Inspired by the east: how the Islamic world influenced western art @ the British Museum

European explorers

As John Darwin’s brilliant history of Eurasian empires, After Tamerlane, makes clear, quite a few things distinguished European culture from the culture of the other Eurasian empires (i.e. the Ottoman Empire, the Safavid Empire in Persia, the Moghul Empire in northern India, the Chinese Empire and the Japanese Empire) in the centuries after the death of Tamerlane the Great in 1405.

Just two of them were a readiness to travel and explore, and an endless curiosity which led to almost obsessive collecting and categorising and curating and exhibiting.

No Chinese explorers visited Europe during the 19th century and were so dazzled by its history and architecture and art that they made copious sketches and drawings, took photographs, bought up every quaint European curio they could get their hands on, and carried them all back to China to catalogue and categorise and trigger an artistic renaissance.

That kind of thing just didn’t happen because few Chinese travelled abroad. Very few wanted to, or had the means to, and anyway it was frowned upon because every educated Chinese knew that the Celestial Empire was the centre of the universe, the possessor of a perfect culture, which didn’t need or want to know anything at all about the outside world, overrun as it was by cultureless barbarians.

And Darwin shows how this complacent and self-centred attitude was echoed by the cultural and political elites of Japan, Moghul India, the Safavid Empire and the sprawling Ottoman Empire, for centuries.

No, the wandering, exploring, collecting bug seems to have affected Europeans on a completely different scale from any of the world’s other civilisations.

Thus it was that from the 1500s onwards a steadily increasing stream of travellers, explorers, soldiers and sailors, archaeologists and artists travelled all over the Muslim lands lining the North African coast and the Middle East – territory nominally under the control of the extensive Ottoman Empire – to explore and describe and paint and buy and plunder.

Inspired by the East

This ambitious exhibition delves into one aspect of this huge European enterprise by looking at the long and complex history of cultural interchanges between the Islamic Middle East and Europe from about 1500 onwards.

Not surprisingly several of the earliest objects are swords and helmets since the single most important fact about Islam is that it was a conqueror’s religion, spread by highly organised and zealous Arabs as they exploded out of Arabia in the 7th and 8th centuries to seize the Christian Middle East and North African coastline.

Gilt-Copper helmet, Turkey (about 1650) © Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

The Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman dynasty which began its rise to prominence in the 1200s was itself just the last in a line of dynasties which had vied for leadership of the Muslim world since the birth of Islam in the 630s.

The Ottoman Turks rose to dominate the area we call the Middle East during the period 1300 to 1453 (the year when the Ottomans seized Christian Constantinople and made it into their capital, Istanbul). I’ve reviewed several books about the decline of the Byzantine Empire as it came under relentless pressure from successive Muslim rulers, until its eventual fall to the Ottomans.

The Ottoman heyday is usually dated from the year of the fall of Byzantium – 1453 – to around 1600, during which they extended their power across all of North Africa and deep into Europe. It’s salutary to remember that twice the Ottoman army besieged Vienna, in 1526 and 1683, and was only just defeated both times i.e. they could have penetrated even further into Christian Europe.

As it was, throughout this period the Ottomans ruled the extensive territory of former Christian Europe which we call the Balkans, as well as Christian Greece and Christian subjects in numerous Mediterranean islands.

Mainly Victorian

A handful of pieces and a few wall labels in the exhibition gesture towards this long and complex early history of Ottoman rise and conquest and domination, including the striking portrait of Sultan Bayezid I by a painter from the school of Veronese, which has been used as the poster for the show.

A Portrait of Sultan Bayezid I by a member of the School of Veronese (c. 1580) © Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

But the exhibition really focuses on works from the much later period of the 19th and early 20th centuries, partly for the simple reason that the period 1800 to the outbreak of the Second World War saw a steadily increasing number of European travellers to North Africa and the Middle East.

Some of this was simply a function of continually improving transport, sailing ships giving way to steamships, the steady spread of railways, the industrial revolution creating a new leisured class, especially in Britain and France, who wanted to see the world, helped along by firms like Thomas Cook which launched its first cruises in the 1870s.

Many devout Victorians, such as the Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt, wanted to tour the Holy Land and see for themselves the places where Our Lord had stood. Flocks of visitors drew and sketched and painted watercolours and oils and bought all manner of souvenirs, carpets and clothes, tiles and glasswork. By the time of the Great Exhibition of 1851 the British public was highly aware of the extremely diverse and colourful cultures of the peoples it ruled over.

But the thesis of this exhibition is that the Islamic culture of the Ottoman Empire bore a uniquely close and fractious relationship with Europe, was the predominant colonial and foreign cultural ‘Other’ for Europe throughout the period – a kind of backward cousin, a slothful and declining ‘Orient’ against which we could measure our ever-growing knowledge, technology and power. And that a huge number of craftsmen and artists and metalworkers and glassblowers and designers and artists and architects were particularly dazzled and influenced and inspired by Islamic and Middle Eastern art and culture.

So this exhibition, Inspired by the East, aims to bring together a wealth of artifacts to show a) some of the original Islamic arts and crafts from the era and b) the impact Islamic architecture, designs and patterns had on European craftsmen, artists and designers through a large selection of European objects.

Enamelled glass lamp made by Philippe-Joseph Brocard, France (about 1877)

Thus the exhibition includes wonderful, ornate and beautiful examples from a whole range of media and crafts such as:

  • tiles
  • glasswork
  • ceramics
  • metalwork
  • jewellery
  • clothing
  • architecture
  • design

I was interested to learn there was a genre called ‘costume books’ which simply showed the costumes of all the new races and peoples Europeans had discovered as they expanded and explored from the 1500s onwards and which, of course, featured books devoted to the clothes and garments of the Middle East.

I learned that all kinds of products by Islamic artisans were prized in the West from early on, such as Egyptian metalwork and Persian ceramics. During the 19th century Western craftsmen could use developing technology to reproduce much of this work. The exhibition includes Arab-inspired ceramics by Théodore Deck, a leading French ceramicist who in the late nineteenth century created a range of pieces directly inspired by Islamic originals.

Nearby is a section devoted to Owen Jones, one of the most influential tastemakers of the Victorian era. His pioneering studies on colour theory, geometry and form still inspire designers to this day. Jones was an architect, designer and design theorist and was Superintendent of Works for the 1851 Great Exhibition. His masterpiece was Grammar of Ornament, a huge and lavish folio displaying stunning patterns, motifs and ornaments in 112 illustrated plates, many of which featured Islamic decorations and motifs. Some of the Islamic plates from the book are on display here.

But but but… I was struck by several obvious problems.

Number one was that most of the works on display are by Europeans. They are not original works by the Islamic craftsmen and artists who are so praised. They are European copies, displayed with the intention of showing how widespread the impact of Islamic styles and motifs was on the European arts. If you’re looking for a world of authentically Islamic arts and crafts you’d do better to go the V&A.

Number two was that, despite the beauty of individual works, it became difficult to avoid a sense of scrappiness, a sense that the curators are trying to cover a lot of ground, in fact an enormous subject – the impact of the Muslim world on the art and culture of the West – with a surprisingly small range of exhibits.

Take my home area, history: A few helmets and a sword are accompanied by a paragraph or two about the extent of the Ottoman Empire – but this, the military rise and dominance of the Ottoman Empire, is a huge, a vast subject, which I felt was barely scratched and whose omission made the entire show feel one-sided i.e. presented only the Europeans as aggressive colonialists whereas, as I’ve explained, it was the Muslims who originally conquered half the Christian Mediterranean.

Similarly, the friend I went with is mad about Islamic tiles so was pleased to see a display of half a dozen beautiful and ornate tiles – but disappointed that they turned out to be made by a Victorian British manufacturer using Islamic motifs – and that that was it when it came to tiles.

Islamic architecture is distinctive and beautiful and exists over half the world, but it was dealt with via just a few British buildings which used Islamic motifs, such as the well-known artist Lord Leighton’s famous house in West London which he had modelled inside to recreate some of the rooms from the Alhambra in Spain, namely ‘the Arab Hall’. Leighton had the place covered in Islamic tiles designed by William de Morgan. There are photos of the interior and a lovely wooden model but… is that it?

The single most dominant impression was made by the paintings, a few scattered in the early sections but then leading up to a huge wall displaying about 20 classic, late-Victorian, Orientalist paintings.

In the Madrasa by Ludwig Deutsch (1890) © Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

Orientalism

This brings us to the several meanings of ‘Orientalism’, a word and idea which are raised early in the exhibition and then referenced throughout.

1. The word Orientalism was originally, during the 19th century and first half of the 20th, a value-neutral term applied to all or any scholars, linguists, archaeologists or artists who specialised in ‘the Orient’, a vague expression generally taken to be Islamic North Africa and Middle East but sometimes stretching to include India. It survives in this neutral sense in many places to this day, for example in the name of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

2. However, the term underwent a revolutionary change in 1978 when the Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said published his academic study Orientalism. In this book Said subjected the so-called ‘scholarly’ works of 19th century Orientalist academics to in-depth analysis in order to support one big radical idea: that almost all the supposedly scholarly and academic books and ideas produced by European scholars about the Orient were the witting or unwitting handmaids of Western Imperialism.

