Genghis Khan by James Chambers (1999)

The greatest fortune a man can have is to conquer his enemy, steal his riches, ride his horses, and enjoy his women. (Genghis Khan)

Genghis Khan was born sometime in the 1160s into a small clan of Steppe Mongols. From obscure origins he rose, through the power of his charisma, courage and canny alliances, to unite the disparate Mongol tribes into one huge, well-organised, ferocious and world-beating army.

By the time of his death in 1227 Genghis had subjugated more lands and more people in twenty-five years than the Romans did in four hundred. His successors built on his conquests until the empire he bequeathed stretched from Hungary in the west to the Pacific in the East, forming the largest continuous land empire the world has ever known.

James Chambers’s biography is a small, zippy book, part of the Sutton Pocket Biography series, designed, in their words, to be ‘highly readable brief lives of those who have played a significant part in history, and whose contributions still influence contemporary culture.’

At 100 small pages it’s a quick read – it only took me two hours to wing through it. But what makes this book different from most of the other biographies of Genghis is its distinctive approach: it starts out in the fairy tale tones of Mongol myth and legend, and never really quite transitions to the dry, factual approach most of us associate with normal ‘history’. Which makes it rather marvellous.

Thus Chambers starts his text without any introduction or explanation but by going straight into a retelling of the creation myth of the steppe Mongols. He tells us how the god of Eternal Heaven, Mongke Tengri, made all things, but humans didn’t appear until the grey wolf, the grey hunter, wandered down from his mountain and mated with a deer.

Detail of a Totem from Northern Mongolia showing a grey wolf and a white doe (Hun tomb, 3rd-1st century BC). Born according to the will of the Sky, Borte Chino (Blue Wolf) is the ancestor of the Mongolians and his partner/wife is Gua Maral (Red Deer)

The story then skips forward ten generations to when the Mongols have bred and multiplied, and a direct descendant of the grey wolf’s firstborn, Dobun the Sagacious, marries a woman named Alan the Fair, who came from a tribe of hunters in the forest.

We learn how Alan had five sons and taught them to stick together but, after her death, the four eldest divided her herd between them and left the youngest, Bodunchar the Simple, to ride off alone on an ugly pony. When they repented of their meanness and went to find him, they discovered Bodunchar living in a hut on the banks of the river Onon and surviving by hunting duck with a trained hawk and begging mare’s milk from a clan camped nearby.

Once they’d taken Bodunchar back into the family, he tells them more about the nearby clan who’d helped him out, namely that they lack central organisation or a strong leader. And so the five sons of Alan the Fair proceed to attack the clan, stealing all their cattle and their women.

By the standard of the steppes there was nothing wrong in what Bodunchar and his brothers had done. In truth, as well as in legend, it was the way in which Turko-Mongol nomads had always lived, and the way in which they were to continue to live for several more generations. These nomads measured each other’s wealth by the numbers of their sheep and horses, and when the size of a clan’s herds increased, it was usually as a result of audacious raiding rather than patient husbandry. Ruthless opportunists like Bodunchar were regarded as heroes, and their success bred success. Warriors often moved from clan to clan, swearing new allegiances to the men most likely to protect their families and make them rich. Although the tribes and clans into which they were divided must have begun as extended families, their blood lines were soon diluted, not only because those with the best leaders attracted warriors from elsewhere, but also because it was the custom to marry outside the clan. Since bride prices were high, women were often acquired like horses on raiding parties. In such a society life was simple, selfish and precarious. (p.5)

Why are we being told all these stories about Alan the Fair and Bodunchar the Simple? Because shamans, the Mongol holy men, had prophesied that a descendant of Bonduchar would unite all the Mongol tribes and lead them to world conquest.

And so it is that, several generations later, a boy is born of Bonduchar’s line, a boy named Temüjin, one of the five children of Yesügei. In preparation, Chambers has described the confused and war-torn world Temüjin grew up in:

  • how the great city of Zhongdu (early Beijing) had been captured by Khitan horsemen from the steppes
  • how the Chinese Song empire had been weakened when the Tangut inhabitants of north-west China seceded to establish their own kingdom of Xi Xia
  • how the north had been wrested from the Khitan by a new wave of conquerors, the Jurchen who came from Manchuria and established a new dynasty they called the Jin
  • how the Jin feared invasion by other Mongol tribes and so allied with Tatar tribes who they paid to attack and break up the remaining Mongol forces
  • how one of the Mongol commanders who survived these attacks was Yesügei, of the Kiyat clan, who claimed descent from Bonduchar
  • and how Yesügei,  after kidnapping himself a wife – Ho’elun of the Onggirats – from a prince of the Merkits, had five children by her, one of whom was Temüjin – Mongol for ‘man of iron’
  • and how, aged just nine, Temüjin, lost his father Yesügei, poisoned by the tribe whose woman he stole to make his wife and Temüjin’s mother

And it was this Temüjin who would grow up to become Genghis Khan, one of the greatest, most successful but also most bloodthirsty conquerors of all time.

(NB Genghis Khan is an honorary name Temüjin was given after he had united the Mongol tribes, at the ripe age of 39. He was awarded it at a great assembly of all the Mongol tribes and clans, the Great Khuriltai held beneath the sacred mountain at the source of the river Onon in 1206 – Khan being the generic name for king or leader, and Genghis (probably) stemming from tengiz meaning ocean and so suggesting ‘King of Everything within the great ocean’ or ‘Oceanic King’, p.50).

The actual story of his rise to power is long and complex, mainly revolving around a sequence of alliances, at first with individuals who help or rescue young Temüjin from perilous situations (like Sorkun who helped Temüjin escape after he’d been captured and tied to a wooden yoke by the vengeful relatives of the first husband of Ho’elun, his mother, the woman kidnapped by his father Yesugei), then with more powerful clan leaders, slowly cultivating powerful men and drawing freelance warriors to his side.

Map of the Mongol Empire during Genghis’s lifetime, showing the complexity of the Mongol tribes and kingdoms he set out to unify, and the peoples living outside it e.g. the Chinese Jin Dynasty in the south-east (Source: Wikipedia)

And then the thing which set him apart from all his rival leaders and rival powers – his phenomenal gift for organisation, for imposing new laws on the Mongol tribes, for introducing a census and mass conscription, for organising his army into light and heavy cavalry with, later on, divisions devoted to siege equipment, provisioned with scaling ladders and sacks that could be turned into sandbags (p.72).

His army was systematically organised and rigorously disciplined. A division was known as a tumen and contained 10,000 men. Each tumen was divided into ten regiments of a thousand called a minghan. Each minghan contained ten squadrons of a hundred called a jagun and each jagunwas divided into ten troops called arbans. A large Mongol camp was called an ordu which is the origin of the English word ‘horde’.

Chambers goes on to describe the thorough training regime Genghis established for the army, along with the ‘staff college’ of his personal guard, which supplied the generals and senior commanders to each division. He explains the Mongols’ battle tactics and the transmission of information by a cohort of trained messengers using the fastest horses. Genghis set up staging posts every 25 miles in the territory he conquered, which were permanently manned with provisions and fresh horses, so that messengers could ride in relay in any direction across his empire bringing vital information. The messengers were wrapped up warm and wore a belt of small bells to alert the managers of the post that a rider was arriving, so the new horse could be saddled and ready.

The essence of Genghis Khan’s genius lay in his ability to recognise and develop a good idea, and above all in his instinctive capacity for meticulous planning and detailed organisation, a capacity which was all the more extraordinary in a man who had received no education. (p.65)

Map showing the campaigns of the Mongols from their heartland out across Asia. Note that China was divided under three rulers, the Jurchen Jin in the North, the Song dynasty in the south, and the Western Xia in the space between Tibet and Mongolia (source: Wikipedia)

Now a glance at Amazon shows you that there are quite a few books about Genghis Khan, some running to four or five hundred pages, and there is, of course, a lengthy Wikipedia article about him.

But most of these are westernised, factual accounts, which start in the way you’d expect, with factual accounts of the steppe, its peoples, their history, before moving on to give factual accounts based on a judicial analysis of the sources and the (scant) archaeological evidence.

In some of these more academic respects Chambers’ account is a bit lacking; I certainly found his description of the campaigns of the mature Genghis rather quick and difficult to follow.

