts of missionaries out to the New World took the line that these were people made in God’s image, like us, with souls that needed saving. Certainly, some of the first cohort of priests accompanying the conquistadors helped in the wholesale destruction of priceless documents and artefacts which they considered pagan and devilish. But within a generation, a new wave of clerics began for all kinds of reasons to take the native Indians’ side, deploring their brutal exploitation by amoral Spanish lords.

On a pragmatic note, they also realised they couldn’t convert the natives by preaching at them in Latin or Spanish, and undertaking ‘mass baptisms’ where the Indians didn’t have a clue what was going on. So a whole project was undertaken to learn more about the natives’ languages, which quickly extended into documenting their histories and beliefs. Most of what we know about native Indian religion and history derives from these records taken down by Christian missionaries.

The classic figure of this type was Bartolomé de las Casas, initially a coloniser himself, who became a Dominican friar and spent the last 50 years of his life fighting slavery and the colonial abuse of indigenous peoples. He was appointed by the Spanish crown the first ‘Protector of the Indians’, an administrative office responsible for attending to the wellbeing of the native populations, a function he enthusiastically carried out and which included speaking on their behalf in law courts and even reporting back to the King of Spain in person.

In 1550, Bartolomé participated in the Valladolid debate, in which Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda (the noted Spanish Renaissance “humanist”, philosopher, theologian, and… er… proponent of colonial slavery) argued that the Indians were less than human and required Spanish masters in order to become civilized. Las Casas maintained that the Indians were fully human and that forcefully subjugating them was morally, legally, and theologically, unjustifiable. Las Casas is a hero (not a perfect hero, but by the standards of his own time a d brave and determined protector of the people.)

Williamson gives a long and detailed account of the numerous legal initiatives launched by the Crown to try and protect the Indians from exploitation, but in the end they all failed. No amount of legal or theological argumentation could avoid the fact that the Spanish remained the ruling caste with one law for them, while the Indians remained a separate caste, subject to completely different laws. Williamson calls them the Republic of the Spaniards and the Republic of the Indians.

And nothing could alter the simple fact that, on the ground, most of the laws designed to protect the Indians were ignored by the settlers, who looked after each other’s interests.

Theories of conquest and bureaucratic structures

I could have done with more about where the silver was discovered in the New World, and the technology of how it is mined and purified. We are told that mercury was vital to the purification process, but not really how or why. I had to google it to find out. He does eventually have three pages on the silver mines (two on gold-mining), but in general Williamson is light on that kind of thing, on technology, and on the diverse resources of the region.

Instead, as the book settles into its stride, you realise that Williamson is going to devote most of his energy to the legal and theological justifications of Spanish rule along with detailed descriptions of the bureaucratic structures the Spanish set up.

Thus there is a long passage explaining how the theory of monarchy evolved in Spain from its late-medieval form to the theory which underpinned the role of Philip II as head of an empire which stretched from California to Sicily. He explains the role of the Catholic Church as a vital prop to royal authority, and gives long explanations of the laws and the administrative structures set up to run the colonies.

He explains the main theories by which the Spanish justified their conquests, both to themselves and to the rest of the world (especially to their critical opponents in the Protestant world). There were two main ones:

  1. The well-established Law of Conquest, by which one ruler conquers another and is allowed to seize his land and titles, which had been worked out over long centuries of theological and legal debate during the Middle Ages.
  2. The more modern notion that the Crown of Spain had a ‘right’ to rule the Indians because the Europeans would convert the natives to Christianity and so save their souls. This was accompanied by a kind of sub-argument, which many missionaries put forward: that the New World represented an opportunity for Christianity – which had, by the early 1500s become widely associated with corruption and worldly ambition – to start again. Here, in the Garden of Eden, were a new kind of Adam and Eve, a First People uncorrupted by the Old World, and one thread of early colonisation is the devout wishes of the early missionaries to create a Christian Paradise on earth. Of course it was not to turn out that way; the secular settlers – and the terrible European diseases – made sure of that.

How the silver was squandered

Williamson does, however, clarify something which has always puzzled me, which is – if the Spanish monarchy began receiving ever-increasing amounts of silver from the New World (as the result of great silver strikes in North Mexico and Peru in the 1540s), how come Spain steadily declined in power and influence in the century and a half after the conquest?