Almost all the nineteenth-century Orientalists declared the Ottoman Empire corrupt and stagnant, Islam itself incapable of change. The people living there were stereotyped as somehow more primitive, dressing in loose but colourful clothing, slothful and lazy and corrupt.

Probably the most notable idea was the fascination the institution of the harem had for repressed Westerners who projected all kinds of sexual fantasies onto Oriental woman and painted no end of soft porn depictions of the sultan and his slaves and concubines and slave auctions and so on.

So powerful was Said’s critique that it spread and prospered in the academy, becoming the new orthodoxy and casting a critical shadow back over everything written or painted about the Middle East in the previous 200 years or more. Since its publication almost everything any European said, wrote or painted about the Ottoman Empire has been reappraised to appear in a much more sinister light, either furthering malicious racist stereotypes, aiding in imperial exploitation, or the shameless appropriation of a weaker culture’s art and designs.

Schizophrenia

Now the woke young curators of this exhibition are fully paid-up subscribers to Said’s unforgiving views about Western exploitation of the Middle East. This isn’t a guess on my part. They quote page one of Orientalism in the very opening wall label which introduces the exhibition:

The Orient is not only adjacent to Europe; it is also the place of Europe’s greatest and richest and oldest colonies, the source of its civilizations and languages, its cultural contestant… The Orient is an integral part of European material civilization and culture.

And every other wall label takes pains to remind us that the plate or vase or tile or translation of The 1001 Nights or any other cultural product which we’re looking at and which references Islam may well seem beautiful to us but, tut tut, we should be aware that it was part of the wicked European fashion to appropriate Islamic patterns for vases or the exploitative trend for mock Moorish architecture, or the thieving use of Arabic script in picture frames and so on.

And that behind all of this detail, all of these individual examples of cultural appropriation, lies the huge looming shadow of Western Imperialism!

Four tiles by William De Morgan & Co, Britain (1888-1897)

Cumulatively, these hectoring labels and panels created, for me at any rate, a strange sense of schizophrenia. In one and the same wall label the curators might both praise the craftmanship of a western tile maker or architect – and yet accuse them of being part of the general movement of cultural appropriation. Praise and damn almost in the same breath.

As so often in modern exhibitions, I began to feel that I got more visual and aesthetic enjoyment if I just stopped reading the hectoring labels – felt less harangued and nagged to feel guilty about things which happened 150 years before I was even born.

Orientalist painting

It’s probably in painting that the Orientalist issue is most obvious, or most familiar to most of us because the antique shops of the West are awash with third-rate late-Victorian depictions of the Arab world, of mosques, old men in long gowns with even longer beards, camels crossing the desert, Oriental markets, scantily dressed concubines and so on.

Said’s idea is that, although these images are fairly harmless looked at individually, taken together they become condescending, sexist and racist, depicting a fantasy world of harems and sultans, long-gowned scholars in picturesque mosques, colourful markets or the desert at dawn – all of which, taken together, creates a patronising distortion of the complex realities of the many peoples and tribes and ethnic groups and nations scattered across North Africa and the Middle East.

Moreover, taken together, they all tend in the same direction, promoting an ideology claiming that all these cultures and peoples might well be noble and beautiful, but were also backward and in decline, and therefore needed to be taken in hand, taken over, guided and ruled by us, the enlightened West.

At Prayer by Ludwig Deutsch (1923)

The big wall hanging of twenty or so massive Orientalist paintings which I mentioned earlier are obviously meant to represent a kind of ‘Wall of Shame’. Tut tut, we are encouraged to think: look at all these stereotypical markets and mosques and rugs and carpets. Look how oppressive they are.

However, I just didn’t feel the moral outrage I think the curators intend us to feel. The real impact of hanging so many Orientalist paintings next to each other was, in my opinion, to make you feel a bit sick, as if you’d been let loose in a sweetshop and eaten everything in sight. They are self-consciously opulent and gorgeous to the point of absurdity.

Another, more objective result of examining so many of these over-ripe productions was that, pace Said, most of them are not from the imperial nineteenth century, nor, surprisingly, were many of them produced by the classic imperialist powers who carved up the Middle East between them, France and Britain.

At least half of them were from the twentieth century, many from after the Great War (the two above are from 1913 and 1923). And quite a few were by either German or American painters, not by the cultural Anglo-French cultural appropriators. Neither the Germans nor the Americans had any colonial presence in the Middle East till well after the Great War and even then, not very much.

Orientalism or Romanticism?

As I read yet another wall label pointing out how the Orientalist painters fantasised and romanticised and embellished lots of the subjects they painted, as if this was a shockingly immoral and exploitative thing to do, a simple thought occurred to me: Didn’t all 19th century artists?

There are thousands and thousands of Victorian genre paintings which romanticise and glamorise all kinds of subjects, from their own working classes (cf the exhibition of cheesy paintings of Victorian children I saw earlier this year at the Guildhall) to windswept Hebridean crofters.

In other words, wasn’t the entire artistic movement of Romanticism about, well, stereotypically romantic subject matter – about mountains and storms at sea and heroic adventures and tormented heroes and shy maidens with heaving bosoms who needed rescuing from dragons (I’m thinking of the amazing late-Victorian fantasies of Edward Burne-Jones as recently displayed at Tate Britain).

The same exaggerated depiction of popular conceptions of subjects was applied to everything – I bet medieval knights weren’t as manly and knightly as they appear in Victorian paintings, that Highland crofters weren’t as proud and noble, or our brave soldiers quite as manly and beautifully kitted out, as they appear in those big hearty late-Victorian paintings.

Don’t all Victorian paintings depict extravagant stereotypes in lush and glamorous colours? In other words, there is nothing particular or exceptional about this hyper-romantic style being applied to ‘Oriental’ subjects: it was applied to countless other subjects as well.

The Guard by Antonio María Fabrés y Costa (1889)

The harem

I was especially looking forward to the section about the harem, not because I was expecting to be particularly titillated but because I was anticipating the orgy of outraged feminism it would prompt in the commentary.

After all, one of the most obvious and much-repeated claims of anti-orientalist, politically correct literary critics, feminists and curators is that Western white men used the Ottoman institution of the harem to concoct a vast number of soft porn, erotic fantasies which bore no relation to reality at all, but merely satisfied the gloating gaze of fat, rich, white, male collectors.

So the most astonishing single thing about this exhibition about Western depictions of the Orient is the complete absence of even one decent painting showing a classic, late-Victorian harem scene. Not one.

I thought I must have missed a room somewhere and went back through the exhibition to check, but eventually realised that the little collection of five or so chaste drawings and one painting – none of which show a nude woman, all of them very restrained – is all they have! 

There’s a tiny photo of one of the classic nude-in-a-Turkish-bath paintings by Ingres, but any actual huge, beautiful and sexy harem scenes by him or Eugène Delacroix or John Frederick Lewis or any number of their followers and copyers… nothing! None!

I think I could go to my nearest antiques shop and find more cheesy old Victorian paintings of scantily-clad maidens in a supposed harem than there were in this exhibition. It is an astonishing gap. The big oil painting I mentioned is of a fully-clothed woman who could be more or less anywhere.

Off to one side there is one little drawing of a woman playing a musical instrument by a French artist we are assured, by the conscientious curators, was a notorious Orientalist – though it could hardly be less offensive. Does this image strike you as being offensively racist and sexist, stereotyping the Orient and providing visual underpinning for Western imperialism? It doesn’t, to me.

Study of a girl playing a stringed instrument by Jean Léon Gérôme (1886)

In fact it raises a related politico-aesthetic question, because the curators point out that the artists, Jean Léon Gérôme, was well known for his meticulous sketches and drawings he made preparatory to making an oil painting. Which made me reflect: I n what way can these artists be accused of peddling lazy stereotypes if they were carefully and meticulously depicting what they saw, what was actually in front of them?

The sex object bites back (or photographs itself wearing clothes)

The absolute of real killer harem scenes is all the more puzzling because it is meant to set up the final part of the exhibition, which is devoted to contemporary works by modern Muslim women artists.

The curators have chosen to interpret these contemporary Muslim women artists as responding to the despicable tradition of Western Orientalism. They are ‘speaking back to Orientalist representations of the east’. They are ‘subverting and undermining works by earlier European and North American artists’.

But alas the curators’ plan doesn’t really work because we have not seen any of the sexy, sexist Orientalist representations of the east which these contemporary artists are kicking back against. We pretty much have to imagine them, or remember them from other exhibitions or books.

In fact I thought all four of the women artists on display here were very good, very very good, in their way better than the rest of the exhibition. Best of the four was a triptych of images by Lalla Essaydi, part of a large series of works titled Women of Morocco.

In them Essaydi or her models adopt the poses of the scantily-clad women draped around in famous Orientalist paintings, only here the women are chastely and Islamically dressed and – and this is the distinctive thing from a visual point of view – both they, their clothes and the studio backcloths are covered in Islamic script. I thought it was a brilliant idea, brilliantly executed, to produce really vibrant and exciting images.

Les Femmes du Maroc by Lalla Essaydi (2005) © Lalla Esaydi

Conclusion

Inspired by the East feels, in the end, like a rather thin exhibition.

Firstly, it claims to be a look at the interaction between East and West, so you’d expect it to be divided into two parts; How East affected West and how West affected East.