But it matters not. I bet this is the only account which starts and then continues within the Mongol mindset. It takes the reader inside the world of mare’s milk and hawking, surviving off berries and raw fish, a world where an extended family possesses just nine horses and a tent set amid the vast limitless blankness of the steppe. A world where the wolf god mates with human women, and shamans correctly predict the future.

Admittedly, as Chambers’ account proceeds and actually gets onto the campaigning and battles, it becomes more and more factual, more like Wikipedia, and my interest waned a bit. It also describes the military massacres which occurred on a growing scale and made Genghis’s name a terror to future generations.

Notable among these were the rape of Zhongdu, an early name for what is now Beijing. It was already an enormous city, with a population of maybe a million, protected by a huge wall. After a prolonged siege, the Mongols finally breached the wall in 1215. Genghis ordered total annihilation and for one month the conquerors burned, murdered and raped. A year later visiting ambassadors described the streets as slippery with human fat. And they were shown a white hill outside the ruined city walls which was made out of human skulls. (This forced the Jin ruler, Emperor Xuanzong, to move his capital south to Kaifeng and abandon the northern half of his empire to the Mongols. Further Mongol campaigns were to lead to the collapse of the Jin dynasty in 1234.) It was the same year that the Magna Carta was signed in England.

Even worse was the prolonged campaign against Ala ad-Din Muhammad II, Shah of the Khwarezmian Empire from 1200 to 1220. Muhammad made the very unwise move of arresting and executing the envoys that Genghis had sent to him. This prompted the Mongol invasion of Khwarezmia, which resulted in its utter destruction. The Mongols razed every city they came to and massacred every single inhabitant: the lowest contemporary estimates were 700,000 dead for each of the cities of Merv and Balkh, and a million and a half each for Herat and Nishapur, where the heads of men, women and children were gathered into separate piles. These are widely considered the bloodiest massacres the world had seen until the 20th century.

‘I am the punishment of God…If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.’ (Genghis Khan)

All this may well be true, but it’s another reason for finding the later part of the book less enjoyable.

Because my imagination had been so fired up by the opening, mythical chapters, and the way they wonderfully transport the reader into a genuinely remote and different other-world. These passages engrossed me like a children’s book does. It made me feel it was me fighting alongside Jebe the Arrow and Toghril the mighty, in a heroic alliance with the Naimans and the Tayichi’uts against enemy tribes like the Keraits and the Tatars, taking part in legendary conflicts like the wonderfully named Battle of the Seventy Felt Cloaks.

Reviews suggest that this short books leaves out a lot of the facts about Genghis, as known by modern historians. No doubt it does. But what it leaves in is the romance and fairy-tale feel of the wonderfully evocative names, the distant lifestyles, and the legendary stories about strange peoples and faraway places which for a happy couple of hours really caught my imagination.

The statue of Genghis Khan outside the parliament building in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.


Related links

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

Milan Kundera on Franz Kafka (1979)

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

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

Four elements of the Kafkaesque

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. When Kafka read the first chapter of The Trial to his friends everyone laughed including the author. Kafka takes us inside a joke which looks funny from the outside, but in its core, in its gut, is horrific.

Against a sociological or Marxist interpretation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Kundera is, in fact, wrong to say:

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

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

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

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

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

The nature of totalitarian society

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

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

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

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

Death of privacy.

The phantasmal office

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

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

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

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

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

The novel as discovery of aspects of the human condition

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

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

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

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

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

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

Somewhere Behind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

no social or political thought could ever tell us.

Kundera or Camus

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

Coda

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

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

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

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

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


Related links

Related Kafka reviews

Dates are dates of composition.

Reviews of Milan Kundera’s books

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

György Lukács on Franz Kafka (1955)

Brief biography of György Lukács

From the 1920s to the 1960s György Lukács was one of the leading Marxist philosophers and literary critics in Europe.

Born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1885, the son of a very affluent Jewish banker, he benefited from a superb education and was a leading intellectual at Budapest university, combining interests in literature and (Neo-Kantian) philosophy, and founded a salon which featured leading Hungarian writers and composers during the Great War.

The experience of the war (although he was himself exempted from military service) radicalised Lukács and he joined the Communist Party in 1918. His cultural eminence led to him being appointed People’s Commissar for Education and Culture in the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic which lasted from 21 March to 1 August 1919 and took its orders directly from Lenin. Lukács was an enthusiastic exponent of Lenin’s theory of Red Terror.

When the Republic was overthrown by army generals who instituted the right-wing dictatorship which was to run Hungary between the wars, Lukács fled to Vienna where he spent the 1920s developing a philosophical basis for a Leninist version of Marxism.

In 1930 he was ‘summoned’ to Moscow to work at the Institute of Philosophy of the Russian Academy of Sciences, although he soon got caught up in Stalin’s purges and was sent into exile in Tashkent. But Lukács survived, unlike an estimated 80% of Hungarian exiles in Russia, who perished.

At the war’s end he was sent back to Hungary to take part in the new Hungarian communist government, where he was directly responsible for written attacks on non-communist intellectuals, and took part in the removal of independent and non-communist intellectuals from their jobs, many being forced to take jobs as manual labourers.

Lickspittle apparatchik though that makes him sound, Lukács in fact trod a careful line which managed to be critical of Stalinism, albeit in coded and often abstruse phraseology. Due to his experience and seniority he was made a minister in the government of Imry Nagy which in 1956 tried to break away from Russia’s control during the so-called Hungarian Uprising. Nagy’s government was suppressed by the Soviets, and Lukács along with the rest of the Nagy government was exiled to Romania. Nagy himself was executed, Lukács only just escaped that fate. Yet again he had experienced the brutal and repressive force of Soviet tyranny.

He was allowed back to Budapest in 1957, abandoned his former criticisms of the Soviet Union, engaged in public self-criticism, and was allowed to keep his academic posts, continue writing and publishing his theoretical and critical works, up to his death in 1971.

His was a highly representative life of a certain kind of Central European intellectual in the twentieth century. He was reviled at the time by the people whose lives he blighted and by a wide range of liberal and conservative opponents.

Modernism as a symptom of capitalist society

In 1955 Lukács delivered a series of lectures on the clash between Realism and Modernism and a year later the lectures were published in essay form in a short book titled The Meaning of Contemporary Realism.

The message is simple: Realism good, Modernism bad. Simple enough, but the interest and, for me at any rate, the great pleasure to be had from reading this book is in the secondary arguments, in the premises and working through of the ideas and theories and insights which support this basic conclusion.

He begins with a sweeping premise: the era we live in is dominated by the conflict between capitalism and socialism. Looking back at the nineteenth century we can see how Realism in the arts emerged with the newly triumphant bourgeoisie, and was a result of the new social conditions brought about by their rise and overthrow of the last vestiges of power of the European aristocracy.

(Realist authors would include Stendhal, Balzac and early Flaubert in France, Tolstoy in Russia, George Eliot in England, Mark Twain in America.)

Realism in literature was followed by Naturalism in the final third of the century, which paid determined attention to the grim social conditions of mature capitalist society but also, in the hands of a novelist like Zola, began the process of reducing human beings to ciphers worked on by malign environments. Darwinism could be made to make people appear simple tools of their genetic inheritance, socialist theories could make people appear pawns and slaves of their working environments.

Zola saw his novels as sociological experiments. For Lukács he had already lost the tricky balance the realists maintained between character and ‘type’ – which helps to explain why Zola wrote nearly forty novels without a single memorable character in any of them.

(Naturalist authors are spearheaded by Zola in France, with maybe Jack London in America, George Gissing and Arthur Morrison in England.)

By the end of the century a shoal of movements erupted which prioritised an interest in decadence, perversion, the macabre and gruesome, the so-called Decadent movement and the gloomy atmosphere of Symbolism.

This brings us to the eruption of Modernism about the time of the First World War, the movement which, Lukács claims, is still praised and defended by bourgeois capitalist critics at the time he’s writing (1955). But for Lukács, Modernism represents a colossal failure of humanity: it turns its back on history and society, its protagonists are almost all loners undergoing nervous breakdowns, hopelessly alienated from societies which are portrayed as stuck, static, incapable of change or improvement.

From T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land to Samuel Beckett in Waiting For Godot Modernist writers depict complete psychological collapse, in Beckett’s case the degradation of human beings into almost wordless vegetables. He backs it up with references to Musil’s The Man Without Qualities and other European works which foreground hopelessness and despair, and he was, of course, writing during the heyday of French existentialism, which became a byword in the 1950s for black sweaters and anguish.

