Reginald by Saki (1904)

Hector

Hector Hugh Munro was born in 1870 in Burma, then still part of the British Empire. He was the son of Charles Augustus Munro, an Inspector General for the Indian Imperial Police, and Mary Frances Mercer, daughter of Rear Admiral Samuel Mercer. Her nephew, Cecil William Mercer, later became a famous novelist under the pen-name ‘Dornford Yates’. So a posh and bookish family.

His mother died when Hector was just two and he, along with his siblings, was sent to Devon to be raised by their grandmother and aunts in a strict and puritanical household. As a result, eccentric or mean aunts loom large in Saki’s fiction and often come to a sticky end.

Susan Mebberley was a charming woman, but she was also an aunt. (The Chronicles of Clovis)

Hector was tutored by governesses until sent to boarding school in Bedford. When his father retired from Burma, he returned to England and took Hector and his sister on tours of fashionable European spas and resorts, which also crop up in Saki’s stories.

In 1893 Hector followed his father into the Indian Imperial Police and was posted to Burma. Two years later, having contracted malaria, he resigned and returned to England.

Back in England Hector developed a new career as a journalist and began writing for newspapers like the Westminster Gazette, the Daily Express, the Morning Post, and magazines such as the Bystander and Outlook.

In 1900 he published a serious historical study, The Rise of the Russian Empire. From 1902 to 1908 Munro worked as a foreign correspondent for the Morning Post in the Balkans, Warsaw, Russia (where he witnessed Bloody Sunday on 22 January 1905) and Paris. He then gave up foreign reporting and settled in London.

Saki

In 1904 Hector published a slender volume of stories and sketches under the pen name ‘Saki’. Nobody is certain where this comes from: it could be a reference to the cup-bearer in the popular Victorian poem, The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam. Or it might be a reference to the South American monkey of the same name. Or it might be that his stories are laced with dry sarcasm. Or maybe he just liked the sound of the word.

Reginald

Saki’s first volume, Reginald, is extremely short, comprising twenty short texts of barely two pages each, which had all been first published as snippets in the Westminster Gazette. They are not really stories: each one is more like a topic on which we hear the divine fop, dandy and man-about-town, Reginald, giving his langorous, witty opinions, sometimes to the unnamed narrator, sometimes in dialogue with ‘the Duchess’ or just ‘the Other’, sometimes in plain declamatory prose.

The only thing Reginald cares about is his appearance. He fusses about ties and buttonholes. Even the thought of holding extended conversations exhausts the poor dear. He delights in scandalising aunts and a recurrent character, The Duchess, with deliberately paradoxical and unconventional opinions.

After a few hours in the company of the camp and calculating frivolousness of young Reginald, it comes as no surprise to learn that Saki was gay. Reginald’s character, style and flow of witty epigrams is saturated in the persona and style of Oscar Wilde.

Reginald closed his eyes with the elaborate weariness of one who has rather nice eyelashes and thinks it useless to conceal the fact.

By far the best, the funniest, and the most complete sketch is The Woman Who Told The Truth which contains probably his most quoted line: ‘The cook was a good cook, as cooks go; and as cooks go she went.’

The brief pieces are titled:

1. Reginald

The unnamed narrator takes Reginald to an upper-class garden party where he scandalises everyone he comes in contact with, teaching the children how to make cocktails, mocking the Colonel’s story of how he introduced golf to India, discussing a scandalous French novel with the Archdeacon’s wife. By the time the narrator catches up with him:

I found everyone talking nervously and feverishly of the weather and the war in South Africa, except Reginald, who was reclining in a comfortable chair with the dreamy, far-away look that a volcano might wear just after it had desolated entire villages.

The narrator plays his trump card by telling Reginald a sea-mist is coming in. Reginald sits bolt upright and agrees to beat a hasty retreat to their carriage, for fear that the mist might undo the elaborate curl of hair over his right eyebrow.

2. Reginald on Christmas Presents

Why people are so lamentably bad at giving presents. Really, there ought to be special training in the art of gift-giving:

Then there are aunts. They are always a difficult class to deal with in the matter of presents. The trouble is that one never catches them really young enough. By the time one has educated them to an appreciation of the fact that one does not wear red woollen mittens in the West End, they die, or quarrel with the family, or do something equally inconsiderate. That is why the supply of trained aunts is always so precarious.

3. Reginald on the Academy

Meaning the Royal Academy of Art, for which Reginald affects a fashionable disdain, its sole purpose being to have something to talk about to the tedious country cousins when they come up to Town. As to the actual pictures:

‘The pictures are all right, in their way; after all, one can always look at them if one is bored with one’s surroundings, or wants to avoid an imminent acquaintance.’

In his continual effort to scandalise with unexpected paradox, Reginald reminds the reader of a slightly cut-price Oscar Wilde:

‘What were you talking about? Oh, pictures. Personally, I rather like them; they are so refreshingly real and probable, they take one away from the unrealities of life.’

4. Reginald at the Theatre

A dialogue between Reginald and the Duchess, in which she asks the questions and he supplies the punchlines:

‘Of course you are quite irreligious?’
‘Oh, by no means. The fashion just now is a Roman Catholic frame of mind with an Agnostic conscience: you get the mediæval picturesqueness of the one with the modern conveniences of the other.’

Which leads into the Duchess’s earnest defence of the British Empire and Reginald’s debonaire mockery of it.

5. Reginald’s Peace Poem

A mockery of poetry as Reginald explains how he’s setting about writing a poem for peace.

‘You must have angels in a Peace poem and I know dreadfully little about their habits.’

6. Reginald’s Choir Treat

The vicar’s grown-up daughter in the village where Reginald’s unworldly family still live, is encouraged to undertake his moral reformation. Obviously she fails when it comes to verbal exchanges and so shifts tack and asks him to help with the village children’s choir. Unfortunately, she then takes to her bed with a cold. With a glint in his eye, Reginald leads the children to a stream, gets them to strip off and bathe, then decorate each other with flowers, and process mostly naked through the village leading a goat, in a delightful homage to the pagan world. Nude Greek paganism.

7. Reginald on Worries

To my mind, education is an absurdly over-rated affair. At least, one never took it very seriously at school, where everything was done to bring it prominently under one’s notice. Anything that is worth knowing one practically teaches oneself, and the rest obtrudes itself sooner or later.

8. Reginald on House-Parties

One never gets to know one’s hosts and one’s hosts never get to know you and if they do then quite often, as in the unfortunate affair of the peacock, they take a decided turn against you.

So I got up the next morning at early dawn—I know it was dawn, because there were lark-noises in the sky, and the grass looked as if it had been left out all night…

9. Reginald at the Carlton

Discussing travel with the Duchess:

‘And, after all, they charge so much for excess luggage on some of those foreign lines that it’s really an economy to leave one’s reputation behind one occasionally.’

