Europe’s Tragedy: A New History of The Thirty Years War by Peter H. Wilson (2010)

Introduction

This is an enormous book (weighing in at 997 pages, including index and notes) which covers an enormous subject, in enormous depth.

The Thirty Years War lasted from 1618 to 1648. It was in fact made up of a series or sequence of wars featuring different antagonists. The central strand linking them is that the staunchly Catholic Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II was fighting mainly Protestant opponents, and that he mostly won. The war is usually divided into four phases:

  • The Bohemian Revolt 1618-20, a rising of the Protestant Bohemian ‘Estates’ against Habsburg rule (‘The revolt was not a popular uprising, but an aristocratic coup led by a minority of desperate militant Protestants’, p.269), which was decisively crushed at the Battle of White Mountain on 8 November 1620.
  • The Danish intervention 1625-30, also referred to as the Low Saxon War or Emperor’s War, when Christian IV of Denmark (who was also Duke of Holstein and Schleswig which lay within the Empire) led an army in support of north German protestant states against Imperial forces. After five or so years of fighting, the war was concluded with the Treaty of Lübeck in 1629.
  • The Swedish intervention 1630-35, when King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden led an invasion of north (and mostly Protestant) Germany. He was motivated by a) alarm at the Emperor’s harsh reimposition of Catholicism on the German states under the Treaty of Lübeck b) the goal of gaining economic influence in the German states around the Baltic Sea. Like Christian IV before him, Adolphus was heavily subsidized by Cardinal Richelieu, the chief minister of Louis XIII of France, who gave him a million livres a year. Gustavus Adolphus died in battle in 1632 but his forces continued the war until the Peace of Prague in 1635 brought peace between most of the Empire’s Protestant states and the Emperor.
  • The French intervention 1635-48, as you can see this is the longest single part of the war. Cardinal Richelieu feared the power of the Habsburg empire on his eastern border and used innumerable policies, treaties with the Danish and Swedes to try and limit and hamper Ferdinand. Finally this broke out into overt war.

This summary nowhere near conveys the complexity of the wider context within which these conflicts took place. When the war broke out, Spain was stuck in a never-ending conflict with its provinces in the Netherlands, what would eventually be called the Eighty Years War (1568-1648) and where its brutal suppression, inquisition, torture and execution of Protestant rebels laid the foundation for the Black Legend of Catholic Spain’s scheming brutality, compounded, in 1588, when the Spanish launched the Great Enterprise, the plan for an amphibious invasion of England to overthrow the Protestant monarch and return to England to being a good Catholic country under Spanish tutelage – what we refer to as the Spanish Armada.

France was a fellow Catholic country and so should have supported both the Emperor and Spain, but in fact politicked against both of them at every turn. For example, the French government supported the Dutch against the Spanish in order to keep the Spanish bogged down, wasting money in the Netherlands, and so presenting less of a threat to French power.

There were other flashpoints such as in Italy where Spain controlled the duchy of Milan. Italy was where the (relatively small-scale) War of the Mantuan Succession (1628–31) broke out and drew in the other European powers in parallel to the 30 Years War. Savoy in north-west Italy, which maintained a precarious independence from the Empire while being eyed by France, was another flashpoint.

In the south-east of Europe, the Holy Roman Empire was threatened by attack from the Ottoman Empire, whose power stretched far into modern-day Hungary (although for long stretches the Turks were distracted by the war they were fighting on their Eastern border against the Persian Empire under Shah Abbas the Great (p.100) who launched a fierce invasion capturing Baghdad in 1623 (p.103.)

North of Hungary there were repeated clashes over the border territory of Transylvania, and this drew in two other powers to the East of the Empire, namely Russia (or the Duchy of Muscovy, as it was commonly referred to), and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, who periodically fought each other.

When Gustavus Adolphus invaded north Germany it was not only to support the struggling Protestant German states, but in order to solidify his power in the Baltic as a whole, specifically projecting his power into Polish territory, who Sweden was, at one stage, directly at war with.

In other words, the Thirty Years War only makes sense – or you can only understand the motives of all the sides – if you appreciate a) the total context of European geopolitics of the time and b) you grasp that all the numerous states of Europe and beyond were continually prepared to use ‘war’ to further their ends.

Accustomed to two disastrous world wars, it is hard for us to reach back to a mindset in which wars were envisioned as relatively limited operations and completely acceptable methods to achieve power-political and territorial ends. To give an example of how it worked, we read time and again of kings or emperors continuing to deploy their armies, while at the same time hosting peace talks and negotiations, each victory or defeat in a local battle, strengthening or weakening their bargaining positions.

Discussions, negotiations, conferences and diets and assemblies, embassies and missions continued between all parties even while armed conflict broke out, was carried on, or suspended during truces.

The role of individual rulers

After the first 500 pages or so I realised I was becoming heartily sick of reading about the endless fighting over the same bits of territory, mainly because the little battles and squabbles come to seem utterly senseless. From the hundreds of separate micro-conflicts which made up the big ‘wars’, what came over most strongly to me was how many of them were driven by personal ambitions.

The entire social structure of the day was build around a fractious, rivalrous and competitive aristocracy who paid nominal homage to their king or emperor but who in reality were endlessly jostling for titles and land and possession. Apparently this was particularly true in France, with senior members of families related to the royal line (‘princes of the blood’) continually conspiring and politicking against each other (p.372).

The Holy Roman Empire was different and vastly more complex because it was made up of four major ‘states’, within which sat 40 or so duchies and princedoms, within which or alongside existed a large number of free cities and autonomous regions – from the very large to the very small, each with their own rulers and constitutions and parliaments or ‘Estates’, as they were called, their traditions and fiefs and privileges and customs and taxation systems, who were joined by a variety of links to the figure of the Emperor.

There were seven Electors, so-named because they were the electorate who chose each new emperor, being the archbishops of the imperial cities Mainz, Cologne and Trier, then the King of Bohemia, the Count Palatine of the Rhine, the Duke of Saxony, the Margrave of Brandenburg. There were fifty spiritual and 30 lay fiefs held by lords of princely rank and then some 200 lesser fiefs, and then 400 or so baronial and knightly families. There were 80 ‘free and imperial cities’. States which were large enough earned the right to attend the imperial Reichstag which was more of a consultative body than a parliament, where the emperor was meant to get his way through negotiation and concessions.

Everyone was competing against everyone else. Everyone wanted more land, more power, to expand their territory, seize new towns and ports and cities and bishoprics and titles and forests and land. And warfare offered a quick way of achieving these ambitions, not only for the rulers who owned armies but for their generals. A massive motivation for being a general in the army was that, if you were successful, you were rewarded with titles and land.

At a very high level the wars can be presented as conflicts between Protestants and Catholics, or between France and the Empire, or between Spain and the Dutch. But at the level Wilson describes, the conflict breaks down into scores of micro-conflicts between Electors and local rulers who had their eye on this or that piece of nearby territory, fighting or negotiating to acquire bishoprics or cities or control of fisheries or forests.

And when large states were defeated, the leader of the victorious forces (for example Gustavus Adolphus or Ferdinand, in the middle Swedish part of the war) was able to parcel out and award all the conquered territory to his successful generals and followers. Thus ‘ownership’ of land could pass through multiple hands which, of course, created an ever-expanding set of grievances and wishes for revenge or reconquest etc.

Seen from a really high level the war amounted to a succession of armies tramping across the same old territory, fighting each other to a standstill or dropping like flies from dysentery and plague, while ravaging the land around them, burning villages and towns, consuming all available food and ruining agricultural land and livestock, devastating the very territories their lords and masters were squabbling over like spoilt children. It is estimated that around a third of the Empire’s cultivable land had been abandoned by 1648 (p.802). Grain production didn’t return to 1618 levels until 1670 (p.806).

And this is what amounted to statecraft in early modern Europe. Endless rivalry and conflict, continually spilling over into ruinous wars.

Why is the Thirty Years War important?

Wilson explains why the Thirty Years War was and is important in his (relatively brief) introduction:

About 8 million people died in this huge, prolonged and devastating war. Many regions and cities of Germany didn’t recover for a hundred years.

The war occupies a place in German and Czech history similar to that of the civil wars in Britain, Spain and the United States, or the revolutions in France and Russia. A defining moment of national trauma that shaped how a country regards itself and its place in the world.

For most Germans the war came to symbolise national humiliation, and was blamed for retarding the economic, social and political development of the country, condemning Germany to 200 years of internal division and international impotence, until Bismarck began the process of German unification in the 1850s.

Wilson’s interpretations

Right at the start Wilson explains that his huge history has three big underlying aims which deliberately set it apart from most ‘traditional’ histories of the conflict:

1. Most accounts simplify the extraordinary complexity of the war. Wilson seeks to restore all of its complexity and the complex way it evolved out of, and interacted with, other parallel conflicts in the Europe of the time (notably the Spanish-Dutch war). But above all he wants to show how the central thread running through the war is their common relationship to the imperial constitution. The emperor wanted to secure peace in his Empire, to enforce the imperial constitution.

2. Thus Wilson wants to assert that the war was not a war of religion. It is true that the Emperor was a staunch Catholic and the Bohemian rebels, the king of Denmark and the king of Sweden were Protestants, and Protestant imperial states (notably the Palatinate and Saxony) allied with them. But Wilson wishes to emphasise that the primary causes were not religious but were – in his view – driven by conflicts over the rights and freedoms allowed the states by the imperial constitution, a constitution the Emperor Ferdinand II had sworn to uphold. Contemporaries rarely spke or wrote abour rarely about Protestants or Catholics – they spoke about Saxons or Bavarians or Swedes or Danes or French or Spanish troops. In Wilson’s view, the focus on Protestants and Catholics is a construction of 19th century historians who a) had their own religious culture wars to fight and b) sought to simplify the war’s complexity.

3. It was not inevitable. The Empire had been at peace after the 1555 Treaty of Augsburg, in fact the period from 1555 to 1618 was the longest period of peace Germany experience until after 1945. Meanwhile civil war raged in France and a bitter struggle in the Netherlands. So war was not inevitable and not the result of inevitable religious divisions. It was more the result of fortuitous and contingent events, starting with the decision taken by a small number of Bohemian aristocrats to rebel against imperial rule, which triggered a conflict in which some of the Protestant states (namely Saxony and the Palatinate) decided to take sides, before the king of Denmark made an unpredictable and personal decision to take advantage of the confusion in north Germany to try and expand his territory. And when the Danish venture had clearly failed, by 1629, the king of Sweden then decided to have a go himself, in order to seize north German territory and solidify his power in the Baltic.

None of these three events were inevitable, they were the contingent decisions of small groups of individuals, kings and their advisors, who decided to use warfare for the traditional goals of expanding their territories and power.

The deep historical context of the Thirty Years War

Wilson’s account doesn’t arrive at the outbreak of actual hostilities until page 269, nearly a third of the way into the book.

This is because, to understand a) why the war broke out b) why it spread c) why it became so horribly complicated – you need to have as full a grasp as possible of the history and complex constitution of the Holy Roman Empire, and of all the neighbouring countries which had an interest in what was happening in Central Europe.

This includes (going in clockwork direction) Spain, France, Britain, the Spanish Netherlands, the Dutch, Denmark, Sweden, Russia (Muscovy), Poland (the Commonwealth of Poland), Transylvania, Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, Serbia, Croatia, the Republic of Venice and various other Italian states, not least the Papacy, and Savoy.

Wilson gives us the deep history not only of the Holy Roman Empire itself, but of all these other countries, for each of them delving back into the 1500s, often into the 1400s, sometimes as far back as the 1300s, in order to explain the dynastic struggles, arranged marriages, land grabs and redistributions and wars which formed the mind-bogglingly complex web of political and military relations across the Europe by the start of the 17th century. (I think the earliest reference is to 1160, the year when the Hanseatic League was founded, page 176.)

The war was deeply bound up with the complex practices of inheritance, for example the routine appointment, in noble families, of younger sons as prince-bishops or prince-abbots, and the complexities of dynastic marriages between ruling families of different states and principalities.

The Holy Roman Emperors

I found the sequence of Holy Roman Emperors a little hard to follow, though on the face of it there’s a simple enough succession:

  • Rudolph II (1576-1612)
  • Matthias (1612-1619)
  • Ferdinand II (1619-1637)

Looks simple, doesn’t it, but Wilson places this trio and their reigns within the context of the vast Habsburg empire ruled by Charles V (1519-1556). Charles inherited extensive domains, including all of Spain and its new colonies in South America, Austria and territories scattered all across Germany, Hungary and Bohemia, in the Netherlands, and large chunks of Italy (e.g. Sicily and Naples). (Wilson gives an extended description of the growth of Spanish colonies in the New World, their use of slavery, and the importance of the silver trade, pp.116-121.)

It was Charles V who decided he had to divide this unwieldy entity into two massive parts (p.50), the Habsburg Partition of 1558. He gave Spain, the Netherlands and the New World to his son Philip II of Spain, and Austria and the Imperial territories of central Europe to his younger brother, the Emperor Ferdinand I (1556-1564).

Thus the creation of a Spanish branch and an Austrian branch of the Habsburgs or ‘family firm’.

But of course it was more complicated than that because 1. the Austrian emperor had numerous other titles, and these were awarded by a range of bodies within his scattered states, each with its own constitution and procedures. Thus the Austrian ruler was at the same time King of Bohemia, King of Hungary and Croatia. But he needed to be elected King of Germany by the seven electors (see the list, above). In general the next-in-line to the throne was elected while the current one was still alive, and received the honorary title ‘King of the Romans’ (a bit like our Prince of Wales).

Incidentally that title indicates the deeply held belief that the emperor was descended from the rules of ancient Rome and, like the later Roman emperors, carried the responsibility for the defence of all Christendom.

And 2. because the emperor was elected, this meant there were other candidates – although in practice this meant only other Habsburgs, in Ferdinand’s case, his brothers. Nonetheless these might be supported by various nations or special interest groups within the Empire because they thought this or that candidate would give them advantages and payoffs.

So as the Holy Roman Emperor who ruled just before the war broke out – Rudolf II – sank into madness or mania, his eventual successor Matthias had not only to face rival candidacies from his brothers Ernst, Maximilian and Albert, but found himself drawn into a prolonged conflict with Rudolf which lasted so long and was so destructive that it gained a name of its own, the Brothers’ Quarrel. As Wikipedia puts it:

The Brothers’ Quarrel was a conflict between Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor and his brother, Matthias in the early 17th century. Their other brothers – Maximilian III and Albert VII – and their cousins – especially Ferdinand II and Leopold V – were also deeply involved in their dispute. The family feud weakened the Habsburgs’ position and enabled the Estates of their realms to win widespread political and religious concessions.

Supporters and opponents in this intra-Habsburg rivalry came not only from within the Empire, but from the other wing of the Habsburg firm, in Spain, as well as a range of nations bordering the Empire. (So, for example, we find the King of Spain leaning on Matthias to make his older cousin, Ferdinand, his successor [which is what happened] in preference to the more unpredictable cousin, Leopold.)

So, even before he was elected, the Holy Roman Emperor had to have advanced political and diplomatic skills.

Early 17th century issues facing the Holy Roman Emperor

And when he finally did come to power, the Emperor faced a number of ongoing issues, which Wilson describes in detail, including:

  • the religious wars in France from 1562 to 1598, which the emperor had to be careful not to get involved in
  • the immense Eighty Years’ War or Dutch War of Independence (1568–1648), the revolt of the Seventeen Provinces of what are today the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg against Philip II of Spain, the sovereign of the Habsburg Netherlands – which frequently spilled over into north-western territories of the Empire
  • ongoing wars between Denmark and Sweden for primacy in the Baltic
  • the Time of Troubles, a period of anarchy, famine and civil war in Russia, 1598 to 1613
  • war between Poland and Russia
  • and, of course, the largest threat of all – from the Ottoman Empire, ‘the terror of Europe (p.76), whose power stretched into Hungary and which permanently threatened to invade up the Danube into the Austrian heartland itself. This threat has flared up most recently in the Long Turkish War or Thirteen Years’ War, fought over the Principalities of Wallachia, Transylvania and Moldavia from 1593 to 1606.

These were just some of the geopolitical issues which the Emperor inherited, continually having to assess which side, if any, to back in all these wars, and prevent physical or political damage to polities within the Empire. And that was before you get to the issues and conflicts bubbling away in the territories which he directly ruled.

In this high-level map of the European context, note:

  • how far into Europe the Ottoman Empire extended, pressing up through Hungary, and why Wallachia and Transylvania were important border states
  • Spain’s territory in Italy, and the south or Spanish Netherlands
  • the distinction between the Holy Roman Emperor’s inherited Austrian holdings (in pink) and the German states which he ruled over but which had independent princes, Electors, margraves and so on (in orange)

The Thirty Years War in its European context (source: International History blog)

The role of religion in the Thirty Years War

And then there was religion. The disaffected monk Martin Luther kicked off the Reformation in 1517. His reformed version of Christianity spread quickly through some parts of the empire, gaining princely converts who were able to protect the feisty monk and theological rebel.

Despite Catholic attempts to crush it in the 1520s and 30s, by the 1540s the existence of large populations and important leaders who had converted to the new religion quickly became a fact of life within the Empire, which was finally ratified in the Treaty of Augsburg in 1555.

But this new religious conflict was just the latest in a litany of conflicting histories, traditions, cultures and languages, constitutions and processes which differentiated and separated inhabitants of the 1,800 or so states which made up the Empire(!).

What distinguished religion was that religious belief struck home to the real core of a person’s identity and psychology; and that the more devout the believer, the more they considered religion a matter of life and death, not only for themselves but for the world. Wilson has a fascinating passage (pp.261-262) describing the rise of apocalyptic writings and end-of-the-world interpretations of Bible texts which, he thinks, were partly sparked by the economically disruptive change in Europe’s climate which we now refer to as the Mini Ice Age.

That said, Wilson goes out of his way to emphasis that religion wasn’t an inevitable cause of conflict, and describes in detail a number of religious clashes in the late 16th and early 17th centuries where rulers sought and achieved compromise and peace. Thus it’s true that a Protestant Union was set up in 1608 and a Catholic Liga in 1609, but by 1618 the Liga had been dissolved and the Union marginalised (p.239).

