Concrete Island by J.G. Ballard (1974)

Concrete Island continues the obsession with cars and car crashes which was evident in the experimental texts which made up The Atrocity Exhibition and which then exploded into the fetish pornography of Crash.

It’s a short novel and a lot more restrained than either of its predecessors, but still explores a mind-bending situation and eventually takes us into familiar Ballard psychotic territory.

35-year-old Robert Maitland is a partner in a successful architectural practice in Marylebone. He is married and lives with his wife Catherine and eight-year-old son David somewhere near Richmond. He is, rather inevitably, having an affair with a younger woman at work, Helen Fairfax, and has spent the past few nights with her. This, apart from showing what a rake he is, is important to the plot.

(In the 1960s it seems to have become fashionable to have extra-marital affairs, amid much talk about free love and the death of marriage and women’s liberation, see, for example, the fiction of John Updike, specifically Couples. At some point during the 1970s it just became a rather tiresome tic of bourgeois fiction. And by the 1980s it had become a really hackneyed cliché, the subject of bloated, boring mainstream fiction [see Stanley and the Women or The Russian Girl by Kingsley Amis]. The decline of the ‘affair’ as a token of intellectual adventurousness into a symptom of middle-aged complacency can be tracked in the fiction of J.G. Ballard).

The plot

The novel opens dramatically with a clinical description of a car crash.

Soon after three o’clock on the afternoon of April 22nd 1973, a 35-year-old architect named Robert Maitland was driving down the high-speed exit lane of the Westway interchange in central London. Six hundred yards from the junction with the newly built spur of the M4 motorway, when the Jaguar had already passed the 70 m.p.h. speed limit, a blow-out collapsed the front nearside tyre.

The Jag careers through some wooden barriers lining the road and plunges down an embankment into a large overgrown grassy area.

When he comes round from his daze, Maitland staggers up the loose earth of the embankment, which has recently been covered with fresh soil and hasn’t grown firm with grass yet, to the verge of the motorway and the hard shoulder where he weaves in a daze shouting and waving his arms at passing cars, and nearly hit by several of them.

It is this second accident rather than the crash itself which clinches the situation, because Maitland doesn’t see a sports car hurtling along the flyover towards him until too late, the car swerves and hits one of the wooden barriers which whiplashes brutally against his legs, hurling Maitland back down the earth embankment. It is this, second accident, which seals his fate.

Because when he comes to several hours later, Maitland discovers his thigh and hip are so badly injured that he can barely walk and, when he slowly painfully drags himself back to the earth embankment, he finds it is too loose and soft and friable – and he is now to weak – for him to climb up it. He tries repeatedly but only gets half way up then slips and tumbles back down, eventually giving up the effort.

The island

Maitland’s thigh and hip have been badly damaged by the impact of the wooden barrier. The Jag is among a band of other wrecked and derelict cars in the long grass. Maitland makes a crutch and hobbles around the grassy space and makes a discovery – there is no other way off this patch of abandoned waste land: he is trapped on this ‘island’.

The island is a long thin V shape, with the unclimbable embankment along one side; a sheer concrete wall leading up to another motorway which curves round to join the one he was driving along on the second side; and a tough ten-feet-tall wire mesh fence on the third side. At least I think that’s right. To be honest I found Ballard’s descriptions of the island a bit confusing and sometimes contradictory. Here’s the longest and clearest description:

Shielding his eyes from the sunlight, Maitland saw that he had crashed into a small traffic island, some two hundred yards long and triangular in shape, that lay in the wasteground between three converging motorway routes.

The apex of the island pointed towards the west and the declining sun, whose warm light lay over the distant television studios at White City.

The base was formed by the southbound overpass that swept past seventy feet above the ground. Supported on massive concrete pillars, its six lanes of traffic were sealed from view by the corrugated metal splash-guards installed to protect the vehicles below.

Behind Maitland was the northern wall of the island, the thirty-feet-high embankment of the westbound motorway from which he had crashed.

Facing him, and forming the southern boundary, was the steep embankment of the three-lane feeder road which looped in a north-westerly circuit below the overpass and joined the motorway at the apex of the island. Although no more than a hundred yards away, this freshly grassed slope seemed hidden behind the overheated light of the island, by the wild grass, abandoned cars and builder’s equipment. Traffic moved along the westbound lanes of the feeder road, but the metal crash barriers screened the island from the drivers. The high masts of three route indicators rose from concrete caissons built into the shoulder of the road.