As usual, even in comedy, these old stories reveal that some social issues are with us forever.

‘And the youngest daughter, who was intended for the American marriage market, has developed political tendencies, and writes pamphlets about the housing of the poor. Of course it’s a most important question, and I devote a good deal of time to it myself in the mornings.’

10. Reginald on Besetting Sins (The Woman Who Told The Truth)

There was once (said Reginald) a woman who told the truth. Not all at once, of course, but the habit grew upon her gradually, like lichen on an apparently healthy tree. She had no children—otherwise it might have been different. It began with little things, for no particular reason except that her life was a rather empty one, and it is so easy to slip into the habit of telling the truth in little matters…

This ironical inversion of the usual values is conceived and delivered with style and aplomb. And talking of how some things never change, Southern trains were, apparently, as proverbial for their lateness in 1900 as they are in 2020.

The revenge of an elder sister may be long in coming, but, like a South-Eastern express, it arrives in its own good time.

11. Reginald’s Drama

Reginald plans a play which would open with the sound and scent of wolves wafted across the footlight such as to make nervous Lady Whortleberry scream, It would then become a tragedy such as that of the mismatched Mudge-Jervises, where he was always absent at sports and she was always absent doing Good Works for the Poor, and when they did finally meet up after 18 months of marriage, they discovered they had nothing in common. If and when the characters could think of nothing brilliant to say about marriage or the War Office, they could open a window and listen to the howling of the wolves. ‘But that would be very seldom.’

This harping on about wolves is one of the first appearances of the large wild animals which would become the signature note of his most effective stories.

12. Reginald on Tariffs

Talking about tariffs, the lift-boy, who reads extensively between the landings, says it won’t do to tax raw commodities. What, exactly, is a raw commodity? Mrs. Van Challaby says men are raw commodities till you marry them.

13. Reginald’s Christmas Revel

Reginald describes a perfectly beastly Christmas he spent as a house guest at the Babswolds’ once, where he took his revenge by playing a particularly corking practical joke.

I don’t like to play games of skill for milk-chocolate, so I invented a headache and retired from the scene. I had been preceded a few minutes earlier by Miss Langshan-Smith, a rather formidable lady, who always got up at some uncomfortable hour in the morning, and gave you the impression that she had been in communication with most of the European Governments before breakfast. There was a paper pinned on her door with a signed request that she might be called particularly early on the morrow. Such an opportunity does not come twice in a lifetime. I covered up everything except the signature with another notice, to the effect that before these words should meet the eye she would have ended a misspent life, was sorry for the trouble she was giving, and would like a military funeral. A few minutes later I violently exploded an air-filled paper bag on the landing, and gave a stage moan that could have been heard in the cellars. Then I pursued my original intention and went to bed. The noise those people made in forcing open the good lady’s door was positively indecorous; she resisted gallantly, but I believe they searched her for bullets for about a quarter of an hour, as if she had been an historic battlefield.

14. Reginald’s Rubaiyat

Reginald outrages the Duchess with steadily more outlandish versions of verses he composes for her album.

15. The Innocence of Reginald

Reginald announces he is going to write ‘a book of personal reminiscences’ and leave nothing out, which prompts an absolute panic among his acquaintance. It prompts a prolonged argument with Miriam Klopstock all the way through a play at His Majesty’s Theatre.

She leaned back and snorted, ‘You’re not the boy I took you for,’ as though she were an eagle arriving at Olympus with the wrong Ganymede.

Bons mots

Reginald in his wildest lapses into veracity never admits to being more than twenty-two.

‘People may say what they like about the decay of Christianity; the religious system that produced green Chartreuse can never really die.’

‘To have reached thirty,’ said Reginald, ‘is to have failed in life.’

‘I agree with you.’
‘I wish you wouldn’t. I’ve a sweet temper, but I can’t stand being agreed with.’

No really provident woman lunches regularly with her husband if she wishes to burst upon him as a revelation at dinner. He must have time to forget; an afternoon is not enough.

‘Lift-boys always have agèd mothers; shows such nice feeling on their part, I think.’

‘There are certain fixed rules that one observes for one’s own comfort. For instance, never be flippantly rude to any inoffensive grey-bearded stranger that you may meet in pine forests or hotel smoking-rooms on the Continent. It always turns out to be the King of Sweden.’

‘I always say beauty is only sin deep.’

‘You promised you would never mention it; don’t you ever keep a promise?’ When people had stopped glaring in our direction, I replied that I’d as soon think of keeping white mice.

‘Her frocks are built in Paris, but she wears them with a strong English accent. So public-spirited of
her. I think she must have been very strictly brought up, she’s so desperately anxious to do the wrong thing correctly.’

‘A woman who leaves her cook never wholly recovers her position in Society.’

‘I hate posterity — it’s so fond of having the last word.’

Saki and Kipling

A few years ago I read most of Kipling’s works and was interested to see him referenced a couple of times in these brief skits. As the son of an Imperial official, born in India and sent to prep school in Devon and forced to stay with uncongenial ‘carers’, Hector’s early life was eerily similar to Kipling’s and they were only five years apart in age (Kipling born 1865, Saki 1870).

And yet Saki was of a completely different temperament and instead of respecting the older writer, he enjoys satirising him and his earnest embodiment of Imperial values.

Kipling or someone has described somewhere the look a foundered camel gives when the caravan moves on and leaves it to its fate. The peptonised reproach in the good lady’s eyes brought the passage vividly to my mind.

In Reginald at the theatre the Duchess tries to provoke the sceptical Reginald into admitting that, despite his pose of elaborate cynicism, he at least believes in patriotism. What’s interesting is the way she expresses herself in Kiplingesque clichés and quotes.

‘But there are other things,’ she continued, ‘which I suppose are to a certain extent sacred even to you. Patriotism, for instance, and Empire, and Imperial responsibility, and blood-is-thicker-than-water, and all that sort of thing… Oh, well, “dominion over palm and pine,” you know,’ quoted
the Duchess hopefully; ‘of course we mustn’t forget that we’re all part of the great Anglo-Saxon Empire.’

In among her jumble of platitudes she is quoting Kipling’s most eminent poem, Recessional

God of our fathers, known of old,
Lord of our far-flung battle line,
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

It’s interesting evidence of the way Kipling’s phrases had penetrated the culture; the way in which a sub-Kipling Imperial worldview was just part of the respectable mindset of the day.

Elsewhere, Reginald jokes about a couple who lived very happily apart, him serving overseas, until they accidentally met one day and discovered they profoundly disagreed on ‘the Fiscal Question’ (a reference, I think, to Joseph Chamberlain’s campaign for tariff reform designed to bind the British Empire together into one trading bloc) and so are divorcing and trying to agree custody of the Persian cats. Reginald is considering turning the story into a drama mockingly titled ‘The Price They Paid For Empire’. In other words, part of the comedy derives from deliberately ridiculing and belittling everything Kipling held dear.