Indeed, Williamson points out that by the death of Philip II in 1598, Spain was technically bankrupt and had experienced state bankruptcies (i.e been unable to repay its debts) in 1557, 1560, 1569, 1575, and 1596!

Where did the Spanish silver go? The answer turns out to be simple: Paying for Spain’s wars.

Even though it never accounted for more than 20 per cent of imperial revenues, silver was the fuel that drove the Spanish war machine. (p.106)

Philip II’s father had been Holy Roman Emperor and when Philip came to the throne in 1556, he inherited responsibility for territory in every continent known to Europeans – from the extensive empire in Central and South America to the newly conquered territory of the Phillippines, from the kingdom of Naples and Sicily in Italy, to the Seventeen Provinces of the Netherlands which began a protracted war of independence against Spanish rule in 1568. Not only this, but Philip saw himself as the defender of all Christendom in its wars against the Ottoman Turks in the East. He it was who organised ‘the Holy League’, bringing together ships from Spain, the Republic of Venice, the Republic of Genoa, the Papal States, the Duchy of Savoy and the Knights of Malta, to inflict a decisive defeat on the Ottomans at the naval Battle of Lepanto in 1567.

Philip also saw himself as the defender of Catholic orthodoxy against the shocking new Protestant heresy. Thus Philip gave large financial support to the Catholic League fighting the Protestants in France, and then went directly to war with the French King Henry IV, an intervention which secured the future of France as a Catholic country.

Last but not least, as we Brits know, Philip II built, armed, provisioned and manned an enormous armada which was designed, with the blessing of the pope, to conquer England, overthrow the Tudor dynasty and the Church of England, and impose Philip as the Catholic ruler of a Catholic Britain.

So that’s where the silver, hacked out of dangerous and unhealthy mines in the New World by Indian slaves and serfs, ended up being spent. Funding the impossible ambitions of the over-extended Spanish monarchy.

Spain went into decline because of proliferating military commitments for which it could not pay. (p.116)


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Collecting histories: Solomon Islands @ the British Museum

The Asahi Shimbun displays

As you walk up the stairs and into the main entrance of the British Museum it’s easy to miss the room immediately on your right, hidden behind the tide of visitors pouring in and out.

Officially room number three, since 2005 this smallish room has been devoted to displays sponsored by the Japanese newspaper, Asahi Shimbun.

The idea is to showcase single or small groups of objects from the Museum’s vast collections, focusing right in on a particular object or set of objects or region or era. It’s a kind of lucky dip into the Museum’s bottomless store of treasures and wonders. Since 2005 the room has hosted more than 40 displays. My favourite was the mummified crocodile from ancient Egypt, which was displayed along with a fascinating explanation of the place of crocodiles in Egyptian mythology.

The Solomon Islands

The current Asahi Shimbun Display focuses on the Solomon Islands. There’s a map showing you their location in the Pacific, and wall labels describing their history before Europeans arrived, the story of their conquest and colonial administration, and then events since independence from Britain in 1978.

We learn that the Solomon Islands is an independent country of six large and many small islands, home to about 80 ethnic groups whose distinctive cultures are represented in many colonial collections around the world.

I was surprised to learn that, although the islands became steadily more enmeshed in patterns of global trade during the 19th century, it was only in 1890 that they became a British Protectorate. After 90-odd years of British governance, Christian missions and colonial plantations, the Solomon Islands became independent in 1978.

Many people these days have moved from the remote islands to the capital Honiara on Guadalcanal Island to take advantage of its jobs and facilities. Most Solomon Islanders are now Christians, children and grand-children of pagans successfully converted by European missionaries – but still very close to their tribal histories and traditions.

It’s because of this British imperial connection that the British Museum has such an important collection of native objects and historic photos from the Solomon Islands.

Objects from the Solomon Islands

The maps of the islands are good, the old photos are sort of interesting, but it is the half dozen or so native objects which fire the imagination. These include:

A bird net float The Lau people, living on islands in the coastal lagoons, used consecrate bird floats on special nets to catch fish for festivals celebrating the ancestors. After use these powerful and dangerous objects were hung up in the priest’s house. Priest Kailafa of Ferasubua Island gave this bird float to Anglican missionary Arthur Hopkins in 1903, who later sold it to a collector, who then bequeathed it the museum.

