Milan Kundera on Franz Kafka (1979)

In 1979 the Czech novelist Milan Kundera published a short essay about the works of fellow Czech and Prague inhabitant, Franz Kafka. The essay was titled Somewhere behind.

Throughout it Kundera uses the adjective ‘Kafkan’, which seems perverse of either him or the translator, because everyone else in the English-speaking world talks about the ‘Kafkaesque’.

Four elements of the Kafkaesque

Anyway, Kundera sets out to define what the ‘Kafkaesque’ consists of, and comes up with:

1. It describes a world which is an endless labyrinth which nobody can escape or understand, run according to laws nobody remembers being made, which no longer seem to apply to humans.

2. K.’s fate depends on a file about him which has been mislaid in the Castle’s vast and inept bureaucracy. Kafka’s world is one in which a man’s life becomes a shadow of a truth held elsewhere (in the boundless bureaucracy). Kundera says this notion of a supra-human realm begins to invoke the theological.

In his opinion this dualism led early commentators to interpret Kafka’s stories as religious allegories, not least Kafka’s friend and executor Max Broad, who saw his friend as a deeply religious writer. Kundera disagrees because this view ‘sees allegory where Kafka grasped concrete situations of human life’. I certainly agree that many of the scenes, especially in The Trial, are imagined and described in great and lucid detail.

He also makes the interesting point that when Power deifies itself it automatically produces its own theology. Thought-provoking…

3. The punished seek the offence, want to find out what it is they have done. Worse, the punished become so oppressed by the sense of their own guilt, that they set about finding what it is they have done wrong, so that Joseph K. sets out to review every word, thought and deed from his entire life. The punished beg for recognition of their guilt.

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 in its core, in its gut, is horrific.

Against a sociological or Marxist interpretation

Just recently I read an essay by the Marxist literary critic György Lukács, who claimed that Kafka’s fiction was, at its heart, or root, a response to contemporary capitalism:

The diabolical character of the world of modern capitalism, and man’s impotence in the face of it, is the real subject matter of Kafka’s writing. (The Meaning of Contemporary Realism by György Lukács, p.77)

Kundera rejects this and it’s worth quoting his reasons:

Attempts have been made to explain Kafka’s novels as a critique of industrial society, of exploitation, alienation, bourgeois morality – of capitalism, in a word. But there is almost nothing of the constituents of capitalism in Kafka’s universe: not money or its power, not commerce, not property or owners or the class struggle.

Neither does the Kafkaesque correspond to a definition of totalitarianism. In Kafka’s novels, there is neither the party nor ideology and its jargon nor politics, the police, or the army.

So we should rather say that the Kafkaesque represents one fundamental possibility of man and his world, a possibility that is not historically determined and that accompanies man more or less eternally. (p.106)

Kundera’s rejection doesn’t have the conceptual depth of Lukács who, after all, doesn’t describe Kafka’s works as a critique of capitalism on the basis that they describe or analyse any specific aspect of a capitalist society. Lukács bases his claim on the notion that Kafka’s works, taken as a whole, convey the worldview of bourgeois alienation, which modern capitalism produces. Even if it doesn’t describe any of the details of a capitalist society (factories, banks, modern technology etc), it still conveys the mood.

Kundera’s quick paragraphs are a useful reminder of just how uncapitalist the settings and events of some ofKafka’s stories are: The Castle in particular is set in a sort of 18th century, pre-industrial Ruritania, completely remote from the modern world.

But Kundera is, in fact, wrong to say:

There is almost nothing of the constituents of capitalism in Kafka’s universe: not money or its power, not commerce, not property or owners or the class struggle.

In The Trial Joseph K works in a bank. He is a senior figure in a bank, in competition with the Deputy Director, lording it over innumerable clerks, and holds meetings with a number of businessmen clients. ‘Nothing of the constituents of capitalism’? Arguably, The Bank is the central institution in capitalism.

Similarly, in The Metamorphosis Gregor Samsa is not only a travelling salesman, but his father’s business went bankrupt owing large debts to the company which Gregor works for, and Gregor’s job there is based on a deal that part of his salary is deducted to pay off his father’s debts. He is a sort of debt slave, and this accounts for the tragi-comic way that, after he awakens as a giant beetle, Gregor’s first response is not horror at what’s happened to him but anxiety at the fact that he’s going to be late for work, and indeed the first incident after the transformation, is the arrival of the company’s Chief Clerk wanting to find out why Gregor is late.

So, no, Kundera is wrong. Of Kafka’s three great masterpieces, two of them are set in very capitalist institutions – a bank, and in the sales and marketing of a clothing company – and the second also features as key plot components the ideas of business, bankruptcy, debt, salary and commission.

On reflection many of the constituents of capitalism feature in Kafka’s universe: money and its power to shape individual lives, commerce, the ownership of property, business owners (Gregor’s Chief Clerk or the bank’s Deputy Director). Kundera seems oddly blind to these basic facts.

The nature of totalitarian society

Fundamentally, Kafka’s stories are about the dehumanisation of the individual by faceless powers, and Kundera compares them with his own first-hand experience of totalitarian society in communist Czechoslovakia. He pauses to focus in on a particular aspect of the totalitarian society:

Totalitarian society, especially in its more extreme versions, tends to abolish the boundary between the public and the private; power, as it grows ever more opaque, requires the lives of citizens to become entirely transparent. The ideal of life without secrets corresponds to the ideal of the exemplary family: a citizen does not have the right to hide anything at all from the Party or the State… (p.110)

(This, incidentally, is what terrifies me about political correctness; the way it holds everyone accountable to impossibly high standards of perfect, immaculate, blameless behaviour, while expanding its surveillance and judgement into every aspect of everyone’s private lives, stretching back decades, and raining down hecatombs of career-ending criticism on anyone who is caught out saying, thinking or doing the wrong thing. They think they are creating a utopian society; I think they are creating a total surveillance state.)

Kundera’s novels often address the theme of the abolition of privacy by the intrusive state, and it is interesting to have this element of the Kunderesque identified as being part of the Kafkaesque, too. Thus, as  Kundera points out, Joseph K. is in his bed when the two officers come to arrest him – what more personal place is there? And in The Castle, K. can never get away from his two ‘assistants’ who watch over him even when he’s making love to Frieda.

Death of privacy.

The phantasmal office

Kundera quotes a sentence from a letter by Kafka which contains, Kundera thinks, one of his greatest secrets:

‘The office is not a stupid institution; it belongs more to the realm of the fantastic than of the stupid.’

Kundera points out that Kafka saw what millions of other office workers failed to even though it was in front of their noses, which is the surreal and fantastic quality of office life: how individuals are converted into data which can be stored, lost, misquoted, fought over and generally come to distort every aspect of their lives. Our credit ratings, our passport and tax and National Insurance details, our criminal records, all of it is held on files which can be hacked or stolen. What we like to think of as the reassuring ‘reality’ of our lives can be twisted out of all recognition with the click of a mouse.

This situation is, when you reflect on it, bizarre, and Kafka perceived it to an unusually intense degree, and so:

transformed the profoundly anti-poetic material of a highly bureaucratised society into the great poetry of the novel; he transformed a very ordinary story of a man who cannot obtain a promised job (which is actually the story of The Castle) into myth, into epic, into a kind of beauty never seen before. (p.114)

The novel as discovery of aspects of the human condition

Lastly, Kundera is struck by the way that Kafka accurately predicted an entire aspect of man’s experience in the 20th century without trying to.

Many of his friends were deeply political, avant-garde, became Zionists or communists etc, and generally devoted an enormous part of their lives and thought and writings to commentary and speculation about contemporary and future society. And yet all of their works and most of their names have vanished into oblivion.

Kafka, by complete contrast, was a very private man who cared little or nothing about contemporary politics and barely mentioned it in his works or letters or diaries, a hypochondriac obsessed with his own personal life, oppressed by the domineering figure of his father, enmeshed in a complicated series of love affairs, and yet —

It turned out to be this shy, socially awkward and intensely solipsistic individual who, giving little or no thought to ‘the future’ or society at large, created works which turned out to be staggeringly prophetic of the experience of all humanity in the 20th century and beyond.

Thus, for Kundera, Kafka is a prime example of his central belief in the radical autonomy of the novel, his conviction that the really serious novelists are capable of finding and naming aspects of the existential potential of humanity in a way that no other science or discipline can.

— Obviously Kundera excludes most authors and fictions from this faculty; he is talking, in a rather old-fashioned way, about the Great Novelists. But I think he makes a good case that the serious novel is an exploration of human potential and that Kafka is a striking example of it, a man who failed to complete any of his three novels, who only wrote about twenty short stories, and yet who is universally regarded as a kind of prophet or discoverer of an entire realm of human existence.

Somewhere Behind

And the title of the essay, Somewhere Behind? It’s a quote from a poet Kundera quotes elsewhere in his works, Jan Skacel, which runs:

Poets don’t invent poems
The poem is somewhere behind
It’s been there for a long long time
The poet merely discovers it

Kundera goes on to suggest that History itself is like the poet in the sense that it brings to light, through new combinations of circumstances, aspects which were always latent and potential in human nature.

History does not invent, it discovers. Through new situations, History reveals what man is, what has been in him ‘for a long long time’, what his possibilities are. (p.116)

Thus Kafka experienced certain aspects of human nature to such an extent, so powerfully, that he described and portrayed them with an intensity no-one else ever had.

He shed light on the mechanisms he knew from private and microsocial practice, not suspecting that later developments would put these mechanisms into action on the great stage of History. (p.116)

The real poet, author, novelist discovers something new about human nature and human potential in the world, something

no social or political thought could ever tell us.

Kundera or Camus

I’ve just read a similar-length essay on Kafka by Albert Camus who, by contrast with Kundera’s cool, concise and cerebral analysis, comes over as much the worse writer. There is more food for thought in a page of Kundera than in all fourteen pages of Camus’s overblown, superficial and pretentiously name-dropping text.

Coda

Still, stepping back a bit, reading Kunder, Camus and Lukács  makes me wonder whether there are maybe two types of critic of Kafka: the ones which base their analysis solely on the novels and The Metamorphosis, and the ones who take into account the full range of Kafka’s weird and diverse short stories.

For although Lukács and Kundera fundamentally disagree about the possibility of a political interpretation of Kafka, they both refer solely to the novels and The Metamorphosis because this trio of texts are very much of a piece and convey a homogeneous message about paranoia, bureaucracy and totalitarianism.

Such interpretations are harder to sustain if you start to consider The Great Wall of China, the stories in A Country Doctor, or the final works with their weird focus on animals, such as The Burrow or Josephine the Singer or Investigations of a Dog.

Do critics like Lukács and Kundera completely ignore the stories because their greater variety and weirdness complicate and/or undermine the simplicity of the axes they want to grind and the points they want to make? For these works neither Lukács’ nor Kundera’s master ideas really fit.

There is, in other words, a kind of inexplicable surplus in Kafka’s oeuvre (relatively small though it is), an excess of meaning, or of vision, which goes – in my opinion – way beyond the scope of any rational theory to explain or analyse.


Related links

Related Kafka reviews

Dates are dates of composition.

Reviews of Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)
1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)
1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity
2002 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

Ignorance by Milan Kundera (2002)

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

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

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

Ignorance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The characters

Irena

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

Emigration-dreams

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

Gustaf

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

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

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

Josef

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

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

The great broom

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

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

Josef’s brother

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

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

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

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

The teenage girl

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

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

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

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

Gustaf and Irena’s relationship decays

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

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

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

The teenage girl attempts suicide

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

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

Burying the dead

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

The suicide survives

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

The implications of human lifespan

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

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

Human memory

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

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

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

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

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

Back to the narrative

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

Josef reflects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Irena and music

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

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

Josef and N

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

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

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

Irena and Josef

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

The suicide girl grown into a woman

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

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

Irena and Josef

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

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

Gustaf and Irena’s mother

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

Irena and Josef

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

Gustaf and Irena’s mother

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

Irena and Josef

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

The suicide girl

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

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

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

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

Josef leaves

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

Credit

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


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

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

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

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

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2002 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

Immortality by Milan Kundera (1990)

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

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

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

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

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

1. Instead of political insight, moaning

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

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

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

2. The narrator suddenly sounds old

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

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

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

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

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

3. All too familiar

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

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

4. Prolix

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

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

Part One – The Face (44 pages)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Two – Immortality (45 pages)

Then suddenly we are whisked off into History.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Three – Fighting (110 -ages)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hard to care.

Part Four – Homo sentimentalis (32 pages)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Five – Chance (55 pages)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Agnes dies fifteen minutes before they get to the hospital.