As noted, there’s plenty of examples of the way Westerners appropriated Eastern designs and motifs and patterns, architecture and design (although this felt like a much larger subject which really deserved to be investigated in much greater depth – All over London are buildings which incorporate Islamic motifs; if you add in tiling and ceramics and metalwork you have a huge subject).

But as to West affecting East, this section felt very skimpy indeed, with just one small room showing a couple of photo albums by pioneering photographers in Istanbul and a map or two. Is that it?

Secondly, there is the big shadow of Edward Said and his embittering theory of Orientalism threaded throughout the show, the premise that all depictions of the Middle East and all forms of appropriation of its culture were handmaidens to the wicked, Western imperial exploitation of the area.

But this rather harsh and inflexible approach militates against the more nuanced vibe of the ‘cultural interactions’ parts of the show. One minute the curators are praising Western craftsmen; the next they are berating the subtle cultural imperialism of copying Islamic designs.

Hence my comment about the unsettling schizophrenia I thought the show suffered from.

3. And when I got to the section on the harem and realised how tragically thin it was, it suddenly crystallised for me how skimpy the rest of the exhibition feels. It feels like it’s trying to address two or three really big issues and not quite doing any of them quite properly.

Alhambra vase, Spain 1800–1899 © Islamic Arts Museum, Malaysia

Writing versus art

I read Orientalism at university four or five years after it was published, when it still had ‘the shock of the new’, before it settled down to become the new orthodoxy taught to each new generation of humanities and art students.

And Said’s book is almost entirely concerned with Orientalist writing – with the supposedly factual works of Orientalist ‘scholars’ (who he systematically debunks) and with the Western literary writers who perpetuated stereotypes about the Exotic East (Byron, Nerval, Flaubert just for starters).

A lot of this kind of writing was produced in the nineteenth century and so Said had a rich vein to draw on, and was able to show how the supposedly ‘scholarly’ writing, and the literary works, easily morphed into official, governing and imperial writing, could be co-opted into government reports and assessments, how anthropological studies could be quoted in business cases for invading Egypt, say, or Iraq.

But it is much harder to divine a particularly patronising, racist or imperialist motive behind a set of porcelain which just happens to use an Islamic motif, or in picture frames which use Arabic script as decoration, or in glassware which incorporates Islamic patterns.

It’s easier to imagine that they were just one among the millions of other ranges of pottery and ceramics and frames produced during the consumer boom of the nineteenth century, which cannibalised motifs and patterns from all available sources – from India and China and Japan to name just a few – if it produced something which would sell.

To see most of the objects in this exhibition as part of an enormous explosion of art and crafts products which catered for the burgeoning middles classes as, to some extent, they still do today.

So my last thought is that maybe the bittiness and thinness of the exhibition is owing to the fact that the curators are trying to illustrate a basically literary theory with works of art and museum objects. And not nearly enough of them to really round out the argument.

Whatever the reason, for me this exhibition contained an entertaining pot-pourri of lovely objects, but didn’t really hang together either as history, or as a sustained exploration of the themes it purports to address.

Promotional video

Curators

  • Julia Tugwell
  • Olivia Threlkeld

Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

The Last Years of Austria-Hungary edited by Mark Cornwall (1989)

Volume 27 of the Exeter Studies in History series, The Last Years of Austria-Hungary consists of seven essays. Of the half dozen books I’ve read on the subject it is one of the most out of date, having been published in 1990. According to Amazon there is a new, updated edition but, like most academic books, I can’t really afford it, at £20, and have no access to an academic library so it remains, literally, a closed book. This old edition was free at my local library.

It has by far the best and clearest couple of maps of the empire I’ve come across – one of the political divisions, one of the ethnic groups.

1. The Foreign Policy of the Monarchy 1908-1918 by F.R. Bridge

I found this a bit of a helter-skelter run through the countless international crises and shifting alliances.

2. The Four Austrian Censuses and their Political Consequences by Z.A.B. Zeman

Quite a technical and specialist essay focusing on the Austro-Hungarian censuses in the period before the war and what they showed about the extraordinary complexity of its ethnic mix.

It wasn’t just that there were various regions which had a dominant ethnic group and that, if you parceled them off, could become independent nations. The real problem was that, in any one of those distinct provinces (Bohemia or Moravia, Galicia or Dalmatia) there were sub-minorities e.g. Bohemia might by three fifths Czech but the German two fifths were not a negligible minority; in Galicia the Polish aristocracy ruled over a Ruthenian (or Ukrainian) peasantry; in the Croat or Serbian areas there were other minorities.

I.e. at every level there was fiendishly complicated intermixture of groups and races, who disagreed among themselves about what attitude to take towards independence, autonomy, union with the country across the border (be it Poland or Croatia or Serbia), and so on.

The central government didn’t have to just deal with a handful of rebellious nationalities; they had to deal with lots of nationalities, who squabbled and argued and allied and fell out with each other according to complicated internal dynamics and/or foreign events (1905 Russo-Japanese war, the empire’s 1908 annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina etc), and were governed by fierce inter-ethnic feuds and rivalries of their own.

Any government which tried to appease the Ruthenian majority in Galicia immediately alienated the minority Polish ruling class, and vice versa.

3. Parties and Parliament: Pre-War Domestic Politics by Lothar Höbelt

This is a surprisingly readable and fascinating survey. A table at the start lists all the parties in the Vienna parliament, and I counted 23, not counting the Romanians, Serbs and Zionists. No wonder the empire became literally unmanageable.

After a detailed survey of all of them (basically, there are eleven or so nationalities and all the bigger ones had two or three, or even four or five distinct parties all competing among each other) Höbelt comes to the conclusion that most of the smaller parties could be corralled or bribed into supporting an administration, but the biggest single stumbling block was the Czechs, and numerous policies were put forward to appease them.

Still, after a thorough review of domestic events and politics, the reader is persuaded by Höbelt’s conclusion that the Hapsburg dynasty was not fated to collapse. It was certainly stumbling from crisis to crisis but it had been doing that for decades; even during the First World War most observers thought the empire would survive.

It was international and foreign events which brought it down.

4. The Hungarian Political Scene 1908-1918 by Tibor Zsuppán (13 pages)

Zsuppán is not a great stylist. His sentences are long and complicated, his points a bit difficult to extract. Take this characteristic sentence:

The Hungarian government’s defeat over the issue of Lajos Kossuth’s citizenship in 1889 and similar events had served to strengthen hope into near-certainty, sapping the ability to govern of the Liberal Party itself (with its emphasis on the maintenance of the Ausgliech), so that by 1904 opposition parties were united in demanding that Franz Joseph concede greater recognition to Magyar sentiment and nationality aspirations in the common army, an important step on the road to independence. (p.63)

But the main problem is he seems to assume an unjustified familiarity with Magyar history, for example casually referring to ‘the two Tiszas’ and ‘Kossuth the Younger’ as if we’re familiar with them and their policies, which I, at any rate, wasn’t. Shame.

Also, maybe because he’s Hungarian himself, he doesn’t give the sense of the backward peasant nature of the country, of the repressive nature of the Magyar majority to their ethnic minority peasants, and their aggressive policy of Magyarisation, which other authors dwell on.

Höbelt gives you a very good idea of what was distinctive and odd about Cisleithana, whereas Zsuppán treats Hungary as if it were just another country when, plainly, it wasn’t.

He concludes by saying the final few decades of Hungary-in-the-empire revealed three irreconcilable forces:

  1. determination to retain Ausgleich Hungary within the Monarchy, best for Magyars, and assuming the non-Magyars would realise it was best for them, too
  2. growing nationalist feeling that Magyar interests weren’t respected in the union, with a long shopping list of grievances
  3. pressure from the various non-Magyar nationalities who, despite the aggressive Magyarisation of the elite rulers, refused to give up their culture or identity

Zsuppán doesn’t mention the things which all the other historians mention about Hungary – namely the obstinacy of the Magyar ruling class, their aggressive Magyarisation process, the fact that even the Emperor Karl realised Magyar obstinacy was the single largest obstacle to reform of the empire and then, after the hunger winter of 1917, Hungary’s refusal to part with its agricultural produce, adopting a policy of feeding its own population while the civilians of Vienna and Prague literally starved.

5. The Southern Slav Question 1908-1918 by Janko Pleterski

Better written than the Zsuppán essay, this is still a confusing read because the situation was so confusing. There were half a dozen or more Slav ‘nationalities’, and each of them contained various political parties from out and out nationalists who wanted independence to conservatives who wanted to remain within the Empire. Following the changing policies of up to twenty different parties is confusing, and that’s before you factor in the sequence of events in the Balkans (the pig war of 1906, Austria’s annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908, the two Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913).

Slowly there emerges from the maze of complexity a spreading feeling that a joint South Slav state was required and in 1915, in response to Italy joining the Entente powers, a Yugoslav Committee was set up. The essay turns out to be focusing on the policy of the independent Serb nation positioned just to the south of the empire, its politicking inside and outside the empire, until the assassination of the Archduke gave the hawks in the Hapsburg government the pretext they needed to crush this running sore just across the border. But it didn’t turn out to be as easy as they expected.

6. The Eastern Front 1914-1918 by Rudolf Jeřábek (14 pages)

This is an excellent essay on Austria-Hungary’s part in World War One. It is clearly written and packed with information and insights.

