A Hunger Artist and other stories by Franz Kafka

A Hunger Artist is a collection of four short stories by Franz Kafka published in Germany in 1924, the last collection that Kafka himself prepared for publication. Kafka corrected the proofs during his final illness but the book was only published several months after his death. The first English translations of the stories, by Willa and Edwin Muir, were published in 1948, in the larger collection titled The Penal Colony.

They are all relatively short stories (compared to the 60 or so pages of The Metamorphosis). They are all odd, peculiar, non-naturalistic stories, having the feel of dreams or fables. They all seem to point to a truth or meaning beyond themselves, just out of reach. And it’s noticeable that three of the four have a circus setting, or involve animals, as did some of the stories in A Country Doctor.

First Sorrow (3 pages)

An account of a trapeze artist, married to and obsessed by his trade. It is typical of Kafka that the man lives in his trapeze, that food has to be hoisted up to him in special containers, merely retiring to one side when other performers perform, that he loves the height, the sense of freedom, specially when the windows round the top are opened.

But he hates travelling of any kind, in the city will only submit to being taken anywhere if it’s in the manager’s sports car, and from city to city, when travelling by train, has such sensitive nerves that he and the manager take a whole compartment to themselves and the trapeze artist sleeps in the luggage rack.

On one train journey the trapeze artist surprises the manager by asking for two trapezes to be set up for him to use. The manager, who clearly pampers the trapeze artist, immediately agrees. Nevertheless the trapeze artist is sad, and for the first time the manager sees worry lines and tears trickling down his face as he sleeps.

So that’s what the title, First Sorrow, turns out to mean. It is an elusive, elliptical story.

A Little Woman (8 pages)

This is very reminiscent of the fabric and feel of Kafka’s longer fiction, The Castle in particular, in the way it consists of a long, convoluted and tortuous meditation on a relationship between the narrator and one other character.

It simply starts off by describing a thin woman known to the narrator, and then explains that, for some unknown reason, she is permanently vexed and irritated by him, and from there passes into ever-more complex over-thinking of why that might be, and what it might mean, and the many possible reasons for her vexation, and whether it’s a performance solely for public consumption, and so on and so on and so on.

It is all done in Kafka’s characteristic block paragraphs which I find challenging to read.

Perhaps she hopes that once public attention is fixed on me a general public rancour against me will rise up and use all its great powers to condemn me definitively much more effectively and quickly than her relatively feeble private rancour could do; she would then retire into the background, draw a breath of relief, and turn her back on me. Well, if that is what her hopes are really set on, she is deluding herself. Public opinion will not take over her role; public opinion would never find me so infinitely objectionable, even under its most powerful magnifying glass. I am not so altogether useless a creature as she thinks; I don’t want to boast and especially not in this connection; but if I am not conspicuous for specially useful qualities, I am certainly not conspicuous for the lack of them; only to her, only to her almost bleached eyes, do I appear so, she won’t be able to convince anyone else. So in this respect I can feel quite reassured, can I? No, not at all; for if it becomes generally known that my behavior is making her positively ill, which some observers, those who most industriously bring me information about her, for instance, are not far from perceiving, or at least look as if they perceived it, and the world should put questions to me, why am I tormenting the poor little woman with my incorrigibility, and do I mean to drive her to her death, and when am I going to show some sense and have enough decent human feeling to stop such goings-on — if the world were to ask me that, it would be difficult to find an answer. Should I admit frankly that I don’t much believe in these symptoms of illness, and thus produce the unfavourable impression of being a man who blames others to avoid being blamed himself, and in such an ungallant manner? And how could I say quite openly that even if I did believe that she were really ill, I should not feel the slightest sympathy for her, since she is a complete stranger to me and any connection between us is her own invention and entirely one-sided. I don’t say that people wouldn’t believe me; they wouldn’t be interested enough to get so far as belief; they would simply note the answer I gave concerning such a frail, sick woman, and that would be little in my favour. Any answer I made would inevitably come up against the world’s incapacity to keep down the suspicion that there must be a love affair behind such a case as this, although it is as clear as daylight that such a relationship does not exist, and that if it did it would come from my side rather than hers, since I should be really capable of admiring the little woman for the decisive quickness of her judgment and her persistent vitality in leaping to conclusions, if these very qualities were not always turned as weapons against me.