Bird net float from the Solomon Islands, late 19th century

A large carved ‘figure of an ancestor’ This image of an ancestor belonged to a shrine at Munda in the New Georgia group of western Solomon Islands. People prayed to these ancestors for spiritual support and protection, so their memorials were sacred and precious. This figure was among artefacts taken from homes and shrines by the crew of HMS Royalist in 1891. The captain later sold it to the British Museum.

Figure of an ancestor, 1890s

Carved wooden canoe figurehead During the colonial period the islands continued to export its a fairly narrow range of raw materials including plantation crops, timber and fish. But it was interesting to learn that before, during and after the British Protectorate, the islanders also made a healthy living selling visitors their hand-carved and decorated artefacts.

Trade boomed after the Second World War which saw the rise and rise of speciality tourism and then mass tourism. The islanders responded by producing increasing numbers of masks and sculptures carved in the traditional way and inlaid with pearl shell, to create striking designs such as this canoe figure-head. This example, made by the craftsman named Bala of Butana, was bought by a British Museum curator in an art shop in 2004.

Canoe figure-head (nguzunguzu) of wood with pearl shell inlay, 2004

This, in a way, was the most interesting learning. We all know that a lot of the artefacts in the British Museum were looted, stolen or swindled off the original owners. It’s a surprise, and goes against that whole narrative of colonial guilt and imperial injustice which is now received opinion, to learn that some of them were just — bought at gift shops 🙂

Summary

The display is not really worth a trip in and of itself. But if you’re passing nearby, or certainly if you’re visiting one of the museum’s big exhibitions, it’s always worth taking a moment to pop into Room 3 to find out what random objects and subjects the Asahi Shimbun display has pulled out of the British Museum’s bottomless trove of treasures.


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Cutting Edge: Modernist British Printmaking @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

Good God this is one of the most wonderful, uplifting, informative and visually fabulous art exhibitions I’ve ever been to!

In 1925 Scottish wood engraver Iain Macnab set up the Grosvenor School of Modern Art, a private British art school, in his house at 33 Warwick Square in Pimlico, London. He ran it with Claude Flight and, although it taught many skills, including composition, design and dance, it was Flight’s course in making prints from linotype which made it famous and, eventually, gave rise to the term the ‘Grosvenor school’ of prints.

Linoleum was regarded as a cheap, industrial material, and the technique of printing with it seen as an introductory skill, useful for teaching children, maybe, but no more. But Flight thought it presented the opportunity to create simplified and stylised images which reflected the speed and angularity of modern life. He is quoted as saying it had no tradition behind it, unlike traditional methods of print-making, where the artist was always looking over their shoulder worrying how Dürer or Rembrandt would have done it.

Carving lino was easier and cheaper than carving wood, requiring far fewer specialist tools. And, in line with the school’s bohemian principles, Flight thought lino could be used to create prints cheap enough for the working man and woman to afford, that it could and should be ‘an art of the people for their homes’.

Usually two to four blocks are cut, each containing different elements of the design, and then printed in sequence onto fine Japanese paper, each block printing a different element and colour in the final design.

It was the 1920s – the Jazz Age – and the school operated amid the heady mix of Art Deco in design and architecture, combined with the Modernist impulse in art which had found its purest expression in the short-lived Vorticism and Futurism from just before the Great War.

Vorticism was invented by the artist Percy Wyndham-Lewis and the poet-publicist Ezra Pound, and combined the formal experiments of French cubism with the dynamic machine-worship of Italian Futurism. The first room of the exhibition includes some prime examples of Vorticism from during the Great War, by leading exponents like Christopher Nevinson and Edward Wadsworth. Flight had studied alongside Nevinson at the Slade School of Art, so there is a direct biographical and stylistic link, with Flight absorbing Futurist ideas about how to convert the movement, energy and speed of urban life into images characterised by simplification, stylisation and dynamic lines and curves.

It was almost worth the price of admission to see these Vorticist works alone. I nearly swooned. I love to distraction their depiction of angularity and energy. Seeing not the skull beneath the skin, but the machine-like aspects of the human anatomy, men marching to war like robots, townscapes morphing into geometric patterns, everything becoming hard, technological, everything organic turning into engineering.