It summarises the erroneous assumptions which led Austria-Hungary to disaster early in the war, catalogues the litany of military disasters which undermined the faith and belief of all the empire’s subject peoples, describes how the Austrians begged for help from the Germans and spent the rest of the war resenting them, and gives shocking figures about the empire’s losses and casualty rates.

The fundamental fact of the empire’s war was that its military machine under-performed in every area.

This was compounded by strategic errors, starting right at the beginning, when Chief of Staff Conrad thought he would be able to take out little Serbia and still have time to move his forces north to Galicia to face Russia, based on the assumptions that a) Serbia was feeble b) Russia would be slow and cumbersome to mobilise.

Both proved to be wrong. Serbia inflicted repeated defeats on Austria’s armies, and the Russians – it turned out – had learned a lot from their defeat in the 1905 Russo-Japanese war, and had expanded their railway network behind their border, and so mobilized much faster than either Austria or Germany anticipated. Hence the Germans being pushed back into Prussia in the north and Moltke making the fateful decision to transfer corps from Belgium to East Prussia. Hence a string of defeats and humiliations for the Austrians.

Jeřábek shows how the Hapsburgs spent significantly less per capita on their army than all the other great powers. This was partly because of the stalemate and blockage of the parliament or Reichsrat in the 15 or so years leading up to the war.

There was also the problem of managing a multi-ethnic army. The essay is brimming with just the right figures to inform and make its points. Thus Jeřábek shows that of every 100 soldiers in the Austro-Hungarian army, 25 were Germans, 23 Magyars, 134 Czechs, 9 Serbs or Croats, 8 Poles, 8 Ruthenes, 7 Romanians, 2 Slovenes and 1 Italian.

Jeřábek documents the appalling, mind-boggling losses, especially around the battle for the fortress of Przemyśl in 1915. Like Verdun on the western front, it became a catchword, a symbol, both militarily and politically, the morale of the army and the civilian population dependent on its survival. The campaign fought around it, the Carpathian campaign from January to April 2015 resulted in terrible casualties. The 2nd Infantry Division which numbered 8,150 combatants on 23 January was left with just 1,000 by 2 February, seven thousand casualties in a little over seven days! Most were lost to frostbite and starvation. On 23 March Przemyśl was abandoned and 120,000 imperial soldiers surrendered to the Russians.

The new German Chief of Staff Falkenhayn sent no fewer than eight German divisions and German generals took over command. Humiliated, the Austrians struck out on their own with the Rowno campaign of 26 August to 14 October 1915, to free east Galicia which turned into a disaster with the loss of 230,000 men.

According to Jeřábek, this was a decisive moment, not only in the morale of the army and indeed of the high command; but it crystallised Germany’s feeling that the Hapsburg army was useless and, crucially, Austria-Hungary’s reputation in the Balkans suffered a decisive blow.

The Carpathian campaign had annihilated the pre-war generation of officers and NCOs. As they were replaced by non-Germans discipline and effectiveness suffered. Entire regiments of Czechs went over to the Russians without fighting (as did some Polish regiments), creating the enduring legend of the Czechs as the traitors, as the ‘gravediggers’ of the empire.

But the defections weren’t as important as the simple losses. During 1916 the Austro-Hungarian forces lost 1,061,091 officers and men.

The February revolution in Russia didn’t end the fighting, in fact it led to the last great Russian offensive, the Brusilov campaign ordered by new liberal prime minister Kerensky, which was at first dramatically successful leading to a massive incursion across a 300 kilometre front which pushed 65 kilometres into imperial territory. However, the Germans, as ever, reinforced their weaker Austrian partners, and led a counter-attack which completely expelled the Russians from imperial territory.

The political ramifications were enormous because the utter waste of life incurred in the Brusilov campaign broke the Russian army, leading to widespread revolts, strikes, and desertions. Along with mounting food shortages resulting from the disrupted harvest this set the scene for the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power in October 1917. As soon as they could the Bolsheviks signed an armistice with Germany and Austria-Hungary which led to months of tortuous negotiations and then the final Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.

In quick succession in early 1918 the empire signed peace treaties with Ukraine (February), Russia (March) and Romania (May). But they still managed to be at war with Italy, a conflict which also produced appalling losses.

In the last few pages, with the fighting on the Eastern Front over, Jeřábek switches focus to explain how the devastation of the richest food-growing areas of Hungary and Ukraine led to mounting hunger in Austria (Hungary kept its food for its own citizens).

A feature emphasized in several of these books is the importance of the prisoners of war held by the Russians who were allowed home after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Hundreds of thousands of working class men had come into close contact with the Russian revolution (‘Why are you fighting for rich kings and aristocrats, comrade?’) and brought these attitudes home. From April onwards there was a series of revolts and mutinies.

But as the Mason book explains, quite possibly the Hapsburg empire could have staggered on and survived the war, except for one final decision. Since the old emperor Franz Joseph had died, his successor the 29-year-old emperor Karl had been trying to extricate Austria-Hungary from the war. Since February 1917 Karl had engaged his cousin Prince Sixtus of Bourbon-Parma to negotiate a separate peace with the Entente. By March 1918 the prince had extracted from Karl a written promise to persuade the Germans to give up Alsace-Lorraine which he could show the allies. But the letter was leaked and published and the Germans went mad with anger, the Kaiser summoning the nervous young prince to Berlin where he was given an imperial dressing-down and forced to tie the empire’s destiny ever-more closely with the Reich.

This was the straw that finally decided the Allies that Austria-Hungary couldn’t be trusted or negotiated with, was a mere vassal of the Germans, and persuaded France and Britain to acquiesce in President Wilson’s call for the empire to be replaced by free independent nations.

That decision by the Allies – the decision to consciously support the independence movements and deliberately break up Austria-Hungary – rather than any of her military failures or the nationality question as such, was what doomed the empire to dissolution.

7. The Dissolution of Austria-Hungary by Mark Cornwall (23 pages)

Cornwall gives an excellent overview of the reasons for the dissolution, referencing all the essays preceding his.

There are potentially quite a few reasons, and historians have been arguing about them for 100 years, but the most basic one is that Austria-Hungary was always a second division power. From the Congress of Vienna until the 1848 revolutions it was able to mask this fact because other nations were weak (France) or didn’t even exist (Germany and Italy). After 20 years of instability it reinvented itself as the Dual Monarchy with Hungary, but what started out as a strength slowly mouldered into a weakness, because the Germanic minority who ran Austria and the Magyar minority who ruled Hungary proved absolutely unable and unwilling to cede any power or rights to their minorities even as the latter grew more and more restive and disillusioned.

The essays have shown how Austria-Hungary spent those fifty years looking for stable partners and allies and kept returning to an alliance with Russia, despite tensions in the Balkans. According to Cornwall it was the abrupt Austrian annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908 which irretrievably ruined the diplomatic relationship with Russia. From that point the empire cast around for a stable ally and, although their interests in fact diverged quite a lot, in the end Germany was the nearest thing to a stable ally and support she could find.

By the time war broke out Austria-Hungary spend less per capita on its army than any of the other major powers, and also had created an officer class notorious for its insistence on traditions and fancy costumes, who turned out to be useless in the field, right up to their commander, Conrad, who made a series of terrible decisions. And these disasters in turn weakened the army, the first six months of the war decimating the old officer class and majority of the NCOs who are the backbone of any army.

This military weakness turned out to be crucial because it meant that over the course of the war Austria-Hungary had to rely more and more on the Germans and, when it was revealed that the new emperor, Karl, who came to power in November 1916, had almost immediately started secret negotiations with the allies in which he had promised to persuade Germany to cede Alsace-Loraine, the Kaiser summoned the young puppy to Spa on 12 May 1918, humiliated him and tied the empire’s military destiny inextricably to Germany’s. In the same month he was forced to sign a number of treaties which bound the two countries closer economically and militarily, forcing the empire to bow to Germany’s plans to create a unified Germanic Mitteleuropa.

And not only that but the German and Magyar ruling class wanted it that way. They saw the swirling currents of nationalism all around them, sedition and left wing demagoguery encouraged by the emperor at home – and realised their best chance of keeping things the way they were and holding on to their entrenched privileges, was an evercloser union with Germany. Thus the combined German parties in the parliament compelled the prime minister Seidler to announce in 16 July 1918 that ‘a German course’ would be pursued in domestic affairs. In every way the ruling class tied itself to the Reich, and left its opponents of all stripes little alternative except to consider dismantling the entire edifice.

The Allies decided to promise the nations of the empire their independence. So the nationalities question was a real question, and the incredibly complex cultural and ethnic conflicts of the empire were real, and they did prompt soldiers, entire regiments even, to desert, and nationalists to lobby at home and to publish incendiary manifestos abroad – but none of this would have mattered if the Allies hadn’t decided to use it as a tool and to dismember the empire for good.

Details

Emperor Karl was weak and young. He was determined to gain peace at any price which made the old Kaiser loathe him. He lost a golden opportunity to reform the Dual Monarchy when he unhesitatingly took an oath to the Hungarian constitution when he was crowned.

Restoring the Vienna parliament in May 1917 sounds like a good liberal thing to do, but all that happened was it became a talking shop and sounding board for unpatriotic nationalist grievances.

Karl also passed an amnesty for political prisoners, which sounds nice, but the army was convinced this persuaded many soldiers to desert, confident in the idea that they, too, would be pardoned.