It amounts to a brief specimen of the kind of endlessly self-questioning, over-ratiocination which makes the novels so very long and, often, such hard going, a fine example of the way Kafka can spin an inordinate amount of verbiage out of the simplest relationship.

In a sense this short excerpt demonstrates the technique by which Kafka assembles the longer texts to create the structure of the novels: the technique being to line up a series of encounters with officials from the Court, and then subject each one to a mind-bogglingly over-elaborated, hyper-sensitive, and rather menacing over-thinking of every possible nuance and conceivable double, triple and quadruple interpretation of all possible permutations of thinking and worrying about it.

Until you end up with entire paragraphs which appear to be saying something but which are, on closer examination, almost empty, as the narrator himself at one point acknowledges.

And on closer reflection it appears that the developments which the affair seems to have undergone in the course of time are not developments in the affair itself, but only in my attitude to it, insofar as that has become more composed on the one hand, more manly, penetrating nearer the heart of the matter, while on the other hand, under the influence of the continued nervous strain which I cannot overcome, however slight, it has increased in irritability.

A Hunger Artist (11 pages)

As I’ve noted in my reviews of the novels, a key element of the Kafka style is entropy, meaning that everything, large and small, literal or symbolic, falls away, declines, decays and dies.

The protagonists of The Trial and The Castle and The Metamorphosis die in the end, the Officer of In The Penal Colony dies, the man waiting at the door of the Law dies. And thus it is that, following the general pattern, the Hunger Artist as well wastes away and dies.

And, just like in The Trial or the Penal Colony or the Door of the Law, his last words contain a message pregnant with meaning and poignancy.

The text is told by a narrator looking back wistfully at an earlier time, a tone which immediately reminds us of The Great Wall of China. Back in those days, back in the good old days, fasting was an art which was widely appreciated and the Hunger Artist was the leader in his field. He was paraded around in a barred cage, wearing a black swimsuit, his ribs sticking out, setting up in a new town or city every forty days, and charging admission to admiring crowds who came to point and ooh and mock or admire his heroic efforts to survive on no food for forty days.

Why forty days? Well, on an interpretative level this is obviously a number fraught with religious meaning, since Jesus went into the wilderness to fast for forty days and nights, and this story itself was possibly invented to mirror the forty days and nights of the Biblical flood told in the book of Genesis.

But in the story it is simply because the artist’s commercially minded manager has discovered that forty days is about as long as you can milk an audience in any given own or city before they start to get bored and he has to move on.

The middle part of the text describes the Hunger Artist’s unhappiness and disgust at the way people don’t believe he’s really fasting, the way the guards set to watch over him don’t really believe him, and so on.

But then the narrator describes how a great change comes over society, fashions change, pastimes change, and people lost interest in fasting as a spectator sport. The manager tries a last whistle-stop tour of cities to rouse audiences, but people just weren’t interested any more. Should the Hunger Artist take up a new profession? He’s too old to learn new tricks. And anyway, it is his life’s work.

So he signs up to join a circus, although he finds his cage being set up in the narrow walkways the crowds walk along to get to the far more exciting animal cages. He has become a back number. People hurry past his cage or stop to mock.

Strictly speaking, he was only an impediment on the way to the menagerie.

Children ask their parents what it means and what he does. But the parents struggle to explain:

You try explaining fasting to someone! Unless a person feels it he can never be made to understand it.

His keeper initially marks a record of the days fasted on a wooden plaque stuck on the bars of his cage, but eventually forgets to do this, then forgets about the artist altogether. See what I mean by entropy.

