The Farewell Party by Milan Kundera (1972)

Kundera’s third novel feels shorter and more streamlined than the first two. At 184 pages (cf The Joke pp.267 and Life Is Elsewhere pp.306) it is a slim, quick, funny, if sometimes shocking read. The first two novels, though comic in tone and often in content, contained big wodges of serious, sometimes tragic material about politics and repression under the Czech communist state. In The Farewell Waltz some of this content intrudes, in the character of Jakub the embittered political dissident. But apart from him, the rest of the story feels much closer to a farce, a sex comedy. According to the internet, a farce is:

a comic dramatic work using buffoonery and horseplay, and typically including crude characterization and ludicrously improbable situations

That doesn’t really describe this book, but it does gesture towards the way The Farewell Party begins with a predicament and then goes on to wring as many comic situations and variations out of it as possible, placing its characters in improbable and unlikely situations in order to extract as much comedy, and plain absurdity, as possible.

The plot

First Day (Monday)

Klima is a famous Czech jazz trumpeter. He is happily married. Two months before the action starts he had played a gig at a health spa in the country. He and the band were treated to an after-gig party by a rich American staying at the spa (Bartleff), and Klima ended up having sex with one of the spa nurses, Ruzena. Now she’s pregnant, and on the second page of the book she rings him up at his Prague apartment to let him know it. Thus the ball is set rolling. The book is divided into five sections titled simply First Day, Second day etc. and it all happens over this tight, compressed timespan.

Klima is a coward, a timid man, who takes advantage of his fame to seduce women, but always feels nervous about it beforehand, guilty about it afterwards. Deep down, he is deeply, sincerely in love with his wife.

He tells the band he’s rehearsing with about the call, and his bandmates are sanguine, suggesting a variety of tactics to fob her off. The young guitarist (18) even suggests bumping her off in a supposed ‘road accident’. The reader is a little startled.

Klima thanks them all, then phones Ruzena and says he’ll come and visit her tomorrow. Then goes home and cobbles together a cock-and-bull story to tell his wife, Kamila, about having to play some socialist party youth conference or other. She doesn’t believe a word. She is well-attuned to his infidelities and lies. He knows he doesn’t believe her.

Second Day (Tuesday)

Klima motors to the spa and looks up Bartleff, the American patient with the bad heart, who hosted the party where Klima met the fateful nurse. He shares his problem (he’s gotten a nurse at the spa pregnant) with this bluff man of the world, who offers various suggestions.

Klima is surprised to learn that Bartleff paints religious pictures. There’s a new one, of Saint Lazarus, on the wall of his apartment. Bartleff explains it is blue because real saints’ halos really are blue. Klima is only paying half attention.

Klima phones Ruzena at the bath where she’s working and arranges to meet her after work, at 4pm. Then Bartleff takes him across the way, to the clinic, to meet Dr Skreta, the leading specialist at the spa.

IRONY The spa exists to treat infertile women. The place is packed with well-off, middle-aged women who can’t get pregnant. It is therefore a primal, structural irony that the entire plot rotates around a young woman who has gotten pregnant, after just one act of hurried coitus, but the father wants to terminate it.

Throughout the conversations with his band, and then with Bartleff, and now with Dr Skreta, the men discuss women as a problematic category, in an objectifying way, which I imagine most modern readers would find horrifying. I couldn’t tell whether the guitarist’s casual suggestion that they murder the nurse, and Klima’s casual acceptance of it, was meant to be ironic or straightfaced. The book is stuffed with men casually discussing the trouble with women and the problem with women and how to handle women and the differences between blondes and brunettes – dismissive and gross generalisations, which would give a feminist a heart attack.

Anyway, when Klima and Bartleff explain Klima’s problem, Skreta is immediately sympathetic. He tells them the next abortion committee meeting is on Friday and he can slot Klima and Nurse Ruzena straight in. And he shares a private passion of his which is that he is himself a keen jazz drummer. Could Klima maybe see his way to playing a gig with him and a bassist who also works at the spa?

So anxious is he to secure the decision for an abortion that Klima would agree to anything. Good, yes, whatever. They set the concert date for this Thursday, the day after tomorrow. Galvanised, Dr Skreta vows to set about creating the posters and printing up tickets.

Klima meets Ruzena at 4pm outside the baths and takes her to the spa dining rooms. Here he commences his strategy: he tells Ruzena that he loves her so much that’s why he didn’t phone her at all for two months after their liaison; it was because he was afraid of the intensity of his emotions. He carries on despite her sceptical protestations, to assert that of course he will leave his wife, and wants to marry Ruzena – she begins to soften and swoon – BUT: the first few years of any marriage are the most blissful and he wants to spend them with her, unobstructed, unencumbered with a new baby. And that’s why he thinks she should terminate the pregnancy.

He suggests they get out of the dining rooms – where he is uncomfortably aware that everyone in the place can see him. Ruzena is impressed that he has a car, and so is easily persuaded to go for a drive in the country. Klima puts his arm round her as he drives and presses home his advantage, spinning fantasies about where they’ll go once he’s divorced his wife and married her.

He stops the car at a scenic spot and they walk into the country. He kisses her, a long lingering passionate kiss. He is in the middle of describing how Italy will be the first stop and he’s in the middle of painting the beauties of Italy when she surprises him by giving in. Yes. OK. Alright. She’ll place herself in his hands. She’ll agree to go to the abortion committee on Friday. (p.44)

Klima can’t believe his luck. In the end it was so easy. They walk back to the car, her head on his shoulder, but as they get there realise a motorbike is parked next to it and the motorcyclist looms threateningly up to Klima and starts telling him that, just because he’s famous, he thinks he can get away with anything; well, not this time, buddy! Klima hasn’t a clue what’s going on, Ruzena tells the man to shut up and go away and scrambles into the car, as the man turns towards her side, Klima jumps in his side and accelerates off. She explains he’s a maniac who stalks her. We will, in fact, come to learn that this is Ruzena’s boyfriend, a local rough named Franta, who has had sex with her and who may, indeed, actually be the father of her baby…

Arriving back at the spa, Klima escorts Ruzena to her nurse accommodation in the stylishly named Karl Marx house, before walking thoughtfully to Bartleff’s flat. He knocks and when there’s no answer, tentatively opens the door. For a moment he is awed. The room is lit by a soft blue glow. Remember the dialogue when Bartleff explained that he liked painting religious pictures? And that he had painted St Lazarus’s halo blue because that is actually the colour of saints’ halos? Well… Klima backs out and quietly closes the door, but next minute it is opened by Bartleff looking fresh and wearing the same clothes he had on that morning, who welcomes him inside, rejoices when he hears that Ruzena has given in and agreed to an abortion, and plies him with food (crackers and tinned ham). Then waves him off as Klima leaves, belatedly, to drive back to the capital and explain why his day took so long to his long-suffering wife.

Third Day (Wednesday)

A friend of Dr Skreta’s arrives. This is Jakub, who was in trouble with the authorities in the grim years after the 1948 coup, and for whom Dr Skreta knocked up a blue pill of concentrated poison, so that if Jakub was arrested, before he was tortured, he could control his own destiny and end it all. Now he announces he is leaving the country, he has official permission and is going to a teaching position abroad. He wants to return the pill. Dr Skreta won’t hear of it and pushes it back into Jakub’s hand when it is profferred.

(There is some very casual comedy, when Skreta forces his friend to accompany him into the examination room where a woman is lying on her back, naked, with her legs wide open so Skreta can examine her. It is a feature of Skreta’s character that he takes all this in his stride and tells the nurse to fetch his fellow doctor a white coat, and then confidently asks for his second opinion. So that the lady on the table is not discombobulated by the presence of another man looking at her privates, but quite flattered to have two specialists examining her case. Dr Skreta’s boundless self-confidence will recur at important moments later in the story.)

Jakub is here because he’s come to say goodbye to his ‘ward’, Olga. This young woman is the daughter of a friend of Jakub’s who was arrested and executed by the communists in the purges of the early 1950s when Olga was just seven. Jakub vowed to look after her, became her legal guardian, and when she left school got her a job here at the spa, via his old friend Dr Skreta.

Skreta says Olga is fine and tells Jakub which accommodation block to find her in. He also tells him about a) the famous jazz trumpeter Klima, his problem with the pregnant nurse, and how Skreta is going to play in a concert with him this Thursday. And b) about his latest money-making scheme. You know the rich American, Bartleff? He paints oil pictures. Skreta is trying to persuade Bartleff to let him become his agent and sell the paintings to gullible ladies at the spa, and take a commission.

Jakub shakes his head. He’s known Skreta since school, and he is continually coming up with hare-brained schemes.

We are introduced to Olga. She is bright but not excessively so. She fusses and frets about her appearance and figure. She is called out of the pool by Nurse Ruzena who she cordially dislikes. She makes a fuss about what to wear for Jakub, makes a decision then goes to meet him for lunch in the spa dining room. He tells her he’s leaving the country.

She is sad but, as usual, they end up discussing her father. Recently she’s been receiving letters claiming he wasn’t the political innocent Jakub’s brought her up to believe, but himself a hardline communist and arrester of others, till he himself was consumed.

Jakub’s thread introduces the serious themes of History or, to be precise, the tragic history of Czechoslovakia’s early years under communist rule, when some 100,000 opponents of the regime were imprisoned or sent to camps, and there were successive waves of executions of enemies of the state, traitors and saboteurs. Olga’s questions prompt several basic reflections from Jakub:

1. It was all a long time ago. The Farewell Party was published in 1972, 24 years after the 1948 communist coup, and that’s been long enough for Jakub to reflect that the younger generation can have no idea what it was like and, indeed, even people like himself who lived through it, are starting to forget what it was really like.

‘Time flies so fast, and the past is becoming harder and harder to understand.’ (p.60)

2. And, cynically, he remarks that if he’s learned anything from the experience of living through those times, it’s that, most people spend most of their lives living in a small bubble of family and work, but if History intervenes, and if the situation becomes stressed and difficult, then people will do anything to survive. Now the dust has settled, he thinks there was no ultimate difference between the communist authorities who locked up all those innocent people, and the victims. People are people.

There isn’t a person on this planet who is not capable of sending a fellow human being to death without any great pangs of conscience. At least I have never found anyone like that. (p.61)

Cut to Ruzena’s morning at work, where her fellow nurses flock round her and ask how her meeting with the famous trumpeter went. They are disappointed when she says he’s persuaded her to terminate the pregnancy. One of them gets a tube of pills out of a drawer and gives it to Ruzena, tranquilisers to calm her nerves.

Exiting the building she is again confronted by her young man, Franta, who begs her to be more friendly and loving to him. But Ruzena has set her sights high, on a national celebrity, o Klima, and tells Franta to bugger off. She tells him he’s driving her frantic, he’ll drive her to suicide if he keeps on harassing her like this! (p.66)

Back in Olga’s room, Olga and Jakub continue their conversation. He tells her about his friend Dr Skreta and his eccentric ideas. On an impulse he pulls out the blue pill, the suicide pill, and explains how Dr Skreta made it for him with no questions asked, just before Jakub was hauled off to prison. (He was lucky; he only served one year.)

Blue symbolism The colour blue recurs in key symbols. The sky is blue above this rather fairy tale spa. The mysterious halo in Bartleff’s room is blue. And the pill of death is blue.

The dog squad

As well as an irritating young boyfriend, Ruzena also has an embarrassing old dad, who has joined some cockamamy squad of old codgers who have formed a ‘squad’ to round up all the stray dogs running wild in the town who are pooing and peeing everywhere, or so they claim.