Elsewhere Saki elaborately guys Kipling’s genuinely creepy horror story, At The End of The Passage, when Reginald sneaks off from an after-dinner party game of charades to go and gamble with the servants, later giving his excuse that he was at the end of the passage. ‘I never did like Kipling,’ comments his hostess, Mrs Babwold, so it is assumed that not only the characters but the reader will recognise that phrase, the end of the passage, as the title of a Kipling story.

There are quite a few references to ‘the war’ – for example, the peace poem Reginald is composing relates to the ongoing conflict, and elsewhere he jokes:

‘And nowadays there are always the Johannesbourgeois, who bring a Cape-to-Cairo atmosphere with them — what may be called the Rand Manner, I suppose.’

In a play on ‘the Grand manner’. These are all references to the Boer War (1899 to 1902) and show that Saki’s stories are very aware of their times, are more full of topical and contemporary references than people think.

‘There’s lots more about the blessings of Peace, shall I go on reading it?’
‘If I must make a choice, I think I would rather they went on with the war.’

In its studied frivolity and its awareness of contemporary British politics and international affairs, Saki’s stories are a kind of antidote to everything earnest and manly about Kipling and his circle of Imperial visionaries.

Saki and Oscar Wilde

It’s easy to accuse Saki of being a poor man’s Oscar Wilde and it feels like Reginald owes more or less everything to the dandies of Wilde’s plays and Dorian Grey, except that most of his bon mots are not quite as polished and silvery as Wilde’s. Wilde is an incomparable prose stylist, Saki a lot less so.

Also Saki, despite appearance to the contrary, is firmly embedded in his times, as the references to the Boer War or Tariff Reform suggest, a topicality which becomes dominant in his invasion novel, When William Came. Completely different from Wilde who set his stories in an upper class fairyland. Saki’s stories always have this element of topicality about them.

But this was just the very start of his career. Soon it was to become clear that Saki’s real métier wasn’t wit alone, but the macabre and gruesome dressed as comedy. The Reginald strain remains, and some later stories still consist entirely of dandyish wit, but the best ones are known for the bizarre inclusion of wild animals and the black comedy of bullying aunts coming to grisly ends.


Related links

Saki’s works

  • Reginald (1904)
  • Reginald in Russia, and other sketches (1910)
  • The Chronicles of Clovis (1911)
  • The Unbearable Bassington (novel) (1912)
  • When William Came (novel) (1913)
  • Beasts and Super-Beasts (1914)
  • The Toys of Peace (1919)
  • The Square Egg and Other Sketches (1924)

The Joke by Milan Kundera (1967)

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

Czech history – a postwar snapshot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Themes in Milan Kundera’s fiction

Communism

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

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

Cynicism and the absurd

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

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

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

The personal and the private

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

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

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

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

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

The Joke – structure and style

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

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

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

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

Kundera’s prose style is flat and factual…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thus:

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

See what I mean by a very intellectual author.

The Joke – the plot

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

The fateful postcard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the mining camp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Revenge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jaroslav and the Ride of the King

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kostka’s story

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

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

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

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

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

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

So both were acting under pitiful delusions about the other.

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

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

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

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

Back to Helena

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another view

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

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

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

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

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


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

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

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

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

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

Very Posy by Posy Simmonds (1985)

From 1977 to 1987 Posy Simmonds drew a regular cartoon strip in the Guardian gently mocking the middle-class lifestyles and liberal concerns of a regular cast of a dozen or so fictional characters, centred on:

  • Wendy Weber, a former nurse married to verbose polytechnic sociology lecturer George Weber, and mother of a brood of six children, ranging from little Benji to teenage glamour-puss Belinda
  • Jo Heep, married to tedious, drunk whisky salesman Edmund Heep, and mum to two rebellious teenagers who’ve adopted the punk look
  • Trish Wright, married to philandering advertising executive Stanhope Wright, mother of a young baby

Throughout the period the cartoons were periodically gathered together into books, namely:

  • Mrs Weber’s Diary (1979)
  • True Love (1981)
  • Pick of Posy (1982)
  • Very Posy (1985)
  • Pure Posy (1987)

And these books were themselves gathered together into a huge compendium volume, Mrs Weber’s Omnibus which was published in 2012 and now appears to be the only way to get hold of the cartoons.

Very Posy is the third the series of collections, given that 1981’s True Love was a one-off ‘graphic novel’, loosely based on the schoolgirl crush of one of the characters, Janice Brady, for a regular cast member, tall, suave, philandering advertising executive Stanhope Wright.

Historical timeline

Very Posy brings together 91 Posy cartoon strips from 1981 through to 1985. These were the years when I was a student at university. I looked up a historical timeline of the period and discovered that the key events were:

1981

  • Mrs Thatcher is Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
  • Ronald Reagan is President of America
  • Leonid Brezhnev is leader of the USSR
  • In January the Yorkshire Ripper is caught, bringing to an end a reign of terror over the Yorkshire region where he had murdered 13 women over a five year period
  • The Iran Hostage Crisis (which had started in November 1979) ends in January 1981 with the release of American diplomats in Tehran
  • April 4 – first flight of the Space Shuttle Columbia
  • From April to July there are riots in major British cities, the biggest being the Brixton riot in London, the Handsworth riots in Birmingham, the Chapeltown riot in Leeds and the Toxteth riots in Liverpool.
  • MS-DOS was released by Microsoft along with the first IBM PC
  • On 29 July Lady Diana Spencer married Prince Charles
  • In September 1981 a Welsh group, Women for Life on Earth, arrive at Greenham Common air force base to protest against the decision of the British government to allow cruise missiles to be stored there

1982

  • The first CD player sold in Japan
  • Dutch Elm Disease destroys millions of Elm Trees
  • On Friday 2 April Argentina invades the Falkland Islands, sparking an international crisis and a war with Britain which lasts until British victory on 14 June
  • September, the American centres for Disease Control used the term ‘AIDS’ (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) for the first time.
  • November – Leonid Brezhnev dies and is replaced as leader of the USSR by Yuri Andropov

1983

  • The June 1983 general election returns a Conservative government led by Mrs Thatcher with an increased majority of 188 MPs, against the Labour Party led by Michael Foot
  • What would become the world’s most popular word processing programme, Microsoft Word, is launched.
  • In Ethiopia following the worst drought in history the death toll reaches a staggering 4 million.
  • The US starts deploying Cruise Missiles and Pershing Missiles in Europe at the Greenham Common Air Force Base, prompting the growth of the women-only camp of protestors
  • On Saturday 17 December 1983 members of the Provisional IRA set off a bomb outside Harrods in Knightsbridge, killing three police officers and three civilians, and injuring 90 people.