One day a new supervisor demands to know the purpose of this empty cage and no-one can remember what it’s for. Mixed in with the straw is a stick. When they poke it the stick it talks. It is the Hunger Artist. The rough proley nature of the workers is well conveyed in the J.A. Underwood translation, as the workers listen to the Hunger Artist’s last confession. He only fasted, he explains in a weak whisper, because he never found anything he wanted to eat.

And with this poignant confession he expires, the circus labourers clear out his cage and instal a virile young panther in it which draws the crowds with its awesome power.

The Hunger Artist feels like a fable or parable or allegory of awesome importance, with Biblical resonances and some deep meaning for all of us. But what is that meaning exactly, is it historical or psychological or political or sociological… Kafka has left a century of critics and commentators to discuss.

Coming with a deep interest in history I note that the final years of the Great War saw widespread starvation in Germany and Austro-Hungary due to the Allied blockade on all shipping which prevented the importation of foodstuffs. And one of the Axis powers’ grievances was that the blockade continued for seven months after the armistice of November 1918, up until the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919.

Thus real hunger, the actual starvation of men women and children was a spectacle Kafka and all Germans would have been bitterly familiar with.

Then again, those who prefer biographical explanations will point to the fact Kafka himself throughout his adult life subjected himself to an increasingly strict diet, which began with vegetarianism and became progressively more strict and self denying until he in fact died of untreatable laryngeal tuberculosis, which closed up his throat until he could neither eat nor drink and literally starved to death.

But you don’t need to know either of these background facts to respond to the power of the story. It is the way the subject has been turned into not just fiction, but into a story with the roundedness and finish and fairy tale perfection of a fable or allegory or parable, which counts.

Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk (19 pages)

The narrator writes like a person drafting a long critical essay examining a contemporary artist from a variety of sociological angles, except that, as the story progresses, the reader realises that the narrator is a mouse and that he is talking about the ‘famous’ mouse singer Josephine.

I’ve repeatedly mentioned the way things in Kafka’s stories decline and fall away, and the way this even happens within individual sentences, in the way a sentence sets off to make a statement and finds itself contradicting its opening, qualifying and balancing and introducing doubts and numerous clauses which successively weaken the opening until it is often abolished and erased.

Even Kafka’s sentences display a death wish.

That pattern is very visible in this, Kafka’s final story. The narrator opens by telling us that Josephine is the mouse people’s greatest and most popular singer and makes a few supporting statements about how important she is to her people.

But this breezy opening is then subjected to eighteen pages of criticism and undermining. It comes out that her ‘singing’ might in fact not be strictly speaking ‘singing’ after all. In fact it might very much be like the sound every other mouse makes, which is a common or garden squeak. In fact Josephine’s squeaking might, in fact, even be weaker and less impressive than the average mouse’s. If this is so, what on earth gives her the extraordinary power and influence she holds over mousekind?

And it is to the investigation of this apparent mystery, with long, multi-claused sentences, hedging his own conclusions, balancing interpretations and weighing possible theories, that the narrator turns to ponder with all the weighty orotundity of a learned German professor.

How to explain that at some public concerts, other mice have gotten excited and let out squeaks, and those squeaks were every bit as good as Josephine’s if not better? Is her popularity something to do with the history and struggle of her people, his people?

A thought which gives rise to a long series of reflections on the life of mice, how they are born into struggle, into a life of anxiety, small and weak and surrounded by enemies, by ‘the enemy’.

It was impossible, for me at any rate, not to think about Kafka’s Jewishness and wonder to what extent these repeated and heartfelt descriptions of a scattered, weak race oppressed by stronger neighbours, is a not very coded reference to his Jewish peers.

Our life is very uneasy, every day brings surprises, apprehensions, hopes, and terrors, so that it would be impossible for a single individual to bear it all did he not always have by day and night the support of his fellows; but even so it often becomes very difficult…

This mass of our people who are almost always on the run and scurrying hither and thither for reasons that are often not very clear…

Laughter for its own sake is never far away from us; in spite of all the misery of our lives quiet laughter is always, so to speak, at our elbows…

One might think that our people are not fitted to exercise such paternal duties, but in reality they discharge them, at least in this case, admirably; no single individual could do what in this respect the people as a whole are capable of doing. To be sure, the difference in strength between the people and the individual is so enormous that it is enough for the nursling to be drawn into the warmth of their nearness and he is sufficiently protected.