The Austro-Hungarian high command gambled on a) Serbia being easy to defeat and b) Russia being slow to mobilise. Both assumptions (like Germany’s assumption that they could defeat France in 40 days) turned out to be wildly wrong.

Chief of Staff Conrad comes over as an idiot who combined personal pessimism with a determination that the Austro-Hungarian army should shine – and so ordered it into a series of military catastrophes. The Austro-Hungarian army lost every campaign it undertook unless it had the Germans there to help it.

Cornwall makes the neat point that, with the ascension of Emperor Karl, his liberal laws, and the general disrespect the army came in for, in Austria-Hungary the military was losing influence, at exactly the moment that the opposite was true in Germany, where generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff were establishing what was almost a military dictatorship.

Conclusion

If there’s one big thing the reader takes from these few books, it is that the Fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire is a big complex historical event which is almost as over-determined as the outbreak of the war itself. Half a dozen attractive hypotheses and theories present themselves and historians will spend the rest of time inventing and reinventing and proposing and demolishing them.


Related links

Other blog posts about the First World War

Art & music

Books

The Dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire 1867-1918 by John W. Mason (1985)

This is another very short book, one of the popular Seminar Studies in History series. These all follow the same layout: 100 or so pages of text divided up into brisk, logical chapters, followed by a short Assessment section, and then a small selection of original source documents from the period.  It’s a very useful format for school or college students to give you a quick, punchy overview of a historical issue.

This one opens by summarising the central challenge faced by the Austro-Hungarian Empire as it entered the twentieth century: how to take forward a fragmented, multi-cultural empire based on traditional dynastic and semi-feudal personal ties into the age of nationalism and democracy where every individual was, in theory at least, a citizen, equal before the law.

On page one Mason locates four key failures of late imperial governance:

  1. the failure to solve the Czech-German conflict in the 1880s and 1890s
  2. the failure to develop a genuine parliamentary government in the late 1890s
  3. failure to solve the Austro-Hungarian conflict in the early 1900s
  4. failure to solve the South Slav conflict in the decade before World War One

PART ONE The background

1. The Hapsburg Monarchy in European History

The Hapsburg monarchy lasted 640 years from 1278 to 1918. It was a dynastic creation, never attached to a specific country. In 1867 (following Hungary’s defeat to Prussia in the war of 1866) the state was organised into the so-called Dual Monarchy, with the Hapsburg ruler titled the Emperor of Austria and the King of Hungary. This gave Hungary more autonomy and respect than it had previously had.

The name ‘Hapsburg’ derives from Habichtsburg meaning ‘Castle of the Hawks’, located in what is now the Swiss canton of Aargau. During the eleventh century the knights from this castle extended their power to build up a position of growing influence in south Germany.

Meanwhile, the eastern March – the Oster Reich – of Charlemagne’s massive empire was granted to the Babenberg family in the tenth century and they held it for the next 300 years.

In 1273 the electors of the Holy Roman Empire elected Rudolf of Hapsburg to the office of Holy Roman Emperor. In the 14th century the Hapsburgs acquired Carinthia, Carniola, Tyrol, Istria and Trieste to their domain. In the 15th another Hapsburg was elected emperor and from 1438 till the Holy Roman Empire was dissolved by Napoleon in 1806 the Crown remained almost continuously in their house.

When King Louis II of Bohemia and Hungary died without issue in 1526, both his crowns passed to the Hapsburgs. This marked a turning point because up till then all Hapsburg land had been German-speaking. Now the Hapsburg administration had to take account of various non-German nations with their own independent histories.

This leads to a Big Historical Idea: just as the countries of the West were beginning to develop the idea of the nation state, central Europe was going down a different path, towards a multi-national empire.

Even more decisive was the role the Hapsburgs played in defending Europe from the Turks. Twice, in 1529 and 1683, the Turks laid siege to Vienna, a very under-reported and under-appreciated part of European history.

The Turkish threat had effectively been repulsed by the start of the 18th century and the Hapsburgs embarked on their new role in Europe which was to act as a counterweight to ambitious France, starting with the War of Spanish Succession (1702-14).

The long rule of the Empress Maria Theresa (1740-80) saw her undertake reform and centralisation of the administration. But her power in central Europe was challenged by Hohenzollern Prussia under Frederick the Great (1740-86). During this period, Poland was partitioned and Austria was given from it the southern province of Galicia, which she retained right up till the end of the Great War.

The French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars (1789-1815) unleashed the ideas of nationalism and democracy across Europe, both of which struck at the heart of the multi-ethnic and hierarchical structure of the Empire.

Under Maria Theresa and her son Joseph II, Austria had arguably been part of the continent-wide movement of reform associated with the Enlightenment, take for example their legislation to remove many of the restrictions placed on the Jewish population.

But the twin forces of nationalism and democracy were such a threat to a multinational polity that from this point onwards the Hapsburgs and the empire they led, became a reactionary force, embodied in the machinations of their legendary Foreign Minister, Klemens von Metternich (foreign minister from 1809 to 1848).

In 1848 revolutions took place all across Europe, with no fewer than five in capitals controlled by the dynasty – in Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Croatia and in northern Italy (territory which the Hapsburgs had seized after the defeat of Napoleon). Hapsburg forces put down the revolutions in four of the locations, but it required the intervention of the Russian army to defeat the revolutionary Hungarian forces. The Magyars never forgot this bitter defeat.

In the Crimean War (1853-6) Austria kept neutral from both sides (Britain & France versus Russia) which weakened her role in Europe. In 1859 France supported the desire for independence of Piedmont, the north Italian state ruled by the Hapsburgs since the defeat of Napoleon, and hammered the Austrians at the Battles of Magenta and Solferino. In response the Hapsburgs introduced some administrative reforms, but in 1866 lost another war, this time against Prussia under Bismarck, decided at the Battle of Sadowa.

Seriously weakened, and now definitely deprived of all influence in a Germany unified under Prussian rule, the Emperor’s politicians were compelled to bolster the Empire’s authority be devising a new agreement with the large Kingdom of Hungary to the East.

2. The Austro-Hungarian Compromise

Hence the Compromise or Ausgleich of 1867 which recognised the sovereign equality of two states, Austria and Hungary, bringing them under the rule of one man, Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary. The dual monarchy wasn’t the same as a federation, constitutionally it was unique. But it bolstered the Hapsburgs a) territory b) manpower. Crucially it provided a bulwark against the Slavs in the Balkans, quelling pan-Slavic sentiment.

The drawback of the Compromise was that it was essentially a personal agreement between the Emperor Franz Josef and the Magyar ruling class. Even liberal and progressive German-speaking Austrians felt left out, and that’s before you consider the numerous other nationalities contained within the empire.

PART TWO Domestic affairs

3. The Nationality Questions

The Treaty of Versailles entrenched the idea of national self-determination preached by American President Woodrow Wilson, and resulted in the break-up of the empire into a host of new nation states based on ethnicity. Viewed from this angle, it looks as though the Austro-Hungarian Empire was foredoomed to collapse. But all the histories I’ve read there was no such inevitability. This one wants to scotch two assumptions –

  1. that all the nationalities thought they’d be better off outside the empire (many realised they wouldn’t)
  2. that all the nationalities were ‘at war’ with imperial authorities; many weren’t, they were in much sharper conflict with each other

In the West the state and the nation were closely aligned; but in the East you can see how they are in fact distinct ideas. The state is an administrative unit and in Central and Eastern Europe was based on ancient rights and privileges of rulers, often going back to medieval origins.

From the mid-nineteenth century these traditional ideas were challenged by a concept of ‘nation’ based on ethnicity, culture and language. Otto Bauer the Austrian Marxist made a famous categorisation of the peoples of the empire into ‘historic’ nations, those which had an aristocracy and bourgeoisie and an independent national history;

  • Germans
  • Magyars
  • Poles
  • Italians
  • Croats

and those who don’t:

  • Czechs
  • Serbs
  • Slovaks
  • Slovenes
  • Ruthenians
  • Romanians

Most modern commentators include the Czechs in the list of ‘historic’ nations.

The Germans

In the western half of the empire the Germans made up 10 million or 35% of the population of 28 million. Nonetheless the administration was thoroughly German in character. The official language of the empire was German. The great majority of the civil servants were German, 78% of the officers in the army were German. The cultural life of Vienna, the capitalist class and the press were overwhelmingly German. Three political parties dominated from 1880 onwards, which adopted the three logical policies:

  1. The Pan-Germans looked beyond Austria to a nationalist union of all German peoples under Bismarcks Prussia
  2. The Christian Socialist Party under Karl Lueger aimed to unite all the nationalities under the dynasty
  3. The left-wing Social Democrats aimed to unite the working class of all the nationalities, thus dissolving the nationalities problem

The Czechs

Third largest ethnic group (after the Germans and Hungarians) with 6.5 million or 12% of the population. In Bohemia roughly two fifths of the people were German, three fifths Czech.The Czechs were the only one of the minorities which lived entirely within the borders of the empire, and some they were bitterly disappointed by the Compromise of 1867, which they thought should have recognised their identity and importance. Czech nationalists thought the deal left them at the mercy of German Austrians in the West and Hungarians in the East.