Religion – like other cultural differences – only becomes a problem if some people are determined to make it a problem, in either of two obvious ways, 1. as a cynical tool to gain advantage or power 2. because the trouble-makers genuinely believe that theirs is the Only Religion, and that their opponents are infidels, heretics, the Devil’s spawn etc.

Some leaders and some states were determined to use religion as a tool, namely the Protestant ruling class of the Palatinate, a fragmented territory in central and west Germany. For zealots like these the election of the devoutly Catholic Ferdinand II presented a threat.

But the Important Point to grasp is that, although all the successive Emperors were devout Catholics, they also had a good grasp of Realpolitik and so realised that they had to find peaceful accommodations and practice toleration for all their citizens. The emperors tried to hold the ring and contain and limit religious conflicts wherever they arose.

Another flaw with the argument that it was a religious war, is the fact that both ‘sides’ – the Catholic and Protestant ‘sides’ – were deeply divided among themselves, something Wilson explores in great detail (chapter 7), not only among themselves (there was a big gap between Lutherans and Calvinists), but also with their foreign sponsors or backers, e.g. Catholic Spain was at odds with Catholic France who, in 1635 went directly to war with the Catholic Emperor.

Thus Wilson opposes historians who see the war as an ‘inevitable’ result of the religious divide which ran through the Empire. He gives much more importance to the prolonged uncertainty about the Imperial Succession i.e. the Brother’s Quarrel, which pitted the ailing Rudolph against his likely successor Matthias (p.255 ff). In this prolonged struggle both sides conspired to weaken the other which, of course, merely weakened the Habsburg Dynasty as a whole, and handed more power to the Parliaments and Estates and other constitutional bodies which ran the Empire’s numerous constituent states, from big kingdoms like Bohemia and Hungary, through large German states like Saxony and Bavaria, down to the tiniest principalities.

Wilson sees the real cause of the war more in the wish of the states to consolidate the power they had wrested from a weakened Habsburg administration and, if possible, to opportunistically extend it.

Events leading up to the Thirty Years War

Having described this complicated situation in great detail, Wilson then describes a series of events which didn’t cause the war, but help to explain the attitudes and policies of the key players when the war broke out, including such little-known incidents as:

  • The Bocskai Revolt 1604-6
  • The Donauwörth Incident 1606
  • The Jülich-Cleves crisis 1609-10
  • The Uskok War 1615-17

There are others and with each one, I realised a) the complexity of European politics in the 17th century b) that I know nothing about it.

The defenestration of Prague 1618

The elite of upper-class Bohemian nobles (just to explain that Bohemia was for centuries the name of the territory which, in the 20th century, was renamed Czechoslovakia and then the Czech Republic) felt aggrieved by Imperial decisions and appointments. A small number of conspirators decided to take direct action and one evening stormed the castle in Prague and three a couple of Imperial representatives (and their servant) out the window of their state apartment and into the moat.

However the three men did not die, but limped away, were hidden and made good their escapes. This was a bad omen, for the rising of the Protestant Bohemian nobility which the conspirators were aiming for wasn’t as whole-hearted as they wishes and, although some of the Empire’s Protestant states joined their rebellion (Saxony and the Palatinate) most didn’t, wisely waiting the outcome of events.

Briefly, after two years of battles and skirmishes across Bohemia and beyond, the Bohemian rebellion was crushed at the decisive Battle of the White Mountain in November 1620 and Prague was occupied by Imperial forces.

However, the rebellious Protestant provinces of central Germany still had to be brought to heel and this took three more years. And that process was only just being wound up when King Christian of Denmark decided to invade, so inaugurating the second of the four main phases of the war listed above.

I don’t have anything like the time or space or energy to even summarise what happened next. For a detailed account read the Wikipedia article.

The Edict of Restitution 1629

So the really key turning points are:

  • 1618 start of the Bohemian rebellion
  • 1620 The Battle of the White Mountain, where the initial Bohemian rebellion was crushed
  • 1625 The entrance of Denmark under King Christian IV into the war
  • 1630 the entrance of Sweden under King Gustavus Adolphus

But there’s another one – the passage of the Edict of Restitution in 1629. Having defeated Denmark’s forces, the Emperor Ferdinand II felt in a strong enough position to impose the Edict of Restitution. This attempted to turn back all the changes in ownership of religious land and property which had taken place since the 1555 Peace of Augsburg. In the intervening years there had been a steady flow of archbishopric, churches, monasteries (‘the secularised archbishoprics of Bremen and Magdeburg, 12 bishoprics and over 100 religious houses’) which had been expropriated by Protestant princes and rulers. The Edict attempted to reverse all these changes.

The result in 1629 and 1630 was a great transfer of power and property away from the Protestants to the Catholics. Thousands of Protestants had to leave places they’d lived in for generations and flee to Protestant territory.

The Edict applied especially to north-eastern Germany where the Emperor’s writ had been weak for a century. Ferdinand appointed Imperial administrators to take over the secularised states and cities in a bid to re-establish Imperial authority in areas where his control had become weaker.

Apart from alienating a lot of Protestant opinion, the Edict had two consequences. In 1630 Frederick had to call a meeting of Electors to have his son, also named Ferdinand, elected King of the Romans i.e. emperor in waiting.

However, some of the Protestant Electors stayed away from the meeting in protest at the Edict and others demanded, in exchange for supporting his son, that the Emperor sack his hugely successful but contentious general, Wallenstein. Reluctantly, Ferdinand did so, a victory for the dissident Electors and Protestant faction – and evidence for Wilson’s central thesis, that the war was more tied up with the complexity of the Imperial constitution and Imperial power than with religion per se, i.e. the Emperor could never just do what he wanted, but always had to work through the Reichstag, the Electors, the Estates and so on, in an ever-changing web of complicated negotiations.

Anyway, the second result was that the Edict provided the figleaf the king of Sweden, Gustavus Adolphus, needed for undertaking his invasion of north Germany.

The role of Sweden

As a newcomer to this vast and tortuous history, it’s hard to avoid the fairly simple conclusion that most of the war was Sweden’s fault. The Bohemians, the Danes and many of the Protestant states had been fought to a standstill by 1630, and the war could have been ended. Gustavus Adolphus’s invasion of north Germany meant that the war continued for another eighteen years – and, from what I understand, it was these later years which were by far the most destructive.

So the entry-level questions, for me, are: 1. why did Gustavus invade, and 2. – more importantly – why did the Swedes stay on in Germany for sixteen years after Adolphus died in battle in November 1632?

There appear to be three answers to question 1. Because Gustavus saw the chaos in north Germany as a) an opportunity to seize territory there and b) to consolidate Swedish control of the Baltic (against rivals Poland and Russia). And c) he and his chancellor, Axel Oxenstierna, presented themselves as ‘Champions of Protestantism’, rescuing the Protestant German states threatened by the Emperor’s Edict of Restitution (cynically or sincerely, who can say?).

So much for question 1. But it seems to me that the biggest question about the whole war is: Why did the Swedes stay on for a further 16 years, causing epic destruction and ruination across vast swathes of central Europe? The war caused devastation across all central Europe, but the Swedish armies alone may have destroyed up to 2,000 castles, 18,000 villages, and 1,500 towns in Germany, one-third of all German towns! They presented themselves as the champions of the Protestant cause, but in the final months before peace, the Swedes attacked and pillaged the area around Protestant Prague. Surely they weren’t ‘saviours’ but great destroyers?

(Wilson confirms my two-part interpretation on page 719, where he explains that, from Ferdinand’s point of view, the war fell into two parts – 1. the initial Bohemian rebellion which triggered revolts among various other Protestant rulers in Germany (namely the Palatinate and Saxony) and which was finally concluded with the Peace of Lübeck and the Restitution Edict); and 2. the Swedish part, by far the longest and most ruinous part.)

Historical events alongside the Thirty Years War

Eighty years war Throughout the duration of the war, Spain was at war with the rebellious northern provinces of the Netherlands, although both sides managed to keep their conflict from the German war going on next door, even if there were localised incursions or aid, specially from the Protestant Dutch to some of the Protestant states.

British civil wars In 1639, rebellion by Presbyterian Scots led to the First Bishops War, which triggered the descent of Britain into what is variously called the British Civil Wars or the Wars of Three Kingdoms (or the Great Rebellion by contemporary Royalists). It is fascinating to learn that irritation at Charles I’s support for the Emperor led Sweden to send arms and some officers to support the Scottish rebellion. (And also to learn that so many Scots served in the Swedish army, sometimes for decades, and had built up a wealth of practical knowledge of modern warfare. Meaning that, when in 1639 they returned to their homeland they were able to help Scotland thrash England in both Bishops’ Wars, 1639 and 1640).

I was also fascinated to read about two rebellions Spain faced, which added to her long-running war with the Dutch and the conflict with France. These were the rebellions of Portugal and Catalonia.

Portugal The Portuguese rebelled in 1640, in what became known as the Portuguese Restoration War and lasted until 1668, eventually bringing an end to the union of the Spanish and Portuguese crown (the Iberian Union) and establishing the House of Braganza as Portugal’s new ruling dynasty, replacing the Spanish Habsburg who had ruled the country since 1581. It was a member of this ruling dynasty, Catherine of Braganza, who Charles II of Britain married in 1662, soon after his restoration, thus acquiring the territory of Tangiers, not much money, and a wife who proved incapable of bearing an heir, thus indirectly triggering the eventual overthrow of the Stuart dynasty.

Catalonia The Reapers’ War Catalan revolt sprang up spontaneously in May 1640, leading King Philip IV sent an army to suppress it, which sacked several Catalan towns before being defeated outside Barcelona. The French seized the opportunity to take the country of Roussillon from the Spanish and sent arms and soldiers to help the Catalans in exchange for which the Catalans half-heartedly accepted the French king Louis XIII as King of Catalonia. The rebellion dragged on until 1659 when it was wound up as part of the wider peace settlement between Spain and France (the Peace of the Pyrenees).

Brazil A small but fascinating sidelight is Wilson’s detailed account of the rivalry between the Dutch and the Portuguese in Brazil. Basically the Dutch in the 1630s confidently seized a lot of Portugal’s colonial holdings, but Portugal fought back, retaking most of the colony, leaving the Dutch to concentrate on their new colonies in the East Indies.

The Peace of Westphalia

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Thirty Year War was its conclusion, and the long peace conference which led up to the Treaty of Westphalia. Wilson makes the – to me – fascinating point that the peace conference invented the model of international negotiation which was consciously copied at all complex European peace negotiations ever since, at Utrecht in 1714, the Congress of Vienna in 1815, at the Versailles Conference in 1918-19 and which underpins the modern system reflected in the United Nations.

Early modern society was utterly drenched in the notion of hierarchy, starting with God at the top and moving down though his Son, to the angels, to the created world which had Christian kings at the top and their aristocrats, sharing top billing with the Pope and the top notables of the church on one wing, before finally reaching the urban bourgeoisie, and so on down to the peasants, squatting at the bottom. Then the animals.

In this hierarchical view, various nations of Europe fiercely competed to be Top Dog, which in their world meant being the Most Christian nation. It was a status claimed by Spain whose monarchs, after Ferdinand and Isabella had expelled the last Arabs in 1492, thus winning the title of Their Most Catholic Majesties – but also claimed by the Holy Roman Emperor who thought of himself as the Protector of all Christendom – while French kings tried to dignify themselves as the Arbiters of Christendom, and so on.

Certainly, there were lots of flunkeys and carriages and servants and grand display at the peace conference venues in the two Westphalian cities of Osnabrück and Münster. And yet, when it came down to negotiating, the various powers (chief among them the Emperor, Spain, France and Sweden, but also the Electors and other key German princes) were forced to acknowledge the interests and concerns of each other as free and independent entities.

In other words, through the long course of the negotiations (which began in 1643, and so lasted some five years) the conflicting parties were forced to abandon the Early Modern theory of Hierarchy, and adopt what we think of as the Modern Theory, that all nation states are free and independent, have absolute rights and interests and must be negotiated with as individuals.

The positive interpretation of Westphalia regards it as the birth of the modern international order based on sovereign states interacting (formally) as equals within a common secularised legal framework, regardless of size, power or internal configuration. (p.754)

The Emperor could no longer intimidate his dependent states with fine words and a big crown, but had to address their anxieties and requirements.

The final deal consisted of two treaties: the Peace of Osnabrück in which the Emperor settled all issues with Sweden and the states within the Empire, and the Peace of Münster, which settled outstanding issues with France, although carefully excluding the duchy of Lorraine which remained occupied by French troops (p.747).

Devastation and disease

The Thirty Years War became a byword for savagery and brutality even while it was going on. Contemporary accounts emphasised the burning and looting, raping and casual murders which infested the territory, and many artists captured this in disturbing visual form, such as the contemporary engravings of Jacques Callot.

Pillaging a house, plate 5 from the engraving series The Miseries and Misfortunes of War by Jacques Callot (1633)

(Other artists who documented the atrocities of war include Valentin Wagner, Rudolf Meyer and Pieter Snayers.)

But as you might expect, Wilson takes a sophisticatedly revisionist attitude to this as to every other aspect of the war. He labels the view that the war was an unmitigated catastrophe the ‘Disastrous War’ school of thinking, pointing out that different regions had widely differing experiences, which also varied over time. He takes a long cold look at the figures, pointing out all kinds of problems with contemporary records and definitions (for example ’cause of death’).

Nonetheless, it is clear that some regions of Germany saw a loss of 50% or more of their populations. There is agreement that some areas didn’t see a return to their 1618 population figures until 1710 or 1720 (p.795).

It used to be said that around a third of the total population of the Empire perished, but more recent figures revise this down. Still, to put it in context, Wilson points out that the Soviet Union is widely seen to have suffered extraordinary levels of death and devastation as a result of the 1942 Nazi invasion – yet fewer than 12% of the population perished. So even a ‘low’ estimate of 15% of the Empire perishing implies spectacular destruction.

But for me the standout insight is the usual one about almost any war, even into modern times:

Disease proved more potent than muskets, swords and cannon. (p.790)

And again:

The pattern of civilian deaths conforms the general picture of military casualties. Disease was the main killer. (p.792)

Human societies are very fragile things, often only just about able to provide food, clean water and sewage facilities for their existing populations. The second you start a war, and start displacing people, you interrupt the growth, harvesting and distribution of food and deprive people of clean water and sewage facilities. Within days populations begin to starve and become prey to waterborne diseases like typhoid and dysentery.

Human efforts are feeble compared to the forces of nature which are poised all around to massacre us as soon as we let our highly organised but fragile defences slip. This felt like a slightly eccentric minority view till the spring of this year. Hopefully now everyone can agree with it.

Anyway, the usual diseases of war (typhoid, dysentery) were compounded by plague, still a common disease and one which ravaged specific areas. Beyond the bounds of the war, large parts of Italy were decimated by plague in the 17th century, but troops of dirty soldiers traipsing all across the Empire brought it too, and some areas of Germany were laid low. As a tiny example, Wilson describes the town of Ingelfingen where 241 people died in 1634, of whom precisely 7 died during its violent capture but 163 died of plague. 20 times as many.

Although, even here, Wilson is cautious and careful, making the good point that a large number of these people might have died anyway, because plague recurred at ten-year periods throughout Europe. How many died of illnesses they would have got anyway, and how many died because the privations of living in a warzone made them susceptible? Contemporary records are not sophisticated to let us calculate.

Summary

I found this a very hard book to read.

Long

Partly because it’s long, very long – very, very long – and very detailed, so it is easy to put down, then pick up again and have completely forgotten where you were and who Maximilian, Frederick or the Elector Georg are, or which precise part of Germany their armies are tramping over and where they’re headed and why.

Writing about war requires special skills

Eventually I came to realise that Wilson doesn’t write about war very well. Max Hastings or Anthony Beevor manage the brilliant trick of giving a full and clear explanation of the high-level reasons for a war and the strategic changes and developments which develop as a result, alongside brutal eye-witness accounts which convey the fury and horror of individual battles. They clearly signpost key moments, key personalities and key decisions so that they stand out amid the endless sequence of events.

Not enough signposting of key events

Reluctantly, I came to the conclusion that Wilson can do neither. On page after page I found myself lost or confused as I read that Georg marched east to take the three main towns of Upper Saxony while Tilly was heading west to join up with the forces of Wallenstein who had recently seized the imperial cities of x, y and z. There are literally hundreds and hundreds of pages made up of prose like this.

The truce allowed Oxenstierna to move Lennart Tortensson and 9,700 men from Prussia. These troops began arriving in Pomerania in late October 1635 along with a morale-boosting delivery of new clothes for Banér’s ragged army. Tortennson’s units surprised Marazzino, prompting Johann Georg to fall back to protect Berlin in December, while Banér retook Werben and relieved Magdeburg in January 1636. The unpaid, hungry Saxons retreated to Halle. (p.578)

Maybe I’m dim, but by the end of that sentence I was thoroughly confused, and there are hundreds and hundreds of pages just like it.

Ferdinand regarded the third army of the Guelphs as already lost. He formally enfeoffed the elector of Cologne with Hildesheim on 22 August, and authorised Hatzfeldt to enforce this in October and compel the Guelph troops to join the imperial army. Piccolomini had already moved his 15,000 men from Luxembourg in September to assist. Duke Georg responded by tightening his mutual defence pact with Hessen-Kassel on 9 November, while Melander broke the Hessian truce to capture Bielenfeld. (p.617)

All these endless troop movements eventually blurred into one, and I lost any sense of why they were important, who their leaders were and where any of these places were. At first I thought it was me, but eventually concluded it is Wilson.

Suddenly out of the blue he’ll mention that all this marching has led up to one of the key battles of the war or marked some decisive turn — but there isn’t nearly enough scene-setting or signposting in the text. He doesn’t prepare us for the Big Events well enough, and then doesn’t bring out their consequences fully enough. I began to drown in the endless tide of detail.