All of these works and writers, Lukács argues, are symptoms of the alienating effect of living under Western capitalism. All these writers, artists and composers bear out Marx’s insight that in the capitalist system people are alienated from each other and from themselves.

Specific points

This makes Lukács sound like a cumbersome Stalinist commissar, but in fact the book is a pleasure to read from start to finish because i) it moves relatively quickly, not belabouring the points ii) it makes references to all kinds of writers, most from the European and not the Anglo-Saxon tradition, and iii) it features a whole series of thought-provoking ideas.

Time There is a fascinating discussion of subjective versus objective time, and how Modernists of all stripe, including Modernist philosophers, became fascinated by trying to describe the undifferentiated flow of sense impressions and ideas which became known as stream-of-consciousness, most famously in the works of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.

He compares and contrasts their approaches with the way Thomas Mann uses what, at first sight, is stream of consciousness to capture the thoughts of the poet Goethe in his novel Lotte in Weimar. Mann is a realist writer and so, in Lukács’s opinion, the stream of consciousness is deployed as a tool within which particular individuals and events emerge against a clearly defined social backdrop.

Static versus dynamic Joyce’s worldview is static. More than one critic pointed out how Ulysses portrays a Dublin trapped in stasis and his masterpiece, Finnegan’s Wake, portrays a vast circular movement. But, says Lukács, human beings only achieve their personhood, only become fully human, by interacting with other humans in a constantly changing, dynamic society. Realist authors select characters and details to portray their understanding of this ceaseless dialectic between the individual and society.

Solipsism and nihilism A full and proper understanding of society in all its relations is empowering, an analysis and understanding which gives people the confidence to mobile and change things. By contrast, Lukács accuses Modernists of turning their back on healthy interaction with the world, of rejecting society, and rejecting a historical understanding of how societies change and evolve.

And it is no great leap to go from the belief that nothing ever changes, to despair. Rejecting society and history leads the protagonists of Modernist fictions to:

1. be confined within the limits of their own subjective experiences (Joyce, stream of consciousness)
2. ultimately deprive the protagonist of even a self a personal history, since that history is (in a normal person) largely the interaction between themselves and the host of others, starting with their family and moving outwards, which constitute society

By exalting man’s subjectivity, at the expense of the objective reality of his environment, man’s subjectivity is itself impoverished. (p.24)

Man is reduced to a sequence of unrelated experiential fragments. (p.26)

Lukács invokes the teachings of Heidegger, as the godfather of 20th century existentialism, with his fundamental idea of Geworfenheit ins Dasein, of having been ‘thrown-into’-Being’, abandoned in a godless universe etc etc, all the self-pitying tropes which were promoted by existentialist philosophers, critics, playwrights, novelists, film-makers, rock stars and millions of teenagers in their lonely bedrooms ever since.

The individual, retreating into himself in despair at the cruelty of the age, may experience an intoxicated fascination with his forlorn condition. (p.38)

By contrast, Lukács invokes the fundamental insight of one of the founders of western philosophy – Aristotle – that man is a social animal: we only fully live and have our being in a social context. This insight goes through to Hegel in the early nineteenth century, who applies his mental model of the dialectic to the continual interplay between the healthily-adjusted individual and the society they find themselves in.

How does this play out in fiction? Well, the realist novelist such as George Eliot or Tolstoy chooses representative types, puts them in a narrative which represents realistic actions which capture the possibilities of their society, and selects details which highlight, bolster and bring out these two aspects. By and large things change in a realist novel, not least the characters, sometimes against the backdrop of dramatic social events (Middlemarch, War and Peace).

It is the interplay between a character and his or her fully realised environment, from Homer’s Achilles to Thomas Mann’s Adrian Leverkuhn, which gives us fully developed sense of character and, deeper than this, a dynamic sense of human potential. At bottom, the subject of the realist author is human change and development.

Moreover, he goes on to point out that all literature is, at some level, realistic. It would be impossible to have a totally non-realist novel (as you can have an utterly abstract work of art). More to his point, about the value of society and history:

A writer’s pattern of choice is a function of his personality. But personality is not in fact timesless and absolute, however it may appear to the individual consciousness. Talent and character may be innate; but the manner in which they develop, or fail to develop, depends on the writer’s interaction with his environment, on his relationships with other human beings. His life is part of the life of his times; no matter whether he is conscious of this, approves or disapproves. He is part of a larger social and historical whole. (p.54)

The Modernist, on the other hand rejects all this. More often than not their characters are extremes, psychopaths, neurotic, going mad, and he points to all of Samuel Beckett’s characters, but also the many mentally challenged characters in William Faulkner, of the man adrift on a sea of phenomena in Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities. Details are chosen not to highlight their representativeness but to bring out the freakishness of themselves and the uncanny world they inhabit. And the plot or story is often sick and twisted, or barely exists, or revels in degradation and decline (Beckett).

(I laughed out loud when he described the way Beckett stands at the end of this tradition, as an example of ‘a fully standardised nihilistic modernism’, making him sound like a standard edition family saloon or entry level fridge freezer, p.53)

In a striking manoeuvre he invokes Freud as a godfather to Modernism, pointing out that Freud himself openly declared that his way of gaining insight into the structure of the ‘normal’ mind was via study of a colourful array of neurotics, obsessives and phobics. I.e. one of the major planks of though underlying all Modernist psychology, Freudianism, is based on the morbid and the unnatural (p.30)

Franz Kafka

Which brings us to Kafka. Kafka, for Lukács, even more than Beckett, for all his genius, represents the acme of the sickness that is Modernism. He points out a detail I’d forgotten which is that, as Joseph K is being led away to be executed, he thinks of flies stuck on flypaper, tearing their little legs off. This, Lukács says, is the vision at the heart of all Kafka’s fiction and at the heart of the Modernist worldview – humans are helpless insects, totally impotent, paralysed in a society they don’t understand, trapped in unintelligible situations.

Kafka’s angst is the experience par excellence of modernism. (p.36)

Lukács dwells on Kafka’s brilliant way with details, his eye for the telling aspect of a person or situation which brings it to life. But Lukács uses this fact to bring out the world of difference between the realistic detail in a realist fiction, which has been chosen because it is representative of the real world, properly conceived and understood – and the details in Kafka, which he chose with absolute genius to convey his sense of utter, paralysing futility and nonsense.

Kafka’s fictions are absolutely brilliant allegories, but allegories of nothing, allegories of emptiness (pp.44-45).

Thoughts

Pros

This is just a selection of some of Lukács’s insights in this short and, for the most part, very readable book. He may have been a slimeball, he may have been a criminal, he may have been a hypocrite, he may have been a toady to power – but there is no denying he was a clever man, very well read, and he conveys his learning fairly lightly. He doesn’t set out to be impenetrable as most French theorists do.

And he’s candid enough to admit that many of the experiments and new techniques and works written by the Modernists were dazzling masterpieces, and to concede that much of the stuff written under the aegis of Stalin’s Socialist Realism was tripe. He’s too sophisticated to defend rubbish.

But his basic critique that the Modernist works which Western critics, to this day, tend to uncritically adulate, do tend to foreground the outsider, the alienated, the loner, often with severe psychological problems, in fictions which often lack much plot or any interaction with other characters, and in which both hero and author have largely turned their back on wider society – this is very insightful. His analysis of the aspects of Modernist fiction is useful and stimulating.

And, having just read Kafka’s biography, his diagnosis of Kafka’s writings as the brilliant masterpieces of a very sick mind are completely spot on. I like the way he brings out the important of the just-so detail in Kafka’s works, the precise details which tip the whole thing over into paranoid nightmare.

Cons

But all that said, later on in the book an unnervingly more dogmatic tone emerges. Scattered references early in the book about the Cold War and the Peace Movement coalesce into political polemic. He links his concept of the Good Realist writers directly with the 1950s Peace Movement, which was strongly promoted by the Soviet Union amid disingenuous claims to want to end the Cold War (while all the time retaining a vice-like grip on Eastern Europe and funding destabilising communist insurgents around the world).

By contrast, he explicitly links some of the philosophers and authors of angst (most notoriously Heidegger) with Nazism and so tries to tar all Modernist authors with the taint of Fascism.

In other words, Lukács disappoints by making a direct and rather crude connection between a writer’s underlying worldviews and developments in international politics. He is not crude enough to blame individual writers for Fascism or capitalism – but he does point out repeatedly that they base their works on the same worldview that accepts the exploitation and alienation implicit in the capitalist system.

For most of the first half I enjoyed Lukács’s dissection of the psychopathology of Modernism. But when he began to directly relate it to capitalist-imperialism and to lecture the reader on how it led to The Wrong Side in the Cold War, the book suddenly felt crude, simplistic and hectoring.

When he suddenly states that:

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

I thought, How can such a clever, well-read man write something so crude?

  1. Kafka’s visions of human life crushed by a faceless and persecuting bureaucracy could equally well have come out of Czarist Russia with its notorious secret police.
  2. Kafka didn’t in fact live in an advanced capitalist society such as America, Britain or Germany – the endless useless bureaucracy of his books is not that of snappily efficient America or Germany, but precisely that of provincial Bohemia, a sleepy backwater entangled in the vast and impenetrable civil service of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
  3. And Kafka would have been horribly out of place in any social system, at any time, as his biography brings home.

Worst of all, when, in the middle of the book, Lukács says that what counts about a writer isn’t their actual works, not their words or pages or techniques or style, but the general tendency of their thought… the implication is that this tendency can be measured by a commissar like himself, and suddenly I could hear the tones of Zhdanov and the other Soviet dictators of culture, whose crude diktats resulted in countless artists and writers being arbitrarily arrested and despatched to die in the gulag, crying out as they went that they meant no offence – while the apparatchiks calmly replied that they weren’t being punished for anything they’d actually said or done: they were being condemned to ten years hard labour for the tendency of their work.

At moments in this suave and sophisticated book, you suddenly glimpse the truncheon and the barbed wire of actual communist tyranny, which gives it a sudden thrill and horror not normally encountered in a genteel volume of literary criticism.

So it’s a complicated business, reading Lukács.


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Dates are dates of composition.

Immortality by Milan Kundera (1990)

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

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

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

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

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

1. Instead of political insight, moaning

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

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

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

2. The narrator suddenly sounds old

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

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

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

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

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

3. All too familiar

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

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

4. Prolix

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

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

Part One – The Face (44 pages)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Two – Immortality (45 pages)

Then suddenly we are whisked off into History.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Three – Fighting (110 -ages)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hard to care.

Part Four – Homo sentimentalis (32 pages)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Five – Chance (55 pages)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Agnes dies fifteen minutes before they get to the hospital.

Part Six – The Dial (64 pages)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Seven – The Celebration

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

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

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

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

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


Conclusion

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

I felt the exact opposite with Immortality.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Credit

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


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

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

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

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

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (1984)

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

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

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

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

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

Part One – Lightness and Weight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Two – Soul and Body

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Three – Words Misunderstood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Four – Soul and Body

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Five – Lightness and Weight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Six – The Grand March

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Seven – Karenin’s Smile

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

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

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

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

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

And much more in the same vein.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts

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

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

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

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

Questionable wisdom

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

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

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

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

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

Is this deep? Or does it just sound deep?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wisdom about men and woman

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


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

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

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

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

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

The Farewell Party by Milan Kundera (1972)

Kundera’s third novel feels shorter and more streamlined than the first two. At 184 pages (cf The Joke pp.267 and Life Is Elsewhere pp.306) it is a slim, quick, funny, if sometimes shocking read. The first two novels, though comic in tone and often in content, contained big wodges of serious, sometimes tragic material about politics and repression under the Czech communist state. In The Farewell Waltz some of this content intrudes, in the character of Jakub the embittered political dissident. But apart from him, the rest of the story feels much closer to a farce, a sex comedy. According to the internet, a farce is:

a comic dramatic work using buffoonery and horseplay, and typically including crude characterization and ludicrously improbable situations

That doesn’t really describe this book, but it does gesture towards the way The Farewell Party begins with a predicament and then goes on to wring as many comic situations and variations out of it as possible, placing its characters in improbable and unlikely situations in order to extract as much comedy, and plain absurdity, as possible.

The plot

First Day (Monday)

Klima is a famous Czech jazz trumpeter. He is happily married. Two months before the action starts he had played a gig at a health spa in the country. He and the band were treated to an after-gig party by a rich American staying at the spa (Bartleff), and Klima ended up having sex with one of the spa nurses, Ruzena. Now she’s pregnant, and on the second page of the book she rings him up at his Prague apartment to let him know it. Thus the ball is set rolling. The book is divided into five sections titled simply First Day, Second day etc. and it all happens over this tight, compressed timespan.

Klima is a coward, a timid man, who takes advantage of his fame to seduce women, but always feels nervous about it beforehand, guilty about it afterwards. Deep down, he is deeply, sincerely in love with his wife.

He tells the band he’s rehearsing with about the call, and his bandmates are sanguine, suggesting a variety of tactics to fob her off. The young guitarist (18) even suggests bumping her off in a supposed ‘road accident’. The reader is a little startled.

Klima thanks them all, then phones Ruzena and says he’ll come and visit her tomorrow. Then goes home and cobbles together a cock-and-bull story to tell his wife, Kamila, about having to play some socialist party youth conference or other. She doesn’t believe a word. She is well-attuned to his infidelities and lies. He knows he doesn’t believe her.

Second Day (Tuesday)

Klima motors to the spa and looks up Bartleff, the American patient with the bad heart, who hosted the party where Klima met the fateful nurse. He shares his problem (he’s gotten a nurse at the spa pregnant) with this bluff man of the world, who offers various suggestions.

Klima is surprised to learn that Bartleff paints religious pictures. There’s a new one, of Saint Lazarus, on the wall of his apartment. Bartleff explains it is blue because real saints’ halos really are blue. Klima is only paying half attention.

Klima phones Ruzena at the bath where she’s working and arranges to meet her after work, at 4pm. Then Bartleff takes him across the way, to the clinic, to meet Dr Skreta, the leading specialist at the spa.

IRONY The spa exists to treat infertile women. The place is packed with well-off, middle-aged women who can’t get pregnant. It is therefore a primal, structural irony that the entire plot rotates around a young woman who has gotten pregnant, after just one act of hurried coitus, but the father wants to terminate it.

Throughout the conversations with his band, and then with Bartleff, and now with Dr Skreta, the men discuss women as a problematic category, in an objectifying way, which I imagine most modern readers would find horrifying. I couldn’t tell whether the guitarist’s casual suggestion that they murder the nurse, and Klima’s casual acceptance of it, was meant to be ironic or straightfaced. The book is stuffed with men casually discussing the trouble with women and the problem with women and how to handle women and the differences between blondes and brunettes – dismissive and gross generalisations, which would give a feminist a heart attack.

Anyway, when Klima and Bartleff explain Klima’s problem, Skreta is immediately sympathetic. He tells them the next abortion committee meeting is on Friday and he can slot Klima and Nurse Ruzena straight in. And he shares a private passion of his which is that he is himself a keen jazz drummer. Could Klima maybe see his way to playing a gig with him and a bassist who also works at the spa?

So anxious is he to secure the decision for an abortion that Klima would agree to anything. Good, yes, whatever. They set the concert date for this Thursday, the day after tomorrow. Galvanised, Dr Skreta vows to set about creating the posters and printing up tickets.

Klima meets Ruzena at 4pm outside the baths and takes her to the spa dining rooms. Here he commences his strategy: he tells Ruzena that he loves her so much that’s why he didn’t phone her at all for two months after their liaison; it was because he was afraid of the intensity of his emotions. He carries on despite her sceptical protestations, to assert that of course he will leave his wife, and wants to marry Ruzena – she begins to soften and swoon – BUT: the first few years of any marriage are the most blissful and he wants to spend them with her, unobstructed, unencumbered with a new baby. And that’s why he thinks she should terminate the pregnancy.

He suggests they get out of the dining rooms – where he is uncomfortably aware that everyone in the place can see him. Ruzena is impressed that he has a car, and so is easily persuaded to go for a drive in the country. Klima puts his arm round her as he drives and presses home his advantage, spinning fantasies about where they’ll go once he’s divorced his wife and married her.