As I read on, I wondered if the story refers to an actual physical location, or is imaginary. Here’s a piece from the Ballardian magazine where writer Mike Bonsall suggests a plausible location for the island, in a long narrow strip of grass running south from the raised roundabout junction of the Westway and the A3220, not far from Latimer Road tube station.

The location and rough shape seem plausible, but every photo of it which Bonsall has taken seems wildly unlike the place Ballard describes. It looks bland and flat and lacks the prison-like walls which Ballard describes. It looks like you could just stroll across the road from Bonsall’s ‘island’. All of which leads to the conclude that Ballard’s ‘concrete island’ is very much an island of the mind.

I read this book some time in the 1980s and retained the impression that it really was a ‘concrete’ island. I had completely forgotten that there’s a lot more to it than that. For a start it’s big enough for him to get lost in. Over the next few days, he discovers that at one end are the ruined walls and foundations of Victorian houses. In the middle are a number of bomb shelters with steps down into them hidden by nettles and long grass. At one point there’s an overgrown graveyard, with references made to the tombstones. And believe it or not there’s the ruins of a small fleapit cinema, with a ticket booth and the shape of the crescent of seats. And somewhere in the centre the array rusting cars which he calls ‘the wreckers’ yard’.

In the description above, Ballard claims it is only 200 yards long, but Maitland’s subsequent adventures make it feel more like a village than the concrete island of the title.

All of this is overgrown by long swaying grass and castles of wild nettles, lush greenery which leads Maitland, as he develops a fever, and becomes dehydrated, to really think of it as an ‘island’.

Fever

Because that’s what happens: fever from his injuries overtakes him. There’s some wine in the boot of the jag but that just dehydrates him more. After a night and a day on the island he is in bad shape and goes steadily downhill from there. He loses weight, he is starving, he begins to hallucinate. The novel charts his descent not only into physical collapse, but this is accompanied by a wonderful description of his mind decaying, starting off lucid and determined to escape, and then charting his slow lapse into drunkenness (when he drinks a bottle of wine in shock), delirium, dehydration. After several days with no food and little to drink except rainwater, he is in serious psychological trouble.

Maitland’s descent is marked by a series of incident:

  • initial accident at 3pm
  • hit by sports car and crash barrier about 4pm
  • wakes at 1.45 having lain unconscious at the bottom of the embankment, trousers and shirt ripped
  • drinks a bottle of wine to damp the pain
  • wakes at 8am the next morning feeling terrible
  • makes a crutch from the rusted exhaust of one of the other derelict cars
  • reflects that he is marooned like Robinson Crusoe
  • dehydrated, he rips open the windscreen wiper reservoir of the Jag and greedily drinks the water
  • explores the perimeter of the island, realising he’ll never cut through or climb the high wire fence
  • back at the Jag he tries to clean his grazed hands and wounded hip an legs with cologne and rags
  • there’s a brief rainstorm and he positions the bonnet of one of the ruined cars to create a funnel channeling rainwater so he can drink it
  • strips off ruined clothes and changes into dress shirt he keeps in the boot and drinks another bottle of wine
  • fever: time passes; he dozes, comes round
  • dusk falls; a motorist chucks a cigarette from a car whizzing along the motorway and it occurs to Maitland to set the car alight
  • he does this, creating a leak in the fuel tank and using the cigarette lighter to start it – but the blaze is not like the movies, surprisingly brief and only succeeds in gutting his car
  • 10pm on the second day and a passing motorist chucks a half eaten chicken sandwich out his window which tumbles down the embankment; ravenous, Maitland chomps it down, dirt and all; he sleeps till dawn
  • dawn of the second day: Maitland vomits and is feverish; he sees an old man walking a motorbike along the hard shoulder and instead of shouting to him, becomes incoherently terrified that it is a horrific implement of torture and the old man is coming to chain him to it, so he hides
  • he stumbles across to the supporting wall of the other flyover, the one curving into the one he crashed off, and uses the charcoal off the burnt spark plugs to try and write a message big enough for passing motorists to see: HELP INJURED DRIVE CALL POLICE
  • he realises there’s a sheet of greasy newspaper nearby and excitedly reaches for it; sure enough it has a few cold soggy chips attached to it which he wolfs down
  • it starts to rain and he sets off hobbling with the use of the exhaust pipe-crutch back to the Jag but gets lost and finds amid the nettles, an entrance to some kind of mouldy basement where he holes up during the shower; when he emerges he sees the big Help message he’s written on the motorway wall has been erased

