The Nightmare of Reason: The Life of Franz Kafka by Ernst Pawel – part one (1984)

‘What do I have in common with the Jews? I hardly have anything in common with myself and should stand very quietly in a corner, content that I can breathe.’
(Franz Kafka, 8 January 1914)

This is a hugely enjoyable biography of Franz Kafka, chiefly because it is itself so unKafkaesque, so informative and logical and entertaining.

Although the subject matter and settings of Kafka’s novels and short stories vary, what all Kafka’s works have in common (well, apart from the really short stories) is the long-winded and often convoluted nature of his prose which seeks to reflect the over-self-conscious and over-thinking paranoia, anxiety and, sometimes, terror of his protagonists, narrators or characters.

Pawel’s book, by contrast, is a wonderfully refreshing combination of deep historical background, penetrating psychological insights, fascinating detail about the literary and cultural world of turn-of-the-century Prague, and hair-raising quotes from Kafka’s diaries, letters and works, all conveyed in brisk and colourful prose. Pawel is about as variedly entertaining as prose can be, which came as a huge relief after struggling through the monotone grimness of a story like The Burrow.

Three ethnicities

If you read any of Kafka’s works it’s difficult to avoid blurbs and introductions which give away the two key facts of his biography – 1. his lifelong fear of his father, Herrmann, and 2. how he spent his entire working life in a state insurance company, itself embedded in the elephantine web of Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy.

The Workmen’s Accident and Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia was an integral part of the pullulating Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy that, like a giant net of near-epic intricacy, covered the entire Hapsburg domain. (The Nightmare of Reason, page 183)

Between them these two facts can be used as the basis of entry-level commentaries on Kafka’s stories, interpreting them as being about either:

  1. anxiety and dread of some nameless father figure who inspires an irrational sense of paralysing guilt
  2. or (as the two famous novels do) as unparalleled descriptions of vast, impenetrable bureaucracies which the helpless protagonists can never understand or appeal to

So far, so obvious. What I enjoyed most in this biography was all the stuff I didn’t know. First and foremost, Pawel gives the reader a much deeper understanding of the history, the politics and, especially, the ethnic make-up of Bohemia, where Kafka was born and lived most his life, and of its capital city, Prague – and explains why this mattered so much.

What comes over loud and clear is the tripartite nature of the situation, meaning there were three main ethnic groups in Bohemia, who all hated each other:

1. The majority of the population of Prague and Bohemia was Czech-speaking Czechs, who became increasingly nationalistic as the 19th century progressed, lobbying for a nation state of their own, outspokenly resentful of the Austrian authorities and of their allies in the German-speaking minority.

2. A minority of the population, around 10 to 15%, were ethnic Germans. They regarded themselves as culturally and racially superior to the Czechs, who they thought of as inferior ‘slavs’. The Germans were bolstered 1. by their proximity to Germany itself, with its immense cultural and literary heritage, and 2. because they spoke the same language as the Austrians who ruled the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Most schools in Bohemia taught German as the official language, resulting in a state of civil war between the two languages and low level conflict between the two cultures – Pawel describes it as an ‘abyss’ (p.140).

Kafka, for example, although he was complimented on his spoken Czech, never considered himself fluent in it, and was educated, preferred to speak and wrote in German. In reference books he is referred to as a master of German prose.

3. And then there were the Jews. Pawel goes into great detail and is absolutely fascinating about the position of Jews in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Bohemia in particular. He goes back to the Emperor Joseph II’s 1781 Patent of Toleration, which allowed Jews and Protestants for the first time to practice their religion in the Empire, and the charter for religious freedom granted the Jews of Galicia in 1789. From these statutes dated a series of other laws enacted throughout the nineteenth century designed to ’emancipate’ the Jews from a range of medieval laws which had placed huge restrictions on how they could dress, where they could go, what jobs they could hold.

But this so-called emancipation was a double-edged sword, because it also abolished the communal autonomy which the Jews had enjoyed, it forbad the wearing of traditional Jewish clothes, and it enforced the Germanisation of Jewish culture.

The effect of all this was that, through the 19th century, successive generations of Jews tried to break out of the squalor and poverty of their predominantly rural settlements, emigrated to the big cities of the Empire, dropped their traditional clothing and haircuts, learned to speak German better than the Germans, and in every way tried to assimilate.

Both [Kafka’s] parents belonged to the first generation of assimilated Jews. (p.54)

Unfortunately, this ‘aping’ of German culture mainly served to breed resentment among ‘true’ Germans against these cultural ‘impostors’, with the net result that, the more the Jews tried to assimilate to German culture, the more the Germans hated them for it.

Thus, in a bitter, world-historical irony, an entire generation of urbanised, secular Jews found themselves in love with and practicing a Germanic culture whose rightful ‘owners’, the Germans, hated them with an unremitting anti-semitism (pp.99, 149).

And these hyper-intelligent Jews were totally aware of the fact, bitterly reminded of it every time another anti-semitic article was published in their newspapers or anti-semitic ruit took place in their towns. And so it helped to create a feeling that if only they weren’t Jews everything would be alright. It helped to create the phenomenon known as Jewish self-hatred, a condition Pawel thinks Kafka suffered from, acutely, all his life (p.108).

(Though not as much as the journalist Karl Kraus. In a typically fascinating digression, Pawel devotes an excoriating passage to Kraus, a secular Jew born into a wealthy industrialist family, who became a leading satirical writer and journalist, and devoted his flaming energies to protecting the ‘purity’ of the German language, and – according to Pawels – castigating ‘the Jews’ for importing provincial jargon and Yiddishisms. Kraus was, in Pawel’s view, ‘the quintessential incarnation of Jewish self-hatred’ (p.226).)

And don’t forget that, all the while they were the subject of German anti-semitism, the Jews also got it in the neck from the other side, from the nationalist Czechs, the more Germanic the Jews strove to become, the more the Czech nationalists hated them for sucking up to their oppressors. The Jews got it from both directions.

I knew about Austrian anti-semitism, not least from reading biographies of Freud. But I didn’t know anything about the distinctive dynamic of Czech anti-semitism.

The emancipation of the Jews

Pawel describes all this in such depth and detail because it explains the impact on Kafka’s own biography – namely that Franz’s father, Herrmann, was one of that generation of Jews who, in the mid-nineteenth-century, escaped from the grinding poverty of the rural shtetl, migrated to the city, and finagled the money to set himself up in business, to try to rise in the world.

One of the best-known things about Kafka is how he lived in abject fear of his father, who instilled a permanent sense of terror and anxiety in him, but Pawel explains brilliantly how Kafka senior was a highly representative figure, just one among a great wave of Jews of his generation who escaped rural poverty, migrated to the city, became more or less successful businessmen and… sired sons who despised them.

He wasn’t alone. Pawel shows how it was a pattern repeated across educated Jewry (p.98).

Seen from this historical perspective, Sigmund Freud (born 1856 in Příbor in what is now the Moravian province of the Czech Republic) is a kind of patron saint of his and the slightly later generation (Kafka was born in 1883) for Freud’s father, Jakob, was the son of devout Hasidic Jews, who, in the classic style, moved from his home district to the big city of Vienna where he struggled to run a business as a wool merchant, rejecting along the way all the appurtenances of the rural Judaism which were so associated with poverty and provincialism. It was as a result of Jakob’s deracination, that his son decisively broke with any religious belief, and became the immensely successful and highly urbanised founder of psychoanalysis.

Same or something similar with a whole generation of Jewish-German writers artists and composers – Kafka, Brod, Hermann Broch, Wittgenstein, Karl Kraus, Walter Benjamin, Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg and so on (pp.98, 99). It was a world of staggering artistic brilliance – this was the generation which contributed to and helped define the whole idea of Modern Art. But it was all built on a volcano, the fierce hatred of ‘genuine’ Germans for the ‘cosmopolitan’ Jews who (they thought) were appropriating their culture.

This was the atmosphere of Kafka’s world, dense with hate. (p.44)

Judaism is replaced by literature

A further consequence emerges from Pawel’s historical approach which is that this generation, the first generation of truly urbanised Jews, which had largely lost its religious faith in the process, nonetheless continued, like their rabbinical forefathers, the Jewish obsession with the written word.

Only instead of devoting their lives to interpreting the Holy Scriptures as their Hasidic forefathers, rabbis and holy men had – these largely irreligious urbanites now nagged and worried about secular types of writing – namely literature and philosophy and criticism and aesthetics. God may have been declared dead and words no longer used to pray and worship – but instead, the endless finagling of rabbis and commentators was now applied to existence itself, to a scrupulous cross-examination of modern life in the hurly-burly of hectic cities.

The Jewish intelligentsia on the whole remained isolated, inbred and inward looking…Theirs was a paradoxically communal shtetl of cantankerous individualists huddled in the warrens of their self-absorption, with literature as their religion and self-expression their road to salvation. (p.153)

As Pawel puts it with typically colourful rhetoric:

Kafka’s true ancestors, the substance of his flesh and spirit, were an unruly crowd of Talmudists, Cabalists, medieval mystics resting uneasy beneath the jumble of heaving, weatherbeaten tombstones in Prague’s Old Cemetery, seekers in search of a reason for faith. (p.100)

The same intense scrutiny the forefathers paid to every word and accent of the Talmud, their heirs now devoted to the production of texts exploring the experience of the modern world which boiled down, again and again, in the hands of its most dogged exponents, to an investigation of language itself.

And so we find Kafka in December 1910 making one of the hundreds and hundreds of diary entries he devoted obsessively to the subject of writing, of words, of prose, of literature:

I cannot write. I haven’t managed a single line I’d care to acknowledge; on the contrary, I threw out everything – it wasn’t much – that I had written since Paris. My whole body warns me of every word, and every word first looks around in all directions before it lets itself be written down by me. The sentences literally crumble in my hands.

‘Every word first looks around in all directions before it lets itself be written down by me’! In Kafka’s hands, even language itself is gripped by fear.

Kafka’s diet

Kafka was a lifelong hypochondriac who also happened to suffer from actual illnesses and conditions. From early in adulthood he experimented with a variety of cures from surprisingly silly quack doctors. He became obsessed with diet, first becoming a vegetarian, and then implementing an increasingly complicated regime of diets, which Pawel describes in detail.

But once again Pawel uses this to make the kind of socio-psychological point for which I really enjoyed this book, when he points out the following: In the Jewish tradition, strict adherence to kashrut or traditional Jewish dietary law linked the individual to the community, made him one with a much larger people and their heritage – whereas the dietary rituals Kafka made for himself completely cut him off not only from the Jewish tradition, but even from his own family, and ultimately his own friends. Later in life Kafka:

gradually got into the habit of taking all his meals by himself and intensely disliked eating in anyone’s presence. (p.209)

Like everything else in his life, even eating became a source of anxiety and dread and shame.

Hermann Kafka and his family

Although Pawel records the lifelong terror and feeling of humiliation which Herrmann inculcated in his over-sensitive son, he injects a strong dose of scepticism. As you read Franz’s Letter to his Father, the sustained thirty-page indictment of Herrmann which poor Franz wrote at the age of 36, you can’t help beginning to feel sorry a bit sorry for Herrmann. It wasn’t his fault that he emerged from grinding poverty all but illiterate and had to work hard all his life to support his family. Whereas Franz enjoyed 16 years of education and wangled a cushy job at the Workers Insurance Company thanks to a well-connected uncle. From one point of view, Franz is the typically ungrateful, spoilt son.

And in a subtle reinterpretation of the traditional story, Pawel wonders if it wasn’t Kafka’s mother, Julie, who did most damage to her son. How? By being totally aware of young Franz’s hyper-sensitive nature, but doing nothing about it – by effectively ignoring his hyper-sensitive soul in order to suck up to her bullying husband.

Because, as Pawel points out, Kafka gave the notorious Letter to His Father to his mother to read and then pass on to the family ‘tyrant’. She certainly did read it but never passed it on, returning it to Franz after a week and, well… Franz could easily have handed it over to his father by hand – or posted it. But he chose not to. That, Pawel speculates, is because the letter had in fact achieved its purpose. Not to address his father at all, but successfully implicating his mother in his childhood and teenage trauma. After all:

All parents fail their children, and all children weave their parents failure into the texture of their lives. (p.82)

As this all suggests, Kafka’s story was very much a family affair, a psychodrama played out in the claustrophobic walls of the Prague apartment he shared with his mother, father and three sisters.

Indeed it is a little staggering to read Pawel’s description of the apartment the family moved to in 1912, whose walls were so thin that everyone could hear everyone else cough or sneeze or open a window or plump a book down on a table – let alone all the other necessary bodily functions. What a terrible, claustrophobic environment it was (and we know this, because we have hundreds of diary entries made by Franz moaning about it) and yet – he didn’t leave.

More than once Pawel suggests there is something very Jewish about this smothering family environment and the way that, although he could easily have left once he had a secure job, Kafka chose to remain within the bosom of his smothering family.

It’s aspects of Kafka’s psychology and life like this which drive Pawel’s frequent comparisons and invocations of Freud, dissector and analyst of the smothering turn-of-the-century, urban, Jewish family, investigator of the kind of family lives that the young women of his case studies made up hysterias and neuroses, and the young men made up violent animal fantasies, to escape from.

But here, as in other ways, Kafka stands out as taking part in a recognisable general trend – but then going way beyond it – or moulding it to his own peculiar needs – because at some level, deep down, he needed to be smothered.

Anti-Semitism and Zionism

And all around them, surrounding the anxieties of family life, were the continual ethnic tensions which regularly broke out into actual violence. Sometimes it was Czech nationalists rioting against their Austro-German overlords in the name of Czech nationalism – as they did in the so-called Prague Pogrom of 1897 when Czech nationalists started off by ransacking well-known German cultural and commercial establishments, but ended up devoting three days to attacking Jewish shops and synagogues and anyone who appeared to be a Jew.

Slowly, over his lifetime, Kafka noted the situation getting steadily worse. Fifteen years later, the 60th anniversary of the accession of the Emperor Franz-Joseph led to violent attacks organised by the Czech National Socialists on German properties, which led to troops being sent in and the imposition of martial law (p.298).

But whether it was the Germans or the Czechs, and whether it was the journalistic or bureaucratic attacks of the intelligentsia, or crude physical attacks on the street (and street fighting occurring on an almost weekly basis, p.205):

The extremist demagogues prevailing in both camps were equally vocal in their common hostility to the Jews.

This pervasive fearfulness among Jews helps explain the origins of Zionism, first given theoretical and practical expression by Theodor Herzl, another urbanised and ‘assimilated’ Jewish son of poorer, more rural parents, from the same generation as Freud (Herzl was born a year later, in 1860).

In 1896, deeply shocked by the anti-semitism revealed by the Dreyfus Affair in France (1894-1906), Herzl published Der Judenstaat, in which he argued that anti-semitism in Europe couldn’t be ‘cured’ but only avoided altogether, by leaving Europe and founding a state solely for Jews.

The theme of Zionism looms large in Kafka’s life. Many of his school and university friends became ardent Zionists – including his good friend and literary executor, Max Brod, who managed to escape Prague on the last train before the Nazis arrived, and successfully made it to Palestine. Zionism it was one of the big socio-political movements of the time, along with socialism, anarchism, and Tolstoyan pacifism. (pp.61, 290)

And it was a practical movement. The Bohemian Zionists didn’t just campaign for the establishment of a foreign homeland; closer to home they organised the community, publishing a weekly magazine named Self Defence edited by Kafka’s friend Felix Weltsch (one of the many writers, journalists, critics and poets who Pawel tells us about).

Above all, they preached the idea that all the Jewish hopes for ‘assimilation’ were a fantasy: the Jews who worshipped German culture were adulating their abuser. There could never be full assimilation and the sooner the Jews realised it and planned for their own salvation the better. Tragically, the Zionists were to be proved entirely right.

So from Kafka’s twenties onwards, Zionism was one of the half dozen cultural and political themes of the day. Late in life Kafka encouraged his sisters to develop agricultural skills preparatory to emigrating to Palestine. It was a constant possibility, or dream of his, mentioned in diaries and letters although, being Kafka, he knew it was not a dream he would ever live to fulfil.

Multiple reasons to be afraid

Thus it is that Pawel’s book brilliantly conveys the multiple levels or sources of Kafka’s terror.

  1. He was born over-sensitive and anxious and would have had a hard time adapting to real life anywhere. He was painfully shy and morbidly self-aware.
  2. His father was a philistine bully who ridiculed his son’s weakness and intellectual interests, exacerbating the boy’s paranoia and anxieties in every way.
  3. In newspapers and even in lectures at the university he attended, Kafka would routinely read or hear the most blistering attacks on the Jews as enemies of culture, emissaries of poverty and disease from pestilent rural slums, Christ-killers and followers of an antiquated anti-Enlightenment superstition.
  4. And then, in the streets, there would be periodic anti-Jewish riots, attacks on individual Jews or smashing up Jewish shops.

In the midst of explaining all this, Pawel makes a point which it is easy to miss. He notes that in Kafka’s surviving correspondence with Max Brod or with his three successive girlfriends, Kafka rarely if ever actually alludes to anti-semitism, or to the street violence, clashes, public disorders and growing power of the anti-semitic nationalist parties in Prague. Pawel makes what I thought was a really powerful comment:

It was only in his fiction that he felt both safe and articulate enough to give voice to his sense of terror. (p.204)

An insight I thought was really worth pondering… something to do with the way fiction, or literature, can be a way of controlling and ordering the otherwise chaotic and overwhelming, the personally overwhelming and the socially overwhelming…

Anyway, that’s a lot of sources of fear and terror to be getting on with, before you even get into Franz’s more personal anxieties – not least about sex and everything sexual, which sent him into paroxysms of self-disgust.

Sex

I had no idea that Kafka was such an habitué of brothels. I mean not now and then. I mean routinely and regularly, as well as having sexual escapades with all sorts of working class girls, serving girls and servants and waitresses and barmaids and cleaning women in the many hotels he stayed at on his business trips. We know this because it is all recorded in the copious diaries he kept, and in his extensive correspondence with Max Brod and he even mentions it in letters to his various fiancées.

The subject prompts another one of Pawel’s wide-ranging cultural investigations which I found so fascinating, this time a lengthy description of the way the madonna-whore dichotomy experienced a kind of ill-fated, decadent blossoming in turn of the century Austro-Hungary – in the Vienna we all know about with its Klimt and Schiele paintings, but also in Germanic Prague.

Sex… was the sinister leitmotif dominating literature, drama, and the arts of the period. And beyond the poetic metaphors loomed the brutal real-life affinity of sex and death – botched abortions, childbed fever, syphilis, suicides. (p.77)

All his friends were at it, they all slept with prostitutes: we learn that Max Brod’s marriage got into trouble because he simply refused to carry on sleeping with every woman he could. The women – we learn – came in different grades, from professionals in brothels, to semi-pros in doorsteps, to amateurs – cleaners and suchlike – who would give you a quick one for cash.

All of which exacerbated the aforementioned Madonna-Whore complex, whereby women were divided into two categories – the generally working-class whores you paid to have dirty sex with – and the pure, high-minded and chaste young ladies you accompanied to concerts and were expected to marry (p.180).

To an astonishing extent, Kafka was a fully paid-up member of this club and had an extraordinary number of casual sexual partners – innumerable encounters which he then followed up with the predictable paroxysms of self-loathing and self-hatred. In this respect he was surprisingly unoriginal.

There is a lot more to be said about the relationship between Kafka’s intense but guilt-ridden sex life and the peculiar relations his two key protagonists have with women (in The Trial and The Castle) but that’s for others to write about. I’m interested in history, and language.

The Workmen’s Accident and Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia

It is a revelation to discover that Kafka was good at his job in this insurance company. Not just good, vital. His quick intelligence and pedantic attention to detail were just what was needed. He was tasked with auditing safety regulations about a whole range of industrial processes, a job which required him to travel extensively around the country, staying in hotels (shagging chambermaids if possible) and visiting a huge range of factories and workplaces.

His annual reviews still survive and glow with praise from his superiors and colleagues. He started work at the company’s offices in 1908, was promoted within a year, given full civil service tenure in 1910, advanced to Junior Secretary in 1913, to Secretary in 1920, and senior Secretary in 1922. His immediate superior, Chief Inspector Pfohl, wrote that without him the entire department would collapse. He was a model employee, prompt, intelligent, diligent and polite, as all the testimony from his colleagues confirms.

Fourteen years of following bureaucratic procedures in an institute which was itself part of the wider bureaucratic Empire. And of writing official reports in the tone and style of a senior bureaucrat. You’d have to be quite dense not to link these factors with a) the visions of a vast topless bureaucracy which form the core of the two great novels, and b) with the parody of official, academic-bureaucratic style which is so omnipresent, especially in the later stories.

Kafka’s officialese

Commenting on the contradiction between Kafka the florid hypochondriac and Kafka the smartly turned-out insurance inspector, a contemporary Prague’s literary circle, Oskar Baum, is quoted about how the mental or intellectual structures of the workplace, of its official and stern prose, mapped very handily onto Kafka’s intensely personal obsessions with writing.

By nature he was a fanatic full of luxuriating fantasy, but he kept its glow in check by constantly striving toward strict objectivity. To overcome all cloying or seductive sentimental raptures and fuzzy-minded fantasising was part of his cult of purity – a cult quasi-religious in spirit, though often eccentric in its physical manifestation. He created the most subjective imagery, but it had to manifest itself in the form of utmost objectivity (quoted on page 133)

It’s easy to overlook, but this is a profoundly distinctive aspect of Kafka’s art which is easy to overlook: that all these delirious and often visionary stories are told in very formal and precise prose, and in a style which, in the later stories, becomes really heavily drenched in bureaucratic or academic or official rhetoric.

Pawel’s lurid style

So I found the way Pawel’s factual information about the social, economic and political changes in Bohemia leading up to Kafka’s birth – specifically the changing role of Jews in Bohemian culture – and then his detailed account of Franz’s family life and how that was woven into the complicated social and intellectual currents of the time, really built up a multi-layered understanding of Kafka’s life and times.