From the 1880s the struggle between Czech and German expressed itself in the issue of the official language taught in schools and used in the bureaucracy. The Czech population increased dramatically: Prague was an overwhelmingly German city in 1850 but 90% Czech by 1910. Germans found it harder to dismiss the Czechs as peasants Slavs, as Bohemia rapidly industrialised and became the economic powerhouse of the empire.

The Poles

The Poles were the fourth largest group, in 1910 4.9 million or 17.8% of the western part of the empire, most of them living in Galicia. Galicia was a) a province of Poland which had been obliterated from the map when it was divided between Russia, Prussia and Austria in the 18th century b) at the north-east fringe of the empire, beyond the Carpathian mountain range.

The Austrians needed the support of the Poles to make up a majority in the parliament in Vienna, and so made so many concessions to the Polish Conservative Party in Galicia that it enjoyed almost complete autonomy, with Polish recognised as the official  language, Polish universities and so on.

The Ruthenians

Only three fifths of the population of Galicia was Polish; the other two-fifths were Ruthenians. The Ruthenians belonged to the same ethnic group as the Ukrainians but were distinguished by adherence to the Latin/Greek Uniat church. The Ruthenians were the most socially backward group in the empire and very much under the thumb of the politically advanced Poles, responding by setting up a peasants’ party.

Conservative ‘Old Ruthenians’ gave way to ‘Young Ruthenians’ in the 1880s, who sought union with the 30 million Ukrainians living to their East. The more concessions the central government made to the Poles, the more it alienated the Ruthenians. After 1900 Ruthenians and Poles clashed over electoral or educational issues, sometimes violently.

The Slovenes

1.25 million or 4.4 per cent of the population of the Austrian half of the empire, the Slovenes were scattered over half a dozen Crownlands, and lacked even a written literature in their own land. Even mild efforts at nationalism, such as setting up a Slovene-speaking school, were fiercely opposed by the German majorities in their regions.

The Italians

770,000, the smallest national group in the empire, with Italian-speaking areas in the Tyrol and along the Adriatic coast, which had quite different concerns. In the Tyrol the Italians fought against the dominance of the Germans. Along the Adriatic they were a privileged minority among a Slav majority.

In May 1915 Italy betrayed its treaty promises to Germany and Austria-Hungary and joined the Allies because Britain and France promised Italy possession of the Tyrol and the Adriatic Littoral (and money).

The Magyars

10 million Magyars formed 48% of the population of Hungary. The Magyars dominated the country, owning, for example 97% of joint stock companies. It was dominated by ‘Magyarisation’ meaning fierce determination of the magyar ruling class to impose uniformity of language across the territory. If minorities like Romanians or Slovenes agreed to teach their children Hungarian and support Magyar rule, they could become citizens; otherwise they were subject to fierce discrimination. The Magyars didn’t want to exterminate the minorities, but assimilate them into oblivion.

Budapest was three quarters German in 1848 and three quarters German in 1910. Mason tells us that all attempts to reform the Dual Monarchy ultimately foundered on Hungary’s refusal to abandon its unbending policy of Magyarisation.

The Romanians

The largest non-Magyar group in Hungary, about 3 million, their aspirations were ignored in the 1867 Compromise, and the Hungarians’ intransigent policy of Magyarisation drove more and more to think about joining the independent Kingdom of Romania, just across the border from Hungarian Transylvania, and the forming of a National Party in 1881, which slowly poisoned Austria’s relations with Romania.

The Slovaks

The Slovaks were the weakest and least privileged group in the Hapsburg Monarchy, 9% of the population, a peasant people who had lived under Magyar domination for a thousand years. The 1867 Compromise made the Czechs and Croats second class citizens but condemned the Slovaks to cultural eradication. From the 1890s they started co-operating with the Czechs and slowly the idea of a combined Czech and Slovak nation evolved.

The Croats

9% of the population of Hungary. They had a national history and a strong aristocracy and considered themselves in direct touch with the Hapsburg monarchy. By an 1868 compromise Croatia received autonomy within the Hungarian state, but the head of the Croat state was imposed by the Hungarian government and the rule of Count Khuen-Héderváry was so repressive that Croatia became the seat of a movement to unite all the empire’s South Slavs.

The Serbs

About 2 million Serbs lived in the empire, divided between Dalmatia, Hungary, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. They didn’t have an independent national history until 1878 when the Congress of Berlin created a small state of Serbia independent of the Ottoman Empire, from which point every perceived injustice against the Serbs prompted calls for a pan-Slave movement, and/or for a Greater Serbia. The biggest incident on the road to collapse was the Austrian annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908, the majority of whose population were Serbs.

The Jews

The Jews made up about 5% of the population in both Austria and Hungary. From 1850 Jews moved in large numbers into Lower Austria, overwhelmingly from poor rural Galicia (Poland), a large number of them migrating to Vienna, where they came to dominate cultural activity out of proportion to their numbers.

The Jews became so prominent in the Hungarian capital that some called it Judapest. The Jewish journalist Karl Kraus joked that ‘the Jews control the press, they control the stock market, and now [with the advent of Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis] they control the unconscious’.

The success of Jews in business and the stock market and banking created an association between ‘Jew’ and ‘capitalist’ which complicated class conflict and led to an easy demonisation of the Jews as responsible for much of the exploitation, low wages and fat profits of capitalism.

4. The economy

The Hapsburg Empire was behind Germany, France and Britain in industrialisation. It didn’t have large stocks of coal, it had no large ports, parts of it (like Galicia) were split off from the empire by high mountains; the great Hungarian Plain was designed for agriculture not industry.

It was a predominantly agricultural economy: in 1910 agriculture made up 50% of the Austrian economy, two-thirds of the Hungarian. Most of the trade was between Hapsburg regions and nations; the 1867 Compromise established a free trade area throughout the empire.  Only a small percentage of GDP came from exports.

In Hungary serfdom was only abolished in 1848. For most of the period, Hungary was characterised by Magyar landlords, sometimes with very extensive holdings, lording it over illiterate peasants of the various nationalities. That’s one reason why nationalist grievances became mixed up in economic ones. Only in the decade before the war did Hungary begin to industrialise.

Industrialisation was funded by banks which remained firmly in German and Hungarian hands. The industrial heartland of the empire was the Czech Crownlands (Bohemia and Moravia) which developed a strong textiles industry and then iron and steel, metallurgy and engineering. This became another source of tension between Czechs and Germans, because many of the industries remained in the hands of German managers, backed by German hands.

(Remember the passage in Ernst Pawel’s biography describing the end of the Great War, the declaration of independence, and the way the new Czech government immediately a) renamed all its businesses and industries in Czech and b) undertook a wholesale replacement of all German bureaucrats and business men with Czech replacements.)

The late 1860s saw a mounting fever of speculation which led to a stock market crash in 1873 and a prolonged depression afterwards. This led to low growth, and poverty among the urban proletariat and among rural peasants, which led to the rise of nationalist and populist parties.

5. The politics of Dualism

The Austrian (i.e. German-speaking) Liberal Party ruled after the 1867 Compromise. But that compromise had alienated the Czechs whose MPs didn’t even attend the parliament. But it was the massive financial crash of 1873 which ruined the Liberal Party, associated as it was with business and the banks.

In 1871 there was an attempt by the conservative aristocrat Count Hohenwart to reform the monarchy and turn it into a federation, who drafted some ‘Fundamental Articles’ which were intended to give the Czechs parity with the Hungarians, but this was fiercely opposed by the Hungarian prime minister, Count Andrássy. The Czechs never trusted the dynasty after that, and boycotted the Vienna parliament.

In 1879 Franz Joseph asked his boyhood friend Count Taaffe to form a new government and Taaffe went on to govern till 1893, passing a series of reforms which echoed those of Bismarck in Germany, such as extending the franchise, workers health and accident insurance, limiting the working day to 11 hours etc.

But when he tried to tackle the German-Czech issue by breaking up Czech provinces into smaller units based along ethnic lines, his plans were scuppered by the Poles, the Clericals and the Feudals, and the German Liberals and he was forced to resign. Over the next twenty years three parties emerged:

The Social Democrats

This left-wing party emerged from the trade union movement in 1889 and its soft Marxist outlook focused on economic and social reform cut across ethnic lines and so was a force for keeping the empire together. At the Brünner Conference of 1899 they called for the transformation of the empire into a democratic federation of nationalities.

The Christian Socials

Founded in 1890 by the phenomenally popular Karl Lueger who became mayor of Vienna 1897-1910, based around a devout Catholicism which linked democratic concern for ‘the small man’, responsible social reform, anti-semitism and loyalty to the dynasty. Turning artisans and small shopkeepers into a strong anti-socialist, anti-capitalist, pro-Hapsburg bloc.

The Pan-Germans

The extreme anti-semitic Pan-German Party founded by Georg von Schönerer. Starting as a liberal he grew disenchanted and wanted a) to separate out the German-speaking areas from their Slav populations and b) unite with the Reich. In 1884 he led a battle to nationalise the Nordbahm railway which had been financed by the Rothschilds. He failed, but gained wide support for presenting the plan as a battle of the Jews versus the people. Although small in numbers, the Pan-Germans spread vicious racist ideas and their supporters were prone to violence.