And so it goes on in the same vein, with Maitland struggling to even walk, struggling to keep a sense of purpose, experiencing lightheadedness due to hunger, dehydration and the recurrent fevers caused by the severe injuries to his hip and thigh, which sweep over him, making him vomit, pass out, come to with no memory of where he is and, increasingly, who he is.

Jane and Proctor

On the third day Maitland discovers the island already has two inhabitants, the fifty-year-old mental case, Proctor:

The man was about fifty years old, plainly a mental defective of some kind, his low forehead blunted by a lifetime of uncertainty. His puckered face had the expression of a puzzled child, as if whatever limited intelligence he had been born with had never developed beyond his adolescence. All the stresses of a hard life had combined to produce this aged defective, knocked about by a race of unkind and indifferent adults but still clinging to his innocent faith in a simple world. Ridges of silver scar tissue marked his cheeks and eye-brows, almost joining across the depressed bridge of his nose, a blob of amorphous cartilage that needed endless attention. He wiped it with his strong hand, examining the phlegm in the paraffin light. Though clumsy, his body still had a certain power and athletic poise. As he swayed from side to side on his small feet Maitland saw that he moved with the marred grace of an acrobat or punch-drunk sparring partner who had gone down the hard way.

And a young woman with red hair wearing a combat jacket, Jane Sheppard.

Lit by the paraffin lamp behind her, her red hair glowed like a wild sun in the shabby room, shafts of light cutting through the home-set waves that rose above her high forehead.She was about twenty, with an angular, sharp-witted face and strong jaw. She was good-looking in an almost wilfully tatty way.

He blunders into a fight with Proctor and Jane rescues him. Maitland recovers consciousness on her bed in the bunker she’s sort of decorated in the basement of the derelict cinema. It’s lined with posters of Charlie Manson and Black Power. She’s a drop-out from a troubled middle-class family. She is spiky but vulnerable. After a few days we realise she is a hooker and puts on shiny clothes and stilletos to go get business. She returns with groceries from a local shop. Maitland realises she knows a way out and yet… by this stage… he is in such a strange zone that he doesn’t ask her… not just yet, anyway… sometime…. not yet.

The rest of this very short novel charts the slowly changing relationships between these three, as they play off one another. By about page 100 of the 126-page-long version I have Maitland realises that he can dominate them both, and sets about managing Proctor with a combination of ‘presents from his car, and strategic cuffs and blows.

Maitland realises that Proctor actually wants to be mastered and controlled, he offers up his scar for whipping, it confirms his self-image as a humiliated loser. In what I suppose was a shocking scene for 1974 Maitland asserts his authority when Proctor is lying drunk on the grass after drinking one of Maitland’s last bottles of wine, by undoing  his flies and urinating all over the mental defective. From now on, he is boss.

Jane watches him do it, and the gesture asserts control over her, too, although only intermittent, and subject to her own unpredictable mood swings.

And reflecting on his urge to humiliate both of these outcasts, Maitland can’t help reflecting that he, too, is not the great white success he likes to think. His marriage with Catherine was on the rocks, he wasn’t happy in his work. Is Jane right when she suggests that his arrival on the island wasn’t an accident: that at some deep unconscious level, Maitland wanted to crash?

‘Oh, come on… why don’t you straighten your life out? You’ve got a hundred times more hang-ups. Your wife, this woman doctor – you were on an island long, before you crashed here.’

The novel moves quickly towards a harsh climax. A repair truck parks on the hard shoulder of the overpass with ropes and a workman’s cradle hanging down. Proctor climbs up in it to impress Maitland with his acrobatic abilities. But the truck pulls off unexpectedly and Proctor becomes entangled in the ropes and is swept backwards, helplessly, into a vast concrete stanchion where his body is smashed and he is garrotted, the ropes snapping and dropping his body to the ground as the truck carries on regardless.

Cut to Jane and Maitland by Proctor’s broken body. Sobered, Jane announces she is leaving the island. She says she’ll phone for help, she’ll get the police and an ambulance, hey can be there in half an hour. But Maitland insists she doesn’t, insists she leave him be. He wants to leave, ‘but in his own way’, when he’s ready, and not before.

Janes packs a shabby suitcase and heaves it up the embankment – she has no secret way out, she just has two functioning legs, unlike the cripple Maitland. After she’s gone he is happy. He spends hours of back-breaking labour digging a grave for Proctor in the old cemetery, drags him over to it and buries him.

Now the island is finally his without any interference. He’ll leave. Of course, he’ll leave. When he’s good and ready. In his own time…

Style

Losing rationality Only as Maitland began his mental collapse, did I realise the significance of the opening lines. I had liked them because I like factual accuracy…

Soon after three o’clock on the afternoon of April 22nd 1973, a 35-year-old architect named Robert Maitland was driving down the high-speed exit lane of the Westway interchange in central London.

But then I realised Ballard is doing something canny: the book opens with the height of factual, police evidence-level pedantic precision. Clarity and lucidity and accuracy. Because these are the very things which the protagonist proceeds to slowly loses as he descends into into fever dreams and increasingly weird psychic states.

The grass There’s an appealing thread running through the book, which is the importance of the grass. As Maitland goes out of his mind he begins to think the long grass on the island is talking to him, encouraging him, urging him on, and he starts talking back to the grass, sharing his plans with it.

The grass lashed at his feet, as if angry that Maitland still wished to leave its green embrace. Laughing at the grass, Maitland patted it reassuringly with his free hand as he hobbled along, stroking the seething stems that caressed his waist.

I’m not being too cute when I say that the grass was my favourite character in the book, preferable to the Caliban-clumsiness of Proctor, and to the unhappy mood changes of neurotic Jane who – alas and alack – inevitably eventually gets her kit off and has sex with Maitland on her smelly mattress in the basement of the ruined cinema. That eventuality had a thumping inevitability, whereas the character of the grass, that’s not something you read every day.

The grass seethed and whirled around him, as if sections of this wilderness were speaking to each other… The grass flashed with an electric light, encircling his thighs and calves. The wet leaves wound across his skin, as if reluctant to release him…

No point in going back to the car, he told himself.
The grass seethed around him in the light wind, speaking its agreement.
‘Explore the island now – drink the wine later.’
The grass rustled excitedly, parting in circular waves, beckoning him into its spirals.

Yes, you can make a strong case for the grass being the most sympathetic character in the book.

Melodrama

Having just read the short story collection Vermilion Sands my head was reverberating from Ballard’s extravagant over-use of Edgar Allen Poe-level over-the-top Gothic terminology – everything in Vermilion Sands is a nightmare, a living hell, demented and insane.

Regrettably, a little of that hysterical tones seeps into what is, for the most part, the much sober style of the story.

  • He lurched into the roadway again, blocking the outer lane and waving his briefcase like a demented race-track official
  • When she came into the room she turned up the lamp and glared down drunkenly at Maitland. Her wild hair flamed around her in the vivid light like a demented sun
  • By some nightmare logic he was convinced that the old man was coming for him,
  • He began to tell the young woman about his crash, eager to fix his nightmare ordeal in someone else’s mind before it vanished

There’s a particularly over-ripe moment when it occurs to Maitland that his plight, marooned in this no-mans’-land has an improbably vast symbolism.

Catherine would be sleeping quietly in her white bedroom, a bar of moonlight across her pale throat. In fact, the whole city was now asleep, part of an immense unconscious Europe, while he himself crawled about on a forgotten traffic island like the nightmare of this slumbering continent.

Pretty over-ripe – although, to be fair, Maitland is feverishly hallucinating at the time

Ballard is capable of thinking things nobody else had ever thought, and often framing it in wonderfully bizarre and inventive purple prose. But at his most flaccid, he is also capable of a kind of second-hand bombast which suddenly makes you sit up and ask yourself: ‘Actually, is this brilliant or… is it over-the-top rubbish?’

Conclusion

It’s a brilliant, vivid and haunting novella.

It feels a long, long way from the trilogy of florid disaster novels in the early 1960s or from the jewelled prose of Vermilion Sands and the more lush and decadent of his many short stories, a long way from the dead astronauts and drained swimming pools of the desert resorts.

It’s West London in 1973 – and yet it is a vivid, a disturbingly super-vivid, picture of how quickly the most successful, articulate, intelligent and rational people in our culture can be reduced by a relatively minor twist of fate to abject squalor and mental collapse.

It feels astringent and modern and is at its most effective when, in prose terms, it is most restrained.

After the next book, High Rise, was published in 1975, it became possible to see the three novels – Crash (1973), Concrete Island (1974), High Rise (1975) – closely linked as they are by publication date and subject matter – as a trilogy, and they’ve come to be referred to as the ‘urban disaster’ trilogy.

Original covers of Concrete Island (1974) and High-Rise (1975)

High-minded critics may well laud Ballard’s avant-garde experimentalism and analyse his post-modern fictional strategies and his prophetic insights into the post-modern condition – but it’s funny to realise that, at the time, his publishers still marketed his books with images of bare boobs and tough guys.


Related links

Reviews of other Ballard books

Novels

Short story collections

Other science fiction reviews

Late Victorian
1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1900s
1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1910s
1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1920s
1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, where they discover…

1930s
1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years – surely the most sweeping vista of any science fiction book
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Oxford academic Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra, as the natives call the planet Mars

1940s
1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950s
1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the  Foundation Trilogy, which describes the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence, powered by ‘spindizzy’ technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them until one fireman, Guy Montag, rebels
1953 The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester – a breathless novel set in a 24th century New York populated by telepaths and describing the mental collapse of corporate mogul Ben Reich who starts by murdering his rival Craye D’Courtney and becomes progressively more psychotic as he is pursued by telepathic detective, Lincoln Powell
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
Some problems with Isaac Asimov’s science fiction
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – a fast-paced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport, a terrifying new weapon has been invented, and tattooed hard-man, Gulliver Foyle, is looking for revenge
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding novel of Blish’s ‘Okie’ tetralogy in which mayor of New York John Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe
1959 The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut – Winston Niles Rumfoord builds a space ship to explore the solar system where encounters a chrono-synclastic infundibula, and this is just the start of a bizarre meandering fantasy which includes the Army of Mars attacking earth and the adventures of Boaz and Unk in the caverns of Mercury

1960s
1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Kerans is part of a UN mission to map the lost cities of Europe which have been inundated after solar flares melted the worlds ice caps and glaciers, but finds himself and his colleagues’ minds slowly infiltrated by prehistoric memories of the last time the world was like this, complete with tropical forest and giant lizards, and slowly losing their grasp on reality.
1962 The Voices of Time and Other Stories – Eight of Ballard’s most exquisite stories including the title tale about humanity slowly falling asleep even as they discover how to listen to the voices of time radiating from the mountains and distant stars, or The Cage of Sand where a handful of outcasts hide out in the vast dunes of Martian sand brought to earth as ballast which turned out to contain fatal viruses. Really weird and visionary.
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard space-travelling New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1962 Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut – the memoirs of American Howard W. Campbell Jr. who was raised in Germany and has adventures with Nazis and spies
1963 Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut – what starts out as an amiable picaresque as the narrator, John, tracks down the so-called ‘father of the atom bomb’, Felix Hoenniker for an interview turns into a really bleak, haunting nightmare where an alternative form of water, ice-nine, freezes all water in the world, including the water inside people, killing almost everyone and freezing all water forever
1964 The Drought by J.G. Ballard – It stops raining. Everywhere. Fresh water runs out. Society breaks down and people move en masse to the seaside, where fighting breaks out to get near the water and set up stills. In part two, ten years later, the last remnants of humanity scrape a living on the vast salt flats which rim the continents, until the male protagonist decides to venture back inland to see if any life survives
1964 The Terminal Beach by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s breakthrough collection of 12 short stories which, among more traditional fare, includes mind-blowing descriptions of obsession, hallucination and mental decay set in the present day but exploring what he famously defined as ‘inner space’
1964 Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb by Peter George – a novelisation of the famous Kubrick film, notable for the prologue written as if by aliens who arrive in the distant future to find an earth utterly destroyed by the events described in the main narrative
1966 Rocannon’s World by Ursula Le Guin – Le Guin’s first novel, a ‘planetary romance’ or ‘science fantasy’ set on Fomalhaut II where ethnographer and ‘starlord’ Gaverel Rocannon rides winged tigers and meets all manner of bizarre foes in his quest to track down the aliens who destroyed his spaceship and killed his colleagues, aided by sword-wielding Lord Mogien and a telepathic Fian
1966 Planet of Exile by Ursula Le Guin – both the ‘farborn’ colonists of planet Werel, and the surrounding tribespeople, the Tevarans, must unite to fight off the marauding Gaal who are migrating south as the planet enters its deep long winter – not a good moment for the farborn leader, Jakob Agat Alterra, to fall in love with Rolery, the beautiful, golden-eyed daughter of the Tevaran chief
1966 – The Crystal World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Sanders journeys up an African river to discover that the jungle is slowly turning into crystals, as does anyone who loiters too long, and becomes enmeshed in the personal psychodramas of a cast of lunatics and obsessives
1967 The Disaster Area by J.G. Ballard – Nine short stories including memorable ones about giant birds, an the man who sees the prehistoric ocean washing over his quite suburb.
1967 City of Illusions by Ursula Le Guin – an unnamed humanoid with yellow cat’s eyes stumbles out of the great Eastern Forest which covers America thousands of years in the future when the human race has been reduced to a pitiful handful of suspicious rednecks or savages living in remote settlements. He is discovered and nursed back to health by a relatively benign commune but then decides he must make his way West in an epic trek across the continent to the fabled city of Es Toch where he will discover his true identity and mankind’s true history
1966 The Anti-Death League by Kingsley Amis
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into a galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped ‘andys’ – earning enough to buy mechanical animals, since all real animals died long ago
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after they are involved in an explosion on the moon
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin – an envoy from the Ekumen or federation of advanced planets – Genly Ai – is sent to the planet Gethen to persuade its inhabitants to join the federation, but the focus of the book is a mind-expanding exploration of the hermaphroditism of Gethen’s inhabitants, as Genly is forced to undertake a gruelling trek across the planet’s frozen north with the disgraced native lord, Estraven, during which they develop a cross-species respect and, eventually, a kind of love
1969 Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s breakthrough novel in which he manages to combine his personal memories of being an American POW of the Germans and witnessing the bombing of Dresden in the character of Billy Pilgrim, with a science fiction farrago about Tralfamadorians who kidnap Billy and transport him through time and space – and introduces the catchphrase ‘so it goes’

1970s
1970 Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – spaceship Leonora Christine leaves earth with a crew of fifty to discover if humans can colonise any of the planets orbiting the star Beta Virginis, but when its deceleration engines are damaged, the crew realise they need to exit the galaxy altogether in order to find space with low enough radiation to fix the engines – and then a series of unfortunate events mean they find themselves forced to accelerate faster and faster, effectively travelling forwards through time as well as space until they witness the end of the entire universe – one of the most thrilling sci-fi books I’ve ever read
1970 The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s best book, a collection of fifteen short experimental texts in stripped-down prose bringing together key obsessions like car crashes, mental breakdown, World War III, media images of atrocities and clinical sex
1971 Vermilion Sands by J.G. Ballard – nine short stories including Ballard’s first, from 1956, most of which follow the same shape, describing the arrival of a mysterious, beguiling woman in the fictional desert resort of Vermilion Sands, the setting for extravagantly surreal tales of the glossy, lurid and bizarre
1971 The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin – thirty years in the future (in 2002) America is an overpopulated environmental catastrophe zone where meek and unassuming George Orr discovers that is dreams can alter reality, changing history at will. He comes under the control of visionary neuro-scientist, Dr Haber, who sets about using George’s powers to alter the world for the better with unanticipated and disastrous consequences
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic, leading to harum scarum escapades in disaster-stricken London
1972 The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin – novella set on the planet Athshe describing its brutal colonisation by exploitative Terrans (who call it ‘New Tahiti’) and the resistance of the metre-tall, furry, native population of Athsheans, with their culture of dreamtime and singing
1972 The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe – a mind-boggling trio of novellas set on a pair of planets 20 light years away, the stories revolve around the puzzle of whether the supposedly human colonists are, in fact, the descendants of the planets’ shape-shifting aboriginal inhabitants who murdered the first earth colonists and took their places so effectively that they have forgotten the fact and think themselves genuinely human
1973 Crash by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s most ‘controversial’ novel, a searingly intense description of its characters’ obsession with the sexuality of car crashes, wounds and disfigurement
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it in one of the most haunting and evocative novels of this type ever written
1973 Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s longest and most experimental novel with the barest of plots and characters allowing him to sound off about sex, race, America, environmentalism, with the appearance of his alter ego Kilgore Trout and even Vonnegut himself as a character, all enlivened by Vonnegut’s own naive illustrations and the throwaway catchphrase ‘And so on…’
1974 Concrete Island by J.G. Ballard – the short and powerful novella in which an advertising executive crashes his car onto a stretch of wasteland in the juncture of three motorways, finds he can’t get off it, and slowly adapts to life alongside its current, psychologically damaged inhabitants
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the barren, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything
1974 Inverted World by Christopher Priest – vivid description of a city on a distant planet which must move forwards on railway tracks constructed by the secretive ‘guilds’ in order not to fall behind the mysterious ‘optimum’ and avoid the fate of being obliterated by the planet’s bizarre lateral distorting, a vivid and disturbing narrative right up until the shock revelation of the last few pages
1975 High Rise by J.G. Ballard – an astonishingly intense and brutal vision of how the middle-class occupants of London’s newest and largest luxury, high-rise development spiral down from petty tiffs and jealousies into increasing alcohol-fuelled mayhem, disintegrating into full-blown civil war before regressing to starvation and cannibalism
1976 Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut – a madly disorientating story about twin freaks, a future dystopia, shrinking Chinese and communication with the afterlife
1979 The Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard – a strange combination of banality and visionary weirdness as an unhinged young man crashes his stolen plane in suburban Shepperton, and starts performing magical acts like converting the inhabitants into birds, conjuring up exotic foliage, convinced his is on a mission to liberate them
1979 Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut – the satirical story of Walter F. Starbuck and the RAMJAC Corps run by Mary Kathleen O’Looney, a baglady from Grand Central Station, among other satirical notions including the new that Kilgore Trout, a character who recurs in most of his novels, is one of the pseudonyms of a fellow prison at the gaol where Starbuck serves a two year sentence, one Dr Robert Fender

1980s
1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – set in an England of 2035 after a) the oil has run out and b) a left-wing government left NATO and England was promptly invaded by the Russians – ‘the Pacification’, who have settled down to become a ruling class and treat the native English like 19th century serfs
1980 The Venus Hunters by J.G. Ballard – seven very early and often quite cheesy sci-fi short stories, along with a visionary satire on Vietnam (1969), and then two mature stories from the 1970s which show Ballard’s approach sliding into mannerism
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the ‘Golden Era’ of the genre, basically the 1950s
1981 Hello America by J.G. Ballard – a hundred years from now an environmental catastrophe has turned America into a vast, arid desert, except for west of the Rockies which has become a rainforest of Amazonian opulence, and it is here that a ragtag band of explorers from old Europe discover a psychopath has crowned himself President Manson, has revived an old nuclear power station in order to light up Las Vegas, and plays roulette in Caesar’s Palace to decide which American city to nuke next
1981 The Affirmation by Christopher Priest – an extraordinarily vivid description of a schizophrenic young man living in London who, to protect against the trauma of his actual life (father died, made redundant, girlfriend committed suicide) invents a fantasy world, the Dream Archipelago, and how it takes over his ‘real’ life
1982 Myths of the Near Future by J.G. Ballard – ten short stories showing Ballard’s range of subject matter from Second World War China to the rusting gantries of Cape Kennedy
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – Gibson’s stunning debut novel which establishes the ‘Sprawl’ universe, in which burnt-out cyberspace cowboy, Case, is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool, at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in the ‘Sprawl trilogy’
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall, who they plan to kidnap but is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time Count Zero; while the daughter of a Japanese gangster who’s sent her to London for safekeeping is abducted by Molly Millions, a lead character in Neuromancer

1990s
1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative version of history, Charles Babbage’s early computer, instead of being left as a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population suppressed

The Festival of Insignificance by Milan Kundera (2014)

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

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

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

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

Insignificance trumps brilliance.

Part two – the marionette theatre

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

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

Part three – Alain and Charles often think about their mothers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part five – A little feather floats beneath the ceiling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part six – Angels falling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part seven – The festival of insignificance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Credit

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


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

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

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

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

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2002 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

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