When I did an apprenticeship in journalism, years ago, this was called ‘burying the lead’. If something Big happens you make sure it is flagged up with a headline and a clear statement of the main event at the top of the copy. The headline and the opening sentence grab you and convey the key information.

The most glaring example of Wilson’s failure to think or write dramatically is the following. The Emperor Ferdinand II was the leading figure of the war from his accession in 1619. He is mentioned on every page, it is he who makes key decisions large and small, appoints generals, sets strategy and negotiates with other states and rulers. Ferdinand is the dominating figure of the narrative and the war. And yet his death only casually mentioned in parentheses on page 586.

Archduke Ferdinand was duly elected as King of the Romans on 22 December 1636 (just in time, because his father died a month after the congress closed).

That’s it, that’s all you get on the passing of this gigantic figure, and then the tide of details flows on as if nothing had happened. There is no build-up, no lead-up to this signal event – not even any explanation what Ferdinand died from, no mention of a funeral, no summary of what he had achieved during his reign. It’s a quite astonishing dereliction of the historian’s responsibility to explain.

Same happens with two other massive figures, Cardinal Richelieu of France and the French King Louis XIII, whose deaths in 1642 are briefly mentioned in the same sentence before the text moves briskly on with no mention anywhere of their importance, what their goals were and whether they achieved them, their responsibility in the war. Nothing.

It is a staggeringly cavalier attitude, and a prime example of the way Wilson is not writing history in a way designed to engage you with individuals and personalities, to make the story exciting or gripping, but with other aims in mind.

Wilson’s revisionist intentions Part of the reason for this lack of good storytelling is that Wilson is more of an academic writer than Hastings or Beevor. You feel he is not setting down the welter of details in order to tell a good story, but because Wilson wants to make academic points. You begin to realise his primary motivation is overturning ‘traditional interpretations and asserting his revisionist account.

And you begin to recognise the moments when he does this as they all follow a similar template or formula – he writes that so-and-so event is usually interpreted as meaning x, but that he is going to reinterprets it as meaning y.

The general conclusion is that Wallenstein represented the last of the condottiere, or great mercenary captains who emerged in the Italian Renaissance. Such figures are thought to represent a transition in historical development as expedients employed by states until governments were capable of organising armies themselves. This is misleading. (p.542)

Or:

The war is customarily portrayed as entering its most destructive and meaningless phase after 1640, as it allegedly descended into ‘universal, anarchic and self-perpetuating violence.’ The development is often attributed to the deaths of the ‘great captains’ like Gustavus, Wallenstein and Bernhard, and is associated with the supposed internationalisation of the war… Much of this is a myth. (p.622)

In other words, for Wilson the text doesn’t exist as a dramatic story studded with key moments which represent massive historical and cultural turning points (like the Czech defeat at the Battle of the White Mountain or the death in battle of Gustavus Adolphus or the murder of the legendary Imperial general Wallenstein). These highly dramatic moments are almost peripheral to his real concern which is to take on the received ideas and interpretations of previous historians and to give key moments his own interpretation.

Thus in chapter 21, towards the end of the book, Wilson goes to great lengths to proves that, far from leaving the Empire a ‘hollow shell’, as many, especially 19th century critics of the treaty claimed, it in fact rejuvenated the Empire,

injected new life into its constitution and strengthened its political culture. (p.778)

But there’s another problem with this approach, beyond making the book lack narrative drive and consistently failing to signpost key moments so that the book ends up feeling like one damned thing after another for 850 pages of dense and detailed text.

This problem is that, to really get the most out of his new takes on old issues – to really understand how Wilson is upending traditional interpretations and giving new readings and slants on well-known events, people or policies – you have to know what the traditional interpretations are.

You have to have a good grasp on how historians have traditionally interpreted, say, Wallenstein’s character or Gustavus Adolphus’s motives, in order to really appreciate how Wilson is giving them a new interpretation, but the feeling that this would help your understanding of what Wilson is trying to do adds to the levels of complexity and slight anxiety I experienced reading his book.

This is, quite simply, asking too much of the average reader – that they should have a detailed enough knowledge of the traditional picture of the Thirty Years War in order to appreciate Wilson’s innovations and new readings.

Wilson’s interest in the finances of the war Just a mention that Wilson’s book is very, very thorough about the financial aspects of the war. He devotes a great deal of space to the ongoing financial tribulations of the Emperor, and the kings of Spain, France, Denmark and Sweden. He explains how they all had to borrow to finance the war, and then were reduced to various extreme expedients, raising taxes, extorting money from conquered territories, looting gold and silver, squeezing Jewish financiers, a whole range of desperate measures, to pay the money back, and often never did.

Towards the end of the book he has a fascinating passage about the so-called ‘Kipper and Wipper’ hyperinflation which afflicted the Empire as states debased their currencies to pay for the exorbitant costs of war, which itself mostly meant paying the wages of the huge numbers of mercenary troops employed by both sides (pp.795-798).

Included in this theme is the fascinating fact, which I knew from other sources but still blows my mind, that although Spain was extracting huge amounts of silver from its mines in the New World (working to death slave labour populations of local Indians and then importing African slaves to carry out the work) it still managed to go bankrupt repeatedly throughout the later 16th and most of the 17th century. Basically, the Spanish Empire wasted all that treasure and more, on its stupid, futile wars, chief of which was trying to suppress the Protestant Dutch for 80 years. An epic example of historic futility.

Back with Wilson’s focus on finances, his summary of the Westphalia settlement includes a detailed consideration of the demobilisation of the troops of all sides stationed in garrisons, castles and cities all over the empire, and the cost of demobilisation. Peace treaties of the time usually included a so-called ‘satisfaction’ money i.e. money given by the loser to the victor to pay off his armies. Earlier in the book, Wilson explained the fascinating fact that it was often difficult to end local conflicts and even entire wars, because armies refused to be demobilised until they were paid.

This book contains an astonishing amount of information and shows an encyclopedic knowledge of the myriad of issues and subjects involved in the history of the period.

Lack of maps Finally, it is a scandal that an 850-page-long book about the most complicated conflict in European history has precisely one map. And quite early on I realised that many places mentioned in the text aren’t even on it. This made it difficult-to-impossible to understand page after page after page of the text which describes this army marching from x to y via the river z, and meeting up with the army of p near the town of m not far from the lake of c — if none of these places are indicated on the book’s one and only map.

Of course, you can try googling all these placenames and, sure enough, find the places on Google Maps (although sometimes the names have changed and it takes a while of checking and double checking to be sure you’ve got the right one). But of course Google Maps doesn’t show the way the territory looked in the 17th century, nor does it show you the route of the complicated army manoeuvres you’ve just read about, or where the armies camped or set up and fought, or anything that you really need to see in order to understand the text.

The complete impossibility of establishing where half the things Wilson was describing were taking place was another big reason why the text eventually became a blur of similar-sounding names and places which became impossible to keep track of.

Conclusion

This book is an awe-inspiring achievement. To have reviewed so much material, to have consulted so many sources, in so many languages, in so many libraries, and to have mastered the early modern history of almost all European countries, and not least the terrifying complexity of the Holy Roman Empire and the complex web of power structures whose failure helped to trigger the war – and then to set it all down into an enormous, lucid, calm, reasonable, well-judged and balanced account like this is an awesome, almost a supernatural achievement.

Nonetheless, my conclusion would be that you should only consider reading this book if you want a really, really, really detailed account of the minutiae of the Thirty Years War, complete with academic reassessments of received historical opinions, and stripped of almost all excitement, drama and interest.

For most normal people, reading the Wikipedia article about the war (and all the related conflicts and key figures) will be more than they’ll ever need to know.

Video

Here’s a video of Peter H. Wilson himself delivering a lecture about the war. The main thing that comes over in this lecture which isn’t obvious from his book, is his simple explanation of why the war lasted so long – which is that both the Dutch and the French wanted to prevent it ending – for if it ended, the Austrian Habsburgs would be in a position to fully support their Spanish cousins to finally defeat the Dutch rebels.

Obviously the Dutch didn’t want this to happen, but neither did the French who were worried about being surrounded by Habsburgs to the south, east and north – and so first the Dutch and then, increasingly, the French, subsidised first the Danish intervention, and then the longer-lasting Swedish invasion of the empire, and then finally, the French themselves became directly involved in the war in 1635.


Appendix: Where does the word ‘Protestant’ come from?

A ‘diet’ or imperial conference was convened at the city of Speyer, in Germany in 1529. Its aims were:

  1. organising the German states to deal with renewed Ottoman Turkish attacks in Hungary
  2. to settle the religious question

The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, himself a devout Catholic, was prepared to take a conciliatory approach to the Empire’s princes and dukes who had converted to the new ‘reformed’ religion of Martin Luther. But the diet was managed by his brother Ferdinand who took a harsher, non-negotiable line. He condemned all those princes who had interpreted a previous diet held at Speyer just three years earlier as allowing them to choose what religion was practiced in their states. No, they couldn’t, Ferdinand said. On the contrary, Ferdinand ordered that all states within the Empire must follow Catholicism, that all church reforms must be scrapped, and that any further reform was punishable by death. The Lutherans’ lives were to be spared, but more radical reformers like Zwinglians and Anabaptists were simply to be executed out of hand. Ferdinand and the Catholic rulers present – the majority – voted for these proposals.

The Lutheran members of the Diet (namely the rulers of Saxony, Brandenburg, Braunschweig-Luneburg, Hesse, Anhalt and the representatives of fourteen imperial cities) entered a formal protest against the decision and appealed to the Emperor Charles V (who had not attended the diet) to reverse its dictates.

Their protest against the harsh results of the second Diet of Speyer led to them becoming known as the protestors or the Protestants and the name became attached to all followers of reformed religion, whatever their precise thrology or practice.

In The Thirties by Edward Upward

Edward Upward

Edward Upward was born in 1903 to a middle class family in Birmingham. He went to prep school and then Repton public school and then ‘up’ to Cambridge, before going on to (try to) become a writer. These are all classic characteristics of members of the so-called ‘Auden Generation’ and, as it happens, Upward’s father was, like Auden’s, a doctor.

But Upward had a particularly close connection to the Auden Gang because at Repton he became good friends with Christopher Isherwood, later to be W.H. Auden’s collaborator, friend and sometime lover. At Cambridge, Upward and Isherwood invented an English village, Mortmere, which became the setting for various surreal, obscene and satirical stories. He was introduced to the great Wystan in 1927.

Upward was characteristic of the group in two other ways.

1. Teacher After leaving university he became a teacher (as did Auden and Isherwood) in 1926 and remained one till he retired in 1961. For 30 years he taught at Alleyn’s private school in Dulwich. Nowadays Alleyn’s annual fees are £21,000.

2. Communist Somehow Upward managed to reconcile teaching at private schools for the rich with being a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). He became a ‘probationary member’ in 1932, then a full member in 1934. From 1942 Upward and his wife, also a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, were investigated by MI5 for their communist activities. (MI5 should have been investigating those pillars of the establishment Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, Sir Anthony Blunt). It was only in 1948 that Upward quit the British Communist Party and that wasn’t in disgust at the show trials or the communist coup in Czechoslovakia, but because he thought it had gone soft and was becoming ‘reformist’, i.e. ceasing to be revolutionary and instead truckling to the post-war Labour government, then at the peak of its power.

Despite winning poetry prizes at Cambridge, publishing some poems and hanging round on the fringes of the literary world, Upward only managed to publish one novel in the 1930s, Journey to The Border, in 1938. This describes in poetic prose how a private tutor rebels against his employer and how this and the darkening international situation triggers a breakdown from which he only emerges when he realises he must throw in his lot with ‘the workers’. (Presumably by teaching at a fee-paying, exclusive private school for the wealthy.)

Then came the Second World War. Upward continued his teaching career but struggled to write anything. When he took a year’s sabbatical from teaching, in the 1950s, specifically to write his Great Novel, he found he couldn’t and suffered, like the fictional character of his first novel, an actual nervous breakdown. Only slowly did Upward work up a story about a posh private schoolboy who goes to Cambridge and tries to reconcile the conviction that he’s a writer (a poet; they’re always poets) with his commitment to the Communist Party of Great Britain.

A ‘story’ which is, in other words, completely autobiographical.

Slowly the idea turned into a trilogy which came to bear the overall name, The Spiral Ascent. In the second volume, Rotten Elements (1969) our hero terminates his membership of the Communist Party of Great Britain because he thinks it’s gone soft and ‘reformist’ (ring any bells?). In the final part, No Home But The Struggle (1977), the protagonist is reconciled to the new forms of radical politics of the 50s and 60s and joins the Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament.

In The Thirties, published in 1962, is the first volume of The Spiral Ascent and introduces us to its lead figure, would-be poet Alan Sebrill.

In The Thirties

The Penguin paperback edition I picked up in a second-hand bookshop is 237 pages long, so average novel length. It’s divided into 14 chapters. Its protagonist, Alan Sebrill, is supposed to be a young, aspiring poet. The title of this book leads you to expect that it might capture some of the youthful exuberance and heady excitement of those strange and threatening times and it certainly describes the idealism, naivety and gaucheness of youth.

Chapter 1

Chapter one is by far the longest at 40 or so pages. Having finished the book I can now see that Upward intends it as an introduction to his lead character and fills it with incidents designed to show how young, privileged, idealistic and naive he is.

It is the summer of 1931. (This isn’t explicitly stated, we deduce it from two pieces of evidence. 1. In chapter two a character says it’s nearly ten years since he took part in the great Hunger March of January 1922 [p.58], so just under ten years after Jan 1922 must be December 1931 at the latest. 2. Later on, the narrator tells us that the meeting where the character said yhat took place in October i.e. October 1931. Since the events in chapter 1 take place in the summer of the same year, we can deduce they take place in the summer of 1931.)

Young would-be poet Alan Sebrill has packed in his job as a teacher at a posh preparatory school and taken up the invitation of his friend, young would-be poet Richard, to come and stay with him on the Isle of Wight so he can complete his Great Long Poem. Richard moves Alan into a spare room in the boarding house he’s staying at, kept by a strict Miss Pollock.

They are innocent young chaps, full of banter and absurd idealism. They walk down to the beach and along the cliffs, playing with words and terms for the birds and geological strata and wave formations, convinced that their special feel for language and the acuteness of their perceptions will make them poets, great poets, place them among ‘the English poets’.

The doomed

Alan develops the idea that they are ‘doomed’ because they are so much more sensitive and alive and alert than ordinary people, and especially the hated ‘poshos’.

‘What makes people vile is being successful or comfortably off. That’s why most of the hotel visitors are so poisonous. They are the wicked, the devils. Only the doomed are good, and we must be on their side always.’ (p.20)

Richard likes it. It makes them both feel special.

The working classes

Richard is convinced he is ‘well in’ with the local working classes. He gets a drunk local lad, Basher, to show off his tattoos to Alan. How frightfully working class! Richard enjoys talking to ‘the working classes’ on the beach-front esplanade in a loud voice.

‘It surprised the stuck-up public school gang staying at the big hotel. I’ve realised lately that the time has arrived for me to show definitely that I’m against the plus-foured poshocracy, and for the cockneys and the lower orders.’ (p.8)

‘Poshocracy’? Richard and Alan both agree their poetry will contain plenty of ‘Marxian’ ideas although, when pushed, it turns out that all Marx means for Alan is that he was the great repudiator of the ‘upper-class mystique’ which dominated his ghastly prep school. Now he’s left the school Alan doesn’t find Marx so compelling any more.

Outsiders

Alan is on the short side, chronically shy, specially round girls. He feels like a misfit. He thinks writing poetry makes him special. He thinks it makes him different and better than the ‘poshocrats’ who dress for dinner up at the grand hotel. He tried reading Marx (Capital) but the reader can clearly see that he uses the German philosopher as a psychological prop to counter his excruciatingly self-conscious sense of inferiority around the effortlessly tall and stylish ‘poshos’, both at his former prep school, at the hotel on the island.

For example Alan and Richard see other young people dancing outside the pub they frequent, but Alan is too shy to approach any of the girls, despite fairly obvious encouragement.

After a week Richard abruptly announces he is leaving. Alan is at first upset that he is breaking up their poets’ conclave but Richard is bored of the island, is not writing anything, wants to go back to London. Well, when you have independent means you can be free and easy like that. (Later on we learn that Richard has left England to live abroad. Alright for some, p.197).

Alan’s Audenesque poetry

Alan stays on in Miss Pollock’s boarding house for weeks, squeezing out four or five lines of verse a day for his Great Poem. In the entire book we are shown only one couplet of Alan’s poetry and it reads like pure Auden. Here it is:

Central anguish felt
for goodness wasted at peripheral fault (p.12)

Note the use of classic Auden tricks like:

  • omitting the definite or indefinite article – ‘the’ or ‘a’ – where you’d expect them (in front of ‘central anguish’ or ‘goodness’, for example) in order to convey a more robotic/ominous meaning
  • technocratic diction – ‘central’, ‘peripheral’ – which somehow makes it feel part of a science fiction film or laboratory report
  • half-rhyme (‘felt/fault’) cf. Auden: ‘Fathers in sons may track/Their voices’ trick’

Peg

After Richard has left, Alan summons up the courage to talk to the red-haired girl who he’s noticed staring at him. She is far more experienced and forward than him. They talk and then dance (the foxtrot) to the band on the esplanade at the bar/pub/restaurant on the beach. She’s called Peg and rather surprisingly tells him she has a fiancé up in London, but this is a holiday romance so it won’t count. She discovers Alan’s middle name is Thorwald, and playfully introduces him to her two friends as the poet Count Thorwald. Playful undergraduate stuff.

Peg invites him for tea at her aunt’s house where she’s staying. The aunt is eccentric. Confident Peg tells the disconcerted Alan that that night she’ll leave the scullery window into the house unlocked (the aunt firmly locks all the other windows and doors). So a lot later that night, Alan has to go through the rather degrading experience of sneaking down the lane to her house, shimmying up the wall and squeezing through the narrow window, stepping into scullery sink and elaborately down onto the floor then tiptoeing through the house up to her bedroom.

Sex in the Thirties

Eventually they arrive on her bed where, to the modern reader’s bemusement, they lie side by side ‘for a very long time’ (p.27) chatting. Really? Eventually they turn towards each other and embrace but then lie in this position ‘for almost as long’. Alan postpones any movement at all as it would have seemed like ‘an affront to her, an impudence, a crudity’ (p.27). The very next sentence is: ‘After the climax they stayed awake talking about what they would do next day.’

Sex is strange – an odd, uncanny, disruption of everyday life and manners and conventions. Reading about anybody else’s sex life is almost always disconcerting. But the oddness of Alan and Peg’s behaviour makes you think: is this really how our great-grandparents thought and behaved, with this odd combination of knowingness and timidity?

Is the scene here to indicate just how young and timid and shy and inexperienced Alan is? Why does it jump from them lying completely still to ‘after the climax’? Was it the Censorship – remember Ulysses and a number of D.H. Lawrence novels had been banned for their sexual content? Maybe the very strict rules about depicting sexual activity meant novels were allowed to tell you all about the before and the after but all descriptions of the thing itself were simply removed?

Or is it me? Are my expectations of sexual behaviour thoroughly debauched from watching thousands of movies and pop videos in which scantily-clad dolly birds adopt a series of stylised and stereotyped poses and positions – and I’ve come to think that that’s what sex is or should be? That I’ve lost touch with a world before TV, movies and pop videos, magazines and advertising saturated us with fixed ideas about what sex, or behaviour around sex, should be?

Is this scene a) incomprehensibly innocent and dated or b) a fairly accurate description of some people’s often clumsy and embarrassed experience of sex?

The oddity of the scene suggests how books like this have at least two values over and above any literary ones:

  1. as social history, to show us how our grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents thought and felt.
  2. by doing so, to broaden our horizons about what human behaviour and feeling can be. To show us that we’re not trapped in an Instagram / Tinder / ‘hot priest’ world, where each new TV series tries to outdo its predecessors in sexual frankness and explicitness. That we can escape from the crushing conformities of the modern world.

Just a thought.

Peg leaves

Anyway, after whatever it is that happens that night, things go awry. He is initially elated and wants Peg to become his beloved, but she continues prattling on about her fiancé in London (John) and casually mentioning that even after she’s married she intends to have lots of lovers. Deflated, he stumbles back out of her bedroom, down the stairs. He can’t be bothered to go through the fol-de-rol of climbing out the scullery window and just unlocks the backdoor and walks out. Stuff the security-minded aunt.

Next day they meet on the beach and their relationship deteriorates further. Alan presses his love and Peg is increasingly distanced and detached and then announces she’s going back to London earlier than expected. He wants to take her in his arms but is convinced she will rebuff her. But he can see that she still has feelings for him. Cross-purposes. Later that day she catches the coach for London, he doesn’t bother to see her off.

The struggle to write continues

Abruptly Alan decides romanticism is the enemy. He must be hard, forget all about Peg. For the next fortnight he struggles with the Long Poem, writing a handful of lines each morning. Then he realises it is all wrong because it’s based on this notion of the ‘doomed’, sensitive young men. No no no. Start again. He wakes up one fine morning and decides he is going to throw all that sentimentalism out and write a Great Marxist Poem. Right. Now. Sit down. Get blank sheet of paper. Pen in hand. Er…

God, this is hopeless. He looks in the mirror and sees himself for what he is:

It was the face, he thought, of a self-fancying spoilt darling, of the overvalues don from a bourgeois family who had been unreasonably expected and had himself expected to do something exceptional, to be different from the common crowd, to be a great poet, a genius, whereas the truth very probably was that he had no talent at all, that he was a pampered young or no longer quite so young shirker who considered himself too good for the kind of everyday job in which he might perhaps have been of some slight use to the community. (p.34)

But even here, there is a big difference between looking in a mirror and, in a sentimentally depressed kind of way, confronting yourself (or a rather dramatised version of yourself), a big difference between doing that – and actually going out and getting a useful everyday job.

Suicidal thoughts

Alan melodramatically concludes that his life is a failure and decides to walk to the nearest cliff and throw himself off. But he is so entranced with the soulful beauty of the idea that without even realising it, he walks out the boarding house, under the hawthorn arch, into the lane and in the opposite direction from the clifftops, walking in a dream up to Peg’s aunt’s house before he realises it. He moons around looking through her bedroom window, hoping against hope that she is still there, but she isn’t.

Then Alan does find himself walking up to the cliffs, looking out over the scintillating sea, thinking about jumping off and realising it’s impossible, it’s hopeless, he’ll always be this miserable unless he makes some seismic change, finds some kind of ‘way of escape’.

(That phrase prefigures Graham Greene’s use of it for the second volume of his autobiography, Ways of Escape, published in 1980. They had all the advantages life could give them, these young men of the 1930s, but they still managed to be desperately unhappy.)

As he stands on the cliff Alan thinks maybe he should join the church, become a vicar, yes, ‘In his will is our peace’. He spies the Congregationalist church down in the village and remembers visiting the Congregationalist chapel of his grandparents. Hmm. It was quite grim. Maybe something more ornate. Maybe Catholicism. Great poets had been or had converted to Catholicism, it was meant to be easy once you’d made the initial leap of faith.

Or what about Marxism? Yes it was on the side of the ‘doomed’, against the hated ‘poshocrats’, maybe it would help him to write his poetry.

Communism was the only force in the world which was uncompromisingly on the side of the doomed and against those who wanted to keep them doomed. It was the enemy of his enemies: it aimed at the overthrow of a society which was dominated by poshocrats and public-school snobs and which had no use for the living poets. It demanded that its converts should believe not in the supernatural nor in anti-scientific myths but in man. If he joined the Communist Party he might be able to write poetry again (p.43)

Summary

All this happens in just one chapter, the first 40 pages or so, the first eighth of this 240-page-long book.

I initially found its upper-middle-class locutions and earnestness (‘Oh super idea, Richard!’) silly and off-putting. But if you bear with it, then my experience was that the story slowly grows on you and turns into an engaging portrait of a naive, confused young man.

Upward is a patient and very detailed chronicler – he describes in detail the appearance of a room, its furniture, and curtains and mirrors – and in the same meticulous way describes dialogue, people’s appearances and precisely how Alan feels at every moment, how his feelings are swayed and buffeted by trivial incidents. It’s a key quality of Upward’s mind and approach which he attributes to his alter ego in the narrative.

In revulsion from the platitude he tried to be more precise (p.161)

Once I got past Alan and Richard’s naive poshness I realised that most sensitive, bookish, young people have probably had one or more of these experiences, and began to respect and enjoy the precision with which Upward depicts them.

The rest of the plot

Chapter 2

It is the end of October 1931 (p.46). Alan has come down to London for an interview to work as a teacher. The chapter opens as he travels by tram to an office of the Communist Party. He’s scared to go in, thinking they’ll despise him.

They would be intelligent, politically experienced people who would see him as he was; yes, and who would see through him, would guess the self-regarding quasi-religious motives, the sickly wish for his own salvation, which had brought him to them. (p.46)

In the event it’s a shabby room with some people preparing leaflets, others hanging around. The apparent leader Ron Spalding takes pity on the shy young man, says they need more posh people to help them, and suggests he goes out leafleting with a couple of the comrades, young Elsie Hutchinson and Wally Ainsworth (p.53). An election is coming up and they’re leafleting for the local communist candidate, Joey Pearson.

With chapter 2 the book immediately gets more grip and drive. The reality of the shabby hall is described with Upward’s trademark attention to detail, as are the half dozen communists. What stiffens it, though, is that right from the start the characters discuss the current economic and political situation in concrete terms, the number of unemployed, the reality of unemployment benefit, recent bills and votes in Parliament – and combine this with the sweeping generalisations about the crisis of capitalism which they have learned about in Engels and Marx. Out leafleting with Wally the pair discuss Feuerbach, Plekhanov, Lenin.

Leafleting complete, Alan says goodnight to Wally and walks away feeling elated.

He had found a place among people who wanted him and with whom, however inferior he might be to them in courage and in strength of will, he felt an affinity because they were members of the lower class to which he too, the would-be poet, in a sense belonged. He would do all he could to be worthy of them and of the great cause for which they were working. From now on he would be dedicated to the Revolution. (p.46)

Chapter 3

It is four months since his first contact with the party (p.86), so presumably January 1932. Alan has a teaching job at a boys school, Condell’s (‘‘It calls itself an Academy and likes to pose as a public school.’ p.60). He devotes a page (p.110) to describing in detail how much he despises its shameless aping of public school customs and terminology.

In part one of the chapter Alan has just plucked up the courage to pin a leaflet about a communist party meeting to the staff noticeboard. This is spotted by the Second Master, and triggers a fascinating debate between the two of them. It’s almost a dramatised version of a political pamphlet.

Alan says the crisis of capitalism is inevitable, as Marx predicted. The other teacher, Aldershaw, points out that Marx predicted the revolution would break out in the most advanced capitalist countries whereas in fact it occurred in by far the most backward, Russia. Alan counters that both Lenin and Stalin had written that Marx was indeed wrong about this and the revolution of necessity broke out in the weakest link of the capitalist system.

Aldershaw highlights another wrong prediction of Marx’s, that the proletariat would become steadily more impoverished until revolution became inevitable. Alan counters with mass unemployment. Aldershaw says modern young men have motorcars and the cinema and cigarettes and radios, a lifestyle his own parents couldn’t have dreamed of. Alan counters that malnutrition statistics show mothers and children aren’t getting enough to eat. Aldershaw counters that’s because most mothers are completely ignorant of the basics of diet and nutrition and send their kids with packed lunches full of buns and jam tarts.

Alan says society will never be free till all businesses are owned by the people. Aldershaw counters that lots of businesses are run by shareholders. Alan says workers will only be free when the state owns everything and Aldershaw lures him into asserting this is the case in the Soviet union.

Aldershaw says the Soviet Union is the worst place in the world to be a worker because if you make a wrong word of criticism about the system or Stalin you’ll be hauled off to a labour camp. Alan asserts that the camps are necessary because of reactionary and bourgeois elements who are trying to sabotage the worker’s paradise. Communists accept a temporary phase to dictatorship because it is a step on the path to a totally free and equal society. Aldershaw counters that no dictatorship ever willingly evolved into anything else. Dictators cling onto power until they’re overthrown.

Alan counters that dictatorships which oppress the Negro or try to keep women economically subservient to men deserve to be overthrown, but dictatorship in the name of communism i.e. creating a free society, can be justified.

Several points about this exchange.

  1. It is very well done. Upward really captures the way both men become steadily more infuriated that the other one isn’t seeing the obvious sense of his arguments.
  2. It suggests how schematic the entire novel is, how carefully constructed so that each episode contributes to the whole.
  3. It is striking how contemporary these arguments seem, especially about overcoming racism and women’s equality. They were written 50 years ago and put into the mouths of characters from 90 years ago, giving the reader the strong impression that some things never change.

In the second half of the chapter Alan, upset from this argument, tries and fails to keep discipline over his class. They obviously despise him and make a hissing noise as he approaches his classroom. He ends up shouting at them and giving detention to a particularly repellent spotty oik (Dibble) who answers back. Then subsides behind his desk feeling, as so often, like a complete failure.

Chapter 4

Description of a workers march on Trafalgar Square which starts in a street with warehouses, presumably in the East End. Alan learns to his surprise that Roy, the leader of their cell who greeted him so kindly on his first visit, has been arrested and is in gaol on charges of burglary – he and mates stole timber from a timber yard. He’s been expelled from the Party.

Upward pays attention to the detail of people’s appearance and behaviour, to what Alan sees and feels, as the disciplined march is blocked by a police cordon and he lets himself be led away through back streets to the Square by the tall and reckless comrade Bainton. When they get there Whitehall is cordoned off by mounted police and then a file of riot police move in with truncheons and start battering the workers, hitting many to the ground.

As the crowd disperses Alan gets a bus and notices comrade Elsie is on it. He is attracted to her again, goes and sits with her and tries to make conversation but she mostly upbraids him for failing to attend recent meetings.

Chapter 5

It is 18 months since Richard and Alan were at the seaside village (p.116), so presumably the autumn of 1932. Alan is called to see the headmaster of the school. While he waits for the appointed hour (9.30am, after Assembly) Alan looks out the window at the autumnal trees and experiences a characteristic series of thoughts about the squalid reality of being an educator upholding the corrupt capitalist system. He vows to become utterly mechanical in his tuition, an automaton, reserving his energy for working with ‘the Party’ in the evenings.

Unfortunately, the headmaster is pretty critical of the way Alan can’t seem to control or win the respect of his class. Alan is coming up to the end of his first year’s probation. The head doesn’t sack him, as he fears, but says he’ll have to toughen up. The boys need to be driven. And has he considered beating some of the offenders?

Alan zones out of the entire conversation, becoming absorbed in the reflection of the autumnal trees outside the window in the glass frontage of a bookcase, making first the books, then the trees come into focus. I don’t think I’ve ever read that experience, of completely zoning out of a conversation, be described in such minute detail. I am coming to appreciate that this is what Upward does very well. The real minutiae of experience.

For a while he fantasises that he can pack in teaching and go back to being a poet by the sea, and indeed he fantasises in great detail the experience of walking down to the sea and watching the scintillating waves. Then the headmaster’s voice brings him back to reality. No, he tried that and it was an abject failure. He finds himself saying ‘Yes Headmaster, yes I will strive to take your advice,’ rising as in a dream and leaving the room.

Only his devotion to the Party prevents him falling into bottomless misery and despair.

Chapter 6

The local communist party cell has been renting the upper floor of a coach-house. Alan arrives early for a meeting. We are introduced to the ten or so party members. Alan is hopelessly starry-eyed about them, convinced they know so much more about the ‘real’ world than the ghastly middle-class intellectuals he knew at university. Take Eddie Freans, Eddie works on building sites but in his spare time is a practical inventor. Alan is in awe of his true working class roots.

Eddie might have his moments of naiveté but about things that were really important he had a far better understanding than was to be found in the university-educated intellectual chatterers of whom Alan had met too many. For those, and for members of the middle class generally, Alan could never have the respect that he had for Eddie; and in spite of the things Alan had in common with them – education, accent, manners – he felt much closer to Eddie than to them. He was happier and more at home with Eddie, just as he was happier and more at home with the other comrades here… (p.127)

Turns out this is the meeting where the members vote whether to accept Alan as a member of the Communist Party, they do by a unanimous vote. He is asked why he wants to join, what motivated him to make contact with them in the first place. He had a little speech prepared:

He had intended to say that in the conditions of modern monopoly capitalism the independence of the middle class was being increasingly undermined and would soon cease to exist and that the only hope for individual members of his class was to go over to the side of the workers against the monopoly capitalists, and that therefore he had decided to contact the Party. (p.130)

This is actually how all the other members talk and might have gone down well. However, with typical clumsy scrupulosity, Alan realises that is too stereotyped and insincere, and the Party is all about truth! So he actually shares with them that his first motivation came when he was leading prayers in a class at a prep school where he was teaching and was disgusted that he, an atheist, was put in this position, and realised it was not just him, but millions put in false positions by the system, which needed to be completely overthrown. That was the moment he first realised he had to be a communist.

There’s an embarrassed silence, followed by nervous laughter and Alan realises, yet again, that he’s done something wrong. Then the meeting gets down to an extended discussion of the current economic and political situation, which is rammed full of Marxist analysis and Marxist rhetoric and Upward describes very carefully and precisely. Characteristically, Alan finds himself zoning out of the discussion and imagining the whole room being blown up in the coming war between fascists and communists so misses half the discussion.

Afterwards, they lock up the room and go their separate ways. Alan is walking part of the way with Elsie and manages to persuade her to go up a dark alley as a ‘short cut’, where he tries – extremely clumsily – to embrace her. Upward gives an excruciating account of what a tangle he gets his arms in as he attempts a smooch, ending up placing his cheek next to hers and then has a go at a fumble, cupping her breast in the summer dress and then, toe-curlingly, pinching what he thinks is her nipple but might just be a seam of the fabric. During this entire thing Elsie remains utterly silent and unresponsive. When Alan eventually gives up they resume walking to the end of the lane and Alan says a lame goodbye. Well, he blew that.

Communist Party members:

  • Elsie Hutchinson, ‘wore glasses, had a sullen-looking mouth, and whose fuzzy hair rising to a point above her forehead and jutting out sideways at her temples had the effect of a triangular frame.’ (p.53)
  • Jimmy Anders –
  • Willie Dean Ayres, head round as a ball (p.128)
  • Beatrix Farrell, Ayres’ wife, posh (p.128)
  • red-haired Jean Pritchet (Anders’ girls, p.128)
  • Mike Bainton, irreverent and a little insubordinate, he leads Alan away from the marchers blocked in the East End, and by side routes to the main meeting. In chapter 8 he is expelled from the party for his deviant views i.e. denouncing Stalin’s takeover of the
  • Wally Ainsworth, ‘a happy-faced man of about thirty-five, with sallowly chubby cheeks reminiscent of those squeezable rubber faces that used to be made as toys for children.’ (p.53)
  • Eddie Frearns, slim, thinfaced, works in a small workshop which makes lampshades (p.126)
  • Harry Temley, 22, thickset, works as a mechanic (p.125)
  • Jock Finlayson, branch secretary of the AEU (p.127)
  • Sam Cowan, trade unionist and orator (p.127)
  • Lily Pentelow, recently elected to an important position in the Co-op movement (p.128)

Chapter 7

Back at the school. In the playground some of the boys make the contemptuous pssssssing noise they seem to make whenever Alan appears. Infuriated, Alan pounces on the probable leader, Childers, and tells him to report to the Master’s room. He is going to cane him. The entire chapter rotates around this event. He has to borrow a cane off a master who is infinitely more confident and self-assured than Alan.

The boy is waiting outside the master’s room at the assigned time, Alan takes him into the room although it’s the other master who really sorts things out, arranges the desk so there’s enough swing room for the cane, and then stands at the door while Alan administers six of the best. Upward gives a very detailed description which makes you realise how difficult caning actually is to administer. You must be sure to hit the exact same spot on the buttocks six times in a row.

Afterwards the boy stands, says ‘Thank you, sir’, and leaves without a backward glance. Alan feels wretched.

Back in the staff room the report of what he’s done triggers a discussion among the other masters. Almost all of them vigorously approve, the boy Childers is a frequent offender. But their very enthusiasm suddenly prompts a vehement outburst from Alan condemning caning as primitive and barbaric. That throws cold water on everything. Once again Alan has displayed his uncanny knack of throwing away an advantage, of making himself the least popular person in the room.

Staff members:

  • The Head Master
  • Sidney Bantick the Head Master’s assistant, with his black jacket and striped city trousers (p.114)
  • Aldershaw – who Alan has the extended argument about Marxism with in chapter
  • Ampleforth – a very reserved man
  • Barnet, the only master who stands up for Alan, in fact expresses his own extreme disgust with capital punishment
  • Benson – ‘pale-faced and strongly built, moving with large strides, his big glasses calling attention to his pale eyes which had no expression in them.’ (p.145)
  • Brook – disciplinarian, assists at the caning
  • Buckle, ‘brown-eyed pale-faced and physically strong’ (p.180)
  • Gus Chiddingford, ‘rotund’ popular joker
  • Hefford, Head of English
  • Langton, ‘one of the Maths men’
  • Lexton, ‘a bumptious extroverted younger member of the staff who taught Classics’
  • Moberley, the Handicraft man
  • Railton, ‘very tall’, older than the others, tight skin over his skull but heavy eyelids (pp.186, 188)
  • Ransome, ‘a Classics man’

Chapter 8

A meeting of the CP is held and Ben Curtis attends, to judge Mike Bainton on charges of criticising the Soviet Union in public. He’s been overheard slandering the workers’ paradise while doing a holiday job on Bognor beach.

Bainton repeats his criticism to the members. In the Soviet Union congresses have been held less and less frequently. Now the USSR has signed a treaty of non-interference in each others’ affairs (November 1933) and joined the League of Nations (15 September 1934). Bainton sees this as selling out the international revolution and thus betraying the world’s working classes.

As so often, Upward shows us how Alan drifts off during this speech, visualising the early revolutionary workers, and the travails the workers’ paradise had been through.

Then other members stand up to denounce Bainton. He is immediately recognised as being a Trotskyite heretic, i.e. someone who continued to push for world revolution while the official line was the Soviet Union needed forst and foremost to survive in the capitalist world and therefore some compromises with capitalism and imperialism might be called for.

The members vote unanimously to expel Bainton, and he votes with them, though it’s impossible to tell whether he’s being ironic. When Elsie and Alan leave the meeting they cut Bainton, though both feel bad about it, and try to rationalise this snubbing of a man who had been a good friend till an hour earlier.

if the Party were to disappear from the world there would be no hope for humanity. The showing of kindness to a few deviationist human individuals could lead to disaster for human beings in general. At a time when decaying capitalism had taken the form of Fascism in Germany and Italy and was preparing for an all-destructive war, and when only the Soviet Union stood unequivocally for international peace, anyone who like Bainton spread propaganda against the Soviet Union was objectively helping Fascism and working to bring violent death to millions of men, women and children. He was a traitor not only to the Party but to humanity. (p.171)

Alan feels a sort of exultation because he has suppressed his natural fellow feeling for Bainton in a higher cause. By this point I am really admiring Upward’s unflinching honesty.

The same honesty he applies to part two of the chapter where Alan walks with Elsie who suddenly asks if she can come back to his flat. Alan’s heart skips a beat, this can only mean one thing and is a big surprise after his hideous fumblings up a back alley.

But once again it turns into a peculiar scene. Upward describes with mechanical clarity Alan’s shyness. She sits in the only armchair, he sits at the further edge of the divan, three quarters of a room away. They discuss a ramblers meeting she’s leading. Bursting with tension he eventually picks up a cushion and throws it at her, then bounds to her side and puts his hands on her cheeks stroking them, then has a hurried feel of her breasts in her vest, slips down into the cramped armchair as she squeezes up then slips his hand up her skirt and does something up there for ten minutes or so, during which her expression never changes, they don’t say a word, they don’t kiss.

Then he stops whatever he was doing (‘the activity of his hand’), she stands up, they kiss mechanically, she goes over to the mirror and adjusts her clothes and hair. Is that it? Watching her, he is overcome by repulsion from her, she is definitely from a lower class than him, with a rougher accent and manners. And then he feels disgust at himself for his petit-bourgeois mentality.

As usual, Alan demonstrates his gift a) behaving clumsily and b) making himself miserable.

Chapter 9

The chronology of the book is leaping ahead. Hitler has reoccupied the Rhineland (p.183).

Back at the school Alan has been given a gizmo to raise money for the ‘The Teachers’ Anti-War Movement. It is a battery with a power plug and lots of sockets. You pay 4d, put the plug in one of the sockets, if it lights up you get 1/6. He takes it to the games room for masters and is, predictably, confused and humiliated. Maybe Alan Sebrill is one of the great losers of English literature.

Alan tries to persuade them that Hitler reoccupying the Rhineland is just the first step. Next it will be Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland. (Was anyone that prescient in 1936? Easy enough to be from the vantage point of 1962.) All the masters in the games room ridicule him. They’ve nicknamed him ‘the Red Menace’ (p.150) or, more amusingly, ‘Rasputin’ (p.180).

There’s an extended description of four masters playing a game of snooker and all their posh banter which is quite funny, but which Upward recites with the attitude of a scientist examining specimens.

Afterwards one of the sceptical teachers gives the battery gizmo a go and loses half a crown to Alan. It’s typical of Alan that he doesn’t understand betting or odds.

He bumps into Barnet and has a conversation in which Barnet agrees with pretty much everything he says, especially the inevitability of a war, and Alan suggests he joins the Communist Party.

Chapter 10

It’s September (1936?). Alan is on the train from his parents’ house up to London. He and Elsie have arranged to be married but, typically, he has already said yes but backed out of it twice. He doesn’t really want to marry her, but sees it as his duty to marry a fellow party member. He also wants to overcome the class gap between them. When Elsie had come to visit, his parents had displayed ‘undisguised and snobbish disapproval of her’ and then, on the railway station platform he had spotted a public school friend, Tom Cumbers, with an unmistakably posh young woman, classy-looking, well dressed… and Alan had felt mortally ashamed of his rough girlfriend with her sometimes ‘pug-nosed’ appearance (p.201), turned his back to try and hide himself and her from the public schoolfriend and – cringingly – told her he couldn’t marry her.

He is a feeble twerp.

Yes, it is 1936 because as soon as he meets Elsie at the ticket barrier they start talking about the Spanish Civil War. For a moment Alan thinks he sees Jimmy Anders in the crowd, Jimmy is due to go off and fight in Spain any day now. His cousin had volunteered to drive an ambulance but has returned wounded (his right arm was amputated).

Elsie takes Alan by tube and bus to a street where new maisonettes are being built. She’s chosen one for them to live in once they’re married. She shows him round. It’s an interesting piece of social history. It’s clean but small and cramped. He looks out the window and sees a big cedar tree like the one at his parents’ spacious home in the country and all of a sudden is flooded with despair that his life has come down to this.

He turns on Elsie and says he can never live here. She is beginning to say she can find another place when he goes further and says he can never marry her. She is stunned. He knows he has to say something irrevocable, and so now says: ‘Oh Elsie, you are so ugly.’

The second he says it, he regrets it, and tries to take it back. Elsie is sensible. She simply says she is not ugly, and some of the men she’s gone out with have told her she’s very attractive. Now, seconds after trying to get out of it, Alan finds himself more determined than ever to marry her and live the life of a communist poet.

Chapter 11

Well, they appear to have reconciled because this chapter opens with Alan and Elsie sitting in armchairs opposite each other in their maisonette. They discuss a review in the New Statesman in which Robert Jordan complains that modern poetry is too obscure. This upsets Alan who seems to think of himself as a poet even though he doesn’t appear to write poetry and has never had anything published.

Wally Ainsworth arrives. They are scheduled to go to a meeting of the British Union of Fascists that evening. It is at least 1937 because the conversation references the coronation of George VI (12 May 1937). They set off for the meeting. Barnet questions a young lad why he’s selling the British Union of Fascist newspaper, Action. Because the Jews are ruining the country, the lad replies. Barnet reveals that he is a Jew and he is not ruining the country. The boy is confused.

The communist group continues to the meeting and Upward describes with characteristic precision the exact appearance of the hall, the look of the fascist stewards they have to pass, the look of other members of the audience.

Alan shares his reflections on the nature of fascism’s appeal to the petite bourgeoisie, shopkeepers, small businessmen, workshop owners, people who aspire to be part of the haute bourgeoisie, and ape its snobbery and pretensions but are economically insecure and thus anxious and thus desperate to blame someone (the Jews) and adulate whoever will save them (the Leader).

The  Leader appears and speechifies in respectful silence for 20 minutes before cranking up a gear and beginning to blame the Jews for everything. At this point Alan and the other communist party members stand and walk out. That’s all they intended to do – make a peaceful protest.

Barnet, the schoolteacher, who Upward had implied was Jewish in chapter 9, is delayed because he lays out leaflets saying ‘Smash Fascism before Fascism Smashes You’. For a moment stewards close in on him and you think there’s going to be a fight. But Alan stands his ground in front of Barnet and the threatening steward straightens up and lets them leave.

Elsie has told Alan she thinks she is pregnant.

Chapter 12

Elsie’s baby is nearly due so it must be eight months later. The chapter opens with Alan plunged in real misery, about his job, the baby, the coming war, the triumph of fascism, his non-existent poetic career. The future seems like a tidal wave of slime heading for him, for everyone. He doesn’t want to wake up. He doesn’t want to go to work.

He casts his mind back to a few days earlier when there was a knock at the front door of the maisonette. It was Holyman, an old boy from the school come to show them how to put on gas masks. They were talking about Chamberlain and Czechoslovakia so it must be the autumn of 1938. Holyman shows them how to put on the gas mask and explains how babies will be placed inside gas insulators. Elsie is querulous. When Holyman leaves she bursts into tears of unhappiness and wishes she’d never got pregnant.

Now back to the present as they both wake up together. She is heavily pregnant. He has fantasies about dressing, walking to the station but going on straight past it, to the coast, the cliffs, to the countryside, anywhere except to his wretched job.

Chapter 13

The Munich Crisis (September 1938). Alan is at school taking round a letter to the Prime Minister demanding that he not submit to Hitler over the Sudeten Crisis for the other masters to sign. No fewer than 15 have signed and it is a symbolic victory when the most sceptical among them, Brook, also signs. To Alan’s surprise the Head Master also signs, but with a few patriotic provisos, reminding Alan that England never had, and never would, break a promise; but that supporting the Czechs was the Christian thing to do. Alan suppresses his disagreement with all this and thanks him.

This segues into a really good scene where Alan tries to get one of the last of the masters, Benson, to sign, and the man turns out to be a Christian pacifist, a really thorough-going and intelligent pacifist. For pages (pp.249- ) Upward stages a very stimulating debate between the two sides – we must stand up to Hitler versus violence only begets violence, look at the last war where both sides ended up losers; except now it will be fought with much more destructive weapons.

What makes In The Thirties so enjoyable is that Upward gives his ideological opponents a very fair crack of the whip. Like the extended debate with Aldershaw, this one with Benson forces Alan onto the defensive. When he says the final war of communism which overthrows capitalism will lead to a world of perpetual peace, he can hear how unbelievable it sounds, and Benson scores a big point when he says that, even if communism did triumph the world over, the communists would fall out with themselves as they already had in Moscow.

As he works his way systematically through the arguments, Upward forces you to consider which side you would have been on. In autumn 1938 would you have encouraged Britain to enter into a catastrophic war simply to uphold France’s treaty commitment to Czechoslovakia?

In fact the argument takes on a surreal twist because when Alan insists on the necessity of struggle, that struggle defines and will always define humanity, they both end up speculating about humanity carrying that struggle on into outer space, into colonising the planets and so on, as the conversation strays into H.G. Wells territory. Benson refuses on principle to sign anything which might provoke violence. Not only that but he points out, quite simply, that it the precious letter will never be read or, if it is, chucked in the waste bin.

A few days later Chamberlain signs the Munich Agreement and returns home promising peace in our time. Alan is disgusted, convinced that such kowtowing to Hitler makes Chamberlain and his cabinet more than appeasers but active allies of fascism.

This interpretation seems wildly wide of the mark.

Chapter 14

‘Nearly ten months after Munich’ i.e. July 1939.

The concluding chapter is deliberately and carefully lyrical. It is set entirely in a ramble by a large group of communist party members in the North Downs. Alan is with Elsie and quite a few others. As they climb into a wood Alan notices, with the same kind of intensity he had had back on the Isle of Wight, the extraordinary variety of shapes made by trees and branches, old and new. Light plays amid the branches and he is suddenly seized by a sense of poetry, that there is a spirit in the woods, some special message, but it won’t come.

Only when they emerge from the woods and all camp down to eat their sandwiches and drink coffee from thermos flasks, does it come to him. To some extent, throughout the book, his strong sense of a poetic vocation had been set against the iron logic and demanding work of the party. Now, suddenly, the two are reconciled, the two modes of thinking become one and he has an uplifting and inspiring vision of the future.

As he sat and continued looking up at the trees, he could not suppress a contrary and a stronger feeling, a gladness, a conviction that the poetic life was not a fraud, not a mirage, was good, was possible. It was possible because he knew from within himself that he was capable of it…

A time would come when human beings would know how to remove the social obstacles which they themselves had been forced to set up against happiness. Then the poetic life could be lived – though he would be dead – by others whose inborn bent would be similar to his. There would be a world in which everyone would have freedom for self-fulfilment, would be expected, would have the prime social duty to become whatever he was born to be. (p.272)

Here on a sunny slope, surrounded by friends and party members, he has an utterly optimistic view of the future. He wants to share it with his wife and – typically – spends some time trying to find just the right words, not sentimental, not patronising, that would express just what he feels for her. He leans over and tells Elsie:

‘I’ve been thinking how admirable you are.’ (p.274)


Details

I slowly came to appreciate Upward’s way with very carefully imagined and precisely described scenes. To give a small example, it takes a couple of pages to describe Alan trying to persuade a sceptical Brook to sign the letter. When he does, Brook takes it from his hands and presses it up against the wall of the school corridor to sign. Except that the school walls are covered in roughcast render and Alan immediately sees that if he tries to write on it, Brook will inevitably tear the paper with his pen. Quick as a flash, he proffers the schoolbook he’s holding in his hand, for Brook to use to write on. Suddenly I could see and almost feel the texture of that roughcast wall, and felt the sudden panic in Alan’s mind that his petition would be torn and ruined.

The novel is full of hundreds of little details like that, which add verisimilitude and clarity to the scenes and situations, making them that much more imaginable and enjoyable.

The rasping of Alan’s shoes against the brickwork of Peg’s aunt’s house as he humiliatingly pulls himself up and through the scullery window is more closely described than the act of sex which, apparently, follows it.

And the reader is reminded of the intense passage back at the start when Richard and Alan go walking along the shoreline intensely noticing everything, leaves, shells, rock shapes, strata, waves.

Upward is well aware that it’s a feature of his style. He even makes a joke about it at the end of the book. After the passage where Alan has made an enormous list of the different shapes and analogies the tree trunks remind him of, he realises:

He had lost the excitement of the wood in the interesting detail of the trees…

In other words, he quite literally can’t see the wood for the trees. But it’s OK. In the euphoric final pages of the novel, details and overall narrative are integrated, the poetic life becomes one with the struggle for a better future, the details and the pattern coalesce – he can see the wood and the trees.

Politics

There is a great deal of thinking about communism in the book. Alan starts by expressing an inchoate longing for the certainties of communist doctrine, then turns up ready with thoughts to his first meeting, and then listens to other communists debating current politics. He himself gets caught up in political arguments, namely the two extended arguments. 1. with Aldershaw which amounts to a checklist of objections to communism and their refutations and 2. with Benson when he really struggles to combat Benson’s powerfully consistent Christian pacifism.

Any time he’s with other party members, even with the party member who becomes his girlfriend (Elsie) the subject is likely to change at the drop of a hat into an extended Marxist analysis of the contemporary crisis of capitalism, or musings about party policy, or how a good communist ought to behave.

Communism dominates the book. It is a novel about an idealistic young communist.

Indeed it’s a striking feature of the book that, whereas the Alan character is depicted as hopelessly confused, self-conscious, timorous and clumsy, the political speeches given to the characters are solid, thoughtful pieces which stand up to analysis even 60 years later.

I wonder how much of that is due to the fact that the book isn’t really from the 1930s but was published in 1962 i.e. Upward had had 30 long years to mull over these issues, to see what the unknown future turned out to hold in story, to read, study and listen to Marxist thinkers cleverer and clearer-minded than him.

However, coming fresh from reading Ian Kershaw’s magisterial survey of European history in the 1920s an 30s – To Hell and Back – what interested me was the logic of the communists’ opposition to socialists, a fundamental problem with The Left throughout the period which Kershaw sees as one of the causes of the rise of Fascism.

Because the communists have an iron-strict confidence they are the side of History and the Future, they despise any softening of their calls for the complete and utter overthrow of the system. It is fascinating to read the historical interpretation that the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution could and should have spread to Europe, and was only stopped by the Social Democrats. Here is party member Willy Dean Ayres explaining:

The only way out from this present crisis was by proletarian revolution and by the abolition of the capitalist system, which was strangling the forces of production, and this way could and should have been taken all over Europe during the period following the 1917 Revolution in Russia. What had prevented it from being taken? Mainly the political attitude of the Social Democrats, who instead of co-operating with the Communists had preferred to try to help capitalism to its feet again and had even been responsible for the suppression by violence of workers’ risings. The Social-Democrats had acted as the faithful backers of senile capitalism, but later, when the crisis deepened and disillusionment began to spread among those sections of the working class who had hitherto trusted them, they were no longer useful to the capitalists. ‘Capitalism in extreme decay,’ Dean Ayres was at the moment saying, ‘is forced to use other means, more openly dictatorial and more crudely demagogic, to maintain itself in power. The Social-Democratic hostility to revolution brings not a gradual progress towards Socialism but – as we have seen in Italy and recently in Germany – the temporary victory of Fascism.’ (p.135)

I, as a left-liberal, read Kershaw’s analysis as tending to blame the hard-line communists for the splits which so weakened the Left during these crucial years. And there’s no doubt from all the objective accounts of the Spanish Civil War, beginning with George Orwell’s, that it was the Stalinist hard-line of the communist party which prompted it to attack the anarchist party in Barcelona and led to the localised but intense and bitter civil war between the parties of the Left, which Orwell describes in Homage to Catalonia.

So it’s fascinating to read, in lots of places throughout this book, the opposite point of view being presented – that the communists were the only real force capable of a) overthrowing capitalism and b) taking on fascism, and that it was the fatal weakness of social democrats propping up the defunct capitalist system which a) dragged out its demise unnecessarily b) left so many working people so immiserated that they threw in their lot with the fascists and their easy promises of renewal.

Fascinating to read that other side of the argument put with logical and imaginative conviction.

Credit

In The Thirties by Edward Upward was published in 1962 by William Heinemann. I read the 1969 Penguin paperback. References are to the online version, see below.


Related links

It’s symptomatic that none of the three volumes of The Spiral Ascent appears to be in print. You can pick up the first volume on Amazon for as little as £4 second-hand, but each successive volume seems to double in price. My Penguin copy cost £1 in Oxfam. Or you can download all three novels in the series from the The Spiral Ascent website.

The 1930s

George Orwell

Graham Greene

History

To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949 by Ian Kershaw (2015)

This is volume seven in the eight-volume Penguin History of Europe and it is very good. It has to cover a lot of ground and Kershaw does it clearly and authoritatively. He does this more by focusing on broad themes and issues, than getting snarled up in details. It is a high-level overview.

Contents

The period

In Kershaw’s opinion the 20th century is characterised by wars, immense wars, and falls naturally into two halves – the period of the two world wars 1914 to 1945, and then the Cold War, 1945 to 1990.

The Cold War will be dealt with in the ninth and final volume of the series. This volume covers the earlier period but Kershaw makes the point that, as the violence and chaos of the Second War continued after its official end, and that it took a few years for its repercussions – and the shape of the post-war world – to fully emerge, so his account ends not on VE or VJ Day 1945, but goes on till 1949, the year the Berlin Airlift ended (12 May) and the Federal Republic of Germany was created (20 September).

The themes

In Kershaw’s view the 20th century to 1949 was characterised by four large themes or issues:

1. An explosion of ethno-racist nationalism

The collapse of the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Russian Empires both ‘liberated’ a lot of peoples who now set up independent nations (Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Ukraine, Yugoslavia, Turkey) – but also confirmed the trend whereby these new nations defined themselves ethnically.

In the big rambling empires all sorts of religious and ethnic groups may have resented each other, but managed to live alongside each other, in part because they were all subjects of the emperor or sultan. Ethnic nationalism destroyed this tolerance. At a stroke, if you didn’t speak the national language of the national people who the new nation was set up for, you were an outsider and, by implication and sometimes even by law, a second-class citizen. The Jews were outcast everywhere.

2. Bitter and irreconcilable demands for territorial revisionism

Before he brought America into the war, Woodrow Wilson had declared certain principles, namely that America would be fighting for 1. a peace without conquest (i.e. in the final peace deals, conquerors wouldn’t get to keep the land they’d acquired) and that 2. oppressed peoples would be liberated and given their independence / own nations.

In practice this second one proved tricky because centuries of living under rambling empires had resulted in a tremendous mixing-up of populations. To give an example, a large area in the east of Anatolia was known as Armenia and was the traditional homeland of the Armenian people – but there were large Armenian populations scattered over the rest of the Ottoman Empire, not least in the area known as Cilicia, at the other end of Anatolia from Armenia proper: so what happens to them?

The victors in the war laboured long and hard over complicated treaties (Versailles, Trianon, Saint Germain), drawing lines on maps and creating new nations states. But it proved impossible not to include in almost all of them large ethnic minorities a) who resented not living in their nation b) who were resented by the majority population for not speaking the national language, having the correct type of name or religion.

And impossible not to do this without creating a burning sense of grievance on the part of the nations who lost territory: Germany lost 13% of its pre-war territory and 10% of its population (p.119); Russia lost control of the Baltic states and Finland; Bulgaria also lost some territory, but Hungary lost a whopping 75% of its former pre-WW1 territories so that some three and a half Hungarians found themselves living outside Hungary, many of them in the new enlarged Romania which became nearly twice the size of its 1914 embodiment.

Kershaw gives the chapter where he describes all this the title ‘The Carve-Up’.

3. A prolonged crisis of capitalism, which many thought was terminal, and needed to be replaced by new social structures

The First World War left economic wreckage at every level, from devastated agricultural land through ruined industrial sectors. This was a lot more true in the East where entire regions such as Ukraine, Belarus and Galicia were devastated, than in the relatively static West, where only a relatively small zone about 50 kilometers wide had been devastated by the trench warfare.

At a higher level, all the combatants had had to borrow vast sums to fund their war efforts, and this left many on the brink of bankruptcy. The Western nations had borrowed heavily from the USA. To repay its debt France insisted on huge reparations from Germany. When Germany defaulted on the payments in 1923, France occupied the industrial Ruhr area of Germany, the German government told the workers to go on strike in protest, and the fragile German economy collapsed leading to the famous hyperinflation where you needed a wheelbarrow full of cash to buy a cigarette.

This situation was sorted out at an international conference which enacted the Dawes Plan, a simple triangle whereby America lent money to Germany to rebuild her economy, the German government used the tax revenue generated from its growing economy to pay reparations to France, and France used the German reparations to pay back its immense war loans from America and pledged to buy American products.

This elegant plan underpinned the brittle prosperity of the later 1924-29, the Jazz Era, the Roaring Twenties, the Weimar Years. But, as we all know, it collapsed with the 1929 Wall Street Crash which not only led to prolonged Depression in the States, but collapsed the Dawes Plan and plunged Europe into depression, triggering the mounting unemployment and renewed inflation which set the scene for the rise of the Nazis.

Throughout the period, many thinkers and commentators thought the capitalist system was doomed. It seemed to be failing before their eyes, in America, Britain, France and Germany. Many thought Western civilisation could only survive by mutating into new forms, by evolving new social structures.

4. Acute class conflict, given new impetus by the advent of Bolshevik Russia

There had been class-based uprisings and revolutions throughout the 19th century (maybe the brutal Paris Commune is the most extreme and clearly class-based example) and a wealth of thinkers, not only Marx, had analysed the grotesque inequality between the new factory and business owners and the deeply impoverished industrial proletariat as a clash of classes.

But the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia transformed the situation. The Bolshevik regime became a symbol and lightning rod for class antagonisms all round the world. It appeared to offer a real working example of a genuinely alternative social system, one in which the government sequestered all the means of production and distribution and ran them for the good of the entire people, not just a wealthy few.

But it had two baleful consequences:

1. The Russian Revolution split the Left From the establishment of the Communist International (or Comintern) in 1919 until the collapse of the Soviet Union, the forces of the Left in every country in the world would be divided between communist parties taking direct orders from Moscow, and all the other forces of the Left who, quite often, the communists undermined & sabotaged (see the Spanish Civil War). This was a fatal division of the forces opposing the Right and Fascism, which Kershaw describes occurring in country after country across the period.

2. The Russian Revolution was a galvanising force in the rise of the Right Right-wing parties everywhere reached out to the newly-enfranchised masses (all European nations expanded their voting based after the war, for the first time creating really mass democracies), especially the large numbers of middle and lower-middle-class voters, and terrified them with visions of blood-thirsty revolutionaries taking over their town or country, lining all ‘class enemies’ (i.e. them) up against the wall, confiscating their businesses and hard-won savings.

One way of looking at it was that, without the very real existence of the Bolshevik regime, and the threat from growing communist parties in every country in Europe, there would have been no rise of Fascism.

And the closer you were to Bolshevik Russia, the more pressing the conflict seemed – from Poland which was actually invaded by the Red Army in 1920, to countries like Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary where initial dalliances with left-wing governments quickly gave way to right-wing authoritarian governments (the Iron Guard in Romania, the royal authoritarian dictatorship of Tsar Boris III in Bulgaria, the right-wing administration of admiral Miklós Horthy in Hungary).

All exemplified, over a longer timeframe, by the central and most important European state, Germany, whose Weimar regime tried to follow Western norms of governance, but was undermined by the extreme social divisions sparked by recurrent economic crises, by the immense and widespread resentment created by the punitive Versailles Treaty, and by a culture of subversion and street violence which the Right, eventually, was to win.

Conclusion All four elements (nationalism, economic crises, left-wing politics, squabbling over territory) had of course pre-existed all across Europe. But they were driven to new heights of intensity by the First World War and the widespread chaos which followed. And then combined like toxic chemicals, catalysed by the series of political and economic crises, to create unprecedented levels of bitterness, hatred, anger and social division all across Europe between the wars.


The origins of the First World War

There are as many opinions about the origins of the First World War as there are grains of sand on a beach. Kershaw emphasises the folly of the German government sending Austro-Hungary, as it pondered how to punish Serbia for the assassination of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand, a ‘blank check’, promising to support them come-what-may. This encouraged the Dual Monarchy to outface the Russians, which of course prompted the Russkies to mobilise etc etc.

But reading his account what came over to me as the really decisive source of the crisis was the Austro-Hungarian slowness to act. Other heads of state had been assassinated in the decade leading up to 1914 without sparking a general crisis. The other powers expected Austria to attack Serbia and deliver a short sharp reprimand, maybe occupy Belgrade, demand some reparations before withdrawing.

But, as Kershaw says, the Austro-Hungarian Empire only had two speeds, very slow or stop, and it took them nearly four weeks to write and send their ultimatum to the Serbian government.

This appalling delay gave all the other European governments time to consider how they could use the crisis for their own ends, not least Germany, whose military leaders told the Kaiser this was a golden opportunity to thrash the Russians before the Russians completed their well-known plan to modernise and expand their army, which was due to be completed by 1917. The German High Command persuaded the Kaiser that it was now or never.

If Austro-Hungary had gone in hard and fast with a surprise attack into Serbia within days of the assassination, a conference would have been called among the powers – much as happened after the first and second Moroccan crises (1905 and 1911) or the two Balkan wars (1912 and 1913) – to sort the problem out, probably force Serbia to pay reparations, and defuse tensions among the powers.

So you could argue that it was the byzantine and elephantine bureaucracy of the unwieldy Austro-Hungarian state which caused the cataclysmic conflict which defined the entire 20th century.

This view gives edge to your reading of a novel like Robert Musil’s A Man Without Qualities with its sustained satire on the pompous ineffectiveness of the Austrian administration. Maybe not so funny after all…


Civilised Western and backward Eastern Europe

There’s a whole genre of books devoted to explaining ‘the Rise of the West’ i.e. how Western empires ended up by the early twentieth century ruling a lot of the rest of the world. Harder to find are books which investigate the simpler question: Why was Western Europe relatively ‘civilised’ whereas regimes got steadily more repressive, undemocratic and authoritarian the further East across Europe you travelled. Kershaw’s book suggests some answers.

1. Western Europe was more ethnically homogeneous than central or Eastern Europe. England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Sweden – these were populated by homogeneous populations of people identifying with the nation, with only tiny, insignificant minorities (actually Belgium is the exception which prove this rule, with low-lying conflict between the Flemings and the Walloons). Therefore one of the key prompts of post-war social tension – ethnically jumbled populations with conflicting claims – simply didn’t exist.

A notable exception was Spain where two large ethnically distinct groups, the Catalans and the Basques, combined with a backward, poverty-stricken population to make ruling the country problematic, as its slide towards civil war was to highlight.

2. Nation states in the West were long established. The French could trace their nation back to Charlemagne and the British to Alfred the Great, certainly to Magna Carta in 1216. Both nations had parliaments by the 1200s. That gave them 700 years experience of evolving laws and customs and strategies to manage social conflict. Compare and contrast with Germany, which was only unified in 1871 and whose experiments with self-governance over the next 70 years were not, shall we say, particularly successful. It was only after the British and Americans taught them how to run a modern democracy in the post-war occupation that they finally got it. Or compare with any of the ‘successor’ states to the collapsed empires – Hungary, Yugoslavia, Poland, which had barely any experience managing themselves. Spain, though it had existed as a political entity since the Unification of the 1490s, had only just ceased to be a monarchy. Only in 1931 did they expel their king and declare themselves a republic.

So all these nations or administrations had very shallow roots and little experience of self-government.

To put the same thing another way, Kershaw explains that in Western European countries (and the USA) the state had, over time shaped the nation, the institutions of the state had created a national consciousness which identified with them, the institutions. The institutions of state had become part of the populations sense of nationhood e.g. in Britain, the Queen, the Houses of Parliament, Black Rod, the Leader of the Opposition and so on.

It was the opposite in the new nations central and eastern Europe. Here ethnically purist nationalisms predated any idea of what a nation was, and the new states were created in the name of ethnically limited nations: Poland for the Poles, Hungary for the Hungarians and so on. The precise political form the new states took was secondary; the aim was to promote the nation.

Thus the institutions of the new democratic states were mostly new and, as they proved themselves incapable of managing the political and economic crises of the 1930s, broad sections of the population had no qualms about overthrowing these institutions and replacing them with different ones. They didn’t have the national identification with Queen and Parliament or President and Congress that the British and Americans have. So they got rid of them and tried something new, almost always rule by the army or authoritarian figures.

Thus in the USA or Britain, most people thought of politics as a simple choice between Labour or Tory, or Republican or Democrat. Most people accepted ‘democracy’ and few people thought about overthrowing it. But the democratic state was such a new invention in the ten new countries of post-war Europe that plenty of politicians, intellectuals and activists could easily imagine overthrowing and replacing it with a different model, more appropriate to the times, and almost always more authoritarian.

3. The further East you went, the less industrialised i.e. the more ‘backward’ countries became. It appears to have been a simple gradient, a line you could draw on a graph. In Britain at the end of the First World War only 10% of the working population worked on the land whereas 72% of the Romanians worked on the land. Rural workers tended to be illiterate and easy to sway towards simplistic, nationalistic regimes in a way the highly educated population of, say, Britain, would have found laughable. Thus Oswald Mosley’s high-profile British Union of Fascists caused well-publicised public disorders, but never had more than 50,000 members, far fewer than the National Trust or the Women’s Institute.

Of course the most easterly European nation was Russia, which – following the West-East rule:

  • had the highest proportion – 80% – of illiterate peasants
  • no tradition of elective democracy – the Tsar only set up a sort of parliament, the Duma, in 1905, and he and the ruling classes made sure it had no power
  • few if any of the institutions of civic society
  • and a ‘culture of violence, brutality and scant regard for human life’ (p.113) as my reviews of some of its classic fiction tend to confirm (Dr Zhivago, Tales From the Don, Red Cavalry, One Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovich)

The weakness of inter-war democracy

Kershaw has a fascinating passage examining the post-war political systems of every country in Europe (pp.123-133) which shows exactly why ‘democracy’ had such thin roots. Later on, a similar survey explains why these weak democracies almost all collapsed into authoritarian regimes by the time of, or during the second war (pp.183-192). European democratic systems during this period:

1. Used electoral voting systems which encouraged weak government. Many used variations of proportional representation, which may, on the one hand, have led to general assemblies which were accurate reflections of national views, but also led to weak governments which followed each other with bewildering speed:

  • Spain had 34 governments between 1902 and 1923
  • Portugal 45 administrations between 1910 and 1926
  • Yugoslavia had 45 political parties
  • Italy had 6 changes of government between 1919 and 1922
  • France had six different governments in just over a year, April 1925 and July 1926

2. Disillusioned much of the population with their mixture of incompetence, endless squabbling, corruption, all too often giving the sense that politicians put party interest above national interest. This allowed extremists to tar all democratic politicians with neglecting the Nation, even accusations of treason.

3. This created what Kershaw calls a ‘political space’ in the newly-created countries – or countries with new political systems – into which broad sections of the populations were all-too-ready to let a Strong Man step and run the country properly:

  • Admiral Miklos Horthy in Hungary in 1920
  • Mussolini in Italy in 1922
  • General Primo de Rivera in Spain 1923
  • in Albania Ahmed Zogu seized power in 1924 and declared himself King Zog
  • General Pilsudski took control in Poland 1926
  • General Gomes de Costa took power in Portugal in 1926

On the eve of the Second World War only about eleven countries in Europe were functioning democracies and they were all located in the north and the west – Britain, Ireland, France, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and tiny Iceland; whereas about 60% of Europe lived in 16 countries under repressive, authoritarian rule with curtailed civil rights and minorities facing discrimination and persecution: in the south Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece; in the East Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, Yugoslavia, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and slap-bang in the middle, the largest country in Germany, the nation that set the tone, Germany.


What is fascism and how does it take hold?

Kershaw is best known as a historian of Hitler and the Nazis and you can feel the depth of his knowledge when he comes to describe the situation in Germany after the war, during the boom years of the mid-1920s, during the Depression (1929-33), and as he explains the reason for the Nazis’ appeal and rise in each of these periods.

But all too often histories of the Nazis focus so exclusively on the uniqueness of the German context that the reader is hard-pressed to draw broader conclusions. An excellent thing about this book is that it is a conscious attempt to cover the history of all of Europe, so that in each of the micro-periods it’s divided into, Kershaw goes out of his way to explain the situation in most if not all of Europe’s 30 or so countries; how, for example, the onset of the Depression affected not only Britain, France and Germany (which you always get in the standard histories) but countries right across Europe, from Spain to Greece, Norway to Portugal.

This proves extremely useful when he gets to the rise of the Nazis and their successful seizure of power (Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in January 1933 and within 6 months had crushed all other rival sources of power, all other political parties, the parliament, trades unions, universities, professions, every aspect of a modern state had either been Nazified or abolished).

Useful because after explaining all this, he goes on to draw general conclusions, to define what Fascism is, to ask Why Fascism succeeded in Italy and Germany and Why Fascism failed everywhere else. This has all kinds of benefits, one is it allows him to draw a distinction between regimes which were right-wing and authoritarian but not actually Fascist.

1. What is Fascism?

Kershaw says that trying to define Fascism is like trying to nail jelly to a wall because its core attribute is hyper-nationalism i.e. glorification of the nation with its special language and history and traditions – and the precise details of each nation’s history and culture will vary according to circumstances.

Thus an attempt to hold a pan-Fascist Congress in Geneva in 1934 failed because a) Germany didn’t bother to turn up b) the other delegates couldn’t agree joint plans of action.

These caveats notwithstanding, Kershaw says Fascism includes:

  • hyper-nationalist emphasis on the unity of an integral nation which gains its identity from the cleansing of all who don’t belong – foreigners, ethnic minorities, undesirables
  • racial exclusiveness (though not necessarily biological racism of the Nazi type) with an insistence on the special, unique and superior quality of the nation
  • radical, violent commitment to the complete destruction of political enemies – communists, liberals, democrats, sometimes conservatives
  • emphasis on militarism and manliness, usually involving paramilitary organisations
  • belief in authoritarian leadership

Some also had irredentist goals i.e. reclaiming lost territory. Some were anti-capitalist, reorganising economies along corporatist lines, abolishing trade unions and directing the economy through corporations of industries.

All these elements can be present in authoritarian, right-wing governments which wanted to overthrow or dismantle the existing state and replace it with nationalist, authoritarian rule. What distinguishes Fascism is its insistence on total commitment to bend the collective will to the creation of an entirely new nation, expressed in ideas like the New Man, New Society.

Most right-wing authoritarian regimes (like all the South American dictatorships of the 1970s) essentially want to conserve the existing social order, and eliminate the left-communist, union elements which threaten it. Fascism goes much further. Fascism is a revolutionary movement because it seeks to sweep away the existing order and replace it with a new, totally unified society which will produce New Human Beings, a higher form of people who express the quintessence of the Nation, and of the epic national qualities

2. Why does Fascism succeed?

1. Elites lose faith in, and control of, democracy The most important factor in the rise of Fascism – of the extreme, radical Right – is whether the forces of conservatism – business, military, financial and social elites – believe they can get their way through the existing political and social order, or not. If these powers in society retain the belief they can work through the existing system they will support it. Only when they have completely lost faith in the existing system, or believe they have lost the ability to control it, will the elites help to, or acquiesce in, overthrowing it.

In this interpretation, the key to avoiding Fascism is ensuring that all or most elements of these powerful elites believe the existing (parliamentary, democratic) system is the best mechanism for getting their way, or some of it. Only when the existing system has been completely discredited, and the elites feel they are losing control of it and look around for alternatives, does the space open up for radical political change.

Rule 1: Keep the ruling elites invested in the parliamentary system

2. Fascists play up the threat of communism (and atheism) The second factor is the threat of communism as it affects two sectors of society, the elites and the middle classes.

The realistic prospect of a communist regime coming to power and implementing real communist policies (nationalising all industries, confiscating private property) obviously threatens the interests of the business, economic, class elites. If these interests feel that the existing parliamentary system really is going to allow hard-core Socialist or communist governments to administer Socialist policies, then they will intervene to prevent it.

But communism doesn’t just threaten the elite. It also directly threatens the jobs and livelihoods and cultural capital of a large part of the population, the so-called middle classes, which covers a wide range from the professions (doctors, lawyers) through small businessmen, shopkeepers, small craftsmen and artisans and so on.

Historically, the majority of Fascist supporters have not been from the aristocracy or elites (who often look down on fascist vulgarity) but from the threatened and pressurised middle classes.

The elites will have a large number of the population on their side if these people, too, feel threatened by radical socialist policies, and not only by their economic policies but by their attacks on traditional culture.

Spain 1936 is an example where the new aggressively socialist government threatened not only the property and livelihoods of the big landowners and big business, and a wide tranche of the middle classes, petit-bourgeoisie and so on. They also directly threatened the Catholic church and all its values, patriarchy, the traditional family, the sanctity of marriage and the family, and so on, not really having calculated how many traditionalists and believers that would antagonise. They created, in other words, an impressively powerful coalition of enemies.

Kershaw has a section specifically addressing the role of the Protestant churches and the Catholic church during the crisis years of the 1930s and the war. What comes over loud and clear is that the Pope and the Catholic Church, although horrified by the Nazis, thought the communists would be even worse.

Same in Spain. It’s well known that Hitler and Mussolini gave material aid to General Franco, flying his troops in from Africa and bombing Republican strongholds. Less well-known that Britain and France, after some hesitation, decided to adopt a policy of strict neutrality

Rule 2: Avoid the threat of genuinely socialist, let alone communist, policies

3. Widespread grievances, specially about lost wars or lost land Political parties don’t exist in a vacuum, they need supporters. Voters, populations, peoples don’t migrate to extreme parties without reason. Almost always it is because they feel threatened by loss or are aggrieved because they already have lost important aspects of their lives (jobs, money, status).

They believe they have something to lose from the way the current system is tending – status, property, livelihoods, jobs, money, cultural traditions and identity. A very large number of people in Weimar Germany felt they stood to lose, or already had lost, jobs or status. Classic Nazi members were white collar workers, small businessmen, former army officers or NCOs, shopkeepers, small craftsmen, farmers, a huge raft of people who had suffered monetary loss under the economic crisis, or loss of status (ex-army officers, unemployed white collar workers).

The entire German nation was united by a sense of grievance at the unfair provisions of the Treaty of Versailles, the loss of large parts of territory and the punitive reparations.

The Nazis played on the widespread grievances of disparate sectors of the population and claimed to speak for them against a corrupt system which they promised they would sweep away, and restore everyone’s losses (of jobs and status), and restore the losses of the entire nation.

Rule 3: Don’t give people and peoples long-running grievances

4. National pride and national enemies The easiest way to address people’s grievances is to bundle them up into all-encompassing calls for a revival of the nation. Pretty much all Germans felt humiliated by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, so it wasn’t very rocket science for the Nazis to make one of the main planks a call for National Revival.

And the easiest way to rally national pride, national revival, national rebirth, is to identify some kind of internal enemy who stands in the way. For the Nazis it was their mad irrational hatred of Jews (who, it is always shocking to recall, made up just 0.76% of the German population). Around the same time Stalin was uniting the mass population behind him by attacking ‘kulak’s, ‘saboteur’s etc. All authoritarian regimes are quick to identify enemies and rally the majority of the population against them.

It’s tricky because calls for national revival are an extremely common tactic of all politicians, and many people are patriotic in a relatively harmless way. It obviously becomes toxic when it becomes mixed with calls to defeat ‘enemies’, either internal or external. ‘Make America Great Again’ is fine in itself, until you start blaming the Mexicans or the Chinese for everything. Or the Jews. Or the Liberals or the Socialists etc.

Rule 4: Be wary of calls to national pride, nationalism and national revival which rely on demonising an ‘enemy’ 

5. Economic crisis Implicit in the above is the context of the economic or social situation becoming so extreme and dire that a) the large percentage of the population cease to have faith in the system b) parties of the extreme Left or extreme Right can come into existence, get a purchase on the population, and get into the political system.

Rule 5: Avoid extreme economic or social failure

6. Unstable political systems Political systems like proportional representation, which cater to every political element in a society, allow the proliferation of small, often extreme parties. Once established, extreme parties have the potential to grow quickly and challenge the status quo. This is what the Nazis did in Germany.

This is less likely in ‘mature’ democracies with winner-takes-all systems like Britain and the USA. Our systems are dominated by two main parties, which are themselves flexible and changing coalitions of interests, which ensure that most views have a political ‘home’ and give a broad spectrum of beliefs at least the possibility of seeing their views and policies implemented.

Even in a stable democracy like Britain’s, it is still possible for new parties to erupt and threaten the status quo if the social movement/mood they reflect is powerful enough. This is what UKIP did to the British political system in the lead-up to the Brexit Referendum. What Boris Johnson then did was in line with the long tradition of mature Western democracies, he incorporated most of UKIP’s policies (‘Get Brexit Done’) into one of the two mainstream parties (the Conservatives) thus drawing its teeth, neutralising it, and maintaining the stability of the two-party system. If it resulted in the Conservatives moving to the right that in fact reflects the wishes of a large part of the UK population who voted for Brexit and voted for Boris.

Mature democracies incorporate and neutralise radical elements. Immature democracies allow radical elements to establish themselves and attract support.

Rule 6: Incorporate potentially disruptive movements into the existing system – don’t keep them outside to become a focal point for destabilisation

Kershaw summarises:

Fascism’s triumph depended upon the complete discrediting of state authority, weak political elites who could no longer ensure that a system would operate in their interests, the fragmentation of party politics, and the freedom to build a movement that promised a radical alternative. (p.232)

3. The difference between fascism and authoritarianism

Authoritarianism – authoritarian dictatorships – generally want to keep things as they are or turn the clock back. They all share a loathing and fear of socialism or communism not only because it’s a direct threat to their wealth and power but because it threatens change, threatens to sweep away old values and traditions. Authoritarians want to save the nation by preserving its (conservative) traditions from change.

Fascism, on the contrary, is a revolutionary and dynamic ideology which seeks to sweep away time-honoured and conservative institutions. It seeks a comprehensive rebirth of the nation, freed from the shackles of the past, liberated to fulfil its historic destiny (power, land, international respect), but also to create New People in a New Society.

Thus Kershaw is at pains to point out that, although most European nations became dictatorships on the brink of or during the Second World War – most of these were not fascist. They were military dictatorships first and foremost, which may have used this or that aspect of ‘fascist’ ideology or trappings as suited them, but without the fundamental fascist attribute of wanting to transform society.

  • When General Ioannis Metaxis established his dictatorship in Greece in 1936, his avowed intention was to save the nation from communism, and he tried to set up ‘fascist’ organisations but failed to secure anything like the total social control of a Hitler or Mussolini.
  • When General Edward Smigly-Ridz took control of Poland in 1937 as ‘Leader of the Nation’, the country became more nationalistic and more anti-semitic but ‘there was nothing dynamic about this form of authoritarianism. No major attempt was made to mobilise the population. The regime was content to control the society. It had no ambitions to change it’ (p.262).
  • Even General Franco, after his military coup of July 1936, took a year to sort out the political aspects of what was essentially a military project. He co-opted the ideology of the banned Falange Party and coerced all the other right-wing organisations into joining it (p.240), but the party was only ever a political aspect of what remained a military rule. This was the polar opposite Germany, where a fanatically organised, civilian political party controlled the military as just one of the many levers of its total control over society.

Another fairly obvious difference is that some of these authoritarian regimes locked up fascists as well as communists, socialist, liberals, journalists etc. For example the Polish and Portuguese dictatorships (pp.262, 264) or Admiral Horthy’s authoritarian regime in Hungary, which banned the genuinely fascist Hungarian National Socialist Party and imprisoned its leader, Ferenc Szálasi (p.263).

In other words, for many authoritarian dictatorships, real hard-core fascism was just one more subversive or disruptive element which needed to be controlled.

One way of thinking about this is the contrast between merely authoritarian regimes and totalitarian regimes. Totalitarian regimes want your soul as well as your body, your mind as well as your vote. They insist on total control of every aspect of their citizens lives in order to create a new type of human being.

Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state. (Mussolini)

Another way of thinking about the difference between authoritarian dictatorships and genuinely fascist regimes is that none of the dictatorships threatened the peace of Europe – the Western democracies didn’t lose any sleep about the foreign policy of Hungary, Bulgaria, Poland, Portugal. Even Spain, whose drawn-out civil war was violent and traumatic, never threatened to spill beyond its borders, never threatened the peace of Europe.

Unlike the irredentist and imperialist ambitions of the true fascist regimes, Italy and, most of all, Germany.


The rise of the Right and collapse of the Left in the 1930s

Putting the usual culprits Italy and Germany in the context of the wider, in fact of the complete European scene, brings out a fact I had never fully grasped before.

I suppose I knew that the 1930s were the era of The Dictator – although Kershaw’s review of every dictatorship in Europe really rams this fact home. The deeper point is that the catastrophic economic collapse of the early 1930s, which devastated nations, threw millions out of work, and led many to think capitalism was failing – did not produce a shift to the Left, in favour of thinkers and politicians who’d spent a lifetime criticising capitalism and supporting workers movements – it resulted, all across Europe, in a seismic shift to the Right.

The 1930s was the decade of the failure of the Left.

Why? Because despite its appeal to the kind of intellectuals whose works survive and are studied to this day, for the majority of the population the Left, in either its socialist or communist form, threatened the interests of:

  • most of the ruling class
  • most of the middle class
  • most if not all of the peasants – some may have heard rumours about Stalin’s forced collectivisation in Soviet Russia, all knew that the Left wanted to destroy the Church and traditional religion
  • even a portion of the skilled working class who stood to lose their perks and privileges
  • not to mention the large number of criminals and dossers who are generally left out of sociological calculations, the kind of people who fill the pages of novels like Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz

In other words, the hard, radical Left always represents a minority of a society, and is always opposed by a majority in that society.

Which makes it all the more striking that such a disproportionate majority of the intellectuals of many of these societies moved to the Left. Kershaw has a chapter giving a tourist’s-eye view of the ‘intellectual life’ of Europe in the 30s and 40s (which jumps around superficially, as historians’ quick compliance with the need to mention something about ‘culture’ so often do) – but the general drift is that from Gramsci through Orwell, Sartre to the Frankfurt School, the majority of Europe’s significant intellectuals took a left-wing, often out-and-out communist, view of the continent’s problems.

In other words, a high proportion of the intellectual class of Europe was profoundly out of step with the majority of their populations.

That’s one rather crude interpretation, anyway. The deeper reasons for the shift to the Right bear investigating and pondering. A deep analysis would give insights into why, in our time, years of austerity, uncertainty and economic stagnation since the 2008 Crash have resulted not in a mass outpouring of socialist idealism but, once again, led to the rise of right-wing leaders around the world. At the same time the intellectual and academic classes remain securely embedded in their progressive and left-wing ghettos (universities), out of touch with the populations they claim to interpret, and blankly incredulous of the leaders who keep getting elected (Trump, Johnson).

To return to the period under consideration, Germany’s dynamic Nazi ideology is in fact the exception that proves the rule to most of Europe during the period. So much ink has been spilt about Hitler and the Nazis but they were the product of a very distinctive set of circumstances – to take two of them, the fact that they were in Europe’s largest and most powerful nation, and that the entire nation felt huge grievance over the Versailles Treaty.

Focusing so much on bloody Hitler and his Nazi Party, whose historical situation was unique and so whose precise brand of turbo-charged Fascism is never going to recur, has distracted historians from the much more practical task of analysing the reasons for the rise of right-wing authoritarian regimes in general – which do recur with worrying regularity, which were widespread during the 1930s and 40s, which dominated Latin America and southern Europe (Portugal, Spain, Greece and Turkey had military dictatorships in the 1970s) in my boyhood, and which people worry are now reappearing in the guise of various ‘populist’ leaders.

Historians’ focus on one unique event (the Nazis) is, in my opinion, a distraction from analysing and thinking about how to prevent the far more common (almost mundane) phenomenon of military coups and authoritarian dictatorships.

The accidental rise of Adolf Hitler

As anybody who’s read about the period knows, Hitler didn’t storm to power, he was appointed by political elites who thought they could manipulate and control him to get their way. They did so because in late 1932 the Nazis had secured the largest share of the election vote and so had to be included in whatever government was set up – but, when they finally decided to appoint the vulgar little corporal Chancellor, the behind-the-scenes wheeler-dealers made sure to pack Hitler’s ‘cabinet’ with members of other parties. They thought that would moderate his policies. None of them had any idea how utterly ruthless Hitler would turn out to be in eliminating all these restraints on his power.

So possibly the key fact about Hitler’s rise to power is that it was the result of a mistake in political strategy by Germany’s political elite which had, by late 1932, lost all confidence in the ability of the Weimar parliamentary democracy to deal with the country’s severe economic crisis.


Conclusions

Avoiding Fascism What these ideas suggest is that avoiding Fascism is nothing to do with the Left-wing obsession with promoting workers rights, womens rights, minority rights and so on. It involves ensuring that the powerful economic, social and military elites of a country continue to have faith in some form of parliamentary democracy as the best mechanism of protecting their interests.

Any political moves which threaten or jeopardise their interests, in effect, open the door to right-wing coups and worse.

Of course you probably require a number of other factors and preconditions, at the very least a) a political culture which accepts or has a tradition of coups, such as Spain’s with its long tradition of pronunciamentos b) a really severe economic or social crisis which the parliamentary system manifestly fails to manage.

Avoiding Europe If you were American or Chinese or anyone looking at Europe from the outside it would be hard to avoid the conclusion that a) Europe is incapable of governing itself b) Europe is the most savage, bestial continent on earth.

For all their instability, nothing on the scale of either the First or Second World Wars took place in Latin America, Africa or the Indian sub-continent.

One way of looking at the Cold War is that, at the same time as the Soviet Union acquired a deep buffer zone to protect its western border (i.e the Eastern Bloc countries) it was also taking control of the very region which contained the most ethnically mixed populations, had shown the most political instability, had been the location of terrible ethnic cleansing and enormous deaths.

In a sense the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe liberated Western Europe from the burden dragging at its heel and, along with massive American financial and military aid, freed it (Western Europe) for the 30 years of economic growth and prosperity which followed.

It was Cecil Rhodes who made a speech in which he told his audience to remember that they were English and so had won first prize in the lottery of life. Obviously, at the time he was referring to our membership of the biggest empire the world had ever seen – but reading accounts of the twentieth century like this give the idea a whole new meaning.