1984

  • February – Soviet leader Yuri Andropov dies and is replaced by Konstantin Chernenko
  • April – the National Cancer Institute announced they had found the cause of AIDS, the retrovirus HTLV-III
  • DNA profiling developed
  • Apple releases the Macintosh computer.
  • 12 October – the IRA bomb the Grand Hotel in Brighton during the Conservative Party conference in a bid to assassinate Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher narrowly escaped injury, five people were killed and 31 were injured
  • 31 October – Indira Ghandi, first woman Prime Minister of India, is assassinated by her own bodyguard and Sikh nationalists
  • 6 November Ronald Reagan re-elected President of the United States, defeating Democrat Walter Mondale.
  • Following the widespread famine in Ethiopia many of the top British and Irish pop musicians join together under the name Band Aid and record the song “Do They Know It’s Christmas, recorded on 25 November and released on 3 December.
  • December 2-3 – the world’s worst industrial accident when the Union Carbide Pesticide plant in Bhopal India leaks lethal gas, leading to a death toll of some 4,000, some estimate long term deaths at 16,000

1985

  • January – Palestinian terrorists the Italian Cruise Liner Achille Lauro and murder an old Jewish man in a wheelchair.
  • March – on the death of Konstantin Chernenko, Mikhail Gorbachev becomes General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party and so leader of the USSR.
  • May – the Heysel Stadium disaster when Juventus football fans trying to escape from Liverpool fans were pressed against a collapsing wall in the Heysel Stadium in Brussels, Belgium, before the start of the 1985 European Cup Final, leading to the deaths of 39 people – mostly Italians and Juventus fans and 600 injured.
  • Music CDs commercially launched.
  • 10 July – The Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior is sunk by French Agents, killing a Dutch photographer.
  • Saturday 13 July – the Live Aid concert is watched by an estimated 1.9 billion viewers, across 150 nations, nearly 40% of the world population.
  • 19 September – Mexico City Earthquake kills 9,000
  • In response to the spread of AIDS governments around the world launch health and public awareness programs, including the promotion of condoms and safe sex.
  • The first .com domain name is registered and the first version of Windows is released.

Very Posy

Next to none of these world-changing (Gorbachev), traumatic (assassinations, terrorist bombings, famine) or innovative (slow spread of personal computers) events are reflected in the Posy strip. The opposite. The Posy strip formed a safe haven from politics and the hurly-burly of events reported everywhere else in the Guardian newspaper. Instead we are treated to the overwhelmingly domestic concerns of the Weber, Wright and Heep households.

Interestingly, Simmonds mixes the strips up so they are deliberately not in chronological order, with strips from 1985 near the beginning, and ones from 1981 at the end. If there is any structure it is a subtle seasonal one with the book opening and closing with Christmas cartoons, with some summer holidays ones in the middle, some spring showers in the first half, giving the whole thing a subtle underpinning of the changing calendar year.

Themes

Women and feminism (21)

  • A soap opera In the form of an opera i.e. everyone sings rhyming arias, Trish Wright rages at her broken washing machine till smug husband Stanhope offers to do it all down the laundrette but discovers it’s not such an easy process as he thought.
  • Men at work Seedy Edmund Heep, in a workspace surrounded by pin-ups, is preparing lewd Valentine Day cards for some of the young women in the office but when he goes to give them he discovers the girls also have pin-ups, of fit young men and he and the other men are (hypocritically) appalled. Tsk, men, eh.
  • The rebirth of Venus in which three women discuss and pester a friend into losing weight in a series of pictures which spoof and parody Botticelli’s famous Birth of Venus to make a feminist comment on how women are forced to conform to body stereotypes.
  • A super woman’s day A cartoon showing how impossible it is to be a modern woman and expected to serve up breakfast to the family, wave them off to work, arrive at the office, do some wise shopping at lunchtime, return to the office, greet the kids back from school, read to them, cook dinner, serve dinner and still have the energy to be… a whore in the bedroom!
  • In a maternity ward three or four female relatives have come to visit a mum with a newborn baby, and the strip shows us all of them, plus visitors to the other mums, all agreeing that a girl is nice but a boy would be better!
  • Momma’s fault Wendy is watching a TV soap in which three generations of women all blame their mother’s for ruining their lives – while her own children stand by, ignored.
  • Acceptable lies and the unacceptable truth A hectic strip in which her assistant and colleagues all lie to clients and customers to cover the fact that Jennifer Cole is not at work because she’s at home looking after her kids during the school holiday. The strip is rounded off with a feminist motto as twee and smug as any Victorian doily: ‘As business folk you now know why / Us working mums are bound to lie.’
  • Waiting for mummy In an anonymous family the mum works while the dad looks after the kids (he is shown reading the paper and ignoring them) until the harassed mum gets home and finds she has to comfort her little girl, and the baby, and her husband and look after the dinner which is coming to the boil. Oh the world is so unfair to women!
  • Debits and credits ‘A full-time working mum has many cares…’ which include trying to persuade her needy infants to accept certain friends round for tea simply to repay the debts she’s accrued from their mums looking after her own kids. Oh it’s so tough being a working mum!
  • Mother’s quiet time Jocasta visits an old friend who’s just had a baby, to discover she is at her wit’s end by the constant endless crying of her infant.
  • Public view A straight-out feminist view on breast-feeding which takes a classical painting of a mother breast-feeding which everyone finds adorable and acceptable in an art gallery, and then cuts and pastes the same image into all kinds of social situations where everyone disapproves.

  • The milk of human kindness A split-screen strip, on one side a frowsy mum, Rose, is disgruntled because she helped out a businesswoman friend for a few hours, tidied and breast-fed the baby and then the businesswoman got home and was disgusted by the breastfeeding and made her feel really inferior – on the other side of the strip the slick businesswoman, Rose, is pissed off because she got home to find Rose had breastfed her baby which made her feel like a negligent mum, made her feel really inferior.
  • Taboo At a packed family lunch Sophie, one of the older Weber children comes and whispers in Wendy’s ear. Then Wendy whispers in all the other women’s ears. Only right at the end do we discover Sophie had whispered that she’d started her period and she nails Wendy’s hypocrisy, for she’d said it was something perfectly natural, something to be celebrated, not something to be hushed up. So why did she whisper about it and not tell anyone?
  • Useful occupations An elderly woman takes a call from her daughter who is upset that she didn’t get a job she applied for. She tries to cheer her up, not least by explaining that women didn’t go out to work in her day – which doesn’t get a very sympathetic response.
  • Medical precautions Jocasta visits her GP who tells her he is planting a chaperone at the door – leading to a misunderstanding where Jocasta assures the doctor he doesn’t think he’ll try anything and the doctor assures her the chaperone is for his sake, in case Jocasta tries anything – leaving them both seething.