Tempting to show an example, but this exhibition is about the Grosvenor school. What Flight and his two lieutenants and then a suite of students did, was take the really mechanistic hardness of Vorticism-Futurism and give it a human face, somehow making it feel warmer, more likeable. Many of their designs became instant classics.

This exhibition brings together 120 prints and sketches, posters, woodcuts and lithographs, along with magazines, articles, exhibition programmes and some of the tools used in carving the lino, to create a joyous overview of the Grosvenor school tradition of lino printing, to show us the range of subject matter they covered, and to introduce us to the ten or so main exponents of lino print-making, displaying many of their greatest hits, and helping us learn to distinguish between their subtly different styles.

The Big Three

Claude Flight pioneered the new approach and look. Here’s a very early example, from before the school was even founded, of his style. Regent Street is turned into simplified curving architecture, and the passing buses are linked by curvilinear lines which emphasise the dynamism of their movement.

Speed (1922) by Claude Flight © The Estate of Claude Flight. Photo © Elijah Taylor

Cyril Power lectured in architecture but also became a prolific and characteristic lino printmaker. Each colour in this design will have been carved on a different block. Look at the amazingly dynamic effect created by the swirling lines both above and below the merry-go-round, and by the whizzing effect of the passengers closest to us whose bodies have been changed by their speed, from vertical humans to horizontal blurs of movement.

The Merry-Go-Round (c.1930) by Cyril Power © The Estate of Cyril Power. Bridgeman Images/ photo The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Sybil Andrews worked as the school secretary but was already a craftswoman and artist in her own right. Andrews emerges as very nearly the star of the entire show. Good God, she had an extraordinary eye for converting everyday scenery and activities into Art Deco stylised images of extraordinary vim and energy!

Concert Hall (1929) by Sybil Andrews © The Estate of Sybil Andrews. Photo: the Osborne Samuel Gallery, London

These three have the most prints on display and sustained activity throughout the 1920s, 30s and into the 1940s, when Power and Andrews were commissioned to create poster for London Transport, creating images of Epsom Races, Wimbledon or racing at Broadlands, which are gloriously on display in the final room of the show.

More peripheral figures

Most of the prints on display are by Flight, Power or Andrews. But they are set among works by half a dozen others.

The Australian women Three young women artists travelled from Australia to Pimlico to study with Flight and power. They were: Ethel Spowers (1890 – 1947), Eveline Syme (1888-1961) and Dorrit Black. Their works are scattered throughout the exhibition, and are generally slightly softer and less angular. Slightly. It varies. Here’s Spowers.

Wet Afternoon (1929-30) by Ethel Spowers © The Estate of Ethel Spowers. Photo: Osborne Samuel, London

Eveline Syme recorded a visit to Italy in prints. There was a wall of these and they were very pretty but – to my mind – lacked the fizz and energy of the pictures set in London or England. They could be illustrations from a straight travel book.

Outskirts of Siena (1930-1) by Eveline Syme. Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

Spowers, Black and Syme returned to Australia and became instrumental in organising exhibitions and promoting the school in their homeland. The exhibition includes some prints depicting the vast, open spaces of the Outback in the Grosvenor school style.

Lill Tschudi (1911–2004) Tschudi was Swiss. Although she depicted activities, work and sport as much as the others, Tschudi’s images have a distinctive quality of their own. From the evidence here, they were less curved and dynamic, and a little more blocky and static, the colours a little more pastel.

Gymnastic Exercises (1931) by Lill Tschudi © The Estate of Lill Tschudi, courtesy of Mary Ryan Gallery New York. Photo: Bonhams

Tschudi has half a dozen works on display. Much less well represented, fleeting presences among the main participants, are a handful of works by two men, William Greengrass (1898 – 1972: a wood engraver, sculptor and became a curator at the V&A) and Leonard Beaumont.

Greengrass is represented by this picture of a young family on a beach holiday. It certainly is stylised, it has an abrupt angularity. But it doesn’t – to my eye anyway – have any of the energy and dynamism of the classic Power and Andrews works.