Put simply, being born in England in the twentieth century meant you weren’t born on the continent of Europe which, as Kershaw vividly emphasises, between 1939 and 1945 descended into hell, real hell, the utter collapse of civilisation, mass slaughter, death camps, mass imprisonment and torture, gas chambers, the endless rape and murder of civilians, displacement and starvation.

In the entire catalogue of destruction, devastation and misery that made up the Second World War, the murder of Europe’s Jews was the lowest point of mankind’s descent into the abyss of inhumanity. The fires of the death-camp crematoria were almost literally the physical manifestation of hell on earth. (p.369)

Both my parents lived through the war as children, experiencing the Blitz and then the V-bombs, which wasn’t pleasant. But nonetheless they both had the immeasurable good fortune not to have been born on the Continent of Atrocity, and in the terrible middle years of the 20th century, that really was like winning a prize in the lottery of life.

Understanding Europe Which leads to a final thought, which I’ll keep brief: maybe it is impossible for an English person to understand Europe. We were never invaded, devastated, forced to collaborate with the conqueror, to round up and deport English Jews, to execute our own socialists and liberals, and then reduced to starvation and chaos amid the smoking ruins of our cities.

The extremity of the experiences of every other nation in continental Europe during the war years (and described by Kershaw in gruelling detail) are beyond our experience or imagining. And so we never experienced anything like the same cultural or political extremity which wartime conditions produced. In the first post-war election in France, the Communist Party won 26% of the vote, in Britain 0.4%, reflecting the two nations very very different recent experiences (p.488).

The great thoughts of Gramsci, Benjamin, Horkheimer, Adorno, Sartre and so on have dazzled generations of British students but bear no relationship at all to the history, culture and politics of the UK and its population. Which is why all those humanities students, drilled in their Benjamin and Lukacs, who voted for Jeremy Corbyn, helped him lead Labour to its most crushing electoral defeat in 50 years.

Brexit It also explains something about Brexit. The ideal of a European Union has a real meaning for hundreds of millions of Europeans, raised for generations to believe it is better to be politically and economically united than to fight each other to the death as their grand-parents and great-grand-parents did.

But Britain really was an exception to the history of this terrible period, and that ‘exceptionialism’, for better or worse, was, during the period Kershaw describes, and obviously still is, a strong thread in British culture and population.

(I’m not shoehorning Brexit and ‘Europe’ into this review: the last 20 pages of Kershaw’s book explicitly discuss these questions. He describes the descent of the Iron Curtain across Europe, the continent’s division into two blocs being crystallised by the Marshall Plan, announced in June 1947. He quotes several Americans involved in co-ordinating Western Europe’s response, not least George Marshall himself complaining that the British wanted to keep aloof from Europe, that the British wanted to benefit from a scheme designed to create an economically unified Europe ‘while at the same time maintaining the position of being not quite a European country’ – quoted page 516.)

I’m not approving or disapproving Brexit, just pointing out that a book like this, which doesn’t hold back when it comes to describing the terror, murder, torture, holocausts, purges, massacres, reprisals, ethnic cleansing, mass deportations, executions and rapes which took place all across continental Europe during these years, can’t help but make you reflect how lucky we were to escape almost all of it, and how the cultural and political consequences of that very real ‘exceptional’ destiny have shaped our politics right down to the present.

Random facts

The books is full of hundreds of facts, figures and anecdotes. A few grabbed my attention:

In Britain just short of 70,000 civilians were killed by German bombing. In one night the firebombing of Hamburg killed some 34,000 civilians. The Hiroshima atom bomb is estimated to have killed about 66,000 people on the day, from the blast and fires, although many more died in the weeks and months that followed.

At their core, both world wars were wars between Germany and Russia. I knew the German High Command in 1914 knew they had a window of opportunity to attack Russia before its army came up to full strength, therefore they had an incentive to attack Russia while they still could. I didn’t realise the Germany High Command felt exactly the same in the late 1930s. Thus in both world wars, a – if not the – fundamental factor was the German gamble to take on Russia, and do it in a hurry.

The Irish taoiseach, Éamon de Valera, was one of a very select few politicians, who sent the Germans a formal note of condolence on the death of Adolf Hitler, 30 April 1945 (p.387).

Hitler loved Disney movies. He was delighted when Goebbels gave him 18 Mickey Mouse cartoons for Christmas 1937 (p.465)

The Venice Film Festival was founded in 1932 in Mussolini’s Italy. Winners of Best Italian Film and Best Foreign Film were awarded ‘Mussolini Cups’ (p.466). I think they should revive that tradition.


Credit

To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1939 by Ian Kershaw was published by Allen Lane in 2015. All references are to the Penguin paperback edition.

Related reviews

First World War

Russian Revolution

Between the wars

The Weimar Republic

German literature

Czech literature

French literature

Albert Camus

Jean-Paul Sartre

English literature

Graham Greene

George Orwell

The Middle East

The Spanish Civil War

The Second World War

The Holocaust

After the Second World War

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

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

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

The Good Soldier Švejk as drawn by Joseph Lada

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

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

Plot summary, part one

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Commentary

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

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

Plot summary, part two

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

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

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

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

Švejk is inspected by the learned doctors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brutality

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

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

Švejk kicks the moneylender out of the house of Chaplain Katz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But here everyone behaves like this.

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

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

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

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

Kafka compared with Hašek – people

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

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

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

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

Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kafka compared with Hašek – bureaucracy

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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


Related links

The Good Soldier Švejk

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

Max Brod’s postscript to The Trial

Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka was born in Prague, capital of Bohemia, a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1883. Despite being born in what would become the capital of Czechoslovakia after the Great War, he was educated, spoke and wrote in German. Kafka died in June 1924 at the age of 40 from laryngeal tuberculosis. By the time of his death Kafka had published three collections of short stories, but he left behind a vast collection of manuscripts, notes and sketches, including the drafts of three book-length novels. Knowing he was dying, Kafka appointed his best friend, the successful literary journalist Max Brod, as his executor and asked him, verbally, and in writing, to burn every scrap of his notes and manuscripts.

Famously, Brod ignored the request and went on to meticulously organise and edit the (often unfinished) manuscripts, arranging for their publication, and thus ensuring that Kafka went on, after his death, to ultimately become one of the most famous authors of the twentieth century.

Why did Brod ignore his friend’s final request? The Penguin edition of The Trial prints the short epilogue in which Brod justifies ignoring Kafka’s last wishes, and explains why he instead preserved them all, edited them, and published them as the three novels – The Trial (1925), The Castle (1926) and America (1927) – and then a short story collection in 1931.

This is a detailed précis of that note.

Kafka’s reluctance to publish his writings

Brod tells us that nearly everything that Kafka published during his lifetime had to be extracted from him by (Brod’s) extensive persuasion and guile.

Kafka always referred to his writings as his ‘scribblings’ and other self-deprecating terms.

Kafka frequently read his writings to his small circle of friends ‘with a rhythmic sweep, a dramatic fire, a spontaneity such as no actor ever achieves.’

But he was reluctant to publish anything due to:

  • ‘certain unhappy experiences which drove him to a form of self-sabotage and a nihilistic attitude to his work
  • he always applied the highest religious standards to his own work and felt it fell short

(‘Religious’!? Yes, Brod thinks Kafka was a seeker ‘for faith, naturalness, and spiritual wholeness’. Many later critics have interpreted Kafka’s writings in all kinds of ways: Brod is the founder and chief proponent of seeing them as religious works.)

Kafka once told him that false hands were reaching out to (mis)lead him, while writing.

Kafka told him that what he had published so far had ‘led him astray in his further work’.

Kafka’s wish to have his writings burnt

Kafka left no will. Among his papers were found two documents in which he asked Brod to burn everything. One was a folded note which contained the following sentences:

Everything I leave behind me… in the way of notebooks, manuscripts, letters, my own and other people’s sketches and so on, is to be burned unread and to the last page, as well as all writings of mine or notes which either you may have or other people, from whom you are to beg them in my name.

There was also a yellowed and much older piece of piece of paper with a hand-written note. In it Kafka acknowledges that some of his stories are in print and so unavoidably in the public domain, then goes on to say:

Everything else of mine that I have written (printed in magazines or newspapers, written in manuscripts or letters) without exception, so far as it can be got hold of, or begged from the addressees… all this, without exception and preferably unread (although I don’t mind you looking into it, but I would much prefer that you didn’t, and in any case no one else is to look at it) – all this, without exception, is to be burned, and that you should do it as soon as possible is what I beg of you.

Brod’s reasons for refusing Kafka’s request

First, Brod says that some of his reasons for refusing the request are ‘private’. (Well, that’s frustrating, it would be good to know what they were, I wonder if he ever revealed them anywhere else…)

As to the ‘public’ reasons which Brod is minded to share with us, these are:

1. Once, during a jokey conversation about wills, Kafka had shown Brod the same folded note quoted above, and explained his wish to have all his writings burned, to which Brod had jokily given him fair warning, that if it came to it, he would refuse to follow these instructions. Franz made a joke of it, they both laughed, but as a result, Brod is convinced that Kafka knew in advance that his wishes would not be carried out. Thus, if he had truly wanted the papers burned, he would have appointed a different literary executor, a relative, a lawyer, someone with no interest in them as literature.

2. Brod tells us that, after this conversation in which he’d said that he wanted no more of his works to be published, Kafka had contradicted himself by allowing further works to be published, including four short stories in a volume titled The Hunger Artist.

3. Brod says that both the notes were written at a time in Kafka’s life when Brod knows that he was full of ‘self-hatred and Nihilism’. But in his last few years, according to Brod, Kafka’s life took an unexpected turn for the better, and he became much more happy and positive. The entire mind-set in which he wrote the notes became redundant.

4. As Brod stated at the start, every single piece of Kafka’s which was ever published had to be extracted from him by Brod’s persuasion and guile. But in every case, after they were published, Kafka was always pleased with the results. I.e. Brod had first-hand experience of seeing that, deep down, and no matter how much he publicly dismissed his works, Kafka did enjoy seeing his work in print, but was just hyper-sensitively shy about it.

5. All the arguments Kafka gave as to the negative personal and professional effect publishing had on him – such as that they created bad examples which misled his muse, or expectations which he couldn’t live up to – were rendered void by his death. Their publication would have no more effect on him.

These are the five ‘public’ reasons Brod gives for ignoring Kafka’s written wish that all his works be burned ‘unread’.

Max Brod and The Trial

Brod tells us that he came into possession of the manuscript of The Trial in 1920. [From another source I discover that Kafka wrote the book in a sustained burst of activity from August to December 1914, then in January 1915 dropped it, never to return.)

Kafka never actually wrote a title on the manuscript, but always referred to it as The Trial in conversation, so we can be confident about the title. The division into chapters, and the chapter headings are also Kafka’s. (Each of the chapters was neatly stored in a folder, even the unfinished ones.)

But The Trial is unfinished. The chapters themselves were never arranged in a final order. There is an obvious beginning (in which Joseph K is arrested), and a chapter titled The End (which he wrote early on, apparently, and in which Joseph K is murdered), but the order of all chapters in between was fluid.

To order them Brod tells us that used his own judgement, heavily based on the fact that Kafka had read a lot of the novel out loud to him and other friends, so he had a good feel for the intended order of most of it.

Before the final chapter, which features the death of the protagonist, Brod tells us that Kafka planned to include many more stages of the agonisingly uncertain processes and encounters described in the existing text, but Brod tells us that Kafka told him that the case was never to reach the supposed ‘highest Court’, and so:

in a certain sense the novel was interminable, it could be prolonged into infinity.

He tells us that the writing of the book wasn’t cut off by Kafka’s death from tuberculosis in 1924, but that Kafka had abandoned it earlier [1915, as mentioned above], when ‘his life entered an entirely new atmosphere’. It was abandoned, and after a few years Kafka felt unable to return to its mood and story, unable ever to complete it. Hence his written wish to have it (and the other unfinished novels) destroyed. You can understand Kafka’s motivation: he knew what his original intention had been, knew that he had nowhere near completed it, and knew that he would never again be in the frame of mind, to re-enter the text and complete it.

So, we conclude, Brod’s labour on the manuscript of The Trial amounted simply to:

  • separating the obviously finished from the obviously unfinished chapters
  • placing the finished ones in the correct order according to internal logic and what he remembered of Kafka’s readings
  • then approaching publishers to get it published

Which it was, in 1925, the year after Kafka’s death, bringing its dead author a trickle and then a flood of posthumous recognition.

Pretty obviously, the literary world owes Brod a vast debt of gratitude for his act of friendly disobedience.


Related links

  • Metamorphosis (1915)
  • The Trial (1925)
  • The Castle (1926)
  • America (1927)

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 is 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 had been the backdrop to Kundera’s 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 Kundera’s two most successful novels, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

And 15 years had passed since Kundera, in 1975, had finally abandoned all hope that 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, accounts of the Communist Party, and memories of the awful political events which his homeland had endured in the post-war decades.

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

1. Instead of political insight, moaning

This long novel is full of all-too-familiar Western griping. The first-person narrator makes his first in-person appearance on page five and quickly proceeds to share with us all his moans and complaints about life in the West. He:

  • 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 who’s on the nail about everything, to sounding like your moany old grandad who thinks the world is going to the dogs.

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 was 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 energetic 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 pissed off. Bloody lifts. Bloody muzak. Bloody paparazzi everywhere. Bloody packed pavements.

The essence of the ‘grumpy old man’ character 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 in particular) which are life-affirming qualities – whereas the tone of Immortality is defeated and sad.

3. All too familiar

Another disappointing aspect of Kundera’s 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 soundbites 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. He just sounds like my Dad.

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 on into it you realise that part of the reason that Immortality is Kundera’s longest book 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 – paper allocations at communist publishers or something – which required the earlier books to be pithy and concentrated. Whatever the reason, it feels like someone at his French publishers said you him, ‘Right you’re in the Free West now, you can write as much as you want.’

And so 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 an older woman at a swimming pool waving 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 she tried to cover it up. The entire idea for the character of a woman ashamed of her body’s bad behaviour 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 expected to die, but it was her Mother who suddenly died while 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 Agnes. 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. The scene is brief because the great general is 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, that 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. Bettina bombarded the older man with letters and saved all his replies. Kundera subtly takes us into the mind of the old poet, aware that Bettina 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 fact that, after the poet died in 1832, Bettina got her letters back and then proceeded to doctor all of them, and all Goethe’s replies, in order 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 pages)

This is the longest section, made up of lots of sub-sections, which overflow with characteristically clever and insightful 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, Kundera appears to have been 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 behave like gladiators paid to goad and humiliate their interviewees. Again this sounds like sour grapes. You can’t help feeling Kundera must at some point have been ‘monstered’ by French journalists and is now getting his revenge (pp.121-124).

The protagonist listens to a radio programme where the present is interviewing a film actor but only wants to talk about the actor’s private life. ‘Can’t we talk about my films?’ the actor asks. ‘Why, what are you trying to hide?’ the interviewer asks, insidiously. There is no escape from the ghastly, rude and philistine insinuations of the all-powerful media (p.138).

The narrator complains that political discourse has been taken over by Imagology which is run by imagologues (p.127). By this he means 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).

This grumbling about imagologues is half-heartedly incorporated into the story. Agnes’ husband, Paul, is a lawyer by profession, but works part-time at a radio station. Kundera has one of the ‘imagologues’ in charge of the advertisers who fund the radio station tell its director (nicknamed the Bear) to sack Paul from his weekly radio talk.

Although Paul 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 violently 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 becomes so preoccupied with this message 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: this is Kundera’s, by now, stock take on human relationships – the unknowability of other people – which rings loudly through all his previous fiction.)

Bernard begins to distance himself from Laura (they don’t actually live together). She notices this and becomes querulous. He begins to think of her as a nuisance. She follows him on one of the weekends when he goes away by himself 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 Goethe’s 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 of 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 Goethe’s 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.

This recounts how one day Beethoven was visiting Goethe in Weimar and the two great men took a walk when they saw the Empress i.e. the 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 about Beethoven, 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-upmanship 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 in order to milk their resources and to 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 and 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 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 opens 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-the-narrator 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.

Kundera and Avenarius then 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 of the suicidal girl – or at least makes a systematic attempt to imagine the weak character, and the snubs and humiliations she’s received, which led 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, which I found unpleasant to read.

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, imagining he has a knife to mug her or rape her. 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.

But Agnes dies fifteen minutes before they get to the hospital. Avenarius’s tyre-slashing meant that Paul didn’t get to see his wife one more time before she died.

Part Six – The Dial (64 pages)

After an unpromising start, this part 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 because 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 can only remember odd, quirky details. He can’t remember the most sensational of the escapades, but, for some reason, it’s often the most plain, vanilla sex 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 Rubens, even as he notices his powers failing with other women. And 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 but 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 most of the rest of the novel.

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 ‘the crooked timber of humanity’, of the strange depths and unexpected shallownesses and unpredictability and puzzlingly obstinate difficulties of life as most of us experience it.

The section 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.

This scene appears to be set 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 how biographiesare 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 but realises that Paul’s long tirade is probably displacement of the frustration he’s feeling with his situation. His (Paul’s) daughter, Brigitte, ran away when he (Paul) 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. At which point 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 Avenarious 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 instead of getting him off the charge.)

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.

1. French bourgeoisie 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.

2. Goethe 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.

3. Lack of political charge 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 narrative techniques as the earlier ones – 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.

4. Narrow Put yet another way, the weaknesses of the novel are encapsulated in 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 complexity of the world round them much more interesting than the clever lucubrations of the 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 Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera (1986)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. The Depreciated Legacy of Cervantes (1983)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Dialogue on the Art of the Novel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Notes inspired ‘The Sleepwalkers’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Dialogue on the Art of Composition (1983)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Somewhere behind (1979)

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

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

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

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

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

6. Sixty-Three Words (1986)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Central ideas

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

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

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

Last thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

Credit

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


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

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

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

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

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

The 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

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