  • Fly’s undoing At a business meeting the only women present manages to persuade the men to back her deal. However she knows they’re all going to go off to the gents and persuade each other to change their minds. She wishes she could be a fly on the wall and… is miraculously transformed into a fly and flies into the gents’ and does indeed hear the hawks talking the doves out of agreeing her deal!
  • Paradise lost the Weber’s are on holiday on a hot beach and the women are going topless when George realises a couple of beach bums are commenting, in French, on the shape of every passing woman’s breasts. He intervenes giving them a feminist lecture, name-checking Lacan and Levi-Bruhl and Rousseau to blast them for objectifying women and giving them another chain to shackle them and so on. The French guys just yawn, stretch and stroll away.
  • Grief A woman’s unrestrained grief embarrasses her friends and family. People think grief should be more restrained and demure. The dichotomy is expressed by a contrast between a Picasso image of a weeping woman and an emollient Victorian image of a slightly sad and dignified lady. Sexism!!

Grief by Posy Simmonds

  • The nightmare of Pauline Woodcock Pauline Woodcock (42) international finance correspondent flies to an assignment in the Middle East but has a nightmare in which she is refused entry to the conference because it is for men only, and is forced to go and sit among the harem women who criticise her for having no husband or family and hating women. But it is only a dream and so not a very valid satire on the sexism of Muslim countries.
  • Momentous news Diane, aged 36 and a TV producer, has finally gotten pregnant but when she tells her friends at a garden party they reveal that everyone they know is having a baby late, it’s a fashion, it’s a trend thus patronising and humiliating her.
  • A message to the Monstrous Regiment Peculiarly, this is the final cartoon in the book: It is in the form of a message from Field Marshall Sir Desmond Blundel-Bolass to what he calls The Monstrous regiment, obviously meaning the entire female population, saying they’re a proud little regiment with a long track record of cooking and cleaning and child-rearing, but recently there have been signs of bolshiness and women deserting the regiment to take up jobs in industry, business and so on. THIS MUST STOP and women return to their proper subservient roles. Maybe it triggered a laugh of recognition at the time (1984) but to me it seems elaborate and ‘clever’ but oddly pointless.

Difficulties of motherhood and childcare (2)

This obviously overlaps with the large number of working mum strips, with some of the Childhood and small children strips, and with the Divorce strips, all of which depict small children shedding light on the hypocrisies of divorced couples.

  • Music and movement At little Katy’s birthday party the parents gather in the kitchen and nervously discuss the way the five year olds are jigging and jiving to highly sexualised pop music, while George delivers another of his pretentious semiotic interpretations which is no good to anyone.
  • Charity begins at home Working mum Gemma leaves her two little kids in the care of wonderful nanny, Anita, but she tells so many people how wonderful Anita is that one by one all the other middle class mums in the street get Anita to care for their children until her place looks like a zoo – much to Gemma’s chagrin.

Childhood and small children (7)

  • Timor mortis The Weber children’s guinea pig dies and the parents, and grandma, give the kids contradictory stories about what happens to dead animals
  • On a long-distance drive George and Wendy are pestered to pull over at a roadside pub where the kids pig out on steak and chips but George eventually explodes at the so-called waiter and describes at length why every single item was disgusting.

  • Music and movement At little Katy’s birthday party the parents gather in the kitchen and nervously discuss the way the five year olds are jigging and jiving to highly sexualised pop music, while George delivers another of his pretentious semiotic interpretations which is no good to anyone.
  • The birth of the blues A mum has had a baby and is at home nursing it surrounded by cooing friends and family. The strip focuses on the baby’s sister who is hassled by the grown-ups into saying ‘thank you’ for having a new brother.
  • Monkey business Wendy takes the younger children to the zoo where they see monkeys mating and ask mummy what they’re doing. This dilemma has already cropped up at least twice already in the strip. This time Wendy patiently explains a gentle form of the birds and the bees and the gag is that, as she does so, the monkeys put their hands over their baby monkey’s ears to protect their innocence.
  • Just rewards Billy’s mum takes him to play at a friend’s house where he misbehaves – saying rude words, screaming, snatching things. but each time mummy tells him to stop he does. This, the mum explains to her friend, is because she’s instituted a reward system – every time he obeys mummy he gets a reward, and enough rewards buy him a toy. Cut to Billy who has worked out how to play the system, and so deliberately plays up wherever they go – in order to obey the instruction to behave – and thus earns lots of toys!
  • The dark Two of the Weber kids lock themselves inside the old fridge the Weber’s have thrown out to Wendy’s hysterical horror.

Divorce (3)

This is here because after a divorce, Simmonds is interested in the experience of the mother who usually ends up keeping custody of the children, and so ‘divorce’ comes under the broader heading of Women-Feminism-Motherhood-Childcare-Divorce.

  • Unworthy thoughts Two little children come back from a weekend with their daddy and tell the divorced mummy what a great time they had, he took them on a CND march, introduced them to his lovely new girlfriend, had a barbeque and bought them new clothes. The mum promptly rings up the dad to give him a ear-bashing, asking him why on earth he’s being so nice and trying to suck up to her?
  • Home-sick A divorced dad takes his small kids out to a burger bar and the little girl immediately feels sick. All the way home, including on the bus, he is trying to get the little girl to throw up in the street before she gets home. But she doesn’t. She saves it up for the moment she walks through his ex’s door and throws up all over the phone books – prompting a prolonged ear-bashing from his ex about filling them with junk food etc etc.
  • Dad’s girlfriend A divorced woman’s two little kids are joking and taking the mickey out of her ex-husband’s new girlfriend, Lynn, at which the mum’s smirk of satisfaction grows larger and larger… unti lthe kids say they don’t want to go to dad and Lynn’s at Christmas – at which point the um realises this will ruin all her plans to go skiing with her new boyfriend Robert… and immediately leaps to the defence of Lynn, telling the kids what a wonderful person she is and how she has a really cool new video!