The importance of this for the plot is that it triggers the deep dislike between Jakub and Ruzena. For Ruzena has just finished her shift and is walking between buildings, her head full of thoughts about the two worlds she inhabits: the stifling provincial one of the spa, characterised by hordes of fat middle-aged women and hardly any eligible men, only biker losers like Franta – and the big wide glamorous world of Prague and beyond, with which she associates Klima. Throughout the book she vacillates between going along with his request for an abortion, and then in a panic realising having his baby is her only hope for escaping her sad little destiny.

She is in just such a wavering state when she sees her dad and a few of the other dog squad emerging from bushes where they’ve been hunting dogs with long poles with wire nooses at the end. They’ve captured a dachshund. Suddenly Ruzena sees Jakub walking along the pavement towards her. He was sitting with Olga earlier, Olga who she hates for her superior manner. Now Jakub calls to her ‘Come here, don’t be afraid, come to me’ and is startled until, a second later, she realises he is talking to a dog, to a squat ugly bulldog which was behind her. He has completely blanked her in preference for some ugly mutt! The humiliation!

As Jakub picks it up to protect it from the dog hunters, Ruzena steps forward and grabs its collar, telling Jakub she’ll report him to the authorities.

They engage in an absurd tug of war which is also, Kundera points out, no less than a battle between two worldviews: she, driven by resentment and humiliation and anger at her cramped small-town life, burns to take revenge on this smarmy, self-confident, big city intellectual. He, for his part, sees in her exactly the petty-minded, bureaucratic, vengeful, small-minded party zealot who, in their thousands, supervised the arrest, stage trials and imprisonment of him and a hundred thousand like him, epitome of all those ‘prison guards, inquisitors and informers.’ (p.75)

In fact it’s even worse: Ruzena is the type of the bystander who rushes to help the executioner, rushes to pin the victim down so his throat can be cut, and full of pious self-justifying high-minded rhetoric about society and morals – a type who came to prominence in the century of calamity.

In this moment History returns in the form of a man and a woman absurdly tugging at the collar of a mutty old bulldog. Jakub wins, and yanks her hand away, turning and quickly entering the building where Olga lives. For a moment their eyes meet in a look of pure hatred.

Jakub takes the dog up to Olga’s apartment where Dr Skreta arrives and, with his usual confidence, announces the dog is well known, named Bobis, and belongs to a couple a little way out of town. Now he takes Jakub with him to Bartleff’s apartment, explaining on the way his latest hare-brained scheme, which is to ask the American Bartleff to adopt him, Dr Skreta, so that Skreta immediately becomes an American citizen and can travel freely outside Czechoslovakia!

The three men gather for a convivial chat on many subjects. It is now that we explicitly learn that Bartleff believes halos are a consequence of experiencing oneness with the Godhead, divine delight and are, indeed, blue. Doesn’t think this – he knows it (p.78).

Moving on from this eccentric view, they go on to discuss Klima’s predicament, and then the conversation turns to the topic of fertility in general. Jakub, clearly established now as the Cynic, gives a suite of reasons why he thinks human beings should not procreate, climaxing with the Big One, that procreating implies an absolute affirmation of human life which he, personally, after his life experiences, feels unable to give. After all, as even the usually bullish Dr Skreta is forced to admit:

‘Humanity produces an incredible number of idiots.’ (p.92)

Olga leaves her water treatment and finds a note on her door telling her they’re all at Bartleff’s. There she joins Bartleff, Skreta and Jakub for a convivial private diner, brought to them by a waiter (Bartleff is a rich American, remember) during which he holds forth with a pet theory about the religion of the saints, namely that is was built on a thirst for admiration rather than holiness, as such.

Then the meal is interrupted by a beautiful little girl of 12, in a white dress tied with huge bow behind which looks like angel wings, appears to tell Bartleff he has another appointment. About this stage – what with his knowledge of halos and religion and the arrival of this little angel – I began to wonder whether Bartleff would be a redeeming saving angel in the story: whether it would have a truly supernatural element, as all these little symbols and moments suggest…

Bartleff leaves and Olga, with the callousness of youth, dismisses him as a posing self-dramatist. Skreta and Jakub walk her back to room and then go for a stroll under the big August moon. And it is now that Skreta lets Jakub in on a profound secret: all the women he treats for infertility and who get magically pregnant (including Bartleff’s own wife) – he, Skreta, has created a frozen store of his own sperm, and he is inseminating them all with his own seed. He is creating a world of brothers. No end of communist rhetoric craps on about a world of equality, where brothers and sisters share a common interest, and common values. Well, he, Skreta, is taking steps to really bring it about!

But, as so often in Kundera, his interlocutor, Jakub, is miles away, thinking about his conflicted feelings for Olga, and whether to leave tomorrow or not. He only half hears what Skreta tells him, and thinks it’s another one of his hare-brained schemes.

Fourth Day (Thursday – 47 pages)

Mrs Klima knows all about her husband’s infidelities and they drive her wild with jealousy. As soon as he said some communist committee obliged him to play a benefit gig at some spa resort with a pickup band including a doctor, she knew he was lying. Now, Thursday morning finds them in bed and he lies all over again and can see in her face she doesn’t believe a word. She goes to work. She works in a theatre. She used to be a famous actress but fell ill and her stage career ended. Now she asks if she can have the afternoon off. She’s going to take the train to this bloody spa and confront Klima with his lies!

Olga is having her morning dip in the spa pool among all the naked fat middle-aged women when a young dude in jeans walks in, then a few more follow him. They’re a film crew down from Prague, they’re filming a documentary about the spa. Olga is outraged, gets out and flings a towel round her, before storming off to her cubicle, leaving the woman supervising the pool, nurse Ruzena, fuming.

Jakub has been persuaded to stay on at the spa for an extra day. Dr Skreta has told him that the bulldog which he saved from the dog squad belongs to a young couple who live out in a village. So he drives the dog back to their owners, a young couple with a baby. They’re grateful and give him lunch and present their squawling new baby. What a big nose it’s got, rather like Dr Skreta’s comic banana nose. Hang on! Jakub asks if they were treated by Dr Skreta? ‘Yes! How did he know.’ So maybe Skreta’s hare-brained scheme about breeding a little generation of brothers isn’t mad after all. Maybe he really has been treating all the women’s fertility problems by impregnating them with  his own semen.

For Franta, Ruzena is the only girl he’s ever slept with, she made him a man, she is his world. To watch her swanning off with this big city musician makes him furious. He finishes a fridge repair job (that’s his work) and motorbikes into the spa, heading for the concert hall to watch Klima practice for that night’s gig. For the rest of the day he will be Klima’s shadow.

Jakub drives back to the roadside restaurant where he’s arranged to meet Olga. He doesn’t notice Klima’s car there or Franta’s motorbike. Klima is waiting impatiently for Ruzena and when she arrives he guides her impatiently to a table by the window. She’s been realising Klima is lying to her and begun to be full of righteous indignation. Klima grasps her hand and is half way through telling her how much she loves him when she announces that she’s changed her mind: she’s going to have the baby after all. Klima’s world collapses around him. Glancing out the window she sees Franta peeking out at them from behind some bushes. God, he’s following her everywhere. Feeling harassed she remembers the tube of pills her nurse friend gave her, pulls it out and opens it and pops one of the blue tranquilisers. Klima takes both her hands in his and begins some long speech and then it crosses his mind to take her for a cruise, maybe being in the car will bring back the mood of yesterday.

So up they get and leave. Jakub has been watching all this from across the restaurant and now goes over to the vacated table (the one with the best view in the place). He notices the vial of blue pills Ruzena has left on the table and picks it up and idly plays with it before opening it and being struck how the pills inside are the identical colour as the famous suicide pill Dr Skreta made for him. He gets the suicide pill out. He toys with it in his hand. Playfully he slips it inside Ruzena’s glass vial.

And just at the exact moment Ruzena appears at the table asking for her pills back. She’d got all the way to Klima’s car then realised she’d forgotten them. Jakub hesitates. Ruzena insists. They both recognise each other as the antagonists over the lost dog. Their hatred revives. She reaches out for the vial and he moves his hand up out of reach while he blusteringly tries to think of an excuse not to give them up. But Ruzena screams at him to hand them over, and suddenly something snaps in him. Coldly and ceremoniously, Jakub hands over the vial with the poison pill in it.

For the next seventy or so pages of the book, whenever we come back to Jakub, he will be agonising that he has just condemned the young nurse to death and that – given his political history – this makes him no better at all than the inquisitors and executioners who murdered his friends.

Mrs Klima gets a train to the spa to spy on her friends and is pleasantly surprised to come across the film crew who so upset Olga. They are old friends, they persuade her to come for a lunchtime drink.

On the drive it occurs to Klima that what might persuade Nurse Ruzena that he loves her would be if he made love to her again, if they reconnected on a primal level. Come and see me after the concert, he says, and drops her off.

Ruzena is walking through town at a loss what to do when he hears a voice calling. It’s the three-man camera crew who she let into the pool this morning and so upset Olga. They call her to join them and the pretty woman with them (Klima’s wife).

Jakub hurries his meal with Olga to an end and then rushes to the concert hall where he finds Skreta and Klima rehearsing. He asks if either of them have seen Ruzena, which they haven’t. Suddenly it dawns on him that this is the fulfilment of a deep unconscious wish. He is now proving his most cynical tenet true: there is no difference between the persecutors and the victims. He is thrilled to be murdering one of the petty-minded little bullies. And at the same time he is horrified by himself.

In the nook at the outside pub the three-man film crew are chatting up the two women, the director rubbing Mrs Klima’s thigh with his, while the cameraman puts his arm round Ruzena and accidentally-on-purpose touches her breast. Things are heading towards a drunken orgy when Ruzena suddenly sits bolt upright. She has recognised Kamila as being Klima’s husband. Suddenly it feels like the whole universe is mocking her. The men laugh at her sudden outburst of propriety, and she is longing, longing to tell them she carries the fruit of the loins of oh-so-high-and-mighty Kamila the famous actress. She reaches into her handbag to get the vial of tranquilisers, when she feels a strong hand grip her wrist.

It is Bartleff. His intervention just as Ruzena was about to pop the suicide pill feels a little supernatural, and emphasises even more his magic and mysterious powers. A big, confident man, Bartleff sits down with the crew – who make the resentment they feel at this intrusion prety obvious – and takes charge of proceedings, asking the boy waiter for the best wine in the house, insisting the owner comes to join in a toast, and toasting Ruzena’s beauty. Suddenly she feels transformed from a squalid small town girl to an angel.

Bartleff gets up and accompanies Ruzena off. The party atmosphere of the others collapses. Kamila feels suddenly revolted by the film crew, gets up and leaves.

The concert Jakub takes Olga to the concert. As they settle in, he sees Bartleff and Ruzena sitting not far away and believes more than ever that things have been arranged by a malicious God to torment him. The concert starts and, after a few numbers, Jakub begins to stand up, so he can go and talk to them and warn them about the pill, but at that moment a) Olga grabs his hand and tells him to sit down b) Bartleff and Ruzena themselves get up and swiftly exit the hall. The moment has gone.

Klima had noticed Bartleff and Ruzena coming in and felt confident she was there and he could see her after the show. But when he notices Bartleff and Ruzena exiting, his energy slips, he feels deflated: he just wants the concert to be over. But Dr Skreta is drumming like crazy behind him and won’t let him stop.