But for all the occasions that the reader can impose onto sentences like these a meaning to do with the Jewish community of Prague or Berlin or Central Europe, there are plenty of other sections which are patently just descriptions of mice, with their impatience, tendency to gossip and to squeak at the slightest provocation.

In other words, the narrative sometimes approaches what you could call a real-world interpretation but then veers away, into fiction, subsumed into the vividness of the allegory or fable.

Whenever we get bad news – and on many days bad news comes thick and fast at once, lies and half-truths included – she rises up at once, whereas usually she sits listlessly on the ground, she rises up and stretches her neck and tries to see over the heads of her flock like a shepherd before a thunderstorm…

The more you read on, the more you realise the text is as much or more an analysis of The Mouse Folk as of Josephine herself, and hence its sub-title. And, while you read on, the figure of Josephine becomes less and less of a singer and more and more of a unifying symbol of hope for an embattled people.

Josephine’s thin piping amidst grave decisions is almost like our people’s precarious existence amidst the tumult of a hostile world.

But by half-way through you have come to realise that the story is more like a parable about art and the artist and the artist or storyteller’s ability to give comfort and solace to his ‘people’ no matter how inadequate and ordinary his voice.

It is more the symbolism and the staging of the artist’s performances and what they mean for his or her listeners or readers which matters, it is the psychological unifying and healing it offers, than the actual ‘quality’.

Squeaking is our people’s daily speech, only many a one squeaks his whole life long and does not know it, where here [in Josephine’s performances] squeaking is set free from the fetters of daily life and it sets us free too for a little while…

And where he writes squeaking, he means speaking, and in fact means writing.


Related links

These are links to modern translations of the stories available online.

Related reviews

Dates are dates of composition.

Slowness by Milan Kundera (1995)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Credit

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


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

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

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

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

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

Don McCullin @ Tate Britain

This is an enormous exhibition of over 250 photos by famous war photographer Don McCullin. A working class lad who left school at 15 and got interested in cameras during his national service, the show opens with the first photograph he sold (in 1958 a policeman was stabbed by members of a gang in Finsbury Park – McCullin happened to have been at school with some of these young toughs and persuaded them to be photographed posing in a bombed-out house – people in his office saw the printed photo and said why don’t you try selling it to a newspaper? A newspaper bought it, and said have you got any more like that? And so a star was born).

The Guv'nors in their Sunday suits, Finsbury Park (1958)

The Guv’nors in their Sunday suits, Finsbury Park (1958)

The exhibition then follows McCullin’s career as he visited one warzone, famine zone, disaster zone, after another from the early 1960s right through to the 2000s, in the process becoming one of the most famous photographers in the world. He began a long association with the Sunday Times which covered war zones and natural disasters around the world in a ground-breaking combination of photojournalism.

Each of these odysseys is accompanied by a wall label which gives you the historical background of the conflict in question, and then, separately, McCullin’s reactions and thoughts about it.

Not all of them are abroad. The Troubles in Northern Ireland, though mainland Brits often forget it, was, of course, a low-level war or civil conflict fought here in Britain. And McCullin also undertook trips with journalists to parts of Britain which were still very, very deprived in the 1960s and 70s, capturing images of the homeless and alcoholics in the East End, as well as sequences depicting the bleak late-industrial landscapes and cramped lifestyles of the North of England.