Sex and adultery (7)

  • Strangers in the night In bed together Stanhope discovers his wife is reading a sexy bodice-ripper and teases her about it.
  • Acting one’s age At a crowded theatre bar, Stanhope makes eye contact with a promising young floozy and Simmonds uses the technique whereby they send dotted eye signals at each other while, in another familiar move, she makes the whole thing a parody, with Stanhope imagining the programme to a grand theatrical production of Their Affair… while his wife spots him and reconceives the same events as a tawdry TV comedy titled ‘It always ends in tears’.
  • And no questions asked Stanhope wakes up in bed with a nubile young woman he has slept with and Simmonds uses the comic, or sardonic technique, of counterpointing all the polite things they say to each other with what they’re really thinking, Stanhope in particular smiling smiling and thinking ‘God, when are you going to bugger off?’
  • Flattery A young woman spends half the strip flattering and chatting up a TV star at a party, giving it her best shot until right at the end he makes his excuses and wanders over to the next pretty fan. This is counterpointed by the same events as enacted by a ewe (Aries) trying to chat up a lion (Leo).
  • Married person’s guide to lunching A series of nine lunches which chart the rise, bloom and decay of an affair carried out , as usual, by Stanhope Wright and his latest victim (which includes a(nother) pastiche of Manet’s painting Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe).
  • The transports of love An ironic reference to Stanhope’s car: in the first half he uses it to whisk a pretty young thing off to the countryside where they have a shag, in a picture wherein the car is transformed into an 18th century rococo four-poster bed surrounded by fluttering cherubim – and in the second half, it becomes the scene of an agonised conversation while Stanhope sits with the girl trying to dump her.
  • Derek’s deadly sins A year in the life of a fat gluttonous exec named Derek who regularly stuffs down a heavy lunch with the unbearable Edmund Heep. During the year he chats up a pretty young woman at the office party, and to please his new mistress loses weight, buys new clothes, and the other pub goers take the mickey out of the ensuing affair which runs through May and July but comes a cropper when Derek’s wife finds out about the affair, the relationship breaks up and by the end of the year Derek is back to wearing bad clothes and has his great big beer belly back again.

Academia (8)

  • In his good books Wendy has to sit through dinner with George’s academic colleagues from the Poly all showing off but when they ask her her favourite book, she says Mrs Tiggiwinkle by Beatrix Potter
  • Full stretch George does his yoga while worrying that he is becoming out of touch with developments in the humanities, and ponders resigning.
  • Liaison Presumably published around Valentine’s Day time, this ironically describes the rivalry between the Liberal Studies and Business Studies departments at George’s poly, ending with the suggestion that the two departments amalgamate, which is ironically depicted with one of Simmonds’s flowery rococo pastiches of a valentine’s card between the two.
  • An important meeting George and a colleague go to see the Chairman of governors of the poly but emerge with a surprisingly favourable decision – a big drawing shows what was going on inside each of their skulls, namely that the Chairman made a quick decision because he has a hangover.
  • Unwrappings George and Wendy’s American friend Frisbee Summers is staying. the family pop into a newsagents and while Wendy buys the kids ice-creams George and Frisbee end up discussing the top-row porn mags in high-falutin’ terms of signifying aspects of patriarchal ideology etc. Until Wendy bursts their bubble by whispering ‘Perverts!’ at them both.
  • A notice goes up at the Poly telling staff that unofficial visitors are not allowed. George and his fellow parents on the faculty realise this is a directive designed to stop parents bringing in their children during half term.
  • Eros denied the entire strip is told as a spoof of the Greek gods, wherein Eros fires a dart which hits Mrs Rutland, the Dean’s wife, as she’s chatting to George, and she is suddenly overcome with passion for him, making him blush and the gods panic until another of the gods sends a divine wind to blow away her infatuation and she is restored to normal banality.
  • Funeral rights George is blubbing so much at the funeral of a colleague from the poly who was killed in a car crash that Wendy is proud of him for breaking down sexist stereotypes which insist men keep a stiff, upper lip, and feeling free to express his emotions and… then starts to worry that such an excessive display of mourning will lead colleagues to think he must have been having an affair with the dead woman!
  • The sausage roll that changed the world At a party at his polytechnic, George is pressing the Dean about rumoured cutbacks which might run his new course on Turn of the century Vienna, when the Dean chokes on a sausage roll and Wendy steps in to perform the Heimlich manoeuvre thus saving the Dean’s life – who promptly changes his tune and tells George he’ll see what he can do. (‘It’s an ill windpipe…’)

Middle class mores and hypocrisies (12)

  • Shifting values George and Wendy take a crappy painting his aunt has left him to a valuers who makes an elaborate song and dance over it so that G &W’s opinion is transformed.
  • Black looks George tells Wendy he has just been through an ordeal every bit as bad as the mocking looks he got from his working class dad and his mates when young George went home as an Oxford student – but this time it was the black looks he got as he walked the gauntlet of Belinda and her unemployed punk mates hanging outside the house, as George unpacked the crates of Rioja wine from their Volvo.
  • Left overs George and Wendy have friends round for dinner who praise the cassoulet until Wendy reveals it’s from the freezer of Aunt Gwen who died recently, and left them all her belongings including the contents of her freezer.

  • Killjoy was here Stanhope gets a taxi back from the airport, tanned and still holding his skis from a wonderful skiing break but the glum cab driver soon brings him back to earth and depresses him.
  • Cornish wrestling Taking a cab to the station after a relaxing half-term holiday in Cornwall, George finds a ten pound note down the side of the seat and spends the whole journey agonising whether to hand it in as lost, or use it to pay the fare. He pays the fare.
  • Lingua franca Pippa offers Wendy and the kids a lift back from school and on the way reveals that she’s taken her daughter out of state school and sent her to a private boarding school. ‘They’re very strong on English,’ Pippa explains. They have to be, her daughter in the back thinks – almost all the young ladies at the boarding school are from abroad.
  • Snobs Wendy’s daughter is upset that they won’t buy her a leather skirt for £60, saying all the other girls have got one, and look down on her because she’s poor. What a sordid attitude, Wendy exclaims and tells her daughter that she is in fact, relatively well off with a home and a room of her own and goes to a good school – not to ‘that revolting school in Prosser Street – with all those nasty thugs from the flats.’ To which the family cat comments ‘Sordid attitude’ and Wendy realises what a hypocrite she is.
  • Carping at the shop corner A little gaggle of locals carp about how the local corner shop has changed over the years.
  • Standards of living Wendy leaves Benji with a friend and when her mother and Wendy go to collect him later, the mother spots about a thousand fire and health hazards in the home, whereas Wendy only sees the Noddy book (which I think is meant to be a joke because Noddy books were under fire for being racist).
  • A garden of Eden In early September George and Wendy and a couple of friends are sunbathing in the garden. Then their teenage kids turn up and they become uncomfortably aware of the bumps and blemishes and flab and cover themselves up. Paradise lost.
  • Every picture… At the Wrights’ lovely holiday cottage Stanhope’s art student daughter Jocasta takes Polaroid photos of each other. The joke, such as it is, in the discrepancy between the personal worries and grievances we get to read in their thought bubbles, and the big cheesy smiles they put on for the camera. My daughter read this strip and said, ‘What are they meant to do… shout and scream at the camera? Everyone smiles for bloody cameras and then gets back to their lives.’
  • Lady Bountiful Wendy is walking home from Sainsburys with a friend who points out that Wendy smiles inanely at everyone she meets. Wendy corrects that she only smiles at people less fortunate than her, or who she thinks needs encouraging.  The punchline is that she realises why… why people smile back at her. Standing there weighted down with carrier bags and trailing two mewling children, the reader can see why.
  • Bivouac throughout the strips ‘Bivouac’ is the name given to a kind of Ikea self-service home furnishing company. the strip describes the excitement of buying something in the store, loading it into the car and can’t wait to get it home, then having second thoughts about the extravagant expenditure, and then bickering about who persuaded who to buy it, and then the fate of the bi boxes from Bivouac which is to sit unopened and unloved.