But curiously at odds with all this is Pawel’s own very uneven style. One minute he is describing statistics about industrial production or the percentage population of the different ethnicities in the tone of a government report or Wikipedia article:

Prague’s German-speaking minority was rapidly dwindling in proportion to the fast-growing Czech majority, from 14.6 percent in 1880, when the first language census was taken, to 13.6 percent in 1889, Kafka’s first school year. The city’s population totaled 303,000 at the time; of these, 41,400 gave German as their first and principal language. (p.31)

Or:

Between 1848 and 1890, Bohemia’s share in the total industrial output of the monarchy rose from 46 to 59 percent. By 1890, Bohemia and Moravia accounted for 65 percent of Austria’s industrial labour force. (p.37)

The next, he is writing wild and extravagant similes which seem to belong to another kind of book altogether. Here he is describing one of Kafka’s teachers:

Gschwind, author of several studies in linguistics, was rightfully regarded as an eminent classicist, and one can only speculate on the reasons that led him to waste his scholarly gifts and encyclopedic knowledge on a gang of recalcitrant teenagers who, as a group, progressed in classical philology with all the speed and enthusiasm of a mule train being driven up a mountain. (p.73)

Here he is describing Kafka’s anxiety about his end-of-school exams:

The prospect of those apocalyptic trials turned the final school years into a frenzied last-ditch effort to shore up the crumbling ramparts of knowledge, retrieve eight years of facts and figures, and prepare for a bloodbath. (p.76)

Once he starts engaging with Kafka’s stories, Pawel often adopts their phraseology, or at least their worldview, in over-the-top descriptions which could have been penned by Edgar Allen Poe.

Kafka’s impulse was basically sound – that of a trapped, starving animal wanting to claw its way out and sink its teeth into a solid food. (p.114)

Here he is describing the ferociously competitive literary world of Edwardian Prague:

In their panic it was every man for himself, a wild stampeded of gregarious loners grappling with monsters spawned in their own bellies. (p.155)

Or describing the detailed and self-punishing diaries Kafka kept all his adult life.

These so-called diaries assumed many forms and functions, from the writer’s version of the artist’s sketchbook to a tool for self-analysis; they were a fetishistic instrument of self-mutilation, a glimpse of reason at the heart of madness, and an errant light in the labyrinth of loneliness. (p.213)

In fact you can watch Pawel’s style go from sensible to overblown in just that one sentence.

I’ve read criticisms of the book which ridicule Pawel’s purple prose and certainly, from a po-faced academic point of view, much of his writing can sound a bit ludicrous. But as a reader I found it deeply enjoyable. It made me smile. Sometimes it was so over the top it made me laugh out loud.

I liked it for at least two reasons: after struggling with the long-winded and often very official and bureaucratic prose of late Kafka, reading Pawel’s juicy similes and purple paragraphs was like going from black and white to colour.

Secondly, it matches Kafka’s own hysteria. Kafka really was a very, very weird person. His letters abound in the most extreme language of paralysing fear and inchoate terror and crippling anxiety.

My fear… is my substance, and probably the best part of me.

He describes not being able to stand up for fear, not being able to walk for fear, not being able to face people or say anything because of the terror it caused him.

This craving I have for people which turns to fear the moment it reaches fulfilment (letter of July 1912)

– all symptoms of what Pawel calls his ‘near-pathological sensitivity’.

Kafka describes the way words crumble at his touch, his heart is going to explode, his head is too heavy to carry. He talked and wrote regularly about suicide (except that, in typical Kafkaesque fashion, he wrapped it round with paradoxes and parables).

Always the wish to die, and the still-just-hanging on, that alone is love (Diary, 22 October 113)

In other words, much of Pawel’s lurid and melodramatic writing, while not in the same league as Kafka’s, while much more obvious and pulpy and sometimes quite silly – nevertheless is not an unreasonable way to try and catch the permanent atmosphere of extremity and hyperbole which Kafka lived in all the time. I thought it was a reasonable attempt to translate Kafka’s own worldview from Kafkaese into phraseology which is easier for you and me to process and understand.

Fear, disgust, and rage were what this recalcitrant bundle of taut nerves, brittle bones, frail organs and coddled flesh had aroused in him from earliest childhood.

And sometimes Pawel’s phrases are so colourful and exaggerated that they’re funny. And humour, real laugh-out-loud humour, is in short supply in this story.


Related links

Related Kafka reviews

Dates are dates of composition.

Vladimir Nabokov on Franz Kafka (1954)

Vladimir Nabokov

The eminent Russian novelist, Vladimir Nabokov (1899 – 1971) fled the Russian Revolution to Germany in 1919 moving, eventually, on to France. Then, like many others, he was forced to flee France ahead of the Nazi invasion in 1940, crossing the Atlantic to America. Here he found work as an academic, and taught literature for twenty years, first at Wellesley (a private women’s arts college in Massachusetts, 1941-48) and then at Cornell University (1948-58). In his autobiography he claims to have written some 200 lectures on Russian and European literature as preparation for these jobs.

At his death Nabokov left a mountain of notes and manuscripts, including many of the lectures which were in a very unruly condition: some were entirely hand-written, some mostly typed out by his wife, but then covered in scrawls and corrections. It took nine years to select and then edit into presentable form a selection of just seven of the lectures, which were published in 1980, and concern:

  • Jane Austen – Mansfield House
  • Charles Dickens – Bleak House
  • Gustave Flaubert – Madame Bovary
  • Robert Louis Stevenson – Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde
  • Marcel Proust – The Walk by Swann’s Way
  • Franz Kafka – the Metamorphosis
  • James Joyce – Ulysses

Nabokov’s approach to literature

Nabokov disapproved of thematic, psychoanalytic, symbolic or other types of overarching critical schools, and was strongly against all socio-political interpretations of works of literature. He preferred to concentrate on the physical realities described in classic novels, and on the ‘sensuous details’ which add ‘sparkle’ to fiction.

‘Caress the details, the divine details!’

When I was at school and university I judged a lot of books on their political or social goals and aspects, simply because I knew so little about the world that each new book was a revelation, often of entire new schools of politics or philosophy or psychology.

Years later, I now share Nabokov’s view that the ostensible ‘subjects’ of much fiction (or art) are often trite and obvious, and that the big schools of interpretation – Marxism, feminism, psychoanalysis, deconstruction – often prostitute the texts in order to make their polemical points. That, in fact, the real interest lies elsewhere. As he puts it:

Style and structure are the essence of a book; great ideas are hogwash.

John Updike’s introduction

American novelist, essayist and poet John Updike (1932 – 2009) contributes an introduction to the essays. For the most part this is a pretty factual account of Nabokov’s childhood in St Petersburg, brought up in the bosom of a very wealthy upper-middle-class Russian family, his childhood exposure to English literature (his father read him Dickens in English, he was reading French literature fluently at an early age), then the flight to West Europe in the aftermath of the Revolution.

Updike describes Nabokov’s successive short-term jobs before he took up the one lecturing on literature at Wellesley, where he has special insight because his (Updike’s wife) was one of Nabokov’s students.

We are told various stories about the great man’s lecturing style and rules (sit in the same seat each week, no knitting!) alongside a snippet from the correspondence between him and heavyweight literary journalist, Edmund Wilson, in which Wilson successfully persuades Nabokov to include Jane Austen in his lectures, and recommends Bleak House as the best Dickens novel to teach.

Pleasantly gossipy though all this is, the only really substiantial bit is the last page or so where Updike politely takes issue with Nabokov’s aesthetic views.

Updike first enlists the best-known biographical fact about Nabokov, which is that he was a world-class expert on butterflies; he formally studied them in a university setting and wrote textbooks about them. The idea is obvious: years of looking under a magnifying glass at the tiny but beautifully formed detail of often minuscule insects, bled over or matched or was of a piece with Nabokov’s approach to literature – a fondness for detail and pattern above all else. In Updike’s words:

He asked, then, of his own art and the art of others a something extra – a flourish of mimetic magic or deceptive doubleness… Where there was not this shimmer of the gratuitous, or the superhuman and nonutilitarian, he turned harshly impatient… Where he did find  this shimmer, producing its tingle in the spine, his enthusiasm went far beyond the academic, and he became an inspired, and surely inspiring, teacher.

But Updike goes on to gently question this. He points out that even such an arch-aesthete as Wallace Stevens admitted that art, at some level, touches on reality. Updike says that in Nabokov’s lofty aesthetic ‘small heed is paid to the lowly delight of recognition, and the blunt virtue of verity’. Nabokov gives the impression of thinking that the entire world is an artistic creation, ‘insubstantial and illusionistic’.

But it isn’t. And even in the novels he’s chosen, the realistic core is vital. Both Madame Bovary and Ulysses:

glow with the heat of resistance that the will to manipulate meets in banal, heavily actual subjects.

(Note Updike’s own highly lyrical way with words.)

In his essay on The Metamorphosis Nabokov deprecates Gregor Samsa’s place in his philistine bourgeois family as ‘mediocrity surrounding genius’. But Updike thinks this doesn’t give enough credit to one of the basic elements of the story, which is that Gregor needs and loves these ‘crass’ people. He cannot leave them. He cannot stop thinking about them. In Nabokov’s view they are dispensable furniture cluttering up the aesthetic creation. In Updike’s more forgiving view, they are vital components in the psychology – which is the core – of the story. Who’s view do you agree with?

Vladimir Nabokov on The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

Nabokov begins by distinguishing between a fiction like The Metamorphosis and Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde. the latter is artificial in the sense that Jeckyll-Hyde dyad come from a Gothic melodrama and they are set against an unreal fantasy London decorated with fog borrowed from Dickens. Ie foreground and background are unreal.

By contrast in The Metamorphosis

the absurd central character belongs to the absurd world around him but, pathetically and tragically, attempts to struggle out of it into the world of humans. (Lectures on Literature, p.255)

Nabokov gives a potted biography of Kafka in which he baldly states that he was ‘the greatest German writer of our time’.

Nabokov briskly dismisses two popular approaches to Kafka: the line, founded by Max Brod, that Kafka was a saint seeking, through his works, for holiness. And the Freudian, psychological interpretation which focuses on Kafka’s lifelong prostration before his domineering father and the resultant paralysing sense of guilt. He quotes Kafka himself who was dismissive of psychoanalysis, calling it ‘a helpless error’. Nabokov recaps the precise family background of the Samsas i.e. father’s business went bankrupt five years earlier, owing debts, and young Gregor took a job with one of the debtors as a travelling salesman, and arranged for the family to move into this small apartment.

As to the change itself, Nabokov quotes the opening passage at length and highlights how wonderfully dreamy it feels in the original German – all lost in translation. He quotes a critic who points out that the life of a travelling salesman regularly consists of waking up in strange hotels and experiencing moments of bewilderment and disorientation.

Then again, the sensation of being lonely and isolated is a common one for the artist, the pioneer, the discoverer.

Nabokov applies his entomological expertise to deciding what kind of creature Gregor has changed into, dismisses the notion of a cockroach, concludes that the ‘many legs’ referred to are just a confused person’s impression of six legs – that therefore he is an insect – and then on the basis that he has a segmented front but a hard concave back, decides he must be some kind of beetle.

He now takes us through the story dividing it into multiple scenes, and examining, in particular, what themes are addressed or raised in each section. Thus:

In the opening scene the metamorphosis is still not complete and Gregor continues thinking as a man, specifically as an employee and wage earner who is late for work and is going to catch it from the boss. Thus he wastes a lot of effort trying to stand up on his rear legs like a man, and encounters all kinds of problems (crashing to the floor) because his mind hasn’t caught up with the change to his body.

Nabokov makes a simple point I hadn’t thought of which is that although Gregor becomes the insect, it is his family who are the parasites. All three of them sponge off his hard labour, up very early, working long hours, exhausting travelling.

Nabokov highlights the theme of doors, the way the small apartment is claustrophobic, divided into small rooms, whose doorways play a key role. The relatives knock on them and speak through them. Luckily he has locked them, as he locks the doors of the hotel rooms he is used to staying in. The opening and closing of doors will become increasingly symbolic as the story progresses.

Nabokov proceeds with a detailed reading of the text, embedding large chunks of the story in his lecture, and then commenting on them. His main point is to highlight the contract between, on the one hand, Gregor’s philistine family who slowly get used to the situation and go about their normal business, while – in the classic bourgeois way – trying to ignore the catastrophe which has overcome them, and the many instances of Gregor’s sweet nature which endure. For example, when he realises how disgusted his sister is at the sight of him when she delivers his food twice a day, he, at great labour, carries a sheet over to the couch in his room and arranges it so it hangs down over the edge of the couch so that, when Gregor the giant insect is underneath it, he is completely hidden from her sight.

Thus Nabokov emphasises the contrast between the sensitive son, with his ‘sweet and subtle human nature’, and the philistine heedless family, who he bluntly calls ‘morons’.

Nabokov doesn’t have much to say about the central scene of the story, he simply retells the events: how the mother and daughter decide to move the furniture out of Gregor’s room but the mother is not prepared for the sight of him, collapses on the sofa with a shriek, the daughter rushes into the living room to get some smelling salts, Gregor the beetle scuttles up behind her (first time he’s been out of his room) she turns round and is startled by him, dropping a bottle so a shard of glass cuts Gregor, she runs back into Gregor’s room and slams the door so Gregor is locked in the living room and runs round the walls and ceilings in  his agitation, till the father returns home, high and mighty in the uniform of his post as a bank commissionaire and, infuriated by the sight of Gregor, chases him round the living room hurling apples – the only available weapons – at him, one of which somehow ‘sinks into’ Gregor’s back, causing him immense pain, and the sister and mother finally exit Gregor’s room, allowing him to scuttle back inside with the door slammed behind him.

This is the climax at the centre of the story. Thereafter the family sink into passivity. They often leave the door of his room open and, from his darkened lair, he watches them eat their meals, the father doze off in his chair, his mother do the needlework she’s taken in to earn some money. Nabokov speculates that Gregor’s transformation might be catching and that the father might be getting it, refusing to take off his shiny uniform which, as a result, gets increasingly shabby and stained with food. Certainly there is a strong sense of decay over the whole story…

The actual catastrophe or turning point comes in the next act, after the three old men lodgers have moved in, severely inconveniencing the family, the father and mother taking over the sister’s room and the sister having to bunk down in the living room, having to be up and ready before the earliest lodger rises.

They hear her playing violin, they invite her into the living room to entertain them, Gregor’s door is ajar and he finds himself entranced by his sister’s (very bad playing) and unconsciously drawn towards her, slowly scuttling across the floor – until he lodgers spot him. Oddly, they are not terrified, merely angry that Gregor’s father has put them up next to such a monster. They serve notice that they’re quitting the rooms and also that they won’t pay any of the back rent owed.

This is the tipping point because it prompts a family conference which, unfortunately, Gregor overhears. For the first time his strong-willed sister refers to Gregor as ‘it’, and forcefully argues that they must get rid of ‘it’ because ‘it’ is ruining their lives. Sadly, Gregor retreats into his room, exhausted, run down, wounded by the festering rotten apple in his back and, around 3 in the morning, breathes his last.

Nabokov is unforgiving of the philistine family.

Gregor is a human being in an insect’s disguise; his family are insects disguised as people. (p.280)

He observes how the three lodgers are shown the dead body, covered in dust. They themselves appear dusty and shabby in the new warm spring sunlight. Then they pack their things and slowly descend the staircase from the Samsas’ apartment, much – Nabokov points out – as the Chief Clerk had fled down it at his first sight of Gregor. Nabokov is good at bringing out chiming echoes like this. He describes them as ‘themes’, like the themes in a work of classical music which appear, disappear, return amended in new keys or the minor mode.

Then the ironic epilogue, in which we see the three members of the Samsa family writing letters to their respective employers while the robust charwoman explains that she’ll get rid of ‘that thing’ in the other room for them. They take a trolleycar out to the countryside to enjoy the new warm spring weather. And the parents notice along the way that young Greta has blossomed into a plump full-bodied young woman.

Nabokov makes the devastating comment that she has ‘fattened herself’ on Gregor’s body, filling out as he wasted away.

The lecture ends with a brief summary in which Nabokov brings out the importance of threes – three doors to his room, three people in the family, three lodgers and so on. But warns against a superficial interpretation of ‘symbols’.

There are artistic symbols and there are trite, artificial, and even imbecile symbols. You will find a number of such inept symbols in the psychoanalytic and mythological approach to Kafka’s work, in the fashionable mixture of sex and myth that is so appealing to mediocre minds. (p.283)

This kind of trite symbolic interpretation should not get in the way of understanding the work’s ‘beautiful burning life’.

And a final brief reference to the tremendous clarity and formality of Kafka’s prose – the way there isn’t a single metaphor or simile in the entire story, which gives it a sort of black and white feel.

The limpidity of his style stresses the dark richness of his fantasy.

Thoughts

At the end of the day, Nabokov does not add greatly to one’s understanding of the story. A surprising amount of his lecture consists of simply reading out the text, with minimal commentary.

He epitomises a certain kind of teaching which simply consists of making the student pay really, really close attention to the text, and that is considered its own reward.

No greater insights are intended – nothing about society or human nature or the triumph of the proletariat or the Oedipus Complex or the Patriarchy or any of the numerous other critical theories with their clutters of buzzwords.

Simply paying close attention and noting the deployment of certain themes – the importance of doors and doorways, the recurrence of the stairway theme – these are enough in themselves, because they take you deeper into a full, sensual experience of the text and that, for Nabokov, is the point of art.


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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

Identity by Milan Kundera (1998)

This is a detailed summary of the plot of Identity by Milan Kundera. It aims to recreate the experience the reader has of only slowly discovering who it concerns and what it’s about and what happens, and also to recreate the continual sense of slight disorientation the book gives you – a feeling which snowballs in the second half, where the reader eventually realises that the book has actually crossed the line from ‘reality’ into ‘fantasy’, and is prompted to go back and try to figure out where it happened.

In other words, Identity is a clever, playful and deliberately teasing little book.

But it all starts very modestly with a middle-caged couple going to spend a weekend in a hotel in Normandy…


Chantal at the hotel

Jean-Marc and Chantal are going to spend the weekend at a small hotel on the Normandy coast. Chantal arrives first, freshens up and goes into the dining room. She overhears the waitresses discussing the disappearance of some rich person as described on a popular TV show Lost To Sight. She wonders how anyone can go missing in a world where every move is monitored by CCTV camera, where privacy is dying. She imagines losing Jean-Marc that way one day.

Jean-Marc visits an old friend

Meanwhile Jean-Marc has gone to Brussels to see an old school friend, F, because he is dying. They were close until he heard that F. refused to stand up for him in a meeting where he was universally attacked. At that point he completely cut F. out of his life. Looking down at F’s wasted body Jean-Marc realises how stupid that was. F. describes having an out-of-body experience.

F. describes some incident from their school days which Jean-Marc can’t remember. Suddenly it dawns on him that the purpose of friendship is to keep old memories alive.

Chantal and the daddies on the beach

After a bad night’s sleep troubled by a dream, Chantal walks down to the beach. On the way she observes fathers festooned with sacks and slings carrying babies and pushing prams. They have been daddified. On the beach she watches more dads flying enormous kites. She reflects that none of these absorbed men will turn and look at her, flirtatiously. Men don’t turn and stare at her any more 😦

Types of boredom

Jean-Marc has driven from Brussels to Normandy and parked at the hotel. He walks down to the beach, passing a girl wearing a Sony Walkman and half-heartedly jiggling her hips. Being a Kundera character he has to analyse and categorise everything, so he posits three kinds of boredom:

  1. passive boredom – the girl dancing and yawning
  2. active boredom – the men flying kites
  3. rebellious boredom – kids smashing up bus shelters

Down on the beach he comes across sand yachts being raced. Suddenly he sees one hurtling at high speed towards Chantal far out on the beach. He runs towards her trying to warn her. In the event, the sand yacht passes wide of her and, as he catches up with her, he realises it isn’t her at all.

Chantal is menaced in the café

This is because Chantal had got bored of the beach and gone up to a café complex perched on a cliff. It’s empty apart from a surly waiter and his mate, who deliberately intimidate her, turn up the rock music loud, block her way and threaten to prevent her from leaving. At the last minute they laughingly step aside so she can exit, her heart pounding with fear.

Men no longer turn to look at Chantal

Jean-Marc is appalled that he couldn’t tell his lover’s reality from a distance. He arrives back at the hotel and goes up to the room they’ve booked to find Chantal waiting. She is still in shock from the encounter in the café but she is also having a sustained hot flush. I surmise this is from the menopause, though Kundera doesn’t use the word; all we know is she is ashamed of feeling hot and perspiring. She tries to distract him by blaming her odd mood on the thought she had earlier – men no longer turn to stare at her.

Chantal’s work in advertising

A few hours later they’re at dinner, discussing her work in an advertising agency. She describes her two faces, the mocking one which thinks advertising is ridiculous, and the hard-faced professional one which has allowed her to succeed.

Now the company has got a brief to come up with adverts for a funeral parlour. This allows the characters to quote poems about Death, namely some lines from Baudelaire, as you do.

Chantal’s dead son

Talk of death makes her think of her son by her first husband, who died when he was just five. Her husband and his family told her to hurry up and have another one so that she would forget. This filled her with so much loathing that she vowed to divorce him and so a) she went back to work, not as a teacher as she had been but in advertising and b) as soon as she met Jean-Marc and was sure he was the one – she left her husband.

That night Jean-Marc has a dream in which Chantal appears to him vividly in every detail, except for her face. How do we know when someone is the person we love? If their face completely changed, would it still be the same person?

Existence and identity

By this stage (page 32) the reader has realised that the novel is a classic Kundera production, insofar as it is a prolonged meditation on a theme of existence, an aspect of the human condition. There’s no secret about it. The title broadcasts it. The theme is identity, what it is, and how fragile it is, how it can vanish and reappear from moment to moment in our quotidian lives.