Homeless Irishman, Spitalfields, London (1970)

Homeless Irishman, Spitalfields, London (1970)

The featured locations and subjects are:

  • Early London i.e. variations on his gangs of Finsbury shots
  • 1961 a journey to Berlin just as the wall was going up
  • Republic of Congo descent into civil war
  • Cyprus – intercommunal assassinations between Greeks and Turks
  • Biafra, war and then famine in this breakaway state of Nigeria
  • Vietnam – McCullin went to Vietnam no fewer than eighteen times and shot some of the iconic images of the war: there’s a display case showing the passports he used and the actual combat helmet he wore
Grenade thrower, Hue, Vietnam (1968)

Grenade thrower, Hue, Vietnam (1968)

  • Cambodia – as the Vietnam conflict spilled over into its neighbour setting the scene for the rise of the Khmer Rouge
  • the East End i.e. the homeless, tramps and derelicts around Spitalfields
  • Northern Ireland in the early years of the conflict 1970 showing youths throwing stones at British soldiers
  • Bradford and the North – McCullin has a special fondness for Bradford with its rugged stone architecture, and shot the working class amusements of the population (bingo, the pub) with the same harsh candour he brought to his war photos
  • British Summer Time – a smaller section about the activities of the British rich i.e. the season, Ascot etc
  • Bangladesh – the war followed by floods and famine as East Pakistan broke away from West Pakistan in 1971
  • Beirut – once the Paris of the Middle East descends into a three-way civil war, destabilised by neighbours Israel and Syria – there’s a famous sequence McCullin shot at a home for the mentally ill which had been abandoned by most of its carers: madness within madness
  • Iraq – among the Kurds in particular as the first Gulf War came to its tragic end (President Bush exhorted the Kurds and Marsh Arabs to rise up against Saddam Hussein but when they did, gave them no help, so that they were slaughtered in their thousands or fled to refugee camps
  • southern Ethiopia – amazingly colourful tribespeople holding kalashnikovs
  • India – one of McCullin’s favourite countries which he’s returned to again and again to capture the swirl and detail of life
  • the AIDS pandemic in Africa – pictures of the dying accompanied by McCullin’s harrowing description of the AIDS pandemic as the biggest disaster he’d covered

Finally, in the last big room, are displayed the photos from the last few decades of McCullin’s career (born in October 1935, he is now 83 years old), in which he has finally been persuaded to take it easy. These are in two big themes and a smaller one:

  • he has been undertaking trips to the ancient Roman ruins to be found in the Arab countries bordering the Mediterranean, leading up to the publication of the book Southern Frontiers: A Journey Across the Roman Empire
  • and his most recent book, The Landscape (2018), is a collection of stunning photos of the scenery near his home in the Somerset Levels
  • finally, right at the tippy-most end of this long exhausting exhibition are three or four still lifes, very deliberately composed to reference the tradition of the still life in art, featuring apples or flowers in a bowl, next to a cutting board
Woods near My House, Somerset (c.1991)

Woods near My House, Somerset (c.1991)

Black and white

All the 250 photos in the exhibition are in black and white. McCullin printed them himself by hand in the dark room at his Somerset home.

As I’ve remarked in reviews of umpteen other photography exhibitions, black and white photography is immediately more arty than colour, because it focuses your visual response on depth, shade, lines and composition.

A lot of the early war photography is obviously capturing the moment, often under gunfire (McCullin was himself hit by shrapnel and hospitalised in Cambodia). But many of the smokestack cityscapes of Bradford and the North, the images of swirling mist and muddy rivers in India, and then the bleak photos of the Somerset Levels, in winter, dotted by leafless trees, floodwater reflecting the huge mackerel cloudscapes – many of these also have a threatening, looming, menacing effect.

The wall labels and the quotes from McCullin himself make it explicit that he is still haunted by the horrors he has witnessed – of war and cruelty, but also of famine and death by epidemic disease. It is a fairly easy interpretation to find the trauma of war still directing the aesthetic of the later photos – whether of Roman ruins in the desert or lowering skies over bleak Somerset in winter – both looking as if some terrible cataclysm has overtaken them.

The magazine slideshow

The one exception to the black and white presentation is a big dark projection room which shows a loop of the magazine covers and articles where McCullin’s photos were first published, displays of how they actually looked when first used, covered with banner headlines, or next to pages of text, and accompanied by detailed captions, describing the scene, what had happened just before or was going to happen afterwards, quotes from the people pictured.

It is striking what a difference a) being in colour and b) being accompanied by text, makes to these images. You quite literally read them in a different way, namely that your eye is drawn first to the text, whether it be the splash headlines on the front covers, or the tiny lines of caption accompanying the images.

It makes you realise that they were almost all first intended to tell a story, to explain a situation and, in all of the rest of the rooms of the exhibition, where that story is told by, at most, a paragraph of text on the wall, the images become ‘orphaned’. They stand alone. they are more ominous, pregnant with meaning, imposing.

Here, in the magazine slideshow, pretty much the same images are contained, corralled to sizes and shapes dictated by magazine layout, and overwritten by text which immediately channels your aesthetic and emotional responses and underwritten by captions, explanations and quotes which lead you away from the image and into the world of words and information.

And because information is, at the end of the day, more entrancing than pictures, more addictive (you want to find out what happened next, who, where, what, why) in one way this was the most powerful room in the show. I stayed for the entire loop which must have lasted over ten minutes, incidentally conveying, yet again, the sheer volume of work McCullin produced.

Local Boys in Bradford (1972

Local Boys in Bradford (1972

One perspective

Which brings me to my concluding thought which is that, for all its breadth (some fifty countries visited) and variety (from traumatic photojournalistic immediacy of wounded soldiers or starving children, to the monumental beauty of the Roman ruin shots and the chilly vistas of Somerset in winter) there is nonetheless a kind of narrowness to the work, in at least two ways:

The louring images of Somerset could hardly be more bleak and abandoned and the commentary is not slow to make the obvious point that they can be interpreted as landscapes as portrayed by a deeply traumatised, harrowed survivor i.e. it is all the suffering he saw which makes McCullin’s photographs of Somerset so compelling.

Well, yes, but these are also landscapes which people travel a long way to go on holiday in, where people have barbecues in the summer, take their dogs for walks, cars drive across playing Radio One, which has a good cricket team and various tourist attractions.

None of that is here. None of the actual world in all its banality, traffic jams and Tesco superstores. The images have been very carefully composed, shot and printed in order to create a particular view of the world.

And this also goes for the war and disaster photos. Seeing so many brilliantly captured, framed and shot images of war and disaster and famine, as well as the images of wrecked human beings in Spitalsfield and the poverty of the North of England – all this is bleak and upsetting and creates the impression that McCullin was living, that we are all living, in a world in permanent crisis, permanent poverty, permanent devastation.

A Catholic youth threatening police, Londonderry, Northern Ireland (1971)

A Catholic youth threatening police, Londonderry, Northern Ireland (1971)

You would never guess from this exhibition that his career covers the heyday of the Beatles, Swinging London, hippies smoking dope in a thousand attic squats, Biba and new boutiques, that – in other words – while soldiers were torturing civilians in Congo or Bangladesh, lots of young people were partying, older people going to work, kids going to school, families going on package holidays to the Costa del Sol, trying out fondue sets and meal warmers and all the other fancy new consumer gadgets which the Sunday Times advertised in the same magazines where McCullin’s photos appeared.

In other words, that away from these warzones, and these areas of maximum deprivation, life was going on as usual, and life was actually sweet for many millions of Brits. Kids play and laugh, even in warzones, even in poor neighborhoods. No kids are playing or laughing in any of these photos.

McCullin’s photos build up into an amazing oeuvre, an incredible body of work. But it would be a mistake to use them as the basis for a history or political interpretation of the era. It is just one perspective, and a perspective paid for by editors who wanted him to seek out the most harrowing, the most gut-wrenching and the most conscience-wracking situations possible.

If the cumulative worldview which arises from all these 250 photos is violent and troubled that is because he was paid to take photos of violence and trouble. Other photographers were doing fashion and advertising and sport and pop music photos. Their work is just as valid.

None of McCullin’s work is untrue (obviously), and all of it is beautifully shot and luminously printed – but his photos need to be placed in a much wider, broader context to even begin to grasp the history and meaning of his complex and multi-faceted era.

The promotional video


Related links

Related reviews

Reviews of other photography exhibitions

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