Christmas (8)

Simmonds appears to hate Christmas. Put it this way, all the Christmas-themed strips parody, undermine or satirise the season and its sentiments.

  • Village Christmas
  • What’s in store George and Wendy take the kids to a panto, where they each find something to offend all the family!
  • Och! They’re such a worry The Heeps’ punk sons get kicked out of parties and are forced to go home for New Year’s Eve
  • Festive whirl A circular strip in which George is reluctant to go to a Christmas party, is chivvied into going by Wendy, says they won’t stay long but ends up having a whale of a time, chatting to everyone, then starting to have regrets in the car home, saying he made a number of faux pas, can’t believe he said this, can’t believe he was indiscreet about x, and wakes up the next morning determined not to go to the next Christmas party. Until…
  • The strip World of work has a Christmas theme, consisting of Edmund Heep and a colleague discussing how to wangle the longest break over Christmas.
  • Christmas present George is revolted by a traditional Christmas card from Aunt Bunny containing a traditional cake. George rails against ‘Looking Back Disease’, everyone wanting to preserve a fantasy of some Olde Worlde Christmas and says, if he had his way, they’d dispense with the stagecoach on the Christmas card cover, the Victorian dress, and the port and the lanterns and the snowman, and the robins, out with Santa, in fact out with everything except a message of goodwill. Except that, as he’s dispensed with each of these things, they have been removed from the strip itself until it is just… George and Wendy and a few kids huddling together on a great wide snow-covered plain… with the sound of something hungry howling in the distance.
  • Past 2 o’clock The posh lady with the stiff hairdo and the frightfully, frightfully manner is woken by strangers knocking at the door. It is a reincarnation of Joseph and Mary turned away from the inn and trudging through the snow, and so the humour comes from the tone of voice and excuses made by the posh lady as she explains that she can’t put them up in the main house – the builders are making a frightful mess, but she can put them up in the shed next door, it’s currently housing Sara’s pony but they’re going to do it up and put in a shower and a utility room and decorate it with some rather super tiles they saw in France etc.
  • Christmas wishes A rather bleak strip consisting of two nearly identical big pictures, at the top George and Wendy wishing us a Happy Christmas next to a mantlepiece covered with Christmas cards – underneath, exactly the same scene, but each of the cards has been transformed by one of the worries of contemporary life e.g. a nuclear power station has appeared on the hill behind the sleigh, the wise men had been pointing at a star but now they’re pointing at a mushroom cloud, some deer were looking at a decorated Christmas tree but now they’re looking at a barbed wire fence with a Ministry of Defence Keep Out sign on it. It’s quite funny as humour, but it’s really interesting as social history, as a reminder of just how terrified everyone was of nuclear war or a nuclear accident back in 1983, 36 long years ago.

Pastiches and parodies (7)

Many of the cartoons liven up otherwise mundane events by dressing them in parodies of 18th century rococo or Renaissance paintings, or set them to the tunes of Elizabethan or Victorian songs (updating the words for comic effect) or in other ways frame or transform events into alternative genres, such as when Stanhope imagines a possible affair with a young woman in terms of a grand theatrical production, and visualises a theatre programme giving his and her names as the leading roles…. whereas his wife sees what is going on and imagines the same events as the subject of a silly TV sitcom titled ‘It always ends in tears’.

So humour is often derived not from the events, but from this clever transplanting of them into comically inappropriate genres and formats.

  • The joke Valentine’s Day card in Liaison
  • The appearance and speech of the Greek gods in DIY
  • The use of theatre programmes and the Radio Times format to parody Stanhope chatting up a young lady at the theatre in Acting one’s age
  • Spring fever Spotty punk Julian Heep tries to talk young Helene into shagging him but she refuses saying he’ll just tell everyone at school. The final scene parodies a classical painting of a young man putting his arms round a lady dressed in a classical gown.
  • The transformation of the car into a rococo love nest in Transports of love
  • The rebirth of Venus in which three women discuss and pester a friend into losing weight in a series of pictures which spoof and parody Botticelli’s famous Birth of Venus to make a feminist comment on how women are forced to conform to body stereotypes.
  • Cat lovers is told in the form of a rhyme (as are several others), thus: ‘The cat sat on the mat. Back to the flat come Pat and Jack. Jack hates the cat. The cat hates Jack. Pat loves the cat. The cat loves Pat. Pat sat on Jack’s lap. Jack pets Pat. Jack and Pat want a nap. Scram, cat, scram! Drat the cat!’ which tells the tale of a couple coming back to the flat, smooching and then wanting to go to bed… only to find a big cat poo on the duvet. In strips like this you can see a basic childishness, a simple-mindedness about the strip, which means it wasn’t a big departure for Simmonds to branch out into children’s books – the most successful of which were about… cats!

Teenagers (7)

  • Nature, nurture (and nutrition) Fashionable young Belinda Weber has scorned going to university as her parents hoped and is helping out as waitress in a Directors Dining Room because, as she shouts at her mother, she is sick of living in a poky conversion, sick of kidney beans and lentils, sick of pine dressers. She wants to meet someone rich and drive a Saab and live in a nice house. Thatcher’s children.
  • Virtue’s work Father Stanhope gives lazy skiving art student Jocasta a talking to about needing to get a job.
  • Reaction A mother has a trio of teenagers over, slumped in front of the telly, and is appalled at how heartless and cynical they are, fondly remembering when they were small and got upset at Disney films etc. Suddenly she hears them yukking and moaning and goes in to discover that… they are appalled and revolted by the middle-aged clothes, the bell-bottoms and open shirt being worn by a TV news reporter!
  • Honcho Gun The two punk sons of Edmund and Jo Heep go to the cinema but are so obnoxious they keep being asked to move and are eventually kicked out. Home embarrassingly early, they fend off a bollocking from their dad by ad libbing an enormous long complicated science fiction plot which they make up. ‘When in a spot, baffle ’em wiv Sci-Fi!’
  • Home Jocasta is skint and fed up of living in sordid student accommodationso she turns up back at her parents’ house and moves in, stuffing her face with good food, smoking on the sofa and reading in the bath. As so often, there is an ironic narrative counterpoint to all this as music staves run above the strip depicting the lyrics of the Victorian song ‘there’s no place like home’. My daughter read this strip and asked me, ‘Is it meant to be funny? Because it’s just… obvious’.
  • ABC (as it is spoken) Two young leather-jacketed dudes go into their local pub where the landlord asks them for proof of their age and they get stroppy. The ‘gag; is that the entire dialogue, by all parties, consists of abbreviations: ‘L.O.’ ‘2 G.n.T’ ‘A?’ and so on. Clever. Not particularly funny.
  • Marriage à la mode Belinda announces to her parents that she is going to marry one of the rich directors at the offices where she works as a cook. George and Wendy are distraught that Belinda’s not making the most of her education, those A-levels, doesn’t want to be the strong, independent feminist they brought her up to be and worst of all, wants George to ‘give her away’ at the traditional church service… like a medieval chattel. Ugh!

