Quentin Blake: From the Studio @ the House of Illustration

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

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

The mouse on a tricycle

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

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

Each one is brilliant. The cumulative effect is genius.

The Mouse on a Tricycle by Quentin Blake

The art of conversation

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

The Art of Conversation by Quentin Blake

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

The King of the Golden River

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

Illustration for The King of the Golden River by Quentin Blake

The Lost City Challenge

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

Moonlight travellers

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

Illustrations to Moonlight Travellers by Quentin Blake

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


Related links

Reviews of other House of Illustration exhibitions

My Uncle Oswald by Roald Dahl (1979)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. The Sudanese Blister Beetle aphrodisiac (1912)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. The freezing sperm scam (1919)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ladies with titles
Will go for your vitals

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

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

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

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

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

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

Credit

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


Related links

Related review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter one – Across Hungary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter two – In Budapest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter three – From Hatvan towards the Galician frontier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Four – Forward March!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Credit

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


Related links

The Good Soldier Švejk

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

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

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

The Good Soldier Švejk as drawn by Joseph Lada

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

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

Plot summary, part one

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Commentary

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

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

Plot summary, part two

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

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

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

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

Švejk is inspected by the learned doctors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brutality

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

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

Švejk kicks the moneylender out of the house of Chaplain Katz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But here everyone behaves like this.

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

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

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

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

Kafka compared with Hašek – people

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

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

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

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

Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kafka compared with Hašek – bureaucracy

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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


Related links

The Good Soldier Švejk

Slowness by Milan Kundera (1995)

There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting. (p.34)

The novel open with the narrator driving down a French highway to a weekend away with his wife in a chateau-turned-hotel. He reflects on the meaning of these little oases of green in a sea of concrete, but another car is breathing down his neck which leads him to reflect on the cult of Speed in modern society (‘speed is the form of ecstasy the technical revolution has bestowed on man’)

This leads him to lament the extinction of walking (‘Ah, where have they gone the amblers of yesteryear?’), which makes him remember another journey out of Paris, that of Madame de T. and the young Chevalier in a favourite novel of Kundera’s, Point de Lendemain (‘No Tomorrow’), by Vivant Denon, published in 1777.

Ah, it is an exquisite work, mon cher, in which the young gentleman is hoodwinked into acting as a front for Madame de T’s real lover, the Marquis. And the plot of No Tomorrow brings to the narrator’s mind that other great masterpiece, Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos, which he adores not because of its amorality, but because it is such a forensic and acute analysis of the powerplays of love, and for the fact it is an epistolary novel, i.e. told via letters. This format highlights the way its characters act the way they do partly so they can tell others about it.

Thus the first eight pages of Slowness, the first novel Kundera wrote entirely in French and in his adopted country, France. Some obvious points emerge. It is split between 1. the ‘present’, where the narrator is on holiday with his wife, scattering thoughts about the crappiness of modern life, and 2. references to literary works of the 18th century, allowing him to scatter thoughts and ideas about the novel and that era.

That’s the basic ‘structure’ of the text, but as you can tell, the actual experience of reading the book is to be subjected to an almost stream-of-consciousness series of brief meditations about speed – car crashes on the French roads – the precise definition of Hedonism – the 18th century novel – the epistolary novel, and so on and so on.

The hotel is nice but where there was once a pretty rose garden, the management have put in a swanky swimming pool. Alas.

They go for a walk through the grounds but are surprised to come across a new road cutting through them with roaring traffic, Alas.

Dinner is ruined by badly behaved children at the next table playing up (standing on their chairs and singing) while their parents beam on proudly. Alas.

Turning on the TV as they retire to bed, they come across ads with loads of starving black children because of some famine and reflect, acidly, that obviously no old people are dying in the famine, only children. Or could it be that the mass media only present images of children in order to jerk our heart-strings? Alas.

This reminds him of two French celebrities, Duberques of the National Assembly, and Berck the intellectual, who are always trying to outdo each other in front of the cameras to display their compassion – Duberques holding a dinner for HIV+ people and rising to kiss them as the cameras zoomed in, while, not to be outdone, Berck flew off to some famine-ridden country in Africa and got himself photographed surrounded by starving black children. Sick children trump sick old people, Rule Number One of the media age. Alas, thinks the narrator.

It makes him think of his acquaintance Pontevin, a history PhD (who is a pompous ass by the sound of it) and likes developing elaborate and stupid theories for the benefit of his hushed coterie of friends at the Café Gascon, in this case the ‘theory’ that those exhibitionists who like performing for the media are like dancers. That’s the theory. Either as satire or reportage this character fails, because he comes over as a shallow smartarse.

Kundera cuts to a précis of Point de Lendemain, namely the highly contrived lovemaking of Madame de T. who seduces the Chevalier in a whole succession of locations, the garden, the pavilion, a room inside the chateau, her secret room of mirrors, and then, finally, in a dark room full of cushions. It is slow and staged and artful. For, as he has said:

There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting.

The 18th century author Denon was never identified during his lifetime, and was probably quite content to win the approbation of a small group of intimate friends. Alas how very different from our modern world besieged by fame, where everybody is either over-famous appearing on TV, in magazines and newspapers, or dreams of becoming famous.

Berck is seen on TV shooing flies away from a dying girl’s eyes by an old flame of his at school, who he nicknamed Immaculata. Now she stalks him with a series of letters, and worthy causes, until he is horrified to discover that she is a TV producer and is planning to make a documentary about him.

This reminds the narrator of a book his friend Goujard showed him by a woman journalist who undertook a photobiography of Henry Kissinger, convinced all the time that she was fated to have a love affair with the great man who twigged to her intention and began systematically putting her off, which only made the flames of her passion rise higher.

This woman journalist believes she is one of the ‘elect’, which leads the narrator to a rambling meditation on the nature of the elect in a secular society, to the rise of celebrity and fame, and how everyone dreams of it to lift their lives above the everyday.

Berck has gone to an international conference on entomology where we are told at length the story of a Czech expert on flies who was kicked out of his scientific job by the repressive regime installed in Prague after the Russian tanks rolled in in 1968, and has spent 20 years as a construction worker. Having read Kundera’s essays on the novel I suspect this character derives from the concept of ‘melancholy pride’, which is repeated about him. He is melancholically proud that the woman ticking off names at the entrance to the conference has no idea about the Czech circumflex, the caron which, when placed over a ‘c’ turns it into a tch sound. And melancholically proud that the woman has never heard of Jan Hus, the great Czech religious reformer.

And when he is called to the stage to present his modest scientific paper he is so overcome with emotion that instead he speaks about how he was kicked out of the Czech academy of sciences and forced to work as a labourer, and he starts weeping and the audience applauds wildly. And so he walks back to his seat on the stage having completely forgotten to deliver his paper.

Pontevin’s sidekick tries to repeat a funny story Pontevin told his gang, starting with the statement that his girlfriend wants him to treat her ‘rough’, which, for some reason, made everyone who heard Pontevin say it burst into laughter. Why is it funny?

Berck sidles up to the Czech scientist and, in a sequence which is clearly meant to be very funny, sets off to patronisingly thank him for his speech and being so brave for standing up to the authorities – but makes howling errors, including saying the capital of Czechoslovakia is Budapest and thinking the Czechs’ great poet was Adam Mickiewicz (who was, in fact Polish). Symbolic of the patronising superficiality of ‘the Western intellectual’.

He’s half way through doing this when Immaculata arrives with a cameraman, to capture him for her documentary (having made a number of documentaries, I was struck how utterly unlike documentary TV-making this random attack actually was). Immaculata and the cameraman capture Berck in full flood, and the bar-full of entomologists applaud his speech. This gives him the confidence to take Immaculata to one side and tell her to fuck off, the evil old bag of piss.

From a distance Pontevin’s jealous sidekick Vincent watches all this and launches into a loud speech mocking Berck and his addiction to the TV camera, fame, repeating Pontevin’s idea about extrovert performers for the media being like ‘dancers’. At the end of which a self-possessed young man rounds on Vincent for being a Luddite and reactionary and suggesting he goes back to the 12th century where he belongs.

Is this all meant to be funny? A farce? Vincent had begun chatting up a girl, a secretary at the conference miffed because everyone’s ignored her. Now he returns from the bar with some whiskeys, chats her up, takes her back into the bar to buy some more, swigs them down and takes her for a walk in the moonlight, stopping for more kisses and then deciding to tell her about the Marquis de Sade and his classic, Philosophy in the Boudoir.

The narrator looks out the window of his bedroom in the chateau. He sees a couple strolling in the moonlight. They remind him of the lovers in that book, Point de lemdemain. He is knocked out of his reverie by his wife, Véra, waking from a nightmare. In it a madman was rushing down the corridor towards her yelling, ‘Adam Mickiewicz was not Czech! Adam Mickiewicz was not Czech!’

The comic ‘novel’ Kundera is writing is infecting his wife’s dreams. (It’s worth pausing a moment to acknowledge how important dreams are in Kundera’s fiction.)

The Czech scientist is in his room, feeling humiliated by the laughter against him in the bar, but reflects that one benefit of working on a building site all that time was his excellent physique. He decides to go for a midnight swim in the hotel pool and put these pissy French scientists to shame.

On his walk with her round the chateau grounds Vincent has had a sudden pornographic vision of timid Julie’s anus. He is bewitched. He is transfixed. Characteristically, this allows Kundera to digress about the poem about the nine orifices of woman written by the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire in the trenches during the Great War. In fact, Apollinaire sent two versions, one to one lover, another, rewritten four months later, to another. Kundera makes much of the fact that in the first one the vulva is the ninth and peak of the poem, but in the second one, after four months of meditating in the trenches, Apollinaire has decided the anus is the darkest and most profound erotic site of all.

Vincent, drunk on his vision of Julie’s anus, apostrophises the full moon as the anus of the sky etc, while drunk Julie hangs on his every word and decides to ‘give herself’ to Vincent. Thinking it will be too easy just to go to their room, he decides they will go down to the hotel pool for a skinny dip.

Berck whispered his insults to Immaculata that no-one heard them but her and she staggers up to her bedroom. In comes the cameraman who is – inevitably for KunderaWorld – also her lover, asks her what is wrong and changes into his pyjamas ready to go to bed with her, but she is seething, furious, and takes it out on him, declaring their affair is over, and dresses in a virginal white dress to go back down into the hotel and brave the scorn of the world.

Initially the cameraman stands in her way getting more and more angry, pointing out that they fucked only this morning, and they fucked last night, in fact she begged him to Fuck me Fuck me Fuck me (I am using the words Kundera uses: this is – I think – the first book of his which uses lots of demotic swearwords).

At which point Immaculata becomes incandescent and tells him the cameraman is a useless shit and his breath smells, and she storms past him, leaving him, after a few moments of stunned immobility, to follow after her, still dressed in his pyjamas, like a dog with its tail between his legs.

Vincent has stripped off under the high glass dome of the hotel swimming pool. Being naked intoxicates him and he dives in. Thus he misses shy Julie slipping out of her dress and very tentatively descending the steps into the cold water till it is touching her ‘pubic thatch’ (p.99). She looks exquisite, and with only the all-seeing eye of the narrator to appreciate her naked womanly charms.

Nudity! The thought sets Kundera off on a typical digression wherein he remembers an opinion poll from an October 1993 edition of Nouvel Observateur which asked 1,200 eminent left-wing people to underline key words from a choice of 210 words. In a poll ten years earlier, 18 words had been selected by all of them, representing common ground. In 1993? Just three – revolt, red and nudity. Revolt because of its long association with the existentialism of Camus and Sartre, red for obvious reasons, but nudity? Kundera speculates on the role of nudity in ‘radical’ protest, remembering various groups who’ve stripped off to make a ‘political’ point and what nudity means, in that kind of context.

Drunk Vincent wildly declares he’s going to fuck Julie. He says he’s going to pin her body to the wall. He says he’s going to rip her ass hole wide with his mighty cock. He chases her round the pool, then flings her to the floor and she spreads her legs ready for the deflowering she is so anticipating. Except that:

The penetration did not take place. It did not take place because Vincent’s member is as small as a wilted wild strawberry, as a great-grandmother’s thimble. (p.102)

Now that, I admit, did make me laugh out loud. Not only the unexpected reversal but the vividness of the similes. On the whole Kundera’s writing is dry and factual and grey. There is little colour and little or no imaginative use of language. This little flurry of similes stood out like an oasis of colour in the desert of his over-cerebral prose.

Kundera goes on to give Vincent’s penis a speech in which it justifies its small appearance, reminding me of other comic novels.

Anyway, in a surreal moment of agreement Vincent decides to ‘dry hump’ Julie simply by moving his hips up and down, and Julie silently agrees to play along, making increasingly loud moaning noises.

Onto this odd scene comes the melancholy Czech entomologist who’s come for his swim and determines to go ahead while quietly ignoring the couple dry humping on the poolside.

He’s in the middle of doing some warm-up calisthenics when a woman in an elaborate white dress arrives, and jumps into the pool, obviously intending to kill herself. Unfortunately it is the shallow end and the water only comes up to her waist, so she slowly (held back by the dress) walks into the deeper end, periodically ducking down under the surface in a feeble effort to drown, but always reappearing.

The melancholy Czech dives into the water to rescue her. But the cameraman in pyjamas screams at him to take his hands off her, and jumps in as well. They fight, both in their frenzy forgetting the woman in white, who comes to her senses, climbs out of the pool and waits for the cameraman to join her.

The cameraman punches the Czech who is enraged because it seems to have loosened a front tooth which he had very expensively screwed into place by a Prague dentist.

Suddenly, all the anger and frustration of twenty years or more rise up in the Czech, and he whacks the cameraman so hard he at first thinks he’s killed him, the man disappearing under the waves in the little hotel swimming pool. But when he lifts him back up, the cameraman comes to, shakes himself loose, and also exits the pool.

He climbs out and catches up with the woman in white, who is stalking rather grandly through the now-empty hotel corridors – and Kundera explains how they will be condemned to relive this moment for the rest of their lives, she demanding he leave, he begging forgiveness, she execrating him, he getting angry and smashing stuff, then falling at her knees and begging forgiveness. And then both falling into bed for joyless sex. Again and again forever.

In a passage like this you can see the Jean-Paul Sartre of Huis Clos, the Sartre for whom hell is other people, peeking through the text, underpinning a lot of Kundera’s worldview.

Meanwhile, at the first approach of the other guests, Julie had wriggled out from beneath Vincent, slipped on her panties, grabbed her other clothes and scarpered. Vincent is slower to get dressed and by the time he follows her into the hotel she is nowhere to be found. Feeling tragic he pads damply back to his bedroom where is now – now! – assaulted by an enormous inappropriate erection. For no very good reason the narrator says it is standing up against a hostile universe like Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

For the second time, the narrator’s wife, Véra, awakes from her sleep insisting she is deafened by a full-volume rendition of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and asking him to turn it down. But there is no sound. Once again the fictions of author are invading her sleeping mind. She declares they must leave this haunted chateau.

It is early morning and he is thinking about the last scene of the Denon novella, where the unfaithful Madame de T. takes her farewell of the young Chevalier she has spent the night having sex with. Kundera the literature professor gives the novella a number of possible interpretations:

Is it possible to live in pleasure and for pleasure and to be happy? Can the ideal of hedonism be realised? Does that hope exist? Or at least some feeble gleam of that hope? (p.121)

And in a flash I realised the weakness of Kundera’s position. He identifies ‘pleasure’ entirely with heterosexual penetrative sex. Maybe this is why, reading steadily through his works, I’ve felt increasingly claustrophobic. There is no mention of the ten billion other ways of finding pleasure, having pleasure, of being a hedonist. Even some fairly obvious clichéd ones, such as being a connoisseur of fine wine or fine art, make no appearance. There is no mention of that or any other kind of physical pleasure. Only sex. Only sex stands as Kundera’s notion of ‘pleasure’. It is a stiflingly narrow definition.

The last few pages are the only real ones which lift off, for me, which have that sense of mystery which I look for, or value, in literature.

For Vincent is sneaking out the back of the hotel, trying to concoct a plausible story he will be able to tell his gang back in Paris – inventing the idea that he really nailed Julie and not only that, but triggered off an orgy by the hotel pool! – when he realises that a man in eighteenth century costume is walking towards him. The two men meet and regard each other, then speak and explain that one is from the eighteenth, one from the twentieth centuries.

A moment of mystery. But within a minute they are rubbing each other up the wrong way. The Chevalier can’t believe how scruffy Vincent is. Vincent can’t believe what a ridiculously complicated fig the Chevalier is wearing. When Vincent playfully fingers one of the Chevalier’s ribbons, the latter nearly slaps him, but merely turns and stalks off.

Vincent feels the need to obliterate his night of humiliation with speed. He rams on his helmet and climbs astride his motorcycle.

The Chevalier, in simple contrast, climbs up into his chaise, and prepares to spend the long slow journey back to Paris reminiscing about his night of love, reliving every moment of pleasure and savouring every one, for:

There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting.

Quite explicitly, in the book’s last lines, Kundera states that our ‘hope’ hangs on the Chevalier and his slowness.

I beg you, friend, be happy. I have the vague sense that on your capacity to be happy hangs our only hope. (p.132)

Hope for what? Hope to hold back, fight back against, all the forces of stupidity, nonbeing, the ‘dancers’ who dominate the media and play to the crowd, the amnesia of popular culture and everything else which makes modern life, in Kundera’s view, such a moronic inferno? Is that what the slow savouring of pleasure can resist?