He stops the car at a scenic spot and they walk into the country. He kisses her, a long lingering passionate kiss. He is in the middle of describing how Italy will be the first stop and he’s in the middle of painting the beauties of Italy when she surprises him by giving in. Yes. OK. Alright. She’ll place herself in his hands. She’ll agree to go to the abortion committee on Friday. (p.44)

Klima can’t believe his luck. In the end it was so easy. They walk back to the car, her head on his shoulder, but as they get there realise a motorbike is parked next to it and the motorcyclist looms threateningly up to Klima and starts telling him that, just because he’s famous, he thinks he can get away with anything; well, not this time, buddy! Klima hasn’t a clue what’s going on, Ruzena tells the man to shut up and go away and scrambles into the car, as the man turns towards her side, Klima jumps in his side and accelerates off. She explains he’s a maniac who stalks her. We will, in fact, come to learn that this is Ruzena’s boyfriend, a local rough named Franta, who has had sex with her and who may, indeed, actually be the father of her baby…

Arriving back at the spa, Klima escorts Ruzena to her nurse accommodation in the stylishly named Karl Marx house, before walking thoughtfully to Bartleff’s flat. He knocks and when there’s no answer, tentatively opens the door. For a moment he is awed. The room is lit by a soft blue glow. Remember the dialogue when Bartleff explained that he liked painting religious pictures? And that he had painted St Lazarus’s halo blue because that is actually the colour of saints’ halos? Well… Klima backs out and quietly closes the door, but next minute it is opened by Bartleff looking fresh and wearing the same clothes he had on that morning, who welcomes him inside, rejoices when he hears that Ruzena has given in and agreed to an abortion, and plies him with food (crackers and tinned ham). Then waves him off as Klima leaves, belatedly, to drive back to the capital and explain why his day took so long to his long-suffering wife.

Third Day (Wednesday)

A friend of Dr Skreta’s arrives. This is Jakub, who was in trouble with the authorities in the grim years after the 1948 coup, and for whom Dr Skreta knocked up a blue pill of concentrated poison, so that if Jakub was arrested, before he was tortured, he could control his own destiny and end it all. Now he announces he is leaving the country, he has official permission and is going to a teaching position abroad. He wants to return the pill. Dr Skreta won’t hear of it and pushes it back into Jakub’s hand when it is profferred.

(There is some very casual comedy, when Skreta forces his friend to accompany him into the examination room where a woman is lying on her back, naked, with her legs wide open so Skreta can examine her. It is a feature of Skreta’s character that he takes all this in his stride and tells the nurse to fetch his fellow doctor a white coat, and then confidently asks for his second opinion. So that the lady on the table is not discombobulated by the presence of another man looking at her privates, but quite flattered to have two specialists examining her case. Dr Skreta’s boundless self-confidence will recur at important moments later in the story.)

Jakub is here because he’s come to say goodbye to his ‘ward’, Olga. This young woman is the daughter of a friend of Jakub’s who was arrested and executed by the communists in the purges of the early 1950s when Olga was just seven. Jakub vowed to look after her, became her legal guardian, and when she left school got her a job here at the spa, via his old friend Dr Skreta.

Skreta says Olga is fine and tells Jakub which accommodation block to find her in. He also tells him about a) the famous jazz trumpeter Klima, his problem with the pregnant nurse, and how Skreta is going to play in a concert with him this Thursday. And b) about his latest money-making scheme. You know the rich American, Bartleff? He paints oil pictures. Skreta is trying to persuade Bartleff to let him become his agent and sell the paintings to gullible ladies at the spa, and take a commission.

Jakub shakes his head. He’s known Skreta since school, and he is continually coming up with hare-brained schemes.

We are introduced to Olga. She is bright but not excessively so. She fusses and frets about her appearance and figure. She is called out of the pool by Nurse Ruzena who she cordially dislikes. She makes a fuss about what to wear for Jakub, makes a decision then goes to meet him for lunch in the spa dining room. He tells her he’s leaving the country.

She is sad but, as usual, they end up discussing her father. Recently she’s been receiving letters claiming he wasn’t the political innocent Jakub’s brought her up to believe, but himself a hardline communist and arrester of others, till he himself was consumed.

Jakub’s thread introduces the serious themes of History or, to be precise, the tragic history of Czechoslovakia’s early years under communist rule, when some 100,000 opponents of the regime were imprisoned or sent to camps, and there were successive waves of executions of enemies of the state, traitors and saboteurs. Olga’s questions prompt several basic reflections from Jakub:

1. It was all a long time ago. The Farewell Party was published in 1972, 24 years after the 1948 communist coup, and that’s been long enough for Jakub to reflect that the younger generation can have no idea what it was like and, indeed, even people like himself who lived through it, are starting to forget what it was really like.

‘Time flies so fast, and the past is becoming harder and harder to understand.’ (p.60)

2. And, cynically, he remarks that if he’s learned anything from the experience of living through those times, it’s that, most people spend most of their lives living in a small bubble of family and work, but if History intervenes, and if the situation becomes stressed and difficult, then people will do anything to survive. Now the dust has settled, he thinks there was no ultimate difference between the communist authorities who locked up all those innocent people, and the victims. People are people.

There isn’t a person on this planet who is not capable of sending a fellow human being to death without any great pangs of conscience. At least I have never found anyone like that. (p.61)

Cut to Ruzena’s morning at work, where her fellow nurses flock round her and ask how her meeting with the famous trumpeter went. They are disappointed when she says he’s persuaded her to terminate the pregnancy. One of them gets a tube of pills out of a drawer and gives it to Ruzena, tranquilisers to calm her nerves.

Exiting the building she is again confronted by her young man, Franta, who begs her to be more friendly and loving to him. But Ruzena has set her sights high, on a national celebrity, o Klima, and tells Franta to bugger off. She tells him he’s driving her frantic, he’ll drive her to suicide if he keeps on harassing her like this! (p.66)

Back in Olga’s room, Olga and Jakub continue their conversation. He tells her about his friend Dr Skreta and his eccentric ideas. On an impulse he pulls out the blue pill, the suicide pill, and explains how Dr Skreta made it for him with no questions asked, just before Jakub was hauled off to prison. (He was lucky; he only served one year.)

Blue symbolism The colour blue recurs in key symbols. The sky is blue above this rather fairy tale spa. The mysterious halo in Bartleff’s room is blue. And the pill of death is blue.

The dog squad

As well as an irritating young boyfriend, Ruzena also has an embarrassing old dad, who has joined some cockamamy squad of old codgers who have formed a ‘squad’ to round up all the stray dogs running wild in the town who are pooing and peeing everywhere, or so they claim.

The importance of this for the plot is that it triggers the deep dislike between Jakub and Ruzena. For Ruzena has just finished her shift and is walking between buildings, her head full of thoughts about the two worlds she inhabits: the stifling provincial one of the spa, characterised by hordes of fat middle-aged women and hardly any eligible men, only biker losers like Franta – and the big wide glamorous world of Prague and beyond, with which she associates Klima. Throughout the book she vacillates between going along with his request for an abortion, and then in a panic realising having his baby is her only hope for escaping her sad little destiny.

She is in just such a wavering state when she sees her dad and a few of the other dog squad emerging from bushes where they’ve been hunting dogs with long poles with wire nooses at the end. They’ve captured a dachshund. Suddenly Ruzena sees Jakub walking along the pavement towards her. He was sitting with Olga earlier, Olga who she hates for her superior manner. Now Jakub calls to her ‘Come here, don’t be afraid, come to me’ and is startled until, a second later, she realises he is talking to a dog, to a squat ugly bulldog which was behind her. He has completely blanked her in preference for some ugly mutt! The humiliation!

As Jakub picks it up to protect it from the dog hunters, Ruzena steps forward and grabs its collar, telling Jakub she’ll report him to the authorities.

They engage in an absurd tug of war which is also, Kundera points out, no less than a battle between two worldviews: she, driven by resentment and humiliation and anger at her cramped small-town life, burns to take revenge on this smarmy, self-confident, big city intellectual. He, for his part, sees in her exactly the petty-minded, bureaucratic, vengeful, small-minded party zealot who, in their thousands, supervised the arrest, stage trials and imprisonment of him and a hundred thousand like him, epitome of all those ‘prison guards, inquisitors and informers.’ (p.75)

In fact it’s even worse: Ruzena is the type of the bystander who rushes to help the executioner, rushes to pin the victim down so his throat can be cut, and full of pious self-justifying high-minded rhetoric about society and morals – a type who came to prominence in the century of calamity.

In this moment History returns in the form of a man and a woman absurdly tugging at the collar of a mutty old bulldog. Jakub wins, and yanks her hand away, turning and quickly entering the building where Olga lives. For a moment their eyes meet in a look of pure hatred.

Jakub takes the dog up to Olga’s apartment where Dr Skreta arrives and, with his usual confidence, announces the dog is well known, named Bobis, and belongs to a couple a little way out of town. Now he takes Jakub with him to Bartleff’s apartment, explaining on the way his latest hare-brained scheme, which is to ask the American Bartleff to adopt him, Dr Skreta, so that Skreta immediately becomes an American citizen and can travel freely outside Czechoslovakia!

The three men gather for a convivial chat on many subjects. It is now that we explicitly learn that Bartleff believes halos are a consequence of experiencing oneness with the Godhead, divine delight and are, indeed, blue. Doesn’t think this – he knows it (p.78).

Moving on from this eccentric view, they go on to discuss Klima’s predicament, and then the conversation turns to the topic of fertility in general. Jakub, clearly established now as the Cynic, gives a suite of reasons why he thinks human beings should not procreate, climaxing with the Big One, that procreating implies an absolute affirmation of human life which he, personally, after his life experiences, feels unable to give. After all, as even the usually bullish Dr Skreta is forced to admit:

‘Humanity produces an incredible number of idiots.’ (p.92)

Olga leaves her water treatment and finds a note on her door telling her they’re all at Bartleff’s. There she joins Bartleff, Skreta and Jakub for a convivial private diner, brought to them by a waiter (Bartleff is a rich American, remember) during which he holds forth with a pet theory about the religion of the saints, namely that is was built on a thirst for admiration rather than holiness, as such.

Then the meal is interrupted by a beautiful little girl of 12, in a white dress tied with huge bow behind which looks like angel wings, appears to tell Bartleff he has another appointment. About this stage – what with his knowledge of halos and religion and the arrival of this little angel – I began to wonder whether Bartleff would be a redeeming saving angel in the story: whether it would have a truly supernatural element, as all these little symbols and moments suggest…

Bartleff leaves and Olga, with the callousness of youth, dismisses him as a posing self-dramatist. Skreta and Jakub walk her back to room and then go for a stroll under the big August moon. And it is now that Skreta lets Jakub in on a profound secret: all the women he treats for infertility and who get magically pregnant (including Bartleff’s own wife) – he, Skreta, has created a frozen store of his own sperm, and he is inseminating them all with his own seed. He is creating a world of brothers. No end of communist rhetoric craps on about a world of equality, where brothers and sisters share a common interest, and common values. Well, he, Skreta, is taking steps to really bring it about!

But, as so often in Kundera, his interlocutor, Jakub, is miles away, thinking about his conflicted feelings for Olga, and whether to leave tomorrow or not. He only half hears what Skreta tells him, and thinks it’s another one of his hare-brained schemes.

Fourth Day (Thursday – 47 pages)

Mrs Klima knows all about her husband’s infidelities and they drive her wild with jealousy. As soon as he said some communist committee obliged him to play a benefit gig at some spa resort with a pickup band including a doctor, she knew he was lying. Now, Thursday morning finds them in bed and he lies all over again and can see in her face she doesn’t believe a word. She goes to work. She works in a theatre. She used to be a famous actress but fell ill and her stage career ended. Now she asks if she can have the afternoon off. She’s going to take the train to this bloody spa and confront Klima with his lies!

Olga is having her morning dip in the spa pool among all the naked fat middle-aged women when a young dude in jeans walks in, then a few more follow him. They’re a film crew down from Prague, they’re filming a documentary about the spa. Olga is outraged, gets out and flings a towel round her, before storming off to her cubicle, leaving the woman supervising the pool, nurse Ruzena, fuming.

Jakub has been persuaded to stay on at the spa for an extra day. Dr Skreta has told him that the bulldog which he saved from the dog squad belongs to a young couple who live out in a village. So he drives the dog back to their owners, a young couple with a baby. They’re grateful and give him lunch and present their squawling new baby. What a big nose it’s got, rather like Dr Skreta’s comic banana nose. Hang on! Jakub asks if they were treated by Dr Skreta? ‘Yes! How did he know.’ So maybe Skreta’s hare-brained scheme about breeding a little generation of brothers isn’t mad after all. Maybe he really has been treating all the women’s fertility problems by impregnating them with  his own semen.

For Franta, Ruzena is the only girl he’s ever slept with, she made him a man, she is his world. To watch her swanning off with this big city musician makes him furious. He finishes a fridge repair job (that’s his work) and motorbikes into the spa, heading for the concert hall to watch Klima practice for that night’s gig. For the rest of the day he will be Klima’s shadow.

Jakub drives back to the roadside restaurant where he’s arranged to meet Olga. He doesn’t notice Klima’s car there or Franta’s motorbike. Klima is waiting impatiently for Ruzena and when she arrives he guides her impatiently to a table by the window. She’s been realising Klima is lying to her and begun to be full of righteous indignation. Klima grasps her hand and is half way through telling her how much she loves him when she announces that she’s changed her mind: she’s going to have the baby after all. Klima’s world collapses around him. Glancing out the window she sees Franta peeking out at them from behind some bushes. God, he’s following her everywhere. Feeling harassed she remembers the tube of pills her nurse friend gave her, pulls it out and opens it and pops one of the blue tranquilisers. Klima takes both her hands in his and begins some long speech and then it crosses his mind to take her for a cruise, maybe being in the car will bring back the mood of yesterday.

So up they get and leave. Jakub has been watching all this from across the restaurant and now goes over to the vacated table (the one with the best view in the place). He notices the vial of blue pills Ruzena has left on the table and picks it up and idly plays with it before opening it and being struck how the pills inside are the identical colour as the famous suicide pill Dr Skreta made for him. He gets the suicide pill out. He toys with it in his hand. Playfully he slips it inside Ruzena’s glass vial.

And just at the exact moment Ruzena appears at the table asking for her pills back. She’d got all the way to Klima’s car then realised she’d forgotten them. Jakub hesitates. Ruzena insists. They both recognise each other as the antagonists over the lost dog. Their hatred revives. She reaches out for the vial and he moves his hand up out of reach while he blusteringly tries to think of an excuse not to give them up. But Ruzena screams at him to hand them over, and suddenly something snaps in him. Coldly and ceremoniously, Jakub hands over the vial with the poison pill in it.

For the next seventy or so pages of the book, whenever we come back to Jakub, he will be agonising that he has just condemned the young nurse to death and that – given his political history – this makes him no better at all than the inquisitors and executioners who murdered his friends.

Mrs Klima gets a train to the spa to spy on her friends and is pleasantly surprised to come across the film crew who so upset Olga. They are old friends, they persuade her to come for a lunchtime drink.

On the drive it occurs to Klima that what might persuade Nurse Ruzena that he loves her would be if he made love to her again, if they reconnected on a primal level. Come and see me after the concert, he says, and drops her off.

Ruzena is walking through town at a loss what to do when he hears a voice calling. It’s the three-man camera crew who she let into the pool this morning and so upset Olga. They call her to join them and the pretty woman with them (Klima’s wife).

Jakub hurries his meal with Olga to an end and then rushes to the concert hall where he finds Skreta and Klima rehearsing. He asks if either of them have seen Ruzena, which they haven’t. Suddenly it dawns on him that this is the fulfilment of a deep unconscious wish. He is now proving his most cynical tenet true: there is no difference between the persecutors and the victims. He is thrilled to be murdering one of the petty-minded little bullies. And at the same time he is horrified by himself.

In the nook at the outside pub the three-man film crew are chatting up the two women, the director rubbing Mrs Klima’s thigh with his, while the cameraman puts his arm round Ruzena and accidentally-on-purpose touches her breast. Things are heading towards a drunken orgy when Ruzena suddenly sits bolt upright. She has recognised Kamila as being Klima’s husband. Suddenly it feels like the whole universe is mocking her. The men laugh at her sudden outburst of propriety, and she is longing, longing to tell them she carries the fruit of the loins of oh-so-high-and-mighty Kamila the famous actress. She reaches into her handbag to get the vial of tranquilisers, when she feels a strong hand grip her wrist.