Chantal in the bathroom, in the boardroom

The next morning Jean-Marc wakes up to find her already in the bathroom cleaning her teeth. For a moment he watches her unobserved being functional. Then she notices him and her whole body changes into the softness of love. They drive back to Paris and he drops her at work. Later, that evening, Jean-Marc arrives at Chantal’s advertising agency, and catches a glimpse of her being swift and professional with two colleagues and wonders at the change in her identity.

That morning, in the bathroom, he had recovered the being he’d lost during the night, and now, in the late afternoon, she was changing again before his eyes. (p.33)

By this stage, the reader realises the point of the book is just these fine distinctions, the way the two central characters, and the author, notice and analyse the myriad fine shifts in identity, from moment to moment, and across larger periods, during the change in their relationship.

Chantal’s fantasy about being a rose

When she was a girl Chantal had a fantasy about being as powerful and ubiquitous as a fragrance which would spread through the lives of men. But she was not by nature promiscuous and, as she’d grown older, had become more monogamous. So monogamous and devoted to Jean-Marc that she began to have feelings about her dead son where she was glad he was dead. Why? Because it meant her devotion to Jean-Marc, to her chosen one, was total.

The anonymous letter

One morning she receives an unsigned unmarked letter with the text: ‘I follow you around like a spy – you are beautiful, very beautiful’, which upsets her all day. Luckily, when she gets home, her letter is trumped by one from the hospital telling Jean-Marc that his old schoolfriend F. has died. This triggers a couple of pages on ‘the meaning of friendship’ i.e. to keep memories alive, memories being necessary for maintaining ‘the whole of the self’.

With typical morbid negativity, Kundera (well, his character) considers that friendship is dying and that modern friendship is merely ‘a contract of politeness (p.46).

Leroy, head of the advertising agency

CUT to a different type of scene and a new character, Leroy, who is supposed to be the whip-smart head of the advertising agency where Chantal works. Every week he does a presentation analysing a campaign which is in the media. Having worked in TV for 15 years I don’t recognise anything Kundera describes about TV, his version is far more casual and chaotic than the well-organised, budgeted and crewed TV productions I worked on. Similarly, I don’t believe this portrayal of an advertising agency. The character Leroy instead comes over as a sexed-up university lecturer, a type Kundera was familiar with since he was an academic for decades. The ‘analysis’ Leroy gives is about sex sex sex – the humanities lecturer’s favourite subject and not, as the advertising and marketing people I’ve met, about ratings, audience segments, personas channels and ratings. Leroy doesn’t sound anything like an advertising exec. He sounds like a film studies lecturer:

‘The issue is to find the images that keep up the erotic appeal without intensifying the frustrations. That’s what interests us in this sequence: the sensual imagination is titillated, but then it’s immediately deflected into the maternal realm.’ (p.50)

He goes on to tell his staff that new film footage shows the foetus in the womb sucking its own willy, fellating itself. Can you imagine a modern advertising executive playfully mentioning that in a presentation about a new campaign? No.

The self-fellating foetus

Amazingly, at the end of the day, when she climbs the stairs to the accompaniment of loud banging and drilling (because the lift is out of order), and in a menopausal flush, the self-fellating foetus is what she chooses to tell Jean-Marc about. Which prompts his clever-clever thought that the foetus feels a sexual impulse before it can even think of pleasure.

So our sexuality precedes our self-awareness. (p.53)

Modern society spies on everyone

But she has a different take on it. Chantal is appalled that even in the womb, ‘they’ can spy on you, that nowhere is safe nowadays from the prying eyes of the media, and she tells macabre stories of how they cut off Haydn’s head after his death to analyse his brain and various other famous clever people whose brains were experimented on after their deaths. Influenced by her hot flushes, she blurts out that only the crematorium, only being burned to ashes, means you will be finally, completely safe from them.

At the grave of her son

Next day she visits her son’s grave and talks to him. She realises that, if he still lived, she would have to have engaged herself with the horrible world and accepted all its stupidities. His death freed her to revolt against a world she hates, to be truly herself. She silently thanks her dead son for this gift.

The second anonymous letter

Chantal receives a second, longer anonymous letter, the author has been following her movements. It’s signed C.D.B. The reader reflects that this is another aspect of identity, where identity is withheld, the letter is from someone but a person with no name.

Jean-Marc remembers giving up medicine

Jean-Marc recalls his dead friend F. telling him about a boyhood memory he (F.) has of Jean-Marc, namely that at age 16 or so Jean-Marc was disgusted by the eye, by the eyelid sliding over the cornea. Jean-Marc went on to choose to study medicine aged 19, but after three years realised he couldn’t face blood and guts, the body, its decay and death.

The letter suggests she wears cardinal red

Chantal receives more letters, which are becoming more passionate, in a French way. The writer dreams of wrapping her in a red cardinal’s costume and laying her gently down on a red bed. So she buys a red nightdress, as you would do if an unknown man was writing you anonymous letters, and is wearing it when Jean-Marc comes home one day, and she sashays round him, seducing him, and so he ravishes her and, thinking of the letter, she climaxes. She shares the fantasy of wearing cardinal red in a crowd and, aroused a second time, he makes love to her again. I admire the rapid recovery time of his penis. Or is he just an empty cipher for the author’s psychological-erotic fantasies?

The obsession of all Kundera’s books with love-sex is wearing me down. There is so much more to life than love-sex.

Is the letter writer the young man in the café?

At first Chantal thinks the author of the letters is a moony young man who’s often in the local café. But one day she walks boldly almost up to him as he sits outside nursing a glass of wine, giving him ample time to at least smile, but he doesn’t register her existence at all.

Is the letter writer the beggar in the square?

Then she suspects it’s the incongruously well-dressed beggar who hangs about in their square, near the big lime tree. To test her theory she goes up to him and offers money into his outstretched hand, only at the last minute realising she doesn’t have any coins then, worse, that the only paper she has is the ludicrously large sum of 200 Francs. The beggar is flabbergasted and she realises it isn’t him.

Or is the letter writer Jean-Marc?

Then she begins to suspect it is Jean-Marc, specially when she realises that the pile of bras she’s been hiding the letters under has been riffled through, then carefully restored.

And indeed, on page 88 this suspicion is concerned as we flip over to Jean-Marc’s point of view, and are told why he wrote her an anonymous letter. It was to cheer her up when he saw she was depressed, after she had said that men no longer turn to look at her in the street i.e. she has become middle-aged and unattractive. That’s why he playfully signed the second one C.B.D. short for Cyrano de Bergerac, the lover who hid behind the mask of another. Soon he wrote another one, and soon he became hooked.

How writing the letters changes Jean-Marc’s view of himself and of Chantal

And as he did so, it created a different idea of Chantal in his mind. The fact that she has kept and hidden the letters from him, suggests she might countenance an affair with an anonymous letter writer. She is ready to be unfaithful.

For her part, Chantal has a whole fleet of complicated reactions (the point of a Kundera novel is to place the characters in a situation and then analyse their motives and reactions to the nth degree), the main one being the disturbing suspicion that Jean-Marc is trying to trap her. But why? Because he is going to dump her for a younger model.

The flush

Worth pausing to consider The Flush. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being a key incident was that, after turning up on his doorstep from her remote provincial town, Tereza a) made love with Tomas but then b) came down with a heavy flu fever. He was forced to nurse her back to health and during that nursing discovered all kinds of emotions within himself he didn’t know he had. That fever recurs again and again through the story, as the characters reassess its importance and consequences.

Kundera uses the same technique here with respect to Chantal’s hot flushes. The first time the couple met was at a conference at an Alpine hotel, where he was a ski instructor and invited along to mingle with the guests after a session. They were briefly introduced and made a little small-talk then went their ways. But the next evening he went back determined to find her again, and the moment she spotted him, she flushed crimson all across her chest and breasts. That flush decided their love, for both of them.

Now she is flushing again, although it is due to the menopause, her physiology confusing, or sending confusing signals, over the terrain and memory of that initial, primal flush. This is a key element of a Kundera narrative, repetition with variations, variations of interpretation.

Back to the narrative

Jean-Marc is sad because by creating a simulacrum of a lover, he has conjured into being a simulacrum of Chantal. And if Chantal is not real, but a simulacrum, then so is their relationship. And in fact so is his life, which he has committed to her. He decides to end the whole thing and writes a farewell letter.

He’s just about to post it in the apartment building mailbox when he is accosted by a woman with three children – it is Chantal’s sister-in-law, the (rather bossy) sister of Chantal’s first husband, the one who blithely said let’s have another child to help us forget the one that’s just died.

The fantasy

Quite abruptly the book changes tone and pace. Up till now this couple had been drifting peacefully from episode to episode, a morning here, arriving at work there, cleaning teeth, hiding letters – and Kundera has been cascading his own thoughts and their thoughts and analyses of each others’ feelings like confetti in the breeze.

All of a sudden the pace picks up and it turns into a farce, then a fantasy, then a kind of nightmare all happening in real time i.e. in one extended breathless fifty-page-long passage.

The sister-in-law’s unruly children

The sister-in-law’s kids run riot in Chantal’s room and Jean-Marc feebly tries to get them to leave. He is distracted by the sister-in-law flirting with him (in KunderaWorld a man and a woman cannot be in the same space without flirting and talking about sex), she even leans forward and whispers the bedroom secrets of Chantal and her first husband in Jean-Marc’s ear.

At which moment Chantal herself arrives in the door. She is livid. She bought this place to get away from her wretched sister-in-law and her brood. And then she sees that the kids have rifled through her pile of bras which are all over the floor, one of them on one of the kids’ heads, and the mystery letters are scattered all over the floor. She orders them to leave, all of them, orders her sister-in-law to leave.

Chantal and Jean-Marc argue

She and Jean-Marc have a blistering argument in which she asserts that she bought this flat so as not to be spied on, with the heavy implication that his letters say he is a Spy and, worse, she knows that he has been searching her room till he found her stash of his letters. And he realises she knows and is crushed. And in a few swift exchanges they reduce their relationship to ashes.

Chantal packs her bags and leaves for London

With steely self-control she goes into her bedroom, closes the door and doesn’t come out all night. Jean-Marc is forced to sleep on the spare bed. Early in the morning she has packed her bag and declares she is off to a conference in… in… London springs to mind, yes, London. In fact her office had been planning a trip to London, but not for three weeks. Several points:

  1. Earlier in the novel the seed of this was planted when Kundera invented an ageing English lecher who hit on Chantal on a visit to her office and left his card. They often joked about this figure who they blew up into a master of monstrous orgies, and gave him the nickname Britannicus.
  2. This had led Jean-Marc in the final letter, to suggest that he was ending the series because he had to leave to go to, to… on a whim he had written London.
  3. Incidentally, Chantal sleeps badly because, being trapped in a Milan Kundera novel she has all sorts of inappropriately intense erotic dreams. The narrator wonders whether all virtuous women have to combat erotic orgiastic fantasies all night long, before showering and facing the day with a straight face (p.115). Let me ask my female readers: Do you struggle every night with erotic fantasies of sexual promiscuity? In my opinion, this is more ageing male sex fantasy.

In fact Chantal has no plan but stumbles out the house and onto the first bus which comes along. As it happens it is going to the Gare du Nord from which trains head to London, she at first imagines she won’t get off at that stop, then she does, then she buys a ticket, then she bumbles down onto the platform where – in a coincidence which doesn’t make sense in any rational terms – she discovers her entire office waiting for her! What! How, why?

On the Eurostar

Onto the Eurostar they get and Chantal finds herself seated opposite the self-style super-clever boss of the advertising agency, himself sitting next to a middle aged female admirer. (Makes it sound more like a cult than a professional place of work.) Remember how Leroy regaled his staff with stories about the foetus that could self-fellate in the womb? Well, now he treats Chantal and the older woman to a prolonged analysis of the command in the Book of Genesis (‘Go forth and multiply’) which boils down to the categorical imperative that everyone must fuck. Chantal is wet and aroused. She admires Leroy for his ‘dry as a razor’ logic (while this author thinks he’s a dickhead).

Chantal fantasises about forcing the prim woman into an orgy

Down into the black hole of the Channel Tunnel the train hurtles as Leroy continues his prolonged sermon on the important of sex and coitus and coupling and fucking, while the middle-aged woman wails about ‘the grandeur of life’ etc, and Chantal sitting opposite her fantasising about leading this prim and properly dressed lady to Leroy’s bed, which is set on a grand stage amid smoke and devils.

Jean-Marc decides to head off Chantal at the Gare du Nord

Meanwhile, Jean-Marc had woken up to discover Chantal gone and himself packed his bags, he knows when he’s not wanted. He leaves his keys on the coffee table, slams the door and blunders out into the street. London? OK, London, he hails a cab and asks it to take him to the Gare du Nord. Here he blunders up to the ticket desk, buys a ticket to London, and is the last person to board the Eurostar, setting off through the carriages to find Chantal.

Jean-Marc sees Chantal behaving like a different person on the Eurostar

He does, spotting the back of her head as she engages in the long ‘razor sharp’ fantasy about fucking and deflowering the prim lady. Jean-Marc is appalled (yet again) at how unlike his Chantal she seems, animated and confident and professional. Though he doesn’t know that Chantal is now consumed with eroticism, imagining the middle aged lady stripped naked and forced to take part in an orgy while all around naked bodies couple and bump (p.134).

Jean-Marc tried and fails to reach Chantal in the London terminal

The train arrives in London and everyone disembarks. Chantal goes off to a phone booth to make a call (we are still before the era of mobile phones) and when Jean-Marc tries to get to her he is blocked by a film crew (film crews often play this role as frustraters, getting in the way, as in Slowness and the Farewell Party) filming a group of oddly dressed children, presumably for a commercial, and when he tries to push through he is firmly restrained by a policeman. By the time he’s let go, Chantal has disappeared.

Jean-Marc wanders the streets of London

Now Jean-Marc is lost, walking the streets of London, and he feels he has returned to his true self, a drifter, a loser – Chantal always made five times what he earned, he was always dependent on her charity. Now he’s homeless and looking for a bench to doss down on.

He finds one in a typical Georgian London square, opposite a big house with a grand portico and when the lights go on inside he knows this is the house where Chantal has come to attend the orgy, the orgy led by that lecherous Englishman who visited her in Paris, ‘Britannicus’.

Jean-Marc enters the house where the orgy is happening

Jean-Marc opens the door (unlocked) and goes up the stairs to a first floor where a huge clothes rack holds the clothes of all the people he knows are stripped off and fornicating like wizards in a room not far away. But at this point a tattooed bouncer in a t-shirt appears and manhandles him back down the stairs and into the street. I couldn’t help warming to this bouncer, one of the few characters in the book not overloaded with smart-alec psychological analysis.

Chantal at the (largely invisible) orgy

Chantal is in the middle of an orgy, or is dominated by the image of an orgy where, at the moment of climax, all the participants turn into animals. She opens her eyes to find she is naked and a blonde woman is trying to drag her somewhere for a sexual encounter but the spittle in her mouth makes Chantal want to gag (as in fact, we have seen her revolted reaction to the thought of the saliva in other people’s mouths throughout the novel; the Saliva theme is up there with the Flushing theme as a recurring image throughout the book).

Chantal and the septuagenarian orgy impresario

Then she is alone in a big cavernous room with the host, Britannicus, who is of course fully clothed and pulls up a chair and starts reassuring her that she is perfectly safe. He calls her Anne and she protests it is not her name, they are stripping her of her identity, but she can’t remember what her name is, she can’t remember anything about herself, she can’t she can’t…

And then she wakes up and it was all a dream.

Seriously. It was all a dream. ‘Wake up, wake up,’ Jean-Marc is shaking her awake and she wakens, hot and sweating and terrified from this long elaborate dream and everything is alright and she is safe in his arms.

Now, on the last page, Kundera invites the reader to decide at just what point his story ceased being ‘realistic’ and turned into this rather delirious dream, just where ‘reality’ crossed ‘the border’ into ‘fantasy’: was it when the train went into the Channel Tunnel? when Chantal announced she was leaving for London? maybe even when Jean-Marc began sending those letters?

Who knows 🙂 and it is difficult to care enough to try and decide. As if he himself can’t be bothered, Kundera only devotes a short paragraph to the questions and, unusually for him, doesn’t dwell on them.

Instead, in the last paragraphs, Chantal and Jean-Marc are in bed together. Once she has totally woken up, she vows she will henceforth sleep with the light on every night, so she can see him.

And that’s it. Finis.

Conclusions

This is a very strange book.

Having read his book of essays on the theory of the novel I understand how Kundera regards the novel as an investigation of aspects of human existence. That explains why, having chosen ‘identity’ as the theme of this one, he then crams every possible permutation on the theme into this little text. And yet, even on that basis – as a self-consciously contrived experiment – it seems oddly… limited. After years of thought, is this little story of two lovers who have an argument the most thorough investigation he can think up of the theme of identity in the modern world? Very limited…

Early on, the book contains some very sensitive moments, moments which genuinely capture the strange and evanescent feelings you might have for a lover or someone you’ve been married to for years, sudden distances and misapprehensions. These are delicately done. When Jean-Marc mistakes the woman on the beach for Chantal, or sees another side to his lover when she’s at work, these are novelistically interesting and on-point for his theme.

The trouble is that these early subtle moments are lost in a story a) whose scaffolding i.e. the plot, becomes more and more crude and stupid as it progresses, and b) are set next to examples of blundering crudity – for example, the extremely crude and horrible sex soliloquies of the monstrous head of her advertising agency, Leroy, yuk, what an idiot, and what crude bluster.

These are so bad and boorish and coarse that they tend to destroy the delicate filament of the earlier, subtler perceptions, blowing them away like a gossamer spider web in a hurricane.

The abiding memory of Identity is not so much of pornography – in a way straightforward pornography might be refreshingly honest, but the striking thing about the orgy scene is that there is, in fact, no description at all of an actual orgy – but of a sensibility which is obsessed with the erotic urge, which can’t conceive a human character without having him or her immediately thinking erotic thoughts, waking from steamy dreams, flushed by arousal, fantasising about whispering erotic provocations in the ears of the daddies on the beach (as Chantal does), imagining each other’s former sex lives, even the ghastly sister-in-law is within minutes flirting outrageously with Jean-Marc, leaning forward to whisper Chantal’s sexual practices with her first husband in his ear… not pornography so much as lust lust lust.

And this crude hectoring about sex and eroticism and fantasy and orgies, for me, eclipses and overshadows the more subtle insights Kundera has about identity in a relationship. Shame.

Is Kundera flirting with the reader?

Are Kundera’s books flirtations? Does Kundera flirt with his readers? I am not using the word in its ordinary sense, but as he himself defines it in The Unbearable Lightness of Being:

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. (The Unbearable Lightness of Being, p.142)

‘A promise of sexual intercourse without a guarantee.’

Throughout the book there is a permanent erotic charge and expectation, from Chantal imagining trying to seduce the daddies on the beach on page three or four, onwards. The night after she has the big argument with Jean-Marc, she is plagued with all manner of erotic fantasies. Then, on the Eurostar, she can’t control her fantasies about stripping and serving up the prim middle-aged woman to her boss at the advertising agency to be raped on a stage amid smoke and devils. That’s quite steamy, wouldn’t you say?

And then the entire fantasy sequence which constitutes the final third of the novel climaxes in her attendance at an orgy which is paralleled by Jean-Marc’s feverish jealous fantasies about what she is doing in the big smart house, and what is being done to her, at the orgy.

Except that… there is no orgy. She awakes (strangely, with no explanation of how she got there or why she’s naked) in a remote room in the big house in London, where no sex is going on at all, and she is alone. She (and we) actually sees no sex taking place, she has no sex with anyone, no contact with any man at all. Her only contact is with a blonde woman whose only role is to remind Chantal of her long-running aversion to saliva and French kissing, yuk.

So both of the key characters fear and fantasise about a gross, mass orgy and yet… we never see a single breast or penis, and no sex of any kind is described.

In this sense, then, the entire book can be seen as a prolonged promise of sex, ‘without a guarantee’. In other words, the entire novel can be seen as Kundera engaging in a prolonged ‘flirtation’ with the reader.

Credit

Identity by Milan Kundera was first published in Linda Asher’s English translation by Faber and Faber in 1998. All references are to the 1999 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 Joke by Milan Kundera (1967)

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

Czech history – a postwar snapshot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Themes in Milan Kundera’s fiction

Communism

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

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

Cynicism and the absurd

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

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

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

The personal and the private

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

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

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

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

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

The Joke – structure and style

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

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

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

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

Kundera’s prose style is flat and factual…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thus:

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

See what I mean by a very intellectual author.

The Joke – the plot

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

The fateful postcard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the mining camp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Revenge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jaroslav and the Ride of the King

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kostka’s story

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

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

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

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

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

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

So both were acting under pitiful delusions about the other.

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

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

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

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

Back to Helena

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another view

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

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

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

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

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


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

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

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

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

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

The Penguin History of Latin America by Edwin Williamson (revised edition 2009) (1)

Because it comes with the bright orange and white spine of the new-style Penguin histories, and because it said ‘New Edition’ on the front cover, I hadn’t quite grasped that the main body of this hefty 700-page history of Latin America was completed by 1990. The new edition is ‘new’ because it adds a 40-page chapter at the end, summarising events in Latin America between 1990 and 2008.

The text is divided into three big parts:

  • The Age of Empire pp. 3-192 (189 pages)
  • The Challenge of the Modern World pp. 195-310 (115 pages)
  • The Twentieth Century pp. 313-566 (253 pages)

Note how the section on the 20th century, plus the forty pages of the ‘new’ chapter, is as long as the first two parts put together. Here, as everywhere, the more recent the history, the more of it there is, the more people there have been (the higher the population) and the more records have been kept, until we reach the present age where every phone call, every text and every photograph anyone in the world takes is recorded and stored.