Part Six – The Dial (64 pages)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Seven – The Celebration

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

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

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

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

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


Conclusion

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

I felt the exact opposite with Immortality.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Credit

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


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

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

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

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

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (1984)

Like The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, this novel is sharply divided into seven distinct parts. Unlike that book it retreats a little from being a collection of fragmented stand-alone narratives, heavily interspersed with philosophical digressions, back towards something a bit more like a conventional novel, in that the same characters recur in every part.

That said, it is still not at all like a conventional novel. Conventional novels set scenes, paint locations, introduce characters, and explore them slowly by taking them through events, described in full, with plenty of dialogue.

Kundera’s novels feature characters, but they are more often than not presented through the author’s ideas about them. The ideas come first, and then the characters exist – or are invented – to flesh them out.

Thus the first two short sections of part one of this book present no characters or settings at all, but consist of a meditation on Nietzsche’s puzzling idea of Eternal Recurrence, an idea Nietzsche proposed in his last works before going mad. Kundera interprets to it to mean the notion that anything which happens only once barely happens at all. He quotes the German proverb: Einmal ist Keinmal: ‘once is nothing’. Only recurrence nails something down with weight and meaning. What occurs only once, has no weight, no meaning. Its lightness is unbearable.

And this dichotomy between lightness and weight will underpin much of the discussion which follows.

Part One – Lightness and Weight

Tomas is a surgeon. Since Tomas divorced his wife and abandoned his son (she was a rabid communist who gave him only very restricted access, and even then kept cancelling his dates to see his son – so Tomas eventually gave up trying), he’s had numerous lovers which he runs on a rule of three: Either three quick sex sessions, then never see them again; or a longer term relationship but scheduled at three-weekly intervals. (Putting it like this makes you realise how, well, crass a lot of Kundera’s male characters and their supposed sexual wisdom, can easily appear.)

And I’m afraid that the effect of reading five of his books in quick succession began to make me see through his plausible sounding words of wisdom.

Tomas came to this conclusion: Making love with a woman and sleeping with a woman are two separate passions, not merely different but opposite. Love does not make itself felt in the desire for copulation (a desire that extends to an infinite number of women) but in the desire for shared sleep (a desire limited to one woman). (p.15)

Tomas is sent to a sleepy provincial town by his hospital to perform a tricky operation on a patient who can’t be moved. Here, in a sleepy local restaurant, he meets Tereza who is a waitress. They have sex. Weeks later, she turns up on his doorstep. He takes her in, they sleep together, he gets her suitcase from the station. All this goes against his principles, such as hating having women sleep over, preferring to drive them home after sex. Anyway, Tereza comes down with flu and Tomas is forced to look after her and, as he does so, has the peculiar sensation that she is like Moses in the cradle and he is the pharaoh’s daughter. Some higher power has decreed he must protect her. And so he finds himself falling in love with her. He gets his mistress, Sabina, to wangle her a job as a dark room assistant with a magazine.

And so they settle in to living together. But then Tereza discovers that Tomas has lots of other lovers. She comes across a stash of letters. She begins to have panic dreams, which Kundera vividly describes, one in which Tereza is one among a group of naked women who walk around a swimming pool performing kneed bends and exercises and if any of them hesitates or stumbles, Tomas, who is in a basket suspended from the roof, shoots them dead with the gun in his hand. Those kinds of dreams. Anxiety dreams.

He loves her and wishes to calm her feverish dreams, but can’t stop seeing his lovers, but then can’t make love to them without feeling guilty, so needs to drink to mask the guilt, but then Tereza smells the booze on his breath when he gets home, and has another one of her anxiety attacks. In fact she tries to kill herself.

Then, in his anxiety, Tomas’s longest-term mistress, the artist Sabina, catches him looking at his watch while making love, and takes her revenge on him. Oh dear. Can the poor man do nothing right?

Years go by. Tomas marries Tereza. He buys her a mongrel puppy, they name Karenin after the hero of the Tolstoy novel.

Then the Russians invade Czechoslovakia in August 1968. Tereza is by now a staff photographer on the magazine and spends the days after the invasion roaming the streets taking photographs of the occupying army, then handing the film over to foreign journalists.

Sabina has left for Geneva, Switzerland. A hospital manager from Zurich Tomas knows phones up and offers him a job. After hesitation he takes it and they drive to Switzerland. For some months she is happy and confident. Taking photos during the occupation gave her confidence. Then he gets home one day and finds a farewell letter from her. She can’t hack life in the West. She’s gone back to Czechoslovakia and taken the dog.

Initially Tomas feels liberated. Seven years with her were, in the end, a burden. But it only takes a day or two and then the terrible power of compassion kicks in – Kundera gives us a disquisition on the etymology and meaning of ‘com’ [meaning with] ‘passion’ [from the Latin word meaning ‘suffering’] – and he imagines Tereza alone in their flat in Prague. So, with a heavy heart, he resigns from the Zurich hospital, quoting the motif from a late Beethoven string quartet – Muss es sein? Ja, es muss sein. And drives back across the border to Prague, finding Teresa asleep in their old flat, and wondering if he’s just made the worst mistake of his life.

On this recording of Beethoven’s string quartet number 16, click to the final movement at 17:39. It’s here that Beethoven wrote the words Muss es sein? Ja, es muss sein before the music itself begins, indicating that the rhythm of the words was the basis of the musical motifs from which he then created the music. What do the words mean: ‘Must it be?’ ‘Yes. It must be.’ It seems like it should be a meditation on man’s fate, on whether we make real decisions or go along with a pre-determined fate. Except that the music itself is surprisingly light and airy.

Puzzling and teasing. And, in this, similar to Kundera’s texts which invoke all kinds of serious political and philosophical ideas, and reference well-known writers and musicians in order… to muse on the different types of philanderer (the epic or the lyric), or the four types of ‘look’, or why one character close their eyes during sex while another keeps them open, or to give a mock academic definition of the art of flirtation. Is the entire book a deliberate playing and toying with ideas of seriousness and triviality?

Part Two – Soul and Body

In which we learn a lot more about Tereza, namely her family background. Her mother married the least eligible of her nine suitors because he got her pregnant. After a few years of boring marriage, she ran off with another man, who turned out to be a loser. She took all this out on young Tereza, in the form of nudity. Tereza’s mother walks round the house naked, she refuses to have a lock on the lavatory, she parades her friends round the house and into Tereza’s room when she’s half dressed. For Tereza, nudity represents a concentration camp-style enforcement of loss of privacy.

Meeting Tomas was an escape. He had a book on the table of the restaurant where she served him on the occasion of him coming to the town to perform an operation. Books are symbolic of escape from narrow provincial life into a higher realm. (In this respect she reminds me of Kristyna the butcher’s wife who is enchanted with the higher learning and big city sophistication of ‘the student’ in part five of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, or of nurse Ruzena who longs to escape the narrow confines of her boring provincial town in The Farewell Party. The uneducated young woman trapped in a provincial town until rescued by a much more educated, big city-dweller, is a recurring trope.)

We re-see the birth and development of her love affair with Tomas through her eyes, including the night she danced with another man and made him jealous, then her discovery at discovering all his letters from his lovers, particularly Sabina.

She has a brainwave to control her jealousy which is to try and co-opt his lovers into their sex life. She has the idea to visit Sabina the painter and take photos of her (by this time she is a staff photographer on the weekly magazine). Which progresses to suggesting she photograph Sabina nude. As a heterosexual man I found this couple of pages stimulating, as I think they’re intended, but as wildly improbable as a porn film. It doesn’t come off, there isn’t a lesbian scene, the two women collapse in laughter.

We see how her exile in Geneva comes to a head when she takes her best photos of the Russian occupation of Prague to a magazine editor, who says, ‘Yes, they’re wonderful, but things have moved on, Is she any good at photographing plants, cacti, for example? Very fashionable at the moment.’

She protests that the Russian tanks are still on the streets of Prague, Czechs are still being sent to prison by the thousand. The editor gets a woman staff photographer to take her to lunch and explain the facts of life in the capitalist West to her, but the more she does so, the more Tereza feels patronised and disgusted.

In both these sections Kundera describes the fate of Alexander Dubček, the Czech leader who allowed the widespread liberalisation of communism which became known as the Prague Spring, and who was arrested and flown to prison in Russia after the Russians invaded in August 1968.

Initially, Dubček was told he was going to be executed, like Imre Nagy, leader of rebel Hungary, had been in 1956. But then he was reprieved, bathed and shaved and given a new suit and taken to a meeting with Leonid Brezhnev, where he was offered his life if he agreed to roll back all his reforms. Within days he was flown back to Prague and forced to make a nationwide address on the radio explaining his change of strategy.

For Kundera, the significant thing was Dubček’s pitiful performance, his long pauses, his gasps for breath. During those pauses, he says, the entire nation heard their humiliation. And both Tomas and Tereza revert to this example of humiliation as they consider their own lives.

And it occurs to me that whereas traditional novelists use symbolism with a kind of subtlety, burying it in the narrative and descriptions, Kundera’s distinguishing feature is that he makes his ‘symbols’ front and foreground of the text. They are not subtly worked into the text but very visibly added into it and then commented on at length. Each time they recur Kundera himself does all the commentary and critique, explaining how Dubček’s silences became symbolic of all kinds of other silences, in apartments bugged by the secret police, or between lovers who can no longer talk to each other.

Tereza realises she is utterly alone in the West. She packs her bags, takes Karenin, and catches a train back to the Czech border. Five days later Tomas joins her.

Who is strong here, who is weak? Is weakness bad? Was Dubček weak? No. Anybody is weak when they are set against vastly stronger forces. Weakness has no intrinsic meaning.

Part Three – Words Misunderstood

Part three introduces us to Franz, who is happily set up with his docile wife, Marie-Claude, who runs a private art gallery, and (somewhat inevitably) enjoys the favours of his artist-mistress. Artist? Like Sabina? Her name is deliberately suppressed but as soon as the narrator mentions a bowler hat we know that it is Sabina, Tomas’s mistress Sabina, since the bowler is a prop she used to wear (with little else) for her erotic encounters with Tomas in Part One. In fact Kundera treats us to an entire digression about the bowler hat, which used to belong to her grandfather, the small-town mayor, and how her bringing it into exile in the West has now loaded it with multiple layers of symbolism.

But the real purpose of this section is to form an extended example of one of the central themes of Kundera’s fiction – which is the profound mutual misunderstandings which can occur between two people, even if they are lovers, especially if they are lovers.

And for the first time this is given a formal structure, in that Kundera shepherds the completely opposite ideas and principles of West-born Franz and Eastern émigré Sabina into a humorous format, a Short Dictionary of Misunderstood Words. This dictionary occurs in more than one of the sections and includes such subjects as: Woman, Fidelity & Betrayal, Music, Light & Darkness, the beauty of New York, Strength, Living In Truth, and so on – all areas where Kundera humorously shows us Franz thinking one thing and Sabina thinking the diametric opposite.

Take music. Franz would like to disappear inside a great orgasm of totally obliterating music. Whereas Sabina thought only under communism did musical barbarism reign until she came to the West and discovered the crudest pop music blaring and thumping from every public orifice. She hates its stifling omnipresence.

This is a clever, witty and funny idea – and another example of how Kundera pushes old fashioned ideas about ‘the novel’ to the limit. In your traditional novel these themes might have been embedded in fictional events, or maybe in dialogue, but to some extent dramatised. In Kundera, the narrative comes to a dead stop and the text comes close to becoming a Powerpoint presentation. At moments like this it comes close to being a collection of bullet points more than a narrative. The interesting thing is just how far Kundera can push all these tricks and experiments – and the book still feel like a novel, with a story and characters.

Parades For Franz, raised in the West, political parades are a release and a protest (and also, on a personal level, a relief to get out from the libraries and lecture halls where he spends his professional life). But Sabina was brought up in the communist East where, from earliest youth, she was forced to go on political marches and rallies, forced to march in rank with other Young Pioneers, forced to chant political slogans. Thus, he loves parades but she loathes them.

Lightness Franz feels that everything that happens in the West, and to him, is too boring trivial and easy. Too light. He was resigned to dissolving into the never-ending sea of words which is academic discourse. Which is why Sabina excites him so much as a mistress. In her country even the slightest phrase can be charged with superhuman weight, can consign one or more people to prison or execution. Now there’s meaning for you, drama and revolution and human adventure! Whereas for Sabina, of course, words like ‘revolution’, ‘struggle’ and ‘comrade’ are dirty, sordid, horrible reminders of the crushing of the human spirit.

Franz is worn out, psychologically and philosophically exhausted, by the West’s sheer profusion.

The endless vanity of speeches and words, the vanity of culture, the vanity of art. (p.110)

including the vanity of the endless pontificating about art which he hears on all sides at his wife’s press days and exhibition launches, and the insufferable loquacity of his cocktail-party-superficial daughter.