It is Bartleff. His intervention just as Ruzena was about to pop the suicide pill feels a little supernatural, and emphasises even more his magic and mysterious powers. A big, confident man, Bartleff sits down with the crew – who make the resentment they feel at this intrusion prety obvious – and takes charge of proceedings, asking the boy waiter for the best wine in the house, insisting the owner comes to join in a toast, and toasting Ruzena’s beauty. Suddenly she feels transformed from a squalid small town girl to an angel.

Bartleff gets up and accompanies Ruzena off. The party atmosphere of the others collapses. Kamila feels suddenly revolted by the film crew, gets up and leaves.

The concert Jakub takes Olga to the concert. As they settle in, he sees Bartleff and Ruzena sitting not far away and believes more than ever that things have been arranged by a malicious God to torment him. The concert starts and, after a few numbers, Jakub begins to stand up, so he can go and talk to them and warn them about the pill, but at that moment a) Olga grabs his hand and tells him to sit down b) Bartleff and Ruzena themselves get up and swiftly exit the hall. The moment has gone.

Klima had noticed Bartleff and Ruzena coming in and felt confident she was there and he could see her after the show. But when he notices Bartleff and Ruzena exiting, his energy slips, he feels deflated: he just wants the concert to be over. But Dr Skreta is drumming like crazy behind him and won’t let him stop.

Bartleff takes Ruzena back to his apartment and tells her he loves her, he has always loved her. His words are like honey, like magic, she warms and stirs and for the first time for as long as she can remember is not full of self-hatred and doubt. As Bartleff describes how beautiful she is, Ruzena begins to believe it. As he begins to strip her, her body turns to him like a sunflower towards the sun.

As the concert ends Jakub takes Olga back to her room. His mind is obsessed with Ruzena and the pill and he goes round and round in circles trying to decide whether he is a murderer or a hypocrite or an angel of death or the instrument of some higher purpose. He hardly notices when Olga leans forward and kisses him.

Mrs Klima elbows her way through to the dressing room after the concert. She is convinced her husband is having an affair, and expects the arrival of some dollybird any moment, and so is watching him like a hawk. But Klima just seems to be tired, and tells Dr Skreta and the bassist the same. Tired and just wants to go to his room.

Olga kisses Jakub again and leads the absent-minded older man over to the couch where she starts loosening his shirt.

Franta was at the entire concert and now tails the trumpeter to the dressing room, hangs around, and then follows him towards his temporary flat, but… where the devil is Ruzena? Franta just knows she was going to meet the trumpeter after the show, so where’s she got to?

Three acts of love

Kamila and Klima walk to the building and apartment Dr Skreta has arranged for them to stay in overnight. It’s in the same corridor as Olga’s and Bartleff’s. In one room Bartleff is showing Ruzena the most wonderful night of her life; not because of his sexual technique as such, but because he has a magical way of really making her feel beautiful and loved.

Next door Olga has stripped and laid on the couch and Jakub is quietly appalled to find himself in the position of having to make love to her lest he embarrass and humiliate her on the last time they’ll ever spend together. Reluctantly he tries to rise to the occasion, despite a world of details reminding him that she is his ward and charge.

And in the third bedroom, Kamila slowly strips for Klima but he knows she is only doing it, provocatively, because she is convinced he had some erotic escapade lined up. He hates her jealousy and, in his bitterness, his penis shrinks away from her ministrations, convincing Kamila even more that it is not she her husband had been planning to make love to that night.

Meanwhile, Ruzena has never known love like it. She realises she has her whole life ahead of her. There is no need to rush into anything. She falls asleep snuggled in Bartleff’s arms and, when she wakes in the middle of the night, notices the dark room lit by a strange blueish glow. Is he a saint?

Fifth Day (Friday – 34 pages)

Next morning Klima gets up early to go and find Ruzena but she isn’t at her work, or in her dormitory. Unknown to him he is tailed everywhere by Franta, who’s been waiting outside Ruzena’s dormitory all night, frantic with jealousy. Eventually, Ruzena exits from Bartleff’s apartment and is confronted in quick succession by both men, Klima desperate that she is going to come with him to the abortion committee at 9am as they agreed yesterday.

Jakub wakes and immediately calls the bathhouse asking for Ruzena. They say she’s busy right now. An enormous weight lifts from his shoulders, and he thinks: what if the pill Dr Skreta made him was harmless? Yes, that would be the act of a true friend. And he spends a page expanding on this idea that Skreta, the true friend, would never have given him poison. Phew! What a relief!

Klima waits in the waiting room outside the spa pools where Ruzena works till 9. She emerges and he escorts her in silence to the abortion clinic.

Jakub dresses and tiptoes out of the room without waking Olga. He bumps into Mrs Klima who is just leaving their room. They introduce each other and walk downstairs, cross the road into the park. Jakub is absolutely staggered by Kamila’s beauty. Now, on the verge of leaving his homeland forever, he is overcome by a sense that he has never understood the world of art beauty and culture. Suddenly, on impulse, he tells her he is going away, he is leaving the country, he is never coming back, and that she is the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. Then he turns and walks away leaving her standing, watching him, till he disappears from view.

The abortion clinic is grim. Abortion is frowned on in the communist state. The country needs more patriotic citizens. The waiting room is plastered with posters encouraging procreation and praising motherhood.

Jakub returns to Olga’s room. She’s awake now, and inordinately pleased with herself. She is no longer a passive creation of men, somebody’s daughter, somebody’s ward. She has asserted her personhood. Jakub sadly says he really is leaving. He offers to walk her to the pool. On the way she comes over as so gushingly girly, so sweetly indifferent to the fact that he’s leaving his homeland forever, that he realises he has, once again, misjudged the situation. The only thing he knows, is that he knows nothing.

The meeting of the little abortion committee should be grim but is comical. Dr Skreta chairs the session, flanked by two chunky communist party matrons, and he has their measure to perfection. He puts on a tone of aggrieved sternness, and reads the unhappy couple a lecture about the joys of procreation and the needs of the socialist state etc. The matrons nod heavily. But then, with a sigh, he turns to the psychiatric report saying Mrs Klima is in a delicate state, a divorce might kill her. And we don’t want young nurse Ruzena to suffer the indignity of single motherhood. And so, with a heavy heart, Skreta declares that, alas and alack, he is going to sign the form for the abortion to go ahead. The matrons sternly lecture Klima and the nurse and then in turn sign the form. He goes to get up but they say, ‘Not so fast’. They dismiss Ruzena but announce that Klima has to remain behind to ‘volunteer’ to give blood. Cheap at half the price.

Finally, they allow Ruzena to leave, but she finds an angry Franta waiting outside, who blasts her with accusations and follows her down the stairs despite seeing she is distraught.

Having made all his goodbyes, Jakub crosses the spa, and comes across a group of schoolchildren being taken on a nature trail. Looking closely he sees that more than one of them looks like a little Dr Skreta and feels giddy, feels a sense of unreality. All his life he has been close to the centre of things, to the heart of the action, to politics and weighty affairs. What if all that was nonsense? What if the real beating heart of a country, a nation, of the thing we call reality, is miles away and other than we can possibly imagine?

Furious Franta follows Ruzena across the spa and into the hall where she works, up the stairs and along the corridor and into the hall lined with beds where women patients rest in cotton dressing gowns after their dip, shouting all the way that it is his baby and how dare she seek to terminate it. (Franta is under the misapprehension that Ruzena is pregnant with his baby and has somehow paid or blackmailed the trumpeter to pose as its father in order to secure a termination. The much worse reality hasn’t dawned on him.)

At the climax of their argument Ruzena reaches into her handbag, pulls out the vial of tranquilisers, fetches out the one at the top and pops it into her mouth, moments later feels a stab of pain in her tummy, bends double, and falls to the floor, dead!

The aftermath of nurse Ruzena’s mystery death

Franta gets even more hysterical and starts shouting that he killed her, it was him, he drove her to it. Another nurse runs to investigate then goes off to get a doctor. A dozen semi-naked women patients cluster round the figure on the floor. Everyone is pricked with curiosity to see death.

At the very same moment, Jakub is making his goodbyes to his old friend Dr Skreta. He decides to come clean about Olga’s father. He was not the persecuted hero everyone believes him to have been, on the contrary. It was Olga’s father who sent him, Jakub, his best friend, to prison. In fact Olga’s father thought he was sending Jakub to his execution. Olga’s dad felt very heroic about it, because it showed that he could put the principles of the revolution above personal concerns.