Second homes (5)

  • Village Christmas The book opens with quite a bitterly satirical cartoon showing a cluster of village cottages round a village church covered in snow in complete silence on December 22, and then in successive pictures how holiday home owners arrive down from London, animate the houses with lights and real fires and arguing and partying over Christmas, nursing hangovers on Christmas Day, and are packed up and gone leaving the village silent again, by 27 December. Looking back from 2019 it’s fascinating to see the seeds of the current housing crisis and resentment at the holiday home-owners who have gutted large numbers or rural and coastal communities, being sown so long ago. But the really striking thing about it is how beautifully it is drawn. In the rest of the book Simmonds’s looseness with faces, which are often erratically drawn, is still in evidence. But her depiction of things, and the details of scenes and scenery (indoors or out) go from strength to strength.
  • Home is the sailor During this period Simmonds introduced the Cornish seaside hamlet of Tresoddit whose point is that it is overrun with Londoners who’ve bought up all the available cottages as second homes.
  • One man’s meat The Weber’s visit posh friends who have a home in the country, and the mum delivers a long speech about how the locals buy really expensive processed food at the local store instead of eating the kind of fresh, vegetarian fare which she recommends.
  • Up and down in the country A satirical speech delivered by the same pomaded lady in a quilted Barbour jacket as the previous strip, who explains the work of the Society for the Preservation of Owners of Second Homes or POSH.
  • Nice little men The same woman with a Barbour jacket and over-elaborate hairdo has such a worry about her second home in the country, and calls out a simply super little man who lives locally, but the nice little man overhears her describing him in belittling, superior, patronising tones on the phone and so does a rush job and clear out grumpily… leaving posh lady wondering ‘But he was such a NICE little man, too.’

Edmund Heep the alcoholic (3)

  • Edmund Heep steps in for a colleague at a conference and gives a deeply embarrassing speech
  • Distinguished service Heep is out of action nursing a hangover so his secretary Jackie has to rummage around in his chaotic filing system to find the needed paperwork.
  • World of work On a crowded bus at Christmas, Heep discusses with a colleague precisely how many days off work they can wangle, this Christmas and next Christmas holidays. Neither of them understand why the two blokes behind them become so angry that one of them shoves Heep’s hat down over his ears until… they pair get off the bus at the next stop and go into the local Job Centre – at which they simply feel SHAME.

Miscellaneous (3)

  • Upright citizens Waiting in a long bus queue an old lady reflects that it’s one of life’s little unfairnesses that whereas young people can lounge or sit in doorways, the elderly cannot without being taken for vagrants.
  • Minor op Wendy goes into hospital for a minor operation. The amusement comes from the way Simmonds quotes Shakespeare’s ‘All the world’s a stage’ speech to name all the ‘roles’ someone having an operation is called on to perform.
  • The house that Jack bought Nice middle-class Jack sells his house in order to move into the one Mr Shite is selling him but at the last minute Shite gets a higher offer and sells it to someone else leaving Jack’s family stuck in expensive rented accommodation. This just seems to be an utterly humourless comment on the sheer hell of trying to buy or sell a house in Britain.

Politics (2)

  • Don’t know A visually funny strip where Jocasta the art student is wakened by a ringing at her doorbell, trudges all the way down the stairs and the hallway to answer the door to a man canvassing for the local Labour candidate. Jocasta takes the flyer, trudges back upstairs and dumps it next to all the other ignored flyers.
  • Judicium extremum Atom bombs fall and wipe out the world. At the pearly gates there are two queues of the dead, one of hawks and one of doves, both of them blaming each other for what has happened.

Household chores and worries (1)

Possibly the once about the Bivouac shopping trip fits in here as well.

  • DIY A parody in which the Greek gods of the household oversee George and Wendy’s frustrated attempts at spring cleaning.

Thoughts

This detailed enumeration of the strips makes it crystal clear that it contains little or no politics but is overwhelmingly concerned with the cosy mundanities, and stroppy grievances and petty frustrations, of domestic and personal life. Feminism, or the role of women, and in particular a) harassed mothers and b) even more harassed working mums, are the most recurrent subjects.

On the plus side is young Belinda Weber, the glamorous teenager/young woman, strong, independent-minded, who rejects all her mother’s pussy-footing, soft soap liberalism and just wants to marry a millionaire. It’s odd how, having root and branch rejected old-style feminism, Belinda is consistently shown as a well-adjusted, happy winner.

One other thing is striking to the modern reader, which is that all the characters are white and straight.

There are no black, Asian, Muslim or ethnic minority characters, whether in the street, in shops, in the various offices or at the poly, in the schools or at any of the parties, lunches and get-togethers. Race appears as an issue once or twice, for example in the strip when Wendy says she smiles at the new Pakistani woman who’s moved into the street, and says the one person she doesn’t smile at is the appallingly racist woman across the road. When Edmund Heep irritates the men sitting behind him on the bus, one of them is black. That appears to be it.

Similarly, there are no gay or lesbian characters anywhere. The rights and wrongs endured by middle-class white women women women women are proclaimed from the hilltops. The experiences of black, Asian, immigrant or lesbian and gay people are invisible. The Posy cartoon strips are a strictly white, middle-class and heterosexual affair. This, I think, goes a long way to explaining why they have such a cosy, reassuring feel. Nothing threatening or strange ever happens in them.

cf Celeb

Surfing cartoons on the internet I stumbled across the ‘Celeb’ strip drawn by ‘Ligger’, which has been appearing in Private Eye for 30 years or so, describing the sardonic attitudes of an ageing rock star named Gary Bloke. Every one of these Celeb cartoons made me laugh out loud.

Celeb by Ligger

I found more laughs in one Celeb cartoon than the entire 488-page Posy collection but then laughs are not really what she’s after.

Credit

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


Related links

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