Windmills and Balloons (1936) by William Greengrass. Photo: Bonhams/ © The Estate of William Greengrass. All rights reserved, DACS 2018

Beaumont is represented by a small number of works which seem to owe more to Art Deco vibe than many of the others, in the straightforward way they depict women’s bosoms.

Whereas nudity is conspicuous by its absence in the works of Flight, Power and Andrews, in both the most memorable works by Beaumont on show here, lithe, nubile women pose slender and athletic, like countless thousands of other slender, topless, female sculptures and statuettes during the joyous heyday of Art Deco.

Nymphs, Errant by Leonard Beaumont (1934) Photo Museums Sheffield/ © The Estate of Leonard Beaumont

Work and sport

In one of the most interesting wall labels I’ve ever read, the curator – Gordon Samuel, one of London’s leading specialists in Modern British painting – explains major social changes which took place in the 1920s and 1930s. This was the passage of legislation which limited the length of the working day, and of the working week, and created a number of bank holidays when all workers were allowed to down tools and relax.

The direct result of this legislation, and the seismic change it brought about in the work habits of most of the working population, was to create leisure industries.

Cinemas and dance halls saw a boom in business and were built across the land. But just as significant was the explosion of interest in sports of all kinds. These ranged from the posher end – tennis and horse racing – through new motor sports like motor racing and speedway racing, through to a surge of health and fitness activities among the young. I live near a lido, in fact I’m going swimming there later this afternoon. Like most of Britain’s lidos it was built in the 1930s, in a wonderful Art Deco style, as part of the boom in sports and healthy activities. (This was the decade when the Ramblers Association was founded [1935], from which we have many photos of healthy young chaps with walking socks and hiking boots and knapsacks and pipes heading off into the Lake District.)

The energy and competitiveness of sport naturally played to the Grosvenor School style, and there are numerous examples here of dynamic, colourful depictions of exercise, sport and fitness.

Speed Trial (c.1932) by Claude Flight © The Estate of Cyril Power. Photo Osborne Samuel Gallery London / Bridgeman Images

Not only sport and leisure, though. The 1930s was a highly politicised decade when many artists and intellectuals responded to the Great Depression by adopting socialist or communist politics, and by creating all kinds of works which explored the hitherto occluded world of the working classes. Think of George Orwell travelling to Wigan Pier and going down a coalmine, or the work of the Mass Observation sociological movement, or the poetry of W.H. Auden which celebrates machines and work.

Flight wanted to create ‘an art of the people… an art expressed in terms of unity, simplicity and of harmony’, and he, Power and Andrews created some striking images of hard, manual, physical labour – particularly well done in a sequence of five magnificent prints by Sybil Andrews.

Sledgehammers (1933) by Sybil Andrews

I like dynamic, semi-abstract art of the Vorticist, Futurist type. But I also respect art which manages to capture the reality of work, the kind of hard physical labour which men and women have spent so much of their lives performing, for so many millennia.

Andrews and Power emerge as the most consistent creators of strong, striking designs, with Andrews probably the better of the two – very close – a fun topic to discuss after seeing the show. But the Swiss artist Lill Tschudi also created some really bold images of men at work. (Note the obvious contrast between the studied angularity of Tschudi’s figures and the razor straight telegraph wires, and the dynamic curves of the figures in the Andrews, and the way the background is entirely stylised to emphasise the energy and activity of the working men.)

Fixing the Wires by Lill Tschudi (1932)

The exhibition culminates with two rooms dedicated to London and its transport system, with a suite of vibrantly evocative images of the Tube, with its escalators, lifts, winding staircases and dynamically curved platforms. Power and Andrews were commissioned by Frank Pick, the Managing Director of London Underground in the 1920s and ‘30s, to create a set of posters publicising sporting events people could reach by Tube. Most of the resulting posters are on display here, along with preliminary sketches and draft works, giving you a fascinating insight into the works in progress.

God, this is an absolutely brilliant exhibition, not only because of the consistent quality of the works on display – all of them are good, and many of them are outstanding – but also because of the fascinating light it sheds on London and English social history between the wars. What’s not to love?

The Tube Station (c.1932) by Cyril Power. Photo: Osborne Samuel Gallery, London © The Estate of Cyril Power

The promotional video


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