The Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera (1986)

Need I stress that I intend no theoretical statement at all, and that the entire book is simply a practitioner’s confession? Every novelist’s work contains an implicit vision of the history of the novel, an idea of what the novel is; I have tried to express here the idea of the novel that is inherent in my own novels. (Preface)

This book contains seven essays on the art of the novel.

Kundera is an academic Remember Kundera was a lecturer in World Literature at Charles University in Prague for some 20 years (1952-75). This is a grand title and obviously encouraged a panoramic point of view. Then he emigrated to France, where he continued to teach at university. He is, in other words, an academic, an expounder, a simplifier and teacher of other people’s views and theories, and that is probably the most dominant characteristic of his fiction.

He discusses a narrow academic canon You quickly realise he isn’t talking about the hundreds of thousands of novels which have been published over the past 400 years – he is talking about The Novel, the ‘serious novel’, ‘real novels’ – an entirely academic construct, which consists of a handful, well at most 50 novelists, across that entire period and all of Europe, whose concerns are ‘serious’ enough to be included in ‘serious’ academic study.

Non-British And he is very consciously European. This means many of his references are alien or exotic to us. Or just incomprehensible. When he says that The Good Soldier Schweik is probably the last popular novel, he might as well be living on Mars. There is no mention of Daniel Defoe, of Walter Scott, Jane Austen, Dickens, Trollope, George Eliot, Conrad, Henry James, DH Lawrence or Virginia Woolf, or anyone from the British ‘Great Tradition’ except the dry and dusty Samuel Richardson, in some histories, the founder of the English novel. He mentions Orwell’s ‘1984’ to dismiss it as a form of journalism. All Orwell’s fiction, he thinks, would have been better conveyed in pamphlets.

There is no mention of American fiction: from Melville through Twain, Hemingway and Faulkner (OK, Faulkner is mentioned right towards the end as one of the several authors who want nothing written about their lives, only their works), Updike or Roth or Bellow. No reference to science fiction or historical fiction or thrillers or detective fiction. Or children’s fiction. There is no mention of South American fiction (actually, he does mention a novel by Carlos Fuentes), or anything from Africa or Asia.

Some exceptions, but by and large, it is a very very very narrow definition of the Novel. Kundera can only talk as sweepingly as he does because he has disqualified 99.9% of the world from consideration before he begins.

1. The Depreciated Legacy of Cervantes (1983)

In 1935 Edmund Husserl gave a lecture titled ‘Philosophy and the Crisis of European Man’. He identifies the Modern Era as starting with Galileo (Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, 1632) and Descartes (Discourse on the Method, 1637) and complains that Europe (by which he includes America and the other colonies) has become obsessed with science and the external world at the expense of spirit and psychology, at the expense of Lebenswelt.

Kundera says that Husserl neglected the novel, which was also born at the start of the modern era, specifically in the Don Quixote of Miguel Cervantes (1605). It is in the novel that Europeans have, for 400 years, been investigating the interior life of humanity. The novel discovers those elements of life which only it can discover. Therefore the sequence of great novelists amounts to a sequence of discoveries about human nature:

  • Cervantes – explores the nature of adventure
  • Richardson – the secret life of feelings
  • Balzac – man’s rootedness in history
  • Flaubert – details of the everyday
  • Tolstoy – the intrusion of the irrational into decision making
  • Proust – the elusiveness of time past
  • Joyce – the elusiveness of time present
  • Mann – the role of ancient myth in modern life

At the start of the Modern Era God began to disappear, and with him the idea of one truth. Instead the world disintegrated into multiple truths. In the novel these multiple truths are dramatised as characters.

The whole point of the novel is it does not rush to judgement, to praise or condemn. Religion and ideologies (and political correctness) does that. The whole point of the novel is to suspend humanity’s Gadarene rush to judge and condemn before understanding: to ‘tolerate the essential relativity of things human’ (p.7).

He describes how there is a straight decline in the European spirit, from Cervantes – whose heroes live on the open road with an infinite horizon and never-ending supply of adventures – through Balzac whose characters are bounded by the city, via Emma Bovary who is driven mad by boredom, down to Kafka, whose characters have no agency of their own, but exist solely as the function of bureaucratic mistakes. It’s a neat diagram, but to draw it you have to leave out of account most of the novels ever written – for example all the novels of adventure written in the later 19th century, all of Robert Louis Stevenson, for example.

As in all his Western books, Kundera laments the spirit of the age, how the mass media are making everything look and sound the same, reducing everything to stereotypes and soundbites, simplifying the world, creating ‘the endless babble of the graphomanics’ –  whereas the novel’s task is to revel in its oddity and complexity.

2. Dialogue on the Art of the Novel

In a written dialogue with an interviewer, Kundera moves the same brightly coloured counters around – Cervantes, Diderot, Flaubert, Proust, Joyce. The novel was about adventure, then about society, then about psychology.

He states his novels are outside the novel of psychology. There’s psychology in them but that’s not their primary interest.

Being a central European he sees the 1914-18 war as a catastrophe which plunged art and literature into the grip of a merciless History. The essential dreaminess of a Proust or Joyce became impossible. Kafka opened the door to a new way of being, as prostrate victim of an all-powerful bureaucracy.

He clarifies that a key concern is the instability of the self: which is why characters often play games, pose and dramatise themselves; it is to find out where their limits are.

He clarifies his approach as against Joyce’s. Joyce uses internal monologue. There is no internal monologue at all in Kundera. In fact, as he explains it, you realise that the monologue is his, the author’s as the author tries different approaches in order to analyse his own characters. His books are philosophical analyses of fictional characters. And the characters are conceived as ‘experimental selfs’ (p.31), fully in line with his core idea that the history of the novel is a sequence of discoveries.

If the novel is a method for grasping the self, first there was grasping through adventure and action (from Cervantes to Tolstoy). Then grasping the self through the interior life (Joyce, Proust). Kundera is about grasping the self though examining existential situations. He always begins with existential plights. A woman who has vertigo. A man who suffers because he feels his existence is too light, and so on. Then he creates characters around these fundamentals. Then he puts them into situations which he, the author, can analyse, analyse repeatedly and from different angles, in order to investigate the mystery of the self.

Thus a character is ‘not a simulation of a living being. It is an imaginary being. An experimental self.’ (p.34) Making a character ‘alive’ means getting to the bottom of their existential problem’ (p.35).

A novel examines not reality but existence. And existence is not what has occurred, existence is the realm of human possibilities, everything that man can become, everything he’s capable of. (p.42)

The novelist is neither historian nor prophet: he is an explorer of existence. (p.44)

The novel is a meditation on existence as seen through the medium of imaginary characters. (p.83)

A theme is an existential enquiry. (p.84)

3. Notes inspired ‘The Sleepwalkers’

The Sleepwalkers is the name given to a trilogy of novels by the Austrian novelist Hermann Broch (1886 – 1951). The three novels were published between 1928 and 1932. They focus on three protagonists and are set 15 years apart:

  1. Joachim von Pasenow set in 1888
  2. August Esch set in 1903
  3. Wilhelm Huguenau set in 1918

In their different ways they address on core them: man confronting the disintegration of his values.

According to Kundera, before one writes one must have an ontological hypothesis, a theory about what kind of world we live in. For example The Good Soldier Švejk finds everything about the world absurd. At the opposite pole, Kafka’s protagonists find everything about the world so oppressive that they lose their identities to it.

After all, What is action? How do we decide to do what we do? That is, according to Kundera, the eternal question of the novel. (p.58)

Through an analysis of the plots of the three novels, Kundera concludes that what Broch discovered was the system of symbolic thought which underlies all decisions, public or private.

He closes with some waspish criticism of ‘Establishment Modernism’, i.e. the modernism of academics, which requires an absolute break at the time of the Great War, and the notion that Joyce et al. definitively abolished the old-fashioned novel of character. Obviously Kundera disagrees. For him Broch (whose most famous masterpiece, The Death of Virgil didn’t come out till the end of World War Two) was still opening up new possibilities in the novel form, was still asking the same questions the novel has asked ever since Cervantes.

It is a little odd that Kundera takes this 2-page swipe at ‘Establishment Modernism’, given that a) he is an academic himself, and his own approach is open to all sorts of objections (mainly around its ferocious exclusivity), and b) as he was writing these essays, Modernism was being replaced, in literature and the academy, by Post-Modernism, with its much greater openness to all kinds of literary forms and genres.

4. Dialogue on the Art of Composition (1983)

Second part of the extended ‘dialogue’ whose first part was section two, above. Starts by examining three principles found in Kundera’s work:

1. Divestment, or ellipsis. He means getting straight to the heart of the matter, without the traditional fol-de-rol of setting scenes or background to cities or towns or locations.

2. Counterpoint or polyphony. Conventional novels have several storylines. Kundera is interested in the way completely distinct themes or ideas can be woven next to each other, setting each other off. For the early composers a principle of polyphony was that all the lines are clear and distinct and of equal value.

Interestingly, he chooses as fine examples of his attempts to apply this technique to his novels, the Angels section in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting – which I found scrappy and unconvincing – and Part Six of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which I think is by far the worst thing he’s ever written, embarrassingly bad.

There’s some chat about Kundera’s own personal interventions in his novels. He emphasises that anything said within a novel is provisional hypothetical and playful. Sure, he intervenes sometimes to push the analysis of a character’s situation deeper than the character themselves could do it. But emphasises that even the most serious-sounding interventions are always playful. They can never be ‘philosophy’ because they don’t occur in a philosophical text.

From the very first word, my thoughts have a tone which is playful, ironic, provocative, experimental or enquiring. (p.80)

This is what he means by ‘a specifically novelistic essay’ i.e. you can write digressions and essays within novels but, by coming within its force field, they become playful and ironic.

The final part is an analysis of his novels in terms of their structure, their architecture i.e. the number of parts, the way the sub-sections are so distinct. And then a really intense comparison with works of classical music, in the sense that the varying length and tempo of the parts of his novels are directly compared with classical music, particularly to Beethoven quartets. Until the age of 25 he thought he was going to be a composer rather than a writer and he is formidably learned about classical music.

5. Somewhere behind (1979)

A short essay about Kafka. He uses the adjective Kafkan, which I don’t like; I prefer Kafkaesque. What does it consist of?

  1. boundless labyrinth
  2. a man’s life becomes a shadow of a truth held elsewhere (in the boundless bureaucracy), which tends to make his life’s meaning theological. Or pseudo-theological
  3. the punished seek the offence, want to find out what it is they have done
  4. when Kafka read the first chapter of The Trial to his friends everyone laughed including the author. Kafka takes us inside a joke which looks funny from the outside, but…

Fundamentally his stories are about the dehumanisation of the individual by faceless powers.

What strikes Kundera is that accurately predicted an entire aspect of man in the 20th century without trying to. All his friends were deeply political, avant-garde, communist etc, thought endlessly about the future society. But all of their works are lost. Kafka, in complete contrast, was a very private man, obsessed above all with his own personal life, with the domineering presence of his father and his tricky love life. With no thought of the future or society at large, he created works which turned out to be prophetic of the experience of all humanity in the 20th century and beyond.

This Kundera takes to be a prime example of the radical autonomy of the novel, whose practitioners are capable of finding and naming aspects of the existential potential of humanity, which no other science or discipline can.

6. Sixty-Three Words (1986)

As Kundera became famous, and his books published in foreign languages, he became appalled by the quality of the translations. (The English version of The Joke particularly traumatised him; the English publisher cut all the reflective passages, eliminated the musicological chapters, and changed the order of the parts! In the 1980s he decided to take some time out from writing and undertake a comprehensive review of all translations of his books with a view to producing definitive versions.

Specific words are more important to Kundera than other novelists because his novels are often highly philosophical. In fact, he boils it down: a novel is a meditation on certain themes; and these themes are expressed in words. Change the words, you screw up the meditations, you wreck the novel.

A friendly publisher, watching him slog away at this work for years, said, ‘Since you’re going over all your works with a fine toothcomb, why don’t you make a personal list of the words and ideas which mean most to you?’

And so he produced this very entertaining and easy-to-read collection of short articles, reflections and quotes relating to Milan Kundera’s keywords:

  • aphorism
  • beauty
  • being – friends advised him to remove ‘being’ from the title of The Unbearable Lightness of Being’: but it is designed to be a meditation on the existential quality of being. What if Shakespeare had written: To live or not to live… Too superficial. He was trying to get at the absolute root of our existence.
  • betrayal
  • border
  • Central Europe – the Counter-Reformation baroque dominated the area ensuring no Enlightenment, but on the other hand it was the epicentre of European classical music. Throughout the book he is struck by the way the great modern central European novelists – Kafka, Hasek, Musil, Broch, Gombrowicz – were anti-Romantic and modern just not in the way of the flashy avant-gardes of Rome or Paris. Then after 1945 central Europe was extinguished and – as he was writing this list – was a prophetic type of the extinguishment of all Europe. Now we know this didn’t happen.
  • collaborator – he says the word ‘collaborator’ was only coined in 1944, and immediately defined an entire attitude towards modernity. Nowadays he reviles collaborators with the mass media and advertising who he thinks are crushing humanity. (Looking it up I see the word ‘collaborator’ was first recorded in English in 1802. This is one of the many examples where Kundera pays great attention to a word and everything he says about it turns out to be untrue for English. It makes reading these essays, and his ovels, a sometimes slippery business.)
  • comic
  • Czechoslovakia – he never uses the word in his fiction, it is too young (the word and country were, after all, only created in 1918, after the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed). He always uses ‘Bohemia’ or ‘Moravia’.
  • definition
  • elitism – the Western world is being handed over to the control of a mass media elite. Every time I read his diatribes against the media, paparazzi and the intrusion into people’s private lives, I wonder what he makes of the Facebook and twitter age.
  • Europe – his books are streaked with cultural pessimism. Here is another example. He thinks Europe is over and European culture already lost. Well, that’s what every generation of intellectuals thinks. 40 years later Europe is still here.
  • excitement
  • fate
  • flow
  • forgetting – In my review of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting I pointed out that Mirek rails against forgetting as deployed by the state (sacking historians) but is himself actively engaged in trying to erase his past (claiming back his love letters to an old flame). Kundera confirms my perception. Totalitarian regimes want to control the past (‘Orwell’s famous theme’), but what his story shows is that so do people. It is a profound part of human nature.
  • graphomania – he rails against the way everyone is a writer nowadays, and says it has nothing to do with writing (i.e. the very careful consideration of form which he has shown us in the other essays in this book) but a primitive and crude will to impose your views on everyone else.
  • hat
  • hatstand
  • ideas – his despair at those who reduce works to ideas alone. No, it is how they are treated, and his sense of the complexity of treatment is brought out in the extended comparison of his novels to complicated late Beethoven string quartets in 4. Dialogue on the Art of Composition
  • idyll
  • imagination
  • inexperience – a working title for The Unbearable Lightness of Being was The Planet of Inexperience. Why? Because none of us have done this before. We’re all making it up as we go along. That’s what’s so terrifying, so vertiginous.
  • infantocracy
  • interview – as comes over in a scene in Immortality, he hates press interviews because the interviewer is only interested in their own agenda and in twisting and distorting the interviewees’ responses. Thus in 1985 he made a decision to give no more interviews and only allow his views to be published as dialogues which he had carefully gone over, refined and copyrighted. Hence parts two and four of this book, although they have a third party asking questions, are in the form of a dialogue and were carefully polished.
  • irony
  • kitsch – he’s obsessed with this idea which forms the core – is the theme being meditated on – in part six of the Unbearable Lightness of Being. It consists of two parts: step one is eliminating ‘shit’ from the world (he uses the word ‘shit’) in order to make it perfect and wonderful, as in Communist leaders taking a May Day parade or TV adverts. Step two is looking at this shallow, lying version of the world and bursting into tears at its beauty. Kitsch is ‘the need to gaze into the mirror of the beautifying lie and to be moved to tears of gratification at one’s own reflection.’ (p.135)
  • laughter – For Rabelais, the comic and the merry were one. Slowly literature became more serious, the eighteenth century preferring wit, the Romantics preferring passion, the nineteenth century preferring realism. Now ‘the European history of laughter is coming to an end’. (p.136) That is so preposterous a thought I laughed out loud.
  • letters
  • lightness
  • lyric
  • lyricism
  • macho
  • meditation – his cultural pessimism is revealed again when he claims that ‘to base a novel on sustained meditation goes against the spirit of the twentieth century, which no longer likes to think at all. (p.139)
  • message
  • misogynist – gynophobia (hatred of women) is a potential of human nature as is androphobia (hatred of men), but feminists have reduced misogyny to the status of an insult and thus closed off exploration of a part of human nature.
  • misomusist – someone who has no feel for art or literature or music and so wants to take their revenge on it
  • modern
  • nonbeing
  • nonthought – the media’s nonthought
  • novel and poetry – the greatest of the nivelists -become-poets are violently anti-lyrical: Flaubert, Joyce, Kafka (don’t think that’s true of Joyce whose prose is trmeendously lyrical)
  • novel – the European novel
  • novelist and writer
  • novelist and his life – quotes from a series of novelists all wishing their lives to remain secret and obscure: all attention should be on the works. Despite this, the army of biographers swells daily. The moment Kafka attracts more attention that Josef K, cultural death begins.
  • obscenity
  • Octavio – the Mexican writer, Octavio Paz
  • old age – frees you to do and say what you want.
  • opus
  • repetitions
  • rewriting – for the mass media, is desecration. ‘Death to all those who dare rewrite what has been written!’ Jacques and His Master
  • rhythm – the amazing subtlety of rhythm in classical music compared to the tedious primitivism of rock music. Tut tut.
  • Soviet – the Germans and Poles have produced writers who lament the German and Polish spirit. The Russians will never do that. They can’t. Every single one of them is a Russian chauvinist.
  • Temps Modernes – his cultural pessimism blooms: ‘we are living at the end of the Modern Era; the end of art as conceived as an irreplaceable expression of personal originality; the end that heralds an era of unparalleled uniformity’ (p.150)
  • transparency – the word and concept in whose name the mass media are destroying privacy
  • ugly
  • uniform
  • value – ‘To examine a value means: to try to demaracte and give name to the discoveries, the innovations, the new light that a work casts on the human world.’ (p.152)
  • vulgarity
  • work
  • youth

7. Jerusalem Address: the Novel and Europe (1985)

In the Spring of 1985 Kundera was awarded the Jerusalem Prize. He went to Jerusalem to deliver this thank you address. It is a short, extremely punch defense of the novel as a form devoted to saving the human spirit of enquiry in dark times.

In a whistlestop overview of European history, he asserts that the novel was born at the birth of the modern era when, with religious belief receding, man for the first time grasped his plight as a being abandoned on earth: the novel was an investigation of this plight and has remained so ever since.

The novel is the imaginary paradise of individuals. It is the territory where no one possesses the truth… but where everyone has the right to be understood. (p.159)

Every novel, like it or not, offers some answer to the question: What is human existence, and wherein does its poetry lie? (p.161)

But the novel, like the life of the mind, has its enemies. Namely the producers of kitsch and what Rabelais called the agélastes, people who have no sense of humour and do not laugh. He doesn’t say it but I interpret this to mean those who espouse identity politics and political correctness. Thou Must Not Laugh At These Serious Subjects, say the politically correct, and then reel off a list which suits themselves. And kitsch:

Kitsch is the translation of the stupidity of received ideas into the language of beauty and feeling. It moves us to tears of compassion for the banality of what we think and feel. (p.163)

The greatest promoter of kitsch is the mass media which turns the huge human variety into half a dozen set narratives designed to make us burst into tears. We are confronted by a three-headed monster: the agélastes, the nonthought of received ideas, and kitsch.