Credit

Slowness by Milan Kundera was first published in the English translation by Linda Asher by Faber and Faber in 1996. All references are to the 1996 Faber paperback edition.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

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

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

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

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

The Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera (1986)

Need I stress that I intend no theoretical statement at all, and that the entire book is simply a practitioner’s confession? Every novelist’s work contains an implicit vision of the history of the novel, an idea of what the novel is; I have tried to express here the idea of the novel that is inherent in my own novels. (Preface)

This book contains seven essays on the art of the novel. First, a few observations.

Kundera is an academic Remember Kundera was a lecturer in ‘World Literature’ at Charles University in Prague for some 20 years (1952-75). This is a grand title and obviously encouraged a panoramic overview of the subject. Then he emigrated to France, where he continued to teach at university. He is, in other words, an academic, an expounder, a simplifier and teacher of other people’s views and theories, and that is probably the most dominant characteristic of his fiction – the wish to lecture and explicate.

He discusses a narrow academic canon You quickly realise he isn’t talking about the hundreds of thousands of novels which have been published over the past 400 years – he is talking about The Novel, the ‘serious novel’, ‘real novels’ – an entirely academic construct, which consists of a handful, well at most 50 novelists, across that entire period and all of Europe, whose concerns are ‘serious’ enough to be included in ‘serious’ academic study.

Non-British And he is very consciously European. This means many of his references are alien or exotic to us. Or just incomprehensible. When he says that The Good Soldier Schweik is probably the last popular novel, he might as well be living on Mars. There is no mention of Daniel Defoe, of Walter Scott, Jane Austen, Dickens, Trollope, George Eliot, Conrad, Henry James, DH Lawrence or Virginia Woolf, or anyone from the British ‘Great Tradition’ except the dry and dusty Samuel Richardson, in some histories, the founder of the English novel. He mentions Orwell’s ‘1984’ to dismiss it as a form of journalism. All Orwell’s fiction, he thinks, would have been better conveyed in pamphlets.

There is no mention of American fiction: from Melville through Twain, Hemingway and Faulkner (OK, Faulkner is mentioned right towards the end as one of the several authors who want nothing written about their lives, only their works), Updike or Roth or Bellow. No reference to science fiction or historical fiction or thrillers or detective fiction. Or children’s fiction. There is no mention of South American fiction (actually, he does mention a novel by Carlos Fuentes), or anything from Africa or Asia.

Some exceptions, but by and large, it is a very very very narrow definition of the Novel. Kundera can only talk as sweepingly as he does because he has disqualified 99.9% of the world from consideration before he begins.

1. The Depreciated Legacy of Cervantes (1983)

In 1935 Edmund Husserl gave a lecture titled ‘Philosophy and the Crisis of European Man’. He identifies the Modern Era as starting with Galileo (Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, 1632) and Descartes (Discourse on the Method, 1637) and complains that Europe (by which he includes America and the other colonies) has become obsessed with science and the external world at the expense of spirit and psychology, at the expense of Lebenswelt.

Kundera says that Husserl neglected the novel, which was also born at the start of the modern era, specifically in the Don Quixote of Miguel Cervantes (1605). It is in the novel that Europeans have, for 400 years, been investigating the interior life of humanity. The novel discovers those elements of life which only it can discover. Therefore the sequence of great novelists amounts to a sequence of discoveries about human nature:

  • Cervantes – explores the nature of adventure
  • Richardson – the secret life of feelings
  • Balzac – man’s rootedness in history
  • Flaubert – details of the everyday
  • Tolstoy – the intrusion of the irrational into decision making
  • Proust – the elusiveness of time past
  • Joyce – the elusiveness of time present
  • Mann – the role of ancient myth in modern life

At the start of the Modern Era God began to disappear, and with him the idea of one truth. Instead the world disintegrated into multiple truths. In the novel these multiple truths are dramatised as characters.

The whole point of the novel is it does not rush to judgement, to praise or condemn. Religion and ideologies (and political correctness) does that. The whole point of the novel is to suspend humanity’s Gadarene rush to judge and condemn before understanding: to ‘tolerate the essential relativity of things human’ (p.7).

He describes how there is a straight decline in the European spirit, from Cervantes – whose heroes live on the open road with an infinite horizon and never-ending supply of adventures – through Balzac whose characters are bounded by the city, via Emma Bovary who is driven mad by boredom, down to Kafka, whose characters have no agency of their own, but exist solely as the function of bureaucratic mistakes. It’s a neat diagram, but to draw it you have to leave out of account most of the novels ever written – for example all the novels of adventure written in the later 19th century, all of Robert Louis Stevenson, for example.

As in all his Western books, Kundera laments the spirit of the age, how the mass media are making everything look and sound the same, reducing everything to stereotypes and soundbites, simplifying the world, creating ‘the endless babble of the graphomanics’ –  whereas the novel’s task is to revel in its oddity and complexity.

2. Dialogue on the Art of the Novel

In a written dialogue with an interviewer, Kundera moves the same brightly coloured counters around – Cervantes, Diderot, Flaubert, Proust, Joyce. The novel was about adventure, then about society, then about psychology.

He states his novels are outside the novel of psychology. There’s psychology in them but that’s not their primary interest.

Being a central European he sees the 1914-18 war as a catastrophe which plunged art and literature into the grip of a merciless History. The essential dreaminess of a Proust or Joyce became impossible. Kafka opened the door to a new way of being, as prostrate victim of an all-powerful bureaucracy.

He clarifies that a key concern is the instability of the self: which is why characters often play games, pose and dramatise themselves; it is to find out where their limits are.

He clarifies his approach as against Joyce’s. Joyce uses internal monologue. There is no internal monologue at all in Kundera. In fact, as he explains it, you realise that the monologue is his, the author’s as the author tries different approaches in order to analyse his own characters. His books are philosophical analyses of fictional characters. And the characters are conceived as ‘experimental selfs’ (p.31), fully in line with his core idea that the history of the novel is a sequence of discoveries.

If the novel is a method for grasping the self, first there was grasping through adventure and action (from Cervantes to Tolstoy). Then grasping the self through the interior life (Joyce, Proust). Kundera is about grasping the self though examining existential situations. He always begins with existential plights. A woman who has vertigo. A man who suffers because he feels his existence is too light, and so on. Then he creates characters around these fundamentals. Then he puts them into situations which he, the author, can analyse, analyse repeatedly and from different angles, in order to investigate the mystery of the self.

Thus a character is ‘not a simulation of a living being. It is an imaginary being. An experimental self.’ (p.34) Making a character ‘alive’ means getting to the bottom of their existential problem’ (p.35).

A novel examines not reality but existence. And existence is not what has occurred, existence is the realm of human possibilities, everything that man can become, everything he’s capable of. (p.42)

The novelist is neither historian nor prophet: he is an explorer of existence. (p.44)

The novel is a meditation on existence as seen through the medium of imaginary characters. (p.83)

A theme is an existential enquiry. (p.84)

3. Notes inspired ‘The Sleepwalkers’

The Sleepwalkers is the name given to a trilogy of novels by the Austrian novelist Hermann Broch (1886 – 1951). The three novels were published between 1928 and 1932. They focus on three protagonists and are set 15 years apart:

  1. Joachim von Pasenow set in 1888
  2. August Esch set in 1903
  3. Wilhelm Huguenau set in 1918

In their different ways they address on core them: man confronting the disintegration of his values.

According to Kundera, before one writes one must have an ontological hypothesis, a theory about what kind of world we live in. For example The Good Soldier Švejk finds everything about the world absurd. At the opposite pole, Kafka’s protagonists find everything about the world so oppressive that they lose their identities to it.

After all, What is action? How do we decide to do what we do? That is, according to Kundera, the eternal question of the novel. (p.58)

Through an analysis of the plots of the three novels, Kundera concludes that what Broch discovered was the system of symbolic thought which underlies all decisions, public or private.

He closes with some waspish criticism of ‘Establishment Modernism’, i.e. the modernism of academics, which requires an absolute break at the time of the Great War, and the notion that Joyce et al. definitively abolished the old-fashioned novel of character. Obviously Kundera disagrees. For him Broch (whose most famous masterpiece, The Death of Virgil didn’t come out till the end of World War Two) was still opening up new possibilities in the novel form, was still asking the same questions the novel has asked ever since Cervantes.

It is a little odd that Kundera takes this 2-page swipe at ‘Establishment Modernism’, given that a) he is an academic himself, and his own approach is open to all sorts of objections (mainly around its ferocious exclusivity), and b) as he was writing these essays, Modernism was being replaced, in literature and the academy, by Post-Modernism, with its much greater openness to all kinds of literary forms and genres.

4. Dialogue on the Art of Composition (1983)

Second part of the extended ‘dialogue’ whose first part was section two, above. Starts by examining three principles found in Kundera’s work:

1. Divestment, or ellipsis. He means getting straight to the heart of the matter, without the traditional fol-de-rol of setting scenes or background to cities or towns or locations.

2. Counterpoint or polyphony. Conventional novels have several storylines. Kundera is interested in the way completely distinct themes or ideas can be woven next to each other, setting each other off. For the early composers a principle of polyphony was that all the lines are clear and distinct and of equal value.

Interestingly, he chooses as fine examples of his attempts to apply this technique to his novels, the Angels section in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting – which I found scrappy and unconvincing – and Part Six of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which I think is by far the worst thing he’s ever written, embarrassingly bad.

There’s some chat about Kundera’s own personal interventions in his novels. He emphasises that anything said within a novel is provisional hypothetical and playful. Sure, he intervenes sometimes to push the analysis of a character’s situation deeper than the character themselves could do it. But emphasises that even the most serious-sounding interventions are always playful. They can never be ‘philosophy’ because they don’t occur in a philosophical text.

From the very first word, my thoughts have a tone which is playful, ironic, provocative, experimental or enquiring. (p.80)

This is what he means by ‘a specifically novelistic essay’ i.e. you can write digressions and essays within novels but, by coming within its force field, they become playful and ironic.

The final part is an analysis of his novels in terms of their structure, their architecture i.e. the number of parts, the way the sub-sections are so distinct. And then a really intense comparison with works of classical music, in the sense that the varying length and tempo of the parts of his novels are directly compared with classical music, particularly to Beethoven quartets. Until the age of 25 he thought he was going to be a composer rather than a writer and he is formidably learned about classical music.

5. Somewhere behind (1979)

A short essay about Kafka. He uses the adjective Kafkan, which I don’t like; I prefer Kafkaesque. What does it consist of?

  1. boundless labyrinth
  2. a man’s life becomes a shadow of a truth held elsewhere (in the boundless bureaucracy), which tends to make his life’s meaning theological. Or pseudo-theological
  3. the punished seek the offence, want to find out what it is they have done
  4. when Kafka read the first chapter of The Trial to his friends everyone laughed including the author. Kafka takes us inside a joke which looks funny from the outside, but…

Fundamentally his stories are about the dehumanisation of the individual by faceless powers.

What strikes Kundera is that accurately predicted an entire aspect of man in the 20th century without trying to. All his friends were deeply political, avant-garde, communist etc, thought endlessly about the future society. But all of their works are lost. Kafka, in complete contrast, was a very private man, obsessed above all with his own personal life, with the domineering presence of his father and his tricky love life. With no thought of the future or society at large, he created works which turned out to be prophetic of the experience of all humanity in the 20th century and beyond.

This Kundera takes to be a prime example of the radical autonomy of the novel, whose practitioners are capable of finding and naming aspects of the existential potential of humanity, which no other science or discipline can.

6. Sixty-Three Words (1986)

As Kundera became famous, and his books published in foreign languages, he became appalled by the quality of the translations. (The English version of The Joke particularly traumatised him; the English publisher cut all the reflective passages, eliminated the musicological chapters, and changed the order of the parts! In the 1980s he decided to take some time out from writing and undertake a comprehensive review of all translations of his books with a view to producing definitive versions.

Specific words are more important to Kundera than other novelists because his novels are often highly philosophical. In fact, he boils it down: a novel is a meditation on certain themes; and these themes are expressed in words. Change the words, you screw up the meditations, you wreck the novel.

A friendly publisher, watching him slog away at this work for years, said, ‘Since you’re going over all your works with a fine toothcomb, why don’t you make a personal list of the words and ideas which mean most to you?’

And so he produced this very entertaining and easy-to-read collection of short articles, reflections and quotes relating to Milan Kundera’s keywords:

  • aphorism
  • beauty
  • being – friends advised him to remove ‘being’ from the title of The Unbearable Lightness of Being’: but it is designed to be a meditation on the existential quality of being. What if Shakespeare had written: To live or not to live… Too superficial. He was trying to get at the absolute root of our existence.
  • betrayal
  • border
  • Central Europe – the Counter-Reformation baroque dominated the area ensuring no Enlightenment, but on the other hand it was the epicentre of European classical music. Throughout the book he is struck by the way the great modern central European novelists – Kafka, Hasek, Musil, Broch, Gombrowicz – were anti-Romantic and modern just not in the way of the flashy avant-gardes of Rome or Paris. Then after 1945 central Europe was extinguished and – as he was writing this list – was a prophetic type of the extinguishment of all Europe. Now we know this didn’t happen.
  • collaborator – he says the word ‘collaborator’ was only coined in 1944, and immediately defined an entire attitude towards modernity. Nowadays he reviles collaborators with the mass media and advertising who he thinks are crushing humanity. (Looking it up I see the word ‘collaborator’ was first recorded in English in 1802. This is one of the many examples where Kundera pays great attention to a word and everything he says about it turns out to be untrue for English. It makes reading these essays, and his ovels, a sometimes slippery business.)
  • comic
  • Czechoslovakia – he never uses the word in his fiction, it is too young (the word and country were, after all, only created in 1918, after the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed). He always uses ‘Bohemia’ or ‘Moravia’.
  • definition
  • elitism – the Western world is being handed over to the control of a mass media elite. Every time I read his diatribes against the media, paparazzi and the intrusion into people’s private lives, I wonder what he makes of the Facebook and twitter age.
  • Europe – his books are streaked with cultural pessimism. Here is another example. He thinks Europe is over and European culture already lost. Well, that’s what every generation of intellectuals thinks. 40 years later Europe is still here.
  • excitement
  • fate
  • flow
  • forgetting – In my review of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting I pointed out that Mirek rails against forgetting as deployed by the state (sacking historians) but is himself actively engaged in trying to erase his past (claiming back his love letters to an old flame). Kundera confirms my perception. Totalitarian regimes want to control the past (‘Orwell’s famous theme’), but what his story shows is that so do people. It is a profound part of human nature.
  • graphomania – he rails against the way everyone is a writer nowadays, and says it has nothing to do with writing (i.e. the very careful consideration of form which he has shown us in the other essays in this book) but a primitive and crude will to impose your views on everyone else.
  • hat
  • hatstand
  • ideas – his despair at those who reduce works to ideas alone. No, it is how they are treated, and his sense of the complexity of treatment is brought out in the extended comparison of his novels to complicated late Beethoven string quartets in 4. Dialogue on the Art of Composition
  • idyll
  • imagination
  • inexperience – a working title for The Unbearable Lightness of Being was The Planet of Inexperience. Why? Because none of us have done this before. We’re all making it up as we go along. That’s what’s so terrifying, so vertiginous.
  • infantocracy
  • interview – as comes over in a scene in Immortality, he hates press interviews because the interviewer is only interested in their own agenda and in twisting and distorting the interviewees’ responses. Thus in 1985 he made a decision to give no more interviews and only allow his views to be published as dialogues which he had carefully gone over, refined and copyrighted. Hence parts two and four of this book, although they have a third party asking questions, are in the form of a dialogue and were carefully polished.
  • irony
  • kitsch – he’s obsessed with this idea which forms the core – is the theme being meditated on – in part six of the Unbearable Lightness of Being. It consists of two parts: step one is eliminating ‘shit’ from the world (he uses the word ‘shit’) in order to make it perfect and wonderful, as in Communist leaders taking a May Day parade or TV adverts. Step two is looking at this shallow, lying version of the world and bursting into tears at its beauty. Kitsch is ‘the need to gaze into the mirror of the beautifying lie and to be moved to tears of gratification at one’s own reflection.’ (p.135)
  • laughter – For Rabelais, the comic and the merry were one. Slowly literature became more serious, the eighteenth century preferring wit, the Romantics preferring passion, the nineteenth century preferring realism. Now ‘the European history of laughter is coming to an end’. (p.136) That is so preposterous a thought I laughed out loud.
  • letters
  • lightness
  • lyric
  • lyricism
  • macho
  • meditation – his cultural pessimism is revealed again when he claims that ‘to base a novel on sustained meditation goes against the spirit of the twentieth century, which no longer likes to think at all. (p.139)
  • message
  • misogynist – gynophobia (hatred of women) is a potential of human nature as is androphobia (hatred of men), but feminists have reduced misogyny to the status of an insult and thus closed off exploration of a part of human nature.
  • misomusist – someone who has no feel for art or literature or music and so wants to take their revenge on it
  • modern
  • nonbeing
  • nonthought – the media’s nonthought
  • novel and poetry – the greatest of the nivelists -become-poets are violently anti-lyrical: Flaubert, Joyce, Kafka (don’t think that’s true of Joyce whose prose is trmeendously lyrical)
  • novel – the European novel
  • novelist and writer
  • novelist and his life – quotes from a series of novelists all wishing their lives to remain secret and obscure: all attention should be on the works. Despite this, the army of biographers swells daily. The moment Kafka attracts more attention that Josef K, cultural death begins.
  • obscenity
  • Octavio – the Mexican writer, Octavio Paz
  • old age – frees you to do and say what you want.
  • opus
  • repetitions
  • rewriting – for the mass media, is desecration. ‘Death to all those who dare rewrite what has been written!’ Jacques and His Master
  • rhythm – the amazing subtlety of rhythm in classical music compared to the tedious primitivism of rock music. Tut tut.
  • Soviet – the Germans and Poles have produced writers who lament the German and Polish spirit. The Russians will never do that. They can’t. Every single one of them is a Russian chauvinist.
  • Temps Modernes – his cultural pessimism blooms: ‘we are living at the end of the Modern Era; the end of art as conceived as an irreplaceable expression of personal originality; the end that heralds an era of unparalleled uniformity’ (p.150)
  • transparency – the word and concept in whose name the mass media are destroying privacy
  • ugly
  • uniform
  • value – ‘To examine a value means: to try to demaracte and give name to the discoveries, the innovations, the new light that a work casts on the human world.’ (p.152)
  • vulgarity
  • work
  • youth

7. Jerusalem Address: the Novel and Europe (1985)

In the Spring of 1985 Kundera was awarded the Jerusalem Prize. He went to Jerusalem to deliver this thank you address. It is a short, extremely punch defense of the novel as a form devoted to saving the human spirit of enquiry in dark times.