Franz finally plucks up the guts to tell his wife of 23 years that he has been seeing a mistress for nine months. He is horrified when Marie-Claude doesn’t buckle into tears (it turns out he had completely the wrong idea about her for this entire time – see the discussion in the Short Dictionary of his concept of ‘Woman’) but becomes very hard-faced. Becoming scared, Franz goes on to tell her the mistress is Sabina.

Next day he is on a flight to Amsterdam and feels wonderful light and airy and released from all guilt. He is living in truth. He has told Sabina, sitting beside him, that he’s told his wife everything about them, and so he feels light and breezy. But Sabina now is wracked with anxiety. No longer is she the free-spirited artist Sabina. Now she is ‘that painter who’s involved in the Franz and Marie-Claude divorce’. Now she’s going to have to decide how to play the role of ‘the mistress’. She feels weighted down.

This is just one of the many many ways the theme of ‘lightness’ is played out and dramatised throughout the book.

In fact during this trip to Amsterdam, while Franz feels lighter and lighter, Sabina feels so weighted down that she realises she can never see him again. They have a night of unbridled passion in Amsterdam, she giving herself up to physical ecstasy as never before. He thinks it’s because she is excited by their new life together and by the prospect of living in truth. But it is nothing of the sort. It is because she knows it is the last time. She knows she has to leave him. Thus they have completely opposed understandings and motivations. Complete misunderstanding, which is really Kundera’s central subject.

Back in Geneva, Franz shamefacedly packs a few things in front of his wife, then goes round to Sabina’s flat. The door is locked. There’s no-one home. He keeps going back like a lost puppy, no answer. After a few days removal men appear and empty it. She’s gone, and left no forwarding address. Initially he is devastated. When he goes back to his wife, she says ‘Don’t let me stop you moving out.’ On the face of it he’s lost everything. But in the event he takes a small flat in the old part of town. Moves in furniture which he, not his wife has chosen. Stuffs it full of books and becomes happy. One of his students falls in love with him and they start an affair. Deep in his heart he is grateful to Sabina for freeing him from the staleness of a 23-year marriage. Life is sweet. He is living in truth.

Meanwhile Sabina moves to Paris. She had hoped that the successive affairs and liaisons would weight her down and give her life significance. But she finds herself floating free and rootless in Paris. It is here that for the first time we read the title phrase of the book. She seems doomed to experience ‘the unbearable lightness of being’ (p.122).

One day she gets a letter telling her that Tomas and Tereza have died in a car crash in some remote mountain town in Czechoslovakia.

By this point I’m thinking that the way this novel has followed just a handful of characters through quite extensive twists and turns makes it unlike his previous works. It’s still stuffed full of soft philosophising about life, but… feels deeper, more deeply felt, simply from the old-fashioned device of letting us get to know the characters via a reasonably chronological narrative.

Part Four – Soul and Body

Part four picks up with Tomas and Tereza back in Czechoslovakia, after she fled from Geneva and the West, and he reluctantly followed her.

Tereza gets a job in a hotel bar. The receptionist is a former ambassador, who criticised the Soviet invasion. All the intelligentsia has been kicked out of their jobs. Tereza gets chatted up by various male customers, which prompts Kundera to give a typically pithy and pseudo-academic definition of the activity of ‘flirting’:

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

The men at the bar hit on her. One is a fat secret policeman who gets drunk and tries to blackmail her. He is being particularly obnoxious, when a tall stranger intervenes and tells him to shut his trap, she is immensely grateful. But with a kind of sinking inevitability this man then begins chatting her up in a friendly way.

Now a key thing to realise is that at the start of this section, Tomas had come back from window-cleaning and fallen into bed dog-tired just as Tereza was waking for her evening job but not before she smells… can it be… is it really?… yes, the smell of women’s privates in his hair. My God! What has he been up to? But alas, she knows only too well what he’s been up to.

And so her jealousy-anxiety dreams start to recur, especially a new one in which Tomas smilingly tells her to go up Petrin Hill, the big hill in the centre of Prague. She does so, finding it eerily empty. At the top are a few other lost souls like herself, and a suave gentleman with a rifle and several assistants. He politely informs her that he is there to execute them. But only of their own free will, if they want to. And she is so miserable at Tomas’s infidelities, that she lets herself be led to a tree by the assistants and the rifleman is lifting his gun to execute her, and she tries to steel herself but, at the last minute, she bursts out No No, she didn’t come of her own free will, and the rifleman sadly lowers his gun, and she turns to the tree and bursts into inconsolable tears (p.151).

This, like the dream of the naked woman walking round the swimming pool, has the eerie uncanniness of literary dreams (I dream a lot and remember my dreams and none of them are this well-rounded and pregnant with symbolism). And they add to the sense that this book somehow goes deeper than its predecessors. It includes just as much learnèd digression, but by portraying Tomas and Tereza and Sabina at such length, we feel like we’re ‘getting to know them’ much more than previous creations.

So Tereza lets the tall man, an engineer it turns out, invite her to his small apartment where, after the minimum of preamble, he begins unbuttoning her and then having sex with her.

All the way through the book Tereza is afflicted by a dichotomy between her body and her soul (hence the title of this part, Body and Soul) caused by her early experiences with her shameless mother. In many ways she wants to escape her body. She certainly has an ambivalent attitude towards it. Now, she lets herself be stripped bare and penetrated (‘penetrate’ is a verb which crops up regularly in Kundera’s descriptions of sex) but, like so many of his female protagonists, feels far distant from what is going on.

She becomes more disgusted the more he roots around in her body, eventually spitting in his face. Later she uses his horrible toilet with no toilet seat, perching precariously on the crude bit of cold plumbing. Tereza longs to escape from the crudity of bodies, the way Tomas seems able to have casual sex with more or less any woman. But it kills her.

Later, when the supposed engineer doesn’t get back in touch, she becomes paranoid. What if it was a set-up? What if she was somehow filmed or recorded having sex, compromising herself?

And her mind goes back to how, in the months following the Prague Spring, the new hardline communist authorities broadcast secret recordings made of émigrés and dissidents, obviously only the most shameful bits when, after a bottle of wine or so they were persuaded to turn on their colleagues or admit what a crappy country Czechoslovakia is, or admit to being wife-beaters or closet paedophiles or anything – anything the agents provocateurs could wheedle out of them which could then be carefully edited and broadcast on Radio Communism to destroy the images of all the would-be leaders of the people and cow the populace into even deeper passive stupor.

One of these was the well-known author Jan Prochazka, recorded slagging off his colleagues and then broadcast all over the airwaves. Tereza is horrified by this and all other examples of the complete lack of privacy under communism. For her it is tied to her mother’s insistence on going around naked and on parading her, Tereza, naked to her friends. The horror of it!

And the time when she was 14 and her mother found her secret diaries, recording her innermost adolescent secrets… and brought them out when friends were round for tea and insisted on reading out whole entries at which all the raddled middle-aged women cackled with hilarity and Tereza wanted to die.

For Tereza, the definition of a concentration camp is a place of absolutely no privacy, where privacy is abolished (p.137)

That’s why Tomas’s infidelity makes her want to die, and dream about ways of dying: because she thought with him, she had found something utterly private and safe and secure. She gives their love tremendous weight. And yet Tomas finds sex light and easy, no consequences, no angst. She cannot relate to the lightness of his attitude. His lightness is unbearable to her.

Part Five – Lightness and Weight

And now, Tomas’s experience of returning to occupied Czechoslovakia.

At first he is welcomed back to the hospital. He is the leading surgeon of his generation. But now we are told about an article he wrote a few years previously, during the general relaxing of censorship leading up to the Prague Spring. It took as its subject the Oedipus of Sophocles. When Oedipus realises what a terrible thing he has done, even though he did it in complete innocence, he blinds himself. Tomas writes a long essay accusing the Communist Party of having betrayed Czechoslovakia and, although many of them did it with good intentions, he compares their pleas for forgiveness and understanding, with Oedipus’s intensely tragic self-punishment. The article is accepted by an intellectual magazine, though Tomas is irritated that they severely cut it, making it seem much more harsh and aggressive than he’d intended.

Then came the Russian invasion. A year later the director of the hospital calls him in and says the communist authorities want him to write a note disclaiming the article and its criticism. This gives rise to some intense analysis by Kundera. He foresees his colleagues reacting in two ways: first the nods from all the others who have given in and signed; then the smug sneers of everyone who was too young to be implicated and so can take a moral high line with no risk. Tomas realises he will hate being the recipient of either kind of smile. He refuses to sign and is sacked.

He gets a job as a GP in a practice 50 k from Prague. One day the last patient is a smooth-talking and charming secret policeman. He takes Tomas for a glass of wine and sympathises with his plight, he never meant to write that article, the editors butchered it, of course the authorities want one of their leading surgeons to return to his métier. And he holds out another document for Tomas to sign, his one much harsher than the hospital one, this one declaring how much Tomas loves the Soviet Union and the Communist party.

I found this sequence fascinating, it has a John le Carré sense of the insinuating ways of power and corruption, for it took a while for innocent Tomas to realise he is being tempted. He refuses. More than that, he quits his job as a GP and finds work as a window cleaner. The authorities only make people of significance sign these disclaimers. Once you’ve reached rock bottom they lose interest. Tomas wants to reach rock bottom. He wants to be free (p.192).

The ensuing passages describe Tomas’s adventures as a window-cleaner in Prague. The underground grapevine goes before him and he often finds himself offered a glass of wine and assured he doesn’t have to do any work by former patients who happily sign the chit saying he’s done the work.

But, this being Kundera, there is of course sex. Quite a bit of sex. Because handsome saturnine Tomas is calling during the day on plenty of bored middle-aged, middle-class housewives. Kundera describes his sexual escapades, the one which drive Tereza to paroxysms of despair, as casual couplings which Tomas can barely remember by the weekend. And, being Kundera, there is a great deal of theorising about sex. Again.

Men who pursue a multitude of women fit neatly into two categories.  Some seek their own subjective and unchanging dream of a woman in all women. Others are prompted by a desire to possess the endless variety of the objective female world. (p.201)

and he goes on to call the obsession of the former lyrical, and of the latter, epical, and spends a couple of pages of entertaining theorising expanding on this premise. The lyricists seek an Ideal and are always disappointed. Some sentimental women are touched by their idealism. Epic womanisers garner no sympathy. They are interested in quantity not quality. And eventually they get bored and become interested in ever more specific quirks. They become collectors.

Kundera describes Tomas’s collector habits, and several encounters of great erotic intensity. However, after a few years the women begin to blur into one, he starts forgetting names. But the real purpose of all this is to make the distinction (and Kundera’s type of intellectuality is about making endless numbers of distinctions – heaviness and lightness, lyrical and epical, demonic and angelic laughter, and so on) between Tomas’s collector instinct when he’s out there, in the world, and his love for Teresa.

He doesn’t need to collect Teresa. She came to him. And her falling ill within an hour or so of arriving was a key moment, which is referred to again and again in the novel. It made her completely vulnerable and reliant on him, in a way none of his conquests are, in a way he’s careful to make sure they never are. Which is what makes her the Great Exception.

Anyway, all this merry philosophising about sex is bookended with another encounter with people who want him to sign something. One of the editors of the magazine where he sent his ill-fated article about Oedipus calls him to a surreptitious meeting at a borrowed flat where Tomas is unnerved to encounter his own son, the one he rejected and walked away from after his divorce nearly 20 years earlier,

Over the space of several pages they try to persuade him to sign a petition they’re getting up among intellectuals to protest against the maltreatment of prisoners in prison. Again we are in the world of politics and coercion, as when the secret policeman met him. Only now there is this weird personal element of his son coercing him. Initially Tomas is minded to sign, but when they remind him of the Oedipus article which screwed up his life, he is reminded of what prompted him to write it. It was looking down in Tereza, as she lay in bed with a fever from the flu that kicked in within hours of her arriving at his flat, and made him think of pharaoh’s daughter looking down on Moses in the basket made of bullrushes. And so he went to his book of ancient legends and came across Oedipus, another abandoned child who is rescued… and one thing led to another.

And in a moment of insight Tomas realises she is still the defenceless babe in the basket and he must do nothing to endanger her. And he looks at the two men facing him and realises that nothing he signs or says or does will make the slightest difference to political prisoners in Czechoslovakia – but it might endanger his beloved. And so Tomas tells them he will not sign. He knows they won’t understand. He gets up and returns to the only woman he cares for… But, at the same time, unbeknown to him, the one who he is torturing to death with his ceaseless infidelities…

The petition is duly published. The signers are rounded up. The communist press denounces them as wreckers and saboteurs. On it goes, the endless cycle of repression. Tomas reflects on the history of the Czechs, their apparently bottomless ability to screw up their lives and politics. He ponders how one decision (to stand up for themselves) led to total defeat in the Thirty Years War (1618-48) while the opposite decision (to be compliant to stronger powers, at Munich) led to total defeat by the Nazis. What is right? What is best to do? All alternatives seem to lead down to defeat.

If history were repeated multiple times we could try alternative answers and find out. But we can’t. Using these (not totally convincing arguments) Tomas concludes that History isn’t unbearable because of its crushing weight, but the opposite.

The history of the Czechs and of Europe is a pair of sketches from the pen of mankind’s fateful inexperience. History is as light as a feather, as dust swirling into the air, as whatever will no longer exist tomorrow. (p.223)

He’s been a windowcleaner for nearly three years, now. It’s gotten boring. The former patients no longer greet him with champagne and toasts. They just want their windows cleaned. The sight of intellectuals doing manual labour has become passé, and then embarrassing. And he is growing psychologically tired of all the sex. He can’t stop it, but it is wearing him out.

Tereza suggests they move to the countryside, get new jobs. She is obviously unhappy. He asks her why and she finally reveals that every day when he gets back from work she can smell other women’s private parts on his hair. Appalled, he makes to go and shower immediately but she says, It’s alright, she’s used to it and he is stricken with grief.

That night he wakes from a strange dream (lots of dreams in this book) about (alas) sex and the ideal woman, and wakens to find Tereza holding his hand, and vows to change.

Part Six – The Grand March

This is the shortest and the silliest part of the novel, in fact one of the worst things Kundera ever wrote. Although it is packed with serious themes it feels somehow the most superficial.

In a great hurry Kundera progresses through an anecdote about how Stalin’s son died, in a Second World War prisoner of war camp, arguing with British prisoners about his messy defecating habits. Then Kundera picks up this idea of human faeces and runs with it via references to various theologians and their ideas of the relation between the human body and its creator, the way they force a binary choice on us: that either man’s body is made in the image of God’s – in which case God has intestines, guts, and defecates – or it isn’t, in which case it isn’t perfect and godlike, and neither is creation.

This leads him on to a meditation on the meaning of kitsch, which he takes to be the belief that the world is perfect, that it is a world without shit. (The general drift of this definition reminds me of his definition of angelic laughter in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting i.e. that it is creepily unrealistic.)

Kundera then hurries on to rope in thoughts about ‘sentimentality’, defining sentimentality as The awareness of how much one is moved by the notion that the world is a perfect and beautiful world.

And then moves on to claim that this kitsch is universal among all politicians. All politicians want to be seen with babies because they identify with the kitsch notion that human life is an unmitigated blessing. This is demonstrated by the time when Sabina, by now a famous artist and living in America, is driven by a US senator to an ice rink, where kids are frolicking and makes an expansive gesture with his arm as if to incorporate everything that is Good In Life. But Sabina has had a tough life and sees in his rinky-dink smile exactly the cheesy smiles of the Communist Parties smiling down at the smiling masses of the Communist Faithful as they march past on a May Day Parade. Totalitarian kitsch is a world in which everyone is smiling all the time because everything is so perfect. Anyone who asks a question or expresses a doubt must immediately be shipped off to the gulag because kitsch admits of no imperfections.

Which brings us to Franz and his need to be seen. Which prompts Kundera to explain the four categories of ways we need to be seen.

  1. People who long for the look of an infinite number of anonymous eyes. Actors.
  2. People who have a need to be seen by many known eyes. Cocktail party hosts.
  3. People who need to be constantly before the eyes of the person they love.
  4. People who live in the imaginary eyes of those who are not present.

Franz is of this latter type and he undertakes the escapade which ends his life because of a futile sense that somehow, somewhere, Sabina the great love of his life is watching him.

This is a Mercy Mission to Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge ran Cambodia from 1975 to 1978 during which they managed to murder around a million of their fellow citizens, about a quarter of the population, in order to create their peasant-Marxist utopia. Communist Vietnam invaded in 1978 and expelled the Khmer Rouge, setting up their own puppet government.

In the novel a group of French doctors decide to mount a mercy mission by going to Thailand and marching to the Cambodian border and demanding admission. Soon the mission snowballs as a load of American intellectuals and actresses get involved. The French fall out with the Americans, the Americans are offended, can’t everyone see their motives are pure.

I think this entire episode is a rare example of Kundera striking a false note. The entire thing is meant to satirise the sentimentality of the liberal West and its obsession with Grand Marches and Noble Gestures, but… the horror of the Khmer Rouge seems, to me, too serious a setting for Kundera’s satire. It’s as if he was making facile or footling nit-picking pseudo-philosophical points in Auschwitz or Katyn. Don’t get me wrong. I believe you can laugh at more or less anything, I have no politically correct objection to universal mockery. But some things you can only laugh at if it’s a really, really, really good joke, sufficiently funny to outweigh your knowledge of the horror – and Kundera tying together the superficial narcissism of western protests, silly Hollywood actresses and snotty French intellectuals with…. the horrors of the Pol Pot regime – this strikes me as the first wrong step he’s taken in the five books of his I’ve read.

Kundera tries to redeem what even he may have suspected was forced material by piling in ‘tragic’ material about his characters. In particular we now learn that the son, Simon, who Tomas abandoned early on in the novel is now all grown up and is also working as a farm labourer. He starts writing letters to Tomas in which he explains that, in protest at the regime, he left an academic career and married a devout wife and became a Christian. Simon and Tomas exchange a few letters but remain (as all Kundera characters do) at cross-purposes. When he receives a letter that Tomas and Tereza have been killed in a car accident, crushed by a truck which rolled onto their car, Simon hurries to the funeral.

Hmm. I don’t mind Tomas and Tereza’s deaths being reported at one remove like this, and by a fairly new character, but… this ‘Simon’ feels like he’s been introduced too quickly to properly perform the task. We barely know him before he is carrying the freight of having the deaths of our two beloved central characters die.

Similarly, the Grand March of the French doctors and American celebrities to the Cambodian border descends into farce, that much was predictable. But there’s another oddly false note, when one of the hundreds of photographers accompanying the self-important marchers, steps off the road and onto a land mine and is blown to pieces, his body parts spattering all over one of the banners the Grand Marchers are carrying. Initially dazed, they look up and then… feel a surge of pride.

Then they timidly ventured a few more looks upwards and began to smile slightly. They were filled with a strange pride, a pride they had never known before: the flag they were carrying had been consecrated by blood. Once more they joined the march. (p.265)

That feels to me like bollocks. Satire has to have an element of truth to work, and this just feels to me like pure fantasy. Can you imagine a Hollywood actress being spattered by the blown-up body parts of a press photographer, then slowly breaking into a smile? It felt like Kundera was forcing his characters to fit his thesis and they snap.

Same with Franz. The Grand Marchers finally arrive at the border, and stand at one end of the slim bridge over the river which forms the border, staring across it into Cambodia. Everyone knows snipers are watching on the other side, and will shoot at the slightest provocation.

The interpreter calls out three times (as in a fairly tale) for the other side to let the doctors in, but each time there is only an ominous silence. Then the Marchers pack up and march back to their jumping off point, catch the bus back to Bangkok, and go off to restaurants or brothels as their tastes dictate.

It was a fiasco. But for me it doesn’t work as satire because it doesn’t contain any kernel of truth, it feels like contrived fantasy from start to finish. And then Franz is walking along a side street when he is mugged, smacked on the head and thrown into a deep hole where he breaks his back and blacks out. When he comes to, he is in hospital in Geneva unable to move his body or head and staring up into the benevolent eyes of the wife he abandoned. She is thrilled, because she is having her revenge, because

a husband’s funeral is a wife’s true wedding! The climax of her life’s work! The reward for her suffering! (p.275)

Maybe he’s just dramatising Marie-Claude’s feelings, here, but this still feels like utter bollocks. Contrived and glib. Franz wastes away and dies, full of hatred for his wife, and to her great delight.

It feels like this entire section was written by someone else, by someone parodying Kundera’s approach of throwing together historical, social cultural, psychological and philosophical elements and threading them together with fictional characters and who…. has somehow got it profoundly wrong.

Part Seven – Karenin’s Smile

Which is why the final part is a relief. It follows Tomas and Tereza’s life once they move out of Prague and become agricultural labourers. Admittedly communism has destroyed the old rural ties, closing the village hall, and banning church attendance and cancelling the traditional holidays. But Tomas and Tereza don’t mind and he takes to driving a tractor with gusto and she tends the cows and heifers with real affection.

At moments it’s almost like Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

This last section is very beautiful, quite sentimental and made me cry. Which is odd because it’s still packed to the gill with references to philosophers (we learn about Descartes’ theory that animals have no souls and no feelings, and are merely machines; and this view is compared with Nietzsche, who had his final nervous breakdown and collapse into madness, after he saw a man whipping a broken-down horse in the streets of Turin) along with plenty more philosophising on his own account:

We can never establish with certainty what part of our relations with others is the result of our emotions – love, antipathy, charity, or malice – and what part is predetermined by the constant power play among individuals. (p.289)

Comparing Adam and Karenin leads me to the thought that in Paradise man was not man, Or to be more precise, man had not yet been cast out on man’s path. Now we are long-time outcasts, flying through the emptiness of time in a straight line. Yet somewhere deep down a thin thread still ties us to that far-off misty Paradise, where Adam leans over a well and, unlike Narcissus, never even suspects that the pale yellow blotch appearing in it is he himself. The longing for Paradise is man’s longing not to be man. (p.296)

And much more in the same vein.

In among all these lugubrious lucubrations, some stuff actually happens, mainly that their beloved dog of ten years, Karenin, falls ill of cancer, and wastes away until Tomas -being a doctor – is forced to put him out of his misery with a lethal injection.

This event prompts a series of reflections about humanity and animals: that the measure of humanity is how it treats the absolutely helpless i.e. animals, and that in this respect humankind has undergone an absolutely catastrophic debacle. Our contact with animals was the last thread attaching us to Paradise, and look how we treat them. Factory chickens. Veal calves. Hormone-pumped cattle. Vivisection. How many rabbits have been blinded by mascara or beagles forced to smoke themselves to death?

So it’s no surprise how we treat each other. Kundera emerges from this final section as a vehement Animal Liberationist (reminding me of the South African novelist J.M. Coetzee).

This last section, about Karenin wasting away and dying, and how they eventually, finally, have to put him down and then jointly bury the little doggy corpse, is pretty obviously designed to be tear-jerking, the dog’s final hours and last whimpers, and then how they bury him in the garden in a plot chosen by Tereza, designed to wring the last drop of feeling from the sensitive reader.

But what made me cry was how, at long, long last, Tereza was finally reconciled with Tomas. She comes across him hiding letters and once again the old gnawing doubts bite into her. But then, one day, he reveals that they’re letters from his son who has become a Christian and works on the land not far away. Inevitably, they discuss his son more as an intellectual example of conversion to faith (given his mother was a rabid communist), than as a person – but the point is that Tereza finally realises that Tomas’s days of unfaithfulness are over. Finally, they are completely together. Finally her years of anxiety-jealousy nightmares can end.

And the book ends with them accompanying the jovial old director of the collective farm, and a young farm hand whose dislocated shoulder Tomas has fixed, to the nearest town where they get drunk and dance to the ludicrous accompaniment of an ageing pianist and equally old violinist, till they fall into bed together, finally, at last, HAPPY.

Thoughts

To read a Milan Kundera novel is to be bombarded with so many ideas about love and sex and marriage and fidelity and psychology and religion and politics that it’s difficult to keep them all in your head. Some will stick, some will go in one ear and out the other. Some kind of diagram would be needed to store them all and work out their web of interrelations.

They are dazzling, awesome intellectual feats of thinking, imagination and writing. But the downside is it can sometimes feel like you’re reading an encyclopedia; or a highly erudite author’s commonplace book where they’ve jotted down every thought and notion that’s ever occurred to them – and the concocted characters and a narrative which allows him to insert them at regular intervals.

I found it ultimately a very moving book, as mentioned above for the simple reason that we follow Tomas and Tereza’s story for longer, in more depth, and with more sympathy, than any of his previous characters. And because it ends with emotional closure, with them going to bed happy and contented so the reader can close the book with a big smile on their face.

But I also regularly experienced Idea Fatigue at quite a few places, where I just felt overwhelmed by yet another page of graceful and witty fancies and hypotheses, theories and thoughts, opinions and asides. It is possible to have too many postulates and paradoxes per page, in fact:

Questionable wisdom

Saul Bellow coined the term ‘reality instructor’ for people who take it upon themselves to explain what life is really like, what it really means. This kind of lecturing is a quintessential part of Kundera’s style. I think in small doses it can be very illuminating, but the more you read, the more you have the sense of being harassed.

An author can discuss philosophy without being a philosopher, psychology without being a psychologist. On the one hand it gives them the freedom to play with ideas and spin amusing and unusual insights. On the other hand, their little lessons risk lacking depth or evidence – of resting, ultimately, on assertion, often on rhetorical tricks, on paradox and wit, more than evidence. Here are some examples:

Dreaming is not merely an act of communication (or coded communication, if you like); it is also an aesthetic activity, a game of the imagination, a game that has a value in itself. Our dreams prove that to imagine – to dream about things that have not happened – is among mankind’s deepest needs. (p.59)

Is that true? Or does it just sound like it’s true?

The only serious questions are the ones that a child can formulate. Only the most naive of questions  are truly serious. They are the questions with no answers. A question with no answer is a barrier that cannot be breached. In other words, it is questions with no answers that set the limits of human possibilities, describe the boundaries of human existence. (p.139)

Is this deep? Or does it just sound deep?

An important point to make about all this intellectualising and philosophising is that… none of it is difficult. It’s clever… but none of it is hard to understand, if you pay attention.

If you think of the tradition of learnèd wit, epitomised by Tristram Shandy, in which the narrative is buried in spoof footnotes and fake academic papers and sermons and all sorts of other texts interrupting the story… Kundera is not like that. By intellectual, we don’t mean he literally references academic papers or abstruse findings. The opposite. Most of his reflections are very middle brow. Referencing the Garden of Eden or quoting Descartes’ opinion that animals are just machines, these are either part of common lore or only a little beyond it. Intelligent A-Level standard. An A-Level student should have heard of Don Juan. Or Beethoven. Or Adam. These are not really obscure intellectual references.

And his core subject – sexuality, love, fidelity and betrayal, affairs and mistresses – hardly high-brow, is it? Not difficult to grasp. The opposite, in many ways all-too-easy to grasp.

Similarly, he’s surprisingly un-hypertextual. His texts aren’t clever constructions pieced together from diaries and journals and letters and newspaper reports and eye-witness accounts and so on. They are just meandering musings, all spoken in the same voice, his characters all speak in much the same way, and they certainly stop and reflect about the meaning of fidelity or political marches or nudity or art or music in the identical, same manner as each other and as the narrator.

For long stretches they seem like extended essays with characters thrown in. At other moments the characters get the upper hand and for a moment you forget the ideas in reading about them sympathetically.

God, it’s just so full, so rich, like a Christmas pudding, so full of so many ingredients it’s difficult to get a real grasp of, or give an adequate review of, because it’s impossible to hold so many ideas, incidents and events in your head at once. Inevitably, some bits will appeal more to some readers than others – the politics or the philosophy.

Wisdom about men and woman

Sames goes, but that much more, for his sweeping generalisations about love and sex, men and women. Why that much more? Because the past forty years have seen a transformation in relationships between the sexes, and a massive shift in what is considered acceptable behaviour, especially around men and their speech and behaviour towards women. Sometimes, reading one of his countless reflections about ‘women’, it feels like a massive tide has gone a long way out and left a lot of what Kundera wrote about relations between the sexes seeming very dated.


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

Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum (2003)

I went back to my apartment from which no policeman could evict me now. There was no one home, and finally I was able to weep freely. To weep for my husband, who perished in the cellars of the Lubyanka, when he was thirty-seven years old, at the height of his powers and talent; for my children, who grew up orphans, stigmatised as the children of enemies of the people; for my parents, who died of grief; for Nikolai, who was tortured in the camps; and for all of my friends who never lived to be rehabilitated but lie beneath the frozen earth of Kolyma.
(Olga Adamova-Sliozberg, labour economist, arrested in 1936, released in 1954, describing her formal exoneration in 1956, quoted on page 461)

Applebaum is not just a leading researcher and scholar of 20th century Russian history, she is also a senior journalist, having worked for The Economist, The Spectator and The Washington Post. This explains much of the power of this book. Of course the subject matter is horrifying, but Applebaum also knows how to tell a good story, to explain complex issues, and to put the key points clearly and forcefully.

Her terrifying history of the Soviet system of prison labour camps, or ‘gulags’, is in three parts: part one the rise from 1917 to 1939 – then part two, 250 pages describing in eye-watering detail the horrifically barbarous reality of ‘life’ in the camps – then part three, describing the further rise of the gulag system after the Second World War, before its long, slow decline after the death of Stalin in 1953.

Key learnings

Big Russia is the largest country in the world, spanning 12 time zones. Most of the east, especially the north east, is uninhabited frozen tundra. The Tsars had a long history of not only locking up political opponents but sending them into exile at remote settlements, far, far from the key cities of the West, Moscow and St Petersburg. I.e. the communists were building on an already well-established Russian tradition.

Empty Moreover, there was a long-established tradition of trying to populate the vast open spaces of continental Russia. Catherine the Great was concerned all her reign with this ambition, and it is described as a key aspect of domestic policy in Dominic Lieven’s history of Russia before the Great War, Towards The Flame.

Forced labour Russia also had a well-established tradition of using forced serf labour to build grandiose projects. The most famous was Peter the Great’s creation of St Petersburg out of a swamp, using vast numbers of forced peasant labour. Everyone remembers Peter the Great – tourists ooh and aah over the beautiful boulevards. No one remembers the hundreds of thousands of forced labourers who worked and died in squalid conditions to build it.

Thus, the idea of setting up prison camps far away from the main cities, in the remotest distant parts of Russia, with a view to a) settling them b) developing untapped mineral wealth, had ample precedents in Tsarist practice. But the communists took it to a whole new level.

GULAG is an acronym standing for Glavnoye Upravleniye Lagerej or Main Camps’ Administration. I was struck by the hideous coincidence that the Russians used the same term as the Nazis (and which therefore appears in so much Holocaust literature such as Primo Levi), Lager. Hence its abbreviated appearance as the suffix of numerous specific camps: Dallag, Dmitlag, Lokchimlag, Vishlag, Sevvostlag.

Concentration camp Applebaum gives a brief history of the term ‘concentration camp’ which I thought was invented by the British during the Boer War, but apparently was coined by the Spanish. In 1895 they began a policy of reconcentracion to remove peasants from the land and concentrate them in camps, so as to annihilate the troublesome Cuban independence movement (p.19) – a practice copied by the British against the Boers in South Africa, the Germans against the Herero tribespeople in South-West Africa, and more or less every other colonial nation, at some point.

She defines a concentration camp as a prison camp where people are put not for specific crimes they’ve committed but for who they are. ‘Enemy of the people’, ‘saboteur’, ‘traitor’, these terms meant more or less anything the authorities wanted them to.

People at the time, in Russia and abroad, thought there was some vestige of ‘justice’ in the system i.e. that people were imprisoned because they had done something ‘wrong’. It took many a long time to grasp that ‘revolutionary justice’ wasn’t concerned with individuals but, like everything else in a centrally managed state, ran on a quota system. A certain number of traitors needed to be rounded up each year, targets were set, so ‘traitors’ were found and arrested.

Once the Soviet authorities had established complete freedom to arrest and sentence whoever they wanted, they could also use the system for practical ends. When the state needed engineers and geologists to help map out the vast projects to be built by forced labour, such as the White Sea Canal – they simply arrested and imprisoned leading geologists and engineers. ‘Recruitment by arrest’. Simple as that.

Camp life I was tempted to skip the central section about life in the camp but it in fact turned out to be absolutely riveting, much more interesting than the factual history. Applebaum has personally interviewed scores of survivors of the camps, and weaves this testimony in with selections from the hundreds of Gulag memoirs to give a fascinating social history of all aspects of camp life, beginning with the experience of arrest, imprisonment and the invariably nightmare experience of train shipment thousands of miles.

Of the first 16,000 prisoners entrained right across continental Russia to Vladivostock then piled into completely unprepared cargo ships to be sent to Magadan, the wretched port which was the jumping off point for the bitter and fatal Kolyma mining area in the far north-east of Russia, only 10,000 made it to Magada, and half of them were dead within the first year of labour.

The nature of the ‘work’ in the camps, the special destinies of women and children, the nature of death – including suicides – methods of escape and, above all, the multifarious strategies of survival prisoners adopted, are all described in fascinating and appalling detail.

Memoirists The two top Gulag memoirists are Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago) and Varlaam Shalamov (The Kolyma Tales), though we also hear a lot from Alexander Dolgun, Yevgenia Ginzburg, Leonid Finkelstein and Lev Razgon,

Russia

The net effect of the book is to make me fear and dislike Russia even more.

The failure of state planned economies State-controlled communism never did or could work. No matter what the rhetoric emitted by its propaganda departments and foreign fans, the Soviet system amounted to a vast bureaucracy of central planners laying down impossible targets for every aspect of economic production and a) they didn’t know what they were talking about b) they were under pressure from the dictators at the top to perform miracles c) so they set impossible quotas.

Then middle and lower management had to find ways of achieving these impossible targets or, more likely, faking the results. The result was vast piles of long, detailed reports, packed with glowing statistics, which were quoted in all the press and propaganda channels, while the society itself got poorer and poorer, in many places starved, and there were shortages of everything.

In this respect the Gulags were simply a microcosm of wider Soviet society. They were as slipshod, ramshackle, dirty, badly and cruelly run, as the rest of Soviet society.

Quotas The entire system didn’t run on flexible responses to changing needs and situations. Instead bureaucrats at the centre set quotas. You either exceeded your quota and got a reward, reached the quota and were judged satisfactory, or failed the quota and were sacked. Nobody assessed production on the basis of what society actually needed. The central assumption of a communist society is that the Bureaucracy knows what society needs, knows what is good for it. Thus from 1929 onwards Stalin decided that what Russia needed was mass industrialisation. Factories, canals, railways were prioritised; consumer goods, decent accommodation, even food itself, less of a priority.

Because the quotas were so unrealistic, often the only way to fulfil them was to drastically compromise on quality and cut every available corner. Hence to this day Russia’s rotting infrastructure, built in a hurry by people lying and cheating about quality and design and durability, at every opportunity.

The Gulag So this was the mismanaged society of which the Gulags were simply a vicious microcism. At any one moment the population of the Gulags hovered around 2 million. The majority of the population was common criminals – so-called ‘politicals’, the kind of people we in the West used to campaign about, were always in a minority. The kind of people literate enough to write memoirs were in a tiny minority.

From the start Applebaum describes how the system of labour camps began immediately the Bolsheviks took power, as a result of the Red Terror of 1918, but that for most of the 1920s there were clashing priorities. In line with the early idealism of the Revolution many policy makers, bureaucrats and camp commanders thought the camps main purpose was to re-educate ordinary and political criminals in order to turn them into ideal Soviet citizens and rehabilitate them into the Model Society.

It was as late as 1939, when Lavrentia Beria became head of the NKVD, that he for the first time established a thorough-going and consistent policy: the forced labour camps existed to contribute to the Soviet economy, end of. Production output was all that mattered. He instituted systematic reform: Quotas were raised, inspections became more rigorous, sentences were extended, the slave labour day became longer.

Stupid projects The White Sea Canal was the first massive prestige project undertaken with forced camp labour. The Bolsheviks thought it would show the world the dynamism of their new kind of society but instead it demonstrated the absurd stupidity of Soviet aims and methods. Stalin wanted to achieve what previous Russian rulers had dreamed of doing, opening a waterway from the Arctic to the Baltic, thus allowing goods to be transported to from anywhere along the immense Arctic Coast to Archangel, from where it would be dispatched along the new canal to Petersburg, and so into the Baltic and to market in Europe. Applebaum details the ridiculous way the impatient builders began excavations without proper maps, or full architects’ plans, but above all, with slave labourers equipped with no modern tools.

There were no mechanical tools or machines whatsoever, no diggers or drills or trucks, nothing. The entire thing had to be built by hand with tools and equipment built by hand by slave labourers barely surviving on thin soup and sawdust bread in sub-zero temperatures.

Anything up to a quarter of a million prisoners are thought to have died during the canal’s construction. In the event – because of the lack of machine tools and the extreme rockiness of the terrain – a decision was taken early on to limit the depth of the canal to the depth required for river boats but not deep enough for sea ships. This fateful decision ensured that the canal was never successful. It’s still open and carries between ten and forty shallow-draft ships per day, fewer than the number of pleasure steamers on the Thames.

The White Sea Canal was the first of countless similarly grandiose schemes trumpeted with high hopes in the state-controlled press, which relied on slave labour to be built, and which were failures at every level, due to catastrophically bad planning, bad implementation, bad management, bad materials, bad equipment and, above all, the terrible morale of slave labourers who did everything conceivable to cut corners and work as little as possible, simply to survive on the starvation rations which barely kept them alive, let alone fuelled them for hard heavy labour.

The book gives far-reaching insights into this mindset, which has tended to afflict all subsequent ‘socialist’ governments throughout the world, making them hurry to show the world how fabulous their economic system is by building grandiose vanity projects, cities in the middle of nowhere, airports nobody uses, dams which silt up – which plagued the Third World for generations after the Second World War. There is something incredibly childish about it all.

Crime and punishment The intellectuals, especially True Believers in Communism, those who really thought they were building a better society, suffered most after arrest and imprisonment. They still thought life had some kind of meaning, that there is some kind of justice in human life. They wrote long letters to the head of the NKVD, the Politburo, to Stalin himself, arguing that there must have been a mistake.

But there was no mistake. Or rather the mistake was theirs in naively thinking that Soviet society was governed by any rational sense of ‘justice’. As the communist state’s grand plans failed one after another, the paranoid imbeciles at the top concluded it couldn’t possibly be their stupid economic theories which were at fault – the only explanation must be that there were vast networks of spies and saboteurs and ‘right-deviationists’ and Trotskyists undermining the glorious communist achievement at every step.

Thus when people began starving to death in the hundreds of thousands due to the villainously stupid decision to collectivise agriculture in the Ukraine and south Russia in the early 1930s, the centre couldn’t admit this was because the entire idea was cretinously self-defeating, but instead issues ‘quotas’ of saboteurs which local authorities must arrest.

Because The Quota was all that mattered, police and NKVD would just go to the villages concerned and arrest everyone they saw, women and children and babies included, until the quota was fulfilled. Job done. If the famine continued, it was obviously because the quota hadn’t been enough. So arrest more.

This is how the Gulag filled up and explains why it was a) always bursting at the seams, with camp bosses continually complaining to the centre about lack of room, food and facilities b) was always more full of peasants and working class than the small number of ‘politicals’, and c) why so many of them died.

They were rarely ‘extermination camps’ like the Nazi death camps of the same period – people died because of the criminal squalor, dirt, disease, lack of food or water or medical facilities. Over and over again Applebaum quotes prisoners’ descriptions of 40 people packed into rooms designed for five, of nowhere to sleep, no water except the snow which you had to melt yourself, no mugs or plates so water had to be scooped up in bark or rags, no spoons to eat the watery soup filled with rotten vegetables. Cannibalism – which became widespread in the Ukraine famine of 1933 – was also not unknown in the camps.

Over and again, trainloads of prisoners arrived in locations ordained to become camps to find nothing, absolutely nothing at all. Hundreds of thousands of city dwellers were dumped in frozen fields or bare tundra. They had to excavate holes in the ground with their bare hands and huddle together for warmth for the first few weeks. Immediately, the weak started dying. Only the strong survived the weeks necessary to chop down trees and assemble basic shelters from logs, and so on.

It is a picture of unrelieved squalor, poverty, stupidity, cruelty, degradation and inhumanity.

The purges By the mid-1930s Stalin felt secure enough in his control of the Soviet state to turn on his enemies and anyone from the early days of the Bolshevik party. It began with targeted arrests, torture, execution or dispatch to the camps, but became a wave of persecution and just kept on growing throughout 1937 and 1938. This was the era of the Show Trials which stunned the world and much of the Soviet population, seeing heroes of the Revolution stand up in court and confess to the most absurd crimes (a process described in Arthur Koestler’s novel Darkness at Noon).

However, although this wave of arrests is famous in the West, it’s partly because it affected high-profile people and intellectuals and, as Applebaum shows, these always made up a tiny fraction of the Gulag population. In 1938 it was estimated that only 1.1% of prisoners had a higher education. Half had only a primary school education, about a third were semi-literate (p.270).

And contrary to common belief, it wasn’t during this period, in the 1930s, that the Gulag Archipelago hit maximum size. That happened after the war – 1952 appears to have been the peak year, with a prison population of some 4 million.

Women and children Anyone with a heart will find it difficult to carry on reading after the chapter describing the plight of women and their children in the camps. It goes without saying that rape, sometimes gang rape, was a permanent threat to all female prisoners. Applebaum describes how initially idealistic women soon had to adapt to life among hardened criminals, quickly becoming mistress or moll to some hard man. There’s a particularly grim account of how a sweet, pretty blonde turned into, first a mistress, and then herself rose through unflinching cruelty to become a powerful camp boss.

The hardest stories are the countless times new-born babies were separated from their mothers as soon as they’d been weaned – not only that but were then indoctrinated in state-run nurseries into believing their mothers were ‘enemies of the people’ so that, even if the mothers ever managed to track down their children, it was to find Party zealots who refused to acknowledge or talk to them.

How could a nation, how could a people, how could so many people behave with such utter heartlessness?

Such were new Soviet Man and Woman, products of a system devised to bring heartless cruelty to a peak of perfection.

Crime Paradoxically, the group which thrived most in the Gulag was the really hardened criminals. There was, and still is, an elaborate hierarchy of Russian criminals. At the top sit the vor v zakone (literally ‘thieves-in-law), the toughest of the tough, convicted multiple offenders, who lived by a very strict code of honour, first rule of which was ‘Never co-operate with the authorities’.

Applebaum’s section about these super-hard criminals is fascinating, as all depictions of criminal life are, not least for the light it sheds on post-communist Russia where large numbers of hardened criminals moved into the vacuum created by the fall of communism, and remain there to this day.

Orphans There’s also some discussion of the huge number of orphans which were produced by the State breaking up millions of families during the 1920s and 1930s. These homeless kids took to street life, stealing, pimping, dealing drugs, became the petty criminals who graduated into Russia’s big criminal underclass. At numerous points the authorities realised the problems this was causing and tried out various policies to abolish it. Too late.

I’ve been reading Martin Cruz Smith’s brilliant thrillers about communist and post-communist Russia featuring tough guy investigator Arkady Renko, and the later ones give quite a lot of prominence to a street kid he picks up and tries to give a decent home, named Zhenya. The novel Three Stations, in particular, introduces us to the dangerous gangs of street kids who Zhenya associates with and/or avoids. It was a revelation to learn that this problem – Russian cities thronged with gangs of criminal homeless kids – is as old as the Revolution, and was partly caused by it.

How many

A best guess is that some 18 million Soviet citizens passed through the Gulag system between 1929 and 1953. Over 4 million German and other nation prisoners of war were held in camps during and for some time after the Second World War. An additional 700,000 Soviet citizens, many Red Army soldiers returning from incarceration in Germany, were held in so-called ‘filtration camps’. And a huge number of citizens underwent internal exile, were removed to distant lands, though not kept in official gulags: for example, over 2 million kulaks were sent into internal exile in the early 1930s alone. The best estimate is that there were around 6 million special exiles.

Added up, the total number of forced labourers during the history of the gulags is around 28 million.

Conclusions

Applebaum’s book is not only extraordinarily thorough, deeply researched and beautifully written, but it organises its subject matter with immaculate clarity and logic.

The division of the book into three parts – pre-war, life in the camps, post-war – works perfectly, as the social and political and economic circumstances of each era differed so much, particularly in part three when the death of Stalin (in 1953) prompted a quick but chaotic ‘thaw’ in the administration of Soviet ‘justice’ and the swift release of hundreds of thousands of prisoners.

She is excellent at explaining the various methodological issues which confront the historian of this subject e.g. central and local archives contain thousands of official statistics and inspectors’ reports about the hundreds and hundreds of camps, but almost all of them contain substantial fictions and exaggerations – no numbers anywhere, about anything, from the Soviet period can be trusted.

She thoroughly explains the problem of simply trying to define the gulags, since camps came into existence for ad hoc project purposes, or changed function from forced labour camps to normal prisons, and back again, and so on.

Similarly, there are big problems defining the different categories of inmate – political, criminal, foreign – which the Soviet authorities themselves changed and redefined. And that’s before the Second World War, when the entire picture was further confused by the influx of huge numbers of prisoners of war, by the German seizure of most of European Russia and the collapse of production which led – once again – to widespread famine. And then, after the war, the forced relocations of entire nations moved at Stalin’s whim thousands of miles from their homelands, like the Crimean Tartars or the Chechens.

It is an epic story, involving not just every stratum of Russian society but victims from the Baltic states, Poland and Ukraine, along with entire populations of Crimean Tartars, Chechens and so on.

Stepping back it is like watching a huge ink blot spread over the map of the world from Petersburg to Moscow and all European Russia, then slowly across the Asian landmass and, after the Second War, well into Europe and then bursting into the huge area of China, before breaking out in various Third World countries across Africa, Asia and South America. What a global disaster!

The downside of the book is having to nerve yourself to read so many horror stories, whether at national local or individual level, the mental damage caused by immersing yourself in cruelty and heartlessness and suffering and death on a Biblical scale.

The upside is the astonishing clarity with which Applebaum defines the issues, presents the evidence, makes her decisions, divides the subject logically and then describes it in prose of inspirational clarity and intelligence. The book itself is a triumph of civilisation and intelligence over the crude barbarity of the subject matter.

In the final section Applebaum points out the effect on contemporary Russia of never facing up to the enormous crimes and injustices of the Soviet past. Briefly aired in the 1990s it has now been resolutely forgotten, with the result that some of the political figures involved in the final stages of the prison system in the 1970s and 1980s continued to hold positions of power and were never prosecuted. The FSB, successor to the KGB, still has rights to intercept mail and phone calls. And ideas of free speech and freedom of the press continue to be much more limited in Russia than in the West (and appear to deteriorate with every passing year).

Lots of cogent reasons why, as I said at the top, the book makes me fear and dislike Russia even more than I already did. It’s 15 years since Gulag was published. Political and social conditions under Vladimir Putin’s semi-permanent rule have not improved. I wonder if we will end up going to war with Russia.

Applebaum quotes the Russian philosopher Pyotr Chadev, who returned to St Petersburg from the West in 1836 and wrote an essay which included the sentence:

Contrary to the laws of the humanity Russia moves only in the direction of her own enslavement and the enslavement of all neighbouring peoples.

Tsar Nicholas I had Chadev placed under house arrest and word put around that he was insane. Plus ca change…

Summary

This is a really excellent history book, one which – as they say – everyone should read. Or, maybe more realistically, should be compulsory reading to anyone harbouring nostalgia for communism as a form of government or economic theory.

Or – as she says in her conclusion – should be compulsory reading for all those who are beginning to think that the Cold War was a futile waste of time.

Her book goes a long way to justifying the description of the Soviet Union as an ‘evil empire’. In the pampered West plenty of academic may poo-poo that idea – but ask the Czechs, the Poles, the East Germans, the Hungarians, Bulgarians, Romanians, Estonians, Latvians, the Lithuanians, or the Crimeans or the Chechens how much they enjoyed living under Soviet rule.

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Modernity Britain: Opening the Box 1957–59 by David Kynaston (2014)

Opening the Box is the first book in volume three of David Kynaston’s epic social history of post-war Britain.

It opens on 10 January 1957 as Harold Macmillan drops by Buckingham Palace to be made Prime Minister, and ends on Friday 9 October 1959 as the final results show that the Conservatives have won a staggering majority of 100 in the General Election: so the book covers about two years and nine months of British domestic history.

I say ‘domestic’ because there is no, absolutely no, mention of the British Empire, the independence struggles / small wars the British Army was fighting, or the impact of foreign affairs on Britain. The Suez Crisis was dealt with briskly and briefly at the very end of the previous volume: this book is utterly focused on the domestic scene.

In its end points Kynaston provides the usual bombardment of quotations from hundreds of diverse sources, from housewives and soldiers, social planners and architects, young and thrusting writers and crusty old critics, politicians idealistic and cynical, commentators on rugby, cricket, soccer and horse-racing – alongside summaries of scores of numerous sociological reports and surveys carried out during these years into all aspects of social life, and social policy – on housing and new towns and flats, consumer behaviour, ideas of class, the family, and so on.

Unlike a traditional historian Kynaston skips quickly past even quite major political events from the period (and even these tend to be viewed through the prism of his diarists and journal keepers) in order to measure their impact on the ordinary men and women caught up in them.

This is his strength, his forte, the inclusion of so many contemporary voices – experts and ordinary, powerful and powerless – that immersing yourself in the vast tissue of quotes and voices, speeches and reports, diaries and newspaper articles, builds up a cumulative effect of making you feel you really know this period and have lived through these events. It is a powerful ‘immersive’ experience.

But in this, the fifth book in the series, I became increasingly conscious of a pronounced downside to this approach – which is that it lacks really deep analysis.

The experience of reading the book is to be continually skipping on from the FA Cup Final to the Epsom Derby to the domestic worries of Nella Last or Madge Martin to a snide note on the latest political developments by a well-placed observer like Anthony Crossland or Chips Channon, to a report by the town planners of Coventry or Plymouth alongside letters to the local press, to the notes of Anthony Heap, an inveterate attender of West End first nights, or the thoughts about the new consumer society of Michael Young, to the constant refrain of excerpts from the diaries of Kenneth Williams, Philip Larkin and even Macmillan himself.

This all undeniably gives you a panoramic overview of what was happening and, like the reader of any modern newspaper or consumer of a news feed, to some extent it’s up to you, the reader, to sift through the blizzard of voices and information and opinions and decide what is interesting or important to you.

The downside is that you never feel you’ve really got to the bottom of any of the issues. Even the big issues, the ones Kynaston treats at some length (20, 30, 40 pages) never really arrive at a conclusion.

The housing crisis

The housing crisis existed before the war, as social reformers became increasingly aware of just how many millions of British citizens were living in squalid, damp, unlit, unventilated Victorian slums with no running water, baths and only outside toilets – the kind of conditions reported on by George Orwell among others. But the situation was, of course, greatly exacerbated by the German blitz on most of Britain’s major cities, from Plymouth to Glasgow. By 1957 it was estimated there were some 850,000 dwellings unfit for human habitation in the UK.

The result was city councils who were well aware of the need to modernise their cities, to get rid of the old slums and rebuild not only houses but, potentially, the entire layout of the cities. Arguably this was the key issue for a generation after the war and Kynaston reverts to it repeatedly. He quotes town planners and architects as they engaged in fundamental debates about how to go about this task, the most obvious division being between ‘urbanists’, who thought working class communities should be rehoused within the city boundaries, if possible close to or on the same location as the existing slums, once they’d been demolished and new houses built – and ‘dispersionists’, who thought a large percentage of big city populations should be moved right out of the inner cities to a) brand new model estates built on the outskirts of the city, like Pollok outside Glasgow or b) to new towns, overspill towns built 20, 30 or 40 miles away, which could be planned and designed rationally from scratch (places like Stevenage or Harlow).

This debate overlapped with another binary set of alternatives: whether to re-accommodate people in houses or in blocks of flats, with barrages of argument on both sides.

Proponents of flats made the simple case that building vertically was the only way to accommodate such large populations a) quickly b) within the limited space within city borders. They were backed up by zealously modernist architects who had an ideological attachment to the teachings of Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus and thought, at their most extreme, that the new designs for living would change human nature and bring about a new, more egalitarian society. So aesthetics and radical politics were poisonously intertwined in the strong push towards flats.

Ranged against them were a) the tenants, who didn’t want to move into flats, pointing out that flats:

  • are noisy and poorly sound-proofed
  • have no privacy
  • have no gardens
  • so that the kids have to be penned up inside them (‘awful places for families to live in’ – diarist Marian Raynham)
  • the rents are higher

And b) the more conservative or sensitive architects and planners who recognised the simple fact – which comes over in survey after survey after survey that Kynaston quotes – that people wanted a house of their own. Interestingly, this wish turns out to itself be based on an even simpler idea – that almost everyone interviewed in numerous surveys, by writers and newspaper journalists – wanted privacy.

  • ‘I think that the natural way for people to live is in houses,’ Mrs E. Denington, vice-chair of the London County Council’s Housing Committee.
  • ‘Houses are preferred because they are more suitable for family life,’ Hilary Clark, deputy housing manager Wolverhampton

Kynaston emphasises that the years covered in his book were the tipping point.

1958 was the year when modernism indisputably entered the mainstream. (p.129)

During 1958 it became almost a cliché that London’s skyline was changing dramatically. (p.132)

Through the four books so far, and in this one as well, Kynaston gives extensive quotes from slum-dwellers, flat occupiers, new home owners, planners, designers, architects and the sociologists who produced report after report trying to clarify what people wanted and so help shape decisions on the issue.

But – and here’s my point – we never really get to the bottom of the problem. Kynaston quotes extensively and then… moves on to talk about Tommy Steele or the new Carry On film. But I wanted answers. I wanted to hear his opinion. I wanted a systematic exposition of the issues, history and debate which would lead up to conclusions about how we now see it, looking back 65 years.

But there is nothing like that. Kynaston just describes the debate as it unfolded, through the words of reports and surveys and sociologists and architects. But his debate never reaches a conclusion. And after a while that gets a bit frustrating.

Industrial relations

The 1945 Labour government famously nationalised a range of major industries and then, just as famously, ran out of ideas and lost the snap 1951 election.

As the 1940s turned into the 1950s industrial relations remained poor, with Kynaston repeatedly mentioning outbreaks of strikes, sometimes on a big enough scale (like the London dockers strike of 1949) to affect food supplies and spark a range of outraged opinions in the housewife diarists who are among his core contributors.

As the 1950s progress we get snippets of middle class people taking student or holiday jobs down among the working classes and being shocked by the widespread slackness and the culture of skiving which they discover. To balance the picture out, he also gives us, from time to time, vivid portraits of some of the ‘captains of industry’, heads of large companies who turn out to be eccentrics or egomaniacs.

Altogether, as usual, the reader has a vivid sense of the feel of the times and the experiences of a wide range of people living through them. But there are no ideas about industrial policy, trade union legislation, its impact on industry, the economy and the Labour Party which was often seen as being in thrall to stroppy and irresponsibly organisations.

In fact I did glean one idea from reading well over 1,500 pages of Kynaston’s history: this is that around about 1950, the British government and British industry had a once-in-a-generation opportunity to seize the industrial and commercial advantage across a wide range of industrial and consumer goods. German and Japanese industry still lay prostrate after the war and the Americans were focusing on their home markets. If the right investment had been channelled by a capitalist-minded government into the right industries, and if Britain had adopted German-style industrial relations (e.g. having worker representatives on the boards of companies) to ensure unified focus on rebuilding, then Britain might have anticipated what became known as ‘the German economic miracle’.

But it didn’t. The trade unions preferred the freedom of collective bargaining (i.e. found it more convenient to be outside management structure so that they could blame the management for everything and go on strike whenever it suited them), the Labour government was more concerned about a Socialist-inspired programme of nationalising industries in the hope of creating ‘the New Jerusalem’, and many managements found selling the same old products to the captive markets of the Empire and Commonwealth far easier than trying to create new products to market in Europe or America.

At all levels there was a failure of nerve and imagination, which condemned Britain to decades of industrial decline.

The catch is: this isn’t Kynaston’s idea – he quotes it from Correlli Barnett’s searing history of post-war failure, The Audit of War. In a nutshell, Kyanston’s wonderful books present the reader with a Christmas pudding stuffed with a vast multitude of factoids and snippets and post-war trivia and gossip and impressions deriving from an incredibly wide array of eye witnesses. But it is precious thin on ideas and analysis, and at the end of the day, it’s the big idea, the thesis, the interpretation which we tend to remember from history books.

The consumer society

This volume definitely depicts the arrival and triumph of ‘the consumer society’. I had thought it was a later phenomenon, of the 1960s, but no. By 1957 56% of adults owned a TV set, 26% a washing machine, 21% a telephone, only 12% a dishwasher, and 24% of the population owned a car. Aggressive new advertising campaigns promoted Fry’s Turkish Delight, Ready Brek, Gibbs SR, Old Spice, the Hoovermatic twin tub, Camay soap and Blue Band margarine.

People faced with ever-widening products to choose from need advice: hence the Egon Ronay Guide to restaurants, launched in 1957, followed in October by Which? magazine.

Even Mass-Observation, which started with such socialist ambitions in 1937, and has provided Kynaston with such a wealth of sociological material for the previous four books, had, by now, become ‘an organisation devoted to market research rather than sociological enquiry.’

Topics

1957

  • January – Bolton Wanderers beat Leeds United 5-3, the third series of Dixon of Dock Green kicks off, the Cavern nightclub opens in Liverpool, Manchester United beat Bilbao 3-0 to go into the semi-finals of the European Cup, Lawrence Durrell publishes Justine, Flanders and Swann open a musical review at the Fortune theatre, strike at the Briggs motor plant, 20-year-old Tommy Steele continues to be a showbiz sensation, end of the Toddlers’ Truce the government-enforced ban on children’s TV programmes between 6 and 7pm,
  • February – launch of BBC’s weekday new programme Tonight, publication of Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy, publication of Family and Kinship in East London by Michael Young and Peter Willmott (‘urbanists’ arguing that extended kinship networks in Bethnal Green provide emotional and practical support which Bethnal Greenites who’d moved out to new estates in Debden missed),
  • March – the Daily Mail Ideal Home exhibition visited by the Queen and Prince Philip, a Gallup survey showed 48% wanted to emigrate, start of big shipbuilding and engineering union strikes,
  • April – opening night of John Osborne’s play The Entertainer
  • May – Manchester United lose the FA Cup Final 2-1 to Aston Villa, petrol comes off the ration after five months
  • June – British Medical Council report linking smoking to lung cancer (reinforcing Richard Doll’s groundbreaking 1950 report) the government refuses to intervene; ERNIE makes the first Premium Bonds random draw, brainchild of Harold Macmillan; end of the pioneering photojournalistic magazine Picture Post founded in 1938, whose star photographer was Bert Hardy;
  • 20 July Prime Minister Harold Macmillan speaks at a Tory rally in Bedford to mark 25 years’ service by Mr Lennox-Boyd, the Colonial Secretary, as MP for Mid-Bedfordshire, and claims that ‘most of our people have never had it so good’; national busman’s strike; publication of Room at the Top by John Braine.
  • September – the Wolfenden Report recommends the decriminalisation of homosexual acts between consenting adults in private; Ted Hughes’ first volume of poetry, The Hawk In The Rain, published; film version of Lucky Jim released, criticised for watering down the book’s realism
  • October – at Labour Party conference Nye Bevan comes out against nuclear disarmament, disillusioning his followers and creating a rift between the party and much of the left-leaning intelligentsia; 4 October Sputnik launched into orbit by the Russians; fire at the Windscale nuclear power plant; publication of Declaration, an anthology of essays by Angry Young Men (and one woman): Doris Lessing, Colin Wilson, John Osborne, John Wain, Kenneth Tynan, Bill Hopkins, Lindsay Anderson and Stuart Holroyd.
  • November – top of the charts is That’ll Be The Day by Buddy Holly and the Crickets; the Russians launch a second satellite, this one with a dog, Laika, aboard; the General Post Office introduces postal codes; Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament set up in response to Britain’s detonation of a H-bomb;
  • December – the Queen’s first Christmas broadcast, from Sandringham;

1958

  • resignation of the Chancellor Peter Thorneycroft after his insistence that government spending should be cut was rejected; launch if Bunty comic for girls
  • February – launch of Woman’s Realm magazine; 6 February the Munich Air Disaster in which a plane carrying the Manchester United football team, support staff and eight journalists crashed on take-off, killing 23;
  • March 1 BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop opens;
  • April – publication of Parkinson’s Law and Dr No; first CND march to Aldermaston; Balthazar, second volume in The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell; Raymond’s Revuebar opens in Soho; London bus strike;
  • May first performance of The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter and A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney and Chicken Soup with Barley by Arnold Wesker;
  • July The Darling Buds of May by H.E. Bates; introduction of Green Shield Stamps; the first Little Chef; the Empire and Commonwealth Games held in Cardiff;
  • August – release of the first single by Cliff Richard; Kenton and Shula Archer born; the Empire theatre in Portsmouth closes down, replaced by a supermarket; Notting Hill Riots, the most serious public disorder of the decade, petrol bombs, knives, razors, huge mobs chanting ‘Kill the niggers’ – the race problem Winston Churchill had fretted about in 1951 had arrive with a vengeance with about 165,000 non-white immigrants living in the UK; coincidentally, the launch of The Black and White Minstrel Show; Christopher Mayhew presents a TV series titled Does Class Matter?
  • September – Carry On, Sergeant, first of the Carry On films, released; publication of Culture and Society by Raymond Williams, which more or less founded ‘cultural studies’;
  • October – first editions of Grandstand and Blue Peter;
  • November – publication of The Rise of the Meritocracy by Michael Young;
  • December 3 National Coal Board announces the closure of 36 coal mines, as a result of falling demand due to coal being ‘brutally undercut’ by oil (p.236); 5 December Macmillan opens the 8.5-mile-long Preston bypass, first stretch of motorway in England, which will become part of the M6; John Betjeman’s Collected Poems published, representing one strand of middle class culture, while A Bear Called Paddington is published, first in a series of books, plays and films which continues to this day; 30 the government announces the full convertibility of the pound, meaning it won’t have to run down gold stocks defending it, but at the same time becomes vulnerable to speculation;

1959

  • January Henry Cooper becomes British and British Empire heavyweight champion;
  • February 3 Buddy Holly dies aged 22; film version of Room at the Top released marking ‘the start of the British new Wave in the cinema’; debut of Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be at the Theatre Royal Stratford East; March To Aldermaston a documentary about the 1958 march, edited by Lindsay Anderson with Richard Burton reading Christopher Logue’s script;
  • March release of Carlton-Brown of the Foreign Office starring Terry-Thomas; the year’s most popular film, Carry On Nurse; Goldfinger published, the seventh James Bond novel; march from Aldermaston to London; expansionary Budget;
  • May: C.P. Snow gives his lecture about the two cultures (ie most people who run things knowing masses about the arts and nothing about science); Sapphire directed by Basil Dearden is a whodunnit with strong racial overtones; 17th a black student Kelso Cochrane is stabbed to death in Notting Hill leading to raised tensions in West London and ‘Keep Britain White’ rallies and worried reports about the lack of ‘racial integration’ in Birmingham;
  • June
  • July: The Teenage Consumer, a pamphlet by Mark Abrams defining them as aged 15-24 and unmarried;
  • August: Cliff Richard number 1 with Livin’ Doll; President Eisenhower makes a state visit and is on TV chatting with Harold Macmillan;
  • September: City of Spades by Colin McInnes and Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse published;
  • October: The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner by Alan Sillitoe; Noggin the Nog created by Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin; and the General Election: Conservatives win 49.4% of the vote and 365 seats, Labour 43.8% and 258, the Liberals 6, giving the Conservatives an overall majority of 100.

Studies and surveys

Being a list of the studies and surveys carried out during the period by sociologists, universities, newspapers and polling organisations:

  • 1954 Early Leaving a study of who left state school early, and why (children of the unskilled working class made up 20% of grammar school intake but only 7% of sixth forms)
  • 1957 Abrams study of 200 working class married couples (they lacked the ambition required to push their children on to further education)
  • 1958 Edward Blishen survey of TV’s impact on families (too much violence; difficult to get the kids to go to bed afterwards)
  • 1958 J.B. Cullingworth surveyed 250 families who’d moved to an overspill estate in Worsley from Salford
  • 1959 J.B. Cullingworth surveyed families who’d moved to Swindon
  • Floud et al study of grammar schools in Hertfordshire and Middlesborough (over half of working class parents wanted no further education for their children after school)
  • Margot Jeffreys interviewed housewives in an out-county LCC estate in Hertfordshire (1954-5)
  • 1957 Maurice Broady conducted interviews on the huge Pollok estate outside Glasgow
  • Eve Bene survey of 361 London grammar school boys on attitudes and expectations (45% of working class kids wanted to stay on past 16, compared with 65% of middle class pupils)
  • 1958 Ruth Glass investigation of racial prejudice
  • 1958 Geoffrey Gorer study of television viewing habits (families don’t talk as much)
  • 1958 Television and the Child by Hilde Himmelweit (kids routinely watch TV till it stops, TV is a great stimulator but fleetingly, shallowly)
  • 1962 Brian Jackson and Dennis Marsden Education and the Working Class a study of 88 working class kids in Huddersfield who went to grammar school (charts the parents’ progressive incomprehension of what their children are studying)
  • 1958 The Boss by Roy Lewis and Rosemary Stewart, about the social background of captains of industry e.g. family connections and public school still paramount
  • 1959 The Crowther Report, 15 to 18 (children of unskilled working class over-represented, the kids of non-manual workers under-represented: i.e. they were a sink of the poorest)
  • 1959 Ferdynand Zweig survey of working class men and their attitudes to washing machines
  • 1960 Michael Carter survey of 200 secondary modern schoolchildren as they left school
  • 1961 William Liversidge survey of grammar school and secondary modern school leavers

Patronising and condescending

Although Kynaston several times harps on the fact that Macmillan (Prime Minister from 1957 to 1963) was an Old Etonian, that his first Chancellor, Peter Thorneycroft, was another old Etonian and when he was sacked he was replaced by Derick Heathcoat Amory, another old Etonian, that in fact nearly half of the Macmillan cabinet went to Eton – there turns out to be surprisingly less condescension and patronage from these phenomenally upper-class toffs as you’d imagine. In fact the reverse: Macmillan’s diaries worry about all aspects of the political and international scene but when he tours the country and meets people, I was rather touched by his genuine concern.

No, the really condescending and patronising comments come, as so often, not from the politicians (who, after all, had to be careful what they said) but from the intellectual ‘elite’, from the writers and cultural commentators and architects who all too often looked right down their noses at the ghastly taste and appalling interests of the proles.

Housing

Throughout the book, most of the modern architects regard themselves as experts on human nature, experts on what people want, and are bravely, boldly undeterred by the actually expressed opinions of real people in places like public meetings, letters to newspapers and suchlike bourgeois distractions. Alison and Peter Smithson were among the leaders of the British school of Brutalism. For them architecture was an ethic and an art. As Alison wrote: ‘My act of form-giving has to invite the occupiers to add their intangible quality of use.’ They helped to develop the notion of ‘streets in the sky’, that ‘communities’ could be recreated on concrete walkways suspended between blocks of flats, a form of ‘urbanism that abandoned the primacy of the ground plane in favour of a rich spatial interplay of different layers of activity’.

No matter that the overwhelming majority of ordinary people opposed these plans. The architect knows best. And the planners. Kynaston lists scores of chief architects and planners in cities like Glasgow, Birmingham, Coventry, London, who oversaw a quickening pace of mass demolitions, of slums, of old buildings of all kinds, in order to widen roads, create urban dual carriageways, build new blocks of flats, taller, more gleaming, more visionary, streets in the sky! And if the poor proles who would then be shepherded into these badly built, dark, leaky, anti-social blocks murmured their reluctance, they were ignored, and patronised. Kynaston quotes an article written by Raphael Samuel on the Labour council of Aberdare in South Wales who devised a plan to demolish a third of the town’s houses despite vehement opposition from the inhabitants.

The Glamorgan planners did not set out to destroy a community. They wanted to attack the slums and give to the people of Aberdare the best of the open space and the amenities which modern lay-out can provide. It did not occur to them that there could be any opposition to a scheme informed by such benevolent intentions; and, when it came, they could only condemn it as ‘myopic’. (quoted page 320)

My point is – neither the planners nor architects who refused to listen to ordinary people were Old Etonians; the opposite; they tended to be locally-born, Labour-voting architects and administrators which made their frustration with their own people’s obstinacy all the more pointed.

Culture

The situation was different in the humanities where the most vociferous Marxists tended to have had staggeringly privileged upbringings. Take the Marxists historians E.P. Thompson (educated at the Dragon Preparatory School in Oxford, Kingswood private School in Bath and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge) and Christopher Hill (St Peter’s Private School, York and Balliol College, Oxford), they took it on themselves and their tiny cohort of like-minded communists and academics, to define what the working classes really wanted, and it turned out it wasn’t clean accommodation with hot and cold running water, a washing machine and a nippy new car out the front – Thompson and Hill knew that the working classes really wanted to create a new kind of man for the modern age!

Thus Kynaston ironically quotes E.P. Thompson ticking off Labour politician Anthony Crosland for the crime of suggesting, in his pamphlet The Future of Socialism, that after a decade of austerity and rationing what the people wanted was cafés, bright lights and fun. No no no, lectures Thompson:

Men do not only want the list of things which Mr Crosland offers; they want also to change themselves as men.

Says who? Says Edward Thompson, Kingswood School Corpus Christi College.

However fitfully and ineffectually, they want other and greater things; they want to stop killing one another; they want to stop this pollution of their spiritual life which runs through society as rivers carried their sewage and refuse throughout nineteenth-century industrial towns.

‘This pollution of their spiritual life’ – Thompson is talking about television, specifically ITV, which was polluting the working class with poisons like Gunsmoke and Opportunity Knocks. The actual working class has always been a terrible disappointment to men like Thompson and Hill. Kynaston details at length their agonising about whether to leave the communist party after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, and then how they go on to set up independent Marxist magazines and write articles for other like-minded over-educated academics who fondly thought their little articles made a bit of difference to anything.

But it wasn’t just the privately educated Marxists, genuine men of the people like playwright Arnold Wesker, son of a cook and a tailor’s machinist, who had a really tough upbringing and meagre education in  Stepney and Hackney. He is quoted as attending a left-wing meeting addressed by Raymond Williams (grammar school and Trinity College, Cambridge), author of the pioneering book Culture and Society and then Labour front-bencher Richard Crossman (Winchester and new College), who wrote a column in the Daily Mirror. This is Wesker describing the meeting in a letter to his wife:

How could he, as a Socialist, support a paper [the Mirror], which, for its vulgarity, was an insult to the mind of the working class; a paper which painted a glossy, film-star world. (quoted p.143)

The point is that, at this distance, I admire Crossman for writing a column in the Mirror, the bestselling newspaper of its day i.e. the most-read by the ‘working classes’ – for addressing the world as it is, for making the most of it, and find it hard not to dislike Wesker for his arrogance: ‘the mind of the working class’ – where is that exactly? how does he, Wesker, know what ‘the mind of the working class’ is thinking, or wants?

A little later Kynaston quotes the anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer (Charterhouse and Jesus College, Cambridge) who wrote a series of articles about television in which ‘he came down hard on working class viewers’:

Not only did they eschew ‘topical programmes, discussions and brains trusts, serious music and ballet,’ instead obstinately preferring ‘films and serials, variety and quizzes’, but almost half of them were ‘addicts’ (defined as watching at least four hours a night), with as a result ‘all sense of proportion lost in their gross indulgence, and their family life, if not wrecked, at least emptied of nearly all its richness and warmth.’ (p.152)

My point being that is it not Macmillan and his Old Etonian chums saying this; it was left wing architects, planners, historians, intellectuals, writers, anthropologists and sociologists who were most critical and patronising of the actual working class as it actually existed (despairing that ‘the workers’ were not the idealised heroes of communist propaganda, but lazy blokes who liked to drink beer from cans in front of the Benny Hill show).

Race

There is a similar sense of disconnect on the issue of race and immigration, which Kynaston explores in some detail à propos the Notting Hill Riots of August 1958.

He shows how almost all the reporters, journalists, sociologists and so on who visited Notting Hill and other areas with high immigrant populations (the West Midlands was the other hotspot) discovered, not the virulent hatred of the American South, but nonetheless consistent opinions that immigrants got unfair advance on the housing waiting lists, exploited the benefits system, lived in overcrowded houses and made a lot of noise – all leading to a strong groundswell of popular opinion that immigration needed to be controlled. (There were 2,000 immigrants from Commonwealth countries in 1953, 11,000 in 1954, 40,000 by 1957).

But all the leading politicians, and most MPs, stood firmly against introducing immigration restrictions and were careful not to blame or stigmatise the coloured communities, even when there were gross incidents of racially aggravated riots, like at Notting Hill. The politicians realised it would be very difficult to devise any form of immigration control which wasn’t, on some level, based on the fact that you were trying to stop people with black skins entering the country i.e. naked racism, tantamount to apartheid in Wedgwood Benn’s opinion.

The handful of Tory MPs who did call for restrictions accompanied were shouted down. At one parliamentary meeting, one Tory MP, Cyril Osborne, accompanied his calls with accusations that blacks were lazy, sick or criminal, and drew down such a tsunami of criticism that he was reduced to tears. All MPs observing this realised that immigration was not a topic to speak out on. If any mention was made of it, it must be in the most positive and emollient terms. Thus the political class, the men who ruled the country, painted themselves into a position where free and frank debate of the issue was impossible.

But the actual population of the country, ‘the people’ which all parties claimed to speak for, disagreed. There is a surprising paucity of sociological research, field studies and surveys on the subject (compared with the welter of research done into the endlessly fascinating subject of ‘class’). But Kynaston quotes a Gallup poll taken at the time of the riots, in August 1958, which revealed that:

  • 71% disapproved of mixed marriages
  • 61% would consider moving if significant numbers of coloured people moved into their neighbourhood
  • 55% wanted restrictions on non-white immigration
  • 54% didn’t want people from the Commonwealth put on housing waiting lists on the same level with locals

People’s opinions were simply ignored. The rulers of the country knew best. No attempt was made to limit immigration which continued to grow throughout the 1960s and indeed up to the present day, which has resulted in our present blissful political situation.


Related links

Related reviews

Reviews of fiction from the period

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

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

Chronological events part one

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

This very long book then touches on:

1954

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

1955

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

Sociological studies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chronological events part two

1955

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

1956

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

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

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

1957

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

Suez and Hungary

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

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

Class

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

The education dilemma

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

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

Examples of such agonising and debating:

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

Consumer society

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Related links

Related reviews

Reviews of fiction from the period

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