Conquest of the Aztecs and Incas

Williamson dives right in with the early, legendary history of the Aztecs, when they were a group of nomads traipsing round central Mexico, before they established the largest empire in pre-Colombian America around 1400. Their only rival was the Inca Empire, down in modern-day Peru.

There is, of course, a lot to say about both, but the thing that struck me was the way both of them were empires carved out by one particular tribe or ethnic group which subjugated all their neighbours, and demanded tribute in food, precious metals and slaves (some devoted to grisly human sacrifices).

Both generated complex religious ideologies accompanied by fascinating and complex theories of time – that it moved in cycles and was marked by moments of great significance – but the bottom line was that both the Aztec ruler and the Inca emperor believed they derived their authority from the gods, and were backed up in this conviction by the class of priests and the warrior castes which surrounded and defended them.

Of course the vast majority of the population was peasants, mostly living in abject serfhood, who slaved away for their entire short, unhealthy lives, producing the surpluses which paid for the elaborate costumes and rituals and treasures passed up to their rulers. And the entire populations of conquered tribes, for both the Aztecs and Incas lived by war, and by conquering, subjugating and exploiting neighbouring peoples.

The other striking thing was their backwardness. Both Aztecs and Incas, and all the hundreds of other tribes scattered across central and south America, were illiterate. The Aztecs and Incas had no written language, just a primitive system of markers, and so the important knowledge about the stars and the gods was handed down by word of mouth, and hence the semi-divine regard for the caste of priests who, alone, knew this vital celestial information.

They didn’t have the wheel, nor beasts of burden – no horses or donkeys or camels or bullocks. Therefore they had to carry everything by hand. It is staggering to realise that the awesome Inca city of Machu Picchu was built by massive stones, carried 2,430 metres above sea level, by human power alone.

All this was doomed to come crashing to an end when the Europeans arrived. Williamson describes in detail the four successive voyages of Christopher Columbus, his first landfall in 1492, the chaotic mismanagement of the first islands he and his men settled – Hispaniola – the slow, establishment of colonies and extension of Spanish rule onto neighbouring island, and then, 27 years later, Cortez’s expedition to the mainland against the Aztecs (1519-21).

The eeriest thing about Cortes’s conquest of the Aztec Empire, and then Francisco Pizarro’s conquest of Peru in 1532, is the theory that the rulers of both empires were too puzzled and confused by the invaders to respond adequately. They couldn’t believe these little gangs of a few hundred men were serious about planning to overthrow their empires of tens of thousands of warriors – but they couldn’t figure out what it was they really wanted. Williamson attributes the conquistadors’ success partly to guns and horses but shows that in both cases, the conquerors really had very few – when Pizarro finally met with the Inca emperor Atahualpa, in nothern Peru, he had a force of just 110-foot soldiers, 67 cavalry, three arquebuses and two falconets.

More decisive was the Europeans’ superior grasp of strategy, in particular realising that the empires they were encountering were themselves highly stressed, riven by faction fights or stretched by the continual need to control their subject peoples. The Spanish made alliances with enemies and groups wishing to be liberated. They were good at building coalitions.

He doesn’t say it in so many words, but the idea emerges that the Europeans triumphed because they were just more intelligent about strategy and warcraft.

The role of European diseases

Then there’s our old friend disease. As explained at length in Jared Diamond’s classic 1997 study Guns, Germs and Steel, wherever European explorers went they took with them the infectious diseases which, over thousands of years, we had built up immunity to – but which ravaged native populations which had no immunity to them.

This view is reinforced by the revisionist history of America told by Alan Taylor in American Colonies: The Settling of North America (2001). In this Taylor explains how the entire native civilisation of the Mississippi valley was wiped out by diseases, most probably smallpox, brought by a few shipwrecked Spanish sailors to the mouth of the Mississippi delta but which then spread catastrophically so that when, a century later, the first Anglo-Saxon explorers entered the region, they discovered entire cities with complex layouts, large palaces and temples and canals… all abandoned and overgrown by forest.

Indeed, Pizzaro’s job of conquering the Incas was made easier because the Incas were themselves in the middle of a bloody civil war, which was complicated by the fact that not one but two rival claimants to the throne had died from smallpox. Over the decades after the Spanish arrived, there was a catastrophic collapse in native populations caused by the invaders’ diseases. Some experts estimate as much as 90% of the native population of Mexico was killed by European disease within fifty years.

Still, Williamson is always at hand to say that in this, as in everything else, the reality on the ground, and across such vast areas as all of Mexico, Central America and Peru, were far more complex and uneven that contemporaries and many historians realise. Many many other areas of the continent remained relatively untouched and life went on in the same old way, only now you had to pay a tribute of your produce to a new boss, who wore armour and rode a horse.

The geographic limits of Spanish settlement

The book is packed with thought-provoking ideas and insights. I was fascinated to understand more about the geographic limits to the spread of Spanish rule.

When the Anglo settlers arrived in North America in the 1600s they found it relatively easy to spread out into New England and all along the Atlantic coast. But the Spanish, having established their key centres of administration in Mexico City and Lima a century earlier, with waystations and ports in the Caribbean, found it difficult to expand beyond them. Why?

North of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital which the invaders had renamed Mexico City, lies a vast area of arid desert – the territory which centuries later would become Arizona and New Mexico – where the Spanish explorers discovered nothing but impoverished villages of Indians surviving on subsistence agriculture.

Over to the east there were repeated attempts to explore the peninsula they named ‘Florida’, but the Spanish found it consisted of endless everglades with few settlements and nothing to plunder.

Heading south, the Spanish took over the coastal strip west of the Andes, conquering the Inca empire, but found the Andes mountains themselves too high to settle. Only a handful of expeditions went over the Andes to explore east. Williamson describes these expeditions, which got lost in the vast Amazon rainforests, and encountered only the most primitive tribespeople, if, indeed, they lived to tell the tale.

So, in a nutshell, central and south America were more difficult for the Spanish to settle than North America would turn out to be for the Anglos. And this explains the quite startling fact that some parts of South America – Williamson singles much of the interior of what is now called Argentina – weren’t really settled at all until the 20th century.

The other factor which limited the area of settlement was the Spaniards’ motivation. The conquistadors were adventurers, often from the very lowest parts of society. No nobles or aristocrats ventured their lives in the New World. Poor youngest sons of noble families led gangs of criminals and proles. None of them were the type of people who wanted to stake a claim and build a farmhouse and work the land – as the Anglo settlers were to do up north a hundred years later.

Instead, the Spanish wanted to exploit and loot as much wealth as they could from the New World before returning home and buying land, a house and a title. They came to loot. And here’s the important thing – you can only loot people who are already rich. The Spanish took over the two big empires, the Aztec in Mexico and the Inca in Peru, because an infrastructure was already in place whereby the native emperors and the upper class exploited large numbers of peasants in a well-organised system. The Spaniards simply took over the system, co-opting the best of the agricultural produce and all the treasure and artefacts for themselves.

It is this factor – the Spanish approach to colonisation – which explains the limited and very patchy nature of Spanish settlement. In the deserts of north Mexico, and in the south of the area they named California, were only desert dwellers, scraping a subsistence living from the soil by dint of elaborate water works. Nothing to steal. In Florida, endless swamps inhabited by scattered villagers. Nothing to steal, and no ‘society’ worth taking over. Ditto the Amazon rainforests. Nothing like an organised society whose power structures and tributes they could simply appropriate.

The Spanish only settled where there were established and relatively advanced societies which they could parasite onto.

How the Reconquista mindset was applied to the New World

Williamson lays out with beautiful logic and clarity just how that imperialist approach to colonisation had arisen in Spain.

It is an enormous historical coincidence that the year that Columbus made landfall in the Bahamas, 1492, just happened to be the very same year that – after nearly 800 years of war and crusade – the Spanish finally kicked the very last Muslim Moorish presence out of the south of Spain. (Muslim forces had crossed the Straits of Gibraltar to seize Spanish territory way back in 711 – the fightback is traditionally dated to their first defeat by Christian forces, in 718 – and it took nearly another 800 years, of slow painstaking battles and piecemeal conquest, for native Christians, sometimes fighting alongside Christian warriors from the rest of Europe attracted by the periodic ‘crusades’ against the Muslim –  to finally expel all the Muslim chiefs, emirs and so on from the final southern enclaves.

The point of this historical background is that expelling the Muslims from Spain wasn’t achieved by a modern-style mass army, and in a few years of continuous campaigning – but by ad hoc campaigns led by local Spanish warriors and adventuring knights, which liberated bits and pieces of territory, over a very long period of time.

As and when they seized territory from the Muslims, they applied to the king to rule it. (Spain itself was a very fractured entity, with a number of different kingdoms. It was only as the Reconquista reached its conclusion that the marriage of King Ferdinand of Aragon with Queen Isabella of Castile united most of Spain’s territory to form the basis of one unified Spanish monarchy.)

Sometimes large areas of land would be conquered and the new lords were granted what were known as latifundia, originally a Roman word describing a vast agricultural estate. The new owners co-opted the existing inhabitants as serfs to work the land, but often much of the original or Muslim population had fled and so the lords had difficulty filling them with workers and had to advertise for new workers to come in.

The point is that the Reconquista established a model for settling new lands, freshly conquered from the infidel, which was then applied wholesale to the new territory discovered by Columbus and his Viceroys across the ocean, and by the conquistadors and adventurers who followed them.

The Reconquista established the pattern of the monarch granting complete control over large swathes of territory, and all the people on it to, the conqueror or adelantado who had seized it. This resulted in a handful of rich swaggering lords riding among the large population of impoverished peasants working vast areas of land. In the New World it became known as the encomienda system and the grant holders encomenderos.

In fact it was a bit more complicated than that: the native Indians remained, nominally, free subjects of the Crown, which awarded encomenderos the right to enforce labour from the natives, but not complete power of life and death over them. That was the theory, anyway.

Williamson – once he has reported the main military and political events of the conquest – moves briskly on to discuss in considerable detail, this and all the other legal and administrative measures which the Spanish implemented in their new lands.

In fact, the ‘excitement’ of the narrative of Columbus’s voyages and the initial conquests of the Aztecs and the Incas which open the text, might give the reader quite a misleading impression of the book. Williamson is much more a historian of constitutional and administrative systems than he is a chronicler of exciting battles and against-the-odds expeditions. A lot of this book is quite dry. But he develops the constitutional and legal aspects of the conquest in such detail that, to my surprise, the conflicts between the settlers, and in particular between the Viceroys appointed to govern the new provinces and the monarchy back in Spain – and between both of them and Catholic church – at moments become quite gripping.

The Crown protects the Indians One counter-intuitive learning is that the Spanish crown, right from the start, was concerned about protecting the rights of the native Indians, indeed became their chief protector.

As Spanish adventurers opened up new territory and conquered more and more native peoples, the monarchs became concerned to make sure they were not simply enslaved. Queen Isabella personally forbade the enslavement of the natives, and a series of ‘Laws of the Indies’ tried to stem abuses wherever they were found. Encomenderos may have enjoyed almost complete power over the populations of their vast estates, but Spanish laws commanded them to also set up schools and hospitals, to educate the Indians, protect them from wars and raids, and to enact justice. This effort continued for the rest of the 16th century, for example with the ‘New Laws of the Indies for the Good Treatment and Preservation of the Indians’ of 1547, which explicitly forbade all forms of enslaving the native population. The New Laws prompted violent opposition among the oligarchies of Spanish settlers.

The Church takes the Indians’ side It’s also surprising to read about the broadly sympathetic line taken by the Catholic Church. The Pope and the Catholic organisations which sent cohorts of missionaries out to the New World took the line that these were people made in God’s image, like us, with souls that needed saving. Certainly, some of the first cohort of priests accompanying the conquistadors helped in the wholesale destruction of priceless documents and artefacts which they considered pagan and devilish. But within a generation, a new wave of clerics began for all kinds of reasons to take the native Indians’ side, deploring their brutal exploitation by amoral Spanish lords.

On a pragmatic note, they also realised they couldn’t convert the natives by preaching at them in Latin or Spanish, and undertaking ‘mass baptisms’ where the Indians didn’t have a clue what was going on. So a whole project was undertaken to learn more about the natives’ languages, which quickly extended into documenting their histories and beliefs. Most of what we know about native Indian religion and history derives from these records taken down by Christian missionaries.

The classic figure of this type was Bartolomé de las Casas, initially a coloniser himself, who became a Dominican friar and spent the last 50 years of his life fighting slavery and the colonial abuse of indigenous peoples. He was appointed by the Spanish crown the first ‘Protector of the Indians’, an administrative office responsible for attending to the wellbeing of the native populations, a function he enthusiastically carried out and which included speaking on their behalf in law courts and even reporting back to the King of Spain in person.

In 1550, Bartolomé participated in the Valladolid debate, in which Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda (the noted Spanish Renaissance “humanist”, philosopher, theologian, and… er… proponent of colonial slavery) argued that the Indians were less than human and required Spanish masters in order to become civilized. Las Casas maintained that the Indians were fully human and that forcefully subjugating them was morally, legally, and theologically, unjustifiable. Las Casas is a hero (not a perfect hero, but by the standards of his own time a d brave and determined protector of the people.)

Williamson gives a long and detailed account of the numerous legal initiatives launched by the Crown to try and protect the Indians from exploitation, but in the end they all failed. No amount of legal or theological argumentation could avoid the fact that the Spanish remained the ruling caste with one law for them, while the Indians remained a separate caste, subject to completely different laws. Williamson calls them the Republic of the Spaniards and the Republic of the Indians.

And nothing could alter the simple fact that, on the ground, most of the laws designed to protect the Indians were ignored by the settlers, who looked after each other’s interests.

Theories of conquest and bureaucratic structures

I could have done with more about where the silver was discovered in the New World, and the technology of how it is mined and purified. We are told that mercury was vital to the purification process, but not really how or why. I had to google it to find out. He does eventually have three pages on the silver mines (two on gold-mining), but in general Williamson is light on that kind of thing, on technology, and on the diverse resources of the region.

Instead, as the book settles into its stride, you realise that Williamson is going to devote most of his energy to the legal and theological justifications of Spanish rule along with detailed descriptions of the bureaucratic structures the Spanish set up.

Thus there is a long passage explaining how the theory of monarchy evolved in Spain from its late-medieval form to the theory which underpinned the role of Philip II as head of an empire which stretched from California to Sicily. He explains the role of the Catholic Church as a vital prop to royal authority, and gives long explanations of the laws and the administrative structures set up to run the colonies.

He explains the main theories by which the Spanish justified their conquests, both to themselves and to the rest of the world (especially to their critical opponents in the Protestant world). There were two main ones:

  1. The well-established Law of Conquest, by which one ruler conquers another and is allowed to seize his land and titles, which had been worked out over long centuries of theological and legal debate during the Middle Ages.
  2. The more modern notion that the Crown of Spain had a ‘right’ to rule the Indians because the Europeans would convert the natives to Christianity and so save their souls. This was accompanied by a kind of sub-argument, which many missionaries put forward: that the New World represented an opportunity for Christianity – which had, by the early 1500s become widely associated with corruption and worldly ambition – to start again. Here, in the Garden of Eden, were a new kind of Adam and Eve, a First People uncorrupted by the Old World, and one thread of early colonisation is the devout wishes of the early missionaries to create a Christian Paradise on earth. Of course it was not to turn out that way; the secular settlers – and the terrible European diseases – made sure of that.

How the silver was squandered

Williamson does, however, clarify something which has always puzzled me, which is – if the Spanish monarchy began receiving ever-increasing amounts of silver from the New World (as the result of great silver strikes in North Mexico and Peru in the 1540s), how come Spain steadily declined in power and influence in the century and a half after the conquest?

Indeed, Williamson points out that by the death of Philip II in 1598, Spain was technically bankrupt and had experienced state bankruptcies (i.e been unable to repay its debts) in 1557, 1560, 1569, 1575, and 1596!

Where did the Spanish silver go? The answer turns out to be simple: Paying for Spain’s wars.

Even though it never accounted for more than 20 per cent of imperial revenues, silver was the fuel that drove the Spanish war machine. (p.106)

Philip II’s father had been Holy Roman Emperor and when Philip came to the throne in 1556, he inherited responsibility for territory in every continent known to Europeans – from the extensive empire in Central and South America to the newly conquered territory of the Phillippines, from the kingdom of Naples and Sicily in Italy, to the Seventeen Provinces of the Netherlands which began a protracted war of independence against Spanish rule in 1568. Not only this, but Philip saw himself as the defender of all Christendom in its wars against the Ottoman Turks in the East. He it was who organised ‘the Holy League’, bringing together ships from Spain, the Republic of Venice, the Republic of Genoa, the Papal States, the Duchy of Savoy and the Knights of Malta, to inflict a decisive defeat on the Ottomans at the naval Battle of Lepanto in 1567.

Philip also saw himself as the defender of Catholic orthodoxy against the shocking new Protestant heresy. Thus Philip gave large financial support to the Catholic League fighting the Protestants in France, and then went directly to war with the French King Henry IV, an intervention which secured the future of France as a Catholic country.

Last but not least, as we Brits know, Philip II built, armed, provisioned and manned an enormous armada which was designed, with the blessing of the pope, to conquer England, overthrow the Tudor dynasty and the Church of England, and impose Philip as the Catholic ruler of a Catholic Britain.

So that’s where the silver, hacked out of dangerous and unhealthy mines in the New World by Indian slaves and serfs, ended up being spent. Funding the impossible ambitions of the over-extended Spanish monarchy.

Spain went into decline because of proliferating military commitments for which it could not pay. (p.116)


Related links

Related reviews, mainly about Mexico

The Hundred Years War by Desmond Seward (1978)

There is full many a man that crieth “Werre! Werre!”
That wot full litel what werre amounteth.

(Geoffrey Chaucer, captured in France on campaign with Edward III in 1359 and ransomed – with a contribution of £16 from the king)

The hundred years war lasted more than a hundred years

The Hundred Years War did not last a hundred years, it was really a sucession of conflicts between successive kings of France and England which are generally agreed to have started in 1337 and trundled on until a final peace treaty in 1453 (same year that Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks).

It see-sawed between prolonged periods of war, and long periods of truce

The ‘war’ was periodic, blowing hot and cold, with long periods of peace or truce – for example, there was peace between the Treaty of Brétigny of October 1360 and a new outbreak of hostilities in June 1369, and an even longer lull between 1389 – when Richard II signed a peace treaty with Charles VI of France – and the renewal of hostilities by Henry V and continued by his successors from 1415 until the final collapse of English possessions in 1453. Modern accounts divide the war into three distinct periods of conflict:

  1. Edwardian phase (named for English King Edward III) 1337-1360
  2. Caroline phase (named for French King Charles V) 1369-89
  3. Lancastrian phase (named for the House of Lancaster which came to the throne with Henry IV, and renewed the war at the wish of his son Henry V) 1415-53

What gives the long sequence of battles and campaigns a conceptual unity is that between 1337 and 1453 the King of England made a formal, legal claim to the crown of France. For much of that period successive English kings styled themselves King of England and of France. 

Historical origins of the war

The deep background to the war is of course the fact that William of Normandy invaded and conquered England in 1066, and his successors ruled not only England but Normandy and an ever-changing constellation of states, duchies and princedoms scattered round northern France.

It was Henry II who, by marrying Eleanor of Aquitaine, expanded the northern realm by bringing this huge area of south-west France under ‘English’ rule, thus expanding the so-called Plantagenet Empire to its fullest extent. In this map everything in pink was controlled by the Plantagenet king and amounted to just over half the nominal territory of France.

Plantagenet possessions in France in 1154 (source: Wikipedia)

Alas, Henry’s second son, King John, managed to throw away almost all this territory, through mismanagement, bad alliances and military defeats, and his successors – notably Henry III (1216-72), Edward I (1272-1307), and Edward II (1307-27) – lived in the shadow of the loss of the empire’s once-huge extent in France, and made spasmodic attempts to revive it.

Edward III’s claim to the throne of France

It was King Edward III, who ascended the throne as a boy in 1327 but then seized power from his guardians in 1330, who took the bull by the horns.

When the French king Charles IV died in 1328 without a son and heir the nobles of France had to decide who to succeed him. Edward’s claim was that he was the son of Isabella, sister to Charles IV. However, the French nobles, understandably, did not want to hand the crown to the English and chose to emphasise that the French crown could not be handed down through the female line – so they chose instead Philip VI, a cousin of the recently dead Charles IV.

Philip’s father had been a younger brother of a previous king, Philip IV, and had had the title Charles of Valois. Thus the throne of France passed to the House of Valois (having previously been the House of Capet).

Edward, only 16 when all this happened, was under the complete control of his mother and her lover, Roger Mortimer, who were allies with the French crown, who had indeed needed the support of the French king to overthrow Edward’s ill-fated father, Edward II, and so who made no protest and didn’t promote boy Edward’s claim.

It was only once he had himself overthrown Mortimer and banished his mother, and securely taken the reins of power, only in the 1330s, that Edward III got his lawyers to brush up his claim to the French throne and make a formal appeal for it. But it was, of course, too late by then.

Relations between the two kings deteriorated, and the road to war was marked by numerous provocations, not least when Edward happily greeted the French noble Robert of Artois who had, at one point been a trusted adviser of Philip VI, but then was involved in forgeries to secure the duchy of Artois, and forced to flee for his life.

This offensive gesture led King Philip to declare that Guyenne (another name for Aquitaine, which the English had held on and off ever since Henry II married Eleanor) was now forfeit to Edward i.e. no longer his. This triggered a formal letter from Edward III objecting to the forfeiture of Guyenne, and in which Edward  formally lay claim to the throne of France.

A maze of powers and alliances

Almost any summary of the war is likely to be too simplistic for two reasons. One, it went on for a very long time with hundreds of battles, sieges, campaigns, on land and sea, each of which deserves a detailed account.

But – two – I was also struck by how many kingdoms, dukes and princes and whatnot got involved. Just in the early stages in the 1330s and 1340s, you need to know that Edward sought alliances with the Count of Flanders up in the north-east of France, and also tried to ally with the dukes of Burgundy on the eastern border. He also tried to get on his side the Holy Roman Emperor and the pope. Early on (1341) there was a civil war in Brittany between two claims to the title of Duke of Brittany, one backed by Edward, one by the French, and this degenerated into a civil war which went on for decades. Normandy – once the base of the Plantagenet empire – was, and then was not, allied with Edward.

In other words, France was far more fragmented an entity than the England of the day, and this made for a very complex kaleidoscope of shifting alliances. It’s broadly correct to speak of the king of England trying to secure the crown of France but that doesn’t begin to convey the complexity of the situation.

And that’s without Scotland. The king of England was always worried about what the Scots were doing behind his back which was, basically, to invade the north of England whenever the king of England was busy in France. It didn’t take much brains for the French to renew a sequence of pacts and alliances with Scotland to provide men and munitions to encourage their repeated invasions, renewing the ‘Auld Alliance’ which had first been made during the time of the aggressive ‘Hammer of the Scots’, Edward I, in 1295.

The same goes, to a lesser extent, for Wales and Ireland, which periodically rebelled against English rule, and which required armed expeditions, for example the large army which Richard II led in person to put down Irish rebellion and force Irish chieftains to submit to English overlordship in 1394.

And Spain. Spain also was divided into warring kingdoms and these, too, got drawn into the complex alliances north of the Pyrenees, which explains why, at various moments, the kingdoms of Castile or Navarre became involved in the fighting. Castile, in particular, allied with the French king and provided ships to the French fleets which repeatedly harried and raided ports on the south coast and attacked English merchant shipping going back and forth from Flanders (wool) or Guyenne (wine).

Famous highpoints

For the English the high points are the early, Edwardian phase of the war, featuring the two great battles of Crécy (26 August 1346) and Poitiers (19 September 1356) where we heartily defeated the French, plus the sea battle of Sluys (24 June 1340) where we destroyed an invasion fleet anchored off modern-day Holland, and the Battle of Winchelsea (29 August 1350) where a British fleet just about defeated a Castilian fleet commanded by Charles de La Cerda.

The Caroline phase 1369-89 marked the slow disintegration of the English position in France, latterly under the unpopular King Richard who, in 1389, signed a long-term peace.

Then, after a very long lull, Englishmen like to remember the Battle of Agincourt in 25 October 1415, fought as part of a prolonged raid of northern France undertaken by King Henry V, but this was just part of Henry V’s sustained campaign to conquer France, which was continued after his early death in 1422 by his brother John of Lancaster, Duke of Bedford, and others, until England had complete control of all Normandy and even Paris.

But this is, of course, is to forget the various achievements of successive French kings during this period, and to underestimate the importance of the fact that France descended into civil war (the Armagnac–Burgundian Civil War) from 1407 to 1435, partly because it was ruled by a completely ineffectual king, Charles VI, also known as ‘the Mad’ (1388-1422). It was only because France was completely divided and that we allied with the powerful Burgundians, that we managed to seize and control so much of northern France.

As soon as Philip of Burgundy defected from the English cause by signing the Treaty of Arras with Charles VII and recognising him (and not the English Henry VI) as king of France, the rot set in and the period from 1435 to 1450 marks to steady decline of English landholdings and influence in France, ‘a protracted rearguard action by the English in France’ (p.235).

Famous characters

The protagonists of the Hundred Years War are among the most colourful in European history: King Edward III who inaugurated the Order of the Garter, his son the swashbuckling Black Prince, and Henry V, who was later immortalized in the play by Shakespeare. In the later, Lancastrian phase, I was impressed by Henry V’s brother, John of Lancaster, 1st Duke of Bedford, who took over control of the war and acted as regent to the baby Henry VI, and to the great commander of the day, Sir John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury, known as ‘Old Talbot’, ‘the English Achilles’ and ‘the Terror of the French’.

On the French side there were the splendid but inept King John II who was taken prisoner at Poitiers and died a prisoner in London; Charles V, who very nearly overcame England; Charles VI who went spectacularly mad; and the enigmatic Charles VII, who at last drove the English out – not to mention Joan of Arc, the Maid of Orleans, who died aged just 19 but whose legend was to grow enormous.

The war also features walk-on parts from King David II of Scotland, who was captured when the Scots army was defeated at the Battle of Neville’s Cross on 17 October 1346, and spent the next 11 years in captivity in England. And Peter the Cruel, king of Castile and León from 1350 to 1369 who lived up to his nickname, and whose daughter married Edward’s son, John of Gaunt, who thus became heir to the crown of Castile.

And Charles the Bad, King of Navarre, who proved a thorn in the side of the French crown because of ancestral lands he owned near Paris. The deeper you read, the more complex the web of personalities and players becomes.

Seward’s account

Seward’s book is a good, popular account, which includes family trees explaining the complex genealogical aspects of the war and is dotted with black and white reproductions of paintings, tomb effigies and brass rubbings of the main protagonists.

He describes all the military campaigns and diplomatic manoeuvrings behind them. The book includes interesting sections about the arms and ammunition of the day (English longbows versus French crossbows) and brings out the uniqueness of the English tactics which lay behind our early victories, namely the tactic of having mounted archers who were able to ride into position, dismount, and then release volleys of arrows at such a rate (ten per minute!) that the sky turned dark and the attacking French was slaughtered.

But I just happen to have read Dan Jones’s account of the Plantagenet kings and, although Jones’s book is also popular in intent, I felt it gave me a much clearer sense of the machinations going on in English politics at the time. Take the reign of Richard II (1377-99). Once you start looking into this 22 year period, it reveals a wealth of issues which lay behind the two big political crises of 1386–88 and 1397–99. Only by reading the 40 or so pages that Jones devotes to it did I develop a feel not only for why Richard was against war with France and signed the peace treaty of 1389 and married his child bride (Isabella of Valois, aged just seven when she married Richard), but why there continued to be a powerful War Party among the top aristocracy, which continued to promote raids and attacks on France.

Seward conveys some of this, but his account of Richard’s period of the war lacks the depth and detail of Jones’s account – he skims over the first crisis in Richard’s rule without even mentioning the so-called ‘Merciless Parliament’, which seized control from the king and oversaw the systematic arraignment for treason and execution of most of his council.

This, I suppose, is reasonable enough if we grant that Seward’s account is focused on the war and deliberately gives no more about the domestic situation of the English (or French) kings than is strictly necessary. But comparison with the Jones brought out the way that it is not a full or adequate account of the period as a whole, and begs the question: how much of the domestic political, economic and social situations in England, France (and the numerous other countries involved, from Scotland and Burgundy to Castile) do you need to understand, to fully understand the Hundred Years War?

What is a full understanding of a historical event or era? Is such a thing even possible?

From what I can see, the fullest possible account of not only the war but all the domestic politics behind it in both England and France and further afield, is Jonathan Sumption’s epic, multi-volume account:

The chevauchée – death and destruction

Instead the main thing that came over for me was the scale of the destruction involved in the war.

Obviously war is destructive but I hadn’t quite grasped the extent to which the English pursued a deliberate scorched earth policy, a conscious policy of systematically devastating all the land they passed through, as their main military strategy, sustained for over one hundred years.

Some campaigns the English launched had little or no strategic value, their purpose was solely to destroy as many French towns and villages as possible, to loots and burn, to rape and pillage, to steal everything worth stealing and to murder all the inhabitants over really significant areas of France – from Gascony and Aquitaine in the south-west, up through the Loire valley, in Brittany, in Normandy and right up to the walls of Paris itself.

What makes the 1339 campaign of particular interest is the misery inflicted on French non-combatants. It was the custom of medieval warfare to wreak as much damage as possible on both towns and country in order to weaken the enemy government. The English had acquired nasty habits in their Scottish wars and during this campaign Edward wrote to the young Prince of Wales how his men had burnt and plundered ‘so that the country is quite laid waste of cattle and of any other goods.’ Every little hamlet went up in flames, each house being looted and then put to the torch. Neither abbeys and churches nor hospitals were spared. Hundreds of civilians – men, women and children, priests, bourgeois and peasants – were killed while thousands fled to fortified towns. The English king saw the effectiveness of ‘total war’ in such a rich and thickly populated land; henceforth the chevauchée, a raid which systematically devastated enemy territory, was used as much as possible in the hope of making the French sick of war… (p.38)

Thus:

  • in autumn 1339 English ships raided Boulogne burning thirty French ships, hanging their captains and leaving the lower town in flames
  • in September 1339 Edward invaded into France from the Low Countries, ‘he advanced slowly into Picardy, deliberately destroying the entire countryside of the Thiérache and besieging Cambrai’
  • in 1339 the pope was so appalled by the ruin the English were inflicting that he sent money to Paris for the relief of the poor, and the envoy who distributed it wrote back a report describing the 8,000 utterly destitute peasants forced to flee their land, and of 174 parishes which had been utterly laid waste, including their parish churches
  • in 1340 Philip’s army invaded Aquitaine and ‘laid waste the vineyard country of Entre-Deux-Mers and Saint-Emilion’

In 1346 Edward landed with a huge force in Normandy and proceeded to rampage through the countryside.

The following day the king launched a chevauchée through the Cotentin, deliberately devastating the rich countryside, his men burning mills and barns, orchards. haystacks and cornricks, smashing wine vats, tearing down and setting fire to the thatched cottages of the villagers, whose throats they cut together with those of their livestock. One may presume that the usual atrocities were perpetrated on the peasants – the men were tortured to reveal hidden valuables, the women suffering multiple rape and sexual mutilation, those who were pregnant being disembowelled. Terror was an indispensable accompaniment to every chevauchée and Edward obviously intended to wreak the maximum ‘dampnum‘ –  the medieval term for that total war which struck at an enemy king through his subjects. (p.58)

On this campaign the English burnt Cherbourg and Montebourg and Caen. In Caen, after the garrison surrendered, the English started to plunder, rape and kill. The desperate townsfolk retaliated by taking to the rooves throwing down bricks and tiles onto the English soldiers, killing several hundred at which Edward went into a rage and ordered the massacre of the entire population, men, women and children. Later persuaded to rescind the order, but the sack lasted three days and some 3,000 townsfolk were murdered. Nuns were raped, religious houses looted, the priory of Gerin was burned to the ground, and so on.

This chevauchée took the army right to the walls of Paris where they burnt the suburbs of Saint-Cloud and Saint-Germain before retreating northwards and burning the town of Mareuil, along with its fortress and priory.

After the famous victory at Crécy, the English went on to besiege the port of Calais for over a year, which involved the systematic destruction of the entire countryside for thirty miles around.

In 1355 the Black Prince rode out of Bordeaux with a force of 2,600 and carried out a 600-mile chevauchée across Languedoc to Montpelier and almost to the Mediterranean burning as many villages and hemlet as they could, burning mills, chateaux and churches. His forces took by storm and then burned to the ground Narbonne, Carcassone, Castlenaudry, Limousin and many other settlements large and small.

When war broke out in 1369 John of Gaunt led a chevauchée through Normandy, employing mercenaries and criminals. In 1370 the mercenary leader Sir Robert Knolly led a chevauchée through the Ile de Paris, burning and looting villages and towns right up to the walls of Paris, so that the king of France could look out over the burning and devastated landscape surrounding the capital.

In 1373 John of Gaunt led 11,000 men out of Calais on a chevauchée through Picardy, Champagne, Burguny, the Bourbonnais, the Auvergne and the Limousin, ‘cutting a hideous swathe of fire and destruction down central France’ (p.114).

During such a chevauchée the English killed every human being they could catch (p.85)

It is shocking to read that even the ‘great’ Henry V pursued exactly the same policy. The Agincourt campaign was in fact an attempt to take the walled city of Harfleur and then march up to the Seine to capture Paris. This completely failed because Harfleur held out for over a month during which a third of Henry’s expensively assembled army died of disease. Once the town was finally taken he decided to retreat north towards Calais, burning and laying waste to everything in sight, in the by-now traditional English way. Henry is quoted as saying that was without fire was like sausages without mustard.

Indeed Seward is at pains to deconstruct the image of the Shakespearian hero. Seward emphasises the ruthlessness of the young king – a man of ‘ruthless authority and cold cruelty’ (p.154) – and compares him, somewhat shockingly, to Napoleon and Hitler, in his single-minded self-belief, religious fanatacism and obsession with war and conquest. The account of his short reign is quite harrowing, involving the massacre of the entire population of Caen after it fell to an English siege in 1417, and the deliberate starving of the besieged population of Rouen later that year. All his sieges are marked by brutal treatment of the losers.

As late as 1435, when the English began to slowly lose control of their territory, an experienced soldier like Sir John Fastolf suggested that two small forces of 750 men be created who, twice a year, in June and November, would invade a different part of France and burn and destroy all the land they passed through, burning down all houses, corn fields, vineyards, all fruit and all livestock. The aim? To create famine. To starve the French unto submission.

Loot

Throughout this period the main motivation for ordinary soldiers to go and fight was loot. Everything of value in enemy territory was stolen. The English confiscated all the food and drink from every farm they despoiled and then burnt.

In the towns they stole gold, silver, jewels, fur coats. The king took possession of the best spoils and from each chevauchée sent convoys of carts bearing clothes, jewels, gold and silver plate and cutlery and much else lumbering back to the coast and to ships which bore it all back to England.

The English now regarded France as a kind of El Dorado. The whole of England was flooded with French plunder (p.81)

In the countryside they took all the livestock and stole all the grain then burned everything else. Many areas took decades to recover. Seward quotes contemporary chroniclers describing mile upon mile of devastated landscape, every building, cottage, manor house and church gutted and burnt to the ground, with no survivors to prune the vines or plough and sow the land, the sheep and cattle all killed and eaten by the English, the roads empty in every direction.

No wonder the English came to be hated like the Devil, like the Nazis were 600 years later.

Mercenaries

A crucial aspect of the war was the employment of mercenaries. Warriors for hire had, of course, existed through the ages. In post-Conquest England they flourished during the Anarchy i.e. the civil war between King Stephen and the Empress Matilda from 1135-1153. Later, King John used mercenaries in his wars against the barons in the early 1200s, leading to the hiring of foreign mercenaries being specifically banned by Magna Carta.

But not abroad. The reappearance and flourishing of mercenaries was particularly associated with the Hundred Years War. By the 1340s the English king was finding it difficult to pay his own or foreign troops and license was given to soldiers to ‘live off the land’.

This opened the road to hell, for soldiers, English and foreign, quickly took advantage of the new liberty to a) take all the food and drink from every farm or village they passed b) terrorise and torture the natives to hand over not just foodstuffs but anything of value c) to create protection rackets: pay us a regular fee or the boys will come round and burn everything to the ground. This became known as the pâtis, or ‘ransoms of the country’.

For example, in 1346 the Earl of Lancaster captured Lusignan, a fortress near Poitier. When he moved on he left a garrison under the command of Bertrand de Montferrand. Many of his troops were criminals and misfits. Despite a truce between 1346-1350, the garrison laid waste to over fifty parishes, ten monasteries, and destroyed towns and castles throughout southern Poitou. One story among thousands.

It is easy, reading the countless examples of blackmail, threat, looting, ravaging, burning, stealing and extorting, to see the entire era as one in which the English and their mercenaries mercilessly terrorised, attacked and looted the French people for over a hundred years. The Hundred Years Extortion.

After the Treaty of Brétigny, signed between England and France in October 1360, which brought the first phase of the war to an end, thousands of mercenaries and low-born vassals, serfs and miscellaneous crooks from  a number of nations, were left jobless. They didn’t want to go back to slaving on the land, so they set up their own mercenary groups.

In French these groups became known as routes and so the mercenaries acquired the general name of routiers (pronounced by the barbarian English ‘rutters’).

But in English they came to be referred to as the Free Companies, ‘free’ because they owed allegiance to no king. The Free Companies included all nationalities including Spaniards, Germans, Flemings, Gascons, Bretons and so on, but collectively the French chroniclers refer to them as ‘English’ because of the terrors the English chevauchées caused throughout the period (p.135).

Many of the routier groups were well organised, with administrative staff, quartermasters, and army discipline. They continued to be available for hire to the highest bidder. One scholar has identified 166 captains of mercenary groups during the period. The largest bands became notorious along with their leaders, such as the notorious Bandes Blanches of the Archpriest Arnaud de Cervole. Some routier groups even defeated the national armies sent to suppress them.

Many of the leaders became very rich. In an intensely hierarchical society, one of the chief motivations for fighting, for joining up with an army, was the incentive to make money. Really successful mercs were extremely useful to the sovereigns who paid them, and quite a few were given knighthoods and ‘respectability’, allowing them to retire back to England where they built mansions and castles, many of which survive to this day.

For example, plain Edward Dalyngrigge enlisted in the Free Company of Sir Robert Knolles in 1367 and over the next ten years accumulated a fortune in loot and plunder, returning to Sussex in 1377, marrying an heiress and building the splendid Bodiam Castle in Sussex, which is today a peaceful National Trust property. Built with money looted and extorted abroad by a mercenary soldier. Possibly a fitting symbol of this nation, certainly a classic example of the money, power and rise in social status which was possible during the Hundred Years War.

Other examples include Ampthill Castle built by Sir John Cornwall with loot from Agincourt, and Bolton and Cooling castles, as well as Rye House near Ware, built with French money by the Danish mercenary Anders Pedersen, who rose through the ranks of the English army and found respectability as Sir Andrew Ogard MP.

This helps explain the unpopularity of Richard II’s policy of peace with France.

[The English] had been fighting France for over half a century; almost every summer ships filled with eager young soldiers had sailed from Sandwich to Calais or from Southampton to Bordeaux. War was still the nobility’s ideal profession; the English aristocracy saw a command in France much as their successors regarded an embassy or a seat in the cabinet. Moreover, men of all classes from [the Duke of] Gloucester to the humblest bondman, regarded service in France as a potential source of income; if the war had cost the English monarchy ruinous sums, it had made a great deal of money for the English people… (p.141)

Why are there wars? At the top level, because of the strategic and territorial greed or nationalistic fervour, or simple mistakes, of dim leaders. But if you ask, why do men fight wars, this sociological explanation must be taken into account. It’s because wars are a way of escaping from poverty and being trapped in the lower levels of society and offer the opportunity of escape, foreign travel, adventure, testing yourself as a man, and 1. raising your social status and 2. making money – in the case of the Free Companies of the Hundred Years War, lots of money.

The war was long remembered as a time to rise in the world. The fifteenth-century herald, Nicholas Upton, wrote that ‘in those days we saw many poor men serving in the wars in France ennobled.’ (p.119)

Conclusion

Looking beyond the boys’ adventure aspects of the great military victories, and the supposedly dashing figures of the Black Prince or Henry V, the distraction of the girl saint Joan of Arc (who was burned to death by the English aged just 19), mad King Charles who thought he was made of glass, or the long rearguard action by John Duke of Bedford – it is, I think, difficult for a modern reader not to feel oppressed by the sheer scale of the deliberate wanton destruction the English visited across huge areas of rural France and the ultimate futility of all those lives wasted, all that treasure expended, all that land and buildings and carefully built farms, manors, churches, priories and so on burnt to the ground. Human folly.

By 1453 all the English had to show for over a century of oppressive taxation, countless deaths and the expenditure of vast fortunes paying for weapons and mercenaries, was to end up pathetically clinging on to tiny little Calais. Meanwhile, France had become unified as a nation and emerged as the strongest state in Europe. And a long legacy of mutual mistrust which, arguably, lasts right up to the present day, as Seward points out in the very last sentences of his book.

France suffered horribly when England escaped unharmed – every local historian in northern and western France will show the tourist a château or a church which was sacked by the English. There is a strong case for maintaining that the origin of the uneasy relationship between the two peoples can be found in the battles, sieges and the chevauchées, the ransoming and the looting, the pâtis, the burning and the killing by the English in France during the Hundred Years War. (p.265)


Related links

Other medieval reviews

The Plantagenets (2) by Dan Jones (2012)

Part two of my summary of Dan Jones’s rip-roaring, boys-own-adventure, 600-page-long account of the history of the Plantagenet kings and queens (1154-1400).

Episodes

It becomes clearer in the second half of the book that each of the book’s short chapters (average length 9 pages) begins with a dramatic moment or colourful scene which grabs our attention. And then Jones goes back a bit to explain how it came about, what led up to it and what it meant.

This helps explain why the book feels so popular and gripping, because, on one level, it supplies a steady sequence of 85 (there are 85 chapters) dramatic, exciting or colourful moments. This became particularly obvious in a sequence of chapters about the early reign of Edward III:

When Parliament met in March 1337, a hum of excitement and agitation settled over Westminster… (New Earls, New Enemies)

On 26 January 1340, Edward III entered the Flemish city of Ghent, with his entire household accompanying him, including his heavily pregnant queen, who was carrying the couple’s sixth child in ten years… (The Hundred Years War Begins)

As dusk approached on the evening of 24 June 1340, six months after he had declared himself king of the best part of western Europe, Edward stood aboard his flagship, the cog Thomas… and watched the sea offshore from Sluys, in Flanders, churn with the blood of tens of thousands of Frenchmen… (Edward at Sea)

Violent seas threw the king’s boat about for three days as it stuttered from the coast of Flanders to the mouth of the Thames. It was the very end of November 1340, and with winter approaching it was more dangerous than usual to venture a Channel crossing… (The Crisis of 1341)

In the heat of July 1346 the English army marched through a broken, hell-bright landscape of coastal Normandy. All around them fields were lit up in ghastly orange by marauding bands of arsonists… (Dominance)

The English summer of 1348 was wet, but in defiance of the weather the country fairly blazed with glory. The king had returned to England in October the previous month in triumph… (The Death of a Princess)

You get the idea. The way the chapters don’t have numbers but snappy or sensational titles also helps give you the impression that what you’re reading is less like a traditional history and more like a poolside thriller.

Henry III and Prince Edward

We left our heroes in the last days of the weak and malleable king, Henry III – years which saw the rise of his tough, warrior son, Prince Edward (b.1239).

Prince Edward led the Royalist army at the Battle of Lewes on 14 May 1264, the first set piece battle on English soil in a century. The rebels won, capturing the King, Lord Edward, and Richard of Cornwall, Henry’s brother and the titular King of Germany. This led to the Great Parliament of 1265 (also known as Montfort’s Parliament). For the first time representatives were invited from all the counties and selected boroughs of England. Voting rights were discussed. All this was the seeds of modern democracy, more accurately part of the ongoing detailed process whereby successive Plantagenet kings found themselves forced to consult, first with the barons and nobles and then, by the reign of Richard II (1377-99) with the ‘commons’, the knights and justices of the shires.

But Prince Edward managed to escape from captivity and rallied royalist nobles as well as Welsh rebels and this led to a pitched battle with de Montfort’s forces at Evesham, which was a decisive royalist victory. Jones describes how a 12-man hit squad was commissioned to roam the battlefield, ignoring everything, with the sole task of finding and killing de Montfort. They succeeded. His body was mutilated, his testicles, hands and feet cut off. To later generations he became a sort of patron saint of representative government. Today De Montfort University in Leicester is named after him.

Henry III was once again titular king but he was a broken, dithering old man. The real power in the land was his forceful and energetic son, Edward (named after Henry’s icon, Edward the Confessor) who turned out to be a very different character from the saintly Saxon.

Edward I (1272-1307) ‘a great and terrible king’

Edward’s career divides into roughly four parts:

1. Growth to maturity under his father Henry (1239-1272). This involved him in the complex problems caused by his father’s weakness and the malign influence of his mother’s foreign relations, the de Lusignan family, all of which climaxed in the Barons Wars, in which rebels against royal authority were led by Simon de Montfort. These forces won the battle of Lewes in 1264 and de Montfort was for a few years effectively ruler of England, but were then comprehensively crushed and de Montfort killed at the Battle of Evesham in 1265. The civil war dragged on for a few more years, with individual rebels being picked off or offered concessions and peace.

2. Crusade (1270-74). Edward mulcted the country to raise the money to go on the Ninth Crusade and, unlike his immediate forebears, actually managed to leave, but the crusade proved to be a fiasco in several ways. For a start the leader, French King Louis IX of France allowed himself to be persuaded by his brother, Charles of Anjou, who had made himself King of Sicily, to sail not to Palestine but to attack his enemies in the coast of Tunisia, who were harrying Sicily. By the time Edward arrived Louis had signed a peace with the emir leaving Edward and his army with nothing to do. Undeterred they sailed for the Holy Land.

Here the situation was poor. Jerusalem had fallen 50 years earlier leaving Acre the centre of the diminished Crusader state and this was menaced by the overwhelming force of Baibars, leader of the Mamluks. After a few feeble sorties Edward had to stand by while Hugh III king of Jerusalem made a treaty with the Mamluks, who were themselves menaced by the encroaching Mongols in the north. The only notable event of Edward’s crusade is when an assassin was allowed into his private chambers and stabbed him. Edward managed to kill the attacker but was seriously wounded and took months to recover.

With the signing of the peace treaty there was little more to do, so he reluctantly packed up and headed back to England. En route he learned that his father had died but instead of rushing back took nearly a year to return, attending to business in his province of Gascony, then having an audience with the French king at which he renewed his vows of fealty i.e. that he held Gascony as a servant of the French King.

Wales Edward is famous for his wars of conquest in Wales and Scotland. Wales came first. It was ruled by Llywelyn ap Gruffudd who had benefited from the Barons Wars and slowly intimidated his way to rule over more and more of the other Welsh princes from his base in the northern province of Gwynned. Eventually, Llywelyn’s aggressive policies triggered a response from Edward who invaded with an overwhelming force in a carefully calculated campaign. In less than a year he had forced Llywelyn ap Gruffudd to retreat. Edward built enormous castles to act as permanent English powerbases as he and his army progressed through north Wales. After Llywelyn sued for peace he was made to perform fealty to Edward, hand over hostages, pay fines, and then travel to Westminster to perform submission, again.

In 1284 Edward issued the Statute of Rhuddlan that annexed Wales and made it a province of England. The title Prince of Wales was handed to Edward’s eldest son, Prince Edward (later Edward II) – a tradition that continues to this day.

Scotland Edward was so relentless in his attacks against the Scots that after his death he became known as ‘Scottorum malleus’ – the Hammer of the Scots. In 1287 Alexander III, King of Scots, died suddenly after falling from his horse. The succession crisis that followed presented Edward with a golden opportunity to expand on his conquest of Wales. In the absence of an obvious heir, the Scottish crown looked set to pass to Alexander’s infant grand-daughter, Margaret, the daughter of the King of Norway, hence the folk name she acquired, the ‘Maid of Norway’. But all elaborate plans centring on her collapsed when she died en route to Scotland.

With rival claimants vying for the crown Edward was invited by the senior nobles of Scotland to judge the claims and make the choice. This was a golden opportunity and Edward exploited it insisting that he be recognised as feudal overlord of the Scots before a new Scots king be appointed. The two strongest claimants were Robert Bruce and John Balliol. After much machination Balliol was appointed king, but on the understanding that he did so as vassal to Edward.

Edward rode Scotland hard, demanding high taxes and soldiers for his wars in Wales and Gascony. In 1295 the Scots signed a mutual aid treaty with France, an alliance which was to last centuries and come to be known as ‘the Auld Alliance’.

Edward launched a brutal attack, taking Berwick, which the Scots had occupied, slaughtering the inhabitants before pushing on into Scotland and decisively defeating the Scots at the Battle of Dunbar 1296. Balliol was captured, stripped of his ceremonial trappings, and sent to prison in England, while Edward’s army returned south laden with loot including the legendary stone of Scone, also known as the Stone of Destiny, which was placed under the throne in Westminster Abbey.

However the Scots, like the Welsh, refused to accept defeat, and rebellions broke out in the highlands and lowlands, the latter led by William Wallace who managed to defeat the army Edward sent against him at the Battle of Stirling Bridge 11 September 1297. At which point Edward marched north with another army and defeated Wallace at the Battle of Falkirk. Wallace was later captured and sent south to London where he was brutally tortured and executed.

However Robert Bruce, who lost the contest for the crown in 1295, won support among the Scots nobles and had himself crowned King of Scotland in 1306. As he hadn’t asked permission of Edward, the English king once again marched north, defeated the Scots in a series of battles and forced Robert to flee. However, the Bruce refused to admit defeat, gathered his forces, and made renewed attacks on isolated English garrisons in 1307. Not even the capture and execution of key Bruce supporters (including members of Bruce’s own family) could reverse the tide.

Yet again Edward marched north but on 7 July 1307, within sight of Scotland in sight, the 68-year-old king died at Burgh-on-Sands. The campaign for the conquest of Scotland passed on to his son, Edward II who was, to the Scots’ relief, and shadow of his brutal and implacable father. In 1314 Bruce was to rout a larger English force at Bannockburn. Recognition of Scotland’s sovereignty came at the start of the reign of Edward’s grandson, Edward III, in 1328.

The Jews Usury i.e. lending money out at interest, was banned to Christians, but kings and merchants needed funds so money-lending tended to be a specialist activity of England’s small Jewish community of maybe 2,000. This activity and their status as outsiders to the laws of the land made them vulnerable to victimisation. In 1275 Edward issued the Statute of Jewry that imposed severe taxation on the Jewish population of England. The Statute proved both lucrative and popular, so Edward extended the policy and in 1290 expelled the entire Jewish community from England – minus their money and property. The money raised went directly into his expensive campaigns in Scotland and Wales.

Edward II (1307-27)

The revelation for me was how unpopular Edward II was even before he became king. Edward I fathered no fewer than 14 children but with the deaths of most of the older ones, young prince Edward of Carnarfon emerged as the heir and favourite. But even by the time he was a teenager he was already proving a disappointment. There are records of numerous violent arguments between father and son, not least as Edward fell under the hypnotic spell of the charismatic Piers Gaveston.

It is difficult to establish at a distance of eight hundred years just what their relationship really amounted to but Jones points out that the accusations of homosexuality which later gathered round the relationship only really appear in the chronicles after Edward’s death in 1327. From Edward’s recorded words and writings during his reign, it seems that he regarded Gaveston more as a beloved adopted brother, who he blindly hero worshipped. Gaveston joined Edward’s household in 1300 and was tried and executed in 1312 and during this time caused havoc. He was dilettantish and rapacious, greedy for titles.

Gaveston stage-managed Edward II’s coronation, shocking the assembled nobility of England by rudely sidelining Edward’s queen, Isabella, daughter of the powerful King Philip IV of France. His behaviour alienated numerous groups and noble families who first protested and forced the king to send him into exile, then, when Gaveston returned, and then rose against the king. Edward II’s reign comes to its first climax with the seizure and execution of Gaveston by a kangaroo court led by the Earl of Lancaster, in 1312. The polarisation of the aristocracy led to several years of confrontation between the armed camps and it was during this period that the Scots won their great victory at the Battle of Bannockburn in June 1314.

The sense of ill omen about Edward’s reign was compounded by the Great Famine of 1315-17. For three years in a row there was unusual amounts of rainfall in the spring and summer which ruined crops. There was widespread famine and reports of cannibalism. It is thought that population had been rising since the time of the Norman Conquest but now it came to a dead halt and declined. The famine undermined belief in the church and the efficacy of prayer, and also in the secular authorities who proved hopeless at alleviating starvation.

But having eliminated Gaveston did not change Edward II’s dependence and he switched his allegiance to the Despenser family, in particular Hugh Despenser the Younger with whom he became close friends. The same problems arose again, which is that the king gave disproportionate amounts of land and favours and honours to the Despensers and their extended family, perpetuating the party opposed to Edward.

In 1321, once again led by the Earl of Lancaster, the rebellious barons seized the Despensers’ lands and forced the king to exile them. Edward led a short military campaign, capturing and executing Lancaster and restoring Despensers grip on power. The cabal set about executing their enemies and confiscating their estates, particularly of the Mortimer family who had become one of the leading opponents and now fled to France.

The French king took advantage of the turmoil in England to make attacks on Plantagenet territory in France, particularly Aquitaine. Lacking the money or support from his nobles to launch any kind of military campaign, in 1325 Edward sent his queen, Isabella, to negotiate a peace treaty but by now she had had quite enough of a king who did nothing but snub her and load his favourites with wealth and honour. Isabella not only refused to return but quickly fell into league with the exiled noble Roger Mortimer and scandalised opinion by taking him as her lover.

In 1326 they landed with a small army in East Anglia and, as they marched across the country, more and more local nobles rallied to the cause. As his regime collapsed around him, Edward was forced to flee to Wales where he was captured in November. The king was forced to relinquish his crown in January 1327 in favour of his 14-year-old son, Edward III, and he died in Berkeley Castle on 21 September, probably murdered on the orders of the new regime.

Edward III (1327-77)

In Jones’s account Edward’s reign falls into roughly three periods. For the first three years, as a boy, he was under the guardianship of his mother Isabella and her lover Roger Mortimer, who proved every bit as rapacious as the former king had been. As soon as he was old enough, in 1330 Edward launched a coup against them. Isabella was exiled to a provincial castle but Mortimer was formally tried for arrogating royal power, found guilty and hanged at Tyburn.

Part two of his life is the central period from 1330 to 1360, during which Edward emerged as possibly the greatest of all the Plantaganet kings. He:

  1. conducted successful campaigns to restore or establish English control of Wales, Scotland and key territories in mainland France, namely Aquitaine
  2. fathered a huge brood of children (ten), with three or four of the sons growing up to become powerful and successful soldiers, political figures and leaders in their own right, namely Edward the Black Prince b.1330
  3. realising the English aristocracy had been depleted by deaths in battle and also what had been in effect the civil war of Edward II’s reign, Edward cannily set about creating new earls and awarding them land around the kingdom, along with a new order of ‘dukes’, this creating a special bond between himself and the nobles of England
  4. Edward was fascinated by the legend of King Arthur and spent a fortune commissioning a room to hold a Round Table at Windsor, as well as instituting the noble Order of the Garter, as another way of binding together the English aristocracy

Edward was determined to seize back the territories in continental France which had been held by Henry II at the peak of the Plantagenet Empire. Over the next thirty years he launched a series of campaigns which led to the two ‘famous’ victories over French armies, at Crecy on 26 August 1346 and Poitiers on 19 September 1356. The latter battle was so decisive the English captured the French King John II and took him, and numerous other nobles, back to England to be ransomed.

Jones explains how Edward set about carefully allotting each of his adult sons a territory within his ’empire’ to manage, with the Black Prince being awarded Aquitaine, the duchy belonging to his great grandfather Richard the Lionheart. However, the Prince’s rule was troubled by three factors. He chose to get dragged into the affairs of Spain, taking the side of Don Pedro of Castile against his half-brother Henry of Trastámara. The Prince defeated Henry only to discover that Pedro was completely broke and couldn’t pay anything towards the huge loans the Prince had taken out to pay his mercenaries. This led directly to the second bad decision which was that the Prince was forced to impose onerous taxes on the nobles and people of Aquitaine, managing to alienate all of them. When the king of France came probing around the border of Aquitaine, towns opened their gates to him without a fight.

The third piece of bad luck was that during the campaign against Henry of Trastámara, the Prince picked up a recurrent fever, maybe malaria, which undermined the physical energy which had made him such a legend at Crecy and Poitiers. Increasingly enfeebled – having to be carried around in a sedan chair – he reacted savagely to his mounting problems. After the town of Limoges capitulated to the French king without a struggle, but was then retaken by English forces, the Prince ordered an indiscriminate slaughter of the civilian population in 1370. The Black Prince returned to England in 1371 and the next year resigned the principality of Aquitaine and Gascony. He lingered on, increasingly infirm, for five more years and died in 1376, the year before his father.

As the 1360s progressed, King Edward himself grew more infirm. Many of the close knit circle of contemporaries passed away. In 1364 King John II of France passed away and was succeeded by the vigorous and aggressive Charles V. Edward sent his son John of Gaunt with an army against Charles but the campaign was a failure. With the Treaty of Bruges in 1375, the once-great English possessions in France were reduced to the coastal towns of Calais, Bordeaux, and Bayonne.

Edward’s beloved wife Philippa of Hainault died in 1369. Grief-stricken, Edward took comfort in a long-running affair with a mistress, Alice Perrers. Discontent at home led to the convocation of the so-called Good Parliament in 1376, which was the longest parliament up to that time. As so often it was called to raise taxes for the crown, but was an opportunity for critics to vent their grievances and in particular gave voice to the so-called commons more than any previous meeting.

But the real power in the land at the end of Edward’s reign was his son John of Gaunt.

The Black Death

Plague came to England in 1348, arriving at Weymouth in Dorset, from Gascony in June 1348. By autumn, the plague had reached London, and by summer 1349 it covered the entire country, before dying down by December. The best current estimate is that, depending on region, between 40 and 60 percent of the population perished. Not so well known is that the plague returned in 1361–62 this time causing the death of around 20 percent of the population.

Leaving aside the horror and the despair the surprising thing, in Jones’s account at any rate, is how little impact this astonishing holocaust had on the economic, political, military or social structures of the day. The best known is that is resulted in a shortage of labour which lasted generations and, in effect, led to the end of feudal servitude.

Because he is interested in political history and, more precisely, in the stories of the kings conceived as Hollywood blockbusters, the plague makes remarkably little difference to Jones’s narrative. In 1356 England and France are back at war as if nothing had happened.

Richard II (1377-1399)

Richard was the second ill-fated king of the 14th century, destined, like Edward II, to be overthrown and, oddly, after nearly the same length of reign, 20 years for Edward II, 22 years for Richard II.

Richard was the son of Edward III’s oldest surviving son, Edward the Black Prince and so heir to the throne even though his father died before his grandfather. Having been born in 1367 he was only ten when he came to the throne and Jones gives a vivid description of his coronation and the surrounding festivities which – he speculates – deeply marked the boy, convincing him of his divine right to rule.

The common people, and the nobles, all hoped the arrival of a new young king would mark a turnaround from the sombre final years of Edward III’s reign. They also crowned him in a hurry because many feared that the mature and forceful John of Gaunt was himself scheming to seize the throne.

Early on he was controlled by a series of Regency Councils dominated by his uncles, John of Gaunt and Thomas of Woodstock, though their influence was contested. The ruling classes imposed a series of three poll taxes to raise money for continuing the war with France, and this was one of the spurs which led to a sudden outbreak of violence among serfs in Essex and Kent which quickly escalated into the Peasants’ Revolt. The revolt was a really serious violent revolution. The rebels took London, burning and looting, seized the Tower of London and murdered many leading notables including the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was also Lord Chancellor, and the king’s Lord High Treasurer, Robert Hales.

Richard played an astonishingly central role in quelling the revolt, personally intervening to meet the rebel leaders and organise an ambush whereby the main leader Wat Tyler was pulled from his horse and stabbed. When the mob surged forward Richard rode among them and shouted ‘I am your leader, follow me’, and they did follow him away from the scene of the murder and Richard’s militia was then able to disperse them.

Richard married Anne of Bohemia, daughter of Charles IV, the Holy Roman Emperor, on 20 January 1382, the empire being seen as potential allies against France in the ongoing Hundred Years’ War, but the marriage was unpopular, the alliance didn’t lead to a single military victory, and the marriage was childless. Anne died from plague in 1394, greatly mourned by her husband.

Richard’s reign was marked by two political crises, in 1386-88 and the final one in 1397-9.

First crisis 1386-88

Favourites Very like Edward II, Richard appointed a handful of devoted favourites who he lavished with honours and lands and positions. The fact that they came from merchant families without true aristocratic forebears, created great resentment among the rest of the nobility. There were Michael de la Pole, created chancellor in 1383 and Earl of Suffolk two years later. Worse was Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford, who Richard raised to the new title of Duke of Ireland in 1386. Their relationship was so close that later chroniclers speculated it was homosexual.

Failure in France and Scotland An expedition to France to protect English possessions was a failure. Richard decided to lead an expedition against Scotland but this also was a miserable failure as the Scots evaded a set-piece battle. Rumblings against the king was led by the Duke of Gloucester and Richard Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel.

The Wonderful Parliament (November 1386) Parliament was called in November 1386 and the unpopular chancellor, Michael de la Pole, asked for an unprecedented level for taxation to cover these military expeditions. The parliament blamed Richard for the military failures and said it couldn’t consider the issue till de la Pole was removed. The king dismissed their threat but was in the end forced to sack de la Pole. Parliament appointed a ‘continual council’ to supervise the king’s rule, a direct and humiliating attack on Richard’s royal prerogative.

As soon as the parliament had closed, Richard denounced all its actions and in the new year went on a prolonged tour of the country to drum up support and appointed de Vere Justice of Chester to build up a powerbase in Cheshire. Here he put great pressure on seven senior judges to annul the decisions of Parliament and denounce its leaders as traitors.

Radcot bridge 19 December 1387 On his return to London, the king was confronted by the Duke of Gloucester, Arundel and Thomas de Beauchamp, 12th Earl of Warwick, who brought an appeal of treason against de la Pole, de Vere, Tresilian, and two other loyalists, the mayor of London, Nicholas Brembre, and Alexander Neville, the Archbishop of York. Richard played for time and ordered de la Pole to bring loyalist forces from Chester.

Jones opens the relevant chapter with a wonderfully atmospheric account of the loyalist forces advancing under cover of fog towards the Thames but being confronted at Radcot Bridge by overwhelming rebel forces and being forced to swim his horse out into the Thames and escape downstream, ultimately fleeing to France.

The Merciless Parliament (February to June 1388) Parallel to his efforts to raise loyalist forces and seize back London, Richard had been involved in lengthy negotiations with the king of France whereby he would relinquish all England’s territory in France except for Aquitaine, for which he would proclaim himself the French king’s vassal. Rumours of these negotiations leaked out and led to fears that Richard might be prepared to countenance a French invasion of England, so long as he was returned to the throne.

Richard’s original opponents were now joined by John of Gaunt’s son Henry Bolingbroke, Earl of Derby, and Thomas de Mowbray, Earl of Nottingham and the group became known as the Lords Appellant because, with de Vere out of the way, they now made legal demands (or appeals) designed to dismantle the apparatus of Richard’s rule. Having dispersed the loyalist army at Radcot, the rebels now marched back to London where they found the king barricaded in the Tower of London which, however, they entered and confronted the king in person with accusations of treason. Apparently the Lords debated executing the king there and then – it came that close, executing their liege king to whom they were all related and who they were negotiating with – but decided against it and called another parliament.

The parliament convened in February 1388 and became known as the Merciless Parliament because the Lords revealed Richard’s treacherous plans with France, won over the Houses of Lords and the Commons and pushed ahead with legal actions to have almost all of Richard’s advisers convicted of treason. Two key figures in the administration, Brembre and Tresilian, were condemned and executed, while de Vere and de la Pole – who had both fled the country – were tried for treason and sentenced to death, then the Appellants went on to arraign, try and execute most of the rest of Richard’s inner circle.

It reads like something from the Terror of the French Revolution. Not only the leading nobles but retainers, clerks, chaplains, and secretaries to Richard were summarily condemned and executed. The seven judges who had been terrorised into denouncing the Lords Appellent, the year before in Chester, were all arrested, tried and executed. Richard’s chamber knights were tried and executed. Richard’s intermediaries who had been negotiating with France, were discovered and executed. No wonder it ended up being called the Merciless Parliament.

Restoration Amazingly, given that their power had been so absolute and the terror so thorough and Richard’s humiliation so complete, Richard returned to personal rule in 1389 and ruled more or less successfully for the next eight years. He was helped by the fact that, once the Lords Appellant had liquidated so many of their enemies, as a group they fell apart, reverting to their individual interests. One of the things which united them had been opposition to Richard’s peace policy with France but when they requested another round of taxation to further their war policy, Parliament baulked and the tide of opinion turned against them.

France and Ireland Richard therefore spent the next few years trying to finalise a peace treaty with France. Meanwhile the Anglo-Irish lords were begging for help against the insurgent Irish and in the autumn of 1394, Richard left for Ireland, where he remained until May 1395. His army of more than 8,000 men was the largest force brought to the island during the late Middle Age, the invasion was a success, and a number of Irish chieftains submitted to English overlordship.

Second crisis 1397-99

The last few years of Richard’s rule are referred to as the ‘tyranny’. The king had Gloucester, Arundel and Warwick arrested in July 1397. After years or reasonably peaceful rule, and bolstered by success in Ireland, Richard felt strong enough to safely retaliate against these three men for their role in events of 1386–88 and eliminate them as threats to his power. Arundel’s brother Thomas Arundel, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was exiled for life. Richard then set about persecuting his enemies around the regions of England. All the allies of the former Lords Apellant were arrested, tried and released only on payment of enormous fines.

The policy was made possible by the support of old John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and a suite of powerful magnates who Richard awarded with new titles and lands including the former Appellants Henry Bolingbroke, Earl of Derby, who was made Duke of Hereford, and Thomas de Mowbray, Earl of Nottingham, who was created Duke of Norfolk, John and Thomas Holland, the king’s half-brother and nephew, who were promoted from earls of Huntingdon and Kent to dukes of Exeter and Surrey respectively, the King’s cousin Edward, Earl of Rutland, who received Gloucester’s French title of Duke of Aumale, Gaunt’s son John Beaufort, Earl of Somerset, who was made Marquess of Somerset and Marquess of Dorset and so on.

The Shrewsbury parliament In 1398 Richard summoned a packed Parliament to Shrewsbury – known as the Parliament of Shrewsbury – which declared all the acts of the Merciless Parliament to be null and void, and announced that no restraint could legally be put on the king. It delegated all parliamentary power to a committee of twelve lords and six commoners chosen from the king’s friends, making Richard an absolute ruler unbound by the necessity of gathering a Parliament again.

The house of Lancaster John of Gaunt, son of Edward III, brother of Richard’s father the Black Prince, and so Richard’s uncle, had cast a long shadow over Richard’s reign. In the 1390s he had gone to Spain to pursue claims, through his wife, Constance of Castile, to the titles of King of Castile and León, but had returned in 1397. Next to the king he was the largest, richest landowner in the country and had a virile, aggressive son, Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford.

Bolingbroke versus Mowbray In December 1397 a bitter quarrel broke out at the core of the courtly circle when Bolingbroke accused Thomas Mowbray of saying that, as former Lords Appellant, they were next in line for royal retribution. Mowbray denied the claim and it was decided the quarrel should be settled the old fashioned way through a joust. Jones vividly paints the scene as the setting for a mounted joust was assembled and the two warriors arrived on horseback in full knightly array.

Bolingbroke exiled However, just as they were gearing themselves to ride at each other Richard intervened and cancelled the joust, deciding that Mowbray should be exiled for life, Bolingbroke for ten years. Aristocratic and public opinion was dismayed, John of Gaunt complained but was by now very ill. When Gaunt died in February 1399 Bolingbroke should have succeeded to his father’s vast lands and wealth. However, Richard extended his exile to life and proceeded to sequester the Lancaster estate, parcelling it out to loyal followers.

Bolingbroke’s return Amazingly, Richard chose this moment to lead an army back to Ireland in May 1399. Bolingbroke saw his opportunity and landed with a small force at Ravenspur in Yorkshire at the end of June 1399. What follows reads almost as a fairy story as men of all ranks rallied to Bolingbroke’s flag, because they thought he had been treated badly, because they were sick of the king’s erratic and tyrannical behaviour, because they thought it was time for a change.

Also Richard had taken most of his household knights and the loyal members of his nobility with him to Ireland so there was no-one to organise opposition. Bolingbroke met with the powerful Henry Percy, 1st Earl of Northumberland, and persuaded him that he didn’t seek the crown, merely the rightful return of his patrimony and Percy decided to support him.

By the time Richard returned from Ireland, landing in Wales on 24 July, it was all over. Bolingbroke had conquered England without a battle. He was astounded to realise that all the leading men of the realm had gone over to Bolingbroke without a struggle. On 19 August Richard II surrendered to Henry at Flint Castle, promising to abdicate if his life were spared. Richard was taken back to London and  imprisoned in the Tower of London on 1 September.

Deposing Richard Henry had by now realised he could become the next king, but exactly how to manage it presented problems. Henry wasn’t even the next in line to the throne: the most direct heir was Edmund Mortimer, 5th Earl of March, great-grandson of Edward III’s second surviving son, Lionel. Bolingbroke’s father, John of Gaunt, had been Edward’s third son to survive to adulthood. The problem was solved by emphasising Henry’s descent in a direct male line, whereas March’s descent was through his grandmother, Philippa.

Psychodrama These final chapters of Jones’s history overshadow all the preceding adventures because what happened to Richard is so weird that the modern reader can’t help envisioning it as a play or movie. Henry and Richard were related. They had a common history having, for example, both survived the Peasants revolt back in 1381, and the rights and wrongs of the king’s policies vis-a-vis the House of Lancaster were both intimately personal and of national political importance. And then, how did Henry square the age’s religious-ideological belief in the divinity of the king, with the reality of leading a broken, tearful young man (Richard was just 32) to the Tower and locking him up while powerful barons decided just how to get rid of him and whether or not to execute him.

Parliament decides In the end, tellingly, Henry worked through parliament. The Archbishop of Canterbury read out to an assembly of lords and commons at Westminster Hall on Tuesday 30 September that Richard willingly renounced his crown.  A few days later parliament met to discuss Richard’s fate and the Bishop of St Asaph read thirty-three articles of deposition that were unanimously accepted by lords and commons. On 1 October 1399, Richard II was formally deposed and on 13 October, the feast day of Edward the Confessor, Henry Bolingbroke was crowned king.

Starved to death Richard was imprisoned but, as you would expect, his continued existence proved the focal point of various plots to release and restore him to the throne. Bolingbroke realise he had to be liquidated and – although no definitive account survives – it is thought he was starved to death in Pontefract castle and was dead by Valentine’s day 1400. In order to dispel rumours that he was still alive, Henry had Richard’s emaciated body carried on open display from Pontefract and put on show in the old St Paul’s Cathedral on 17 February before burial in King’s Langley Priory on 6 March.

The Plantagenet Legacy

Jones has a ten-page epilogue where he trots through the legacies of the Plantagenet kings who reigned from 1154 to 1400, in the arts, economy, culture, in military terms especially vis-a-vis the endless wars with France, and in terms of the steady growth of parliamentary democracy. These are fine but a bit throwaway, analysis not being his thing, dramatic scenes, conflict, battles and the endless scheming of medieval politics being his strong point.

What came over to me from this 600-page book was the extraordinary violence of it all. Almost none of the 250 or so years in the book are not marked by conflict at home or abroad or both. England, like just about every ‘nation’ in Europe, seems to be involved in more or less non-stop conflict. War was a way of life for kings and princes, wars of conquest to expand their empires, or to maintain them, or to retrieve lost land, make up the dominant theme of this book.

And the extreme fragility of the political realm. This is a vast subject, covered by thousands of historians but it all tends to remind me of Karl Popper’s great insight into the nature of ‘democracy’. Popper said democracy is not about voting for this or that politician or political party on the basis of their manifesto (well, it is, a bit) – far more importantly, democracy exists so we can throw out politicians we are fed up with. It is mechanism to prevent tyranny by regularly getting rid of rulers.

That seems to me the nub of so many of the issues described in this big gripping book. The nobles couldn’t get rid of the king and the king couldn’t get rid of the nobles – at least not without commencing the machinations, the arraignments for treason and beheadings etc which tended to kick off cycles of violence which soon escalated out of control.

Now we have mechanisms to vote for our equivalent of local ‘nobles’ – MPs – and for our ruler – the Prime Minister – on a fairly regular basis, and all parties concerned can appeal to this validation or mandate for their behaviour which, if it is queried seriously enough, will prompt another election.

God knows modern ‘democratic’ societies still experience extremes of social tension and conflict – having lived through Mrs Thatcher’s premiership and its polarising Miners Strike and then the Poll Tax riots – but there are mechanisms for just about managing them by changing rulers and ruling parties: it was the widespread unpopularity of the poll tax which led to the overthrow of Mrs Thatcher and the election of her anodyne successor John Major.

So all this just makes me imagine what it must have been like living in a world where this kind of peaceful changeover of ruler, and of ruling class (which, in a sense, modern MPs are) is impossible. Both the king and his barons find themselves trapped for all eternity with each other. Their conflicts have nowhere to go. The king cannot resign after a military failure. The barons cannot quit public life in disgust, as modern politicians can.

Both were trapped in their positions, forced by notions of nobility and duty to act out roles which time and again led to armed conflict, to the collapse of dialogue and civil wars. One of the surprising aspects of Jones’s book is the number of occasions on which the nobility took up arms against their kings, not just overthrowing Edward II and Richard II, but taking up arms against King John and, repeatedly against Henry III, and even against tough King Edward I.

Jones’s book is a gripping, hugely readable account of this big chunk of English history, but it also prompts all kinds of thoughts about the nature of power and politics, about the nature of what is possible in politics has changed and evolved, which shed light on the political struggles which are going on right now.

The Wilton Diptych

The Wilton Diptych is thought to have been a portable altarpiece made for the private devotion of King Richard II by an artist now unknown. On the left Richard is kneeling in the foreground and being presented by three saints to the Virgin and Child and a company of eleven angels on the right. Nearest to Richard is his patron saint John the Baptist, to the left are Saint Edward the Confessor and Saint Edmund, earlier English kings who had come, by Richard’s time, to be venerated as saints.

The Wilton Diptych, artist unknown, so-called because it was discovered in Wilton House

This wonderful work can be seen FOR FREE in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery in London.


Related links

Other medieval reviews

Gemma Bovery by Posy Simmonds (1999)

‘Affairs are absolutely OK as long as you don’t get involved and you’re really discreet.’
Gemma Bovery’s diary (p.63)

Gemma Bovery

True Love which Posy Simmonds published in 1981 was, apparently, the first graphic novel in English, although it is more like a set of loosely connected sketches (see my review). Eighteen years later Simmonds published Gemma Bovery, a much longer, much wordier, and infinitely more sophisticated graphic novel.

As the title immediately indicates, the book is a modern take on Flaubert’s classic novel of 1857, Madame Bovary, whose ill-fated heroine was named Emma. In the original novel, Emma marries boring and incompetent provincial doctor Charles Bovary and, to escape the drudgery and boredom of her life, has a series of increasingly doomed affairs, and borrows money recklessly, until her world collapses and she commits suicide. I happened to write a detailed synopsis and review of the Flaubert novel a few years ago.

The obvious difference with the Simmonds is that whereas the Flaubert novel is about a cabined and trapped Frenchwoman, Simmonds’s graphic novel is about a free-spirited young Englishwoman from the cultured middle classes who takes it for granted that she’ll always have a job and can shift homes easily from England to France.

The plot 1

Gemma is the twenty-something, middle-class daughter of a comfortably-off dentist based in Reading. She has moved to London and made a career as a magazine illustrator who can turn her hand to interior designing and decorating. We meet her in the midst of an affair with older, high-status male, Patrick Large, who is the suave, confident food critic for a Time Out-type London magazine. She resents the way he patronises her, and is always on the lookout for other pretty young things, but nonetheless she stays with him for in his company she gets kudos, the best tables at restaurants, invites to good parties, and so on.

Until one day she sees him coming out of his flat snogging some other pretty young thing. She is distraught. That night she is at a party and bursts into tears and flings herself into the arms of the innocent chap chatting to her, an older man named Charlie Bovery. Charlie is divorced, lives in rented digs in Hackney while paying alimony to his ghastly wife (Judi) who is bringing up their two kids (Justin and Delia) in Islington. Judi is always on the phone nagging for the alimony and telling him what a bad father he is.

One thing leads to another and Gemma goes to bed with Charlie and moves in with him. (It seems she can’t live without at least one man in her life.) Charlie’s wife gets even angrier when she learns her ex is living with a pretty dolly bird, can’t he think of the kids etc.

Then she and Charlie get married – an event accompanied by a drone of criticism from Gemma’s mum when she and Charlie turn down the all-expenses-paid bash her mum and dad offer. Even at the wedding her mum is sniping. Everyone snipes. All Gemma’s family, and Charlie’s wife. Snipe snipe snipe.

Gemma’s mum and dad trying to bully her into a Full Monty wedding (left) and Charlie’s ex, Judi, being bitchy (bottom right)

Eventually, the ex and the constant visits of the pesky kids and the crappy location of his flat in Hackney starts to really get Gemma down and she fantasises about moving away from all of it. Which is when her father drops dead of a heart attack and leaves her fifty-five grand. So Gemma persuades Charlie to buy an old country house in rural Normandy and move to France.

They do so and are, at first, enchanted. Surrounded by countryside, with a sweet little village nearby, Bailleville, all of whose shops are ‘authentic’ and locally owned. Mmmm smell the freshly baked French bread!

However, the book then reveals all the negatives about living in a plain old peasant house in rural France. It smells; there’s only a septic tank, not proper sewerage, so in the summer the whole place reeks of shit. The windows are small, making being inside dingy and depressing. After a couple of months Gemma is bored of the same old ten or so shops in the crappy little ‘one-eyed’ village, and prefers motoring to the nearest supermarket – cheaper, more convenient, and people aren’t watching you all the time. Charlie’s kids, Justin and Delia, hate coming to stay, there’s nothing to do, they hate the French food Gemma prepares, and the telly doesn’t work.

Worst of all is all the other bloody Brit ex-pats, especially the ones who don’t live there but have bought up all the surrounding pretty rural houses, and only turn up at half-term and the other school holidays, bringing along their yapping ‘Brit brats’. Suddenly the quiet village is infested with the sound of braying upper-middle-class voices – ‘Mark, daahhhhling, better get twice as many baguettes, Sam and Polly may pop in on their way back from Périgeux.’

These posh Brits are exemplified by Mark and Wizzy Rankin who have bought a large manor house near the village, which they’ve done up within an inch of its life. They’re always having loads of friends to stay – fellow corporate financiers chatting about their skiing holidays, bond traders, financial journalists and the like – piles of empty bottles of fine wine, posh guffawing late into the night. Their wealth and their effortless success (this year Mark’s bonus was £2 million – p.65) oppress Gemma (as they did this reader) and highlight the dingy poverty of the half-repaired house she’s stuck in with Charlie.

And Charlie irritates the hell out of Gemma. He’s taken to rural French life, padding round in a vest, a Gauloise cigarette permanently hanging off his lip (as far as I can tell all the adult characters smoke incessantly), fixing up antique furniture in his workshop, not really bothered about the damp and the thousand and one little tasks which need doing round the house.

Late at night Gemma lies in bed next to him consumed with anger and frustration and has half-asleep fantasies of getting back with her tall, handsome, successful London lover, Patrick Large.

Gemma lies in bed with poor, honest Charlie Bovery but fantasises about getting back together with glamorous successful Patrick Large

Until one day Gemma reads in one of the Sunday supplements that Patrick has gone and married the dolly bird she saw him snogging (Pandora) and had a baby! The supplement shows photos of his perfect wife and perfect baby and perfect up-market London flat and something in Gemma snaps. She is consumed with frustration and envy, beside herself with frustration.

She goes into the village by herself in a very short skirt and her long legs catch the eye of local aristocratic layabout Hervé de Bressigny whose family own a rundown chateau near the Bovary’s house. They chat a bit, then part.

A few days later Charlie organises a dinner party for some of the French neighbours. Gemma goes into town to do the shopping and bumps into Hervé in the supermarket where they chat a bit more. A few hours later, driving home, on impulse, and even though she’s meant to be cooking for the dinner party that very evening, Gemma swings left through the gates of the old chateau (for she’s found out this is where Hervé lives), and as a storm gathers, knocks and young Hervé comes to open the door.

Hervé, we learn, has failed his law exams in Paris and his stern mother, Madame de Bressigny, has told him to stay at the rotting family mansion and work hard for the resits. He was hard at it when Gemma knocked on the door and he is irritated by her visit. But out of politeness shows her round – and Gemma, being into interior decoration, marvels at the decaying mansion’s original features.

Suddenly there is a tremendous crack of thunder which makes Gemma start backwards… into the arms of the dapper young man and… well… they kiss, they snog, they embrace, they fumble and grope and fall to the floor and…

Then we cut away to the dinner party she and Charlie have arranged with the Rankins and two local French couples, where she arrives late, claiming to have been delayed in the storms, looking flustered, and then whizzes up a tremendous dinner (although various bits of it puzzle the French – sushi?).

Gemma serves at her dinner party (left) while thinking back to meeting Hervé in the supermarket (top right) and then going round to his gloomy old chateau and knocking on the front door (bottom right)

She is closely watched he shows her round – he is supposed to be revising for a retake of the law exam he failed. there’s a crash of thunder, she steps back startled into his arms and… snog, embrace, strip off, sex. We learn she is 30 years old.

Raymond Joubert

At this point I should explain that the entire narrative is told in flashbacks by the village baker, Raymond Joubert.

Joubert is a bearded middle-aged man who was once himself something of an intellectual, having written and taught in Paris, and occasionally still contributing to an old intellectual quarterly. But his career was going nowhere so when his parents passed away he decided to return to the village of his birth (along with his Parisian wife and two children) and take over the family bakery. In time he realised he had a real feel for making bread, and found it deeply satisfying.

Joubert noticed Gemma from the moment she arrived, and watches her changing shape and happiness and manner like a hawk. He, too, is in love with her.

And so it is Joubert who sees the first encounter of Gemma and Hervé at the market, and happens to be driving in front of her on the road home when he sees Gemma turn off into the chateau for that first meeting with Hervé. And who attends the dinner party a few hours later, scrutinising her for signs of post-coital passion.

And then watches her closely over the ensuing weeks as her affair with Hervé deepens, notices her working hard, earning more money, and comprehensively redecorating her and Charlie’s house, chucking out the rural wood furniture and installing 18th century period pieces.

Prolepsis and the sense of doom

More than that, the narrative begins after Gemma has died. Gemma is dead and a grief-stricken Joubert is moping and reflecting on everything which led up to her tragic death. Therefore his narrative lends every detail of her life a morbid and gloomy sense of tragic foreboding.

In the first few pages Joubert pays a visit to a heart-broken Charlie Bovery and, as Charlie pours him a drink, notices Gemma’s belongings strewn about the old farmhouse – Charlie is having a clear-out – and spots some of Gemma’s diaries lying around. While Charlie’s back is turned Joubert steals as many of her diaries as he can hide and, when he gets back to his house, a short walk from the Bovery’s, starts to read them (translating with the help of his son’s English-French dictionary).

Joubert visits Charlie in his grief over Gemma’s death, and learns with alarm of the existence of Gemma’s diaries

Thus the entire narrative is one giant flashback, heading inexorably towards the moment of Gemma’s death – and it is told via two voices, in a kind of textual split-screen effect – because the main narrative, in printed text, gives Joubert’s account of what he saw, from the moment the Boverys arrived at the old farmhouse, but this is counterpointed with the handwritten entries in Gemma’s diary – which Joubert is reading and which helps shed light on little mysteries he had observed.

The narrative is thus a journey of discovery for both Joubert and the reader.

An additional weight or significance is given to everything because Joubert has an increasingly doom-laden feeling that Gemma is fated to re-enact the destiny of her famous namesake, Flaubert’s Emma Bovary, who has ill-fated love affairs with a local aristocrat, with a playboy in the local town, Rouen, runs up huge debts before killing herself with arsenic.

So, arguably, the narrative contains at least three levels – Joubert’s eye-witness account of events – Gemma’s diary giving her view of things – and the heavy hand of destiny in Joubert’s increasingly hectic concern that Gemma is unconsciously treading in Emma Bovary’s footsteps and that the same awful fate awaits her.

It’s a sophisticated narrative structure and it builds up a sense of genuine tension because we want to know how Gemma died. As events speed up and the sense of inevitable doom darkens, the reader becomes more and more absorbed until – on the last few pages – I was gripped, really gripped, couldn’t put it down and had to find out what happens.

Joubert as compromised narrator

Joubert starts to follow Gemma around. He thinks he is in love with her, concerned for her and so on, poo-poos the notion that he is a creepy pervert and voyeur, although Simmonds includes plenty of examples of how he notices Gemma’s long legs, her love bite, how he imagines her lying in bed, frustrated, finds this or that notion about her ‘erotic’ – in other words how he has all sorts of pervey thoughts about her. Plus we are given several asides in Gemma’s diary about how she has noticed that Joubert is always watching her, she finds him creepy.

So Joubert is far from being an objective narrator, he is himself implicated in the story’s passion plays. By the middle of the story he is actively stalking and following her to her secret rendezvous with young Hervé, not least because Joubert’s house lies off the path from the Bovery’s house to Hervé’s mansion, so it’s easy for him to keep tabs on her (there’s even a map showing the relative location of the three houses – the Boveries’, Hervé’s and Jouberts, along with the public footpaths, to help us visualise it all.)

I went after Gemma, and if this sounds  criminal – stalking a young woman – I can only protest that at the time it seemed quite legitimate… (p.55)

I told myself the only reason I was following Mrs Bovery was to confirm my speculations about her and Hervé… (p.56)

This stalking continues up to and including the scene where Joubert delivers some croissants to the Bovary house, knocks on the door a few times then goes round the side and, through a window, sees Gemma and Hervé making love.

A few days later, Joubert sneaks through the grounds of Hervé’s mansion in order to peer through the windows and catch them at it, again. But is he a pervert, a voyeur? Not in his own mind. “Moi?? Non, non monsieur, I was simply concerned for ‘er well-being” etc.

Joubert ‘accidentally’ bumping into Gemma on one of her walks along the path past his house

Joubert also has a comic side, playing to broad stereotypes of the Frenchman: his erotic fantasies are rather quirky, he fetishises French bread and food and is appalled at English gastronomy (Pimms! Porky scratchings!!) and doesn’t disapprove of Gemma taking a lover – what, after all, could be more French – but is scandalised at how Gemma dresses to go to her assignations – chewing gum! wearing a tracksuit!!

Joubert (in the small pictures in the middle of the page, watches through the chateau windows as Gemma disrobes to her sexy underwear for the gaze of her lover

In his curious mix of Frenchness, middle-aged lust, voyeurism, and in his over-heated comparisons between Gemma and her ill-fated Victorian forebear, Joubert is in many ways the central, certainly the most memorable, character in the plot.

The plot 2

Back to the main narrative.

Through Joubert’s eyes – and through his reading of Gemma’s diary – we watch Gemma continue the affair and blossom with happiness. She goes on a spending spree, redoing the interior furnishings of the farmhouse, chucking out the heavy rural furniture and splashing out on new furniture, wallpapers, carpets etc. In other words, running up a stack of debts, just like Madame Bovary. She also spends a lot on expensive sexy lingerie.

Gemma Bovery fait le shopping

Joubert, reading her diary, disapproves of how Gemma buys the lingerie to turn herself into a sex object for her lover’s pleasure, and of the stunning, leggy blonde bombshell she has turned herself into, on the rare occasions when she comes shopping in his boulangerie (both scenes appearing in the page below).

Gemma shops, practices sexily stripping to her lingerie for Hervé, and turns up in Joubert’s boulangerie looking like a model

All this during half-term while Charlie is back in England. Returning, he is impressed by the change in the farmhouse, but appalled at how much it must have cost…

But Joubert guesses correctly that something is on Hervé’s mind, namely that he has a full-time lover back in Paris and must return to his studies there. Thus we the reader see them in bed together, but only we know why Hervé has such a distracted look on his face. He wants to end the affair. He wants to be shot of Gemma.

Hervé is soon back in Paris telling his mate Arnaud about his entanglement with Gemma and trying to persuade his mum to let him stay part of the new academic term down in the country, and to square his suspicious girlfriend, Delphine.

Joubert is now following her all the opportunities he gets and so overhears the couple have an argument in the big park of Hervé’s house, during which the latter curses her for still sleeping with Charlie and then comes out with a passionate declaration of love. Joubert himself is torn apart and realises he is stricken with jealousy, while Gemma goes home transported. She is on cloud nine. She insists they go for lunches, admittedly at remote villages. All the time Charlie seems oblivious, not least because he receives a letter from HMRC saying they’re going to do a check of his revenue and taxes, a check he knows he will fail, and Charlie is convinced it’s his malicious ex, Judi, who has shopped him.

According to the diaries, their love-making takes on a new intensity, which is how they come to break a precious Sevres porcelain statuette at the chateau.

Gemma’s fantasies get the better of her. She stops returning business calls and emails, spends even more money on Hervé, and starts fantasising about getting a commission from  his mother to redecorate the entire chateau (never going to happen) and then commissions from her friends (cloud cuckoo land). Meanwhile Hervé’s girlfriend in Paris realises he’s got another woman and confronts him, in floods of tears.

Joubert learns that Gemma is going for a long weekend in London and has made elaborate plans for Hervé to come too, but the confrontation with his girlfriend, Delphine has crystallised his doubts.

Meanwhile, Joubert, consumed with jealousy, has decided to sabotage the lovers’ relationship and so he cuts and pastes from the English Penguin translation of Madame Bovary, excerpts from the letter Emma’s lover sends her on the day of their planned elopement, to say he is pulling out, their love cannot be etc. it is hand delivered to Gemma by a village boy and when she opens and reads it she really thinks it’s from Hervé and that he’s dumping her.

Gemma, already worrying whether a long weekend in London with Hervé will really work out, receives Joubert’s letter containing the quote from Madame Bovary as if a rejection letter from Hervé

But in fact the real Hervé is having second thoughts and, egged on by his Paris friend Arnaud who tells him to think of his future, his career and of Delphine, Hervé faxes Gemma a short note saying he can’t come with her to London. Gemma is distraught but Charlie is expecting her to go, everyone is, and so she leaves.

Five days later she is back, her hair cut short and a lost look in her eyes, as Joubert, inevitably, notices.

Cut to Hervé struggling to write Gemma a letter. Seems his mother is going to visit and will notice the absence of that pesky statuette which they broke. Gemma said she’s give it to Charlie to fix, that’s the kind of thing he’s good at – but Hervé must get it back and into the chateau before his mother’s visit.

The business with the statuette gets complicated. Hervé tells his mother he gave it to a woman who said she’s give it to her husband to fix, a Monsieur Tate (Gemma always told Hervé her maiden name, Tate – he thinks that’s her married name). So out of the blue Hervé’s mother turns up at Charlie Bovery’s house (Gemma is out) and first of all calls him Monsieur Tate and then asks for a statuette he’s never heard of.

Two things result: 1. when Gemma returns, Charlie confronts her about the statuette which she remembers she’s put in a cupboard and she decides it’s the moment to tell Charlie all about her affair but – he doesn’t want to know, he refuses to listen to her and announces he has to go to London to sort out  his tax affairs.

And 2. Hervé’s mother confronts him with her interview with Charlie, gets Hervé to cobble together more and more complex lies, before revealing that she found plenty of evidence of his affair with Gemma down at the chateau. She is disgusted that he is having an affair with a married woman, has steadily lied to her, and has lost the statuette into the bargain. She instructs her lawyers to write Gemma a stiff letter demanding the return of the statuette or their will be legal ramifications.

Gemma wakes up to her situation and realises she is drowning in official letters, claims for all her bills, not least from the maxed-out credit cards as well as all the utilities for the farmhouse. She asks Joubert in to write formal French replies to them, but he is so stunned to be in the same room where he was watched Hervé undress Gemma, that he cannot think straight and says he’ll take the bills and write out French replies that evening. Meet her in Rouen tomorrow, the day of the Saturday market, where he can hand them over.

Gemma’s financial mess deepens. The cheque she wrote to the electricity company bounced. Her electrics are about to be cut off and the bank has withdrawn her cheque facility. She has to get cash for doing a decorating job for posh Englishwoman, Wizzy. It’s while at their place that Patrick Large, her old beau, steps into the room. His wife, the perfect wife of the colour supplement, Pandora, has kicked him out and refuses to let him see their son. All this he tells quickly, and the fact that he knew Mark and Wizzy back in London and they’ve given him shelter in the storm.

Meanwhile we cut back to Joubert the next day, Saturday, in Rouen, all a-flutter waiting to meet Gemma to hand over the letters he’s typed for her. In his self-deluded way he imagines himself becoming her aid and helper, even imagines them in bed, naked, together and feels his heart racing. But she is late for their rendezvous. Eventually he hears the growl of her VW camper van and goes outside to see her climb out of it but then… a man also exit the van, who comes up besides Gemma and… they embrace!… they kiss!!! Once again Joubert’s hopes are dashed.

In an odd sequence, Joubert hears the van start up and drive round Rouen town centre – and is able (improbably) to give its itinerary. This is odd until you realise it is a parody of the scene in Madame Bovary where Emma takes a ride in a hansom cab with a handsome man and during the ride becomes his lover i.e. they have sex. In its modern-day reincarnation, Joubert follows them down to an underground car park, locates the van and is about to stuff the letters he so carefully composed for her under its windscreen wipers when he realises it is rocking back and forth. Gemma and Patrick are shagging. Disgusted, Joubert walks away wishing them dead, wishing Gemma DEAD!

But that night, out to dinner with suave Patrick, Gemma realises that he hasn’t changed at all, still treats her like a trophy girlfriends, swanks with the waiters, talks down to her. She realises she doesn’t even like him any more and that the afternoon shag was just a one-off. That night she fends off his advances, drops him at the Rankins’ place, and goes home alone, feeling proud of herself. She decides to sort her life out, sell the farmhouse, clear her debts, move back to London and revive her career, live simply and avoid entanglements.

Then she sees the statuette. Charlie must have repaired it. He is such a good man, he deserves better of her.

Next day she’s in the garden when Joubert passes by walking his dog. Gemma politely explains that she doesn’t need those letters she asked him to compose, she’s found the statuette, all she needs is him to write a letter in French replying to the stern missive from Madame de Bressigny’s lawyers. She talks him into going into the farmhouse and there, accidentally, he sees a Penguin translation of Madame Bovary, He starts back, knocks over a stool. Surprised, Gemma looks from him to the book, from the book to him and… rumbles him. It was he who sent her that letter, quoting the lover’s rejection from the novel.

‘You sod! How dare you interfere in my life?’

Pathetically, Joubert tries to defend himself, says he is worried for her, worried she is re-enacting the fate of Flaubert’s heroine. She replies: ‘What! Commit suicide over a few debts? Don’t be ridiculous!’

Gemma kicks him out but Joubert continues to feel hysterically frightened for her and that night has intense and ominous dreams, imagines the black figure of death closing in on her house. In the morning, unable to leave the thing alone, Joubert photocopies the pages from Madame Bovary where she takes the arsenic, and anonymously sends a copy each to Charlie (in London), to Patrick and the Rankins.

Wizzy Rankin is predictably robust. She is in the middle of frenzied preparations for her fortieth birthday party and thinks the letter Joubert has sent her is a stupid plea for help and that Gemma’s brought it all on herself. But what if it’s a real cry for help and she’s about to take arsenic like Madame Bovary? To which posh wife Wizzy replies, in one of the best jokes in Simmonds’s entire oeuvre:

‘What? Take arsenic? She’d better not – she’s doing my table decorations!’ (p.91)

Mark (the rich banker) drives round to make sure Emma’s alright and she dismisses the letter as further machinations by the bonkers baker, Joubert. Mark quizzes her about her debts and when he learns they’re a measly 25 grand offers to pay them if she… if she, you know, made it nice for him.. But Gemma robustly tells him to piss off, which, shamefacedly, he does.

Then Joubert comes to discuss with us the final entries in Gemma’s diary, which describe Patrick coming round to see her in response to the silly letter Joubert sent him. When Gemma explains that Joubert was behind it, Patrick suggests she sue him. He’s not worth it, she replies. Anyway she’ll be going back to London soon. Patrick asks if she’ll consider moving in with him. But she says ‘No, it wouldn’t work out.’ She has changed. She wants to be a new person.

Next morning Joubert awakens in panic and guilt. He tries to write a letter of apology to Gemma. Goes to the bakery and starts kneading the dough way before sunrise. Once the shop is opened and staffed, decides to go and deliver her a fresh-baked baguette and the note. Walking through her gate he hears the sound of whale music coming from the shade of a tree. She is practicing yoga positions to whale song, with her back to him. Unwilling to disturb her, Joubert tiptoes into the open house and leaves the baguette on the kitchen table with the letter propped up against it.

At lunchtime Joubert and Martine settle down for a light lunch with cheese. They hear a van draw up and park. It is Charlie, back from England at long last, and parking this far from the farmhouse, maybe to surprise Gemma. He walks down the track. Joubert settles for his post-prandial snooze.

Next thing he knows Charlie is running over the field his glasses knocked off, blood on his face and shirt, bellowing the GEMMA IS DEAD! Joubert babbles that he knew it, he knew it, was it arsenic?? Charlie doesn’t know what he’s saying and begs to use the phone. Martine takes over from her babbling husband and calls the emergency services, as Charlie runs back to the farmhouse.

Joubert and his wife begin to walk to the farmhouse, but a car pulls up and it is Madame de Bressigny, of all people, come for her statuette. When Joubert babbles to her arsenic and Flaubert she stares at him but when the ambulance arrives, she departs. The Jouberts continue into the kitchen of the farmhouse where they find Charlie on his knees beside the body of Gemma, lying peacefully on the floor and quite quite dead.

Moments later the Rankins drive up with a doctor friend who’d come for Wizzy’s party. He checks the body, Wizzy takes control as these sturdy upper middle-class women often do, dispensing whisky to Charlie and lending him her mobile phone so he can start making formal calls to England.

The doctor and then the ambulanceman pronounce the cause of death: she choked on a piece of the bread Joubert baked and brought for her that morning. They try to reassure him that it was an accident, but Joubert – who all the way through had been obsessed with a brooding sense of doom and death – who felt as if he had himself kick-started the affair between Hervé and Gemma and then supervised every step of its progression – it was Joubert himself who was the cause (at some remove) of poor Gemma’s death.

Charlie’s account

A few weeks later Joubert is in his boulangerie, inconsolable. Gemma has been buried. The Rankins paid for the small service and wake. Now, Joubert feels guilty and takes the short walk across the fields to the Boverys’ farmhouse. He’s been popping in on Charlie now and then to check he’s alright.

Now he feels guilty and starts to confess, telling Charlie that a) he stole Gemma’s diaries and b) he is responsible for her death – and is about to vent a long soliloquy about how he magically created the love affair between Gemma and Hervé, all the self-centred twaddle we’ve read him gushing throughout the text – when Charlie cuts across him and says, no, he killed Emma.

He knew she was having an affair but when it did finally blow over Gemma remained distant so he thought, blow it, and went back to London. It was there that he got a phone call from a regretful Gemma, followed up by a long letter in which she said she still loved him.

But in the same post someone had sent him photocopies of pages from Madame Bovary describing Emma’s agonising death from arsenic (that being Joubert, of course). This worried Charlie so he caught the next ferry and drove to the farmhouse, parking a little way away so as to walk (as observed by Joubert and his wife).

But when he walked into the open front door it was to find Patrick Large standing behind Gemma with his arms around her. Finally, after all these months, Charlie snapped and saw red and attacked the guy, knocking him to the floor where they rolled around fighting. Only after a few minutes does Patrick make Charlie realise they weren’t snogging – Gemma was choking and he was trying to do the Heimlich manoeuvre as Charlie walked in. Those precious few minutes while they fought were long enough for Gemma to choke and die.

So Charlie ran to Joubert’s, they called the ambulance, Patrick ran off and fetched the Rankins (which explains their sudden arrival) – all too late. Later that night Patrick came back and he and Charlie got drunk. Patrick explained that Gemma choked because she got cross with him trying to persuade her to get back with him.

So did Patrick kill her, from provoking the choking? Or Charlie for stopping Patrick help her in the vital minute? Or Joubert for sending the photocopied pages to Charlie to make him come back? Or for breaking the baguette a fragment of which choked her?

Did all these men kill her? Or was it her own nature, unable to settle, to make her mind up, to form a fixed relationship?

Or was it a pointless stupid accident?

There’s one last thing. Joubert is still fussing and fretting about Charlie, irrationally concerned the he will meet the same fate as Charles Bovary (who is found dead in the garden, in Flaubert’s novel). And here there is the second good joke of the book, for Charlie dismisses Joubert’s concerns as nonsense – everyone calls him Charlie but his actual name – he was named after his grandfather – his actual name is CYRIL – and Joubert kisses him with relief and delight!

Epilogue

It’s Spring. Charlie sold the farmhouse and made enough to pay off his and Gemma’s debts. He’s gone back to London and picked up a new girlfriend. Joubert has inherited Gemma’s dog. As to Hervé, Joubert hears he passed his law exams but his long-standing girlfriend gave him the push.

There’s a removal van outside the Boverys’ farmhouse. New owners are moving in. Joubert’s wife met them walking in the lane. The wife is called Eyre. Jane Eyre!


The triumph of Thatcherite values

Simmonds ended the Posy strip in 1987. Twelve years later, Gemma Bovery exists in a completely different universe, a post-Thatcherite Britain, among a well-heeled, well-educated, comfortable urban bourgeoisie.

What surprised me – astonished me, really – is that sex and adultery seem to have won. In the Weber strips a powerful recurring character was Stanhope Wright, tall, blonde advertising executive who propositioned every pretty young woman he met and generally had several affairs on the go at once, but always returned to his long-suffering wife Trish. In the Weber strip-world it was understood that Stanhope was a philandering swine, while the heart of the strips rotated around the home life of nerdy lecturer George Weber and his ironic, feminist, vegetarian, Guardian-reading wife, Wendy.

They’ve disappeared. Their whole world of values to do with respect and concern for right-on political values – has ceased to exist. Instead we are in a dog-eat-dog world of late twentieth century London, where private wealth contrasts with public squalor and homelessness, where rural France is infested with shouty, posh, banker Brits.

Affair World

And where almost every character seems to be having an affair. Charlie and Judi’s marriage broke up, Patrick is unfaithful to Gemma with Pandora, but goes on to have an affair, be discovered and kicked out. Gemma is unfaithful to Charlie with not one but two lovers and Hervé cheats on his Paris girlfriend. Given half a chance Joubert would cheat on his wife, Martine. Even Gemma’s father, Michael Tate the dentist, had an affair with his receptionist while his wife was dying.

In other words, we are in Middle-Class Affair World. We are in a world where almost everyone is being unfaithful to their spouses and partners, a world stiflingly familiar to me from all the other middle-class novels of our time about adultery and affairs, particularly those of Kingsley Amis or David Lodge, which I have reviewed elsewhere.

And a world I have never encountered except in books. I live in London and have brought up two children all the way through school. In those 18 years I only know of four couples who have got divorced, and am not aware of any long-running affairs. Certainly not aware of either men or women who have a new affair each year or are ‘notorious for their philandering’. I suppose it must happen in the real world, but not nearly as much as it happens in this kind of middle-class, middle-brow fiction. In the kind of genre Gemma Bovery belongs to, where it happens all the time.

Feminism

And I am a little staggered that, whereas the strongest thread in the 488 pages of the Weber comic omnibus is Simmonds’s persistent hectoring feminism, in strip after strip going on and on and on and on about the wickedness of the sexual stereotyping of women, the objectification of women, the leery association of women with sex and boobs and bras and kinky outfits…

She drew a memorable cartoon on the subject which, she explained, was a protest against the way Women in Cartoons were only treated as nymphets and sex objects by a sexist world which ignored all their other attributes and achievements…

The Seven Ages of Woman by Posy Simmonds

AND THEN… the central character of this book is a stunningly good-looking, gorgeous, pouting super model, a skinny shapely nymphet who makes all men stop and stare when she walks by, who spends a fortune on sexy lingerie so she can drop her overcoat and reveal herself in all her splendour as an erotic pinup, and whose central activity is snaring and sleeping with men.

The story makes occasional mention of Gemma’s talent for painting and decorating, but hurries on to focus on what really matters – her relationships with men and, in particular, which one she is taking her clothes off and revealing her gorgeous, lithe, leggy nymphet body for.

Gemma stripping to her sexy underwear for Hervé (and for the reader)

Boobs. Gemma has great trim, shapely boobs and Simmonds draws them for our delectation, again and again.

Bare-naked Gemma in bed with her lover, Hervé (who is, however, distracted and worried)

Obviously Gemma keeps her clothes on most of the time but, if you flick through the book, the visual impression is of a streamlined, lithe and sexy babe, just hitting her physical and sexual prime, who loves dressing like a Victoria’s Secret sex model, and strips off and has sex again and again.

Maybe this is all some subtle way of subverting the male gaze, but it felt very much to me like encouraging the male gaze, and encouraging just about every sexist stereotype you can conceive about lithe, young, shapely women.

It is all a million miles away from downtrodden Wendy Weber and her big glasses and sensible dungarees and knitted pullovers and concern about poor people and immigrants and the environment, or the angry feminism of plain-jane art student Jocasta Wright, which dominated the Posy strip.

Who worries about the worriers? by Posy Simmonds (1986)

So it seemed to me that not only does Gemma Bovery depict the victory of Thatcherite values (the unabashed making and spending of money, basically) but also describes the triumph of post-feminist visual values of sexual fantasy and adultery. This kind of thing was consistently disapproved of in the Posy strip. In Gemma Bovery it is celebrated.

Coming to the book after experiencing the rigorous political correctness of the Posy strip makes it feel like the enemy has won, both thematically and visually.

Here’s a page of preparatory sketches Simmonds made for the character, showing Gemma about her favourite activities – shopping and wearing sexy underwear for her man.

If they’d been done by a man wouldn’t you say they were patronising, sexist and stereotyped, the kind of mindless shopper/sex doll clichés women have been fighting for centuries?

Joubert

In my reviews of the Posy cartoon collections I pointed out how frequently Simmonds used parody to make a point, copying classic paintings or putting satirical new words to well-loved carols and tunes.

Insofar as it is an extended modern take on Flaubert’s classic novel, Gemma Bovery seemed to me a triumph. It is a masterpiece of storytelling. The first time I read it I found myself seriously gripped by the book’s final pages, feverishly reading them faster and faster to discover the long-anticipated cause of Gemma’s death.

Presumably there will be millions of women readers who identify to a greater or lesser extent with Gemma’s well-meaning but confused inability to make up her mind about her men, with her ‘weakness’ in falling from one lover to another – but that part didn’t interest me so much.

By the end it was the figure of Joubert I found fascinating. In many respects a joke – without doubt a fantasist, a lecherous old man and a voyeur – he is also given the genuine imaginative power of making you believe there really is a malign destiny at work in the story. His obsession with the fictional Emma Bovary really does come to infuse the modern real-life story of Gemma.

Without Joubert Gemma Bovery would have simply been the story of a young woman who had a fling in France and died an accidental death. With him – stealing her diaries and filtering Gemma’s consciousness through his own morbid and lustful obsessions and suffusing everything with his over-awareness of the Flaubert novel – the narrative becomes something altogether richer, more complex and stranger.

The attention to detail paid to all the characters throughout Gemma Bovery is impressive and persuasive, creating a totally real world. But the invention of Joubert was a masterstroke.


Credit

All images are copyright Posy Simmonds. All images are used under fair play legislation for the purpose of analysis and criticism. All images were already freely available on the internet.

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