Six months later he himself was arrested, tried and executed, and Jakub was eventually released. This revelation leads Skreta to make a complicated analysis of Jakub’s mixed motives in looking after the girl, but Jakub disagrees with it, and then they’re both getting into a big argument when the phone rings, Skreta picks it up and learns there’s an emergency over at the baths, he is needed.

Crucially, they don’t tell him that nurse Ruzena has dropped dead, and so he doesn’t tell Jakub. Instead they do a big handshake and part for ever, walk down the corridor and out of the building, Jakub makes for his car, and Dr Skreta hurries to the halls.

A police inspector has arrived at the scene. He is standing over the prostrate body interviewing witnesses and trying to keep the frantic Franta at bay, who keeps on yelling that he did it, he drove her to suicide. (And indeed, for the rest of his life, he will carry this conviction like the mark of Cain on his forehead.

There is now some sharp comedy for Dr Skreta demonstrates his superhuman ability to grasp a situation and say the best thing. Since Franta is so loudly claiming the baby was his, Skreta immediately falls in with this lie, and then explains to the inspector that Klima had accompanied her to the abortion clinic because he was doing a kindly deed and volunteering to appear to be the father, so that Ruzena wouldn’t be forced to marry Franta.

Jakub drives off in blissful ignorance of how his chance gesture with the poison pill played out. He spends three densely argued and highly intellectual pages worrying about the meaning of his act, and comparing it unfavourably with Raskolnikov’s famous murder in Crime and Punishment. Here, as elsewhere throughout his works, a Kundera character reflects that whereas in the old days life was heavy and tragic, now it seems almost unbearably light, as if it can blow away in a puff of wind. (p.171)

Klima has finally finished giving blood and walks briskly over to Dr Skreta’s office to find the doctor out. When the doctor finally walks in looking a bit ruffled, Klima grabs his hand and thanks him profusely, for playing such a great set on the drums, but for stage-managing the abortion committee so smoothly. Well, it turns out not to matter since Ruzena is dead.

Klima continues shaking the doctor’s hand, his mouth agape, his brain trying to process this news, which lifts the nightmare burden he’s been labouring under for so long. Quickly, Skreta fills him in. It looked like suicide, and her boyfriend has been telling everyone that a) he’s the father and b) she threatened to kill herself if he didn’t leave her alone. So – Skreta explains to Klima – on the spot he devised the story that Klima had done the chivalrous thing in accompanying Ruzena to the clinic, but was in no other way involved.

He’s in the clear! They shake hands a bit more then Klima leaves the office and staggers back to the room to meet his wife. He kisses her face and neck and shoulders and then sinks to the floor and kisses the hem of her skirt, God he is so grateful, more grateful than words can express. They carry the bags down into the car, and he asks her to drive back to Prague and all the way there her beauty fills the car like a fine fragrance.

But then we go over to her mind, and we see her slowly realising, for the first time, that maybe the only thing that holds her to Klima is her jealousy. But that strange man who stopped her in the park and simply told her she was beautiful before walking off… he made her think. She is beautiful, and strong and independent. If she overcame her obsessive jealousy of Klima what would be left? Precious little. For the first time she can envision a future without him. And she smiles.

And Klima, completely misinterpreting her smile, looks over at her smiling and is filled with love and relief.

The inspector

The last ten pages are taken up with a mixture of broad comedy, clever paradoxes and cunning reversals. Olga arrives in Bartleff’s apartment to find him, the inspector and Dr Skreta discussing the death. Bartleff is absolutely firm that the night before nurse Ruzena had undergone a spiritual experience unlike any other in her life, and had seen a world full of new possibilities, and that suicide is absolutely the last thing she would have done.

Several of his remarks irk the inspector who decides to put the American in his place by devoting a page to demonstrating how all the existing evidence could in fact be stacked up to prove in a court of law that Bartleff was the murderer, the motive being to shut the nurse up before Bartleff’s wife arrives later that day. A tense silence. Then the inspector laughs. He was just showing how evidence in such an ambiguous case can be twisted anyway you want (which makes a distant link with Jakub’s remarks at several places about ‘revolutionary justice’ which incarcerated him and thousands like him).

The inspector shakes hands and leaves and Bartleff goes to his room to change. Alone with Dr Skreta, suddenly Olga remembers the blue pill, the suicide pill, which Jakub showed her, could… might it… was that… She asks him straight out: Did he ever prepare a poison pill for Jakub?

‘That’s absolute nonsense. I never gave him anything of the kind,’ Dr Skreta replied with great firmness. Then Bartleff returned from the other room, wearing a different necktie, and Olga took her leave of both men. (p.182)

I love Dr Skreta.

And the end belongs to him. On the penultimate page, as he and Bartleff are strolling to the railway station to meet their wives, Skreta hesitantly asks if Bartleff can adopt him. Initially surprised, Bartleff lets himself be talked into it and announces it will be great fun.

And then, as the two wives get off the train and walk with their husbands, Mrs Bartleff shows them all her new baby. And they all comment on how very like Dr Skreta he looks, ha ha ha. But of course the reader knows this must be because Mrs Bartleff is yet another of his patients who he inseminated with his sperm. The baby really is his son! But also his brother, since Bartleff has just adopted him. And so the two happy couples walk from the train station towards the resort, laughing and joking about the brotherhood of man under a big autumn moon.

Thoughts

Clever, isn’t it? Very clever. Very beautifully assembled. Like a Swiss clock, with all the parts fitting together just so.

The Farewell Party is funny and a little mysterious (the blue halo and the saint) and thought provoking (Jakub’s political musings about human nature and betrayal), but in the end, there’s no getting around the fact that the central premise is how to shut up and repress a difficult woman, so all concerned can go back to their philandering ways – and that the only solution turns out to be killing her.

I came to really like Dr Skreta’s combination of eccentricity with his whip-smart ability to manage situations (the abortion committee, his immediate exculpation of Klima when he is called to the dead nurse). He was the purest comic creation, not least in his plan to create a real brotherhood of man by inseminating all his patients.

Jakub is a more complex creation, like a bitter ghost overthinking everything but, as always, I warmed to his accounts of the political repression of the country, and of the grim logic of revolutions i.e. people betray their best friends in order to show their revolutionary zeal.

I hoped right to the bitter end that the mystique surrounding Bartleff (blue halo, painter of saints, big hearty ability to put people at ease, the angelic little girl who appears at his dinner party…) would mean that he would somehow, magically, be able to revive Ruzena. After all, the point is made at the start of the novel that he has just painted a portrait of a saint named Lazarus, named after the man Jesus raised from the dead. I can’t overcome a deep sense of disappointment that this didn’t happen, that he didn’t somehow raise Ruzena from the dead… Maybe, on reflection, that is the point.

Klima is a cipher – the harassed philanderer. It’s often the minor characters which intrigue and linger in your mind. Mrs Klima – Kamila – doesn’t appear much but when she does her jealousy, her own status as once-famous actress, and her dawning realisation that she might be able to go it alone, these make for a potent character. And Olga is a minor character but has a lingering effect: Jakub is appalled that she takes their act of love so lightly; but in this she represents precisely the lightness and inconsequentiality of the young generation.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

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

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

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

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

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

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

The text is divided into three big parts:

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

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

Conquest of the Aztecs and Incas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The role of European diseases

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

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

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

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

The geographic limits of Spanish settlement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How the Reconquista mindset was applied to the New World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theories of conquest and bureaucratic structures

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

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

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

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

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

How the silver was squandered

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Related links

Related reviews, mainly about Mexico

The Hundred Years War by Desmond Seward (1978)

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

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

The hundred years war lasted more than a hundred years

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

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

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

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

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

Historical origins of the war

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

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

Plantagenet possessions in France in 1154 (source: Wikipedia)

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

Edward III’s claim to the throne of France

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A maze of powers and alliances

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

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

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

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

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

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

Famous highpoints

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

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

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

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

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

Famous characters

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

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

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

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

Seward’s account

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The chevauchée – death and destruction

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

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

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

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

Thus:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Loot

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

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

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

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

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

Mercenaries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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


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The Plantagenets (2) by Dan Jones (2012)

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

Episodes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Henry III and Prince Edward

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

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

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

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

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

Edward’s career divides into roughly four parts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edward II (1307-27)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edward III (1327-77)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Black Death

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

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

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

Richard II (1377-1399)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First crisis 1386-88

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Second crisis 1397-99

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Plantagenet Legacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Wilton Diptych

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

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

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


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