Kundera sees European culture as being under threat from these three forces, and identifies what is most precious about it (European culture), namely:

  • its respect for the individual
  • for the individual’s original thought
  • for the right of the individual to a private life

Against the three-headed monster, and defending these precious freedoms, is set the Novel, a sustained investigation by some of the greatest minds, into all aspects of human existence, the human predicament, into human life and interactions, into human culture.


Central ideas

The novel is an investigation into man’s Lebenwelt – his life-being.

Novelists are discoverers and explorer of the capabilities, the potentialities, of human existence.

Conclusions

1. Fascinating conception of the novel as a sustained investigation into the nature of the self, conducted through a series of historical eras each with a corresponding focus and interest.

2. Fascinating trot through the history of the European novel, specially the way it mentions novelists we in England are not so familiar with, such as Hermann Broch or Diderot or Novalis, or gives a mid-European interpretation to those we have heard of like Kafka or Joyce.

3. Fascinating insight into not only his own working practice, but what he thinks he’s doing; how he sees his novels continuing and furthering the never-ending quest of discovery which he sees as the novel’s historic mission.

But what none of this fancy talk brings out at all, is the way Milan Kundera’s novels are obsessed with sex. It is extraordinary that neither Sex nor Eroticism appear in his list of 63 words since his powerfully erotic (and shameful and traumatic and mysterious and ironic) explorations of human sexuality are what many people associate Kundera’s novels with.

Last thoughts

Changes your perspective It’s a short book, only 165 pages with big gaps between the sections, but it does a very good job of explaining how Kundera sees the history and function of the novel, as an investigation into the existential plight of humanity. It changed my mental image of Kundera from being an erotic novelist to being more like an existentialist thinker-cum-writer in the tradition of Sartre.

The gap between Britain and Europe There is a subtler takeaway, which is to bring out how very different we, the British, are from the Europeans. True, he mentions a few of our authors – the eighteenth century trio of Richardson, Fielding and Sterne – but no Defoe, Austen, Scott or Dickens.

The real point is that he assumes all European intellectuals will have read widely in European literature – from Dante and Boccaccio through Cervantes and into the eighteenth century of Diderot, Voltaire, the Marquis de Sade. And when you read the French founders of critical theory, Barthes or Derrida, or the influential historian Foucault, they obviously refer to this tradition.

But it remains completely alien to us in Britain. Not many of us read Diderot or Novalis or Lermontov or even Goethe. We’ve all heard of Flaubert and Baudelaire because, in fact, they’re relatively easy to read – but not many of us have read Broch or Musil, and certainly not Gombrowicz. Though all literature students should have heard of Thomas Mann I wonder how many have read any of his novels.

My point being that, as you read on into the book, you become aware of the gulf between this huge reservoir of writers, novels and texts in the European languages – French, German and Russian – and the almost oppressively Anglo-Saxon cultural world we inhabit, not only packed with Shakespeare and Dickens, but also drenched in American writers, not least the shibboleths of modern American identity politics such as Toni Morrison or Maya Angelou.

Reading this book fills your mind with ideas about the European tradition. But at the same time it makes you aware of how very different and apart we, in Britain, are, from that tradition. Some of us may have read some of it; but none of us, I think, can claim to be of it.

Credit

The Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera was first published in French in 1986. The English translation was published by Grove Press in the USA and Faber and Faber in the UK in 1988. All references are to the 1990 Faber paperback edition.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

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

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

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

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

The Joke by Milan Kundera (1967)

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

Czech history – a postwar snapshot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Themes in Milan Kundera’s fiction

Communism

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

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

Cynicism and the absurd

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

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

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

The personal and the private

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

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

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

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

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

The Joke – structure and style

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

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

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

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

Kundera’s prose style is flat and factual…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thus:

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

See what I mean by a very intellectual author.

The Joke – the plot

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

The fateful postcard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the mining camp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Revenge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jaroslav and the Ride of the King

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kostka’s story

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

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

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

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

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

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

So both were acting under pitiful delusions about the other.

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

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

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

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

Back to Helena

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another view

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

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

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

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

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


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

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

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

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

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

Corita Kent: Power Up @ the House of Illustration

Corita Kent (1918-86) was a nun, who began making personal, rather Expressionist prints with religious subjects in the 1950s, and then swiftly evolved in the early 1960s into a pioneering political print- and poster-maker. In 1968, under pressure from the revolutionary times and enjoying greater artistic and commercial success, she asked to be released from her vows, left her order, and became a fully commercial artist, continuing to make prints as personal statements, but also for a wide range of commercial clients, up to her death.

The House of Illustration has brought together some 70 large, colourful Corita Kent prints to create the largest ever show in the UK of this ‘pop artist, social activist and nun’.

The exhibition is bright, uplifting, thought-provoking and, as usual, divided between the gallery’s three exhibition rooms and small video room.

Introduction room

In 1936, aged 18, Frances Kent entered the Catholic Order of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and took the name of Sister Mary Corita. In 1951 she was introduced to the technique of print-making by Maria Sodi de Ramos Martinez.

The first room displays a handful of Kent’s early works, which are dark and stormy, every inch of the surface covered with often dark browns and blacks, amid which you can see outlines of primitivist or Byzantine images of Christ the King. Dark and troubled, packed and claustrophobic, they’re redolent of the Abstract Expressionism which dominated the American art world of the time.

As A Cedar of Lebanon by Corita Kent (1953)

As A Cedar of Lebanon by Corita Kent (1953)

In their murkiness they reminded me a bit of the art of Graham Sutherland, the presence of the religious imagery reminding me of Sutherland’s work for Coventry cathedral.

Within a few years Kent had begun to experiment by including handwritten text into the designs. The need to make the text legible meant she had to declutter the images though they are still, in this first room, a little scary, apocalyptic, done in drab austerity colours.

Christ and Mary by Corita Kent (1954)

Christ and Mary by Corita Kent (1954)

Main room

This first room is sort of interesting but it doesn’t prepare you at all for the impact of walking into the next space, the gallery’s main room – which features a riot of colour, an orgy of huge colourful prints and posters, showcasing a wide range of fonts and lettering set against vibrant dynamic colour designs.

Installation view of Corita Kent at the House of Illustration. Photo by the author

Installation view of Corita Kent at the House of Illustration. Photo by the author

It’s difficult to believe it’s the same artist. Out have gone the minutely detailed, busy and cramped designs, and in have come big white spaces used to emphasise the use of primary colours to bring out simple texts and slogans laid out in a dazzling variety of formats and designs.

Some of the prints still use religious texts from the Bible, but these are accompanied by slogans from protest movements, song lyrics, modernist poetry and lots of subtle or overt references to the signage and billboard adverts of Kent’s native Los Angeles.

There’s a sequence of searing prints protesting against the war in Vietnam and unashamedly using images lifted from magazines and newspapers, hard-core images of soldiers and war of the kind the American public was watching on their TVs every night from the mid-60s onwards, alongside images and slogans protesting against black segregation, celebrating the Civil Rights Movement, bitterly lamenting the assassination of Martin Luther King, and so on.

Where have all the flowers gone? by Corita Kent (1969)

Where have all the flowers gone? by Corita Kent (1969)

Everywhere you look are classic slogans from the long-haired, dope-smoking, flower power protests of the day. ‘Where have all the flowers gone?’ ‘Stop the bombing’. ‘Get with the action’. ‘Violence in Vietnam’. ‘Yellow submarine’. ‘Come Home, America’, and the slogan which gives the exhibition its title, the words POWER UP spread across four enormous prints. (Which, on closer reading, we discover was the slogan used by the Richfield Oil Corporation in their ads, and one of the many elements of signage in the cluttered visual landscape of her native Los Angeles).

Installation shot of Corita Kent at the House of Illustration. Photo by Paul Grover

Installation shot of Corita Kent at the House of Illustration. Photo by Paul Grover

It is an astonishing transformation, from the personal and cramped and expressive, to the public and political, big, bright and open, in half a decade.

One of the videos playing in the video room shows ancient footage of young men and woman dancing in circles and painting their faces and carrying all manner of props and decorations and art works, to and from the numerous ‘happenings’ which blossomed all over America.

Earnest young women in mini skirts, men in Grateful Dead sideburns, dancing and painting themselves, intercut with the usual footage of napalm over Vietnam, the assassination of Martin Luther King, and so on. It’s the ever-popular 1960s, the decade we can’t leave alone.

The exhibition feels like the poster and print accompaniment of that era, flower power, hippies, protest songs, the stormy later 1960s.

The Fraser Muggeridge studio

A word on the design and layout of the exhibition which is beautifully done by Fraser Muggeridge studio. They have very successfully replicated the super-bright, Pop Art colour palette of the original works without in any way over-awing them, which is quite a feat. The result is that the main and final room themselves take part in the exhibition’s vibrancy and dynamism.

At the end of the main room is a set of 26 prints, Circus Alphabet, from 1968, each one of which combines one of the letters from the alphabet done big, set against a fascinating variety of layouts, some simple, other cluttered with text, in a wide range of fonts. Reminded me of the imagery surrounding Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the song Being For the Benefit of Mr Kite.

Apparently, Kent was inspired by the poet e.e. cummings who was devoted to the institution of the American circus (‘damn everything but the circus’, he is quoted as writing), and the prints combine political texts with material she found at the Ringling Museum of the Circus in Sarasota, with images from A Handbook of Early Advertising Art, compiled by Clarence P. Hornung.

Circus Alphabet by Corita Kent (1968) Photo by Paul Grover

Circus Alphabet by Corita Kent (1968) Photo by Paul Grover

What fun! What a tremendous eye for layout and design. What an consistent thirst for innovation and experiment.

End room

The smaller final room is painted a deep azure blue. This space showcases work Kent produced after she asked to be released from her vows and left the convent in 1968. At which point she moved to Boston and became a fully commercial artist. Apparently, her sister became her business manager.

Installation view of Corita Kent at the House of Illustration. Photo by Paul Grover

Installation view of Corita Kent: Power Up at the House of Illustration. Photo by Paul Grover

The photo above captures pieces which demonstrate a new variety and style in her work.

At the bottom right you can see ‘our country is red spilled blood’ from 1970, a poster commissioned by the Vietnam Moratorium Committee to promote a three-day fast for peace and depicting a Vietnamese woman grieving over the body of her dead husband. (At the turn of the 60s, early 70s, a lot of the titles omit capital letters, another testament to the influence of the laureate of lower-case, e.e. cummings).

The wide, thin poster to the left of it uses the slogan, ‘Come home America’, the slogan used in the campaign of Democratic Presidential contender George McGovern during the 1972 presidential campaign.

Above it, the piece divided between blue on the left and orange on the right, is ‘the Ellsberg poster’ from 1972, containing a quote from US government analyst Daniel Ellsberg who decided to leak the Pentagon Papers to the press in 1971 (subject of the recent Stephen Spielberg movie, The Post). The quote reads: ‘Wouldn’t you go to jail if it would help end the war?’

The display case in this room shows a number of books Corita illustrated, including several by Catholic priests protesting against the war.

But it isn’t all political protest. The two works on the right hand wall in the photo above, are designs to accompany purely literary texts, by James Joyce (on the left) and Rainer Maria Rilke (the pink and orange one on the right).

You have a sense that Kent was exploring beyond the dayglo and sometimes rather baroque stylings of the 1960s (the Sergeant Pepper circus chic) into a more laid-back 1970s. I suppose low-key minimalism was coming in during this period to replace plastic Pop Art.

The work in this room all feels cooler. More understated. The Joyce and Rilke ones look like a cross between Mark Rothko and Matisse’s late paper cuts in their combination of bold colour with abstract patterning.

And I also realised that the texts in all the works in that photo are hand-written and in relatively small point sizes. You have to go right up to the Rilke piece to even realise there’s writing on it. This is a sharp contrast with the Circus works – which use an entertaining variety of ready-made, machine fonts in massive sizes – and with the other more political works: these had non-machine font, hand-cut-out texts and slogans, but they were enormous and simple. The works in this room feel more… intimate in scale and effect.

On the wall opposite is a montage of prints featuring quotes from classic authors, each one treated in interesting new ways, experimenting with fonts and layouts and colours and designs. These are ads commissioned by Group W Westinghouse Broadcasting, a TV station. Kent began working with them as early as 1962 and continued to produce magazine-page-sized ads until nearly the end of her career.

A wall of Corita Kent's work for Westinghouse Broadcasting. Photo by the author

A wall of Corita Kent’s work for Westinghouse Broadcasting. Photo by the author

The texts are fairly trite – worthy and high-minded quotes from Shakespeare or Dr Johnson or Thoreau – the kind of unimpeachable uplift any corporation could use to mask its commercial operations in spiritual guff (‘The noblest motive is the public good’). Taken together, I found they called into question the whole point of pithy slogans. Somehow the way she could turn her vivid imagination to souping up Shakespeare in order to promote a TV channel undermined the seriousness of the ‘political’ work. I could almost hear a stoned hippy saying ‘All artists sell out, man’. She was 52 at the dawn of the 1970s. ‘Don’t trust anyone over 30, man.’

Content aside, what impresses is the way Kent produces such a wonderful variety of fonts, designs and layouts in which to set the text, and yet still manages to retain a visual unity and identifiable style. No wonder Westinghouse stuck with her for nearly 20 years.

IBM

The whole final wall is a blow-up of a magazine advert for computer manufacturer Digital. They commissioned Kent to create three suites of screen-printed decorative panels for Digital’s range of desks and computer cabinets. You see the blue and green wash panels at the end of the guy’s desk, on the side of the filing cabinet? That’s Kent’s design. This was in 1978, ten years after the heady year of the King assassination, the Democratic convention riots and all the rest of it. Her designs no longer hope to change the world but to beautify its everyday element. ‘Sold out to the man, baby.’

Advert for Digital computers by Corita Kent

Advert for Digital computers by Corita Kent

Videos

In one of the two videos running in a loop in the small projection room (a spot of googling shows that there are quite a few films about Kent and extended interviews and documentaries), Kent is quoted saying something very interesting about the interaction of text and design. She relates it right back to the work of medieval copyists and the unknown monks who produced the extravagant decorations of illuminated manuscripts (of the kind to be seen at the British Library’s brilliant Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition).

As she puts it, from those early textual illustrators right up to the times of her and her peers, there is some kind of joy and delight in the way colour and pattern brings out additional meanings latent in texts, and words crystallise and empower what would otherwise be abstract colours and designs.

For some reason, no doubt to do with the wiring of the human brain and the way we separately register colour and meaning, the power and variety of interplay between the two systems can often be extremely powerful and, as her work goes to prove, seems to be never-ending.

In my ignorance I’d never heard of Corita Kent. This is a wonderful – and wonderfully designed and laid out – introduction to the development and variety and life-affirming positivity of this scintillating artist.


Related links

Reviews of other House of Illustration exhibitions

Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-Garde @ the Barbican

This is an extraordinarily packed, dense and demanding exhibition.

The basic idea is deceptively simple. The show looks at over 40 artistic couples who were pioneers of early 20th century avant-garde art, photography, design and literature, and explores the stories of their sexual, emotional and artistic relationships, liberally illustrating the narratives with photos and art works, books and pamphlets, fabrics and ceramics, chairs and bookshelves, which one or other or both of them produced.

Women first

One central aim of the exhibition is to show that, more often than not, the women in these artistic relationships were as, if not more, important and influential (and creative in their own right) than the male artists and male critics of their time – and ever since – have acknowledged.

So, in a small but telling detail, in all the displays of couples, it is the woman who is presented first, the woman’s name which appears first and the woman’s work and contribution which is most explored.

Thus in the opening room we are told that the model Camille Claudel played a larger role in the career of sculptor Auguste Rodin than is usually credited, as well as being an interesting sculptor in her own right, with samples of her work to prove it.

The same goes for Maria Martens, who enjoyed a long and passionate working relationship with the more-famous Marcel Duchamp, but was a notable artist in her own right.

Later on we learn that Gustav Klimt’s lifelong soul-mate, and the model for some of his most famous paintings – Emilie Flöge – was more than just a muse and model, but a talented fashion designer who ran her own very successful couture house, the Schwestern Flöge (1904–1938), in Vienna.

Emilie Flöge and dress designs c.1900

Emilie Flöge and some of her dress designs c.1900

The exhibition works through scores of other examples, in each case showing that the women in each famous couple were often notable artists, sculptors, designers and business people in their own right, as well as contributing ideas, designs and artworks to what would nowadays be seen more as collaborative relationships than the old-fashioned story of an active Male Artist and a passive Female Muse.

Natalia Goncharova, the Russian Futurist artist, painter, costume designer, writer, illustrator, and set designer was every bit as innovative as her lifelong partner and founder of Rayonism, Mikhail Larionov.

Frida Kahlo, during the 1930s overshadowed by her husband, the famous mural painter Diego Rivera, has subsequently emerged as a powerful artistic figure in her own right.

Leonora Carrington has traditionally been seen as a ‘muse’ for the Surrealist artist, Max Ernst, during the three intense years of their relationship, 1937-40, but she was a sculptor and painter in her own right, as well as the author of a harrowing account of her experience of mental illness, Into the Abyss.

Early in their relationship Georgia O’Keeffe was the junior partner to her husband, the famous New York photographer Alfred Stieglitz, but her career as a painter would go on to eclipse his reputation.

And so on.

In fact, the show at moments suggests that it was sometimes the men who were the muse figures for a woman artist, for example in the section on Picasso and how his image was crafted and shaped by his lover Dora Maar, in her own photographs and sculptures.

Picasso en Minotaure, Mougins, 1937 by Dora Maar © ADAGP, Paris. Photo © Centre Pompidou

Picasso en Minotaure, Mougins, 1937 by Dora Maar © ADAGP, Paris. Photo © Centre Pompidou

So, on one level, this exhibition is a massive, encyclopedic review of twentieth century avant-garde art as retold from the women artists’ perspectives. Redressing a balance. Restoring, or creating, a new feminist interpretation of many artistic relationships, from the super-famous to the sometimes relatively obscure.

Collaborations

But this theme – rediscovering and rethinking the importance of the women collaborators vis-avis often more famous male artists – is not the only one. It is complemented by explorations of the diverse meanings of the very ideas of ‘working relationships’ and ‘collaborations’.

Take homosexual partnerships. Alongside the long sequence of heterosexual couples, there are rooms devoted to gay, lesbian or bisexual couples, for example the passionate same-sex relationship between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West which inspired Woolf’s novel, Orlando. Or the room devoted to the long-lasting artistic relationship between transgender couple Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore.

Other rooms expand the notion of ‘relationship’ beyond the idea of a simple binary couple, for example the relationship of the three Magic Realist painters – Paul Cadmus, Jared French and Margaret Hoening French – who worked together so closely that they attributed their works to a joint pseudonym made up from the first two letters of their first names – the PaJaMa collective.

Other rooms move beyond threesomes to explore larger groups of artists who collaborated and worked together during this exuberant period. Thus one room focuses on the community of lesbian writers and artists in 1920s Paris, while another explores the Surrealist idea of the ‘Chance Encounter’ in a room which brings together some ten or so artists, male and female, who collaborated together in loose and shifting networks of co-operation.

Paul Cadmus and Jared French (1937) photographed by George Platt Lynes © 2018 Estate of George Platt Lynes

Paul Cadmus and Jared French (1937) photographed by George Platt Lynes © 2018 Estate of George Platt Lynes

In other words, the exhibition starts off by exploring the notion of modernist artistic couples but quite quickly deconstructs, reconfigures, explores and rethinks what working artistic relationships actually meant in practice for a wide variety of artists.

It may begin with women who challenged conventional notions of female behaviour and the role of ‘the wife’ or ‘the mistress’ or ‘the muse’, but soon becomes an investigation of a number of types of artistic working relationships, between not only heterosexual and same-sex couples, but among larger and more fluid groupings.

Is Modernism about Love or the Machine Age?

But alongside the notion of the couple, the collaboration and the group, the curators make a bold assertion which I find hard to agree with, namely that artistic modernism was coterminous with ‘modern love’. To quote the introductory wall label at the start of the exhibition:

Modern art. Modern love. From the 1890s through to just after the Second World War, these two phenomena were interwoven and indelibly linked. Side-by-side, artist couples forged new ways of making art and of living and loving.

And in the scores and scores of wall labels which follow, there is much, much more along the same lines. All of the artists are given thumbnail biographies and these tend to focus as much on their love lives, on their bohemian rejection of bourgeois conventions around love, marriage, sexuality and so on, as on their actual artistic achievements.

Central to the exhibition is the claim that Modernism, or the 20th century avant-garde, was about love and sex and desire. Or, as the curators put it:

‘Modern Couples’ roots Modernism in the field of desire.

This claim, or assertion, allows the curators to present a coherent and persuasive narrative. Modern Art is about love and desire. 20th century women artists and authors invariably depicted love and desire. Therefore women artists are central to Modern Art.

Or: If love and desire are the core subject of Modernism, then women artists, who focused on love and desire, must be central to Modernism.

It is a circular, self-fulfilling and self-reinforcing argument.

Having established this axiom, the show can then settle down to ticking off a familiar checklist of feminist art concerns, demonstrating how these radical women artists ‘subverted’ traditional ‘patriarchal’ ideas of ‘gender stereotyping’ and explored ‘transgressive’ sexuality i.e. by having numerous lovers or by being lesbians.

By selecting love and ‘desire’ as the central theme of Modernism, the curators are able to pull together:

  • the heterosexual and homosexual relationships of women artists
  • women artists’ ambivalent roles as sexual objects and muses to men
  • women artists’ own sexual feelings and needs, expressed in infidelities, affairs and multiple partners
  • the fact that women artists sometimes got pregnant and gave birth
  • the way women artists explored and mythologised the condition of femininity and fertility
  • alongside the legion of lesbian artists, seen as social and political pioneers in the way they explored man-free notions of same-sex desire

All of these multifarious activities and interests can be pulled together as if they make up a single coherent movement, all saying the same thing, all addressing the same handful of ‘issues’, all united in the same aim.

And the way the same theme and subject – love, sex and the (generally female) body – is repeated on all the wall labels and is exemplified again and again in the artworks also contributes to this sense of a huge transcontinental network of artists, sculptors and writers all inspired by the same theme. Reinforcing the curators’ premise that ‘modern art’ is coterminous with ‘modern love’.

This strikes me as being very neat, very convenient and not completely true, for one very big reason.

At university I was taught that the huge array of new artistic and literary strategies which we call ‘Modernism’ was, at least in part, a reaction to the ongoing dominance of the Machine in modern life, and a response to the hectic pace of technological change which accelerated from the 1890s onwards.

Electric lights, bicycles, skyscrapers with electric elevators, motor cars and airplanes, the cinema and portable cameras, were just a few of the technologies which didn’t exist in 1890, were only just being developed in 1900, and which had become almost commonplace by 1910, in a few decades of dizzying technical and engineering change.

I was taught that T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land and James Joyce in Ulysses and Alfred Döblin in Berlin Alexanderplatz and John Dos Passos in U.S.A. use techniques of collage, parody and fragmentation to convey the disorientating experience of life in modern, fast-moving cities and the way it had uprooted sensitive people from their cultural and communal identities, producing a blizzard of fragmented experiences.

The City of Ambitions (1910) by Alfred Stieglitz. Courtesy of the George Eastman Museum

The City of Ambitions (1910) by Alfred Stieglitz. Courtesy of the George Eastman Museum

Same with the photomontages of Alexander Rodchenko and the Russian Constructivists, or the zealous machine-worship of the Futurists, or the angularities of the Vorticists, or the geometric forms of Fernand Léger, or the Suprematism of Kazimir Malevich, or the shock close-ups and split screens and montages of Sergei Eisenstein, or the grid pictures of Piet Mondrian which began life as attempts to capture the energy of fast-moving traffic around modern city blocks.

I was taught that all of these undeniably ‘modernist’ books and artworks were first and foremost responses to what many artists felt was the disruptive impact of a host of new technologies on modern life. They have nothing – visually or intellectually – to do with love and desire.

So it’s a surprise to realise that this indisputably key element of Modernism – the hectic, alienating, urban, machine-riddled aspect of the Modernist movement – is largely absent from this exhibition. If it’s mentioned at all it is only to be quickly downplayed.

Thus when the exhibition describes the Futurist poet and provocateur, Marinetti it does so mainly in order to prove that his partner, Benedetta, was a pioneering artist in her own right, who feistily stood up to Marinetti’s misogynist rhetoric and co-wrote a lot of his most famous works.

Fair enough, but this perspective downplays Marinetti’s importance as (half-crazed) apostle of The Machine – of the new age of fast cars, planes and trains, a mania which influenced the Surrealists in Paris and the Vorticists in London.

Room 20, devoted to Russian Modernism, describes the artistic output of Alexander Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova, Lilya Brk and Osip Brik, and Vladimir Mayakovsky mainly in terms of their fluid relationships and collaborations i.e. in order to justify the curators’ central premise.

What is underplayed is the crucial importance of The Machine Age to their development of new styles of photography and photomontage, design, experimental film and so on – radical responses to the impact of new technologies on human life which were so acute and perceptive that many of them still influence us to this day.

A. Rodchenko and V. Stepanova descending from an airplane in a still for the film The General Line by Sergei Eisenstein (1926) a very rare appearance of a machine in an exhibition overwhelmingly devoted to bodies and desire. Courtesy Rodchenko and Stepanova Archives, Moscow

A. Rodchenko and V. Stepanova descending from an airplane in a still for the film The General Line by Sergei Eisenstein (1926). A very rare appearance of a machine in an exhibition overwhelmingly devoted to bodies and desire. Courtesy Rodchenko and Stepanova Archives, Moscow

Some of the exhibition wall labels do refer to the new experience of the modern city, a bit, where absolutely necessary, reluctantly – but overall the exhibition systematically downplays or ignores it in order to focus on its core concern – with relationships, love, ‘desire’ and the female body.

For me, this is simply to ignore, underplay and obscure a vital element in early 20th century avant-garde modernist art and literature.

Moreover, if you think about it, the curators’ unrelenting focus on love, sex and (generally) women’s bodies leads to a deep irony.

By choosing to equate Modernism exclusively with love and desire, an exhibition which sets out to reject sexist stereotypes of women in a subtle way ends up limiting women to – the realm of the emotions, of love and desire.

An exhibition which ostensibly sets out to tell us that women were interested in more than just the stereotypical concerns of love and sex (they were also successful businesswomen and designers), paradoxically goes to great lengths to tell us in sometimes embarrassing detail about the love lives, partners and sensuality and eroticism of these same women.

Which tends to have the cumulative affect of confirming the stereotypical prejudice that women, at the end of the day, aren’t interested in wider ideas, social change, technology, science and engineering, in designing better engines, cars, planes and trains.

No, with a handful of exceptions, most of the women in this exhibition are described as being predominantly interested – in their lives and art and writing – in love and sex. The lesbians, gays and transgender people, too, are defined, categorised and interpreted in the light of their sexual preferences, not in any wider social or intellectual concerns.

[At a more remote level, for people who don’t give a damn about art or artists (90+% of the population), this exhibition confirms every philistine prejudice they’ve ever held about the art world, namely that it’s a Sodom and Gomorrah of sexual perversion, infidelity, adultery and pornography. (There is quite a lot of nudity on display, as you’d expect in an exhibition about desire and the body, lots of bare boobs and one or two naked penises. Visitors are warned that the room about the Surrealists’ ‘Chance Encounter’ has so much explicit content that it might not be suitable for under-16s. Oooh er.)]

Meanwhile, beyond the artists’ studios and bedrooms in the 1910s and 20s, there was an immense and exciting world – the world of motorbikes and racing cars and fast trains and ocean liners and skyscrapers and high speed elevators and escalators and department stores and cinemas and world wars and machine guns and tanks and airplanes, the world where people tested themselves against machines, climbed mountains, did solo flights across the Atlantic.

But all this is ignored, left out, omitted, elided and glossed over, in the curators’ keenness to assert that the essence of Modernism was… love and desire, marriages and mistresses, ‘transgressive sexuality’, ‘the queer citizen’, ‘women’s liberation’, ‘same-sex acceptance’ and so on.

It is difficult to read every word of all the wall labels, not only because there are so many of them, but also because so many of them end up saying the same thing. The circumstantial details of each artist and their relationships maybe be distinct and individual but so many of the labels take us to the same destination – explaining that so and so made ‘the body’ the centre of their practice or ‘the site of transgressive desire’ or an epitome of ‘queer citizenship’, and so on.

The explosively diverse and often fascinating works of many of these artists are time after time reduced, interpreted via the same handful of ideas which rotate obsessively around sex, ‘desire’, the body, and transgressing gender stereotypes.

It is, in my opinion, both a narrow view of Modern Art, and a very narrow view of the female, lesbian and gay achievement of the time, both in the art world and beyond.

A tsunami of information

So much for the core ideas of the exhibition, and my issue with some of them.

The actual experience of visiting Modern Couples is to be completely overwhelmed by a tsunami of names and stories. The two floors of the Barbican Gallery have been divided up into some 23 small rooms, into most of which have been crammed displays about at least two sets of couples, with each couple introduced and explained by sometimes lengthy texts on the wall, as well as scores and scores of key quotes from the respective artists and authors.

It’s a lot to take in – to read the explanation of each couple, and then try and match the quotes to what you’ve just read about their lives – and then to find the energy to look at the actual art works.

To give you a sense of the scale and the deluge of information, here’s the list of the Artist Couples:

  • Aino and Alvar Aalto
  • Vanessa Bell and Roger Fry
  • Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant
  • Lilya Brik and Vladimir Mayakovsky
  • Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore
  • Benedetta and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti
  • Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst
  • Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin
  • Nancy Cunard and Henry Crowder
  • Sonia Delaunay and Robert Delaunay
  • Lili Elbe And Gerda Wegener
  • Emilie Flöge and Gustav Klimt
  • Federico García Lorca and Salvador Dalí
  • Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov
  • Eileen Gray and Jean Badovici
  • Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson
  • Hannah Höch and Til Brugman
  • Hannah Höch and Raoul Hausmann
  • Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera
  • Dora Maar and Pablo Picasso
  • Alma Mahler and Oskar Kokoschka
  • Alma Mahler and Gustav Mahler
  • Maria Martins and Marcel Duchamp
  • Margrethe Mather and Edward Weston
  • Lee Miller and Man Ray
  • Lee Miller and Roland Penrose
  • Tina Modotti and Edward Weston
  • Lucia Moholy and László Moholy-Nagy
  • Gabriele Münter and Wassily Kandinsky
  • Winifred Nicholson and Ben Nicholson
  • Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz
  • PaJaMa: Paul Cadmus, Jared French, and Margaret French
  • George Platt Lynes, Monroe Wheeler and Glenway Wescott
  • Lavinia Schultz and Walter Holdt
  • Varvara Stepanova and Alexander Rodchenko
  • Sophie Taeuber-Arp and Jean Arp
  • Toyen and Jindrich Štyrský
  • Marianne von Werefkin and Alexej von Jawlensky
  • Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West
  • Virginia Woolf and Leonard Woolf
  • Unica Zürn and Hans Bellmer

That’s a lot of biographies to read and digest, that’s a lot of names to remember.

Nude with Poppies (1916) by Vanessa Bell. Swindon Art Gallery

Nude with Poppies (1916) by Vanessa Bell. Swindon Art Gallery

Here are the names, careers, art and writing of the ‘Sapphists’ featured in just one room, the one dedicated to ‘The Temple of Friendship’ i.e. the lesbian writers and artists of 1920s Paris:

  • Djuna Barnes and Thelma Wood
  • Natalie Clifford-Barney and Romaine Brooks
  • Natalie Clifford Barney and Rémy de Gourmont
  • Natalie Clifford-Barney and Liane de Pougy
  • Natalie Clifford Barney and Renée Vivien
  • Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier
  • Luisa Casati
  • Radclyffe Hall and Una Troubridge
  • Tamara de Lempicka
  • Ida Rubinstein
  • Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas

And that’s before you get to the artists featured in the Surrealist ‘Chance Encounter’ room, namely:

  • Eileen Agar and Joseph Bard
  • Eileen Agar and Paul Nash
  • Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy
  • Leonor Fini and André Pieyre de Mandiargues
  • Gala and Salvador Dalí
  • Gala, Paul Éluard and Max Ernst
  • Valentine Hugo and André Breton
  • Jacqueline Lamba and André Breton
  • Kiki de Montparnasse and Man Ray
  • Nadja and André Breton
  • Nusch and Paul Éluard
  • Grace Pailthorpe and Reuben Mednikoff
  • Valentine Penrose and Alice Rahon
  • Valentine Penrose and Roland Penrose
  • Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst
Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst with his sculpture, Capricorn, 1947 © John Kasnetsis

Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst with his sculpture, Capricorn, 1947 © John Kasnetsis

Not only must the visitor assimilate this tsunami of names, relationships and diversity of artistic and literary practices, but every visitor to the exhibition is given a free handout, a ‘glossary’, which includes even more themes to think about.

For when the curators had collated this much information about this many people and assembled this many works all in one place – it turns to be an interesting exercise to detect all kinds of further links and connections between the huge diversity of artists, activities or artworks on show.

Thus the free handout suggests that, as you walk round the exhibition, you look out for the following themes:

  • Activism
  • Agency – ‘Feminism, agency and the desire for independence underpins much of the work by women artists in the avant-garde period.’
  • Breaking up
  • Businesswomen – Emilie Flöge, Sonia Delaunay, Aino Aalto
  • Chance encounter
  • Chloe liked Olivia – quote from Virginia Woolf epitomising ‘the new queer citizen of the 20th century’
  • Clandestine
  • Co-authored – or collaboration, one of the show’s central themes.
  • Communicating vessels – ‘Two different bodies, rubbed against one another, attain, through the spark, their supreme unity in fire’ – André Breton, 1932.
  • Collage
  • Daring – ‘What have I dared embark upon by entering your life?’ Dora Maar to Picasso, 1936.
  • Desire
  • Elegy – ‘Butterflies represent a scene of your life in which the dawn awakens on your lips. A star takes shape according to your design.’ Jean Arp remembering Sophie Taeuber-Arp after her death.
  • Escape to the country
  • Feminism – ‘We will be better than the wife, the mother or the sister of a man, we will be the female brother of the man’ – Natalie Clifford Barney
  • Gift
  • Homoeroticism – ‘The work that came out of Monroe Wheeler, Glenway Wescott and George Platt Lynes’s at times uneasy polyamorous relationship opened up a queer utopian space, away from 1930s American conservatism, in which the male subject could be liberated.’
  • Intimacy
  • Liberation – sexual liberation, liberation from Victorian clothing and Victorian morality, liberation from constricting fabrics and dull designs, liberation from boring interiors, liberation from artistic naturalism and even from language
  • Love
  • Mad love
  • Mirroring – ‘I am one, you are the other. Or the opposite. Our desires meet one another.’ Claude Cohun, 1930.
  • Muse – Dora Maar took photos of her lover Picasso in ‘a turnaround of gender expectations‘.
  • Mythology
  • Nest
  • Non-binary – ‘Gender fluidity, sexual empowerment, awakening, and the fight for safe spaces of becoming, were part of the avant-garde currency.’
  • Play
  • Printed word – ‘It could be a political text, a perfect branding platform, a token of love, a site of artistic collaboration or a platform for transgressive or erotic content.’
  • Procreation
  • Publishing – Many modernists experimented with setting up their own publishing company, most notably the Hogarth Press of Leonard and Virginia Woolf.
  • Pygmalion
  • Radical abstraction
  • Reinvention – The importance of the portrait, in art and literature. Claude Cohun and Marcel Moore, life partners for 45 years, and produced a huge body of work playing with ‘gender politics‘.
  • Revolution – Alexander Rodchenko and partner Varvara Stepanova’s revulsion for the West’s cult of ‘Woman as object’ and determination to embrace ‘gender equality‘.
  • Selfie
  • Sidelined – women sidelined by men, obviously
  • Total work of art
  • Triadic
  • Two-people movements – Rayism invented by Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov, the Mask Dancer movement of Lavinia Schultz and Walter Holdt, the Tactilism of Benedetta and Filippo Marinetti, the Orphism of Sonia and Robert Delaunay.
  • Utopia
  • War
  • X-rated – ‘Many artists in this exhibition used eroticism in their art as a way of fighting bourgeois conformity, propaganda and artistic censorship.’

Is that enough to think about yet?

A self-portrait by Claude Cahun, subverting gender stereotypes. Courtesy of Jersey Heritage Collections

A self-portrait by Claude Cahun, subverting gender stereotypes. Courtesy of Jersey Heritage Collections

This is what the exhibition is like. Overflowing with texts, quotes, references, biographical data, artistic theory and, underpinning it all, emerging sooner or later in every wall label for every artist – the axioms of modern identity politics and feminism – gender politics, the body, gender fluidity, transgressive art, gender equality, and so on.

Numbers

I counted a total of 103 paragraphs of wall text – sometimes very long, densely factual paragraphs. It would take at least an hour just to read them, and that’s before the 50 or so quotes from artists’ letters, diaries and so on.

There are over 40 couples, but many more ‘couples-plus’ – groups and movements of artists and writers to get a handle on – with the result that the exhibition features more than 80 writers and artists in total.

And there are a staggering 600 objects on display, including paintings, sculptures, models, furniture, personal photographs, love letters, gifts, books – 35 first editions from Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press – magazines, rare archival material and much, much more!

Les deux amies (1923) by Tamara de Lempicka. Association des Amis du Petit Palais, Geneve

Les deux amies (1923) by Tamara de Lempicka. Association des Amis du Petit Palais, Geneve. A portrait of two naked women painted by a woman!

In the event, this was simply too much for me to take in. I started off dutifully reading every wall text but quickly got tired, saturated, full up – I started skimming some and then just ignored others. I went round about five times, each time reading at new bits of text, toying with quotes here and there – above all, trying to let the actual art fight its way through the jungle of biography and interpretation and bitty quotations and make its impact.

I came to roughly two conclusions.

1. One is that, if you’re a student or have an educational motivation, this is a spectacular opportunity to see works great and small, by artists famous and obscure, by men, women, gays, lesbians and trans people, from what feels like all the most important art movements of the early 20th century.

(In fact it’s far from being a complete overview of early 20th century art – that would fill ten Barbican galleries – but it is an impressive stab at conveying a really comprehensive overview of important modern art as retold with women, gays and lesbians to the fore.)

2. The second point is that among the 600 paintings, books, photos and furniture on display there are some real masterpieces, many on loan from abroad, and so a rare opportunity to see many beautiful things in the flesh.

Small is not necessarily beautiful

In this respect – my response to the art – I found the smaller, more cramped rooms to be unconducive to aesthetic enjoyment.

For example, the small first room which is shared by the story of Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin, and the story of Maria Martins and Marcel Duchamp, included some plaster busts and faces by the former pair, and some bronze casts of Maria’s body parts (her buttocks and vagina) made by Duchamp. But it was so small, cramped and crowded that it felt more like a reading and learning space, than an art space.

The reduction ad absurdum of this shoehorn approach was the way that the no doubt complex and interesting working relationship between modernist designer Lilly Reich and her long-term partner and collaborator, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, was explained via one chrome and black leather chair and three paragraphs of text plonked at the bottom of the stairs to the first floor.

He claimed to be the sole designer of this classic and hugely influential chair. Only decades later did it emerge that she had as least as much input as he did into the design. What a beast!

Barcelona chair by Mies van der Rohe (1929)

Barcelona chair by Mies van der Rohe (1929)

Interesting story, but blink and you might miss it altogether.

The show is co-curated by Emma Lavigne, Director of the Centre Pompidou in Metz. The French connection made me think of some of the smaller displays as types of ‘bonnes bouches’ or ‘tasty bites’ – fleeting treats designed to add to the overall argument, but whose main function would be to inspire you to go away and find out more.

Big rooms where art can breathe

By contrast, I only really felt comfortable – and that I was really getting an aesthetic kick (as opposed to processing large amounts of biographical and art information) – in some of the larger rooms. There were plenty of other highlights, but I would single out rooms 14, 15 and 17.

Room 17 displayed the work of two and a half couples: of the English artist Ben Nicholson, who 1. enjoyed a close working relationship with Winifred Nicholson (whom he married) in the early 1930s before 2. then partnering with the sculptor Barbara Hepworth. The wall labels quote letters they exchanged in which they spoke of becoming, literally, one person, with one taste and one artistic motivation.

In this same room, on the opposite wall, was a suite of work by Jean Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp. I found the juxtaposition of the sculptural abstractions of Nicholson and Hepworth with the playful abstracts of Arp really interesting.

But I was transfixed by the four or five 18-inch-high marionettes made by Sophie Taeuber-Arp for a puppet production of a folk tale about King Stagg. These possessed something almost nothing else in the exhibition did – which was charm and humour.

Marionettes by Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1918)

Marionettes by Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1918)

Room 15 is a rare example of a room devoted to just one couple, in this case the wife-and-husband partnership between Sonia and Robert Delaunay (who were married from 1910 to Robert’s death in 1941). This married couple developed a movement variously titled Simultanism and then Orphism, in which different patterns of colours are set against each other to create disruptive effects.

The Delaunay room benefited immensely from being just about them, with no other couple squeezed in. It had more than twenty works hung around the walls, most of them – from what I could see – the calm, restful abstract designs by Sonia, mostly for fabrics and dresses. This made for a really absorbing and beautiful space.

Design B53 (1924) by Sonia Delaunay

Design B53 (1924) by Sonia Delaunay

But the room I found it literally hard to leave and, even when I’d left it, found myself walking round the entire ground floor in order to visit again with a renewed frisson of delight, was room 14 devoted to the overlapping artistic partnerships of Gabriele Münter and Wassily Kandinsky, and Marianne von Werefkin and Alexej von Jawlensky.

This foursome produced German Expressionist paintings of wonderful colour and vivid design at their self-styled artist colony at Murnau in Bavaria, in the years just before the Great War. Wow.

I liked lots of other things in the exhibition (the enormous painting of naked lesbians by Tamara de Lempicka, the thrilling Constructivist photos of Varvara Stepanova and Alexander Rodchenko, the dazzling photos of Lee Miller done by Man Ray, the couple of small but wonderful paintings by Gustav Klimt, some of the abstract paintings produced by Roger Grant and Vanessa Bell’s Omega Workshop, the wonderfully aloof portraits painted by Romaine Brooks), but for sheer visual pleasure, nothing beat this room of hyper-bright, vivid brushstrokes, bold childlike designs, and colour-drenched splashes and flourishes by this German foursome.

Improvisation III by Wassily Kandinsky (1909)

Improvisation III by Wassily Kandinsky (1909)

Probably I should have been reading up on how their work ‘subverted’ this or that tradition, and ‘challenged gender stereotypes’, or how the two women definitely contributed as much or more to their commune as the men.

But I switched off all that curatorial chatter, and just stood in awe of these wonderful, beautiful, transcendent works of art. No reproductions can do justice to the shiny vibrancy of the real thing in the flesh. Go and see them for yourself.

Conclusion

It must have taken an immense amount of effort by the four co-curators to bring together such an epic collection of objects and art works and to bring order, coherence and meaning to the multiple stories behind them.

If you are a feminist I can see how this exhibition of feminist artists lovingly assembled by feminist curators with scores of texts by feminist scholars would thunderingly confirm all your feminist beliefs. That’s what it’s designed to do.

And I wondered, as I left, whether this exhibition now and in the future, might be seen as a landmark show, a really massive rethinking of early 20th century modern art which reinstates women’s stories in all these important relationships, and often rehabilitates them as being as, if not more, creative than their male partners.

And also for the way it explores the idea that modern art was characterised, more than any previous type of art, by its collaborative nature, by the way it was produced by partnerships, by trios or quartets, by small groups working, thinking and making together.

It is a strong, well-argued, illuminating and very thought-provoking show.

But, that said, it’s hard to imagine that a lot of these artists and their stories won’t already be well known to the average gallery goer – the stories of Picasso and Dora, Frida and Diego, Virginia and Vita and the names of Dali, Ernst, Man Ray, Klimt, Marinetti, Nicholson and Hepworth are hardly unknown, and the notion that, ‘behind every great man there’s a great woman’, is hardly a radical thought – as indicated by the fact that there’s a centuries-old proverb on the subject.

Similarly, it’s hard to imagine that the fact that there were lesbian writers in the 1920s or gay photographers in the 1930s, will come as a great surprise to the average gallery goer. Homosexuality is not really news to most people. Most of the people the exhibition is targeted at will, I suspect, have heard of Virginia Woolf before, and will know she had a lesbian affair with Vita Sackville-West.

My position, after forty years of studying twentieth century art, literature and history, is that the Century of Catastrophes is too diverse and complex to be reduced to any one narrative or interpretation. From about the 1890s onwards there was (and still is) too much going on in an interconnected world of billions of human beings for any one narrative or story to hope to tell any kind of definitive ‘truth’.

For example, this is an exhibition, at bottom, about European and American white women, often very wealthy women (Nancy Cunard, Natalie Barney). You can immediately see that focusing on these often very privileged people tends to omit the stories of working class people of both genders in those continents. You could be forgiven for not realising there were things called the First World War and the Russian Revolution during the period the exhibition covers. Not enough ‘same sex desire’ to merit inclusion.

Similarly, there is precious little (surprisingly) about the black experience of modernity (there is one black person in the exhibition, the jazz musician Henry Crowder, who is included because of his influence over the immensely wealthy patron of the arts and writer, Nancy Cunard).

In fact, now I think about it, jazz is a crashingly obvious and central element of Modernism, from Stravinsky to Eliot, and is depicted in countless modernist art works. But it doesn’t fit with the curators’ insistence that Modernism be defined by couples, love and relationships, sex and partners and gender and desire and so… it isn’t here.

My view is that the ‘Modern’ experience of humanity, the bewildering catalogue of technological, scientific and cultural change which overwhelmed Homo sapiens in the early twentieth century – is too vast and multiform for any one narrative to encompass.

The curators make a powerful and persuasive case that Modernism was characterised above all by new thinking about love, eroticism, desire and relationships, much of which promoted the liberation of women (and trans people and gays).

Lee Miller with a cast of her torso, Downshire Hill, London, England 1940 by Roland Penrose © Roland Penrose

Lee Miller with a cast of her torso, Downshire Hill, London, England 1940 by Roland Penrose
© Roland Penrose

I accept all their points as valid, and the body of evidence they’ve assembled is pulverisingly persuasive. And yet I still think that an equal if not more important element of Modernism was artists’ reaction to the revolution in everyday life caused by new technologies. And everyone’s world was turned upside down by the Great War. And the entire intellectual world was galvanised by the radicalism of the Russian Revolution. And I haven’t mentioned the famously disruptive discoveries of Einstein and others, undermining the static view of the forces of nature held since Newton. Too much was happening. No wonder the art from this period is so excited and effervescent.

Alternative interpretations

But I’m well aware that my own interpretation can itself be trumped by other competing narratives. That there are numerous ways of looking at this period of cultural history.

For example, arguably the most important aspect of the era was the collapse of the old European empires – the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman Empires. The entire art of the period could be interpreted in terms of the breakdown of the ideologies, laws and customs which supported them, of which conventions about relations between the sexes are just a small sub-set.

Or there’s a Marxist interpretation which suggests that the era was characterised by unprecedented wealth derived from the West’s imperialist domination of the rest of the world – wealth which gave rise to a new class of super-rich collectors and connoisseurs who patronised ‘modern’ art and literature and experimented with new ‘decadent’ lifestyles. (Vide Nancy Cunard, Natalie Barney and the numerous other rich American women who populate the 1920s lesbian room).

Or there’s a strong post-colonial interpretation which says that the decisive impetus for Modernism and its revolutionary overthrow of 400 years of realistic art came from the cultural appropriation of the African masks and Oceanic art looted by imperial collectors, which were enthusiastically copied by Picasso and Matisse, and which had a transformative effect on everyone who followed them.

To give just a few of the most obvious interpretations of the art of the period.

This exhibition is an impressive and stimulating attempt to write one particular story about early twentieth century art. But it is only one interpretation among a sea of alternative stories.

The promotional video

P.S. What does ‘modern’ mean?

When I told my wife I was off to see an exhibition titled ‘Modern Couples’ she thought it would be a V&A-style celebration of contemporary celebrity pairs like Elton John and David Furnish, the Beckhams, Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, and so on.

No, I explained. When art and literary critics say ‘modern’ what they mean is art from the 1900s, 1910s and 20s. They mean art and literature which is over a hundred years old. That’s what they mean by ‘modern’.

And even as I explained it, I realised how odd this use of the word ‘modern’ is. Eventually this stuff is going to be 150 years old. Will we still be describing it as ‘modern’ in 2050? At what point will someone have to come up with a better name? Or will Modernist art remain ‘modern’ forever?


Related links

Women in art

Reviews of artists featured in this exhibition

Reviews of previous exhibitions & concerts at the Barbican

Sagittarius Rising by Cecil Lewis (1936)

I’ve just read Storm of Steel by Ernst Jünger, a classic account of trench warfare on the Western Front during World War One, which is based on the detailed diaries Jünger kept from 1915 to 1918, featuring, among numerous other fights, his part in the Battle of the Somme.

Notoriously, Jünger’s account is so close to the events it describes that it is often difficult to understand quite what’s going on – as it often was for the troops on the ground. Storm of Steel became so well-known precisely because it is an intensely immediate and visceral account, a moment-by-moment description of comrades being shot, blown up, shredded, sniped, burnt by flares or eviscerated by shellfire as they advance, fighting and shooting, chucking grenades and grappling in hand-to-hand combat with the foe. Jünger himself was repeatedly wounded, picking up some 20 wounds in all. The descriptions of fighting are so intense and immediate that the only lyricism which emerges is a kind of visionary hymn to war itself, to the supposedly purifying and transforming experience of danger, injury and pain.

Sagittarius Rising, Cecil Lewis’s account of the three years he spent flying airplanes over the Western Front – exactly contemporary to Jünger, and also taking part in the Battle of the Somme – couldn’t be more different.

The benefit of hindsight

The key difference is that Lewis didn’t come to write his account until nearly 20 after the events he describes, in 1935, the finished book being published in 1936. This has a number of consequences. It means everything he writes is coloured by his knowledge of not only who won the war, but of what the long-term consequences of Allied victory would turn out to be i.e. chaos across Europe and then the rise of Hitler.

But it also means he can’t remember a lot of what happened. Although he kept a flight log as part of his job, and he has it open on his table as he writes, the entries are so clipped and official that he himself admits that he often has no memory of the events they describe. In a couple of places he quotes them verbatim and then laments that he now has no memory at all of so many of the events he recorded.

I am like a man on a rise, looking back over a plain where white ground mists lie, seeing isolated trees and roofs, upthrust haphazard, floating on the sea, without apparent connection with the lanes and fields beneath. I remember only incidents, and lose the vivid landscape of time. (p.80)

Instead of the searing relentlessness of the Jünger, then, what we get is something far more fragmented, and infinitely more mellow and reflective.

The 266-page text is divided into nine chapters (in fact the last three of these describe Lewis’s career after the war ended). But these ‘chapters’ are really just buckets into which he has gathered together impressions, vignettes, memories and reflections from particular periods and postings. The actual text is made up of hundreds of short passages, none of them more than three pages long, many of them less than a page long.

World government

And knowing what he does, how the war ended, who lived and who died, how ‘victory’ was frittered away by the post-war politicians – and writing as he does, in 1935, with Hitler in full flood and the dark clouds of another war looming close – the book is drenched with hindsight about fallen colleagues, poignant laments for his own naivety, and dark forebodings of what is to come.

In fact there’s a surprising number of passages where Lewis completely switches from memoir mode into discussion of contemporary politics, and warnings about the contemporary situation in Europe 1935, passages where he passionately argues that what the world needs to avoid another war is some kind of World Government which will rise above the petty rivalries of nation states driven by fear. In these passages he is clearly echoing thinkers like H.G. Wells, who was one of the leading proponents of a World Government.

The influence of modernism

And there is another, stylistic, difference from Jünger’s book, another indication of the way the book was written twenty years after the fact. This is that Lewis has absorbed the lessons of the Modernist writers who became widely known after the war, suggestions about how to play with form and experiment with voice and style. This impact is visible in at least two ways:

One is the way the text is highly fragmented: not in order to be deliberately disorientating, just that it’s made up of lots and lots of short scenes and vignettes, which create a scrapbook, mosaic effect.

Second is that he’s relaxed about writing the vignettes in different styles. The opening couple of pages describing him and a friend as keen young public schoolboys wanting to join the Royal Flying Corps have the jolly chaps tone of late Victorian boys adventure stories. In sharp contrast, he has several passages describing what he imagines his mother must have felt about him running off to war and these are written in a sensitive style which bends the rules of narrative and goes right inside her head to give us her thoughts and anxieties directly described in a mild stream-of-consciousness style that reminds me of Virginia Woolf.

Other passages describing the terror he felt on his first few flights, and the first few times the planes had problems and he experienced real panic, are done in a full-on stream-of-consciousness way but more disrupted and anxious in feel.

By contrast, in the many sections about the specifications and performance of the planes themselves, Lewis’s prose is as factual and clear as an engineering manual.

In one passage, describing three airmen out on the town in a French village behind the lines, where one of them pairs off with (sleeps with) a pretty 18 year old girl – the whole thing is told in the third person, like a short story plonked down in the middle of an otherwise first-person memoir, although we gather he’s describing something he himself experienced.

To any modern reader none of this presents a challenge. But it’s interesting to observe how fully techniques and approaches which were new and daring in the hands of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce had obviously become accepted and absorbed into mainstream writing by 1935.

Themes and variations

1. His mother

It’s only around page 100 that we meet his father, who appears to have gone off to live by himself in Devon and devote himself to ruminating on philosophy and the meaning of life, happy to sound off about Marx and Socialism on the rare occasions when Lewis goes to visit him (pp. 112-115). The first hundred pages are much more dominated by his mother who – presumably – brought him up alone. There are many deeply evocative descriptions of the landscape of the Surrey Hills where he grew up.

His mother appears in a series of short scenes, dominated by his guilt. As an impetuous, ungrateful 17-year-old all Lewis wanted to do was run off to join the air force. Only now, as he writes in middle age, does he realise how callow and unfeeling he was, and how his mother must have suffered agonies of anxiety. For example, he meets hismother in the Piccadilly Grill after his first training flight.

‘Well, dear, how did you get on?’
‘Pretty well.’
‘Did you go up?’
‘Yes!’
‘Oh!’ there was a faint tremor in her voice. (Not already! This only son, in the air, and a moment ago he played at her feet. Not already! Not to be snatched away already…) (p.20)

See how he almost immediately takes us into her mind and worries.

It is a sign of Lewis’s maturity and character that he includes these scenes, and that he obviously took as much care crafting them as the other, more obvious ones, about flying and the war. They’re touching in themselves and an indication of the benefits of waiting twenty years and really mulling over the whole situation, as it affected those around him. (pp. 34, pp. 72-74)

2. Women

It was the 1930s and so authors could write more openly about sex than in the 1910s. And because the narrative is by way of being a sort of coming-of-age story (as Lewis says, instead of university, he had the Western Front) a silver thread runs through the book recounting his experiences with girls.

Remember he was only seventeen when the story begins, and we find him walking a pretty girl home along quiet Surrey lanes on his last evening before going to training camp (pp. 26-27). He is in agonies of embarrassment and shyness before it is she who invites him to give her one, quick, chaste kiss.

Next, more confidently, he takes ‘Eleanor’ out for a champagne meal and a box at the theatre, but, when she invites him into her place, they simply sit in front of the fire until she lets him kiss her once, and then, yawning, dismisses him. He was bursting with ardour and impatience, but didn’t know how to proceed, what to do or say. Looking back as a middle-aged man he can’t help wondering what might have been. (pp. 34-36).

A year or so later, having got his flying licence and experienced life among men, we see him getting drunk with two comrades in an estaminet behind the lines, where the two filles de joie accompanying his pals find him a girl, the pale, slender mistress of a French officer who, in her master’s absence, grants Cecil her favours (pp. 66-69). It is revealing that this story has to be told in the third person, as if it is a fictional short story.

Later still, our hero comes back to the French cottage he’s billeted on, roaring drunk from an officers’ piss-up, and yells through to the coarse peasant woman he’s been billeted on, and she sleepily shouts ‘oui’ from her bedroom, so that – we understand – he can go in and shag her.

Thus the book charts his progress from timidly innocent virgin to drunken debauchee in less than two years.

In another bravura passage he describes a secret location in Kensington where off-duty officers could go to party, to dance to the music of a jazz band and to pick up girls. He takes a willing slender young thing up to the balcony to stare at the stars, to be intensely in the moment. Having dispensed with Victorian hypocrisy, he has reached the stage of being an utterly unillisioned healthy young animal after animal fun (pp. 157-160).

3. The planes

Lewis loves the planes. He includes as much technical information and descriptions of the designs, layouts, flyability, shortcomings and advantages of all the models he gets to fly as he can, and, he assures us that in his three years of service he flew every plane available on the Western Front. Thus he gives us detailed accounts of the:

  • Maurice Farman Longhorn (p.22)
  • Maurice Farman Shorthorn
  • BE 2B (p.30)
  • BE 2C (pp.42, 116)
  • Avro
  • Morane biplane
  • Sopwith Triplane (p.133) his favourite
  • SE5 (p.136)
  • Higher-powered SE5 (p.150)
  • Spad (p.161)
  • Sopwith Camel (p.165)
  • Handley Page (p.198)
  • DH4 (p.198)

So when Lewis is eventually posted back to Britain, to a squadron tasked with trying out new designs of plane, he is in ‘paradise’ (p.132).

Throughout the book are sprinkled wonderful passages describing the freedom of the skies and the joy of flying, combined with the constant awareness of death looming at any moment in the form of enemy planes, and the awareness of the limitations and foibles of the plane he’s flying.

He really makes you feel the exhilarating freedom of flying those rattly old death-traps high up above the clouds into the clean clear blue of the empyrean.

4. The joy of flying

The upper rim of the circle of fire dipped finally behind the clouds, and a bunch of rays, held as it were in some invisible quiver, shot a beam high into the arc of heaven, where it turned a wraith of cirrus cloud to marvellous gold. The lofty shade had covered the visible earth, and beauty lingered only in the sky. It turned colder… I remembered suddenly the warmth of the mess fire and the faces of friends. It would be good to be down again. I turned towards home and throttled down. The engine roar died. The wind sang gently in the wires. A long steady glide carried me inland. Now that the engine was off and the warm air did not blow through the cockpit, I grew chilly and beat my hands on my thighs. It was cold at ten thousand in March. I opened up the engine again to feel its warmth. Slowly the aerodrome rose up through the gauzy swathes of mist spun by the invisible hands of twilight. Above, the cirrus turned copper, faded to pink and mauve, and at last drifted grey and shroud like in the vast arena of the darkening heaven. I must hurry, It would  be night before I was down. Over the sheds at four thousand I went into a vertical bank and rushed earthwards in a tight spiral. At a thousand I pulled out, feeling a bit sick, burst my engine to make sure of the plugs, and then cautiously felt my way in over the hangars and touched with that gentle easy rumble which means a perfect landing, turned, and taxied in. (p.55)

Aged just 18. What an experience!

5. Landscapes

The book is littered with wonderful descriptions of landscape, beginning with the misty mornings in the Surrey Hills where he grew up, and including a phenomenal description of flying from Kent back to France and being able, mid-Channel, to look down and see the landmarks in both countries, and the little ships like toys sailing across the foam-tipped water.

I was particularly taken by this lyrical description of the country surrounding the River Somme.

Beyond the village, towards the lines, where the poplars started again to flank the dusty road, was the aerodrome. A row of Bessoneau hangars (canvas-covered, wooden-framed sheds holding four machines each) backed onto a small orchard where the squadron officers stood. The sheds faced the lines, fifteen miles away; but they were hidden from our direct view by the rolling undulations of the ground. It was that wide featureless landscape typical of northern France, miles and miles of cultivated fields, some brown from the plough, others green with the springing crops, receding to the horizon in immense vistas of peaceful fertility – the sort of country that makes you understand why the French love their earth. A mile or two south of the road, and running more or less parallel to it, lay the shallow valley of the Somme. the lovely river wandered, doubling heedlessly upon itself, through copses of polar and willow, split into diverse channels where water-weeds streamed in long swathes, lazily curling and uncurling along the placid surface, and flooded out over marshes where sedge and bulrushes hid the nests of the wild-duck, the coot, and the heron. It was always there on our right hand as we left the aerodrome for the lines, an infinitely peaceful companion, basking under a haze at midday, cool and mysterious when mists stole out of the dusk. A sort of contrapuntal theme, it played against our short staccato madness an immortal bass, whose notes, serene and timeless, would ring on when this war was a story of no more moment to the world than Alexander’s, dead in the dust of Babylon. (p.73)

6. Detachment and futility

From up in the sky he can see the beautiful countryside stretching for 20, 30, 40 miles either side of the Front. And then he can look down on the tiny ant-creatures murdering each other and turning the countryside into a hellscape.

His own psychological predisposition to the lyrical and beautiful and the distance which comes from twenty years of hindsight reinforce the simple detachment which must have been been created by flying so high above the scene. They combine to produce a series of passages of heartfelt anger, rage and contempt at the folly of war and the pitifulness of humanity, at ‘human fury and stupidity’ (p.97). There’s no shortage of long passages, or short references, where Lewis lets us know his full opinion of the futility of war.

The war below us was a spectacle. We aided and abetted it, admiring the tenacity of men who fought in verminous filth to take the next trench thirty yards away. But such objectives could not thrill us, who, when we raised our eyes, could see objective after objective receding, fifty, sixty, seventy miles beyond. Indeed, the fearful thing about the war became its horrible futility, the mountainous waste of life and wealth to stake a mile or two of earth. There was so much beyond. Viewed with detachment, it had all the elements of grotesque comedy – a prodigious and complex effort, cunningly contrived, and carried out with deadly seriousness, in order to achieve just nothing at all. It was Heath Robinson raised to the nth power – a fantastic caricature of common sense. But the humour was grim, fit only for the gods to laugh at, since to the participants it was a sickening death-struggle, in which both sides would evidently be exhausted, both defeated, and both eager, when they had licked their wounds, to fly at each other’s throats again. (p.82)

And what did it look like, the war – from up there?

Just above us the heavy cloud-banks looked like the bellies of a school of whales huddled together in the dusk. Beyond, a faintly luminous strip of yellow marked the sunset. Below, the gloomy earth glittered under the continual scintillation of gunfire. Right round the salient down to the Somme, where the mists backed up the ghostly effect, was this sequined veil of greenish flashes, quivering. Thousands of guns were spitting high explosive, and the invisible projectiles were screaming past us on every side. (p.85)

His job

So what did Lewis actually do? For most of his time on the Western Front Lewis was in observation and reconnaissance. In the build-up to the Battle of the Somme he was ordered to fly along the line of trenches taking photographs – an incredibly perilous activity, given the primitiveness of the planes and the even more startling primitiveness of the cameras.

Once the battle started he was charged with flying over the battlefield to observe the advance, or not, of our troops, and activity on the Hun side (in ‘Hunland’, as he puts it), reporting this back to communication trenches behind our lines, who relayed the information back to the artillery barrages, who aimed accordingly. For his work during this period he was awarded the Military Cross.

In between doing his daily tasks he seems to have been fairly free just to go for ‘joy rides’ to spy out the lie of the land, during which he and his spotter sometimes encountered Hun planes and had primitive dogfights. At other times he seems to have been free just to fly for the pure joy of it, watching a cumulus cloud appear out of nothing high in the sky, and then noticing the way the shadow of his plane against the pure white backdrop was ringed by a perfect rainbow (p.126).

His entire chapter two – nearly 100 pages long – describes this work, the tension in the last few days before the Somme offensive began on July 1, and then gives a day by day account of his work in the first few weeks of the battle, conveying his slowly growing sense of disillusion as it became clear that this enormous concentration of men and resources was going to fail, both to meet its immediate objectives, and to do anything like end the war. He describes the mood of disillusionment which sets in among his comrades, and on our side. ‘A complete washout’, ‘bitter disappointment’ (p.90).

Coming back from a week’s leave (where he has, as ever, tried to calm his mother’s terrible anxiety about him) Lewis discovers that a whole bunch of his mates, the liveliest, funniest characters from the Mess – Pip, Rudd, Kidd – have all been killed (p.122).

And towards the end of 1916 he notices that the Brits no longer enjoy quite the air supremacy they had previously had. German anti-aircraft fire (nicknamed Archie) is getting more precise. German fighter planes are better built and engineered and their pilots are becoming more aggressive.

The Hun was everywhere consolidating his positions, and paying much more attention to us than hitherto. (p.118)

Several times he is forced to make emergency landings, described with hair-raising immediacy, although he always manages to walk away (pp. 95-97). And how different things look on the pock-marked, devastated stinking ground from up there in the clean blue air!

The trees by the roadside were riven and splintered, their branches blown hither and thither, and the cracked stumps stuck up uselessly into the air, flanking the road, forlorn, like a byway to hell. The farms were a mass of debris, the garden walls heaps of rubble, the cemeteries had their crosses and their wire wreaths blown horribly askew. Every five yards held a crater. The earth had no longer its smooth familiar face. It was diseases, pocked, rancid, stinking of death in the morning sun. (p.97)

One evening he is flying over the lines and sees ‘a long creeping wraith of yellow mist’ over the trenches north of Thiepval.

Men were dying there, under me, from a whiff of it: not dying quickly, nor even maimed and shattered, but dying whole, retching and vomiting blood and guts; and those who lived would be wrecks with seared, poisoned lungs, rotten for life. (p.103)

This yellow drift of death gas was, for him, ‘the most pregnant memory of the war’, a symbol of the entire twentieth century, a symbol of the way man, in his stupidity, greed and lust for power, perverts whatever science discovers into disgusting methods of slaughter.

In a vision that shows the influence of H.G. Wells and directly echoes the war-visions which haunt George Orwell’s pre-war novels, Lewis foresees the next war in which pilots like himself will drop gas bombs on densely populated cities and poison into reservoirs, slaughtering hecatombs of woman and children. He can see only one solution to the mad rivalry between nations led by demagogues, a power which rises above all of them:

World state, world currency, world language. (p.105)

In 1922 Wells had written that ‘Civilization is in a race between education and catastrophe.’ Lewis echoes this sentiment (which I take to be a truism or cliché of the inter-war years):

It is a fight between intellect and appetite, between the international idea and armaments. (p.105)

We now know this is naive and simplistic. Education, science and technology have made improvements Lewis can never have dreamed of. And yet fighting never ends. It is about resources, the means for populations to live,and deeply embedded ethnic hatreds. And fighting over those will never end.

Posted home

Lewis developed conjunctivitis. All that staring from heights at troop movements on the ground, plus the effects of oil and smoke flying into his face from the plane engine. It kept recurring which impeded his battle fitness, so at the end of 1916 he was posted back to Britain.

As he remarks several times, the average life expectancy of a flier on the Western Front was three weeks. He survived eight months. But, obliquely, he records how such prolonged nervous strain takes its toll.

Nobody could stand the strain indefinitely, ultimately it reduced you to a dithering state, near to imbecility. For you always had to fight it down, you had to go out and do the job, you could never admit it… Cowardice, because, I suppose, it is the most common human emotion, is the most despised. And you did gain victories over yourself. You won and won and won again, and always there was another to be won on the morrow. They sent you home to rest, and you put it in the background of your mind; but it was not like a bodily fatigue from which you could completely recover, it was a sort of damage to the essential tissue of your being. (p.61)

He is posted to a testing squadron and has great fun flying all sorts of new planes for several months, before being recalled for active duty, and leading a squadron back to France in April 1917.

Dogfighting in France

Whereas previously he had been flying reconnaissance missions, now he and his men are fully engaged in fighting enemy planes. There follow some amazing descriptions of dogfights in the sky, the meeting of massed ranks of planes from both sides, and an explanation of what a dogfight actually involved, and how to survive it.

Protecting London

Then some German planes bomb London, the populace and politicians panic, and he and his crack squadron are flown hurriedly back to London to protect the metropolis. Lewis, by now cynical beyond measure, contemplates the stupidity of the authorities for not protecting London before, and the hysteria of the Londoners, with contempt.

No further German bombers appear, but Lewis describes the hard partying he and his squadron pursue. Drunk at dawn with comrades. Dancing with strange girls at riotous parties. The 1920s started here with the complete abandonment of the stupid old morality, the starchy Victorian etiquette and fake politeness which concealed the raw facts of human lust and reproduction.

As crude as the Death which stalks them, is the young pilots’ quest for pleasure in the here and now.

Fighting gets more intense – injury

No German bombers reappearing, Lewis is posted back to France. The descriptions of the dogfights become more intense. More friends and colleagues are killed. Eventually Lewis is caught out. Flying separately from his squadron while he tries to fix his jammed gun, is attacked and it’s only because he was in an unusual posture fiddling with the gun that the bullet which streaked down his back didn’t enter it and penetrate his heart (p.163). Bleeding and in pain he makes it back to the aerodrome and is posted home to recuperate.

Defending and partying in London

Having recovered he is posted to a Home defence squadron in Essex. Lewis describes the air defence system created to protect the south of England from bombers, and his part in it, though he is sceptical. The sky is so big, planes are so small – the bombers will always get through. Then to everyone’s shock the Germans come on a bombing raid at night. He is at a dance at the Savoy Hotel when the music is brought to a screeching halt by the sound of bombs dropping nearby. He gives an almost science fiction description of the impact on the jazz dancing crowds as they panic and flee towards all the exits.

Now his squadron have to learn to fly at night and he gives a brilliant description of his first night flight, afraid it will be like flying into pitch blackness, and then enchanted to discover that there is much more light than he’d expected, and that the countryside beneath – villages, fields, roads, are all picked out in the eerie glow of moonlight (pp.168-170).

Night raids on London

He gets drunk. They party hard in London. There are hi-jinks in the Mess. A new raid alert system is put into place and he describes being scrambled and flying towards London, watching the searchlights and the ack-ack guns but being completely unable to find the enemy bombers.

His experience of trying to halt the German bombing raids leads him to one big conclusion which he is at pains to emphasise: You cannot stop the bombers – they will always get through – which leads him to another of  his urgent contemporary pleas for action.

Today the voice of no one man, or no one country, can save Europe (and after the whole civilised world) from imminent destruction. If we cannot collectively rise above our narrow nationalism, the vast credits of wealth, wisdom and art produced by Western civilisation will be wiped out. (p.154)

Flying, drinking, dying

The final pages feel bitty. The promotions come faster. He is moved from one squadron to another. He retells experiences of landing in fog, of his plane catching fire in mid-air. There’s an extended anecdote about the time he landed in a field to ask someone where the devil he was (that happened a lot), and went back to the plane and turned on the motor, but the plane began to move before he could climb into the cockpit. It then proceeded to run in a small circle just a bit too fast for him – wearing heavy flying gear and boots – to manage to run into the circle while avoiding the propeller. In the end he gave up and watched it move in circles and slowly across a field until it fell into a ditch.

And the last pages are darkened by friends dying. Armstrong was the best pilot he knew but he mistimed a landing, crashed and was killed outright. His friend Bill was killed stupidly – crashing into a small ditch at the airfield, getting out to inspect the damage when his engineer triggered one of the guns by mistake which shot him through the heart – that Lewis balls his fists and rages against the senselessness of the world.

He is proud to be chosen to lead three squadrons across to France to combat the final German offensive in the spring of 1918, one of the few massed flights that made the commute without at least one accident. As the tide turns against the Germans the squadron is posted forward into an aerodrome near Ypres and he can’t believe the utter desolation of the countryside which is revealed to them. What a hell men have made of the earth.

It’s all over

Then it is all over. The Armistice is signed. They celebrate as best they can and all feel let down and deflated. The new young squadron he’s commanding has only just arrived. Trained to fight they never seen any action. And Lewis himself feels bereft. For the four most formative years of his life he has been living under the shadow of war, in the presence of Death, stretching his nerves to breaking point. Now it is all over. He is demobilised.

He was twenty years old. What a beautiful, thoughtful, considerate, sometimes savagely bitter, often rapturously lyrical, intelligent and mature memoir this is.


1964 interview with Cecil Lewis


Credit

Sagittarius Rising by Cecil Lewis was published by Peter Davies Ltd in 1936. All references are to the 1977 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Other blog posts about the First World War

Murphy by Samuel Beckett (1938)

‘Unless you want me to call a policewoman,’ said Murphy, ‘cease your clumsy genustuprations.’
(Murphy p.56)

This is Beckett’s first published novel. I expected it to be an improvement on his first published book, the collection of linked short stories, More Pricks Than Kicks, but the essential feel, the worldview and style are very much the same.

It’s a difficult book to read. Though only 170 pages long it took three days because I was so reluctant to pick it up and so quick to put it down to do almost anything else. The prose is mannered, stilted and extremely repetitive. Quite quickly I realised that its paragraphs rarely move the story along or analyse character: they almost exclusively consist of repetitions, iterated phrases spinning out a handful of ideas or words, sometimes driving you mad with frustration, irritation and boredom.

Take this passage where the ‘hero’, Murphy, has moved into a garret which he discovers has no form of heating. No heating!! he exclaims to the friend, August Ticklepenny, who has fixed him up with a new job and the garret. Why couldn’t someone just extend the electricity or gas up there to fuel a heater?

He went on to speak of tubes and wires. Was it not just the beauty of tubes and wires, that they could be extended? Was it not their chief characteristic, the ease with which they could be extended? What was the point of going in for tubes and wires at all, if you did not extend them without compunction whenever necessary? Did they not cry out for extension? Ticklepenny thought he would never stop, saying feverishly the same thing in slightly different ways. (p.103)

Things which affect the ‘hero’ are described with a pedantic thoroughness which are surely on the obsessive-compulsive spectrum.

  • When he stops in a tea room for a cup of tea, Murphy spends at least a page working through a series of ploys he could use to get the reluctant waitress, Vera, to top up his cup for free.
  • When Murphy takes the six biscuits he bought at the tearooms to Hyde Park, he lays them out on their paper bag on the grass, and then elaborately works through all the possible permutations of eating them in different orders, 120 ways, apparently, though it all depends whether he keeps the ginger biscuit fixed as the first choice, or mixes it in with the rest.
  • When Murphy starts work at the lunatic asylum, we are given a grindingly precise description of the layout of the building in every detail, which lacks any warmth or sympathy, is completely irrelevant to the ‘plot’, but pursues the description with obsessive pendantry.

I am probably using the term incorrectly, but it seems to me the narrative has a kind of autistic quality. It doesn’t even much to describe other people or relationships between people – the ‘dialogue’ mostly just reveals misunderstanding and the ‘characters’ inability to communicate. For page after page the text maintains its obsessive and repetitive focus on the inner workings of the over-educated, under-motivated slob of an antihero as he shuffles round London, not really trying to get a job and surviving on a pittance while he does the only thing he enjoys, which is pore and pick over his own interminable mental lucubrations at gigantic length.

He distinguished between the actual and the virtual of his mind, not as between form and the formless yearning for form, but as between that of which he had both mental and physical experience and that of which he had mental experience only. Thus the form of the kick was actual; that of caress virtual. The mind felt its actual part to be above and bright, its virtual beneath and fading into dark, without however connecting this with the ethical yoyo. The mental experience was cut off from the physical experience, its criteria were not those of the physical experience, the agreement of part of its content with physical fact did not confer worth on that part. It did not function and could not be disposed according to a principle of worth. It was made up of light fading into dark, of above and beneath, but not of good and bad. It contained forms with parallel in another mode and forms without, but not right forms and wrong forms. It felt no issue between its light and dark, no need for its light to devour its dark. The need was now to be in the light, now in the half light, now in the dark. That was all. (p.70)

1. To be fair, this is not a completely characteristic passage, it comes from the four pages of chapter 6, in which the narrative comes to a dead stop while the narrator undertakes to explain to us the nature of ‘Murphy’s mind’. But the basic ‘ideas’ expressed in it underpin the whole book, and the obsession with the inner workings of Murphy’s self-absorbed consciousness is very much the book’s real subject.

2. Spending this much time on the experience of consciousness reminds us that Murphy was published in the late 1930s, when Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology was one of the dominating intellectual themes on the continent, picked up and refracted through the heavyweight existential philosophy of Martin Heidegger. The phenomenological approach of examining and describing the inner workings of the mind is important to the writings of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. In fact, Sartre’s first novel, Nausea, was published in this same year as Murphy, 1938, and is also about an aimlessly unhappy man (a post-graduate researcher in Sartre’s case), so obsessed with his own thoughts and feelings that the real world becomes intolerably alien and threatening to him, filling him with the nausea of the book’s title.


The plot

Murphy is a shiftless layabout, a ‘seedy solipsist’ (p.53) (just like Belacqua, the male protagonist of Beckett’s previous (and first) book, More Pricks Than Kicks).

He’s living in London. He met a streetwalker named Celia on the corner of Stadium Street and Cremorne Road in Chelsea (which nowadays looks like this). Celia is now haplessly trying to look after weird Murphy. His favourite hobby is tying himself to an armchair in dingy flats (in this he foreshadows the various trapped protagonists of Beckett’s later plays) and rocking rocking rocking, a process described several times in numbing detail.

As with Belacqua, it struck me that Murphy is a glaring epitome of the clever young would-be writer who is full of articulacy but has no real subject to write about. He wanders the streets not really looking for a job and feeling mighty superior about it.

For what was all working for a living but a procuring and a pimping for the money-bags, one’s lecherous tyrants the money-bags, so that they might breed. (p.49)

(This vaunting superiority to the bourgeoisie with their regular jobs and pay packets reminds me of the intellectually superior but wretchedly poor protagonist of George Orwell’s 1936 novel, Keep the Aspidistra Flying. A common delusion among young layabouts of all ages, that being poor but ‘free’ is superior to having a job, money and a life.)

Celia reports all this to her paternal grandfather, Mr Willoughby Kelly, who suggests she chuck him.

Meanwhile, in faraway Dublin (288 miles as the crow flies), Professor Neary smashes his head against the statue of Cuchulain inside the General Post Office building because he is in love with Celia, how or why, I never understood. He is rescued by one of his students, Needle Wylie who promises to track her down for him, by employing a private detective, Cooper. They meet the very beautiful Miss Counihan. It emerges that Murphy was till recently a student of Prof Neary’s and made all sorts of promises of love to Miss Counihan before leaving for London, after which no-one has heard from him.

Murphy goes to a tea rooms and spends a lot of time finagling to get a free top-up of tea from the reluctant waitress Vera. This process takes a long time. I could quote the several pages it stretches on for. He is approached by an impecunious Irish poet, Austin Ticklepenny, who bewails his job at a mental home, the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat. ‘Mercyseat’ made me laugh, though it’s more Irish than English-sounding. Murphy escapes from Ticklepenny, having dumped him with paying for the tea and biscuits ha ha! much to the frustration of Vera the waitress, and takes a bus to Hyde Park where he is debating in what order to eat his biscuits when he is asked by a clairvoyant to mind her dachshund while she feeds the sheep (which apparently lived in Hyde Park back in those days) lettuce which she’s brought for them. The dog eats Murphy’s biscuits while he’s not looking. The sheep refuse the lettuce. Murphy falls asleep.

Murphy awakes in the park. It’s night. When he gets back to the flat he shares with Celia he discovers he spread-eagled face down on the bed. Why? Well, first we have to read chapter six describing in great detail the tripartite character of Murphy’s cerebellum and sensorium, and then the narrative moves on to more distractions so we never find out.

The old man in the room above is found having slashed his throat with a razor. Celia negotiates with the hard-bitten old landlady, the virgin Miss Carridge, for her and Murphy to move into the dead man’s smaller room and so pay less rent. With his usual punning obscurity, Murphy says to Celia:

‘A decayed valet severs the connexion and you set up a niobaloo as though he were your fourteen children.’

This is typical of the ‘dialogue’ which is not really intended to be communication between human beings in the way you and I are used to. Instead it is a laborious literary in-joke. Niobe is a figure from Greek legend whose children were slain by the gods and lay unburied while she wept for them. This figure of weeping Niobe is a commonplace classical reference in Elizabethan literature i.e. Shakespeare. Beckett has made it into a very James Joycean joke/pun by combining the words Niobe and hullabaloo into niobaloo. So this apparently gibberish sentence can be explicated as Murphy criticising Celia for weeping for some dead old servant as extravagantly as Niobe did for her children. ‘Severs the connexion’ being a fancy phrase for ‘dying’. Was it worth all that effort to decode? Yes, if you like this kind of ‘joke’ and find this kind of ‘humour’ rewarding; no, if you don’t.

Murphy goes off to see about starting the job he had discussed with Ticklepenny at the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat. Celia takes the Tube to Hyde Park to see if she can find her wheelchair-bound protector, Mr Kelly, flying his kite, as is his hobby. Unbeknownst to her she is followed by a man named Cooper who is acting as a private detective for Wylie so as to find Celia so as to reconcile her with his revered Professor Neary. Maybe I slept through the paragraphs where it was explained but I never did understand why Neary was so besotted with Celia. Anyway, Celia doesn’t find Kelly. Cooper doesn’t speak to Celia but follows her home to the flat she shares with Murphy in Holloway.

Meanwhile, Murphy is introduced to the head nurse at the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat, Mr Thomas (‘Bim’) Clinch who, it turns out, has staffed the place with his family, including his twin brother Mr Timothy (‘Bom’) Clinch and an aged uncle, ‘Bum’. ROFL. Murphy is enraptured by the place and especially the offer of a garret room on the premises, instantly moving into it and pulling up the ladder up to it in order to prevent anyone else ever entering it. Solipsist heaven. He forgets all about Celia.

Chapter 10 is long. The private eye Cooper joins Neary, Wylie and Miss Counihan (who is convinced she is in love with Murphy) to discuss their plans, and then they all proceed to meet Celia in her flat. The dialogue throughout this chapter is, I think, some kind of satire on all normal dialogue ever written by novelists and playwrights. It is gobbledygook for twenty pages.

‘One of the innumerable small retail redeemers,’ sneered Miss Counihan, ‘lodging her pennyworth of pique in the post-golgothan kitty.’
But for Murphy’s horror of the mental belch, Celia would have recognised this phrase, if she had heard it. (p.144)

Wylie has paid Cooper to find Celia so as to bring her together with his infatuated patron Professor Neary. But they all behave so incomprehensibly that I just read the words and sentences for their verbal quality, ignoring the dialogue and so-called ‘plot’ because I suspect both are made complex and/or impenetrable deliberately to frustrate and provoke the ‘conventional’ reader. I think they all agree to spend the night in Celia’s flat while they wait for Murphy to return there.

But Murphy doesn’t return. He does a night shift at the mental home. Some paragraphs describe his closeness to the dwarfish psychotic Mr Endon. On this night shift Mr Endon somehow gets out of his cell and releases some other inmates but any reader hoping for mayhem, some kind of romantic climax is disappointed for they’re all locked safely back up, though not without a compulsive-obsessive description of the home’s elaborate security systems and the schedule according to which warders are meant to visit each cell throughout the night.

Murphy plays a game of chess with Mr Endon. The game is laid out in standard chess notation in the text so we can follow it. In fact it includes po-faced comments on particular moves, as if it was annotating a fiendishly clever game between grand masters. But in fact, if you play it out, as I did on my own chess set, you quickly realise it’s gibberish, not played with any serious intent.

In fact there’s a useful video on YouTube which works through the entire game, After just two moves you can see it’s unorthodox and after four or five you realise it’s a nonsense game, a mockery of a game. On the YouTube video you can hear the (Russian?) guy who did it laughing at the ridiculousness of the moves.

For me this epitomises the book, as Beckett may well have intended it to. In every respect – in terms of narrative, plot, style, dialogue, character and setting it is – deliberately – a travesty of a mockery of a sham. From small puns to larger pratfalls to the inconsequence of most of the dialogue, to the silliness of the plot, the entire text is a ‘joke’, or a series of interlocking ‘jokes’, clever, witty but almost completely bereft of warmth or humour.

After the night shift ends Murphy heads back to his garret, stripping off his clothes as he walks through the dark grounds, till he’s naked. He lies in the wet grass trying to remember Celia, his mother, his father, anyone, and failing. He goes up to his garret, sits naked in his beloved rocking chair, rocking rocking rocking as usual described in autistic detail and the gas heater he’s rigged up explodes killing him. Oh.

In the next chapter Celia, Miss Conihoun, Neary, Wylie and Cooper are summoned from Celia’s flat by the head of the MMM, Dr Angus Killiecrankie to learn that Murphy is dead and are taken to see his fairly burned corpse in the refrigerator room. They confirm Murphy’s identity, Celia pointing out the birth mark on his thigh, which gives rise to the bad taste joke that, by being important to the identification, it is also a kind death mark. Birth mark, death mark, geddit?

One by one the various characters drift off, some pairing off on the way. OK.

In the short final chapter Celia takes her grandad to Hyde Park to fly his kite. She is absent for a while during which she turns a trick. She needs money, after all. Old Mr Kelly dozes off and his kite string falls out of his hand, snaps and the kite flies off into the sky, lost forever. He clambers out of his wheelchair and totters after it yelling in despair till Celia catches him up, with help from passersby restores him to the wheelchair and pushes him home.

End.


The style – baroque, elaborate and contrived

There are far fewer really arcane and obscure words in Murphy than in Pricks, which is a shame because I enjoyed looking them up.

But Murphy‘s basic approach is still one of needless pedantry and clumsy, arch contrivance for its own sake.

The blue glitter of Mr Kelly’s eyes in the uttermost depths of their orbits became fixed, then veiled by the classic pythonic glaze. He raised his left hand, where Celia’s tears had not yet dried, and seated it pronate on the crown of his skull – that was the position. In vain. He raised his right hand and laid the forefinger along his nose. He then returned both hands to their points of departure with Celia’s on the counterpane, the glitter came back into his eyes and he pronounced:
‘Chuck him.’ (p.17)

To me this passage demonstrates the way Beckett has little or nothing to say, but goes on to say it at great length, and with as much circumlocutionary periphrasis as possible. In particular, the text is worried and nagged by an obsessive attention to the characters’ precise physical positions and movements. Often it is more modern ballet than fiction. (This obsession with characters’ precise positions and movements will become central to the plays of the 1950s and 60s, where every gesture of the stricken protagonists’ becomes charged with hypertrophic punctilio.)

And intellectual tricksiness. The adjective ‘pythonic’ in the quote above refers to the oracle at Delphi in ancient Greece, where the supernatural pythia supposedly spoke its prophecies through the mouth of a woman put into a demonic trance. So that one phrase ‘classic pythonic’ is enough to indicate – to those in on the joke – that the text is (absurdly) comparing Grandad Kelly to an ancient Greek oracle. This fact goes some way to explaining the glitter of his eyes and his generally unnatural gestures, notably placing his left hand ‘pronate’ on his skull, pronate meaning “to turn into a prone position; to rotate (the hand or forearm) so that the surface of the palm is downward or toward the back”.

And also explains that the whole paragraph is, in its arch, contrived way, a sort of joke. The joke is in the contrast between the classical epitome and its degraded modern-day embodiment. It is in other words, the classic Modernist trope of holding up the classical world as perfect, as a model of dignity and decorum (implicitly in Eliot’s The Waste Land, more implicitly in Joyce’s Ulysses) and contrasting the sorry sordid shambles of the modern world in contrast. This is why many critical studies of Beckett describe him as the last of the Modernists, a Johnny-come-lately to the game of contrasting the marmoreal perfection of the classics with the squalid spit and sawdust de nos jours. It is intellectual snobbery, pure and simple.

The same structural disjunction underlies the boom-boom ending when, after a paragraph making this calculated intellectual parallel, which is leading the (informed) reader to expect a declaration of potency and magnificence, all Grandad Kelly comes out with is the bathetically commonplace output, the pub slang expression: ‘Chuck him’.

Did you roll on the floor laughing? Were there mega-lolz for you? I happened to ‘get’ this joke because I had the misfortune to go through a very literary education, so I spotted the python allusion and thus grasped the overall dynamic of the paragraph and the mock comic intention. But I doubt whether anyone who studied more worthwhile subjects than ancient and modern literature would get the reference or realise the humour.

So is it funny?

Humourless humour

Is a joke which isn’t really funny still a joke? Does a joke need humour to be a joke? Can you have an utterly humourless joke, which has the structure of a joke, the shape of a joke, a build-up and a pay-off – but none of the warmth and collusion required for humour?

The modern introduction by a Beckett scholar talks breezily about it being a great comic novel but doesn’t give any examples. Is there comedy in the sustained mock heroic tone, the use throughout of ridiculously highfalutin language to describe what are in fact very humdrum activities?

At this moment Murphy would willingly have waived his expectation of Antepurgatory for five minutes in his chair, renounced the lee of Belacqua’s rock and his embryonal repose, looking down at dawn across the reeds to the trembling of the austral sea and the sun obliquing to the north as it rose, immune from expiation until he should have dreamed it all through again, with the downright dreaming of an infant, from the spermarium to the crematorium. (p.51)

It’s a very distinct and striking style of writing? But is it – could it possibly be taken as – funny?

Neary arrived the following morning. Cooper threw himself on his mercy, abated not one tittle of the truth and was turned off with contumely. (p.77)

For me this is one if not the central question in reading Beckett: I can see that much of it is intended to be arch, contrived, dry, bookish, intellectual, rarefied, allusive and ultra-clever humour – but I wonder if many other people do, and I wonder whether any of us should give a damn.

This was a joke that did not amuse Celia, at the best of times and places it could not have amused her. That did not matter. So far from being adapted to her, it was not addressed to her. It amused Murphy, that was all that mattered. (p.88)

‘It amused Murphy, that was all that mattered.’ Since Murphy is transparently another avatar of frustrated impoverished unpublished would-be highbrow writer Beckett, maybe we can simply say, ‘It amused Beckett, that was all that mattered’. Beckett and his tiny number of pre-war readers. The introduction is very long on the book’s textual history, and very short on actual analysis, but it does include its sales figure.

1938 – 568 copies
1939 – 23
1940 – 20
1941 – 7

The remaining stock was destroyed in an air raid. Beckett made £20 out of it – before income tax. Not Harry Potter, is it? It was only after Waiting For Godot completely transformed his fortunes in 1953, that publishers rereleased Beckett’s early novels and they quickly found a place in a retrospectively-created canon of his works, now used as evidence to interpret the difficult post-war plays, and to argue for his mock heroic, comedic roots.

Leslie Fiedler

Leslie Fiedler (1917 – 2003) was an American literary critic whose writings about American novelists I really enjoyed as a student. About Beckett, and Murphy in particular, he wrote in the New York Times:

Too much of the merely mannered is present, too much evidence of a desire to twit the bourgeoisie, too many asides, too many heavy-handed cryptic remarks, too much clumsy surrealist horseplay.

Which I agree with. But I can also see that amidst the mechanical verbiage is the core Beckett which will emerge after the Second World War; that once he’s abandoned the attempt to have realistic characters or plots or dialogue, he will arrive at grim scenarios where human puppets, trapped in repetitive plights, repeat the same meaningless gestures over and again and speak a speech composed of the inane repetition of shreds and tatters of clichéd, stereotyped, worn-out language. As Fiedler also points out:

But the eerie deadpan humour is already at work: the gravely mathematical working out of all the possibilities of the most trivial situation, the savage eagerness to find in the disgusting occasions for laughs. It is as vaudevillian of the avant-garde that Beckett especially tickles us, converting its most solemn devices into quite serious gags.

Astride the grave

Maybe. Typical of the stretched humour is a paragraph describing how Murphy’s problems go right back to his vagitus. I had to look up ‘vagitus’ to find out that it means ‘a new-born baby’s first cry’ – and then read on to process the extended ‘joke’ that Murphy’s vagitus was not on the international agreed standard of A (on the musical scale) but a woeful double flat of A, thus missing the correct note by two semi-tones. Hilarious, right? Never mind, writes the author – ‘His rattle will make amends’ (p.47), obviously meaning his death rattle. Birth-cry, death-cry. Everything comedic is here, a kind of structural symmetry, a neatness of vision and phrasing – except the warmth or the unexpected jolt which characterises a good joke.

Instead its flat, obvious nihilism reminds me of one of the most famous quotes from the 1953 play which made Beckett’s name, Waiting For Godot:

They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.

This kind of self-pitying, maudlin, depressiveness strikes me as very male. Having been present at the birth of both my children I know that no-one gives birth astride the grave, they give birth in a cluttered operating theatre surrounded by surgeons and nurses, in a welter of blood and other substances. And – contrary to Beckett – it is actually quite a happy moment for all concerned.

Believing in Beckett’s words involves a kind of wilful denial of the world as we know it to be. The focus on the grim and pointless is contrived. I.e. it is not necessary. I.e. it is a choice whether to enter this artificial and gloomy worldview or not. Ditto the style.

Irish

About half way through I had a kind of breakthrough. To keep myself going I read chapter 9, the long description of Murphy’s arrival at, and work duties in, the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat (I grant you the name is quite funny) out loud and in an Irish accent.

Suddenly, it all made a lot more sense. Read – perceived and processed – in a received English, BBC accent, lots of it seems pretentious and flat. You can hear this in the impeccably English pronunciation of actor Ronald Pickup, reading a clip from Murphy on YouTube. The prose falls dead from his lips.

Read, however, in the accent of a Dublin chancer, with a bit of a brogue and touch of the blarney, as of two peasants discussing the finer points of your man St Augustine, I realised that quite a lot of the time the text is winking at you slyly, out of the corner of its eye.

Here is Murphy reflecting on the notion that the mental cases in the sanatorium are in fact correct to despise the worldly chaos of the scientists and psychiatrists. They are in fact happy locked up in their little worlds – as indeed Murphy would love to be completely sealed in his, but keeps falling afoul of the horrible quotidien. (It’s a separate issue that this is a dangerously childish, misinformed and romantically adolescent view of mental illness which isn’t much of a seraphic, Buddhist self-containment.) Anyway, Murphy thinks:

The melancholic’s melancholy, the manic’s fits of fury, the paranoid’s despair, were no doubt as little autonomous as the long fat face of a mute. Left in peace [by the authorities] they would have been as happy as Larry, short for Lazarus, whose raising seemed to Murphy perhaps the one occasion on which the Messiah had overstepped the mark. (p.113)

‘The Messiah overstepped the mark’. Saying it out loud in a cod Irish accent suddenly recalled the tone of all those characters in James Joyce who discuss religion and politics in floods of high-flown language which are liable at any time to give way to a sly crack or gutter phrase, all the better to puncture the mood.

‘Ah, sweet Jaysus, he was a good man, I’ll grant you that, but not always strictly following the orders of Him Upstairs, if you know what I mean. Ahr, that raising of Lazarus from the dead, sure I think that was overstepping the mark a bit, what do you say, Seamus?’

Maybe as an Englishman I’m not allowed to try on this accent, but it is the tone found in Joyce’s early stories, the Joyce who gave us ‘the Ballad of Joking Jesus’.

From this point onwards it struck me that the prose ought to be declaimed in a larger-than-life Irish accent, as of a Dublin pub politician declaiming with the gift on him of a divine afflatus, giving maximum weight to every rare and toothsome topic, rolling and relishing his fine array of grandee locutions but keen to avoid the accusation of being a preening gobshite by ducking into street slang for the humour it gives the audience of his erogatory ejaculations.

It turns out that the improvident drunken Irish poet Augustus Ticklepenny had been prescribed work at the mental home in a bid by an estimable German doctor to cure him of his alcoholism. Being relieved of the stressful burden of writing poetic epics for the Ole Country turns out to work surprisingly well.

This view of the matter will not seem strange to anyone familiar with the class of pentameter that Ticklepenny felt it his duty to Erin to compose, as free as a canary in the fifth foot (a cruel sacrifice, for Ticklepenny hiccuped in end rimes) and at the caesura as hard and fast as his own divine flatus and otherwise bulging with  as many minor beauties from the gaelic prosodoturfy as could be sucked out of a mug of porter. No wonder he felt a new man washing the bottles and emptying the slops of the better-class mentally deranged. (p.57)

Only in the scenes in the mental home did the book make sense to me. Here is the appropriate subject for Murphy’s spavined consciousness and it is no coincidence that Murphy surprises Bim, Bom and Ticklepenny by turning out to have a wonderful empathy with the closed-in mental cases, shut up in their own worlds. For that is how he would devoutly love to be.

The early scenes of being pointless in London are revealed for the shabby contrivances they are (counting biscuits in Hyde Park!) and when we return to what has now become the travelling gang of Neary, Wylie, Counihan, Cooper and Celia the narrative falls apart, and the dialogue becomes dismayingly divagatory – as presumably intended. The text – like the lead ‘character’ – is only really at home amid a certain kind of utterly fictional mental illness.


Contraptions and contrivances

1. Astrology

The first half of the book is threaded with an elaborate concern for astrology, with Murphy very aware of the position of planets rising and falling in the various star signs and so on, and the narrator similarly concerned to pin down the precise dates, times, and positions of the planets when various events occur. Thus Celia meets Murphy ‘on midsummer’s night, the sun being then in the Crab’ (p.10).

In chapter three Murphy opens a long analysis of his star signs, lucky numbers, days, colours, years and so on that has been generated for him by ‘Ramaswami Krishnasawmi Narayanaswami Suk’. Is this meant to be a satire on the post-Great War fad for all things spiritual, of the kind that snared W.B. Yeats or Conan Doyle? Murphy periodically relates Suk’s predictions to all the subsequent happenings in the book. Fine. But this contrivance doesn’t give structure or even meaning to the narrative, it is simply a net laid on top of it.

For Chaucer in the 1300s, astrology is a sign of his intellectual delight in the beautiful complexity of God’s wonderful creation. It closely counterpoises lots of events in the Canterbury Tales, notably the long Knight’s Tale which is awash with astrological symbolism.

In Beckett, this transient interest in astrology feels very like a) another elaborate but somehow contentless scaffold, a machine to help generate more reams of prose b) an affectless piss-take.

It is indicative that the astrology theme disappears in the book’s second half. In my opinion this is because the reality of the mental home eclipses it.

2. Timeframe

Much is made in commentary and introduction of the elaborate timeframe of the novel, with characters and narrator carefully referring to specific days, weeks, months in which events occur, referring back to them, calculating the time past or to go before further meetings or activities. Fine. I can see this generating innumerable PhDs, but, again, it doesn’t really add to any enjoyment of the narrative.

Sex

Surprisingly for such an alienated, disconnected narrative, there are regular references to sex. I think that some, maybe all of them, are at least partly there to cause controversy and fuss. For example, it is broadly hinted that Celia, the streetwalker enjoys being tied up and ravished, what we might nowadays call BDSM.

She could not go where livings were being made without feeling that they were being made away. She could not sit for long in the chair without the impulse stirring, tremulously, as for an exquisite depravity, to be naked and bound. (p.44)

And it is strongly hinted that Ticklepenny has his job at the sanatorium – and wangles a job for Murphy – because he is the gay boyfriend of the head man there, ‘Bim’ Clinch. Earlier in the book there is a not-so-subtle reference to kissing and not of the kind which removes the clapper from the bell i.e. French kissing. In the final stages Miss Counihan emerges as a Baywatch babe:

Miss Counihan rose, gathered her things together, walked to the door and unlocked it with the key that the exiled for that purpose from her bosom. Standing in profile against the blazing corridor, with her high buttocks and her low breasts, she looked not merely queenly, but on for anything. (p.136)

Maybe this was boundary-pushing stuff in 1938. Not so much in the era of 50 Shades of Grey.

The Beckett vision

There may or may not be an absurdist, nihilist, existential, phenomenological, post-Christian or whatever philosophy behind the novel. One thing that is certain is that periodically phrases pop out which anticipate the repetitive and monocular vision of the plays.

So all things hobble together for the only possible (p.141)… So all things limp together for the only possible. (p.146)

Right here, buried amid the textual tapenade, are ripe examples of the tone, the phraseology and the crippled worldview of the plays which made Beckett famous.

Kneeling at the bedside, the hand starting in thick black ridges between his fingers, his lips, his nose and forehead almost touching Mr Endon’s, seeing himself stigmatised in those eyes that did not see him, Murphy heard words demanding so strongly to be spoken that he spoke them, right into Mr Endon’s face, Murphy who did not speak at all in an ordinary way unless spoken to, and not always even then.

‘the last at last seen of him
himself unseen by him
and of himself.’

A rest.
‘The last Mr Murphy saw of Mr Endon was Mr Murphy unseen by Mr Endon. This was also the last Murphy saw of Murphy.’
A rest.
‘The relation between Mr Murphy and Mr Endon could not have been better summed up than by the former’s sorrow at seeing himself in the latter’s immunity from seeing anything but himself.’
A long rest.
‘Mr Murphy is a speck in Mr Endon’s unseen.’
That was the whole extent of the little afflatulence. (p.156)

The poetry of paucity, the prosody of impoverishment.


Credit

Murphy by Samuel Beckett was published in 1938 by G. Routledge and Company. All page references are to the 2009 Faber paperback edition.

Related links

More Beckett reviews

The Second World War

  • First Love (1946)
  • The Expelled (1946)
  • The Calmative (1946)
  • The End (1946)
  • Molloy (1951)
  • Malone Dies (1951)
  • The Unnamable (1953)
  • Watt (1953)

Waiting For Godot (1953)

  • All That Fall (1957)
  • Endgame (1958)
  • Krapp’s Last Tape (1958)
  • Embers (1959)
  • Happy Days (1961)
  • How it Is (1964)
  • Imagination Dead Imagine (1965)
  • Eh Joe and other writings (1967)
  • Without Words (1967)

1969 – awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature

  • The Lost Ones (1972)
  • Not I (1973)
  • First Love (1973)
  • Footfalls (1976)
  • All Strange Away (1976)
  • Company (1980)
  • Rockaby and other short pieces (1981)
  • Ill Seen Ill Said (1981)
  • Worstward Ho (1983)
  • Stirrings Still (1989)

Queer British Art 1861-1967 @ Tate Britain

Female Figure Lying on Her Back

Female Figure Lying on Her Back

Can you tell whether this painting was done by a man or a woman, lesbian or gay, bisexual or transsexual?

And does it matter?

If by a man, is it a horrible example of the Male Gaze, encouraging male ‘ownership’ and mastery of the female figure, encouraging lascivious thoughts in the male viewer, reducing women to sexualised objects, exploiting women for semi-pornographic purposes?

If by a woman, is it a joyously unashamed celebration of the female body, the lazy posture and yawning stretch of the subject marvellously capturing a moment of real, unvarnished intimacy?

Does knowledge of the painter’s gender or sexual orientation change your ‘reading’ of this picture, your enjoyment of it, your ‘understanding’ of it? And why?

These are just some of the questions raised by this fascinating and thought-provoking exhibition.

Declaration of interest

I was a member of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality back in the 1970s, going on marches, signing petitions, habituating Windsor’s only gay pub, campaigning for gay rights, the central one being getting the age of gay consent brought down in line with the age for straights. In the years since, I’ve supported gay marriage, gay and women priests, and so on. It’s always been obvious to me that LGBT people should be treated absolutely the same as anyone else, and benefit from exactly the same rights and life opportunities. I am not myself gay, but it’s always seemed obvious to me that a) no-one should judge any form of sexual practice among consenting adults b) no-one should be allowed to discriminate in any way against anyone on account of their sexual orientation or sexual practices.

The jargon of desire

In the late 1960s French structuralist literary criticism began to morph into post-structuralist criticism and theory. Reflecting the move from the politicised 1960s into the more narcissistic 1970s, and an ongoing obsession with Freudian psychoanalysis – and also being French and proud of it – a lot of this criticism became more personal, about identity, as constituted in texts and wider society, and a lot more about sex.

The works of literary critics like Roland Barthes (b.1915,  The Pleasure of the Text), the historian Michel Foucault (b.1926 A History of Sexuality), the philosopher Jacques Derrida (b.1930), the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (b.1901), feminist theorists like Hélène Cixous (b.1937) and Julia Kristeva (b.1941 Desire in language), and the pioneer of Queer Studies, Judith Butler (b.1956, Subjects of desireGender trouble, Undoing gender), plus many others have led to the vast proliferation of the ‘discourse of desire’, to countless books and articles and conferences and degree and postgraduate courses about gender and sexuality, demonstrating how this, that or the other work of art or fiction or film ‘subverts’ or ‘challenges’ or ‘confronts’ gender conventions and ‘transgresses’ gender stereotypes and ‘rewrites’ gender narratives.

With the collapse of communism in the early 1990s, young students wanting to prove how rebellious and subversive they were found themselves bereft of an ideological alternative to consumer capitalism, and so found themselves forced towards the only two games in town, anti-sexism and anti-racism, embodied in Women’s Studies/Gender Studies, and Post-Colonial Studies, respectively.

For at least thirty years humanities departments – literature, art, philosophy – have been teaching courses showing how all Western writing, art, philosophy was riddled with racist/sexist assumptions, and built on evil imperialism and slavery. Many graduates of these courses, imbued with this way of thinking, moved on into the media and press, into film and theatre and the art world, where in the pages of the Guardian or the Huffington Post or the Independent, and in galleries and theatres across the West, they can be seen every day writing scandalised articles, producing documentaries, putting on plays angry about the persistence of sexism and racism and homophobia.

But there are more women than immigrants in this country and, as a result, more Feminist Studies, Women’s Studies, Gender Studies courses than Post-Colonial courses – and so books and articles and films and documentaries about the multiple unfairnesses and injustices perpetrated on women throughout the ages by the ever-present Patriarchy, continue to thrive and proliferate.

On one level this exhibition represents a triumph of this kind of discourse, a discourse a) obsessed by sex, conceived of in a rather dry and boring theoretical way b) driven and animated by a fathomless sense of grievance and injustice. Exhibitions about any aspect of sexuality represent a perfect marriage of victim politics with the high-flown ‘discourse of desire’.

Why use the word ‘queer’?

To quote the curators:

Queer has a mixed history – from the 19th century onwards it has been used both as a term of abuse and as a term by LGBT people to refer to themselves. Our inspiration for using it came from Derek Jarman who said that it used to frighten him but now ‘for me to use the word queer is a liberation’. More recently, of course, it has become reclaimed as a fluid term for people of different sexualities and gender identities. Historians of sexuality have also argued that it is preferable to other terms for sexualities in the past as these often don’t map onto modern sexual identities. In addition to carrying out audience research, we took advice from Stonewall and other LGBT charities and held focus groups with LGBT people. The advice from all of these sources was overwhelmingly that we should use it. While we tried other titles, no other option captured the full diversity of sexualities and gender identities that are represented in the show.

What is a queer work of art?

Does it have to portray a homosexual or lesbian act i.e. be pornographic (as a small number of the works here do, some rude sketches by Keith Vaughan and the super well-known big phalluses of Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations to Lysistrata)?

Is queer art any  work by an overtly gay or lesbian or bi or trans artist? But how many Victorian and Edwardian and Georgian painters thought of themselves in those terms? Don’t the curators run the risk of – in fact aren’t they running headlong into – defining, naming and limiting people from the past a) by our own modern 2017 categories of sexuality (Yes); and b) of defining people entirely by their ‘sexuality’, whatever that is. I thought that was precisely what CHE and Gay Rights and their successors were trying to escape from: from being tied down, limited, constrained and defined solely in terms of your sexual preferences, as if that were the only important part of your life, as if society is correct to pigeonhole all of us on the basis of this one attribute.

And what if the queer artist’s subject matter is not only not particularly erotic, what if it’s not even of human body? For example, is this queer art?

Hannah Gluckstein, known as Gluck (1895 – 1978) was a lesbian painter. So is her painting of flowers a work of queer art?

Should queer art also include works which just look ‘sort of’ homoerotic or a bit lesbian, either a) in the eyes of contemporary viewers (in which case it might have caused a ‘scandal’ and ‘shocked Victorian society’), or b) in the eyes of modern curators trained to spot the slightest sign of gender stereotypes being ‘subverted’ and gender norms being ‘transgressed’ and narratives of heterosexuality being ‘questioned’ and ‘interrogated’?

Either way, categorising art in terms of the audience’s response to it, is dicey. What constitutes ‘art’ has changed out of all recognition the past 150 years. People’s responses to ‘art’ have become similarly complex and varied.

Tricky questions. In the event, this exhibition includes works chosen by all these criteria, and more.

The drawbacks of telling history through art

This decade Tate Britain has run a series of exhibitions based not around artists or movements, but on broad themes and topics. Thus they’ve staged exhibitions about: folk art, the aesthetic of ruins, the British Empire, Victorian sculpture, the destruction of art works, the depiction of war. Many of them had an amusingly random element, delicate watercolours of Tintern Abbey placed next to vast photos of Nazi war bunkers (Ruin Lust), or some maps of the Empire next to some flags of the Empire next to random artifacts from the Empire (Artist and Empire).

Although they put a brave face on it, the cumulative impression of visiting all these shows raises the suspicion that the curators are under orders to find pretexts to bring out the more obscure and neglected works languishing in Tate’s vast archives, and display them in exhibitions with eye-catching and ‘controversial’ themes.

While the aim of rotating their (doubtless huge) collection for us to view is laudable, the pretexts the curators come up with are sometimes ambitiously wide-ranging and grand-sounding, while the collection of artifacts actually on display often turns out to be rather patchy and random. The history of the British Empire is an enormous subject: the Tate exhibition about it amounted to a jumble sale of odds and sods from across the huge geographic reach and vast periods of time involved: the Empire used maps, here’s some maps; the Empire had flags, here’s half a dozen flags; the Empire allowed botanists and naturalists to travel the world and see exotic species so here’s a painting of tiger; here’s some native spears; and so on.

Although Tate calls in plentiful loans from other collections to create the exhibitions, the core of these shows tends to be focused on dusting off and displaying many of it hidden assets, themselves bought at various times for various reasons, hence the feeling they give of a patchwork quilt made from odds and ends. Sometimes it feels as if they’re trying do a vast jigsaw without most of the pieces.

Written histories can conjure up anything with words, creating continuities, linking themes and ideas at will: in words, anything is possible. Histories told through objects, however, immediately limit which areas can be covered, and which stories can be told, by virtue of what is available, what has survived. And histories told through works of ‘art’ are even more limited by the random nature of any particular art collection, as well as biases intrinsic in what kind of subjects get turned into ‘art’ and what don’t (the experiences of most ‘ordinary’ people, for example, or the entire world of work, especially housework).

All these limitations apply to this exhibition, with the additional challenge that sex, sexuality, gender, desire – call it what you will – is, by and large, quite a private part of most people’s lives. Artists and performers, by the nature of their work and output, are a kind of exception to the rule that most people keep their sex lives pretty private. And forms of sexuality which were banned by law and subject to harsh punishments are all the more likely to be hidden and suppressed, to not leave traces in the written – and especially the painted – record.

In other words, even more than Tate’s other wide-ranging historical exhibitions, this one feels haunted by gaps and absences.

The dates

In 1861 the death penalty for sodomy was abolished; in 1967 sex between men was (partially) decriminalised. These provide handy end dates.

The exhibition is in eight rooms

Coded desires covers the later Victorian period. This was dominated by the Aesthetic Movement and the group of painters known as the Olympians, who specialised in sensuous paintings of lightly-clad women lounging around in a dreamy ancient Roman baths or terraces. Just thinking about either of these interlinked movements brings to mind the extraordinary sensuality present in so much art of this period, along with a worship of the classical world, in pictures and in words, which stretched towards a feel for the same-sex relationships present in, especially, the writings of the Greeks, where a sexual relationship between an older man and a younger man or boy was socially acceptable. This may or may not be present in the works here, But the bigger story about most late Victorian art is the remarkable extent to which ‘desire’, physical sensuousness, in all shapes and forms, was more openly depicted than ever before in this period.

The exhibition has some striking works by the king of the Olympians, Frederick Leighton, on the basis that he sometimes depicted sensual male nudes – although many of his works are characterised by sensuality for men or women.

Leighton was rumoured to be gay, but then again it’s thought he had an affair with one of his female models. Tricky, therefore, to shoehorn him into modern categories of straight, gay, bi etc. One of the liberating things about studying history, past lives, is they did things differently, thought, wrote, spoke, painted, perceived, differently to us. Don’t fit into our modern categories.

The bulk of works in the room are by Simeon Solomon, who was unfortunate enough to be arrested in a public lavatory off Oxford Street, charged with attempting to commit sodomy and fined £100, then a year later arrested in Paris and sentenced to three months in prison. This makes him a bona fide gay hero. To the viewer, however, his works seem mostly sub-standard examples of the Olympian style done much more smoothly by the likes of Alma-Tadema or Albert Moore.

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene (1864) by Simeon Solomon (Watercolour) Tate

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene (1864) by Simeon Solomon (Watercolour) Tate

William Blake Richmond (1842-1921) is a painter you don’t hear about much. He also painted supremely sensual paintings on sunny classical themes, e.g. Hera in the House of Hephaistos or just sumptuous late-Victorian portraits e.g. Mrs Luke Ionides. Nothing particularly ‘transgressive’ about these, in the way our curators want to see ‘gender norms’ being ‘transgressed’, but they’ve included one big painting The Bowlers.

Apparently, this scandalised the Victorians (didn’t everything ‘scandalise’ the Victorians?) for its inclusion of naked women (you can see some breasts) and naked men in the same scene. And some of the men have their arms round each other. Shock horror. Richmond was married and wasn’t arrested in any toilets, so not a transgressive hero per se. After looking at it for a while I noticed the way a line drawn along the top of the heads of the figures on the right forms a diagonal going down towards the centre of the composition, while the heads of the women on the left line up as a mirror diagonal heading down towards the centre: at the very centre is a black vase against a thick central pillar, to the left of which is a woman in a see-through toga and on the right the zigzagging black trunk of a wisteria tree. Which means or symbolises? Who knows.

My favourite things in this room were the three paintings by the marvellous Henry Scott Tuke (1858-1929). Tuke was one of a group of artists who settled in Newlyn in Cornwall and painted en plein air. Almost all are of young men, nude or half-undressed, by the sparkling sea in the sunshine. In the permanent gallery upstairs they display August Blue (1893), a wonderful composition in terms of the draughtsmanship of the figures, also the figurative accuracy of the rowboat and the ships on the horizon, and also of course the wonderfully clear blues and greens – you can smell the sea, you can feel the sun on your skin. There are three of his paintings here alongside a cabinet showing some of the many photographs he took of gorgeous-looking young men.

The Critics (1927) by Henry Scott Tuke. Warwick District Council (Leamington Spa, UK)

The Critics (1927) by Henry Scott Tuke. Warwick District Council (Leamington Spa, UK)

Public indecency ‘looks at ways in which sexuality and gender identity did – and did not – go public from the 1880s to the 1920s.’

Thus we have the trial of Oscar Wilde (who has not heard of the trial of Oscar Wilde? How many films have been made of it?) the prosecution of Radclyffe Hall for her lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness (1928), and we get some of Aubrey Beardsley’s ‘scandalous’ illustrations for the Greek play Lysistrata thrown in.

This is the kind of thing you should learn in 6th form and certainly early in an English or humanities degree course, so that you can tut and fret and criticise horrible dead white men for repressing ‘transgressive’ sexualities. But it’s worth remembering that this period also saw the persecution of male heterosexual artists as well – James Joyce’s Ulysses went on trial in 1921 because of its description of a man masturbating, the police raided an exhibition of paintings by D.H. Lawrence and (admittedly not in England) the Austrian artist Egon Schiele was arrested and 100 of his art works were confiscated – one of them was burned by the judge in court in front of the artist -for their sexual explicitness.

It was an era when many artists of all persuasions were pushing at the boundaries of what society thought was acceptable depiction of sexuality, and many artists, gay, straight or what-have-you – fell foul of the authorities.

Alongside the Wilde and Beardsley are testaments to the work of the sexologists Richard von Krafft-Ebbing and Havelock Ellis, who collaborated with the gay writer John Addington Symonds on his book Sexual Inversion (1896). These ‘scientific’ works can either be seen (optimistically) as the start of a ‘modern’ liberal attitude to a wide range of sexual practices or (pessimistically) as ‘science’ and the State beginning to move into areas of private life, with a view to defining and categorising all possible practices (or perversions as they’d have been called) and the human ‘types’ which engage in them.

You don’t have to be Michel Foucault to suspect that the ‘liberating’ effects of writing about varieties of sexuality can be accompanied by new types of definition, surveillance and control.

Theatrical types The theatre and performing arts have long offered a refuge for exhibitionists, people who like to dress up, fantasise, play act and generally behave in ways which would not be acceptable in everyday life. So the theatre has long attracted gay men and this room features photos of famous performers who were gay, photographers who were gay, with a special case devoted to cross-dressing entertainers.

There’s a lot of photos by Angus McBean (1904-90) the fabulous b&w photographer, who did lots of semi-surreal fashion shots before the war (his ‘surrealised portraits’), was arrested in 1942 for homosexual acts and served two years in gaol, before emerging to resume his career post-war in a rather more traditional vision. But everything he did is touched by class and style. The show includes a typically weird portrait of the now-forgotten actor Robert Helpmann as Hamlet, though I know him for his appearances in Powell and Pressburger’s two extraordinary films, The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffmann.

The British have a problem with sex, full stop, whether straight or gay, and have long had a reputation for gross hypocrisy, with the ‘respectable’ classes enforcing repressive laws at home then vacationing in Paris where they could sleep with countless courtesans (as squeaky clean Charles Dickens was reputed to do and the heir to the throne, Prince Albert certainly did) or swanning off to North Africa, to Algeria or Morocco where there was an endless supply of boys for sex.

This nervousness, shame and embarrassment may be part of what lies behind the long tradition of men dressing up as women for vaudeville entertainment, a tradition which goes back a long way, but is certainly present in the Victorian music hall, through the pre-war years and was still going strong in my boyhood in figures like Danny La Rue, Dick Emery (‘Oh you are awful… but I like you!’), Kenny Everett (‘and then all my clothes fell off!’), Dame Edna Everage, Lily Savage. And that’s without mentioning the vast tradition of English pantomime with its Widow Twanky and Ugly Sisters, traditionally played by men and a huge opportunity for all kinds of blue, risqué and ‘transgender’ comedy.

A display case here presents a dozen or so photos and posters illustrating some of the cross-dressing stars of yore, most of which I’d never heard of simply because they were before the days of TV. Here, as elsewhere in the show (and as often in the Tate ‘history’ exhibitions) you feel this is an absolutely vast subject which has been only briefly sketched and hinted at, and possibly not one which is necessarily best approached through the medium of ‘art’ at all.

Douglas Byng (1934) by Paul Tanqueray. Vintage bromide print © Estate of Paul Tanqueray

Douglas Byng (1934) by Paul Tanqueray. Vintage bromide print © Estate of Paul Tanqueray

Bloomsbury and beyond I am prejudiced against Bloomsbury because of their snobbery and their smug, self-congratulatory elitism. They all slept with each other and described each other, in private letters and public reviews, as geniuses. What’s lasted has tended to be the writings of figures on the periphery – the economics of John Maynard Keynes, the novels of E.M. Forster, the novels of Virginia Woolf, though she was a core member. The art work of figures like Dora Carrington, Vanessa Bell (recently featured in a handsome exhibition at the Dulwich Picture House), Duncan Grant, Roger Fry, hasn’t really stood the test of time.

The catalogue says this room is meant to represent:

a generation of artists and sitters exploring, confronting and coming to terms with themselves and their desires.

Which makes it sound much more exciting and dynamic than most of their sleepy decorative pictures. Ethel Sands’s Tea with Sickert symbolises everything pretty, decorative and forgettable which I tend not to like about Bloomsbury art. Perhaps I just can’t slow myself down to this atmosphere of coma-like inaction. The commentary on the other hand, because Sands was in a queer relationship with fellow painter Nan Hudson, claims it is a ‘quietly subversive’ work, with ‘queer undercurrents’. Can you spot the queer undercurrents?

The commentary makes the case that, although not overtly sexual in the least, these tranquil interiors are a) painted by queer artists and b) if you look closely, very closely, you can see small hints and traces of ‘queer lives’ which ‘history has long neglected’. Maybe…

That said, I did find myself, on repeated viewings and to my surprise, warming to the selection of works by Duncan Grant on show here. These ranged from small, explicitly gay pornographic sketches to a vast mural, commissioned to decorate the dining room of the new Borough Polytechnic in 1911.

It’s a huge work – and the more I looked at it the more I admired the mix of abstract and figurative elements to achieve an overall decorative effect, and came to understand that it follows the action of a single diver from standing poised on the shore, at right, through diving in, and swimming to the boat which he clambers into at top left.

Bathing (1911) by Duncan Grant © Tate

Bathing (1911) by Duncan Grant © Tate

Similarly, I was impressed by the sheer size of the massive Excursion of Nausicaa by Dame Ethel Walker. It’s 18 metres wide by almost 4 high and makes a dramatic impact. It’s just as well a bench is provided for you to sit and take it all in. Although, when you look closer, it seems an uncomfortable mix of Gauguin-style primitivism with Art Deco style neo-classical figures, it is still at first sight, an enormous and confident composition.

There is a vibrant portrait by Glyn Warren Philpot (1884–1937) of his servant, Henry Thomas (1935). Note: his servant. In fact there were half a dozen Philpots scattered through the show, though this is the most vivid.

Similarly, the South African artist Edward Wolfe is represented by a portrait of Pat Nelson, his model and thought to be his gay lover.

The Bloomsburyites’ pursuit of ‘unconventional’ sexual arrangements (i.e. being bisexual, living with several lovers at once etc) through the Great War and into the twenties, led in to the cultural dominance of gay writers, poets and artists during the 1930s, given extra bite by the availability of the ‘decadent’ Weimar Republic in post-war Germany, whither trekked a generation of young gay men like Auden, Christopher Isherwood and so on.

Defying convention This room shows how early 20th century British artists ‘challenged gender norms’ i.e. by being lesbians, living with other women, having ‘open marriages’ and so on. For example, Laura Knight, the curators claim, in this picture is laying ‘claim to traditional masculine sources of artistic authority by depicting [herself] in the act of painting nude female models’. It’s another very big painting and very red.

Self portrait and Nude (1913) by Laura Knight. National Portrait Gallery

Self portrait and Nude (1913) by Laura Knight. National Portrait Gallery

There is a factual background to the image in that Knight was prevented from attending the life classes at Nottingham Art College because she was a woman; only when she moved to Newlyn was she able to hire life models, and so this composition is a sort of act of defiance. That changes our attitude to the image. Still, in and of itself, would you know that it lays claims to masculine sources of artistic authority, if it hadn’t been carefully explained. Maybe…

Anyway, on pretexts solid or flimsy, a number of big, colourful and attractive works are on show in this room, especially of the phenomenally posh women who populated early 20th century feminism.

  • Lady with a Red Hat (1918) by William Strang – the lady being the lesbian and gardening writer Vita Sackville-West, the Honourable Mrs Harold Nicholson, Companion of Honour, daughter of the third Baron Sackville. She is holding her recently published book of poems – Poems of West and East – showing the influence of Tennyson’s world-weariness, A.E. Housman’s lad poems, and the childlike orientalism of John Masefield and other Georgians.  They’re sweet and melancholy.
  • Dame Edith Sitwell (1916) by Alberto Guevara – daughter of Sir George Sitwell, 4th Baronet, of Renishaw Hall, and Lady Ida Emily Augusta (née Denison), a daughter of the Earl of Londesborough and a granddaughter of Henry Somerset, 7th Duke of Beaufort.
  • Romance (1920) by Cecile Walton – Walton doesn’t appear to have been gay, having had two marriages (to men) but this self-portrait is ‘challenging’ and ‘subverting’ ‘gender norms’ surrounding birth. Having been present at the birth of my daughter, I can testify that it certainly challenges the reality of childbirth which is a lot less calm and dignified than this static scenario.

Arcadia and Soho ‘London was a magnet for queer artists’.

The most striking works here are by the neglected surrealist artist Edward Burra (1905-76). According to a review of his biography, his sensibility was gay, and his closest friend was a male ballet dancer, ‘but they were never lovers’. Am I alone in finding this modern inquisitiveness about the exact nature of other people’s sexuality, and the precise borders of their sexual activity, prurient and controlling? Who cares? His art is weird and extra, a really stunning, outlandish vision.

  • Soldiers at Rye (1941) Burra incorporates masks from Venetian carnival, fabric from Spanish baroque, with a kind of sado-military hugeness to create this monstrous surreal panorama.
  • Izzy Orts (1937) Burra was introduced to the portside bars of Charleston, with their mix of jazz musicians, pimps and dealers, and sailors in tight-fitting uniforms. Perfect!

The opposite wall is devoted to a trio of gay artists – John Craxton, John Minton and Keith Vaughan – who were loosely described as ‘neo-romantics’ in the 1940s. They were certainly gay. There’s a display case of overtly gay and pornographic pencil sketches by Vaughan, as well as a handful of photos he took of gorgeous young men.

Drawing of two men kissing (1958–73) by Keith Vaughan © DACS, The Estate of Keith Vaughan

Drawing of two men kissing (1958–73) by Keith Vaughan © DACS, The Estate of Keith Vaughan

At an exhibition years ago I saw a whole stand of the b&w photos Vaughan took of beautiful young men lounging around classic 1930s lidos, at Hampstead Pools or the Serpentine, and have been haunted by them ever since.

Next to the figurative sketches are his much more abstract paintings:

In these Vaughan seems to me to have developed a new and exciting way of depicting the (mostly male) figure. Alongside Vaughan are some lighter, more ‘naive’ works by John Craxton.

Head of a Greek Sailor (1940) by John Craxton © Estate of John Craxton. All rights reserved, DACS 2016. Photo credit: London Borough of Camden

Head of a Greek Sailor (1940) by John Craxton © Estate of John Craxton. All rights reserved, DACS 2016. Photo credit: London Borough of Camden

Craxton, Minton and Vaughan are three interesting figures, maybe worthy of a joint exhibition some time.

Public/private lives In the decade leading up to the 1967 Sexual Offences Act gay men lived a strange twilight life. In many places gay relationships among the famous, especially the arty, were permitted – the eminent actor John Gielgud was arrested for indecency in a public toilet in 1953, was fined, released and was roundly applauded the next time he took to the stage. Maybe the most famous example was the close ‘friendship’ between England’s leading composer Benjamin Britten and the singer Peter Pears. The fuzz couldn’t go arresting the nation’s premier composer. But they did continue to arrest and imprison a steady stream of less well-known gay men, creating the trickle of protest which grew louder and more widespread for the law to be repealed or abolished.

This room goes heavy on the lurid relationship of gay playwright Joe Orton and his jealous lover Kenneth Halliwell, because it ended in a garish tragedy. But in the whole room the most powerful image for me was a still from the 1961 movie Victim, a genuinely taboo-breaking work starring Dirk Bogarde as an impeccably upper-middle class lawyer married to the fragrant Sylvia Sims, but who is photographed in a compromising situation with good-looking young Peter McEnery, and blackmailed. I saw this film as a boy and it left a lasting impression of the needless pain and suffering caused by bigots and criminals given license by a stupidly interfering state. It influenced me to join the Campaign for Homosexual Equality.

Francis Bacon and David Hockney I think we all know about these bad boys. This final room gives us the opportunity to marvel again at the bleak power of Bacon’s nihilistic paintings and the scratchy undergraduate humour of Hockney’s early Pop style.

Life Painting for a Diploma (1962) by David Hockney © Yageo Foundation

Life Painting for a Diploma (1962) by David Hockney © Yageo Foundation

Scholarship or prurient gossip?

As I progressed through the exhibition, reading every wall label carefully, a theme began to emerge (above and beyond the obvious ones about ‘gender fluidity’ and ‘same-sex desire’):

  • ‘De Morgan’s repeated images of Hales have encouraged speculation about the nature of their relationship…’
  • ‘There is some evidence that Henry Bishop was attracted to men…’
  • ‘Beardsley does not seem to have had relationships with men…’
  • ‘There has been much speculation about Tuke’s relationships with his Cornish models although nothing has been substantiated…’
  • ‘Little is known about Meteyard’s sexuality, other than the fact that he was married…’
  • ‘Leighton’s sexuality has been the subject of much speculation from his own times to the present, but he guarded his privacy closely…’
  • ‘Glen Byam Shaw had almost certainly been the lover of the poet Siegfried Sassoon…’
  • ‘The exact nature of Thomas and Philpot’s relationship is unknown…’
  • Duncan Grant’s ‘close friend and possible lover Paul Roche…’
  • ‘There has been a lot of speculation about the nature of Walker’s relationship with the painter Clara Christian with whom she lived and worked in the 1880s although little evidence survives…’
  • ‘The poet Edith Sitwell does not seem to have had sexual relationships…’

What does it matter to an appreciation of their work what an artist did or did not do with their penis or vagina, or to someone else’s penis or vagina? Why do scholars obsess about the sexual act being a vital threshold in a relationship? On one level, this breathless fascination with the precise nature of people’s relationships, and whether they ever did the deed together, is just a highbrow form of gutter gossip, an educated equivalent to who’s shagging who in The Only Way Is Essex or Celebrity Big Brother, little different to the tittle-tattle of the tabloid press.

On a more disturbing level, this intrusion of scholarly enquiry into the heart of people’s private lives is because modern art critics and curators need to know precisely who had sex with who and when, so that they can categorise and define artists, writers, poets, photographers, performers and so on according to their tidy definitions. So that artists can be neatly arranged into canons and genres and books and essays and exhibitions about straight or gay or queer or whatever art.

  • ‘[Dirk Bogarde] never publicly affirmed a sexual identity and his personal life has to be inferred from his long relationship with his manager Tony Forwood (1915-88) with whom he shared his home.’

Has to be? Who says it has to be? Why this compulsion? Why must everyone’s sexuality be nailed down and defined?

To be a bit fierce, you could say that modern art scholars and curators talk the talk about gender fluidity and multiple narratives and transgressing this, that or the other – but in practice, it is they more than any other group in British society who are obsessed with tracking down their subjects’ every sexual act and desire in order to categorise, limit, define and control both artists and their works.

I found the obsessive probing into these dead people’s private lives unpleasant and disturbing.

Conclusion

The repetition over and again, in the introductions to each room and on labels for individual works, of the phrases ‘same-sex desire’ and ‘gender norms’, all of which are ‘challenged’ and ‘confronted’ and ‘transgressed’, of artists ‘fearlessly stripping away’ convention and ‘pushing the boundaries’ – all this gets pretty monotonous after a while.

Luckily, the art itself is much more varied, stimulating and unexpected than the ideological monomania of the commentary would suggest. If the downside of these historically-themed Tate exhibitions is that they take on vast subjects which they then struggle to adequately cover, the upside is that they turn up all sorts of unexpected treasures by relatively unknown figures, and make you want to see more.

For example, I’d love to see an exhibition devoted to Craxton, Minton and Vaughan, exploring that strange sensibility of the 1940s, surely the most overlooked of 20th century decades. An exhibition devoted to the late Victorian ‘Olympian’ artists would not only be a feast of sensuality but could explore in more detail the complex areas of sexuality and sensuality which were so present in Victorian art, yet so repressed in Victorian life.

Edward Burra, can we have a show dedicated to him, please, his last retrospective was in 1973. How about a show devoted to Tuke and the Newlyn School, what a wonderful treat that would be for the dark English winter. The more I looked at the Angus McBean photos, the more wonderful they seemed – how about an exhibition of him – or a broader exhibition about Theatre and Photography? Or, as simple an idea as ‘Neglected Women Artists 1860-1960’, showcasing the work of less well-known women artists (Laura Knight, Cecile Walton, Ethel Walker) from this era, gay, straight or whatever.

In conclusion, I was irritated by the curator-speak but I thought it was a wonderful show, went back to see it twice, bought the catalogue, and am still being pleasantly beguiled by many of the wonderful paintings, large and small, brash or quiet. What an extraordinary, and huge, contribution gay/lesbian/queer artists have made to every aspect of British culture.


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Man Ray Portraits @ the National Portrait Gallery

To the National Portrait Gallery for Man Ray Portraits. It claims to be the first exhibition of his portraits in the UK, with over 150 specimens. But to be honest, it felt small and pinched. A lot of his most famous images weren’t on display and a lot of what was on display was journeyman stuff from the 40s and 50s. There wasn’t nearly enough of the solarised photos and, by definition, no abstract or experimental or just still life photos. Instead he came over as a superior and sometimes quirky magazine photographer.

The show was in three long, thin rooms divided into small, cramped booths each addressing periods in his career:

New York 1916-20 Born Michael Emmanuel Radnitzky in Philadelphia in 1890, Man Ray taught himself photography to reproduce his own works of art. The first work was from 1916, an American just starting his career during the Great War and immediately he is photographing Marcel Duchamp, darling of Dada and the avant-garde, a milieu MR was to inhabit for the rest of his life. Man Ray’s support and promotion of avant-garde artists was formalised in 1920, when American patron Katherine Dreier invited Man Ray and Duchamp to establish the Société Anonyme, America’s first contemporary art collection.

Paris 1921-28 In 1921 MR followed Duchamp to Paris where he held his first solo exhibition of paintings. A succès d’estime it didn’t make any money, persuading MR to focus his efforts on photography. He set upp studios in 1922, the annus mirabilis of literary Modernism. The exhibition is a who’s who of artistic Paris in the golden age of Modernism – Hemingway, Stravinksy, Picasso, Matisse, Schoenberg, Joyce. You spend more time reading the rather exhausting summaries of these superfamous stars than looking at the actual images…

During these years his lover and muse was Kiki (born Alice Prin) who features in the iconic images, Violon d’Ingres and Noire et Blanche.

Le Violon d’Ingres, 1924 by Man Ray Museum Ludwig Cologne, Photography Collections (Collection Gruber) © Man Ray Trust / ADAGP © Copy Photograph Rheinisches Bildarchiv Köln

Le Violon d’Ingres, 1924 by Man Ray
Museum Ludwig Cologne, Photography Collections (Collection Gruber)
© Man Ray Trust / ADAGP © Copy Photograph Rheinisches Bildarchiv Köln

Paris 1929-37 Central to this period is American-born photographer and fashion model Lee Miller whose striking good looks and crisp figure feature in many of his photos from the time. Together they developed the process of solarisation. There are not nearly enough solarised images in the exhibition. Where is the most famous of all, Les Larmes?

New to me were the striking images of lesbian stunner Suzy Solidor. And I’ve always had a soft spot for the wonderful photo of  Nusch et Sonia Mosse. He came to London to organise an exhibition and took portraits of leading English artists including iconic images of Aldous Huxley and Virginia Woolf. Superior book jacket shots.

Solarised Portrait of Lee Miller, c.1929 by Man Ray The Penrose Collection © Man Ray Trust/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2012, courtesy The Penrose Collection. Image courtesy the Lee Miller Archives

Solarised Portrait of Lee Miller, c.1929 by Man Ray The Penrose Collection © Man Ray Trust/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2012, courtesy The Penrose Collection. Image courtesy the Lee Miller Archives

Hollywood 1940-50 After the German invasion of France in 1940, Man Ray returned to the United States, travelling to Hollywood where he met Juliet Browner, a 28-year-old dancer and artist’s model. She became his muse and companion for the next thirty-six years. His photographic output drops off as, for the next ten years, MR concentrates on his painting, only taking occasional portraits of friends in the film and arts community.

Paris 1951-76 Like other European artistic exiles who had gone to America during the War years, Man Ray returned to Paris in 1951. He was primarily concerned with making editions of his artwork, writing an autobiography, ‘Man Ray Self-Portrait’ (1963), and contributing to retrospective exhibitions, experimenting a bit with new colour photographic processes, making colour portraits including those of Juliette Greco and Yves Montand.

In August 1976 Man Ray celebrated his eighty-sixth and last birthday – just as the Sex Pistols were starting their explosive career in London. From one pioneer of Dada to ….

 

‘Man Ray Portraits’ continues at the National Portrait Gallery until 27 May

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