Bartleff takes Ruzena back to his apartment and tells her he loves her, he has always loved her. His words are like honey, like magic, she warms and stirs and for the first time for as long as she can remember is not full of self-hatred and doubt. As Bartleff describes how beautiful she is, Ruzena begins to believe it. As he begins to strip her, her body turns to him like a sunflower towards the sun.

As the concert ends Jakub takes Olga back to her room. His mind is obsessed with Ruzena and the pill and he goes round and round in circles trying to decide whether he is a murderer or a hypocrite or an angel of death or the instrument of some higher purpose. He hardly notices when Olga leans forward and kisses him.

Mrs Klima elbows her way through to the dressing room after the concert. She is convinced her husband is having an affair, and expects the arrival of some dollybird any moment, and so is watching him like a hawk. But Klima just seems to be tired, and tells Dr Skreta and the bassist the same. Tired and just wants to go to his room.

Olga kisses Jakub again and leads the absent-minded older man over to the couch where she starts loosening his shirt.

Franta was at the entire concert and now tails the trumpeter to the dressing room, hangs around, and then follows him towards his temporary flat, but… where the devil is Ruzena? Franta just knows she was going to meet the trumpeter after the show, so where’s she got to?

Three acts of love

Kamila and Klima walk to the building and apartment Dr Skreta has arranged for them to stay in overnight. It’s in the same corridor as Olga’s and Bartleff’s. In one room Bartleff is showing Ruzena the most wonderful night of her life; not because of his sexual technique as such, but because he has a magical way of really making her feel beautiful and loved.

Next door Olga has stripped and laid on the couch and Jakub is quietly appalled to find himself in the position of having to make love to her lest he embarrass and humiliate her on the last time they’ll ever spend together. Reluctantly he tries to rise to the occasion, despite a world of details reminding him that she is his ward and charge.

And in the third bedroom, Kamila slowly strips for Klima but he knows she is only doing it, provocatively, because she is convinced he had some erotic escapade lined up. He hates her jealousy and, in his bitterness, his penis shrinks away from her ministrations, convincing Kamila even more that it is not she her husband had been planning to make love to that night.

Meanwhile, Ruzena has never known love like it. She realises she has her whole life ahead of her. There is no need to rush into anything. She falls asleep snuggled in Bartleff’s arms and, when she wakes in the middle of the night, notices the dark room lit by a strange blueish glow. Is he a saint?

Fifth Day (Friday – 34 pages)

Next morning Klima gets up early to go and find Ruzena but she isn’t at her work, or in her dormitory. Unknown to him he is tailed everywhere by Franta, who’s been waiting outside Ruzena’s dormitory all night, frantic with jealousy. Eventually, Ruzena exits from Bartleff’s apartment and is confronted in quick succession by both men, Klima desperate that she is going to come with him to the abortion committee at 9am as they agreed yesterday.

Jakub wakes and immediately calls the bathhouse asking for Ruzena. They say she’s busy right now. An enormous weight lifts from his shoulders, and he thinks: what if the pill Dr Skreta made him was harmless? Yes, that would be the act of a true friend. And he spends a page expanding on this idea that Skreta, the true friend, would never have given him poison. Phew! What a relief!

Klima waits in the waiting room outside the spa pools where Ruzena works till 9. She emerges and he escorts her in silence to the abortion clinic.

Jakub dresses and tiptoes out of the room without waking Olga. He bumps into Mrs Klima who is just leaving their room. They introduce each other and walk downstairs, cross the road into the park. Jakub is absolutely staggered by Kamila’s beauty. Now, on the verge of leaving his homeland forever, he is overcome by a sense that he has never understood the world of art beauty and culture. Suddenly, on impulse, he tells her he is going away, he is leaving the country, he is never coming back, and that she is the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. Then he turns and walks away leaving her standing, watching him, till he disappears from view.

The abortion clinic is grim. Abortion is frowned on in the communist state. The country needs more patriotic citizens. The waiting room is plastered with posters encouraging procreation and praising motherhood.

Jakub returns to Olga’s room. She’s awake now, and inordinately pleased with herself. She is no longer a passive creation of men, somebody’s daughter, somebody’s ward. She has asserted her personhood. Jakub sadly says he really is leaving. He offers to walk her to the pool. On the way she comes over as so gushingly girly, so sweetly indifferent to the fact that he’s leaving his homeland forever, that he realises he has, once again, misjudged the situation. The only thing he knows, is that he knows nothing.

The meeting of the little abortion committee should be grim but is comical. Dr Skreta chairs the session, flanked by two chunky communist party matrons, and he has their measure to perfection. He puts on a tone of aggrieved sternness, and reads the unhappy couple a lecture about the joys of procreation and the needs of the socialist state etc. The matrons nod heavily. But then, with a sigh, he turns to the psychiatric report saying Mrs Klima is in a delicate state, a divorce might kill her. And we don’t want young nurse Ruzena to suffer the indignity of single motherhood. And so, with a heavy heart, Skreta declares that, alas and alack, he is going to sign the form for the abortion to go ahead. The matrons sternly lecture Klima and the nurse and then in turn sign the form. He goes to get up but they say, ‘Not so fast’. They dismiss Ruzena but announce that Klima has to remain behind to ‘volunteer’ to give blood. Cheap at half the price.

Finally, they allow Ruzena to leave, but she finds an angry Franta waiting outside, who blasts her with accusations and follows her down the stairs despite seeing she is distraught.

Having made all his goodbyes, Jakub crosses the spa, and comes across a group of schoolchildren being taken on a nature trail. Looking closely he sees that more than one of them looks like a little Dr Skreta and feels giddy, feels a sense of unreality. All his life he has been close to the centre of things, to the heart of the action, to politics and weighty affairs. What if all that was nonsense? What if the real beating heart of a country, a nation, of the thing we call reality, is miles away and other than we can possibly imagine?

Furious Franta follows Ruzena across the spa and into the hall where she works, up the stairs and along the corridor and into the hall lined with beds where women patients rest in cotton dressing gowns after their dip, shouting all the way that it is his baby and how dare she seek to terminate it. (Franta is under the misapprehension that Ruzena is pregnant with his baby and has somehow paid or blackmailed the trumpeter to pose as its father in order to secure a termination. The much worse reality hasn’t dawned on him.)

At the climax of their argument Ruzena reaches into her handbag, pulls out the vial of tranquilisers, fetches out the one at the top and pops it into her mouth, moments later feels a stab of pain in her tummy, bends double, and falls to the floor, dead!

The aftermath of nurse Ruzena’s mystery death

Franta gets even more hysterical and starts shouting that he killed her, it was him, he drove her to it. Another nurse runs to investigate then goes off to get a doctor. A dozen semi-naked women patients cluster round the figure on the floor. Everyone is pricked with curiosity to see death.

At the very same moment, Jakub is making his goodbyes to his old friend Dr Skreta. He decides to come clean about Olga’s father. He was not the persecuted hero everyone believes him to have been, on the contrary. It was Olga’s father who sent him, Jakub, his best friend, to prison. In fact Olga’s father thought he was sending Jakub to his execution. Olga’s dad felt very heroic about it, because it showed that he could put the principles of the revolution above personal concerns.

Six months later he himself was arrested, tried and executed, and Jakub was eventually released. This revelation leads Skreta to make a complicated analysis of Jakub’s mixed motives in looking after the girl, but Jakub disagrees with it, and then they’re both getting into a big argument when the phone rings, Skreta picks it up and learns there’s an emergency over at the baths, he is needed.

Crucially, they don’t tell him that nurse Ruzena has dropped dead, and so he doesn’t tell Jakub. Instead they do a big handshake and part for ever, walk down the corridor and out of the building, Jakub makes for his car, and Dr Skreta hurries to the halls.

A police inspector has arrived at the scene. He is standing over the prostrate body interviewing witnesses and trying to keep the frantic Franta at bay, who keeps on yelling that he did it, he drove her to suicide. (And indeed, for the rest of his life, he will carry this conviction like the mark of Cain on his forehead.

There is now some sharp comedy for Dr Skreta demonstrates his superhuman ability to grasp a situation and say the best thing. Since Franta is so loudly claiming the baby was his, Skreta immediately falls in with this lie, and then explains to the inspector that Klima had accompanied her to the abortion clinic because he was doing a kindly deed and volunteering to appear to be the father, so that Ruzena wouldn’t be forced to marry Franta.

Jakub drives off in blissful ignorance of how his chance gesture with the poison pill played out. He spends three densely argued and highly intellectual pages worrying about the meaning of his act, and comparing it unfavourably with Raskolnikov’s famous murder in Crime and Punishment. Here, as elsewhere throughout his works, a Kundera character reflects that whereas in the old days life was heavy and tragic, now it seems almost unbearably light, as if it can blow away in a puff of wind. (p.171)

Klima has finally finished giving blood and walks briskly over to Dr Skreta’s office to find the doctor out. When the doctor finally walks in looking a bit ruffled, Klima grabs his hand and thanks him profusely, for playing such a great set on the drums, but for stage-managing the abortion committee so smoothly. Well, it turns out not to matter since Ruzena is dead.

Klima continues shaking the doctor’s hand, his mouth agape, his brain trying to process this news, which lifts the nightmare burden he’s been labouring under for so long. Quickly, Skreta fills him in. It looked like suicide, and her boyfriend has been telling everyone that a) he’s the father and b) she threatened to kill herself if he didn’t leave her alone. So – Skreta explains to Klima – on the spot he devised the story that Klima had done the chivalrous thing in accompanying Ruzena to the clinic, but was in no other way involved.

He’s in the clear! They shake hands a bit more then Klima leaves the office and staggers back to the room to meet his wife. He kisses her face and neck and shoulders and then sinks to the floor and kisses the hem of her skirt, God he is so grateful, more grateful than words can express. They carry the bags down into the car, and he asks her to drive back to Prague and all the way there her beauty fills the car like a fine fragrance.

But then we go over to her mind, and we see her slowly realising, for the first time, that maybe the only thing that holds her to Klima is her jealousy. But that strange man who stopped her in the park and simply told her she was beautiful before walking off… he made her think. She is beautiful, and strong and independent. If she overcame her obsessive jealousy of Klima what would be left? Precious little. For the first time she can envision a future without him. And she smiles.

And Klima, completely misinterpreting her smile, looks over at her smiling and is filled with love and relief.

The inspector

The last ten pages are taken up with a mixture of broad comedy, clever paradoxes and cunning reversals. Olga arrives in Bartleff’s apartment to find him, the inspector and Dr Skreta discussing the death. Bartleff is absolutely firm that the night before nurse Ruzena had undergone a spiritual experience unlike any other in her life, and had seen a world full of new possibilities, and that suicide is absolutely the last thing she would have done.

Several of his remarks irk the inspector who decides to put the American in his place by devoting a page to demonstrating how all the existing evidence could in fact be stacked up to prove in a court of law that Bartleff was the murderer, the motive being to shut the nurse up before Bartleff’s wife arrives later that day. A tense silence. Then the inspector laughs. He was just showing how evidence in such an ambiguous case can be twisted anyway you want (which makes a distant link with Jakub’s remarks at several places about ‘revolutionary justice’ which incarcerated him and thousands like him).

The inspector shakes hands and leaves and Bartleff goes to his room to change. Alone with Dr Skreta, suddenly Olga remembers the blue pill, the suicide pill, which Jakub showed her, could… might it… was that… She asks him straight out: Did he ever prepare a poison pill for Jakub?

‘That’s absolute nonsense. I never gave him anything of the kind,’ Dr Skreta replied with great firmness. Then Bartleff returned from the other room, wearing a different necktie, and Olga took her leave of both men. (p.182)

I love Dr Skreta.

And the end belongs to him. On the penultimate page, as he and Bartleff are strolling to the railway station to meet their wives, Skreta hesitantly asks if Bartleff can adopt him. Initially surprised, Bartleff lets himself be talked into it and announces it will be great fun.

And then, as the two wives get off the train and walk with their husbands, Mrs Bartleff shows them all her new baby. And they all comment on how very like Dr Skreta he looks, ha ha ha. But of course the reader knows this must be because Mrs Bartleff is yet another of his patients who he inseminated with his sperm. The baby really is his son! But also his brother, since Bartleff has just adopted him. And so the two happy couples walk from the train station towards the resort, laughing and joking about the brotherhood of man under a big autumn moon.

Thoughts

Clever, isn’t it? Very clever. Very beautifully assembled. Like a Swiss clock, with all the parts fitting together just so.

The Farewell Party is funny and a little mysterious (the blue halo and the saint) and thought provoking (Jakub’s political musings about human nature and betrayal), but in the end, there’s no getting around the fact that the central premise is how to shut up and repress a difficult woman, so all concerned can go back to their philandering ways – and that the only solution turns out to be killing her.

I came to really like Dr Skreta’s combination of eccentricity with his whip-smart ability to manage situations (the abortion committee, his immediate exculpation of Klima when he is called to the dead nurse). He was the purest comic creation, not least in his plan to create a real brotherhood of man by inseminating all his patients.

Jakub is a more complex creation, like a bitter ghost overthinking everything but, as always, I warmed to his accounts of the political repression of the country, and of the grim logic of revolutions i.e. people betray their best friends in order to show their revolutionary zeal.

I hoped right to the bitter end that the mystique surrounding Bartleff (blue halo, painter of saints, big hearty ability to put people at ease, the angelic little girl who appears at his dinner party…) would mean that he would somehow, magically, be able to revive Ruzena. After all, the point is made at the start of the novel that he has just painted a portrait of a saint named Lazarus, named after the man Jesus raised from the dead. I can’t overcome a deep sense of disappointment that this didn’t happen, that he didn’t somehow raise Ruzena from the dead… Maybe, on reflection, that is the point.

Klima is a cipher – the harassed philanderer. It’s often the minor characters which intrigue and linger in your mind. Mrs Klima – Kamila – doesn’t appear much but when she does her jealousy, her own status as once-famous actress, and her dawning realisation that she might be able to go it alone, these make for a potent character. And Olga is a minor character but has a lingering effect: Jakub is appalled that she takes their act of love so lightly; but in this she represents precisely the lightness and inconsequentiality of the young generation.


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

A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper: Making Sense of the Numbers in the Headlines by John Allen Paulos (1995)

Always be smart. Seldom be certain. (p.201)

Mathematics is not primarily a matter of plugging numbers into formulas and performing rote computations. It is a way of thinking and questioning that may be unfamiliar to many of us, but is available to almost all of us. (p.3)

John Allen Paulos

John Allen Paulos is an American professor of mathematics who came to wider fame with publication of his short (130-page) primer, Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and its Consequences, published in 1988.

It was followed by Beyond Numeracy: Ruminations of a Numbers Man in 1991 and this book, A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper in 1995.

Structure

The book is made up of about 50 short chapters. He explains that each one of them will take a topic in the news in 1993 and 1994 and show how it can be analysed and understood better using mathematical tools.

The subjects of the essays are laid out under the same broad headings that you’d encounter in a newspaper, with big political stories at the front, giving way to:

  • Local, business and social issues
  • Lifestyle, spin and soft news
  • Science, medicine and the environment
  • Food, book reviews, sports and obituaries

Response

The book is disappointing in all kinds of ways.

First and foremost, he does not look at specific stories. All the headlines are invented. Each 4 or 5-page essay may or may not call in aspects of various topics in the news, but they do not look at one major news story and carefully deconstruct how it has been created and publicised in disregard of basic mathematics and probability and statistics. (This alone is highly suggestive of the possibility that, despite all his complaints to the contrary, specific newspaper stories where specific mathematical howlers are made and can be corrected are, in fact surprisingly rare.)

The second disappointment is that, even though these essays are very short, they cannot stay focused on one idea or example for much more than a page. I hate to say it and I don’t mean to be rude, but Paulos’s text has some kind of attention deficit disorder: the essays skitter all over the place, quickly losing whatever thread they ever had in a blizzard of references to politics, baseball, pseudoscience and a steady stream of bad jokes. He is so fond of digressions, inserts, afterthoughts and tangents that it is often difficult to say what any given essay is about.

I was hoping that each essay would take a specific news story and show how journalists had misunderstood the relevant data and maths to get it wrong, and would then show the correct way to analyse and interpret it. I was hoping that the 50 or so examples would have been carefully chosen to build up for the reader an armoury of techniques of arithmetic, probability, calculus, logarithms and whatever else is necessary to immediately spot, deconstruct and correct articles with bad maths in them.

Nope. Not at all.

Lani ‘Quota Queen’ Guinier

Take the very first piece, Lani ‘Quota Queen’ Guinier. For a start he doesn’t tell us who Lani ‘Quota Queen’ Guinier is. I deduce from his introduction that she was President Clinton’s nomination for the post of assistant attorney general for civil rights. We can guess, then, that the nickname ‘quota queen’ implies she was a proponent of quotas, though whether for black people, women or what is not explained.

Why not?

Paulos introduces us to the Banzhaf power index, devised in 1965 by lawyer John F. Banzhaf.

The Banzhaf power index of a group, party or person is defined to be the number of ways in which that group, party or person can change a losing coalition into a winning coalition or vice versa. (p.10)

He gives examples of companies where three or four shareholders hold different percentages of voting rights and shows how some coalitions of shareholders will always have decisive voting rights, whereas others never will (these are called the dummy) while even quite small shareholders can hold disproportionate power. For example in a situation where three shareholders hold 45%, 45% and 10% of the shares, the 10% party can often have the decisive say. In 45%, 45%, 8% and 2% the 2% is the dummy.

He then moves on to consider voting systems in some American states, including: cumulative voting, systems where votes don’t count as 1 but are proportionate to population, Borda counts (where voters rank the candidates and award progressively more points to those higher up the rankings), approval voting (where voters have as many votes as they want and can vote for as many candidates as they approve of), before going on to conclude that all voting systems have their drawbacks.

The essay ends with a typical afterthought, one-paragraph coda suggesting how the Supreme Court could end up being run by a cabal of just three judges. There are nine judges on the U.S. Supreme Court. Imagine (key word for Paulos), imagine a group of five judges agree to always discuss issues among themselves first, before the vote of the entire nine, and imagine they decide to always vote according to whatever the majority (3) decide. Then imagine that a sub-group of just three judges go away and secretly decide, that in the group of five, they will always agree. Thus they will dictate the outcome of every Supreme Court decision.

So:

1. I had no idea who Lani ‘Quota Queen’ Guinier was or, more precisely, I had to do a bit of detective work to figure it out, and still wasn’t utterly sure.

2. This is a very sketchy introduction to the issue of democratic voting systems. This is a vast subject, which Paulos skates over quickly and thinly.

Thus, in these four and a bit pages you have the characteristic Paulos experience of feeling you are wandering all over the place, not quite at random, but certainly not in a carefully planned sequential way designed to explore a topic thoroughly and reach a conclusion. You are introduced to a number of interesting ideas, with some maths formulae, but not in enough detail or at sufficient length to really understand them. And because he’s not addressing any particular newspaper report or article, there are no particular misconceptions to clear up: the essay is a brief musing, a corralling of thoughts on an interesting topic.

This scattergun approach characterises the whole book.

Psychological availability and anchoring effects

The second essay is titled Psychological availability and anchoring effects. He explains what the availability error, the anchor effect and the halo effect are. If this is the first time you’ve come across these notions, they’re powerful new ideas. But I recently reread Irrationality by Stuart Sutherland which came out three years before Paulos’s book and spends over three hundred pages investigating these and all the other cognitive biases which afflict mankind in vastly more depth than Paulos, with many more examples. Next to it, Paulos’s three-minute essay seemed sketchy and superficial.

General points

Rather than take all 50 essays to pieces, here are notes on what I actually did learn. Note that almost none of it was about maths, but general-purpose cautions about how the news media work, and how to counter its errors of logic. In fact, all of it could have come from a media studies course without any maths at all:

  • almost all ‘news’ reinforces conventional wisdom
  • because they’re so brief, almost all headlines must rely on readers’ existing assumptions and prejudices
  • almost all news stories relate something new back to similar examples from the past, even when the comparison is inappropriate, again reinforcing conventional wisdom and failing to recognise the genuinely new
  • all economic forecasts are rubbish: this is because economics (like the weather and many other aspects of everyday life) is a non-linear system. Chaos theory shows that non-linear systems are highly sensitive to even minuscule differences in starting conditions, which has been translated into pop culture as the Butterfly Effect
  • and also with ‘futurologists’: the further ahead they look, the less reliable their predictions
  • the news is deeply biased by always assuming human agency is at work in any outcome: if any disaster happens anywhere the newspapers always go searching for a culprit; in the present Brexit crisis lots of news outlets are agreeing to blame Theresa May. But often things happen at random or as an accumulation of unpredictable factors. Humans are not good at acknowledging the role of chance and randomness.

There is a tendency to look primarily for culpability and conflicts of human will rather than at the dynamics of a natural process. (p.160)

  • Hence so many newspapers endlessly playing the blame game. The Grenfell Tower disaster was, first and foremost, an accident in the literal sense of ‘an unfortunate incident that happens unexpectedly and unintentionally, typically resulting in damage or injury’ – but you won’t find anybody who doesn’t fall in with the prevailing view that someone must be to blame. There is always someone to blame. We live in a Blame Society.
  • personalising beats stats, data or probability: nothing beats ‘the power of dramatic anecdote’ among the innumerate: ‘we all tend to be unduly swayed by the dramatic, the graphic, the visceral’ (p.82)
  • if you combine human beings’ tendency to personalise everything, and to look for someone to blame, you come up with Donald Trump, who dominates every day’s news
  • so much is happening all the time, in a world with more people and incidents than ever before, in which we are bombarded with more information via more media than ever before – that it would be extraordinary if all manner or extraordinary coincidences, correspondences and correlations didn’t happen all the time
  • random events can sometimes present a surprisingly ordered appearance
  • because people imbue meaning into absolutely everything, then the huge number of coincidences and correlations are wrongfully interpreted as meaningful

Tips and advice

I was dismayed at the poor quality of many of the little warnings which each chapter ends with. Although Paulos warns against truisms (on page 54) his book is full of them.

Local is not what it used to be, and we shouldn’t be surprised at how closely we’re linked. (p.55)

In the public realm, often the best we can do is to stand by and see how events unfold. (p.125)

Chapter three warns us that predictions about complex systems (the weather, the economy, big wars) are likely to be more reliable the simpler the system they’re predicting, and the shorter period they cover. Later he says we should be sceptical about all long-term predictions by politicians, economists and generals.

It didn’t need a mathematician to tell us that.

A lot of it just sounds like a grumpy old man complaining about society going to the dogs:

Our increasingly integrated and regimented society undermines our sense of self… Meaningless juxtapositions and coincidences replace conventional narratives and contribute to our dissociation… (pp.110-111)

News reports in general, and celebrity coverage in particular, are becoming ever-more self-referential. (p.113)

We need look no further than the perennial appeal of pseudoscientific garbage, now being presented in increasingly mainstream forums… (p.145)

The fashion pages have always puzzled me. In my smugly ignorant view, they appear to be so full of fluff and nonsense as to make the astrology columns insightful by comparison. (p.173)

Another aspect of articles in the society pages or in the stories about political and entertainment figures is the suggestion that ‘everybody’ knows everybody else. (p.189)

Sometimes his liberal earnestness topples into self-help book touchy-feeliness.

Achieving personal integration and a sense of self is for the benefit of ourselves and those we’re close to. (p.112)

But just occasionally he does say something unexpected:

The attention span created by television isn’t short; it’s long, but very, very shallow. (p.27)

That struck me as an interesting insight but, as with all his interesting comments, no maths was involved. You or I could have come up with it from general observation.

Complexity horizon

The notion that the interaction of human laws, conventions, events, politics, and general information overlap and interplay at ever-increasing speeds to eventually produce situations so complex as to appear unfathomable. Individuals, and groups and societies, have limits of complexity beyond which they cannot cope, but have to stand back and watch. Reading this made me think of Brexit.

He doesn’t mention it, but a logical spin-off would be that every individual has a complexity quotient like an intelligence quotient or IQ. Everyone could take a test in which they are faced with situations of slowly increasing complexity – or presented with increasingly complex sets of information – to find out where their understanding breaks off – which would become their CQ.

Social history

The book was published in 1995 and refers back to stories current in the news in 1993 and 1994. The run of domestic political subjects he covers in the book’s second quarter powerfully support my repeated conviction that it is surprising how little some issues have changed, how little movement there has been on them, and how they have just become a settled steady part of the social landscape of our era.

Thus Paulos has essays on:

  • gender bias in hiring
  • homophobia
  • accusations of racism arising from lack of ethnic minorities in top jobs (the problem of race crops up numerous times (pp.59-62, p.118)
  • the decline in educational standards
  • the appallingly high incidence of gun deaths, especially in black and minority communities
  • the fight over abortion

I feel increasingly disconnected from contemporary politics, not because it is addressing new issues I don’t understand, but for the opposite reason: it seems to be banging on about the same issues which I found old and tiresome twenty-five years ago.

The one topic which stood out as having changed is AIDS. In Innumeracy and in this book he mentions the prevalence or infection rates of AIDS and is obviously responding to numerous news stories which, he takes it for granted, report it in scary and alarmist terms. Reading these repeated references to AIDS made me realise how completely and utterly it has fallen off the news radar in the past decade or so.

In the section about political correctness he makes several good anti-PC points:

  • democracy is about individuals, the notion that everyone votes according to their conscience and best judgement; as soon as you start making it about groups (Muslims, blacks, women, gays) you start undermining democracy
  • racism and sexism and homophobia are common enough already without making them the standard go-to explanations for social phenomena which often have more complex causes; continually attributing all aspects of society to just a handful of inflammatory issues, keeps the issues inflammatory
  • members of groups often vie with each other to assert their loyalty, to proclaim their commitment to the party line and this suggests a powerful idea: that the more opinions are expressed, the more extreme these opinions will tend to become. This is a very relevant idea to our times when the ubiquity of social media has a) brought about a wonderful spirit of harmony and consensus, or b) divided society into evermore polarised and angry groupings

Something bad is coming

I learned to fear several phrases which indicate that a long, possibly incomprehensible and frivolously hypothetical example is about to appear:

‘Imagine…’

Imagine flipping a penny one thousand times in succession and obtaining some sequence of heads and tails… (p.75)

Imagine a supercomputer, the Delphic-Cray 1A, into which has been programmed the most complete and up-to-date scientific knowledge, the initial condition of all particles, and sophisticated mathematical techniques and formulas. Assume further that… Let’s assume for argument’s sake that… (p.115)

Imagine if a computer were able to generate a random sequence S more complex than itself. (p.124)

Imagine the toast moistened, folded, and compressed into a cubical piece of white dough… (p.174)

Imagine a factory that produces, say, diet food. Let’s suppose that it is run by a sadistic nutritionist… (p.179)

‘Assume that…’

Let’s assume that each of these sequences is a billion bits long… (p.121)

Assume the earth’s oceans contain pristinely pure water… (p.141)

Assume that there are three competing healthcare proposals before the senate… (p.155)

Assume that the probability of your winning the coin flip, thereby obtaining one point, is 25 percent. (p.177)

Assume that these packages come off the assembly line in random order and are packed in boxes of thirty-six. (p.179)

Jokes and Yanks

All the examples are taken from American politics (President Clinton), sports (baseball) and wars (Vietnam, First Gulf War) and from precisely 25 years ago (on page 77, he says he is writing in March 1994), both of which emphasise the sense of disconnect and irrelevance with a British reader in 2019.

As my kids know, I love corny, bad old jokes. But not as bad as the ones the book is littered with:

And then there was the man who answered a matchmaking company’s computerised personals ad in the paper. He expressed his desire for a partner who enjoys company, is comfortable in formal wear, likes winter sports, and is very short. The company matched him with a penguin. (pp.43-44)

The moronic inferno and the liberal fallacy

The net effect of reading this book carefully is something that the average person on the street knew long ago: don’t believe anything you read in the papers.

And especially don’t believe any story in a newspaper which involves numbers, statistics, percentages, data or probabilities. It will always be wrong.

More broadly his book simply fails to take account of the fact that most people are stupid and can’t think straight, even very, very educated people. All the bankers whose collective efforts brought about the 2008 crash. All the diplomats, strategists and military authorities who supported the Iraq War. All the well-meaning liberals who supported the Arab Spring in Egypt and Libya and Syria. Everyone who voted Trump. Everyone who voted Brexit.

Most books of this genre predicate readers who are white, university-educated, liberal middle class and interested in news and current affairs, the arts etc and – in my opinion – grotesquely over-estimate both their value and their relevance to the rest of the population. Because this section of the population – the liberal, university-educated elite – is demonstrably in a minority.

Over half of Americans believe in ghosts, and a similar number believes in alien abductions. A third of Americans believe the earth is flat, and that the theory of evolution is a lie. About a fifth of British adults are functionally illiterate and innumerate. This is what Saul Bellow referred to as ‘the moronic inferno’.

On a recent Radio 4 documentary about Brexit, one contributor who worked in David Cameron’s Number Ten commented that he and colleagues went out to do focus groups around the country to ask people whether we should leave the EU and that most people didn’t know what they were talking about. Many people they spoke to had never heard of the European Union.

On page 175 he says the purpose of reading a newspaper is to stretch the mind, to help us envision distant events, different people and unusual situations, and broaden our mental landscape.

Is that really why he thinks people read newspapers? As opposed to checking the sports results, catching up with celebrity gossip, checking what’s happening in the soaps, reading interviews with movie and pop stars, looking at fashion spreads, reading about health fads and, if you’re one of the minority who bother with political news, having all your prejudices about how wicked and stupid the government, the poor, the rich or foreigners etc are, and despising everyone who disagrees with you (Guardian readers hating Daily Mail readers; Daily Mail readers hating Guardian readers; Times readers feeling smugly superior to both).

This is a fairly entertaining, if very dated, book – although all the genuinely useful bits are generalisations about human nature which could have come from any media studies course.

But if it was intended as any kind of attempt to tackle the illogical thinking and profound innumeracy of Western societies, it is pissing in the wind. The problem is vastly bigger than this chatty, scattergun and occasionally impenetrable book can hope to scratch. On page 165 he says that a proper understanding of mathematics is vital to the creation of ‘an informed and effective citizenry’.

‘An informed and effective citizenry’?


Related links

Reviews of other science books

Chemistry

Cosmology

The Environment

Genetics and life

Human evolution

Maths

Particle physics

Psychology

Family Britain: A Thicker Cut, 1954-57 by David Kynaston (2009)

This is the second part of the second volume of David Kynaston’s social history of post-war Britain. As usual, it is a dense collage of quotes from the diaries, letters, interviews, surveys and speeches of an enormous range of people from Prime Minister Winston Churchill to vox pops of shoppers in the street via civil servants, actors, coal miners, housewives, writers who were kids at the time recalling their early memories (John Fowles, David Hare, Alan Bennett, Hunter Davies) – all combining to give you a really deeply felt sense of what it was like to live through these years.

Chronological events part one

Thus, without any preliminary introduction the book opens straight into a cabinet meeting discussing the problem of coloured workers, held on Wednesday 3 February 1954: ‘Are we to saddle ourselves with colour problems in the UK?’ Winston Churchill asked, a sentiment which is echoed half a dozen times as the race problem and the ‘colour bar’ are revisited throughout the book, reflecting the rising rate of immigration from the Commonwealth.

This very long book then touches on:

1954

  • the housing problem, the debate about whether to build flats or houses, and whether to shunt people out to the periphery (as believed by ‘dispersionists’) or keep them in high rise inner cities (‘urbanists’)
  • whether to decriminalise homosexuality, specifically in light of the trial of Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, Michael Pitt-Rivers and Peter Wildeblood, which began in 15 March
  • Billy Graham’s Greater London Crusade starting 1 March
  • the campaign to set up a commercial TV channel to rival the BBC’s monopoly; the canny entrepreneurs lobbying for commercial TV choose Sir Kenneth Clarke as their ultra-respectable front man and he gives a speech supporting it; next time he enters his club, he is roundly booed
  • 5 April Commons debate about the H-bomb, necessary if Britain is to remain ‘a world power’
  • repeated crashes of the British-built Comet airliner result in it being grounded and overtaken by the American Boeing
  • newspapers report on fighting at youth clubs and dance halls involving teenagers with a new look, the Teddy Boys: ‘The effect of the whole décor is thin, mean and sinister, and is obviously meant to be’ (Cyril Dunn in his diary)
  • Doctor in the House starring Dirk Bogarde is the box office smash of 1954
  • 6 May 1954 at Iffley Road track in Oxford, Roger Bannister breaks the four-minute mile
  • on 27 May, Hungary beat England 7-1 (West Germany go on to beat Hungary in the World Cup Final in July)
  • Iris Murdoch publishes her first novel, Under the Net. She is a committed communist
  • butter comes off the ration
  • June, Benny Hill shoots to TV stardom doing impersonations on Showcase
  • the myxomatosis epidemic among wild rabbits continued, eventually 99% of the population is wiped out
  • refrigerators are beginning to be a sign of status, notes sociologist Phyllis Willmott (p.399); restrictions on hire-purchase are removed for a wide range of consumer goods such as fridges, hoovers, radios, TVs, motorbikes and cars, setting in train the consumer society
  • August – Salad Days is a surprise hit in the theatre, starting a run which continues till 1960
  • Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring published, followed in November by the Two Towers
  • September – the Third Programme’s live broadcast of Benjamin Britten’s new opera, A Turn of the Screw
  • Kidbrook school opens, London’s first purpose-built comprehensive
  • October – an exhibition of paintings by John Bratby leads critic David Sylvester to coin the term ‘kitchen sink’ school, which goes on to be widely applied to theatre and film
  • 2 November – début of Hancock’s Half Hour on BBC radio
  • by the end of the year there are nearly 4 million TV licences

1955

  • January – BBC documentary Has Britain a Colour Bar? to which the answer was emphatically yes
  • February: road traffic has almost doubled since 1938 and so the government publishes a major road expansion plan including the building of two motorways, M1 and M6
  • government also announces plans to build 12 nuclear power stations, the most advanced scheme of nuclear power anywhere in the world
  • January – debut on TV of The Sooty Show and The Benny Hill Show
  • February – debut of Kitchen Magic, presented by Fanny Cradock, first of the celebrity chefs, coinciding with the era of rationing passing into memory i.e. the start of conspicuous consumption
  • March – national newspaper strike
  • 5 April Winston Churchill (aged 80) steps down as leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister
  • 6 April replaced by Anthony Eden (Eton and Christ Church, Oxford) who announces a snap general election for 26 May (the voting age was still 21, as it continued to be until 1969)
  • May General Election: Conservatives 321 seats, Labour 277, Liberals 6, the 17 communist candidates polled 33,000 votes between them. Turnout was down from 82 to 76% amid what Kynaston portrays as widespread apathy, the general interpretation being that the economy was booming, rationing was over, consumer goods were becoming widely available, who cares about politics? Hugh Gaitskell, and Kynaston, attribute it to Tory success with housewives.
  • May Day – Stirling Moss became the first British driver to win the Mille Miglia in Italy
  • May – The Dam Busters released, the outstanding British film of the year ‘maybe of the decade’
  • Miners strike, train drivers strike, dockers’ strike
  • 13 July Ruth Ellis hanged for murder, last woman hanged (the last men hanged were executed in August 1964)
  • August – Kingsley Amis’s second novel, That Uncertain Feeling, and publication of the first edition of the Guinness Book of Records
  • September – Henry Fairlie writes an article in the Spectator describing the ‘Establishment’ that runs Britain
  • 22 September – commercial television (ITV) starts broadcasting in the London area
  • October was dominated by controversy among politicians, press and people on the long-running saga about whether young Princess Margaret Rose (25) should or should not marry divorced father-of-two Group-Captain Peter Townsend (30) with whom she was clearly in love. After dividing the nation, she decided not to.

Sociological studies

About two-thirds of the way through the text it abruptly stops giving a month-by-month overview of political and popular events and turns into an extended consideration of various sociological issues, moving seamlessly through religious belief, attitudes to marriage, sex, homosexuality, unmarried mothers, abortion, prostitution, the role of women, women in the home, women in the workplace and so on.

As usual Kynaston draws evidence from a wide range of sources: from social historians, from the surprising number of surveys and sociological studies carried out at the time, from the diaries or letters of ordinary people and politicians or the autobiographies of writers, from questionnaires carried out by contemporary magazines, from government-sponsored reports, and so on.

Inevitably, in the longish sequence about the social expectations on women in the 1950s, the white, private-school-educated man Kynaston bends over backwards to emphasise his feminist credentials and bring out how lazy and selfish 1950s men were, and the pressure of social expectations on women. There’s a lot less about the social expectations on men – to be financial provider, role model, father, and good companion in marriage.

In fact, although a huge amount of the content is informative and illuminating, not much is very surprising: the four books I’ve read so far tend to confirm everything you already suspected, but just with an awesome range of witnesses and voices adding texture and lived experience to the statistics and stereotypes, making the era really come to life.

Some of the sociological findings do raise a smile for confirming sociology’s tendency to state the bleeding obvious. For example, on pages 576-77 Kynaston quotes several surveys which, after hundreds of interviews and hard work compiling the data, present the dazzling conclusion that, for lots of working women, the main motivation for going out to work was — to earn money! 73% of married women gave ‘financial reasons’ as their main motive for going to work. Not, maybe, earth-shattering news.

This list gives you a sense of the scope and number of surveys Kynaston refers to, as well as indicating the subject matter they address:

  • Brian Abel-Smith and Richard Titmuss study of NHS services underpinned the 1956 Guillebaud Committee report on the NHS which recommended no major changes
  • BBC survey 1955-6 about Britain’s decline (28% thought there’d been a decline in Britain’s economic ranking, blaming the trade unions and strikes)
  • White and Coloured by Michael Banton (p.451) recorded how cities across the UK recruited west Indian bus drivers and conductors through the first half of the 1950s
  • 1956 survey of racial attitudes in Birmingham (two thirds thought coloured people were intrinsically less intelligent than white people)
  • Family and Social Network by Elizabeth Bott (1957), including the Bott hypothesis that the connectedness or the density of a husband’s and wife’s separate social networks is positively associated with marital role segregation
  • Tom Brennan, author of a 1956 study of occupants of the Gorbals and attitudes to redevelopment
  • The Sexual, Marital and Family Relationships of the English Woman (1956) by Eustace Chesser (women look for physical strength in man more than looks; the higher up the social scale the more likely a woman was to experience sexual satisfaction; husband doesn’t pet enough [foreplay]; ‘overwhelmingly it was felt by wives that men wanted sex more frequently than women did’, p.592)
  • Citizens of Tomorrow by a working party of educationalists and sociologists
  • Peter Collison – study of the Cutteslowe Wall in Oxford
  • Professor Kate Fisher, pioneering historian of sex e.g. , Birth Control, Sex and Marriage in Britain, 1918-1960 (2007)
  • February 1957 Gallup survey about church going
  • 1954 BBC-commissioned Gallup survey into church attendance
  • anthropologist Frank Girling spent 18 months on a Scottish housing estate studying the unskilled workers and their families (women had a dominant position in the social life of the area and their homes)
  • Social Mobility in Britain by David Glass finding a generally low level of social mobility (p.410)
  • 1951 survey of British life by Geoffrey Gorer
  • Ken Grainger did a study of Herbert’s the machine tool firm in Coventry
  • Natalie Higgins, author of a study of marriage in mid-twentieth century England (women looked for a man who was clean, decent and hard working)
  • Margot Jefferys author of a study of married women working in the civil service
  • Pearl Jephcott investigated youth clubs in London and Nottingham
  • 1956 survey by Joyce Joseph of 600 adolescent girls attending school in the Home Counties and the West Country
  • 1949 Mass-Observation on household income
  • 1951 Mass-Observation survey of 700 working class housewives
  • 1955 Mass-Observation survey into capital punishment
  • 1956 Mass-Observation study of the housewife’s day
  • 1957 Mass-Observation survey on women in work
  • John Barron May’s study of a police division in inner-city Liverpool
  • John Barron May’s 1956 study of Liverpool’s Crown Street area
  • John Mogey’s study of working class life in Oxford
  • 1954 NHS survey of services for the elderly
  • Anthony Richmond author of The Colour Problem
  • Elizabeth Roberts, author of a 1990s oral history of Barrow, Lancaster and Preston – parents became closer to their children, than their own parents had been
  • Women of the Streets (1955) edited by C.H. Rolph
  • English Life and Leisure (1951)  by Rowntree and Lavers
  • Lulie Shaw, author of a study of a working class suburb in the 1950s
  • John Smith in 1955 conducted field work at the Peak Freen biscuit factory in Bermondsey
  • Steven Tolliday’s study of Coventry engineering workers
  • The Family Life of Old People (1957) by Peter Townsend
  • Margaret Williamson – interviews in the ironstone region of Cleveland: post-war fathers more involved and willing to play with their children than pre-war fathers
  • Family and Kinship in East London (1957) by Michael Young and Peter Willmott
  • More About the Sex Factor by Dr Helena Wright (1947)

The single finding I found most interesting was the notion that the extended kinship system Young and Willmott found in the East End (grandparents and siblings living nearby and able to babysit and do errands) disappeared as young couples moved out to housing estates on the edge of town, and to new towns. Being isolated and thrown back on their own resources coincided or led to a) families being smaller (two children) and b) a greater sharing of household work and parenting, more involvement by dads i.e. the loss of an extended family network was compensated by more ‘modern’ gender roles. Although it did also just lead to lots of lonely, isolated mums.

Chronological events part two

1955

  • October 15 Rock Around the Clock by Bill Haley and the Comets enters the Billboard Top 20
  • November: Cabinet decided not to support the Home Secretary’s plan for legislation to limit immigration from the Commonwealth
  • books of the year: The Cruel Sea, Reach for the Sky, HMS Ulysses
  • Christmas Day: Somerset Maugham published an attack on Kingsley Amis’s characters, calling them ‘scum’
  • December Clement Attlee stands down as leader of the Labour Party, replaced by Hugh Gaitskell (aged 49, educated at Winchester Public School and New College, Oxford)

1956

  • January – a concert by young turks Harrison Birtwhistle and Peter Maxwell Davies
  • February – London Transport starts to recruit staff from Barbados, followed by Trinidad and Jamaica
  • high prices bring discontent, complaints about Eden’s premiership, and worries about growing manufacturing competition from Germany and Japan
  • March – politicians and commentators react to news of Nikita Khrushchev’s speech denouncing Stalin and his crimes – a number of intellectuals quit the communist party and were to form the nucleus of the New Left which flourished in the 1960s
  • April – release of Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier amid an orgy of merchandising
  • April – Khrushchev and Soviet premier Bulganin visit Britain, attending a race meeting, tea with the Queen, lunch at the House of Commons, and questions at the Oxford Union
  • 8 May – first night of Look Back In Anger by John Osborne divides the critics
  • 19 May – Elvis Presley entered the British charts for the first time with Heartbreak Hotel
  • May – opening of the This is Tomorrow art exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, including Richard Hamilton’s iconic collage, Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing, the earliest example of Pop Art
Just What Is It That Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing (1956) by Richard Hamilton

Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing (1956) by Richard Hamilton

  • 12 June – bulldozers start clearing hedgerows for the building of the M6, Britain’s first motorway (opened in 1958, the M1 was opened in 1959)
  • winter, spring and summer dominated by strikes, strident speeches by trade union leaders and complaints from the media about their selfishness
  • October – Tommy Steele enters the top 20 with Rock with the Caveman becoming Britain’s first rock’n’roll star
  • 17 October Windscale nuclear power station became the first nuclear power plant to feed electricity into a national grid anywhere in the world
  • November – Post Office Premium Bonds launched

1957

  • Wednesday 9 January – Sir Anthony Eden resigns as Tory leader and Prime Minister on grounds of ill health
  • Thursday 10 January – replaced by Harold Macmillan (Eton and Balliol College, Oxford)

Suez and Hungary

Traditional history of the 1950s focus on the Suez Crisis as a symptom of the end of Britain’s role as a genuine global power. Characteristically Kynaston reserves it for almost an afterthought in the last fifteen or so pages of the book, and even then his account is interspersed with references to Elvis Presley, Fanny Cradock and petrol prices, and he doesn’t concern himself with the military or geopolitical issues, but focuses on how the unfolding crisis was received by his usual cast of diarists – Nella Last, Anthony Heap and so on – as well as the diary entries of Prime Minister Eden’s wife and the private thoughts of other politicians. Two things come over:

  • I hadn’t realised that the Anglo-French invasion of Suez and the Soviet tanks rukbling in to suppress the Hungarian Uprising were so closely synchronised – the first shots fired by the Hungarian security forces on protesters were on 23 October, the next day Soviet tanks occupied Budapest. On 29 October Israeli jets attacked Egyptian positions and on 31 October the British and French began bombing Egyptian positions on 31 October. Part of what made liberals so angry about Suez was that it was an illegal unilateral action not sanctioned by the UN. At a stroke this removed the moral superiority or ability of the West to criticise the Soviets. If there had been no Suez the West would have been infinitely better placed to protest the Soviet invasion and sanction the USSR.
  • I knew that Suez divided the nation but Kynaston’s strength, here as everywhere else in the book, is to use diaries, letters, speeches, memoirs to really bring home the virulent anger on both sides. As families and husbands and wives and generations bitterly fell out over the best course of action, it’s impossible not to see the parallels with Brexit.

Class

Of the Conservative Party’s 600 candidates in the 1955 general election, 80% went to private school, and 80 had gone to Eton. Ten of Anthony Eden’s 18-strong cabinet went to Eton, five of whom also went on to Christ Church, Oxford (‘the House’, as it is known). Small world, the ruling class.

The education dilemma

Nearly seventy years after the debates about education which Kynaston quotes so extensively in his book, we:

  • still have an extensive network of private schools, whose alumni continue to dominate all aspects of public and economic life
  • are still agonising and hand-wringing about whether selection at age 11, the 11-plus, and grammar schools are a good or a bad thing

Examples of such agonising and debating:

Why are the basic facts about education i.e. what works best for individuals and for society as a whole, still not definitely known? What have all those educationalists and university departments of education and educational psychologists and all the rest of them been doing for the past 65 years?

Consumer society

My impression of British history over the past 70 years is that people wanted more stuff.

Governments came and went, politicians agonised over the precise wording of manifestos and speeches, clever Oxbridge graduates devised wizard wheezes (the poll tax, universal credit) but Kynaston’s approach to history makes it crystal clear that most people don’t give a stuff about politics – again and again disillusioned politicians find themselves speaking to tiny audiences in the rain, or surveys show that half the people surveyed have never even heard the phrase ‘welfare state’, let alone have sophisticated ideas about how to fund it.

What comes over strongly – especially in the recurrent thread about housing, slum clearance, the creation of flats and so on – is that people want to be left alone to get on with their lives. Again and again we read that people want to live in houses because of the privacy and don’t want to live in flats because of the lack of privacy.

And all through the book there is a massive disconnect between the university-educated politicians and theorists and writers and planners and activators and sociologists and anthropologists who agonise about definitions of ‘community’ and the ‘working class’ and the ‘proletariat’ — and the people living in Coventry or Birmingham or Glasgow (the most rundown city in Britain) who want: a clean home, hot water, a sink, a bathroom, an inside toilet.

And once they’ve got that, they want one of those TV sets that everyone is talking about, and one of the new line of fridges in which they can put the new range of frozen foods which were just being launched in the mid-1950s, led by Birds Eye fish fingers, they want instant coffee and tinned beer they can bring home to sup as they watch Fabian of the Yard or Variety Hour..

An indication of how things were changing was Elizabeth David’s comment in the preface to the 1956 edition of A Book of Mediterranean Food that the food situation was ‘startlingly different’ to how it had been just two years before. Vacuum cleaners, washing machines, fridge freezers, convenience foods, formica table and work tops, affordable eating out (Berni Inns opened in 1954 with their trademark meal of rump steak, chips and peas, a roll and butter and pudding for just 7/6d). Local traders were closing down while Marks and Spencer opened stores throughout the country. Tesco opened its first true supermarket (entirely self-service) in Maldon in 1956.

And the age of DIY was dawning, with cheap and effective Dulux paint going on sale in 1953 while Black and Decker decided to enter the domestic market in 1954, selling drills and lathes and saws, and the first DIY magazine, Practical Householder, was launched in October 1955.

While Doris Lessing was writing articles in praise of Stalin and E.P. Thompson was agonising about whether to leave the communist party over Hungary – precisely the type of upper-middle-class university-educated people and highfalutin’ issues that upper-middle-class university-educated historians usually focus on in their highfalutin’ histories – the people, the ‘masses’ who they so fatuously claimed to be speaking for – were going shopping, collecting the new green shield stamps and buying a new Morris Minor on the never-never.

They knew who the future belonged to – and it wasn’t Comrade Khrushchev.


Related links

Related reviews

Reviews of fiction from the period

Lee Bul: Crashing @ Hayward Gallery

This is a major retrospective of the art of the (female) Korean artist Lee Bul, born in 1964 and still going strong, so something of a mid-career snapshot. It brings together over 100 works in the five enormous exhibition rooms of Hayward Gallery, plus some work located outside.

Installation view of Lee Bul: Crashing at Hayward Gallery © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Linda Nylind

Installation view of Lee Bul: Crashing showing Monster Pink (left) and Civitas Solis II (in the background) © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Linda Nylind

Oh for a life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!

As you walk into room one, you immediately realise that much of Lee’s art is big, involving costumes, installations, mannequins and dummies.

You also realise that it is done to a high degree of finish. Everything looks very professional and seamless. It comes as no surprise to learn that much of her recent work is conceived by her but created by a studio of craftspeople and technicians.

I’m always a little envious of my teenage kids. When they come to art exhibitions like this, they roam at will, attracted by whatever is big and brash, rarely bothering with the boring wall labels or grown-up ‘issues’, enjoying things purely for what they look like and how much fun they are. They would certainly find lots to admire here, from the point of view of the spectacular and dramatic.

Monster Pink, pictured above, is accompanied by Monster White both of which look like assemblages of wriggling worms, like some mutant aliens from Dr Who. The same sci-fi vibe attaches to what look like fragments of space suits dangling from the ceiling. On closer examination you can see that these are life-size depictions of the human body in the style of Japanese manga comics, in which both men and women have sleek, perfect bodies, often encased in futuristic body armour.

Lee has produced dismembered versions of these, half a sleek, armoured torso, or combinations of limbs and extremities, moulded into striking but disconcerting fragments of mannequins. Soft pink sacks hang next to sleek machine-tooled silhouettes.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Cyborg WI on the left (photo by the author)

Up the concrete ramp, in room three, there’s what seems to be a model of a futuristic city, held up by thin scaffolding, some kind of hyper-freeway emerging from a tall plastic mountain, complete with a massive neon sign clicking on and off.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Mon grand récit – Weep into stones… (2005) Photo by the author

Nearby is a big ‘cave’ made of shiny plastic, with a ‘door’ to go in through, a ‘window’ to look out of, and walls decorated with a mosaic of mirror fragments.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Bunker (M. Bakhtin) (photo by the author)

Best of all, from an excitable teenager’s point of view, are two big transport machines.

Downstairs in long, low room two, is what appears to be a space-age hovercar not unlike the one Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi use to go to the city of Mos Eisley to look for Han Solo in the first Star Wars movie.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Live Forever III (photo by the author)

To my amazement, visitors are actually encouraged to get into this device (once they’ve slipped on some protective plastic bags to go over their shoes). As I was saying to myself the immortal line ‘These are not the droids you’re looking for’, the gallery assistant lowered the roof and sealed me in.

You’re forced to lie quite low in the beautifully upholstered leather chair and watch a TV monitor placed right in front of you. If only I could have flicked the ignition, heard the engine roar, made a secret tunnel door open up and slid down a chute into the nearby River Thames to begin a high-speed boat chase against the baddies who’d just blown up the MI6 building.

Alas, all that actually happens is that the screen hanging in front of your face plays tacky Korean karaoke videos. You’re invited to put on headphones, pick up the handy microphone and join in which I was far too intimidated to do.

Finally, up the Hayward’s heavy concrete stairwell to gallery four where a) the entire floor has been covered in futuristic reflective silver plastic, giving it a Dr Who-TV set appearance, and b) and in which floats one of Lee Bul’s most iconic works, a huge model of a zeppelin made from shiny reflective silver foil.

Installation view of Lee Bul showing Willing To Be Vulnerable - Metalized Balloon (2015-2016) at Hayward Gallery © Lee Bul 2018. Photo: Linda Nylind

Installation view of Lee Bul showing Willing To Be Vulnerable – Metalized Balloon (2015-2016) at Hayward Gallery © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Linda Nylind

And thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought…

My son, a big fan of manga, animé, graphic novels and sci-fi, would have loved all this, consumed purely as spectacle, as weird and wonderful objects of fantasy and imagination.

However, art is rarely this simple or free. The artists themselves, and certainly their curators and critics, are all too ready to catch the butterfly of fantasy in a net of explanations, drag it back down to earth, and pin it to a board next to all the other specimens in their collection. For example, when you look up the Wikipedia article about Lee, it begins:

Lee’s work questions patriarchal authority and the marginalization of women by revealing ideologies that permeate our cultural and political spheres

firmly dragging Lee’s art into contemporary art discourse with its all-too-familiar obsessions of gender, race, ideology and politics.

The free exhibition handout and the wall labels are where you go for more information about Lee, and they certainly are extremely informative and illuminating. In addition, there are two timelines printed on walls – one telling the history of South Korea since the 1950-53 war to the present, and one describing the development of modern art in Korea from the time of Lee’s birth (1964) to the present day, with a special emphasis on women’s art and issues.

All very interesting, but the more you read, the more you become weighed down by interpretations of art which see it all in terms of ponderous ‘issues’ – of ‘challenges’ and ‘subversions’ and ‘questionings’ – the more it feels like you are sitting through a dreary two-hour-long sociology lecture.

KOREA

The South Korea Lee was born into was ruled by a right-wing dictator who had come to power in a military coup, General Park Chung-hee, who ruled with an iron fist from 1963 to 1979. Park inaugurated a series of five year plans designed to modernise Korean society and the economy at breakneck speed.

But Lee’s parents were left-wing dissidents and, although they weren’t arrested, were subjected to harassment, periodic house searches, banned from government employment and hassled into keeping on the move, never settling long in one place.

Thus Lee’s childhood memories are of often cold and bleak makeshift homes and the oppressiveness of the authorities set against a vista of brave new towns, cities, motorways and buildings built quickly of shoddy cement, destined soon to crumble and become seedy and derelict.

THE FAILURE OF UTOPIAS

Amidst all the other ‘issues’ addressed in the art, it was this latter notion – the failure of utopianism – which interested me most. It seems to me that we are currently living through just such an epoch of failure, the slow-motion failure of the dream of a digital future.

Having worked in four British government departments or agencies on their websites and IT projects for the past eight years I have seen all manner of cock-ups and mismanagement – the collapse of the unified NHS project, the likely failure of the system for Universal Credit which was launched in 2010 and still doesn’t work properly, let alone the regular bank failures like the recent TSB collapse. All this before you consider the sinister implications of the recent Facebook-Cambridge Analytica-U.S. Presidential elections debacle.

I have also observed the negative impact of phones and laptops on my own children i.e. they have both become phone addicts. As a result of all this I have very strong, and generally negative, opinions about ‘the Digital Future’.

That’s why I warmed to this aspect of the work of Chinese art superstar, Ai Weiwei, as displayed at the 2015 Royal Academy retrospective of his work. Twitter, Facebook and all the rest of them sell themselves as agents of ‘liberation’ whereas they are, quite obviously in my opinion, implements of a new kind of surveillance society, instruments of turbo-charged consumerism, and the tools of Russian hackers and any number of other unknown forces.

Yet people love them, ignore the scandals, can’t give up their phones or Facebook accounts, and big corporation, banks and governments carry on piling all their services online as if nothing could possibly go wrong with this technology.

With all this in mind I was surprised that there was no mention anywhere of the digital utopia, of digital technology, of phones and screens and big data anywhere in this big exhibition. Instead the utopias Lee Bul is concerned with seemed to me very dated. People wearing futuristic (manga) outfits or living in futuristic cities – this all seemed very Flash Gordon to me, very old tech, a very 1950s and 60s definition of what the future is going to look like.

This feeling that her art is very retro in its vision was crystallised by one of her most iconic works, which was a star feature of the 20th Sydney Biennale in 2016 – the enormous foil zeppelin – Willing To Be Vulnerable – Metalized Balloon.

I’m perfectly aware that the Hindenburg Zeppelin is an enduring symbol of technological hubris and disaster – that it burst into flames and crashed to the ground in 1937. I’ve seen the black and white film footage many times, I’ve even watched the terrible 1975 disaster movie they made about it.

Willing To Be Vulnerable is one of Lee’s most recent works and yet… isn’t it a very old reference to a long-ago event. It would be like discussing the rise of right-wing populism by reference to Adolf Hitler (German Chancellor when the Hindenburg crashed). It’s a plausible reference, sort of, but it’s not very up to date, is it? It’s not where we are now.

And then again, it isn’t even a detailed or accurate model of the Hindenburg. It’s just a big shiny balloon. An awesomely big shiny balloon. My kids would love it. I couldn’t really see it interrogating or questioning anything.

ARCHITECTURE

The grandiose rhetoric of Korean President Park Chung-hee’s regime, and its relative failure to build the utopia it promised, also explain the strong theme of architecture throughout the exhibition.

When you look closer, you realise that the big model of the kind-of super highway emerging from a phallic mountain – Mon grand récit – Weep into stones… – pictured above, is accompanied by a series of paintings and sketches on the walls showing aspects of architecture, visions and fantasies of architecture which come to ruin.

They are subtler, quieter work which would be easy to overlook in the first impact of all the big models and installations. I particularly liked one collage painting which gives an impression of some kind of disaster involving a glass and chrome skyscraper. The idea – urban apocalypse, skyscrapers in ruins – has been done thousands of times – but I admired the layout and design of it, the shape of the main image with its ‘feeler’-like hairs at the left, and the way the small fragment floats freely above it.

Untitled (Willing to be vulnerable - Velvet #6 DDRG240C) 2017 by Lee Bul

Untitled (Willing to be vulnerable – Velvet #6 DDRG240C) 2017 by Lee Bul

POLITICAL CRITICISM

Again, it’s only if you read the wall labels and exhibition guide quite carefully that you realise there is a thread of political satire running through the show. In room one, in between the more striking cyborgs hanging from the ceiling, are a couple of small mannequin models of President Park, naked, in full anatomical detail (reminiscent in the way they’re less than life size and so somehow feeble and vulnerable, of Ron Mueck’s mannequins of his naked dead dad, back in the 1997 Sensation exhibition).

Next to the ‘bat cave’ installation (Bunker), which I described above, is what at first seems like an enormous ‘rock’, made out of some kind of plastic. It’s titled Thaw and if you look closer you just about see another model of President Park, wearing his trademark dark sunglasses, as if he’s been frozen in ice in some alternative science fiction history, and is only waiting to thaw out and rise again…

Thaw (2007) by Lee Bul

Thaw (2007) by Lee Bul

Next to this is a very big installation of a bath. Unusually, you are allowed to walk across the tiled floor which makes up a good part of the installation, towards the bath itself – a big rectangular affair as if in a sauna or maybe in the bath rooms of some kind of collective housing – to discover that it is ringed with what looks like white meringue tips, and that the bath itself is full of black ink.

This is Heaven and Hell and without the exhibition guide there’s no way you’d be able to guess that it commemorates Park Jong-chul, a student protester who was tortured and killed by the South Korean security services in a bathtub in 1987.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Heaven and Hell (1987) Photo by the author

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Heaven and Hell (1987) Photo by the author

Thinking about political art, Peter Kennard’s blistering photomontages flaying political leaders such as Mrs Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Tony Blair come to mind, for example the enormous photomontage of Tony Blair plastered with images of atrocities from the Iraq War which was on display at the recent Age of Terror exhibition at the Imperial war Museum.

Installation view of Age of Terror at Imperial War Museum London showing Head of State by Cat Phillipps and Peter Kennard, with a marble sculpture of a CCTV camera by Ai Weiwei

Installation view of Age of Terror at Imperial War Museum London showing Head of State, a photomontage by Cat Phillipps and Peter Kennard, and a marble sculpture of a CCTV camera by Ai Weiwei

There is nothing that overt or emotional here. Everything is much more controlled, inflected, allusive. Given that Lee Bul is sometimes referred to as a political artist, there’s nothing at all that – for me anyway – packed any kind of real political punch.

WOMEN’S BODIES / DESIRE

With a certain inevitability, what the exhibition probably showcases most consistently is Lee Bul’s identity as a woman artist coming from a society which was extremely repressive, not only of political dissent, but of any form of feminism or gender politics.

The historical timeline tells us that a women’s movement only got going in Korea in the later 1980s and that Lee Bul was an enthusiastic part of it. It tells us that her earliest work went beyond sculpture to explore the possibilities of performance art.

Thus room two contains six screens on which we see some of Lee’s performances – ‘provocative performance works involving her own body’, as the commentary describes them – which she carried out between 1989 and 1996.

In Abortion (1989) she suspended herself from the ceiling of an auditorium for two hours and entertained the audience with lines from poems and pop songs as well as a description of her own abortion, a medical procedure which is still, to this day, apparently, illegal in South Korea.

The Monsters at the start of the show, the wriggly worm creations, turn out to be costumes which Lee wore either writhing around on the ground or walking the streets in order to question received ideas about X and subvert assumptions about Y.

Throughout the exhibition the ‘issue’ of gender and the ‘problematics’ of the female body are reiterated. For example, the timeline of women in Korean society describes ‘the rise of a generation of artists concerned with the representation of the female body‘ who also began ‘subverting the way that women are depicted in the media’.

The guide explains that

at the core of Lee’s recent work is an investigation into landscape, which for the artist includes the intimate landscape of the body

It turns out the her interest in the manga-style cyborgs comes less from a feeling for science fiction tropes or ideas around artificial intelligence and the possibility of improving human bodies by combining them with machine parts (from pacemakers to prosthetic limbs), no, she

is interested in what the figure of the cyborg – a transhuman hybrid of flesh and machine – can tell us about desire, our relationship to technology, and cultural attitudes towards the female body.

Or, as the press release puts it:

Shaped by her experience of growing up in South Korea during a period of political upheaval, much of Lee Bul’s work is concerned with trauma, and the way that idealism or the pursuit of perfection – bodily, political or aesthetic – might lead to failure, or disaster. Questioning women’s place in society, particularly Korean society, she also addresses the ways in which popular culture – in both the East and West – informs and shapes our idea of ‘feminine’ beauty.

Actually, rather like the so-called ‘political’ works (Thaw and Heaven and Hell) I only discovered that Lee was addressing the ways popular culture shapes our idea of femininity or questions cultural attitudes towards the female body by reading the guidebook. It really wasn’t that obvious from just seeing the works themselves. The three or four cyborg fragments hanging from the ceiling are probably, but not very obviously, female. They could belong to any gender, and be about anything.

Later on there are a couple of ‘busts’ made of lurid plastic of human thoraxes encased in cyber-armour but they aren’t very obviously female. The fact that they’re made of garish pink plastic and the design of the manga-style armour is the striking thing about them.

In one or two of the videos, the artist is seen naked or semi-naked, which even I picked up on as probably a reference to the female body, although I’ve never understood how young, nubile women artists stripping off is meant to subvert anything. To me it plays directly to society’s expectation that the most important or interesting thing about nubile young women is their nubile young bodies.

But if you hadn’t been told by the exhibition website, press release, guide and wall labels that her work ‘questions ideas of femininity’ I’m not sure you’d particularly notice.

I was, for example, surprised to learn that the silver zeppelin ‘addresses the ways in which popular culture – in both the East and West – informs and shapes our idea of feminine beauty’. Really?

Willing To Be Vulnerable by Lee Bul (photo by the author)

Willing To Be Vulnerable by Lee Bul (photo by the author)

Via Negativa II

I haven’t yet mentioned another of the really impressive installations, Via Negativa II (2014) which is a maze made out of metal sheets suspended on stands, a bit like the stands you get at conferences but arranged to create an entrance into a convoluted labyrinth of shiny metal plates.

It’s not a very big maze – only three people are allowed in at a time. The ‘justification’ or ‘idea’ behind it? Well, the walls are covered with a text by an American psychologist, Julian Jaynes, in which he argued that early humans experienced a split consciousness when messages from one hemisphere of the brain to the other were experienced as auditory hallucinations. To make it art, the text is printed in a mirror image of itself i.e you can’t actually read it. You’d need to hold up a mirror to the text to see it printed properly.

I suppose this small metal maze is designed to recreate that sense of mild hallucination that Jaynes describes. At its heart there is certainly a great experience when you find yourself in a cubicle dominated by grids of yellow lights reflected to infinity in parallel mirrors. The other two visitors and I all jostled for the best position to take photos from. Maybe it’s meant to make you think about something, but it’s also just a great tourist photo opportunity.

Installation view of Lee Bul showing Via Negativa II (2014) (interior detail) © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Mark Blower

Installation view of Lee Bul showing Via Negativa II (2014) (interior detail) © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Mark Blower

This is all great fun, but is it ‘questioning the limits of the human’ or ‘interrogating cultural ideas of the female’? Not really.

The international language of art

In fact, you don’t learn very much about the art or culture or history of Korea from this exhibition nor even – surprisingly – about feminism.

What comes over loud and clear is that this is now the international language of art – the same kind of brash, confident, well-manufactured, high concept work which you also see being produced by (the workshops of) Ai Weiwei, Damien Hirst, and numerous other superstars.

(Hirst sprang to mind as soon as I saw Lee Bul’s Majestic Splendour, a work consisting of rows of decomposing fish with sequins on, from 1997 which, of course, echoes Hirst’s A Thousand Years, a vitrine containing a cow’s decomposing head which he displayed in 1990. Great minds think alike.)

Not long ago I visited the fascinating exhibition of everyday products from North Korea held at the House of Illustration behind King’s Cross station. There I learned about the unique political system, the Cult of the Leader and the special economic policy (Juche) of North Korea. I learned about the importance of opera, theatre and enormous public performance in their culture, about the way the Korean language lends itself to blocky futuristic design, and about their fondness for a much brighter, more acid colour palette than we in the West are used to.

In Lee Bul’s exhibition I don’t think I learned anything at all about South Korea apart from being reminded of the name of its military dictator, and that its repressive military dictatorship was, well, repressive.

For me this exhibition shows that whatever her origins, whatever her personal biography may have been (the difficult childhood, the early anti-establishment and feminist performances), Lee Bul is now – in 2018 – on a par with Ai and Hirst in creating aroma-less, origin-free, international objets d’art for the delectation of equally rootless, cosmopolitan art critics, and for transnational buyers and billionaire investors.

I went to the press launch where the show was introduced by the director of Hayward Gallery – the American Ralph Rugoff – and the show’s curator – the German Stephanie Rosenthal. As they spoke I was struck by how all three of the people behind the microphones were members of an international art élite, a cosmopolitan, transnational art world which seems impossibly glamorous to those of us forced to earn our livings in the country of our birth and unable to jet off to international biennales in Venice and Sydney, to visit art shows at the Met in New York or the Foundation Cartier in Paris or the Mori Gallery in Tokyo or the Museum of Contemporary Art in Seoul (all places where Lee has exhibited). Wow. What a glamorous jet-setting life!

Summary

This is a very well-put together overview of the career to date of one of the world’s most successful and distinctive artists. It’s packed with big, bold, funky, cool objects and installations.

If you think art needs to be ‘about’ something, then you will enjoy the way the commentary invokes issues around the female body, around social utopias, about architecture and landscape, about the interface of technology and humans, to explain Lee’s work.

Or, like me, you may come to the conclusion that these issues, ideas and texts may well be important to motivate and inspire the artist, to get her juices flowing – but that most of the works can just be enjoyed in and of themselves, as highly inventive three-dimensional objects – fun, strange, colourful, jokey – without requiring any sort of ‘meaning’ or ‘interpretation’.


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