The end of parliamentary governance

The next government of Alfred III, Prince of Windisch-Grätz, was brought down after two years because it agreed to allow a German secondary school in southern Styria to have parallel lessons in Slovene at which point the German National Party rejected it, voted against it, and brought down the government.

The next government was led by a Pole, Count Kasimir Felix Badeni. In 1897 he tried to settle the perpetual conflict between Czechs and Germans by moving a law that said that from 1901 no official should be employed in Bohemia or Moravia who wasn’t fluent in German and Czech. Since most Czechs spoke German, this was no problem for them, but hardly any Germans spoke Czech and there was uproar in parliament, with all kinds of tactics used to stall the passage of the bill, riots broke out on the streets of Vienna and then Prague. Franz Joseph was forced to accept Badeni’s resignation, and the Vienna parliament never had the same prestige or power again.

It couldn’t function properly and legislation was from 1897 passed only by emergency decree via Article 14 of the constitution. Government was no longer carried out by politicians and ministers but by civil servants. The Germans and the Czechs continued to obstruct parliament

Several more ministries tried and failed to solve the nationalities problem, while the emperor accepted advice that extending the franchise to the working class might help create a mood of social solidarity. So a bill was passed in 1907 giving the vote to all men over 24. But it was irrelevant. By this stage parliament didn’t govern the empire, bureaucrats did. Extending the franchise brought in a new wave of socialist parties, which combined with the nationality parties, to make governing impossible. During the parliament of 1911 no fewer than 30 parties blocked the passage of all constructive measures in parliament.

6. Vienna – Cultural centre of the Empire

Traditional liberal culture was based on the premise of rational man existing within as stable, civic social order. By the 1890s this society was beginning to disintegrate…

The political crisis in late nineteenth-century Austria-Hungary was caused by the bankruptcy of liberalism. The result was the sudden growth of a number of anti-liberal mass movements. In the cultural sphere the consequence of the breakdown of liberalism were no less dramatic…

Mason distinguishes three phases or artistic eras in this period:

1. The 1870s

In the 1870s students formed the Pernerstorfer Circle, seeking an alternative to liberalism, which they rejected and found inspiration in early Nietzsche, his writings about the imagination and the Dionysian spirit, leading to veneration of the music dramas of Wagner. The most famous member was the composer Gustav Mahler.

2. The 1890s – Young Vienna

Aestheticism and impressionism, focus on the fleeting moment, in-depth analysis of subjective psychology. A moment’s reflection shows how this is a rejection of rational citizens living in a stable social order, and instead prioritises the non-stop swirl of sense impressions. The leading writers of the Young Vienna literary movement were Hugo von Hofmannstahl and Arthur Schnitzler, with his frank depictions of the sex lives and moral hypocrisy of the Viennese bourgeoisie.

3. After 1900 – Kraus, Loos and Schoenberg

The Jewish journalist Karl Kraus published a fortnightly magazine, Die Fackel, in which he flayed all political parties and most of the writers of the day. He carried out a one-man crusade against loose writing, sentimentality and pomposity. Mason doesn’t mention something Ernst Pawl emphasises in his biography of Kafka, which is that plenty of Kraus’s journalism railed against the Jewish influence on German prose, criticising its importation of Yiddishisms and other impurities. It was this attitude which led Pawl to diagnose Kraus as a leading example of the ‘Jewish self-hatred’ of the period.

Adolf Loos was a radical architect who despised any ornament whatsoever. He designed a starkly modernist house which was built in 1910 opposite the imperial palace and was a harsh modernist critique of the wedding cake baroque style of the empire.

Arnold Schoenberg thought Western music had reached the end of the road, and devised an entirely new way of composing music based on giving each note in the scale an equal value i.e. leaving behind traditional notions of a home key or key tones, i.e. 500 years of tradition that a piece of music is composed in a certain key and will develop through a fairly predictable set of chords and other keys closely related to it. Schoenberg demolished all that. In his system all notes are equal and their deployment is based on mathematical principles. Hence his theory came to be known as ‘atonality’ or the ‘twelve tone’ system.

And looming behind these three was one of the most influential minds of the 20th century, Sigmund Freud, the conservative and urbane Jew who did more than almost anyone else to undermine the idea of the rational, citizen or the rational human being. In Freud’s theory most of the activity of the human mind is unconscious and consists of a seething mass of primitive drives and urges. For the early period, from his first formulation of psychoanalysis in 1895 through to the outbreak of the First World War, Freud concentrated on the sexual nature of many or most of these urges, and the psychic mechanisms by which human beings try to repress or control them (via psychological techniques such as displacement or repression).

But the experience of the Great War made Freud change his theory in recognition of the vast role he now thought was played by violence and a Death Drive, which matched and sometimes overcame the sex urge.

Whatever the changing details, Freud’s theory can be seen as just the most radical and drastic attack on the notion of the sensible, rational citizen which were widespread in this time, and at this place.

Leading not only Mason but countless other critics and commentators to speculate that there was something about the complexity of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and something about the thoroughness with which it collapsed, which led to the creation of so many anti-liberal and radical ideologies.

All the art exhibitions I’ve ever been to tend to praise and adulate 1900s Vienna as a breeding ground of amazing experiments in the arts and sciences. Many of them praise the artistic radicalism of a Loos or Schoenberg or Egon Schiele as a slap in the face to boring old bourgeois morality and aesthetics.

Not so many dwell on the really big picture which is that all these artistic innovations were the result of a massive collapse of the idea of a liberal society inhabited by rational citizens and that, in the political sphere, this collapse gave rise to new types of political movement, anti-liberal movements of the extreme left and extreme right, to the Communism and Fascism which were to tear Europe apart, lead to tens of millions of deaths and murder and torture, and the partition of Europe for most of the twentieth century.

PART THREE Foreign affairs

7. The Dual Alliance

In international affairs the thirty-six years between the Congress of Berlin in 1878 and the start of the Great War in 1914 were dominated by the Balkan Problem or the South Slav Question.

In the 1600s the Muslim Ottoman Empire had extended its reach right up to the walls of Vienna. The Ottomans were held off and pushed back so the border between Christendom and Islam hovered around south Hungary and Bulgaria. But the Balkans contained many ethnic groups and nationalities. Slowly, during the 19th century, Ottoman rule decayed causing two things to happen:

  1. individual ethnic groups or nations tried to assert their independence from the Ottoman Empire
  2. each time they did so tension flared up between Russia, who saw herself as protector of all the Slavs in the Balkans, and Austria-Hungary, who feared that the creation of a gaggle of independent states in the Balkans under Russian control would inflame her own minorities and undermine the empire

The Congress of Berlin was held in 1878 to try and adjudicate between the conflicting claims of Russia and Austria-Hungary, and the host of little countries who wanted independence from the Ottomans.

This section details the long history of the complex diplomatic policies adopted by successive foreign ministers of the empire, which all had more or less the same goal – to preserve the integrity and security of the empire – but changed in the light of changing events, such as the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78, and so on through to the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, the Young Turk revolution of 1908 which led to the Bosnian Crisis of the same year, and the Balkan Wars of 1912-13.

What’s striking or piquant is that the three autocracies – Prussia, Austria-Hungary and Russia – had a really profound interest in maintaining their semi-feudal reactionary regimes, and this was highlighted by the fact that they periodically signed variations on a Three Emperors Alliance (1881) – but that they kept allowing this fundamental interest to be decoyed by the festering sore of countless little conflicts and eruptions in the Balkans.

So that by 1907 Germany came to see its interests as tied to a strong Austria-Hungary which would prevent Russian expansion southwards; while Russia came to see itself as faced by a Germanic bloc and so sought alliance with France to counterweight the German threat. And so Europe was divided into two armed camps, an impression cemented when Italy joined a pact with Germany and Austria-Hungary, despite historic antagonism to Austria, with whom she had had to fight wars to regain territory in the north.

8. The Drift to war

One way of thinking about the First World War was that the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir apparent to the crown, was without doubt a scandalous event but that it gave the Austro-Hungarian Empire a golden opportunity to smack down cocky little Serbia and thus re-establish the empire’s authority in the Balkans, which had been steadily slipping for a generation as a) more Balkan states became independent or b) fell under the influence of Russia.

After all, the empire had intervened in 1908 to annex Bosnia-Herzegovina with a view to creating a South Slav bloc of nations under her protection. Seen from her angle, this was one more step of the same type. Although, admittedly, a risky one. Her annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908 led to a six-month-long diplomatic crisis which nearly sparked a European war, and there had been further, limited, Balkan Wars in 1912 and 1913. Most people thought this was more of the same.

So Austria issued a fierce ultimatum which was impossible to fulfil and prepared for a quick brutal suppression of Serbia. But she hadn’t anticipated that Russia would mobilise in favour of what was, after all, a small nation, with the result that the German military weighed in giving Austria-Hungary a promise of unconditional support; and when both of them saw Russia proceeding with its war mobilisation, the Germans mechanically and unthinkingly adopted the dusty old plan which had been perfected decades earlier, a plan to knock France out of any coming conflict with a quick surgical strike, just as they had back in 1870, before turning to the East to deal with a Russia they were sure was enfeebled after its humiliating defeat against Japan in 1905.