In a whistlestop overview of European history, he asserts that the novel was born at the birth of the modern era when, with religious belief receding, man for the first time grasped his plight as a being abandoned on earth: the novel was an investigation of this plight and has remained so ever since.

The novel is the imaginary paradise of individuals. It is the territory where no one possesses the truth… but where everyone has the right to be understood. (p.159)

Every novel, like it or not, offers some answer to the question: What is human existence, and wherein does its poetry lie? (p.161)

But the novel, like the life of the mind, has its enemies. Namely the producers of kitsch and what Rabelais called the agélastes, people who have no sense of humour and do not laugh. He doesn’t say it but I interpret this to mean those who espouse identity politics and political correctness. Thou Must Not Laugh At These Serious Subjects, say the politically correct, and then reel off a list which suits themselves. And kitsch:

Kitsch is the translation of the stupidity of received ideas into the language of beauty and feeling. It moves us to tears of compassion for the banality of what we think and feel. (p.163)

The greatest promoter of kitsch is the mass media which turns the huge human variety into half a dozen set narratives designed to make us burst into tears. We are confronted by a three-headed monster: the agélastes, the nonthought of received ideas, and kitsch.

Kundera sees European culture as being under threat from these three forces, and identifies what is most precious about it (European culture), namely:

  • its respect for the individual
  • for the individual’s original thought
  • for the right of the individual to a private life

Against the three-headed monster, and defending these precious freedoms, is set the Novel, a sustained investigation by some of the greatest minds, into all aspects of human existence, the human predicament, into human life and interactions, into human culture.


Central ideas

The novel is an investigation into man’s Lebenwelt – his life-being.

Novelists are discoverers and explorer of the capabilities, the potentialities, of human existence.

Conclusions

1. Fascinating conception of the novel as a sustained investigation into the nature of the self, conducted through a series of historical eras each with a corresponding focus and interest.

2. Fascinating trot through the history of the European novel, specially the way it mentions novelists we in England are not so familiar with, such as Hermann Broch or Diderot or Novalis, or gives a mid-European interpretation to those we have heard of like Kafka or Joyce.

3. Fascinating insight into not only his own working practice, but what he thinks he’s doing; how he sees his novels continuing and furthering the never-ending quest of discovery which he sees as the novel’s historic mission.

But what none of this fancy talk brings out at all, is the way Milan Kundera’s novels are obsessed with sex. It is extraordinary that neither Sex nor Eroticism appear in his list of 63 words since his powerfully erotic (and shameful and traumatic and mysterious and ironic) explorations of human sexuality are what many people associate Kundera’s novels with.

Last thoughts

Changes your perspective It’s a short book, only 165 pages with big gaps between the sections, but it does a very good job of explaining how Kundera sees the history and function of the novel, as an investigation into the existential plight of humanity. It changed my mental image of Kundera from being an erotic novelist to being more like an existentialist thinker-cum-writer in the tradition of Sartre.

The gap between Britain and Europe There is a subtler takeaway, which is to bring out how very different we, the British, are from the Europeans. True, he mentions a few of our authors – the eighteenth century trio of Richardson, Fielding and Sterne – but no Defoe, Austen, Scott or Dickens.

The real point is that he assumes all European intellectuals will have read widely in European literature – from Dante and Boccaccio through Cervantes and into the eighteenth century of Diderot, Voltaire, the Marquis de Sade. And when you read the French founders of critical theory, Barthes or Derrida, or the influential historian Foucault, they obviously refer to this tradition.

But it remains completely alien to us in Britain. Not many of us read Diderot or Novalis or Lermontov or even Goethe. We’ve all heard of Flaubert and Baudelaire because, in fact, they’re relatively easy to read – but not many of us have read Broch or Musil, and certainly not Gombrowicz. Though all literature students should have heard of Thomas Mann I wonder how many have read any of his novels.

My point being that, as you read on into the book, you become aware of the gulf between this huge reservoir of writers, novels and texts in the European languages – French, German and Russian – and the almost oppressively Anglo-Saxon cultural world we inhabit, not only packed with Shakespeare and Dickens, but also drenched in American writers, not least the shibboleths of modern American identity politics such as Toni Morrison or Maya Angelou.

Reading this book fills your mind with ideas about the European tradition. But at the same time it makes you aware of how very different and apart we, in Britain, are, from that tradition. Some of us may have read some of it; but none of us, I think, can claim to be of it.

Credit

The Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera was first published in French in 1986. The English translation was published by Grove Press in the USA and Faber and Faber in the UK in 1988. All references are to the 1990 Faber paperback edition.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

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

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

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

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera (1978)

We are all prisoners of a rigid conception of what is important and what is not. We anxiously follow what we suppose to be important, while what we suppose to be unimportant wages guerrilla warfare behind our backs, transforming the world without our knowledge and eventually mounting a surprise attack on us.
(The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, page 197)

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is divided into seven parts, each of which is a self-contained story although, as the recurring titles suggest, with recurring themes:

Part One – Lost Letters
Part Two – Mother
Part Three – The Angels
Part Four – Lost Letters
Part Five – Litost
Part Six – The Angels
Part Seven – The Border

Short sections

And each story is itself broken up into numerous, very short, numbered sections, often as short as a page long. For example, the first story, Love Letters, is 22 pages long and is divided into 19 sections.

The reading experience is dominated by this fragmentation of the narrative into short sections. Kundera uses the ‘short section technique’ for a number of purposes.

One is to continually change perspective on events, shedding ironic light on his characters’ mixed motives and misunderstandings. The most obvious way is to describe a piece of dialogue or event, and then devote separate sections to the speakers’ often wildly differing interpretations of what they just said or meant.

It also allows him to switch from close-up description of actions carried out by the protagonists, to higher-level reflections, about human nature, the character of irony or comedy, generalisations about men women and love, or about fate and destiny – and especially about Czech history, and of course, focusing on the most traumatic event of his lifetime, the communist coup of 1948 and its consequences.

The ‘short section technique’ allows Kundera to set off a train of events and then to step right outside them and present them from the perspectives of the different characters, revealing – more often than not – that they completely misinterpret each other’s motives. This has been the bedrock of his authorial approach since his first novel, The Joke – the basic premise that people really, really don’t understand each other, and that pretty much all our intentions and aims and plans turn out to be wildly miscalculated, and consistently backfire.

I read all Kundera’s books back in the 1980s when he first became very fashionable, and I had remembered Laughter and Forgetting for being lighter and funnier than its predecessors – but this, I think, was a misleading memory. Although the text is much more broken up and ‘bitty’, more interrupted by digressions and ideas – the actual content is just as grim as its predecessors. The opening story, in particular, leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

1. Lost Letters

It is 1971 and Mirek is a dissident who played a prominent role in the 1968 Prague Spring, then, after the Russian tanks and half a million Warsaw Pact soldiers invaded Czechoslovakia, was thrown out of his job and became an unperson. Since then he’s religiously kept all his diaries and journals and the records of meetings of him and dissident friends, despite them all advising him to burn or destroy them. But:

It is 1971, and Mirek says that the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting. (p.3)

When we read that grand opening sentence back in the early 1980s (the book was published in English in 1980) we all thought it said something profound and beautiful about human nature and politics and society, and the need to resist the ever-growing forces of oblivion (as well as being a good example of Kundera’s straight-out, intellectual, almost academic style. No long paragraphs setting the scene or describing dawn over Prague or an unmarked car drawing up outside a house, none of the normal conventions of fiction. Instead Kundera goes directly to the beliefs and ideas of his main characters.) Anyway, rereading the story today, I realise this simple interpretation doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

The main event in the story is Mirek driving out to the village to meet up with an old flame of his, his first love in fact, Zdena. Why? Because she has a big cache of all the letters he wrote to her and he wants to secure, protect and guard his archive. Also, there is a deeper psychological reason. He wanted:

to find the secret of his youth, his beginnings, his point of departure. (p.18)

The body of the short story concerns Mirek’s thoughts and reflections about Zdena, for example the fact that, back when they were going out, she was plain and ugly, his friends, and even she herself, were surprised that he was going out with her. Nobody knew that he was timid and shy and a virgin.

As he drives, Mirek realises that his car is being followed, by a car driven by a couple of security goons who make no attempt to hide. When Mirek stops at a friend’s mechanic shop to get the car tuned up, the goons stop too, and watch him, with a smirk.

So that when he finally arrives at Zdena’s house, and is reluctantly invited in, and makes his pitch to ask for his letters back, and she surprises him by saying a categorical NO… Mirek is convinced it’s because she is in league with the security men, and is keeping the letters to hand them over to the authorities, preparatory to his arrest and trial etc. She always was a communist die-hard, a party fanatic, even when they were going out together, as he now remembers bitterly.

But the narrator has told us otherwise. He has explained that Zdena was not a party fanatic but simply clove to the party after Mirek dumped her. After he dumped her, she needed to have something she could trust and base her life on, and this became an absolute faith in the Party. It was Mirek who made her what she is.

And, we learn, she is not at all in league with the security men, who she doesn’t even know about. She is simply scared – scared witless, scared of how it’s all got too big and scary, how they’re arresting people, how he might be bringing trouble into her life. She is simply too paralysed by fear to hand the letters over.

Demoralised, Mirek gets back into his car, the security men get back into theirs, and they tail him back to Prague, despite a small interlude when he throws them off in a village and sits parked by the railway station, dazed, pondering his past and future.

The narrator now picks up the theme about memory and forgetting which was announced at the beginning, reflecting that Mirek’s true motive in seeking the letters wasn’t because he never loved Zdena, or regretted loving Zdena. It’s because he loved Zdena so much and is now embarrassed about being associated with such a plain, if not ugly woman, that he wants to erase her from his past. Which leads us up to the author’s message, a characteristically jaundiced view:

By erasing her from his mind [by finally repossessing the letters] he erased his love for her… Mirek is as much a rewriter of history as the Communist Party, all political parties, all nations, all men. People are always shouting that they want a better future. It’s not true. The future is an apathetic void of no interest to anyone. the past is full of life, eager to irritate us, provoke and insult us, tempt us to destroy or repaint it. The only reason people want to be masters of the future is to change the past. They are fighting for access to the laboratories where photographs are retouched and biographies and histories rewritten. (p.22, italics added)

So 1. that grand opening statement turns out to be a lie. Mirek is lying to himself. His grand claim to want to preserve the past from forgetting is completely contradicted by this analysis of his motives. According to his creator, Mirek is every bit as mendacious and controlling as his enemy, the Communist Party.

And 2. when Mirek arrives home he discovers the police are already there, have ransacked his apartment, and read through all the diaries and journals in which he recorded meetings with other dissidents, their criticism of the Party, their analysis of its tyranny after the crushing of the Prague Spring. In other words, they have seized all the documents in which he foolishly implicated and betrayed his closest friends. The last sentences of the ‘story’ are bleak and unforgiving.

After a year of investigatory custody he was put on trial. Mirek was sentenced to six years, his son to two years, and ten or so of their friends to terms of one to six years. (p. 24)

So let us return to that ringing opening line – ‘the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting’: it now appears to be contradicted in at least two ways.

  1. Although it’s Mirek’s own line, we have seen that, when push comes to shove, he doesn’t believe it; his quest to reclaim Zdena’s letters is, according to his creator, a quest to erase and rewrite the past as completely as the Communists want to.
  2. Worse, it turns out to be a ludicrously selfish and self-serving position and one which ended up condemning his best friends – and his own son – to years and years in prison.

Could it be that the opposite is true? That maybe the past ought to be forgotten? Certainly I think so. I completely disagree with the old cliché “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It’s the other way round. Those who obsessively remember the past, are doomed to walk within the confines and categories it imposes on us. In Northern Ireland throughout my life and in Yugoslavia during the 1990s, there were groups of people who clung on to the past, cherished and nurtured their grievances, thirsted for revenge, determined to re-enact the past (the freedom struggle of the Irish people, the freedom struggle of the Serbian people) but this time to win. it seemed back then that it is precisely those who remember the past, who are doomed to repeat it.

Maybe the content of the story proves the complete opposite of that ringing opening declaration.

2. Mother

Marketa and Karel are married. At first they lived with his parents, but Marketa and his mother had daily run-ins, which became so intense that they eventually moved to the other end of the country to be as far as possible away. Then Karel’s father died and Mother was left alone, and Marketa, as she got older, softened. It is Easter and Marketa invites Mother to come and stay for a week, Saturday to Saturday, because they’ve something planned for Sunday.

This is an orgy, well a ménage à trois. Marketa knows Karel has a high sex drive. Early on in their marriage it became clear that he would be the unfaithful one and Marketa would suffer, although she would enjoy the perks of an unassailable moral superiority.

Then one day, in a sauna at a spa (the Czechs and their spas!), Eva walks in, naked, beautiful and confident, and starts chatting to Marketa. Soon they are good friends and it makes Marketa feel in control when she introduces Eva to Karel and they become lovers.

The irony is, we learn a few pages later, that Eva and Karel had been lovers for years before this. Their first meeting and love-making is very erotically described. It had been Eva who suggested that she approach Marketa. And so the three of them have settled into having periodic three-way sex. Sunday evening has been set aside for one such session.

But Mother mischievously declares she will only leave on Monday and both Karel and Marketa fail to argue her out of her decision.

On the fateful Sunday evening, the girls have slipped off to the bedroom to change into their sexy outfits (a negligee so short it reveals her pubes, for Eva, a pearl necklace and garter belt for Marketa) and are about to return to the living room, where they’ve been chatting and drinking for Karel, for the erotic entertainment to begin… when Mother comes in!

Now, the saving grace is that Mother has gotten pretty short-sighted and so doesn’t even realise the girls are wearing next to nothing (Marketa scampers out to throw on a raincoat). In fact Karel maliciously welcomes her untimely visit because he’d been getting irritated with the girls. And the story is unusually sympathetic to Mother – unusual in the sense that almost all Kundera’s narratives focus on horny men. She has stumbled back into the living room because she is troubled by the memory of reciting a poem which she had described earlier, over dinner, to Marketa and Karel. She had told them it was a poem about the Austro-Hungarian Empire which she recited at the end of the war. But Karel points out that she left school well before then. Alone in her bedroom, it dawns on her that he is right, and that it was a Christmas poem, not a patriotic one, and that she had recited it years earlier. And now she blunders back into the living room – just as the orgy is about to begin – to set them all right. And, in this odd, ludicrous setup, proceeds to recite the poem again, reviving the distant memory of her girlhood.

And then she goes one further by pointing out that Eva reminds her of Nora, a friend of hers when she was a young woman. And all of a sudden Karel has a flashback, remembers being four years old, in some spa town, and being left in a room, and a little while later the tall, statuesque naked body of Nora entered the room and took a nightgown off a hook. The memory of being four, of being small, and looking up at this huge naked Amazon, has stayed with him ever since.

Having said her piece and fussed around a bit more, Mother goes quietly back to her room. Immediately, Karel arranges Eva as he remembers Nora standing in that distant boyhood memory, and kneels down so that she is towering over him. Fired with lust, Karel proceeds to make love to both women furiously.

But, as with all Kundera, there are other perspectives. While he is tupping them, Marketa is miles away, trying to reduce Karel’s fornicating body to a headless machine. And afterwards, as the girls are lying on the couch, Eva quietly invites Marketa to come away with her and have a threesome with her husband. And Marketa quietly accepts.

Karel may be lost in his childhood reveries, but this doesn’t stop the other characters – his wife and mistress – carrying on living their own lives, pursuing their own goals and agendas.

3. The Angels

The angels are those who believe the world is full of order and rationality. They are humourless imposers of order and pattern and meaning. They are terrifying because they want to abolish all the muddy, confused, speckled, mongrel mixedness of the actual world and real people. Kundera identifies them with the Communist Party, Soviet tyranny, feminists, modern literature teachers, and with hypocrites like the French surrealist poet Paul Éluard, who wrote inspirational poems about Freedom while at the same time supporting the Czech regime which sent poets to their deaths.

To begin this assault Kundera creates a pair of earnest and utterly humourless American feminist literature students who don’t understand that a play by Ionesco is meant to be absurd and funny. And when they do grasp this basic fact, he satirises the funny little choked breathy noise they make. He is referring to their laughter.

The students have a narrow, dogmatic literature teacher, Miss Raphael, who is lonely. She is looking for a circle of like-minded believers to dance with. She has tried the Communist Party, the Trotsykists, the anti-abortionists, the pro-abortionists (this pairing is included to show that she has absolutely no moral underpinnings or beliefs, but is just looking for a gang she can join).

Then Kundera describes the way the idealistic young people, students and writers and artists, danced in the street after the communists came to power in Czechoslovakia in 1948, danced and laughed, even as innocent politicians and poets and artists were being executed in prisons just a few miles away.

Thus they danced in circles, the high-minded angels, laughing their laughter of joy because the world is so ordered and rational and just. And – in a touch of magical realism – their dancing bodies slowly lifted off the ground till they were dancing in the air.

Similarly, when the two humourless feminist students give their humourless interpretation of Ionesco to their class, their humourless teachers joins hands with them and they, too, rise up into the sky.

But not everyone can join a circle. Circles, in fact, can’t be broken. Unlike ranks. Anyone can slip into the ranks of an army, they are designed to allow any number of new members to fit right in. But getting into a circle is hard, if not impossible, without momentarily breaking it. Circles are exclusive.

Kundera very forcefully emphasises how he doesn’t belong to the flying circles of dancing angels, sublimely convinced of their own rectitude. He was once a Communist, he once danced in those circles, but he was unwise and tactless and expelled from the party, and forbidden to work. He was kicked out of the circle and he has been falling ever since (for nearly 30 years, by the time this book was published) falling falling falling like a meteorite broken loose from a planet (p.66).

Then he gives us an extended example of how his misplaced humour prevented him from ever dancing with the angels.

Forbidden to write for any official outlet, friends got Kundera a job writing an astrology column in a popular magazine for young socialists. It was harmless work, and not particularly well paid. But after a few years, the intelligent young woman editor – known only as R. – who had given him the job was called in for questioning by the security police. Does she realise she is ridiculing socialist youth? Does she realise she is mocking the people? Does she realise she has been associating with notorious enemy of the people Kundera?

She is promptly sacked from her job and when she turns to others in the media, they all cold shoulder her as well. Her career is through. Her life is over. She meets Kundera in a borrowed apartment and she is so terrified by what is happening to her, that she has to keep going to the toilet, her bowels are that upset.

And as he listens to her repeated flushing of the toilet, Kundera realises he has become a curse to those he knows and loves. He really cannot go on living in his homeland, bringing bad luck down on everyone he knows. He will have to go into exile. He will have to carry on falling, falling, falling away from the circles of the angels, the laughing angels, laughing because they know the Truth about a world which is orderly and rational and for the best, rejoicing in how:

rationally organised, well conceived, beautiful, good and sensible everything on earth was. (p.62)

4. Lost Letters

The title makes you think it might return to the character Mirek, who we met in the first story. Not at all.

It concerns Tamina. She is a Czech exile, working in a café in an unnamed Western town. She and her husband fled Czechoslovakia illegally, pretending to go on holiday. Thus she never brought all her belongings. Her husband got ill once they were abroad, sickened and died. Hollow and sad, she works at the café, listening to every customer who wants to bend her ear.

One day one of the customers, a tiresome wannabe writer named Bibi, mentions that she and her husband are thinking of going on holiday to Prague. Suddenly Tamina wakes from her sleep. Back in Prague, in a drawer in a desk in her mother’s flat, is a bundle of all the diaries she kept during her eleven-year marriage to her husband.

Suddenly Tamina is fired up and wants them back. She has been living like a ghost. The prospect of repossessing them promises to fill in her life, colour it in, give it detail and background and depth. The rest of the story details her struggles, first of all to get her mother-in-law to unlock the desk and get out the notebooks (every phone call to Prague costs her an arm and a leg), then to persuade her father to take it from the provincial town where they live to Prague where he can hand it over to Bibi.

Just about everything which could go wrong does go wrong, but the ‘story’ is really a peg for Kundera to hang miscellaneous thoughts on. One of these is an extended disquisition about graphomania, namely that back at the beginning writing promoted mutual understanding. But in our current state of graphomania, the opposite is true:

everyone surrounds himself with his own writings as with a wall of mirrors cutting off all voices from without. (p.92)

and again, a bit later:

The proliferation of mass graphomania among politicians, cab drivers, women on the delivery table, mistresses, murderers, criminals, prostitutes, police chiefs, doctors and patients proves to me that every individual without exception bears a potential writer within himself and that all mankind has every right to rush out and into the streets with a cry of ‘We are all writers!’

And then:

Once the writer in every individual comes to life (and that time is not far off), we are in for an age of universal deafness and misunderstanding. (p.106)

This was written over forty years ago. How prophetic of the age of Facebook and twitter.

Another theme of the story is how fatuously stupid Westerners are. Several scenes and characters exist solely to satirise the West.

For example, Bibi dreams of being a writer but comes over as a narcissistic fool. They do contrive a meeting with a real published author, Banaka, who comes over as a pompous bore. One day he turns up in her café drunk and on the verge of tears because he was the victim of a poor review in a newspaper. Pathetic.

In another scene, a professor of philosophy holds forth about the nature of the novel. On a separate occasion, Tamina is with Bibi, her husband and a Japanese woman, watching TV on which two authors get irate. One of them is insisting that the fact that he spent his entire childhood in the village of Rourou is important, very important, vitally important if you are to understand his work. A new character, Joujou, tells everyone in the room, straight-faced and humourlessly, that she rarely used to have orgasms, but now she has them regularly. Bored, Bibi remarks offhand that what they really need round here is a revolution to shake things up.

Since all Kundera’s work up to this point describes what a revolution really looks like in practice i.e. the repression, the arrests, the executions, and the systematic humiliation of the entire population, it is difficult to think of anything she could say which would be a more damning indictment of her empty-headed idiocy.

After struggling to get through to her bloody family in Czechoslovakia, Tamina finally gets through to her brother and persuades him to travel to the provincial town and gather her diaries and notebooks from her mother-in-law. He reports that he’s done so, but found the drawer unlocked and the notebooks ransacked. Her mother-in-law has been through them, maybe read everything. Suddenly they don’t feel so precious…

Bibi abruptly announces she is not now going to Prague so Tamina shifts her attentions to Hugo, a young man with bad breath who regularly visits the café and is in love with her. Torpidly, she lets herself be taken out for a date, then back to his place, and stripped naked and penetrated, all without any excitement or interest, solely because Hugo says he will go to Prague and get her things. But he is irritated at her complete passivity. In subsequent meetings she just sits there dumbly while he craps on about his big plans to write a book, yes a book! a book all about power and politics. And then he tells her he has published an article about the Prague Spring which means he will not be allowed to travel to Czechoslovakia. He is sure she understands, he had to, he owed it to the world to share his article.

And suddenly she is so revolted by him, and the memory of him penetrating her, that she runs into the toilets and copiously strenuously throws up. And her vomiting seems, to this reader, to also be a reaction to the self-deception, narcissism and superficiality of the spoilt West.

There was only one thing she wanted, to preserve the memory of her husband and their time together untainted. And just about everyone she knows has conspired to foil that endeavour and desecrate his memory.

She went on serving coffee and never made another call to Czechoslovakia. (p.115)

What this story has in common with the first Lost Letters is how bleak it is.

Part Five – Litost

Kristyna is in her thirties. She lives in a small town with her husband, a butcher, and their little boy. She is having an affair with a mechanic who she allows to penetrate her in the locked security of the garage tyre bay. Then she meets the student, home from university for the vacation, and is seduced by his ways with big words and poetic quotations. He is desperate to make love but she wants him to remain on the level of poetry and ideas. Saying yes would drag him (and her) down into the world of the mechanic. So she meets with him in out-of-the-way places and lets him kiss and touch her but always refuses to go all the way. Finally the holidays end and they make a last-minute pact: she will come up to Prague and stay the night in his accommodation. They both know what this means.

Litost is a Czech word which combines grief, sympathy, remorse and an indefinable longing (p.121). It is ‘a state of torment caused by a sudden insight into one’s own miserable self’ (p.122). Kundera gives us some stories from the student’s past to flesh it out.

The night Kristyna is coming to stay, the student’s professor, who Kundera wittily names Voltaire, tells him the greatest poet in the land is having a get-together that night and he’s invited. The student is thrown into a quandary: sex or literature? He is young. He chooses sex.

When Kristyna arrives in Prague she is horrified at the seedy little restaurant he’s arranged to meet her in, the kind of place the butcher takes her to. It’s dirty and full of drunks and they give her a table by the toilets. By the time the student arrives, she’s ready to give him a piece of her mind. But he also is chagrined: she is wearing the most embarrassingly provincial clothes imaginable, including heavy strings of pearls and black pumps.

He tries to mollify her and they go out into the streets. She had dreamed of nightclubs and theatres and glamour – but he is only a poor student, after all. He takes her to his garret; it is small and shabby. Suddenly he has a brainwave. He tells her about the evening of poets, and says he’ll go (he can’t take her, it’s men only) but he’ll take a book and get it autographed by the greatest poet.

She willingly agrees, chooses a book off the poet’s shelf and settles down while he hurries off.

Kundera, with the airy candour which has become second nature, tells us that he’s writing all this in 1977. He eventually couldn’t put up with life in communist Czechoslovakia and drove west, as far west as he could till he stopped in the Breton town of Rennes. Now he is setting this passage fifteen years earlier, in the happier days of 1962. He paints a charming eccentric portrait of an evening’s drinking and squabbling among a variety of poets he humorously names after famous poets in the Western tradition, namely Goethe, Verlaine, Petrarch, Yesenin, Lermontov, and the cynic and anti-poet Boccaccio.

This extended depiction of a bunch of boisterous drunken poets is mildly entertaining but I was struck by the echoes of his novel, Life is Elsewhere, about a lyric poet, in which we met Lermontov quite a few times. And by the way Lermontov, in this book, dismisses all the rest of the poets as ‘Mama’s boys’ (p.141) – exactly the accusation Kundera threw at lyric poets as a class in the earlier novel.

Eventually the party breaks up and all the poets group together to help carry Goethe downstairs because he is very old and can’t walk without crutches. Then Lermontov gets in the taxi and volunteers to take him home and handle Mrs Goethe, who is a dragon and always cross when her husband stays out late.

The student walks with Petrarch who tells him lots of things about love, for example love and laughter are opposites. Then rushes back to his garret where Kristyna is awaiting him. He presents her with the book of poetry which he got Goethe to sign and indeed write a long personal message for her, and she is genuinely thrilled. He tears off his clothes and jumps into bed with her and she kisses him back but then, when he tries to part her thighs, refuses. And refuses and refuses and refuses. All night long, For hours. He is fired up and hard as rock. But she still wants to preserve the student on a different plane from the rest of her life. (Also, the delivery of her son was so difficult the doctors told her she must never again get pregnant or it would endanger her life.)

Eventually the student rolls off her body and onto his back and, for some obscure reason, Kristyna reaches out and grasps his rigid member, but doesn’t move it or do anything to relieve the pressure. Just holds it. Like a mother, like a sister, passionlessly.

Litost!

Part Six – The Angels

This begins as a literary-political essay about Prague which Kundera calls a city of forgetting. In the works of Kafka, Prague is a city which has forgotten its own identity, full of unnamed streets and houses, and even the characters have forgotten their own names – Josef K. of The Trial declines to become just K. in The Castle.

Kundera then moves on to discuss T.G. Masaryk, seventh president of Czechoslovakia, who was installed by the Russians in the aftermath of the crushing of the Prague Spring, and who is known as ‘the president of forgetting’ (p.158). Among other things he sacked some 150 Czech historians, as part of a repressive policy of obliterating the past and writing a new official version.

Tamina reappears, she of Part Four. She is sad because she has forgotten so many details about her husband, not least after making love to the despicable, smelly Hugo. Her plight reminds Kundera of his father, whose dementia meant he slowly lost the power of speech until finally all he could say was one phrase: ‘That’s strange!’

Kundera’s father was a musicologist and had been working on a study of Beethoven’s variations. With the airy confidence with which he slips so much factual content into all his books, Kundera proceeds to stop the narrative while he writes a page or two about the profundity of the variation form, ‘the form of maximum concentration.’ Indeed:

This entire book is a novel in the form of variations. The individual parts follow each other like individual stretches of a journey toward a theme, a thought, a single situation, a sense of which fades into the distance. (p.165)

And the figure of Tamina is at its heart, the faithful lover who struggles to remember her beloved.

The rest of the story is odd, and reminds us that, although we remember the sex, and the politics and the philosophy, dreams and fantasy are also a recurring theme in Kundera’s work.

A nice-looking man named Raphael comes into the café, knows Tamina’s name, and asks her to leave with him. They go outside and get into his sports car, and drive off, drive into the country, the green landscape turning sandy, then ochre. It reminds Tamina of the landscape her husband was forced to work in, when he was kicked out of white collar jobs and ended up working a digger on building sites.

He parks by a river and points down towards where a boy is holding the painter of a boat. As in a dream she gets into the boat and he starts to row, but she takes over, rows and rows, they arrive at a strange strand, are greeted by children, she disembarks and is shown the way to a dormitory where she’ll be sleeping, the children tell her that only children live on the island (she walks along the shore and ends up back where she started), and are divided into ‘squirrels’ and ‘tigers’, they are fascinated by her mature breasts and black pubic hair, and she finds herself at night being touched and stroked so she achieves a strange kind of climax, until one day one little urchin twists her nipple hard and she throws them all off, she tries to join in their games, like hopscotch, but gets things wrong, they chase her, catch her in badminton nets, a little like other outsiders in science fiction scenarios, finally she runs down to the seashore and swims, while they yell at her from the shore, she’s a strong swimmer and swims all night imagining she must reach the other side, but when dawn breaks she realises she’s only a few hundred yards from the island and is overcome with fatigue.

Some of the children come out in the rowing boat to watch her curiously, they make no offer to help her, and watch, while she goes under, once, twice, and then drowns.

Part Seven – The Border

This appears to be a whole-hearted satire of life in the West. Jan is from the East and observes the people round him like a zoologist. Jeanne likes to sit cross legged like the Buddha while she traces the outline of the coffee table before her, drawing attention to herself and her asinine comments. Jan drops in on the Clevis family. They are card-carrying liberal progressives, who subscribe to all the best liberal opinions and when he drops in they’ve just finished watching a TV programme on which representatives of all the schools of thought debated one of the big issues of the day, which is whether women should go topless. Jan listens to their fourteen-year-old daughter shout that she’s not going to be anybody’s Sex Object, while her mother cheers her on. The narrator reflects that millions of women across the west have burned their bra and now go about their days work wobbling as Nature intended.

They remind me of the right-on, vegetarian, socialist feminist family, the Webers, in the Posy Simmonds cartoon strip. And any number of other right-on families who were mocked and satirised in the 1970s.

The Clevises point out that poor Jeanne has gone through tragic times because her son ran away for a few days. Jan reflects on what the term tragic means in his country and how trivial it is in this country.

Jan is seeing a girl from a sports rental company. She is an orgasm fanatic. She is determined to have as many as possible, and gives him a running commentary when they’re making love, telling him just what to do when, and where to put his hands and whether to speed up or slow down. She’s like the cox of a rowing eight.

There’s a lot more discussion of sex. Jan speculates there are three kinds of erotic history: all the women you’ve had; all the women you could have had but let slip; and then all the women you could never have had. He is alarmed that more and more women seem to be slipping into this category. Is it because they have ‘begun to organise and reform their perennial fate?’ (I take it he’s referring to feminism).

There’s a passage about the male gaze (presumably Kundera was introduced to all these ideas, along with humourless feminist students, only once he’d arrived in France, in 1975), which he takes for granted as already being a well-known concept. This was forty years ago. Less well known, he asserts, is the fact that the object can look back. The object can cease to be an object, open its eyes, and unsettle and unnerve the gazer, and his protagonist goes on to discuss about various examples of women who bite back, with his girlfriend Edwige, the feminist.

For example, their friend Barbara is known for giving orgies (who are these people? how did he get to know so many women obsessed with sex? how come I never met or heard of anyone like this when I was a young man?) One day she invites their friend Ervin who arrived to find two pretty women and Barbara. Barbara got out an egg timer then the three women stripped naked. Then she told Ervin to strip naked which he quickly did. Then she set the egg timer and said he had precisely one minute to get a hard on or they’d throw him out. And all three women stared at his crotch laughing. Then they threw him out.

Then Jan and Edwige discuss rape. Jan sees rape as integral to eroticism, whereas castration is its negation. Edwige says if rape is integral to eroticism, then we need to develop a new form of eroticism. He defends women who say the word ‘no’ when they don’t mean it. She gets angry and says ‘no means no’. He trots through a repertoire of sexual scenes – the woman acting coy, having to be brought round, concealing her charms, the man having to talk her round, persuade her to reveal herself, and so on. He calls them time-honoured images. She says they certainly are time-honoured – and idiotic! Time to change them all!

And so it goes on, the never-ending ping-ping game between men and women.

Meanwhile, the notion of the border is applied to several situations. A friend is dying of cancer. Jan reflects how very close death is all the time to each of us. The border is an inch away. Ten years ago he used to be visited by a woman for sex. They both stood and stripped in the same hurried way each time. One time she caught his eye and smiled a sad sympathetic smile. Jan was inches away from bursting out laughing, which would have ended their sexual affair. The ‘border’ was there filling the room. But he stifled his laughter, stayed this side of the border. Another time he chatted up a young woman on a train but it just wouldn’t click, despite taking her to the dining car, then out into the corridor and lifting her head into the light as he had done a thousand times before. There was a border of seduction, but he just couldn’t cross it.

There’s also a border when it comes to repetition. Every time something is repeated it loses part of its vital force. Every action therefore has a border, this side of which it retains meaning, that side of which it has become meaningless automatism.

Similarly, many of Jan’s fellow exiles initially felt great attachment to their old country and fiercely vowed to fight for its freedom. But that passion faded, and now many are scared to admit they have passed beyond a psychological border where they realise there is no cause and no fight. And no purpose.

Their friend Passer dies of cancer. At his funeral the hat is blown off the head of Papa Clevis and in successive gusts blown to the feet of the solemn funeral orator. Everyone strains to contain their laughter. Then it blows into the grave itself. When the orator bends to throw the first earth into the grave he is stunned. The watchers strain every sinew not to burst out laughing.

Jan attends one of Barbara’s legendary orgies and is appalled to discover what a bully she is, pushing and arranging and goading and forcing everyone to have a good time. Jan buddies up with a bald man who quips ‘Major Barbara’ and comments that she’s like a coach training her team for the Olympics. Barbara spots them chatting and separates them, taking the bald guy off to a corner where she starts masturbating him, while Jan finds himself being handled by the clumsy provincial stripper who had started proceedings. He finds himself looking over at the bald man, and coming up with more jokes and references and ludicrous metaphors, and suddenly both he and baldie burst out laughing. Barbara is furious. She expels Jan from the party.

Sex is a serious business. It cannot stand being mocked. Now, as Jan moves into his forties (Kundera was nearly 50 when this book was published) he finds himself more and more aware of all these borders: death just inches away; absurdity underlying all our behaviour; sex just a facial flicker away from guffaws.

In the last sequence in the book, just before he goes abroad for good (to America, I think), Jan takes his feminist girlfriend to an island which is a nudist colony. In their rented cottage they strip off, then walk down to the beach to join grandparents, parents, teenagers and toddlers, all stark naked.

Here his misunderstandings with Edwige – and the entire novel’s theme of misunderstandings – reaches a kind of climax. She is obsessed with ‘the Western Judaeo-Christian’ tradition of shame of the body. But Jan is thinking about something quite different. More and more he has been dreaming of a state of bodily arousal which is pleasure but innocent of climax; a pre-sexual state, which he associates with the Greek myth of Daphnis and Chloe.

They sit on the beach in the sun, watching all the naked people around them, and Jan murmurs ‘Daphnis’. Edwige hears this and pounces on it, convinced he shares her feelings about a feminist escape from the Judeao-Christian sexist tradition. He nods agreement although he is sick to death of her trite, stupid obvious ideas, the way she feeds everything into the same half dozen, half-baked ‘issues’. Instead he is consumed with a sense of the sheer absurdity of human existence, and this conviction – so similar to the recurring obsession of his author and creation – is cemented in the vivid image which ends the book.

A group of Edwige’s nudist friends has just come up and been introduced to Jan, and Edwige has mentioned Jan’s throwaway idea that they should name the anonymous little island Daphne.

Everyone was delighted with the idea, and a man with extraordinary paunch began developing the idea that Western civilisation was on its way out and we should soon be freed once and for all from the bonds of Judeo-Christian thought – statements Jan had heard ten, twenty, thirty, a hundred, five hundred, a thousand times before – and for the time being those few feet of beach felt like a university auditorium. On and on the man talked. The others listened with interest, their naked genitals staring dully, sadly, listlessly at the yellow sand. (p.228)


Thoughts

Are these stories continually interrupted by multiple digressions into interesting topics? Or essays on interesting topics into which ‘characters’ and their slender narratives are occasionally inserted?

Of the five books by Milan Kundera which I’ve read so far, this one has by far the most ‘interruptions’ and digressions; it feels the most finely balanced between narrative and editorial, between story and lecture.

For example, the story titled Litost, with its rhetorical questions and technical explanations (of foreign words and their etymologies) keeps reverting to the nature of an academic essay, a quality demonstrated by one of the last sections which is titled Further Notes for a Theory of Litost. 

Or take the section about the two types of laughing, the demonic which celebrates chaos, and the angelic which celebrates order, which underpins the sections about Angels i.e. that their laughter is repressive.

Or Kundera’s touching memoir of his senile father, and the way he (Kundera) came to understand his father’s scholarly fascination with the variation form.

In fact Part Six has an extended passage remembering much more about his father the musicologist: how he explained to the young Milan the structure and purpose of the key system, before Kundera himself goes on to give his account of the collapse of that system, as overthrown by Schoenberg, the reluctant revolutionary, who ushered in the twelve-tone system, which was to dominate international classical music after the Second World War.

There’s a lot lot more topics like this: on the nature of absurdity and human intention; on the nature of love; on the nature of political and cultural forgetting.

A cultural conservative?

Although he is a striking radical in the technique he brings to the novel, in chopping it up into these bite-sized sections, and inserting all kinds of authorial asides, and with the brisk no-nonsense way he gets straight to the gist of a character’s thoughts… in other ways, when you look at what his discussion values, Kundera can come over as a surprisingly cultural conservative.

In this book he thinks ‘beauty’ is a thing of the past which has been buried under a deluge of pop music and public announcements. He thinks Schoenberg murdered music and, as with the three-hundred page diatribe against lyric poetry which is his second novel, Life Is Elsewhere, he did it with the best of intentions. His innovation represented the death of classical music, but he made it with excitement and daring, and his post-war devotees were zealots and extremists of the kind Kundera deplores.

Bleakly, he says that everyone who spouts the big word Progress, imagines it means progress towards a bright new future. They don’t realise that what they are moving towards is death (p.179).

He hates pop music. There are a couple of pages comparing the Czech pop singer Karel Gott with the president of forgetting, T.G. Masaryk, in the sense that both want to bury the past. Pop music is ‘music without memory’, music deprived of the legacy of Bach to Beethoven, music reduced to the stumps of its basic elements, mindlessly repeated over a nightmareishly amplified totalitarian beat.

Towards the end of the book he rubbishes the entire notion of ‘progress’.

Jan had never shared Passer’s enthusiasm for observing how things change, though he did appreciate his desire for change, considering it the oldest desire in man, mankind’s most conservative conservatism. (p.215)

Pessimistic stuff, isn’t it?

Lost in the West

In this the book represents Kundera’s uneasy transition to the ‘free’ society of the West. In a sense, it was easy to write in the East because art, poetry and literature were taken seriously, especially by the regime, which paid artists and writers the great tribute of locking them up and, in the Soviet Union, of murdering them.

In the communist East there was not only a shortage of food and consumer goods (cars, fridges), which meant you made do with a much more threadbare lifestyle – but a shortage of types of lifestyle. At its simplest, you were either for the regime or against it, and everyone trod a very careful path so as not to put a foot wrong and be dragged off to prison.

This was Kundera’s first book published since he defected to the West (in 1975) and although his technical achievement (the chopping up of narratives into micro-sections and their interleaving with meditations on all kinds of subjects) has reached giddy heights, it seems to me that he is struggling with the sheer profusion of narratives available in the West.

Put simply, there’s so much crap. Radios are on everywhere blaring out idiot pop music, muzak in lifts and supermarkets, so much cheap food the inhabitants make themselves sick and fat, shiny adverts bombard you from radio, TV, cinema and huge hoardings.

And people fuss and fret about such trivia – epitomised by the monstrous superficiality of the would-be novelist Bibi in Part Two, or the ludicrous self-centred ‘tragedy’ of Jeanne in Part Seven, or the stupid television debates about whether women should or should not go bare breasted on beaches. Is this it? Is this what thousands of years of human civilisation dwindle down to? An endless froth of trivia?

Maybe this is what he means when he says that the entire book is about Tamina, protagonist of the fourth and sixth stories, which is at first a puzzling statement, since a number of the other characters (Mirek and Karel spring to mind) are well defined and memorable. But:

It is a novel about Tamina, and whenever Tamina is absent, it is a novel for Tamina. She is its main character and main audience, and all the other stories are variations on her story and come together in her life as in a mirror. (p.165)

And who is Tamina? She is an exile in the West. She loves her country and feels she left her soul there. But all her attempts to reclaim it are foiled. She is appalled by the superficiality (Bibi) and selfishness (Hugo) and pretentiousness (the writers bickering on TV) of ‘cultural’ life in the West. And what happens to her in the end? She drowns.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

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

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

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

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

The 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

The Joke by Milan Kundera (1967)

‘A melancholy duet about the schism between body and soul’ (Milan Kundera in the Introduction)

Czech history – a postwar snapshot

Kundera was born in 1929 in Brno, Czechoslovakia. When he was ten the Nazis annexed his country and imposed Nazi rule, when he was 16 the Russians liberated his homeland, and when he was 19 the Russians supported the February 1948 coup which brought a communist government to power. Initially, many of the brightest and best in the country celebrated a new era which promised to deliver a new world of freedom and justice and equality for all. Soon enough the government showed its Stalinist colours, rounding up not only conservatives and capitalists, big landowners, bankers and so on, but also socialist and liberal writers and critics. Hundreds of thousands were sacked from their jobs, around a hundred thousand were imprisoned and tens of thousands executed as spies and traitors and saboteurs, including friends and colleagues of Kundera’s.

After putting up with nearly twenty years of oppressive rule, in late 1967 and early 1968 rising protests against the regime was met by a new, more liberal generation of party leaders, who set about loosening communist policy, reining back the dreaded secret police, and allowing a flowering of expression and political criticism in the media, newspapers, radio and TV, and among artists and writers. Which all became known as ‘the Prague Spring’.

The growing political, economic and cultural liberalism of Czechoslovakia led to fears that it might be about to leave the Soviet-backed security and economic alliances, and that its example might undermine Russia’s grip on all Eastern Europe. So in August 1968 some 500,000 Russian and other eastern bloc soldiers rode tanks into Czechoslovakia, occupying all the cities and strategic points, overthrowing the liberal government and reinstalling a hardline Stalinist regime. Over a hundred thousand Czechs fled the country, and another massive wave of repression and punishment threw an entire generation of professionals out of their white collar jobs, forcing them into menial labouring jobs.

Kundera, just turning 40, was among this group. Back in 1948 he had been an enthusiastic communist, joining the party when still at school. He welcomed the 1948 coup and the arrival of a new world, and went, as a student, to study film at university. But his outspoken wit and anti-establishment stance got him in trouble with the authorities and he was expelled from the party in 1950. After a hiatus in his studies, he was, however, readmitted to the university, completed his studies in 1952, and was appointed a lecturer in world literature. In 1956 he was readmitted to the Communist Party. For the next ten years he was a dutiful communist and academic.

Kundera played a peripheral role in the Prague Spring, looking on as his students went on strike, organised meetings and rallies, devised slogans which they printed on posters and banners and carried on marches and spray-painted on the walls of the capital. But even after the Russians invaded, he continued to defend the Communist Party, engaging in polemical debate with more thoroughly anti-communist intellectuals, insisting that the communist regime was capable of reform in a humanist direction.

Only in the early 1970s, as it became clear that the new hardline government was imposing an inflexibly authoritarian regime, did Kundera finally abandon his dreams that communism could be reformed. In 1975 he moved to France, taking a teaching job at Rennes, then moving on to Paris. He was stripped of his Czech citizenship in 1979, and legally became a French citizen in 1981.

By the 1980s, when his novels began to become widely popular in the West, Kundera had, in other words, been on a long gruelling journey of personal and intellectual disillusionment.

Themes in Milan Kundera’s fiction

Communism

This all explains why, although the main action of the novels is often set contemporaneously – in the later 1960s and 1970s just before they were published – their root is in that 1948 coup. Again and again, in all of his books, he returns like a soldier revisiting the scene of his post-traumatic stress disorder, to the primal trauma of the revolution (in The Farewell Party, Jakub – a key character – describes it as the obsession of someone who’s been in a bad car crash to endlessly relive the trauma). Again and again he examines all its aspects, reliving the jubilation and sense of emotional awakening he and his generation experienced, and then – in the rest of the text – generally delineating the long, grim consequences the advent of communist rule had on so many people and so many aspects of life.

So Kundera’s work is characterised by his obsessive return, again and again, to relive aspects of the coup and re-examine what it meant, recasting the events as fable, fairy tale, allegory, in a host of genres and forms, in order to try and work through what was for him, the primal imaginative and psychological trauma.

Cynicism and the absurd

There’s no-one as cynical as a disillusioned revolutionary. All Kundera’s books bespeak an immensely jaded cynic, with a bitter view of human nature. What makes them interesting is he keeps his corrosive cynicism under control, and deploys it strategically to dramatise and emphasise his plots. What I mean is – he will often create one particular character who is extremely jaded and disillusioned and cynical, and let that character give full vent to (what we can guess is) Kundera’s own bitterness, against optimism, against utopian politics, against idealistic revolutions, against unimaginative party apparatchiks who carry out orders without reflecting. BUT – these characters are often set in juxtaposition with other characters, often with sunnier, happier outlooks, and often the cynical characters are proved to be completely wrong.

So he creates dramatic structures in which his bitter cynicism can be forcefully expressed but is always careful to balance and control them with other points of view. Eventually, as we shall see in our analysis of The Joke, what emerges is less cynicism as such, than an all-consuming sense of the utter absurdity of human existence: that nobody’s intentions come out as they mean them to, that all human perceptions, understandings, analyses and goals are absurd.

And this doesn’t necessarily mean bleakly, nihilistically absurd. it can mean ridiculously, comically, even light-heartedly absurd.

The personal and the private

If the communist government could nationalise entire industries, dispossess the rich of their belongings, collectivise the farms, determine what jobs each citizen is allotted, take over control of all newspapers, radio and TV, and monitor everything every citizen published or wrote, even in private letters and diaries – the one area of life it could not easily control was the citizens’ love lives, in particular their sex lives.

Sex plays a huge role in Kundera’s fiction, on one reading it is arguably his central theme, and some of his descriptions of sexual encounters between characters are immensely powerful and erotic. And, if you are a card-carrying feminist, I can see how the unrelenting emphasis on the predatory sexual stance of almost all the male characters can become claustrophobic and, eventually, oppressive. I am a heterosexual man, and I have gotten a little tired of the way all of the male characters are obsessed with sex, and with very straightforward, vanilla, penetrative sex, at that. Many elements of his obsession with male predatory sexuality now seem very, very outdated to modern readers.

Nonetheless, it’s clear that sex performs two other functions in Kundera’s fiction.

1. Given that it was impossible for citizens of Czechoslovakia to write or publish what they felt, to write poems or plays or novels or stories that wouldn’t be censored by the authorities, let alone make films or TV documentaries or radio programmes, or even put on festivals or meetings which didn’t go unmonitored by the authorities – given that almost all forms of expression were banned or heavily censored and controlled – then sex – the sexual encounter between a man and a woman (that’s all it ever is in Kundera’s traditional mindset) can be a theatre of the intellect and the emotions, a place where all kinds of thoughts and moods and opinions which are utterly banned in the public sphere can be expressed in the private realm of the bedroom.

2. But the most dominant idea which emerges is Kundera’s fundamental concept of absurdity, the absurdity of the human condition. When I mentioned to a friend that I was rereading all of Kundera, she said, ‘Oh my God, he’s so sexy, so erotic!’ But the odd thing is that, studying the texts, you realise that many of the sexual couplings which take place are actually quite repugnant. In several of the novels men force themselves on women who are very very reluctant to have sex. There is at least one instance of brutal gang rape. And most of the other couplings take place between people who have ludicrously misjudged each other’s intentions. A good example of which lies at the heart of The Joke.

The Joke – structure and style

The Joke was Kundera’s first novel. The end page states that it was finished in December 1965, when Kundera was thirty-six i.e. it is not a young man’s book, it has been long meditated on. In fact, towards the end, the protagonists’ age itself becomes a topic of reflection, see below.

The Joke is divided into seven parts which are listed on the Contents page.

  1. Ludvik (10 pages)
  2. Helena (10 pages)
  3. Ludvik (84 pages)
  4. Jaroslav (34 pages)
  5. Ludvik (40 pages)
  6. Kostka (30 pages)
  7. Ludvik, Jaroslav, Helena (58 pages)

Which tells us straightaway the names and genders of the main protagonists, and that the main figure is going to be Ludvik, who has more appearances, and more pages devoted to him (134 of the book’s 267 pages), than all the others put together.

Kundera’s prose style is flat and factual…

The sections are named like this because each one presents a narration in that character’s voice, and Kundera makes an obvious effort to distinguish their voices. Ludvik, for example, is self-centred and factual in his approach. Helena’s style is immediately different, in that her sentences are made up of numerous clauses which all run into each other. Maybe this is an attempt to capture a more ‘feminine’ stream of consciousness, and noticing this reminds me of James Joyce and Molly Bloom’s famous soliloquy at the end of Ulysses. However, Kundera is a very different writer from Joyce.

Joyce had a miraculous, Shakespearian grasp of the infinite range of the English language and, in Ulysses, made it explode into a multi-coloured firework display, melting and reforming words and phrases, and mixing them with other languages to create an extraordinary verbal extravaganza.

Kundera is the opposite. His language is pretty flat and boring. Maybe this is the fault of the translation, but I don’t think so. No, the interest of the book doesn’t stem from the words but from:

  1. a complex, farcical and thought-provoking plot
  2. from the complex interplay of the handful of characters caught up in the plot
  3. but most of all from what the characters think about the events they’re caught up in and activate; the characters are endlessly reflecting, thinking, pondering and analysing their motives

…because Kundera is not a descriptive writer but an intellectual, analytical author

This is what it means to say that Kundera is an intellectual writer. We barely find out what any of his characters look like (having read to the end of the book I have no clue what Ludvik actually looks like, what colour his hair or eyes are, whether he’s tall or short or fat or thin).

1. Analysis Instead we are incessantly fed with what the characters are thinking. And their thinking almost always takes the form of analysis. Even when they’re thinking about their love lives – and they spend most of their time thinking about their love lives – they are thinking about them in an analytical way. When they think about other people, even their supposed beloveds, the people they’re married to or in love with or planning to have an affair with – they tend to think of them as categories of person, as types which fit into certain typologies, and must be managed and handled as types.

Thus Ludvik thinks of Zemanek as The Betrayer and of Zemanek’s wife, Helena, as Instrument For Revenge, and remembers Lucie as being Ideal Pure Femininity.

2. Deconstruction But the book is intellectual in another way, which is that the entire story has been dismantled and analysed out into separate elements. The text itself is made up of parts like a jigsaw puzzle. As the index indicates, Kundera conceived a story – then he dismantled it into a set of disparate narratives given from the points of view of four main characters. Like a forensic scientist investigating a complex chunk of organic matter by submitting it to a set of procedures designed to identify the basic elements which make it up.

3. Multiple points of view So, although – as per point 1 – all the characters tend to think of each other as types or categories – the use of multiple points of view almost always undermines their analyses, showing just how wrong they are. Thus it’s only about page 100, when we first hear from a completely different character outside Ludvik’s worldview, Jaroslav, that we see things from a completely different perspective and learn that Ludvik is not the master narrator of events but is himself also a type – the Cynic, the Man Who Abandoned Folk Music For The Revolution – and a type very much caught up in events, misunderstanding and misreading other people.

In some ways the heart of the book only comes with the thirty pages devoted to the character named Kostka, where we see the world through his eyes and gain a completely different perspective on Ludvik’s history, and on his pivotal relationship with Lucie, showing the Ludvik was completely wrong in everything he thought about his one true love.

Thus:

  1. not only do the characters obsessively analyse their own motives and other peoples’
  2. and the narrator analyses his characters’ analyses
  3. but also, by juxtaposing characters’ analyses against each other, Kundera performs a further level of analysis, a kind of meta-analysis of the analyses

See what I mean by a very intellectual author.

The Joke – the plot

The book is set around the time it was published, the mid 1960s. But to understand it you have to realise that its roots lie 15 years earlier, at the period of the 1948 Communist coup and its immediate aftermath.

The fateful postcard

To be precise, the summer of 1951. Ludvik Jahn is one of the generation of young students caught up in the idealism generated by the Communist Party’s seizure of power and he is still a staunch communist, but also an intellectual and wit and joker. In his circle of friends is a particularly po-faced and unimaginative woman student named Marketa. She never gets any of their gags or references, which tempts her friends to spin all kinds of jokes on her, for example the time they were all down the pub and Ludvik invents the notion that the hills of Bohemia are home to a shy and elusive race of trolls – which Marketa accepts with open mouth and wide eyes.

So when she goes away to summer labour duty, helping with the harvest, as all young zealous communists do, and when she sends him a series of letters each more po-faced and staunchly patriotic and communist than the last, Ludvik decides to pull her leg by scribbling a quick postcard with the sentiments most guaranteed to shock her, namely:

Optimism is the opium of mankind!
A healthy spirit stinks of stupidity!
Long live Trotsky!

The card is intercepted on the way to Marketa’s camp. The authorities call her in for questioning. Then Ludvik is called into a kangaroo court where he slowly realises that his quick jeu d’esprit is being interpreted in the most sinister way possible. How long have you been an agent for enemy powers, his interrogators ask him. With horror he realises that merely making a joke, of any kind, is – to these people – an insult to the 100% earnest, patriotic, communist fervour required from the entire citizenry.

Things reach a peak of horror when he is hauled before a roomful of his peers at the university, fellow students and communist party members. Ludvik is briefly heartened when he learns the chair is to be his good friend and fellow wit Zemanek. However, Zemanek rises and gives a thrilling and brilliantly damning indictment of Ludvik, kicking off by quoting the prison diaries of a young communist, Julius Fucik, who was arrested, tortured and executed by the Nazis but who died knowing he gave his life for a noble cause. Having let that sink in among the tearful audience, Zemanek then comes to another text, and reads out Ludvik’s postcard. At which point Ludvik realises he is lost. When it comes to a vote, 100% of the arms of his friends and colleagues stretch up to expel him from the university and from the communist party.

In those heady revolutionary times, Kundera explains, it was thought that human beings had a fixed inner essence and that that essence was either for the Party and with the Party, or it was against. Black or white. And a single slip, a chance remark, in a conversation or article or meeting – might suddenly reveal the terrible fact that you were not for the Party. And just that one slip revealed to all the party zealots, to the police and to all society who you really were. Just one slip of the tongue, and you were categorised and condemned for life as an enemy of the people. You would be fired from your job, unable to get a new one, all decent respectable people would shun you.

(Reading Kundera’s bitter and extended explanation of how the young, clever, intellectual communist zealots of this day took a fierce delight in policing everyone’s speech and writing, and pouncing on the slightest example of unrevolutionary sentiments… the reader can’t help reflecting that this is exactly the fierce, young university student zeal which drives modern political correctness.)

In the mining camp

It was only the fact that Ludvik was a student that had exempted him from military service. Now he’s kicked out of university, he is immediately conscripted straight into the army and, because of his misdemeanour, into a punishment battalion which works in the coal mines.

There follows a long passage describing the grim lives of the coal miners and the barbed-wire-encircled barracks they live in. Slowly Ludvik gets to know the other criminals and ‘social deviants’. I like prison camp memoirs (the twentieth century was, after all, very rich in them; the prison camp memoir is a major twentieth century genre) and I found this extended section powerful and moving. For the first time Ludvik is forced to pay attention to the lives and fates of people outside himself, and to sympathise with their plights.

Once a month they all get a pass to go into town on a Saturday night and spend the money they’ve earned in the mine, getting pissed and shagging the local prostitutes. Ludvik describes this in some detail.

But then he also describes meeting a shy girl who is different from the rest and who he conceives something resembling true love for, a young woman named Lucie Sebetka. He can only meet her once a month, and comes to project all his sensitivity and soulfulness onto her, turning her into an image of frail purity.

But Ludvik is a man – and a man in a Milan Kundera novel – so sex is ever-present in his mind and it isn’t long before he wants to – needs to – possess her, and make her his.

This sequence is written very convincingly, the way Ludvik’s thoughts slowly morph from worshiping Lucie’s purity to needing to possess it. Thus, on several successive dates – spread months apart – he tries to have sex with her, despite her refusing, clenching her legs together, pushing him off, and bursting into tears.

Maybe it’s because I’m so much older than Ludvik (he is, after all, only 20 at the time) or because I’ve read so many hundreds of accounts of #metoo-type rapes and assaults – but I quickly suspected that she had been abused earlier in her life and this explains her paradoxical behaviour: she loves Ludvik, she brings him flowers, she visits the camp and says hello to him through the wire mesh – in every way she is devoted to him; and yet on the two occasions where he manages to engineer meetings (at some risk – for the second one he manages to escape through a hole in the wire, and devise an elaborate set of arrangements whereby he borrows the bedroom of a civilian miner he’s befriended down the mines for just one evening) she is OK kissing, and sort of OK taking her clothes off but… absolutely and completely refuses to go any further, driving Ludvik into paroxysms of frustration, and then into a fiery rage.

He eventually shouts at her to get out and throws her clothes at her. She dresses and leaves in tearful silence. Ludvik waits an appropriate period of time, goes back downstairs to find the friendly miner has got a few mates round and they’re all a bit drunk, so he regales them with an entirely fictional account of what wonderful championship sex he’s just had with his girlfriend, before riskily sneaking back into the camp, and going to bed in his miserable bunk.

He never sees Lucie again – on his next furlough he discovers she’s simply left the dormitory she was sharing in with two other girls and left no forwarding address – but he never stops being haunted by her memory.

His mother dies while he’s doing his time and when it’s finally over, he is so heartlost and forlorn, that he signs up for another three years hard labour. The loss of Lucie – the stupid bungling lust of that one night – plunges him into years of ‘hopelessness and emptiness’ (p.104).

The Revenge

It is fifteen years later. We are in the mind of plump, middle-aged Helena. She is fed up with her husband Pavel and his philandering. She hates the petty bickering at work – she works in a government radio station. She resents all the fuss they made when she got some little hussy who she discovered was having an affair with a married man, sacked from her job. All her staff rounded on her, some even muttering ‘hypocrite’. But what do they know about all the sacrifices she’s made for the Party? And for her country? And for Truth and Justice?

OK, she herself flirts with younger men but that is completely different. And anyway, now she has met the love of her life, a wonderful heartfelt passionate man named Ludvik. And he has invited her for a trip out of Prague, to a town in the country where there is an annual folk festival. She has combined business with pleasure, as she’ll cover the festival for her radio station (accompanied by a loyal young puppy of a sound engineer named Jindra) but her real motivation for going is that Ludvik has told her he can’t contain his passion any more and must have her. She is thrilled to her fingertips. She has brought her best underwear.

And so she proceeds to check into the hotel in this rural town and then to meet Ludvik. It is only half way through this passage, and half way through the book (on page 151) that we casually learn that her last name is Zemanek. When I read that sentence I burst out laughing and everyone on the tube carriage looked at me. Yes, Zemanek, the name of Ludvik’s smooth-talking friend who was the first to betray him and led the meeting which had him expelled from university and the party, who ruined his life.

Now Ludvik is taking his revenge. Having eventually returned to Prague and found white collar work he is suited for, he one day meets Helena who comes to interview him for her radio programme and her surname makes him perk up. He does background checks and establishes she is the wife of his persecutor and contrives for them to have another meeting, at which he uses all his wiles to seduce her. The seduction proceeds apace and is now due to reach its climax in his home town, the setting of the annual folk festival.

And the heart of the novel (arguably) is this grand, staged, ceremonial act of sexual intercourse between the aggrieved Ludvik and his blissfully ignorant, plump adorer, Helena. It is described in great detail and is, I suppose, very erotic.

The two standout features of Ludvik’s technique are 1. He insists she strip naked for him, until she is standing there before him, starkers – without pulling the curtains or turning off the light. She is initially reluctant but eventually strips, and this has the psychological effect of making her truly really completely accept the reality of the situation. Rather than hiding under a blanket and letting something unspeakable happen to her, she is made completely complicit, willing and responsible for the act of sex.

Number 2 is that half way through coitus, Ludvik gets carried away and slaps Helena and, to his and her amazement, she likes it, it makes her howl louder, so he slaps her again, and soon he is slapping her face at will, then turns her over and spanks her big wobbly bum, while she howls and groans in ecstasy.

All very erotic, and written with an intense erotic charge, but – as I’ve emphasised above – also all wildly absurd. Because the forced stripping and the beating unleashes in Helena a deeper level of erotic experience than she could ever have imagined possible, with the result that her love and adoration of Ludvik goes from high on a normal counter, to off the scale, into slavish, super-deotional Shades of Grey territory.

BUT, as the process unfolded, Ludvik found himself more and more overcome with disgust and hatred. With the result that, once they are totally spent, Helena can’t keep her arms off him, is all over him, kisses him all over his body, while Ludvik, thoroughly repulsed and now ashamed of himself, shrinks like a starfish at her touch, and only wants to get dressed and flee.

So the idea of the joke has multiple levels. It refers to:

  1. the original joke postcard that Ludvik sent
  2. and this elaborate ploy he sets up to ravish, ransack and steal from his bitter enemy, everything that he (the enemy) loves (p.171)

However, there is more to come. Namely that Ludvik makes the tactical error of asking Helena to tell him more about her husband. He does this for two reasons a) he wants to hear more about their deep love, so he can savour the idea that he (Ludvik) has ravaged it, b) it will stop Helena pawing and fawning all over him.

What he hadn’t at all anticipated was that Helena proceeds to tell him that her marriage to Zemanek is over. Zemanek doesn’t like her. He has been having affairs. They have ceased living as man and wife. True they share the same house, but they have completely separate lives.

In a flash Ludvik’s entire plan turns to ashes, crashes to the ground. It has all been for nothing. Worse, Helena now enthusiastically tells Ludvik that now she can announce to Zemanek that she has a lover of her own, and he can go to hell with all his pretty dollybirds because she, Helena, has found the greatest, truest love of her life.

Appalled, Ludvik finally manages to make his excuses, plead another appointment and leave.

Jaroslav and the Ride of the King

The book is so long and rich and complex because there are several other distinct threads to it. One of these is about Czech folk music. It turns out that the provincial town where this folk festival is taking place is also Ludvik’s home town. As a teenager he played clarinet in the town’s folk ensembles and was deeply imbrued with the folk tradition. He became very good friends with Jaroslav, a big gentle bear of a man, who emerged as a leader of the town’s folk musicians and a one-man embodiment of the tradition.

Jaroslav’s monologue allows Kundera to go into some detail about the Czech folk tradition, what it means, why it is special, and the impact the communist coup had on it. Surprisingly, this was positive. After all the Czechs were forced to copy the Stalinist model of communist culture – and this emphasised nationalist and folk traditions, while pouring scorn on the ‘cosmopolitianism’ of the international Modernist movement, then, a bit later, strongly criticised the new ‘jazz’ music coming in from the decadent West.

The communist government gave money to preserve folk traditions and to fund folk traditions like the one taking place on the fateful weekend when Ludvik and Helena are visiting his home town. Jaroslav is not backward in expressing his contempt for Ludvik, who abandoned all this to go to the big city, who turned his back on the true folk tradition to celebrate a foreign, imported ideology. Once best friends, they haven’t met for many years, and Jaroslav in particular, harbours a deep grudge against his former band member.

Jaroslav describes in some detail the ‘Ride of the King’ which is the centrepiece of the festival, when a young boy is completely costumed and masked to re-enact the legend of the almost solitary ride of an exiled king in the Middle Ages. It is a great honour to be chosen to play the ‘king’ and Jaroslav is thrilled that his own son was selected by the committee to play the king.

Admittedly the ride itself, as witnessed through the eyes of both Jaroslav and Ludvik, is a rather shabby and tawdry affair. The authorities don’t even close off the main street so the characters dressed in bright traditional costumes and riding horses, are continually dodging out of the way of cars, lorries and motor bikes. And the crowds are the smallest they’ve ever been. (At this point you realise this novel is set in the early 1960s, as radio-based rock and roll was just coming in, as the Beatles were first appearing – and the reader can make comparisons between this Czech novel lamenting the decay of traditional folk festivals, and similar books, describing similar sentiments, written in the West.)

Jaroslav puts a brave face on it all, decrying the horrible noisy modern world, insisting on the primacy and integrity of folk music and traditions and still beaming with pride that his son is riding on a horse through their town dressed as the King of the Ride.

Except he isn’t. Later on in the book Jaroslav makes the shattering discovery that his son has bunked off, gone off on a motorbike with a mate to a roadside café to drink and listen to rock’n’roll. And his wife knew all about it and helped cover it up, helped arrange the dressing up of a completely different boy, and then lied to Jaroslav!

No greater betrayal is conceivable. Stunned, the big man stands in their kitchen, while his wife faces their stove, continuing to fuss over the soup she’s making while her husband’s whole world collapses in ashes. Then, one by one he takes every plate on the dresser and hurls them at the floor. Then he smashes up each of the chairs round the table. Then he turns the table over and smashes it down on the pile of broken crockery. While his wife stands trembling at the cooker, crying into their soup. Then he leaves, dazed and confused, wandering through the streets, and beyond, out into the fields, out to the countryside and eventually sits down by the river which flows through the town, the Morava, then lies down, using the violin case he’s brought with him as a pillow. Lies and stares at the clouds in the sky, completely forlorn.

Kostka’s story

Kostka’s story comes toward the end of the novel, but it provides an important centre and touchstone. As you read it you realise that although Ludvik may be the central consciousness, he is powerfully counterbalanced by first Jaroslav and now Kostka.

Kostka was also of Ludvik and Jaroslav’s generation, the 1948 generation. But Kostka was and is a devout Christian. (Christianity, Christian faith and Christian terminology crops up throughout Kundera’s fiction. Readers [correctly] associate him with meditations on politics and communism, but Christian belief is also a substantial theme in his books.)

Kostka’s inflexible religious belief meant that he, too, eventually found it impossible to stay in university, though he differed from Ludvik in voluntarily quitting and being assigned to a state farm as a technical adviser (p.184) where, being highly intelligent and hard working, he was soon devising more effective ways to grow crops. It was then that a rumour spread about a wild woman of the woods, stories circulated about milk pails being mysteriously emptied, food left out to cool disappearing. It wasn’t long before the authorities tracked down the young woman to her shad shabby lair in a disused barn and brought her in for questioning.

It was Lucie, Ludvik’s pure young woman. This is what happened to her after their tragically failed night of sex, after he threw her clothes at her and told her to clear out. She did. She left her job and the dormitory she shared, and travelled across country sleeping rough, and ended up in a rural area, living off berries and food she could steal.

The authorities take pity on her and assign her to the communal farm. This is where she comes under the protection of Kostka. And very slowly we learn how she relaxes and opens up and tells him her story. As I had suspected, she was abused, to be precise as a teenager she hung round with a gang of boys and on one pitiful occasion, they got drunk and gang raped her. Even the quietest, sweetest boy, the one she thought was her special friend. He was the most brutal, to show off to his mates that he was a real man.

That is more than enough explanation of why she couldn’t give herself to Ludvik. It was precisely because what she needed wasn’t sex, but protection. In her mind, she was forcing Ludvik to conform to the role of Lover and Protector. Having sex destroyed that image which is why she couldn’t do it (over and above the sheer terror the act revived in her mind). And of course, in his mind she was pure and virginal, and he had worked himself up into a young man’s romantic state where he thought of her as especially his, and the act of love as a sacred blessing on the altar of her unsullied beauty.

So both were acting under pitiful delusions about the other.

In fact, we had been briefly introduced to Kostka right at the start of the novel because when he arrives back in his home town for the festival and to deflower Helena, Ludvik looks up one of the few friends he can remember in the place, Kostka, who is now an eminent doctor at the local hospital. In an amiable but distant way, Kostka agrees to loan Ludvik his apartment for an afternoon (for the fatal act of sex). It is only later, when they meet up that evening, that they share a drink and Kostka ends up telling him about his life.

Now Kostka remembers another meeting, by chance, on a train, in 1956. Kostka had been forced to quit the collective farm because of political machinations and had ended up becoming a labourer. First they shared the irony that two young men, both so idealistic about their beliefs, had both been dumped on from a great height by… by… by what? By ‘History’ is the best they can come up with. By the impersonal forces of society working to a logic nobody really understands, certainly nobody can control. In fact Ludvik was so incensed by the unfairness of Kostka’s fate that he moved heaven and earth and used all his old contacts, to get Kostka appointed to the hospital where he still works.

This is why Ludvik looks Kostka up when he arrives back in his hometown in the book’s ‘present’. This is why Kostka agrees to lend him his flat for the deflowering of Helena. And this is why, later that night, when the two old friends share a drink, Kostka tells Ludvik about Lucie, without realising he knew her: about the gang rape, the flight. How she found one man she could trust, a miner in a god-forsaken mining town. But how he, too, turned out to be just like all the rest. How she had turned up the collective farm all those years ago, how Kostka took her under his wing and how, despite himself, he too took advantage of her and began a sexual relationship with her – about which he now, older and wiser, feels cripplingly guilty.

Soon after this revelation, Kostka’s section ends and we are returned to the mind of Ludvik, in the present, walking back from Kostka’s flat late at night, and absolutely reeling. What? Everything he ever believed about Lucie, both during their ill-fated affair and for fifteen years since – turns out to be utterly, completely wrong (p.210).

Back to Helena

But there are still more acts to go in this pitiful black farce. For to Helena’s own surprise no other than her suave philandering husband, Pavel Zemanek, turns up for the festival. He is now a super-smooth and successful university lecturer, adored by his students for his fashionably anti-establishment (i.e. anti-communist) views. And he’s brought his latest student lover along, a long-legged beauty – Miss Broz – perfectly suited to Pavel’s stylish sports car.

Helena takes advantage of her recent mad, passionate coupling with Ludvik, to tell Zemanek that she’s met the love of her life, that she doesn’t need him any more, and generally take a superior position. She goes so far as telling Zemanek her marvellous lover’s name, Ludvik Jahn, and is puzzled when he bursts out laughing. Oh they’re old friends, he explains.

Helena recounts this all to Ludvik when they meet up the next morning, and it is all Ludvik can do to conceal his dismay. Just when he thought things couldn’t get any worse. And then a few hours later, in the throng of the bloody festival, in among the crowds packing the streets to watch the Ride of the bloody King, suddenly Zemanek emerges from the crowd, accompanied by his long-legged dollybird and Helena is introducing the two enemies, face to face for the first time in 15 years.

And, of course, whereas Ludvik is strangled by an inexpressible combination of rage and hatred, Zemanek is unbearably suave and cool, well dressed, well-heeled, hair well-coiffed, gorgeous student on his arm – unbearable! And doubly unbearable because he realises his revenge on Zemanek has not only failed, but epically, massively failed. Not only did he not ravish and desecrate the body of Zemanek’s beloved wife – because Zemanek doesn’t give a damn who his wife sleeps with – but Helena falling so deeply and publicly in love with him (Ludvik) has done Zemanek a big favour. For years Helena has been a burden round his neck – now at a stroke Ludvik has done him the favour of removing that burden!

Farce is laid over farce, bitter black joke on top of bitter black joke.

As if all this wasn’t bad enough, yet another layer is added to the cake of humiliation – because as Ludvik is forced to swallow his rage and join in the polite chit-chat going on between Helena and Zemanek and Miss Broz, he realises something from the latter’s talk. As she witters on praising Zemanek for standing up to the authorities and bravely speaking out about this or that issue and generally becoming a hero to his students, Ludvik is subject to a really shattering revelation: the past doesn’t matter any more.

As she talks on Ludvik realises that, for her and her generation, all that stuff about 1948 and purges and executions and party squabbles and ideological arguments: that’s all ancient history – ‘bizarre experiences from a dark and distant age’ (p.232) which is just of no interest to her and her generation, who want to party and have fun.

Not only has Ludvik failed utterly to wreak his revenge on his old antagonist – but the entire world which gave meaning to their antagonism, and therefore to his act of revenge, has ceased to exist. He has been hanging onto a past which doesn’t exist anymore. It sinks in that the entire psychological, intellectual and emotional framework which has dominated his life for fifteen years… has evaporated in a puff of smoke. No one cares. No one is interested. It doesn’t matter.

Alone again with Helena, Ludvik lets rip. He tells her he hates her. He tells her he only seduced and made love to her to get his own back on her husband, the man who sold him down the river when they were students. He says she repulses him.

At first she refuses to accept it – she has just thrown away her entire life with Zemanek, the security of their house and marriage – for Ludvik and here he is spitting in her face. Eventually she wanders off, dazed, back to the village hall where she and her sound engineer, Jindra, have set up base to make their radio documentary. In a dazed voice, she says she has a headache and the engineer (still virtually a schoolboy, who has a puppy crush on Helena) says he has some headache tablets in her bag. She sends him out for a drink and then, rummaging in his bag, comes across several bottles full of headache pills. She takes two and then looks at herself in the mirror, at her fact tear-stained face, contemplating the complete and utter humiliation she has just undergone and the shattering of her entire life.

And, as she hears Jindra returning with a bottle from a nearby tavern, she hastily swallows down the entire contents of not one but all the bottles in the engineer’s bag. She emerges back into the hall, thanks him for the drink and writes a note. It is a suicide note addressed to Ludvik. She pops it in an envelope and scribbles Ludvik’s name on it and asks Jindra to track Ludvik down and deliver it.

Now, Jindra has got wind of Helena and Ludvik’s affair and was present when Zemanek and his student were introduced to them, so he knows Ludvik by sight. Reluctantly he goes off with the letter. The observant reader might notice that the story commences with a missive – a postcard – and is ending with another, though I can’t quite figure out the meaning of this – something about misunderstood messages.

Jindra fairly quickly finds Ludvik in the beer garden of the most popular pub in town. He grudgingly hands over the letter. Now a message from an angry upset Helena is about the last thing Ludvik wants to have to deal with and so, to delay matters, he invites Jindra to join him in a drink. He calls the waiter. He orders. The drinks arrive. They drink. They toast. The letter sits on the table unopened. I really enjoyed this little sequence.

Eventually and very reluctantly Ludvik opens the envelope and reads the message. He leaps out of his chair and demands to know where Helena is now. The engineer describes the village hall they’ve borrowed and Ludvik sets out at a run, zigzagging through the crowds and avoiding the traffic.

He makes it to the hall, bursts in and it is empty. Down into the cellar he goes, amid the cobwebs and detritus, yelling Helena’s name. No reply. They check every room on the ground floor, then realise there’s an attic, and find a ladder and go up there, Ludvik convinced at any moment he’ll see a mute body dangling from a rope. But no Helena – so another frenzied search reveals a door into a back garden, and they burst out into this quickly realising there is no body prone in the grass or hanging from the trees.

But there is a shed. Ludvik bounds over to it and beats on the door, which is locked. ‘Go away’ they hear Helena’s anguished voice, and Ludvik needs no bidding to kick open the door, smashing its flimsy lock to reveal…

Helena squatting on a toilet in agony, angrily begging him to close the door. Those headache pills? They weren’t headache pills. The puppyish engineer now sheepishly admits to both of them that he often gets constipated and so keeps a supply of laxatives ready to hand. Only he’s embarrassed about people seeing them so he keeps them in old headache pill bottles.

Ludvik steps back, surveys the situation and closes the door on Helena’s humiliation and stands lost, dazed, staggered. What… What is life about? What is the point? Could he be any more of an ironic plaything of Fate?

He walks away from the outside loo, from Helena and Jindra, back through the church hall, out into the hectic streets, along busy roads, across town to the outskirts, where the houses peter out, and on into fields, farmland, lanes and hedgerows and trees. Eventually he finds himself walking along beside the river Morava, and then makes out a figure lying down beside it. As he comes closer he is astonished to see it is his old friend and fellow musician, Jaroslav. He greets him and asks if he can sit down beside him.

And so the two lost men, their lives and their illusions in tatters, sit out in the empty countryside contemplating the absurd meaningless of existence…

Summary

The Joke is the longest of Kundera’s books, and also the most dense. The plot is intricate, ranging back and forth over the fifteen-year period and some of these periods are described in great detail, for example the long passage describing life in the miners’ punishment camp. As his career progressed, Kundera was to compress passages like this, making them ever shorter and punchier.

The Joke also feels dense because it includes large sections packed with very intellectual meditations – about music, folk music and Christian belief, as well as politics, communism, and human life considered from all kinds of angles. Kundera doesn’t hesitate to lard almost every action in the book with a philosophical commentary, some of which lift off from the text entirely to become stand-alone digressions in their own right.

And if it is a traditional form of literary criticism to describe the patterns in a novel’s narrative, particularly in terms of the growth and development of its characters – then you could easily do the same and analyse the patterns in Kundera’s deployment of ideas which, like the characters, seem plausible enough when you first meet them but then, slowly, over the course of the book’s intricate windings, themselves are undermined and contradicted. To put it another way – in a Kundera novel, the ideas have as many adventures as the ‘characters’.

It’s true there are a number of sequences acts of copulation and, more to the point, the male characters in particular, obsess about sex almost continually – which can, if you’re not careful, become very tiresome. But, as I hope I’ve shown, this focus on the private act of sex itself is continually opening up into more philosophical and psychological speculations about human nature. It’s as if sex, the sex act, is itself merely a stage on which much deeper philosophical and fictional questions can be raised and explored. There may be a fair amount of sex in the book, but if you look closely, you’ll see that hardly any of it is happy and fulfilling; most of it is fraught and tragic. Or tragi-comic.

And fundamentally, beneath the meditations on History and Communist power, beneath the stories of the individual characters and their worries and experiences and plans, and beneath the erotic layer of lust and sex which lards much of the book – at bottom the message, for me, is one about the complete Absurdity of human existence.

For me the message is that: Humans are the meaning-making animal, condemned to waste vast amounts of energy trying to find meaning and purpose in the grand narrative of their lives as much as in the slightest event or accident which occurs to them… But at the same time – because we are limited to our own very narrow points of view and relatively tiny number of lived experiences – our interpretations of the world and other people are more often than not howlingly inaccurate and ridiculously self-centred.

It is this mismatch between the will to understand, and the completely incomprehensible reality of the world, which is the Absurdity of the Human Condition. It’s all a big Joke.

The plot of The Joke is itself a joke. And not only its plot. Its ‘philosophy’ as well: man, caught in the trap of a joke, suffers a personal catastrophe which, when seen from without, is ludicrous. His tragedy lies in the fact that the joke has deprived him of the right to tragedy. (Introduction)

Because what if the ‘aberrations’ and ‘mistakes’ and miscarriages of justice aren’t aberrations from History at all? What if the aberrations and mistakes and miscalculations, which people are continually dismissing from their thoughts, are the norm? What if everything, if all human endeavour and effort, is one vast continual ongoing misunderstanding, just one big stupid joke? (p.240)

Most people willingly deceive themselves with a doubly false faith: they believe in eternal memory (of men, things, deed, people) and in the rectification (of deeds, errors, sins, injustice.) Both are sham. The truth lies at the opposite end of the scale: everything will be forgotten and nothing will be rectified. (p.245)

Another view

A friend of mine is mad about Kundera. She says I miss the point, or miss her point, about him.

Reading Kundera showed her that even the most grim and sordid events – the kind she was familiar with from her unbookish, working-class upbringing – can be redeemed by thought and imagination. Reading Kundera transported her into a world where even the most crude and barbaric behaviour was translated into intellectualism, into dazzling insights and memorable formulations. The act of reading Kundera was in itself an escape into the company of a highly educated, urbane, confident, man of the world, who could deploy ideas and quotes from the great names of European literature with a light touch, to bring out hitherto unsuspected aspects of even the most mundane situations (two reluctant lovers groping in a shabby bedroom). He sprinkled a magic dust of insights and ideas over everything, making her realise that every minute of her day was just as capable of being analysed, just as susceptible to witty insights and psychological revelations. Reading him made her own life feel full of imaginative promise and intellectual excitement.

And she was dazzled by the way the reader feels they know the characters via their interiority, going straight to the heart of their affairs and dilemmas. She loves the way Kundera plunges you straight into their psychological depths and complexities. It doesn’t matter at all that they remain undescribed physical shadows, in fact it’s a big plus, it helps you focus all the more on their minds and characters.

As a woman she didn’t feel at all patronised by the focus on sex-driven male characters. After all, she grew up in a world of sex-driven men. What riveted her thirty years ago, when she first read Kundera’s novels, and has stayed with her ever since, was the revelation that even the most humdrum moments of the most humdrum lives can be transformed by the imagination and intellect into wonderful luminous ideas. This opened doors into a whole new way of thinking and helped inspire her go to university, and beyond.

It’s hard to think of a more moving and profound tribute to an author, which is why I include it here.


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

Literary Life by Posy Simmonds (2003)

Front cover of Literary Life by Posy Simmonds (2003)

I’ve noticed that many of Simmonds’s books are not numbered. This slender hardback contains sixty-four pages of cartoons satirising all aspects of the literary life, from the panic of sitting in an empty room staring at a computer with writer’s block, to the backstabbing and paranoia of literary parties, to the loneliness of book signings, to the plight of small independent bookshops, and so on.

The obvious thing about this subject is its extreme obviousness. They say, ‘Write about what you know’, well what could be more familiar, and more hackneyed, clichéd and done to death, than the subject of a writer writing about writing – about the petty discomforts, the irritations, the niggling jealousy and petty rivalries and bitching and in-fighting and gossiping of the literary world.

What ‘serious’ novelist hasn’t written a book about a novelist writing a book or how tough it is being a writer or how hard it is coming up with new stuff, and so on and self-pityingly, narcissistically on…

Literary Life

  • Writer’s block Six frames showing a woman writer alone in her kitchen (apart from her cat, natch) struggling from 9.05 am to 12.30 pm to produce just one sentence and that one, in the end, one of venom and violence expressing her suppressed frustration.
  • Wintergreenes An independent bookshop which is being threatened because a vast branch of ‘Boulders’ has just opened down the road. Three characters, the plump middle-aged owner, Penny, a skinny girl assistant Zoe, and a stubbly angry young man who swears so much abuse at the new Boulders that Penny calls him in because he’s putting off the customers.
  • Wintergreenes Colin is still moaning about the new branch of Boulders up the road to which optimistic Penny replies that it’s a muzak-filled hypermarket whereas what their little shop offers is intimacy and personal service. Colin jaundicedly replies that what their shop offers is shelter from the rain for a couple of alcoholics and a mum with her shopping.
  • Time goes by… At a book launch a middle aged man tells his companion that when he was young, he used to get turned on by leggy young things dressed in short black skirts but nowadays he remembers they’re just from the publicity department and fantasises about… them selling more copies of his novel.
  • Panel A Q&A session at a literary festival. The joke is the panel consists of a kindly old buffer, a smart young woman, a stubbly dud smoking a fag and a broad serious-looking man, so that when a guy in the audience asks a question about so-and-so’s work being all about extreme violence and sadism and coprophilia and so on, we’re expecting him to be addressing stubbly bloke or broad serious bloke, but it turns out he’s talking about the works of the harmless looking old buffer in the half-rim glasses.

Q&A by Posy Simmonds (2002)

  • The same character in the right of the strip above (Owen), appears at home in a book-lined study reading a newspaper review to his wife and rejoicing because it slaughters the new book of a rival, right up till the moment that his wife points out that the only reason he hates his rival (Denton) is because he slept with her (the wife) at Oxford.
  • One big picture showing four adults on a long train journey trying to read their own books while an enthusiastic schoolgirl gives them a long, detailed explanation of the latest Harry Potter book. (The first book in the series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, was published on 26 June 1997.)
  • Wintergreene The rep of a publishers makes his monthly visit and tries to interest Penny in their latest publication. She insists it is garbage, rubbish, with zero cultural value until the rep mentions that the same author’s last book sold 400,000… at which Penny swiftly changes her tune and says, Put me down for six.
  • A man’s soliloquy about moving to the country and joining the village reading group which gives an accurate and withering portrayal of all the petty jealousies and rivalries and irritations it causes.
  • Owen’s book signing We learn that the rugged-face author we first met in the Q&A panel is named Owen Lloyd and we see him at a book signing in a bookshop where no one at all stops by to buy a copy of his book. There is some bitter Simmonds satire because what we read is Lloyd’s maundering self-pity about nobody coming up, the pity in the eyes of the booksellers and his PR agent, and how nobody, oh nobody, knows what it is like to be ignored, he thinks as… he and the pretty young publishers assistant walk right by a homeless man on the street begging for some change.
  • A teenage couple are in bed asleep when there’s a knocking at the door and they realise her parents have come home early. She opens the door an fraction to the suspicious parents but then completely diverts their attention by assuring them she is doing her revision and quoting from Keats. Mollified, they go away.
  • Enemies of promise A woman writer is trying to write in the stylish open plan house but is completely put off by the sound of her husband upstairs trying to give a bottle to their toddler, with accompanying commentary and chatter. Pity the poor woman writer in her luxury house!
  • Big single cartoon of a drinks party in a big bookshop and a middle-aged writer chatting up one of the short-skirted waitresses with the immortal line: ‘You know, you’re really beautiful… Have you ever thought of being a novelist?’
  • A cool, stubbly author in shades spends ten pictures of the strip complaining like mad about how awful it is to be so successful and rich and be recognised everywhere and be bothered by fans all the time – his doleful friend uttering agreement – saying they just won’t leave him alone, take that couple of young women over there, they… they… but in fact the two women get up and simply walk out the bar… at which point the ‘successful’ author says ‘Bitches’.
  • Same young male author who we now learn is named Sean Poker and is ringing his agent because he’s been offered the opportunity to model for a new set of designer pants.
  • A woman writer in a nice Pringle sweater is sitting in a front room festooned with Christmas tree and cards (and accompanied by her cat, natch) as she reads through several paragraphs she’s written about the First World War till she comes to the word stuffing (‘kicked the battered armchair whose stuffing…) at which point she leaps up and runs outside to catch her husband who’s just getting into the car to go shopping, and tells him not to forget the stuffing.
  • At a literary party attended by Owen Lloyd a woman is explaining how she organised a petition to complain about some political cause. ‘And has there been a reaction?’ asks Owen. ‘You know, the usual predictable stuff,’ she replies, and what she means is there’s been a jealous outcry from all the authors who weren’t invited to join the petition.
  • Wintergreene In the local independent bookshop one customer is giving bother, dripping rainwater and coughing and sneezing over the books.

Wintergreene by Posy Simmonds

  • One big illustration showing a confident man leading his reluctant wife and friends on a big walk through the woods and pontificating: ‘… and when, you know, any minute we could all die of smallpox, or anthrax… you think “Why? Why does one write? What a futile occupation! What difference could a bloody book make to anything!?… and then you think, “No, come on… isn’t that something rather magnificent – sitting at one’s PC in the face of Armageddon?” And, that in a nutshell, is the theme of…’
  • Wintergreene Penny the owner tells skinny Zoe to be more polite so the next customer who comes in get the full ingratiating service and Zoe agrees to order three copies of a book which, it turns out, the lady ordering wrote herself and is published by a vanity press – at which point Penny explodes with swearing and angriness, contradicting her own earlier strictures for Zoe to be polite, at which point… they both realise that trying to give up cigarettes is HELL, so that’s what the strip is really about.
  • Full page cartoon showing a big tall paunchy man in a suit on the phone in an open plan office complaining, at length, about the shoddy production values on a recent book…
  • Ecstasy Featuring the thickset author Owen Lloyd, he is surfing the internet looking to see how much copies of his novels are fetching on Ebay and is gratified that first editions are fetching up to $790 until he comes across a copy which bears a personal inscription, which he remembers writing to the love of his life, and so is FURIOUS with her.
  • A big one-page cartoon showing various children’s characters (bears, giraffes, Alice in Wonderland I think) all drinking and smoking in a book-lined room, obviously at a sort of party for children’s book characters and one rabbit is asking another: ‘So how did you get into children’s publishing?’ and the other is replying, ‘Oh, it’s in the family… my father was a Flopsy Bunny’. As so often with Simmonds, you feel it’s clever without being actually funny.
  • A big, page-sized cartoon spoofing magazines aimed at women and their babies: this is called Your new Baby but ‘baby; is metaphor’ for book.
  • The Literary Three Three parody schoolgirls from a 1950s private school receive a book from their time-travelling Uncle Bill. It is a book about schoolgirls in 2003, for some reasons schoolgirls in New York whose parents are frightfully rich if divorced, and she and her friends play truant, nick things from shops, smoke joints and go all the way with boys.
  • A writer sits in a book-lined room with his laptop open, unable to write while he flips through TV channels, which are showing: 10 worst motorway pile-ups, Killer mud-slides, Killer bees, Hitler’s torturers, until he finally comes upon a channel showing Noddy, cheers up, and starts tapping away at his book.
  • A strip satirising a woman writer writing a sex scene who, the more feverish the scene becomes, the more intensely she focuses and writes. More to the point, the more brutal and primal the cartoon becomes, until drawn in wide, thick, primal lines. The couple she’s describing climax, and the writer leans back and lights herself a cigarette.

Writer’s orgasm by Posy Simmonds

  • Wintergreene Zoe is off to the local supermarket. The ‘joke’ is that she can buy books from the supermarket to stock their little independent bookshop cheaper than they can buy them from the publishers.
  • One large cartoon showing a tearful woman walking out on a bespectacled writer sitting in front of his computer, and saying: ‘Wait, Charlotte!.. You can’t leave me now, I haven’t finished my novel – I need your misery!’
  • A young woman tells her frumpy middle-aged mother that she’s packing in writing a book, and even being a reviewer, because she wants to be a full-time, stay-at-home mum. The mum gives a whole list of how horrible it will be to be so isolated and patronised and then cheerfully concludes, there’ll be a good polemical feminist book in it!
  • The national character Successive hikers come across a stand of daffodils and, in succession, fumble to quote the famous Wordsworth poem.
  • Dr Derek’s casebook Spoof advice column in which the twist is that Dr Derek gives ‘literary’ advice to struggling writers. Suzie X spends sits for hours and hours in her little room and nothing comes out. Yes, she has writer’s block!
  • Dr Derek’s casebook Vicki X comes about her husband, who’s developed a swollen head ever since he won the Booker Prize. Yes, he’s suffering from ‘swollen head’.
  • One big cartoon in which a couple well into middle-age are sitting in their book-littered front room and, to his great irritation, his wife is reading some of the old love letters he sent her.
  • Facts and fallacies No.6 Children’s picture books An extended satire on common misconceptions about children’s books i.e. they are written by women in Suffolk cottages, only take five minutes to think of the story, 98% of people who work in children’s publishing are called Emma, everyone who works in picture books are held in the highest esteem. — Reading a strip like this you get the impression that there is no aspect of her life which Posy Simmonds can not feel aggrieved about. It doesn’t strike me as at all funny, but a moan from someone who feels that their own picture books aren’t taken seriously enough.

Facts and Fallacies No. 6 by Posy Simmonds

  • Spot the differences Two large cartoons of a dad in his dressing gown in the family kitchen reading review of his new book in the paper watched by his wife and two little girls (and the cat). We are invited to ‘spot the difference’ between one picture in which ‘They rate it’ and the other picture in which ‘they hate it.’ I looked quite carefully and decided there are no differences except that in the ‘rate’ it one, the author, the wife and daughters and the cat are smiling. At about this point I wondered why I was bothering to read this book.
  • Pride and prejudice Jane Austen is invited to return from the Great Beyond and be given the full media treatment of an author i.e. rude and probing questions and decides, er, no thanks.
  • Facts and fallacies No.11: Publishers’ readers i.e. it is not a cushy little job, 97% of publishers’ readers are not multi-tasking home-makers, there is not a cabal of London writers who reject possible rivals, and so on.
  • A big, single cartoon satirising the vast multi-story, department store-style bookshop.

Department store bookshop by Posy Simmonds

  • Dr Derek’s casebook James X turns up at Dr Derek’s surgery bleeding, it’s one of the worst cases of ‘a critical mauling’ that he’s ever seen.
  • A modern woman is at home on the sofa watching the tennis, for nine frames. On the ninth she hears the front door opening, turns the telly off, and sneaks back into her study, which is where her husband, returning from taking the kids out for a walk, finds her pretending to be hard at work.
  • Dr Derek’s casebook Quite a humorous strip in which Dr Derek counsels novelist Colin X about how to do sex in novels properly i.e. cut the purple passages, don’t feel shy about using a rubber (to rub out embarrassing passages) and… once a chapter is quite normal!

Dr Derek’s casebook by Posy Simmonds

  • Le Déjeuner sur le Sable One big cartoon parodying Manet’s famous painting Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe adapted to show three posy Brits sunning themselves in the South of France, with the main male figure reading Proust. — Simmonds has parodied this painting in at least two previous strips.

Le Déjeuner sur le Sable by Posy Simmonds

  • Dynaglobe’s summer party Once again we are with author Owen Lloyd as he attends the annual party given by publishing conglomerate, Dynaglobe. How he hates it, getting trapped with some stupendously successful airport novelist, who patronises him on his minuscule sales, the coven of women writers, either trying to rope him into discussion groups, or who you shagged last year and can’t remember their names, or a new young nymphet who you just start chatting up when you notice the gaggle of middle-aged women opposite all watching and tittering. He only goes so people know he’s still alive. — Having been to similar London parties of the well-heeled and successful I find this totally accurate and grimly depressing.
  • Nurse Tozer Quite a funny strip which extends the idea of Dr Derek, the literary doctor, over-wrought and on holiday he overhears some bronzed bimbo dismissing a book by Victor Hugo as ‘junk’ and explodes, explaining who Victor Hugo was and calling the woman a moron, until he is hustled away by ever-watchful Nurse Tozer, who then gives quite an interesting speech to the holiday woman about how popular literature comes in bite-sized chunks which wear down your brain. — This was a good strip because it felt like the comedy premise really bore up all the way through the strip.
  • Writer’s problems No.4 How to create a buzz An unnamed male author complains that, although he has written three successful crime novels, he has never created a buzz, his real-life persona is too boring, he doesn’t take drugs or have affairs, he loved his parents etc. The strip then ironically recommends that next time he’s at a literary party he takes a pair of rubber gloves, blows one up, places it over his head, then lets it go and it will blow round the room creating… a tremendous buzz!
  • seasonal traditions in the book trade No.2 Spotting the Christmas turkeys The three staff at the independent bookshop, Wintergreene, which we’ve come to know through several strips – owner Penny, slender sprite Zoe and stubbly earnest young man Colin – are depicted reading the publishers’ catalogues for the upcoming Christmas period and taking the mickey out of the synopses of the direst-sounding books – ‘lifts the lid off media-folk in Alderley Edge…’, ‘… an epistolary novel done in text messages…’, ‘… another bloody book about moving to a Provençal village…’
  • One enormous cartoon showing a disgruntled author (Nat Tarby) in a vast modern bookstore all set and ready to do a book-signing with piles of his books on the table in front of him and… not a customer in sight. — I feel like Simmonds has depicted this scene of the disappointing book-signing at least 3 or 4 times already. She may think it’s endlessly funny, but once was sort of enough.

Murder at Matabele Mansions: A Christmas Mystery

A six-page graphic short story, a murder mystery in which woman Detective Sergeant Stoker phones Detective Inspector Collar from a crime scene at the back of a mansion block. The body of unpopular second-hand book-seller Godfrey Fibone, 58, is found round the back of Matabele Mansions, apparently in the act of carrying a black bin liner out to the dustbins he slipped and cracked his head.

However, Stoker and Collar notice that the contents of the bin-liner are strangely inappropriate for a man who lived alone, including dirty nappies (he had no children), tea bags, a curry TV dinner, and cat food tins (he didn’t own a cat).

So they set about interviewing all the inhabitants of the mansions – which gives Simmonds an opportunity to display her gift for characterisation, not only in drawing but in the very dense text which describes each of the dead man’s neighbours, being:

  • Viv and Chris Collins-Smith, website designers
  • June Tozer, divorcee and masseuse
  • Gavin Boyce, novelist
  • rude Dennis Buttril
  • Mrs Kowalski, entertaining her daughter and son-in-law to dinner
  • Tim Makepeace, a research chemist
  • Ian MacDire, worked for British Telecom

Next day forensics confirm Fibone was murdered, then carried out to where his body was arranged to make it look as if he’d slipped and had an accident. The detritus in the bin bag, combined with what the two police learned in their interviews, should be enough for the reader to work out who the murderer was. Can you work it out?

Cinderella

Another six-page graphic short story, starts with Desmond Duff, 85, inhabitant of an old people’s home (alert readers will remember that Desmond featured as the man of the month for April in the calendar for 1988 which Simmonds drew for the Spectator).

He and his fellow inhabitant, Joan, learn the owners are throwing a lavish Christmas party to which residents are not invited. As they hear the first sounds of music a fairy god-daughter appears and gives them their wish, giving them back their youths, making Desmond a very smart, svelte 20-something, and Joan a stylish young lady in a ball gown and fur. But they must be back in the home by midnight.

They set off to the party and make quite a splash, Desmond impressing with his suavity, Joan being immediately chatted up by a lothario who invites her out to his car for a bit of slap and tickle. Several guests trigger Desmond into giving a blistering lecture about how miserable it is living in their hosts’ old people’s home, how they’re treated like crap, the accommodation is rotting, the food is dismal, and is in mid-flow when he hears the clock ringing midnight and so runs out into the snow where he transforms back into his 85-year-old body…

Finds himself in the car park where the young Lothario emerges partly unbuttoned and holding a slipper, describes how he was in a passionate clinch with the ravishing young beauty who suddenly wriggled out of his grasp and ran off, leaving only a slipper behind. Clutching the slipper, he stumbles back into the party and old Joan comes out of her hiding place behind a car, embraces Desmond, says ‘Wasn’t it wonderful?’ and they potter slowly back towards the home.

But there is a happy end note. Desmond’s rant in the party, in front of lots of influential guests, has spurred the owners to make improvements, sort out the smell on the stairs and fix Desmond’s radiator etc, and generally fuss over Desmond and Joan. So it’s a happy ending! Cheers!


Thoughts

The subject of writers, authors, novelists agonising, writer’s block, book-signings and endless literary parties – I don’t think any subject could bore me more. A few of the strips or cartoons are amusing, but most are wearing, or positively depressing.

The interest, such as it is, comes from the extraordinary variety of cartooning styles which Simmonds deploys. There’s:

  • the spoof true romance style of the Dr Derek strip, where the characters all have the same kind of chiselled angular outlines
  • the freestanding humorous cartoon of the department story-style book warehouse, where all the figures have softened rounded outlines
  • the facts and fallacies strip which, along with the Owen Lloyd cartoons, has a looser drawing style and is meant to create a much wider variety of faces and characters
  • the sketchy loose, unfinished lines of the Writer’s orgasm strip, which starts loose and then deliberately becomes bold and fragmented to visually make the point
  • the ‘cartoon realism’ of the Wintergreene strips – in the one above look at the tremendous attention to detail paid in the opening picture which depicts the shop frontage in the rain, or the third picture which shows the geography of the shop’s interior, dominated by a stand of books in the foreground which divides the disapproving owner on the left and browsing punter on the right
  • the Le Déjeuner sur le Sable style, which is so loose and scratchy that bits of it could almost be by Quentin Blake
  • and the Writers’ panel at the top of this review which has realism of a sort – witness the microphones in front of the speakers – but a sort of wobbly or wonky realism – the microphones aren’t drawn with the same razor sharp precision as the exterior of the Wintergreene shop – instead it is a realism softened or mollified in order to bring out the variety of human faces in the audience and on the panel – it is just enough realism to create a space in which comic types can exist

These are all distinct drawing or cartooning styles (plus some others I haven’t mentioned) which Simmonds has mastered and can deploy at will. It’s an impressive display of versatility and virtuosity.

So for me, there are half a dozen funny strips in the book (if their aim is to be funny or entertaining) but the real pleasure to be had derives from Simmond’s impressive mastery of the craft of drawing, her fluency and versatility.


Related links

Other Posy Simmonds reviews

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