But the quick surgical strike against France failed because a) the French were supported by just enough of a British Expeditionary Force to stall the German advance and b) the Russians mobilised, attacked and advanced into East Prussia quicker than the Germans anticipated so that c) the German Chief of Staff Moltke made one of the most fateful decisions of the 20th century and decided to transfer some infantry corps from the Belgian wing of the German attack across Germany to staunch the Russian advance. Thus contributing to the German sweep across northern France coming to a grinding halt, to the failure of the Schlieffen Plan, and to four years of grinding stalemate.

All the parties to the war miscalculated, but it was arguably the Germans – with their bright idea of a quick strike to knock France out of the war – who did most to amplify it from yet another in a long line of Balkan Wars to an international conflagration.

What comes over from this section is the hopeless inability of historians to come to a clear decision. Some historians, apparently, think Austria-Hungary’s foreign policy in the decade leading up to war was aggressive; others think it was impeccably defensive.

There is no doubt that the emperor was devoted to peace. Franz Joseph ruled the empire from 1848, when he was 18, to 1916, when he was 86, and if there was one thing he’d learned it was that whenever Austria went to war, she lost. And he was proved right.

9. War Guilt and the South Slav Question

On one level the problem was simple: about twice as many Slavs lived inside the empire (7.3 million) as outside (3.3 million). In the age of nationalism it was unlikely that the ultimate unification of these Slavs could be prevented. The question was: would this unification take place within the empire’s border i.e. at Serbia’s expense; or outside the empire’s borders, under Serbian leadership a) at the cost of the empire losing land (including most of its coastline in Dalmatia) and Slav population to Serbia b) the new Serbian state itself coming under the strong influence of Russia.

Mason discusses how this threat could possibly have been averted if the empire had made any sort of overtures to the Serbs, had courted the South Slavs. All Serbia wanted was better terms of trade and access to the sea. Refusal to countenance even this much resulted from the Austria-Hungarian Monarchy’s internal tensions, above all from the entrenched but anxious rule of the Germans and Magyars, nearly but not quite majorities in their own domains. Their inflexibility brought those domains crashing down around their ears.

10. World War One and the Collapse of the Empire

The book goes on to emphasise that, just because the empire collapsed suddenly at the end of the Great War, doesn’t mean it was doomed to. In fact for most of the four year war onlookers expected it to last, and spent their time speculating about the territorial gains or losses it would have made, but not that it would disappear.

He gives a military account of the war which emphasises the simple fact that the much-vaunted Austro-Hungarian army was simply not up to the task its politicians had set it. Chief of the General Staff Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf intended at the outbreak to take out Serbia with a lightning strike, then move his corps north to Galicia to face the Russians who it was expected would mobilise slowly. But the Austro-Hungarians were repelled by ‘plucky Serbia’ and Conrad moved his forces north too slowly to prevent disastrous defeats to the Russians, who seized Galicia and Bukovina before Christmas.

In the first few months the empire lost 750,000 fighting men and a high percentage of their best officers. It’s a miracle they were able to carry on which they did, but at the cost of taking injections of better trained, better-armed German troops (remember the proud, tall, well dressed, well-fed Reich German soldiers lording it over their starving Austrian allies in the final chapters of The Good Soldier Svejk) and coming more or less under German military command.

Amazingly, in spring the following year, 1915, combined Austrian-Germany forces drove the Russians out of Galicia and seized most of Poland, defeated the numerically stronger Italian army along the Isonzo River. By 1916 the Alliance powers controlled a substantial slice of foreign territory (Poland, Russia, parts of the Balkans) and seemed to be sitting pretty.

The Austrian Social Democrat Otto Bauer wrote a book about the collapse of the empire, The Austrian Revolution, in 1925 which argued that the empire defined itself by its opposition to Tsarist Russia and dependency on Hohenzollern Germany. Certainly when the Bolsheviks seized power in St Petersburg and sued for peace, half the reason for fighting – and even be scared of the Slav menace – disappeared at a stroke.

Internal collapse

As we’ve seen, the Austrian parliament ceased to function properly before 1910 and government was run by civil servants and made by decree (the background to the novels of Franz Kafka with their infinitely complex and incomprehensible bureaucracies). Parliament was suspended from March 1914 to May 1917 because the ruling classes feared it would simply become a forum for criticism of the Crown. In 1916 the prime minister Count Stürgkh was assassinated. On November 1916 the Emperor Franz Joseph died and the crown passed to his great-nephew Archduke Charles, aged 29. The change in leadership gave an opportunity for the central powers to approach the Entente with suggestions for peace in December 1916, which, however, foundered on Germany’s refusal to cede territory back to France.

When Charles was crowned in Hungary he missed the opportunity to force the Hungarian prime minister to consider reforms, to extend the franchise, to give more rights to the non-Magyar minorities, and generally to compromise. On one level, the failure to effect any reform at all in the basic structure of the Dual Monarchy, led to its collapse.

But the most important event was the overthrow of the Romanov dynasty. If the Romanovs, why not the Hapsburgs? When Charles allowed parliament to sit again in summer 1917 initially the calls weren’t for dissolution, but for reform which gave the nationalities autonomy and rights. But during the summer Czech radicals published a manifesto calling for an independent Czech-Slovak state.

The winter of 1917-18 was harsh with widespread food shortages. There were widespread strikes. In the spring Czech prisoners of war began returning from Russian camps bearing revolutionary ideas. But the Hapsburgs were not overthrown. Mason suggests this is because what in Russia were clear, class-based animosities and movements, in Austria-Hungary were diverted into nationalist channels.

Even when America joined the war in April 1917, the Allies still didn’t call for the overthrow of the empire but its reform to give the nationalities more say. According to Mason what finally changed the Allies mind was the German offensive in Spring 1918. It became clear Austria-Hungary wouldn’t or couldn’t detach itself from Germany, and so the Allies now threw themselves behind plans to undermine the empire from within i.e. supporting Czech, Polish and Slav politicians in their calls for the abolition of the monarchy. In the summer they supported the Czechs. In September 1918 they recognised a Czech-Slovak state. Unlike the other minorities the Czechs existed entirely inside the empire, to recognising their independent state was effectively recognising the dismemberment of the empire.

The failure of the German spring offensive in the West, and the Austrian summer offensive against Italy spelled the end. In September Bulgaria sued for peace. In October Austria and Germany asked President Wilson to intervene. At the end of October the Czechs and Yugoslavs proclaimed their independence, followed by the Magyars and the Poles. On 11 November 1918 Emperor Charles abdicated. The Hapsburg Monarchy ceased to exist.

PART FOUR Assessments

Mason recaps some of the arguments about the fate of the Austro-Hungarian Empire which, by now, I feel I have heard hundreds of times. For example, that right up to the end most commentators did not expect the empire to collapse but for the strongest minorities, such as the Czechs, to successfully argue for parity with the Magyars, for more rights and privileges. Karl Marx thought the nations without history needed to be tutored and guided by the more advanced ones i.e. the Germans.

One school sees the collapse as due to the internal contradictions i.e failure to address the nationality question i.e. failure for any serious politician at the top, even Franz Ferdinand, even Charles, to do anything to palliate the nationalities demands which would have meant diluting the stranglehold of the German-Magyar ruling elites. The elites never accepted the nationalities question as a fundamental issue, but always as a problem which could be temporarily dealt with by clever tactics.

A completely opposite view holds that it was the First World War and the First World War alone which led to the collapse of the empire. Supporting this view is the fact that even radical critics and keen slavophiles like the Englishmen Seton-Watson and Wickham Steed as late as 1913 thought the empire was growing, and simply needed to be converted into a federal arrangement of more autonomous states, maybe like Switzerland.

PART FIVE Documents

Nineteen documents kicking off with hardcore economic tables showing, for example, populations of the various nationalities, index of Austrian industrial production, Austria’s share of world trade, steel production, harvest yields.

More interesting to the average reader are:

  • Mark Twain’s eye witness account of the army marching into parliament to suspend the sitting discussing  the 1897 legislation to make Czech equal with German in Bohemia and Moravia, which spilled out into riots in Vienna and Prague
  • Leon Trotsky’s impressions of the Austrian socialist leaders i.e they are smug and self satisfied and the extreme opposite of revolutionary
  • an extract from the memoir of George Clare who was a Jew raised in Vienna and gives a vivid sense of the frailty of Jewish identity, the assimiliated Jews’ shame about his caftaned, ringleted Yiddish cousin but also his sneaking envy for their authenticity – this is exactly the sentiment expressed by Kafka in his reflections on the Jews
  • the impact of Vienna on the young Adolf Hitler, who lived in Vienna from 1908 to 1913 and a) hugely respected the anti-semitic mayor Karl Lueger and b) loathed the multi-ethnic culture and especially the ubiquity of Jews
  • memoirs of the Jewish socialist leader Julius Braunthal, who emphasises the peculiarly powerful fermenting role played by Jews in all aspects of Austrian life, society and culture
  • a society hostess describing the meeting in 1902 between Rodin and Gustav Klimt

And then excerpts from more official documents, being a letter from the leader of the 1848 revolution, the key articles from the Dual Alliance of 1879, prime minister Aehrenthal’s proposed solution to the South Slav problem, census figures about Slavs inside the empire, a report on relations between Serbia and Austria-Hungary,


Related links

Other blog posts about the First World War

Art & music

Books

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.


Related links

Related reviews

Dates are dates of composition.

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

%d bloggers like this: