Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II by Keith Lowe

At Powayen near Königsberg, for example, the bodies of dead women were strewn everywhere: they had been raped and then brutally killed with bayonets or rifle butt blows to the head. Four women here had been stripped naked, tied to the back of a Soviet tank and dragged to their deaths. In Gross Heydekrug a woman was crucified on the altar cross of the local church, with two German soldiers similarly strung up on either side. More crucifixions occurred in other villages, where women were raped and then nailed to barn doors. At Metgethen it was not only women but children who were killed and mutilated: according to the German captain who examined their corpses, ‘Most of the children had been killed by a blow to the head with a blunt instrument,’ but ‘some had numerous bayonet wounds to their tiny bodies.’ (p.75)

No summary can really do justice to the cumulatively devastating effect of reading the hundreds and hundreds of vignettes like this which Keith Lowe has assembled in his excoriating book about the moral, economic, social and psychological collapse of an entire continent into bottomless savagery and barbarism at the end of the Second World War.

Savage continent

There are countless books about the origins of the Second World War – histories of the alliances and invasions, biographies of Hitler and Mussolini, cultural studies of the 1930s, blah blah blah- but comparatively few about how the war ended or its long-drawn-out aftermath. This book sets out to fill that gap and is a fascinating, well written, and traumatising account which aims to cover every element of the catastrophe.

And it really was a catastrophe beyond comprehension. The book starts with hard-to-grasp facts about the numbers of people killed, soldiers and civilians, before going on to describe the physical destruction which touched every corner of the continent.

Death

Up to 40 million people died in the Second World War, an estimated 27 million of them Russians. About a third of all women born in the 1930s never married because there were no men – just a huge gap where all those dead men should have been.

Every schoolchild is taught that around 6 million Jews were exterminated in the Holocaust, but the scale of other losses were comparable: Germany lost an estimated 4.5 million soldiers and 1.5 million civilians, roughly the same number. Poland also lost about 6 million dead (including nearly 2 million Jews); Ukraine between 7 and 8 million killed, a fifth of the country’s population. A quarter of Belarusians died. By 1945 huge areas of the East were nothing but smoking rubble and ruined fields and landscapes emptied of human beings.

Destruction

Hitler lost patience with the Poles after the Warsaw Rising and ordered the city to be razed to the ground. In the event some 93% of buildings were destroyed, along with the National Archive, Financial Archive the Municipal Archive, all libraries, art galleries and museums. Factor in Hitler and Stalin’s joint efforts to wipe out the entire professional class of Poland and the mass murder of all its army officers at Katyn, and it’s a surprise Poland still exists.

Coventry was devastated as was London, and most German cities were severely damaged – though few as thoroughly as Dresden or Hamburg, where the notorious fire storm bombing killed some 40,000 in one night. About a fifth of all German living space was destroyed. Some 20 million Germans were rendered homeless.

Maybe 70,000 villages across Russia were destroyed along with their entire rural infrastructure. Some 32,000 Russian factories were destroyed. In Hungary, the Germans flooded or destroyed every single mine. In Holland, the Germans deliberately opened the dykes that kept out the sea and flooded half a million acres of land. From one end of the continent to the other, the scale of the conscious and deliberate destruction of all signs of civilisation is breath-taking. Primo Levi is quoted as saying, as he travelled across postwar Europe back to Italy, that there was something supernatural, superhuman, about the scale of the devastation the Germans had unleashed.

The more you read of villages, towns and landscapes obliterated, and historic towns razed to the ground, the more you realise that we latecomers live amidst the ruins of a once great civilisation. How did we ever survive?

Four parts

The book is divided into four big parts, each of which contains 6 or 7 sections. The quickest way to convey the breadth of subject matter is simply to list them.

  1. The Legacy of War – Physical destruction. Absence. Displacement. Famine. Moral destruction. Hope. Landscape of Chaos.
  2. Vengeance – The thirst for blood. The camps liberated. Vengeance restrained: slave labourers. German prisoners of war. Vengeance unrestrained: Eastern Europe. The enemy within. Revenge on women and children. The purpose of vengeance.
  3. Ethnic cleansing – Wartime choices. The Jewish flight. The ethnic cleansing of Ukraine and Poland. The expulsion of the Germans. Europe in microcosm: Yugoslavia. Western tolerance, Eastern intolerance.
  4. Civil war – Wars within wars. Political violence in France and Italy. The Greek civil war. Cuckoo in the nest: communism in Romania. The subjugation of Eastern Europe. The resistance of the ‘forest brothers’. The Cold War mirror.

Some themes

The subject matter, the scale of the disaster, is too big to grapple with or try to summarise. Lowe’s book itself is only a summary, a flying overview of a vast and terrifying continent of savagery, peppered with just a tiny sample of anecdotes describing the endless torture, rape, ethnic cleansing, anti-Semitism, persecution, murder and violence which was unleashed across Europe.

Some of the thoughts or ideas struck me more than others:

The myth of national unity

After the liberation the whole continent began constructing myths of unity in adversity. (p.196)

After the war every country wanted to think well of itself. France is the most glaring example. In all his broadcasts General de Gaulle emphasised that La France was united in its fight against Fascism, the spirit of gloire and liberté etc etc was shared by all good Frenchmen. This ignored the fact that France, of course, enjoyed a right-wing government which enthusiastically co-operated with the Nazis from 1940 onwards, dutifully rounded up French Jews and shipped them off to death camps, helped by collaborators at every level of French society.

De Gaulle’s success was that during the war and, especially, after the Liberation, he helped the French gloss over this shameful fact, and to promote the myth of the heroic Resistance. There were a lot of French resistance fighters (around 100,000), but the figure went up fourfold once the Allies landed and victory became certain (p.168). In later years almost every Frenchman turned out to have helped the Resistance in one way or another.

But the wish to gloss over inconvenient truths wasn’t particularly French. In Yugoslavia Marshal Tito appealed to the spirit of unity and brotherhood in an attempt to unite the fractious factions of his made-up country. Stalin’s speeches invoked a united Russian people, and so on.

Reading about the foreign comparisons shed light on the strongly patriotic writings and especially movies of my own country, England, during and after the war, and made me realise that the national pride evinced in all those classic war movies was just the local expression of a feeling which nations all across Europe wanted to feel, and allowed themselves to feel, with a greater or lesser distorting of the truth.

Victimhood

As a reader of modern newspapers, it’s often easy to think that modern 21st century society is made up entirely of victims – black victims of racism, Muslim victims of Islamophobia, women victims of sexism, LBGT victims of prejudice, and so on and so on. Even bankers felt persecuted after the 2008 crash, it’s time to stop blaming us for everything, the head of Barclays whined. Everyone in the modern world seems quick to have a grievance, a permanent readiness to feel hard-done-by or unfairly treated.

It is very interesting to discover that this is not a new phenomenon – to read Lowe’s examples of the way entire countries, and groups within countries, competed in the aftermath of the war to appear the bigger victims.

It is an eye-opener to learn that – after the hammering their cities took from Allied bombers, and then especially after the forced relocation of millions of ethnic Germans from the surrounding countries into the borders of a reduced Germany, combined with the industrial raping of German women by the invading Red Army – that a lot of Germans managed to present themselves as the victims of the Second World War. ‘We are only civilians. We never shot anyone’ etc. They never really supported that crazy Hitler and his stupid Nazi party.

Similarly, many of the collaborators, the police and militias who co-operated with the occupying Germans in countries all across Europe, later, after the Liberation, were themselves subject to attacks or arrest and trial. This led many to work up a sense of grievance that they were the ones who were the true victims. They had only been obeying orders. If they hadn’t done it someone else would have. And by sacrificing themselves, they managed to restrain the wilder savagery of the Nazis. And so on and so on.

Thus Lowe points out how right-wing French historians and politicians have exaggerated the massacres of collaborators carried out by the Resistance immediately following the Liberation, claiming they indiscriminately murdered 100,000 loyal, noble, patriotic French men and women.

Similarly, modern right-wing forces in Italy where partisans and collaborators openly fought after the Liberation, claim that the (generally communist) partisans killed up to 300,000 (in this version of the story, heroic and patriotic) collaborators. In both cases history is twisted to exonerate those who collaborated with the Germans, and to create a permanent sense of grievance which right-wing politicians can still appeal to, in our time.

Rape

On a mass, on an industrial, scale. All sides committed rape but it was the Russian army, invading west into Germany, which wins first prize. As many as two million German women were raped by Red Army soldiers, but it’s the number of times they were violated which is really sickening, with some women being raped 60 or 70 times, sometimes scores of times on the same day, during the same horrific night. Every female from eight to 80 was at risk. As many as 100,000 women were raped and raped again in Berlin alone.

We can take it as read that rape is an instrument of war and/or terror, and occurs in almost all war zones. Soldiers can justify it because a) they despise the enemy and their women b) they may die at any moment and regard sex as their due c) it is a form of psychological warfare, humiliating a nation’s menfolk for being unable to defend their women.

Lowe goes further to point out that rape seems to occur where there is a significant ethnic difference between groups – thus the Russian forces which fought across Bulgaria committed relatively few rapes because of the close cultural similarities between the countries. Whereas, in the West, several Arab battalions became well known as mass rapists, for example the Moroccan Goumier battalions, because the cultural gulf between them and European women who they despised. At least part of the atrocity, Lowe claims, due to cultural difference.

Shearing women collaborators

A surprising number of women in occupied countries fell in love with the German invaders. Lowe shocks me a little by claiming that surveys at the time and later revealed this was because they found the Germans more ‘manly’ than their own, defeated and humiliated, menfolk (p.166). Well, maybe Sylvia Plath wasn’t being ironic when she reported that ‘Every woman adores a Fascist.’

One of the features of the Liberation from German rule everywhere was the punishment not only of collaborator administrators and police, but of the women who had slept with the enemy. Lowe describes in grisly detail, and includes photos of some of the tens of thousands of women who found themselves attacked by lynch mobs who often stripped them naked, shaved all the hair off their head as a mark of ‘shame’, tarred and painted them with swastikas.

Where he adds an insight which is typical of the book, typical of its way of shedding new light in a sober, empirical way on appalling behaviour, is when he points out the psychological role these humiliations took. Many bystanders, including horrified British officers, realised that there was something medieval or even pagan about the ceremonies. The women were shaved with mock ceremony by the community barber, sometimes daubed with swastikas etc, but rarely really hurt, and never beaten or killed.

And this is because, witnesses report, the shavings had something of a festival spirit, often accompanied by heavy drinking and folk or patriotic songs. By nominating one scapegoat to bear all the sins of the community, the taunting crowds could forget their differences, bury the hatchet, and renew themselves.

Witnesses report a marked reduction in communal tension in places where the ceremony had taken place, and where shaved women could be seen in the streets. The angry, the potentially violent, could see that at least some justice had been done, goes the argument – and so more overt violence was avoided.

Weird, persecutory, grotesquely unfair? Yes – but that’s human nature. This book shows you who we are, the fierce, frightened animals which lie just beneath the thin veneer of ‘civilisation’.

Jewish restraint

No need to reprise the horrors of the Holocaust here. Dealing with the aftermath, Lowe devotes some pages to the revenge taken by camp inmates on their guards and tormentors. Generally the Allies, taken by surprise by the scale and atrocity of the camps, allowed the inmates – or the few who were well and healthy enough to do it – to take what revenge they wanted. Very often American or British supervisors gave the victims 2 or 3 days to get it out of their systems, then reimposed order.

The surprising thing (for someone who has such a low opinion of humanity as myself) is the relative restraint. Some victims and camp inmates went made with revenge. But a surprising number didn’t, and even made eloquent speeches saying they refused to lower themselves to the bestial barbarism of the Germans, epitomised by the address of Dr Zalman Grinberg to his fellow inmates of Dachau in May 1945, when he told them not to sink to the level of their German tormentors. Hard not to be moved and impressed.

There’s a fascinating description page about Abba Kovner’s ‘Avengers’, an organisation of Jews which explicitly set out to murder one German for every Jew. They massacred garrisons of German soldiers where they could, and were only just foiled in a grand plan to put poison into the drinking water of five German cities.

But by and large Lowe emphasises the restraint which Jews exercised. There’s a telling quote from the US General Lucius Clay, that the restraint of the liberated Jews and their respect for law and order were one of the most remarkable things he saw in his two years in Europe (p.89). All the more striking, given that virtually every other social group seems to have been hell-bent on some kind of revenge, revenge against collaborators which sometimes escalated into overt civil war, as in Greece (1946 to 1949), or was only just contained, either by Allied forces (as in Italy) or by the brutal crackdown of communist authorities (as in Tito’s Yugoslavia).

All the more striking given Lowe’s pages devoted to highlighting the way vicious anti-Semitism continued and even increased after the war in various countries, where civilians were by and large indifferent to the sufferings of the Jews, told them to their face it was their own fault, or explicitly blamed them for the start of the whole war (p.191).

Ethnic cleansing

Part three of the book is devoted to this subject in all its disgusting variations. 11 million Germans were forced to move, kicked out of western Poland and northern Czechoslovakia, often at short notice, often forced to march carrying all their possessions. Lowe gives harrowing details of the old and sick dying early on, then Polish or Soviet soldiers with rifles picking off the walkers, sometimes just for kicks, firing at random at anyone who was too tall or too slow, or just firing into the columns of shuffling refugees and, of course, routinely pulling any pretty woman out of the crowd and raping her, often in sight of everyone, and shooting anyone who tried to interfere. In Europe as a whole an estimated 40 million people were displaced – on the roads – at one point or another. One eyewitness said it was like the biggest antheap in history.

Many people were surprised by the ferocity of the small wars which broke out in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, but this book makes quite clear that they were just the continuation of feuds and enmities stretching way back into the 1930s, and which flared up with particular horror all through the Second World War and well into the post-war period.

Even worse was the mass expulsion of Poles from Ukraine and Ukrainians from Poland, as Stalin and the Polish leaders each sought to ‘purify’ their lands. Defence organisations, bandits and partisans sprang up, one atrocity sparked reprisals and all sides adopted a general policy of terror i.e. not just the killing but the torture, rape, looting and destruction of completely ‘innocent’ communities.

Again and again, all across the continent, as soon as you had successfully ‘dehumanised’ your opponents, you could do what you liked with them.

In Croatia the Ustashe not only killed Serbs but also took the time to hack off the breasts of women and castrate the men. In Drama, in north-eastern Greece, Bulgarian soldiers played football with the heads of their Greek victims. In Chelmon concentration camp German guards would kill babies who survived the gas vans by splitting their heads against trees. In Königsberg Soviet soldiers tied the legs of German women to two different cars and then drove off in opposite directions, literally tearing the women in half. (p.50)

The book pullulates with examples of the most grotesque atrocities. No sadistic cruelty the human mind could devise went unexampled, uncarried-out, in this grotesque era.

Western civilisation and Eastern barbarism

One theme Lowe repeats again and again is that whatever barbarity you can think of, it was ten times, or a hundred times, worse in the East. Everything here reinforces the horror depicted in Tim Snyder’s terrifying book, Bloodlands, which gives figures for the mind-boggling scale of murders, executions, holocausts, pogroms, persecutions, and deliberate starvation which devastated the region from the Baltic states down through Poland and the Ukraine from the later 1920s until well after the war.

It is fashionable to ridicule the kind of old-fashioned English patriotism exemplified in Cecil Rhodes’ quote: ‘Remember that you are an Englishman, and have consequently won first prize in the lottery of life.’ That’s certainly silly if it’s interpreted to mean an Englishman has some innate superiority over other races. But in a context like this, bombarded with details of the atrocities almost every group on the continent carried out against everyone within reach, you realise it’s a simple statement of fact.

Britain was the only region not occupied by the Nazis or the Soviets, the only area which didn’t experience systematic terror and the creation of bandit and partisan groups outside the law, which didn’t suffer from collaborators and then experience the utter breakdown of civil society which led to civil war and mass atrocities.

To be born an Englishman in the first half of the 20th century really was a lucky fate compared to being born Polish, Ukrainian, Greek, Russian, German or Jewish.

The Iron Curtain

Partly this is because the East was closer to the monstrous Russian bear, in its even-more-brutal-than-usual Soviet incarnation. Lowe’s book gives heart-breaking accounts of how communist parties in Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia conspired to intimidate or murder opponents, make false promises to peasants and workers, fake election results, bribe and threaten their way to key ministries and then engineer communist takeovers of power which led in a few short years to the attainment of a completely communist Eastern Europe under Stalin’s iron control.

What I didn’t know was that partisans who had learned their trade resisting Germans during the war, continued in some of these countries a heroic anti-communist resistance, pathetically hoping for intervention and liberation from the West, well past the end of the war, sometimes into the 1950s.

Apparently, the last anti-communist partisans in Lithuania weren’t completely stamped out (i.e. killed) until 1956 (p.356). Lowe describes how the memory of their stand against communism, led them to become folk heroes, subjects of songs and poems and books, and then, when the Baltic states gained independence in the 1990s, heroes of the new nations.

Nationalism

Lowe doesn’t draw out this point, but I would: Nationalism is probably the most vicious belief ever to grip the human mind. It emerged from the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars and spawned a century in which ‘nations’ across Europe decided they needed to be ‘free’.

It was Serbian ‘nationalists’ who kicked off the Great War which led to the final collapse of Europe’s multicultural empires, and the world we find ourselves in today is still dictated by the fragmentation of these empires into so-called ‘nations’, each one of which wants to represent one ‘national’ spirit, one language, one religion, one army, strong and proud etc etc.

The murdering, raping, torturing, crucifying, throwing from buildings and beheadings which we see in Iraq and Syria are the long-term consequence of the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 and the failure of the Allied attempts to draw lines and define new ‘nations’ in a world plagued by ‘nationalism’.

The French and British imperial authorities are routinely ridiculed for drawing neat lines on the map of the Middle East during the Great War, creating ‘nations’ which arbitrarily separated some ethnic or religious groups and just as arbitrarily pushed others together, storing up ‘trouble’ for the future.

But what lines would be better? What lines would prevent Sunni and Shia, Alawite and Sufi, Druze and Maronite, Jew and Arab, spending so much time and effort trying to murder each other in order to ‘purify’ their territory, once the poison of nationalism had taken hold – once the delusion that you should live in ‘nations’ made up of ‘your own’ people takes hold among political leaders?

Closer to the terrain described in Lowe’s book, we in the West celebrated when the East European countries threw off the shackles of communism 30 years ago. But they have experienced a steady drift to the right over the past decade, under governments which have responded to economic difficulties and geopolitical uncertainty (Islamic terrorism, the refugee crisis) with stock appeals to national unity and pride etc, swiftly followed by nationalism’s ever-present zombie twin – threats against ‘the enemy within’, against ‘subversives’, against anyone who undermines the ‘glorious values of the heroic fatherland’ etc etc, in practice against gypsies, Jews, gays, religious and ethnic minorities of any description, against anyone who can be safely bullied and persecuted.

Rassenkrieg

Reading the book made me reimagine the entire Second World War as a Race War to an extent I hadn’t previously realised. At first in Germany and then in all the countries they conquered, the Nazis compelled the entire population to carry identity cards which specified precisely which race they belonged to, and created vast bureaucracies to manage the rights and permissions of every citizen based on the complex hierarchy of racial definitions.

In Poland, for example,

a racial hierarchy was devised which put Reich Germans at the top, ethnic Germans next, then privileged  minorities such as Ukrainians, followed by Poles, gypsies and Jews.

Each group was then sub-categorised, for example Ethnic Germans broken down into Germans racially pure enough to join the Nazi Party, pure enough for Reich membership, those tainted by Polish blood, and finally Poles who could be considered German because of their appearance or way of life (p.188).

In Western Europe this fed into the rounding up of Jews and to a lesser extent gypsies (and socialists, liberals, political opponents and homosexuals). But in Eastern Europe the race basis of the war makes it lunatic. I am still reeling from reading about the Generalplan Ost whose headline intention was to exterminate some 30 million Slavs in Poland and western Russia, laying waste entire regions which could then be occupied by good Aryan farmers, who would use the remaining Slavs as slaves.

This isn’t dealt with directly in Lowe’s book. Instead he deals in detail with the political, psychological and social consequences of this way of thinking. He shows how after the war was over nationalist groups across eastern Europe blamed the Jews for much of the suffering, how anti-semitism rose, how this convinced many Jews to flee to Palestine.

But gives an extended passage describing the ethnic cleansing of Germans in Czechoslovakia but especially from Poland. Poland was also the scene of horrible civil conflict between ethnic Poles and Ukrainians in the disputed south-east part of the country, which led to terrifying, bestial atrocities. And all so Ukrainians could have a ‘Ukraine for the Ukrainians’ and the Poles could have a ‘Poland for the Poles’. Their new communist masters stood back and let them massacre each other.

The real point of Lowe’s book is that the evil of the Nazis’ obsession with Race Identity lived on long after the regime was destroyed.

The fascist obsession with racial purity, not only in those areas occupied by Germany, but elsewhere too, had a huge impact on European values. It made people aware of race in a way they never had been before. It obliged people to take sides, whether they want to or not. And, in communities which had lived side by side more or less peacefully for centuries, it made race into a problem that needed solving. (p.188)

Two years after the end of the war regions of Europe were still being racially cleansed. Thus the Slovak government not only set a bout expelling the 40,000 or so Hungarians who had settled in their country after the Germans invaded, but expelling the entire pre-war Hungarian community of some 600,000 souls in order to have a ‘final solution’ to the Hungarian Problem (p.247).

It took a while, and it happened under post-war nationalist and then communist governments, but the savage irony is that many parts of Europe really did eventually become what the Nazis had worked for – Judenfrei. And the toxin of race identity they had unleashed continued to infect the politics of entire nations for decades to come…

Conclusion

The rise of Hitler and the Nazis in Germany is such a well-worn story – both my children had to study it at school and could recite it like a fairy tale, ‘the Reichstag fire, blah blah blah’ – that it seems to me to have been almost emptied of content and relevance.

All those textbooks and documentaries didn’t stop the Bosnian Serb Army from rounding up and exterminating more than 8,000 Muslims at Srebrenica or bombarding Sarajevo, or the Hutus slaughtering 800,000 Tutsis and Hwa in Rwanda, or the inter-communal violence in post-war Iraq, or post-Gaddafi Libya, or the sudden genocidal attack of the Myanmar military against the Rohynga Muslims, and so on.

By contrast with the time-honoured clichés about the Nazis and Holocaust Memorial Day and so on, which tend to limit the threat and the lesson to a specific time and place long ago, Lowe’s judicious overview of the chaotic forces unleashed by the Second World War, and which lingered on in violence, hatred, blame and revenge for years afterwards, has much to teach us about human nature everywhere.

It is a history book but it is also a sort of compendium of the thousand and one ways humans can justify to themselves and their communities, the most inhuman bestial behaviour.

Far more than yet another tome about Krystallnacht or the Wansee Conference, Lowe’s book is a far broader study of the pathological forces at work in each and every one of us, in our communities and nations, which need to be identified and guarded against at all times, if we are to live in something like peace with each other.


Credit

Savage Continent by Keith Lowe was published by Viking in 2012. All quotes references are to the 2013 Penguin paperback edition.

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Running Wild by J.G. Ballard (1988)

‘Well done, Jeremy!’

This is a very short book, a macabre and gruesome little shocker which is barely a novella, really just a long short story, just about stretching to 106 pages in the big-print Flamingo paperback version. It took me just an hour and a half to read it.

It’s a first-person narrative told by a doctor (if I had a pound for every Ballard protagonist who is a doctor), in this instance, Dr Richard Greville, Deputy Psychiatric Adviser for the Metropolitan Police.

Greville has been called to help investigate a murder. Well, not so much a murder as a massacre. Early on the morning of 25 June 1988, all the adult inhabitants of a luxury, gated community for upper-middle-class professionals, named Pangbourne Village, were murdered in a variety of gruesome ways.

Some were electrocuted in their bath, or on their exercise bicycle, many were shot, some were stabbed to death, a couple were crushed against their garage by their own Porsche, some were shot with crossbow bolts. The phone cables to the outside world had been cut and all the cables from the estate’s numerous CCTV cameras to the central Security lodge had also been severed, and the security guard asphyxiated in a complicated kite-cum-tourniquet device developed by the Viet Cong in Vietnam.

Ten families lives in the community, each in a perfect, luxury home, many with indoor gyms and swimming pools and tennis courts in the grounds. All twenty of the parents were executed, along with twelve staff, including au pairs, tutors, gardeners and the two security guards.

And the thirteen children whose parents were murdered? Have disappeared. Vanished without trace.

The media go wild and there’s an explosion of theories as to what happened, from a random terrorist attack, to a mass suicide on the lines of the Jonestown Massacre, maybe an attack by Russian Special Forces at key managers of vital British infrastructure… all the way to the lunatic fringe who claim the parents were murdered and the children abducted by aliens. There’s always a few…

Greville sets about investigating the massacre systematically, and so does Ballard. The text is presented in a very neat format, divided into clear, precise sections chronicling events and developments, as Greville investigates – reviews a police video of the crime scene, reviews the history of the gated community, reads profiles of its residents, reviews all the theories, then visits the scene, where he is shown round by Sergeant Payne of Reading Police CID, has a breakthrough, tests his theory, and comes to his conclusions.

Structure

These are the titles (and sub-sections) of the (short) chapters:

  • The police video
  • Pangbourne Village
  • The Residents
  • The Murdered Staff
  • The Missing Children
  • The Massacre: Various Theories
    • Lone assassin
    • Thrill killer
    • A misdirected military exercise
    • The political dimension: Foreign powers
    • International Terrorism
    • Organised Crime
    • The Parents as Killers
    • The Domestic Staff
    • Bizarre Theories:
      • Soviet Spetznaz commandos attack the wrong location
      • Experimental nerve gas bomb falls on the estate by accident and drives the inhabitants mad
      • The parents were brainwashed foreign agents who, when their work was done, were triggered to murder each other
      • The parents were murdered by aliens from outer space who took the children as specimens
      • The parents were murdered by their own children
  • A Visit to Pangbourne: August 29, 1988
  • The Psychiatrists’ Home
  • Marion Miller, the First ‘Hostage’
  • The Television Film
  • Return to Pangbourne Village: October 17, 1988
  • The Pangbourne Massacre: The Evidence
  • The Pangbourne Children
  • The Great Ormond Street Kidnapping
  • The Pangbourne Massacre: The Murderers Identified
  • A Tentative Explanation
  • The Trigger
  • June 25, 1988 – The Reconstruction
  • Disappearance of the Children
  • POSTSCRIPT, DECEMBER 8, 1993

Spoiler alert

The kids did it. The thirteen children formed a tight-knit conspiracy, laid intricate plans, and then murdered their parents, house by house, over an intense half hour period starting at 8.15am.

they stated with the murder of Mrs Miller on her exercise bicycle, followed swiftly by the murder of Mr Miller, who is sitting in his bath when his 8-year-old daughter Marion plugs a hairdryer into a nearby power socket and drops it into the bath. While Miller’s body is spasming in electric shock, his son, Robin, stabs him to death with a kitchen knife.

The Miller children then signal to the children in the house opposite, who proceed to murder their parents, and so on in a domino effect throughout the estate, with the security guards taken out separately, and then all the ancillary staff – au pairs, tutors etc – cold-bloodedly shot dead.

These events are actually described twice – once at the start, when Dr Griffiths watches the police video of the crime scene which shows all the dead bodies splayed around their houses – and once near the end, when the narrator walks us through his detailed, grisly and disgusting reconstruction of the massacre.

I had begun to suspect it was the kids by page 10. When I read the long list of possible theories, the last one – that the kids did it – leaped out at me. Greville suddenly realises the kids did it on page 50 i.e. exactly half way through the book.

So there is an element of suspense for the first 40 or 50 pages, but that isn’t really the point: the point of the book is investigating the reason Why.

It’s because the children were pampered to within an inch of their lives and eventually rebelled in order to find some freedom.

Their parents sent them to posh private schools, but not boarding schools, day schools, so that the kids returned home every evening, and so that every aspect of their lives could be monitored and enthusiastically supported by this parents.

Their parents told them what to read, what they should watch on TV, and organised drama societies and chess clubs in which they supported and encouraged their children all the time.

In the seventeen-year-old Jeremy Maxted’s room Griffiths and Payne discover that the boy’s computer is wired up so that his parents can send him loving, encouraging messages at any time of day or night, especially about his favourite hobby, swimming.

Payne pressed the computer keyboard, tapping out a simple code. The screen lit up with a message dated May 17, 1988:
_47 lengths today!_
There was a pause, and then:
_Well done, Jeremy!

The members of staff who weren’t on shift on the fateful day and so missed the massacre, all testify that:

The murder victims were enlightened and loving parents, who shared liberal and humane values which they displayed almost to a fault. The children attended exclusive private day schools near Reading, and their successful academic records reveal a complete absence of stress in their home lives. The parents (all of whom, untypically for their professional class, seem to have objected to boarding schools) devoted long hours to their offspring, even to the extent of sacrificing their own social lives. They joined the children in various activities at the recreation club, organised discotheques and bridge contests in which they took full part, and in the best sense were guiding their sons and daughters toward fulfilled and happy lives…

And that is the point. As a psychiatrist, Griffiths speculates that the children were smothered – cribbed, cabined and confined by their own parents, with no possibility of escape anywhere from the utter smothering of every single instinctive or spontaneous feeling, thought or emotion.

This emerges powerfully during Griffith’s second visit to the village, when Sergeant Payne shows him evidence which sheds more light on the children. They all kept secret diaries or journals but it went beyond that. There was a newsletter – The Pangbourne Pang – just for the estate’s thirteen children, which, when you looked carefully at it, revealed an almost screaming level of boredom and frustration. Two of the girls, Gail and Annabel Reade, kept elaborate secret journals which described Jane Austen-style fine ladies and gentlemen, only with a lot pf pornography thrown in. Jeremy Maxted had a porn stash in his cupboard (what healthy 17-year-old boy doesn’t) but Sergeant Payne shows Griffiths that this was just a conventional cover. Hidden deeper was a collection of magazines about guns and weapons – they were Jeremy’s real pornography. But exhibit A is

the curious home video, filmed by Amanda Lymington and Jasper Ogilvy, which at first sight appeared to be a matter-of-fact documentary of daily life at Pangbourne Village. Some seventeen minutes long, it was made with the happy cooperation of the parents, and adopts the style of a real-estate developer’s promotional video. With its glossy colour and tableau-like settings, it depicts the parents sitting in their drawing rooms, having dinner, parking their cars. The commentary is warm and affectionate… There is a certain gentle leg-pulling at the parents’ expense – the camera lingers on Mrs. Sterling as she mistimes a swallow dive, and on Mr. Garfield as he drops his cocktail shaker. Extracts of the film were shown to the parents and often screened for the benefit of visitors.

However, the final version that secretly circulated among the children was very different. This carried the identical jovial sound track, but Jasper and Amanda had added some twenty-five seconds of footage, culled from TV news documentaries, of car crashes, electric chairs and concentration-camp mass graves. Scattered at random among the scenes of their parents, this atrocity footage transformed the film into a work of eerie and threatening prophecy…

There you have it. All the time they took part in the happy affectionate life of the community, the children were going mad with frustration. But it was much more than that and towards the end of the short text Griffiths attempts a deeper psychological explanation:

My own view is that far from being an event of huge significance for the children, the murder of their parents was a matter of comparative unimportance. I believe that the actual murders were no more than a final postscript to a process of withdrawal from the external world that had begun many months beforehand, if not years.

As with the Hungerford killer, Michael Ryan, or the numerous American examples of crazed gunmen opening fire on passersby, the identity of the victims probably had no special significance for them. More than this, I would argue that for such killings to take place at all, the deaths of their victims must be without any meaning.

By a grim paradox, the instrument of the parents’ deaths was the devoted and caring regime which they had instituted at Pangbourne Village. The children had been brainwashed, by the unlimited tolerance and understanding that had erased all freedom and all trace of emotion – for emotion was never needed at Pangbourne, by either parents or children.

Denied any self-expression, and with even the most wayward impulse defused by the parents’ infinite patience, the children were trapped within an endless round of praiseworthy activities – for nowhere were praise and encouragement lavished more generously than at Pangbourne Village, whether earned or not.

Altogether, the children existed in a state closely akin to sensory deprivation. Far from hating their parents when they killed them, the Pangbourne children probably saw them as nothing more than the last bars to be removed before they could reach out to the light.

I remember the experiments in sensory deprivation that I attended at the School of Aviation Medicine at RAF Farnborough, and the great dangers to the laboratory staff presented by these deeply desensitized volunteers. The attempt to help them from their soundproof immersion tanks could be fraught with risk. On numerous occasions the volunteers had injured themselves and even attempted to strangle the laboratory staff while under the impression that they were warding off stray equipment that had intruded into their zero world.

The same schizophrenic detachment from reality can be seen in the members of the Manson gang, in Mark Chapman and Lee Harvey Oswald, and in the guards at the Nazi death camps. One has no sympathy for Manson and the others – an element of choice existed for them all – but the Pangbourne children had no such choice. Unable to express their own emotions or respond to those of the people around them, suffocated under a mantle of praise and encouragement, they were trapped forever within a perfect universe.

In a totally sane society, madness is the only freedom.

The cradle of terrorism

Is that it? No. There’s a Postscript written five years later. Griffiths had speculated towards the end of the initial text that fanaticism of the type necessary to bond these thirteen individuals in the worst crime known to humanity won’t just fade away. They have become fanatics, and fanatics obsessed with overthrowing authority figures, leading him to make a melodramatic statement to the much more phlegmatic Sergeant Payne.

‘The Pangbourne children are a Baader-Meinhof gang for the day after tomorrow.’

And so it is that, in this postscript, Griffiths shares with us the news that five years after the Pangbourne Massacre an assassination attempt was made on a certain woman Prime Minister who had retired to a luxury house in Dulwich (he must mean Mrs Thatcher although, possibly for legal reasons, he refrains from mentioning her). An armoured truck was driven at high speed through the gates of the house and there followed a massive explosion which rocked the neighbourhood. The ex-PM was miraculously unharmed, the blast was put down to a gas mains explosion, and the lady herself was photographed by the press handing out cups of tea to police and firemen.

But one of the ex-PM’s bodyguards gives a description of one of the attackers which matches perfectly with the appearance and strange mannerisms of Marion Miller, the only one of the children who was ever found and identified after the massacre and who was kidnapped by some of the other children in a daring armed raid on Great Ormond Street Hospital, which is described in detail in the middle chapters of the book.

Anyway, this incident is added so as to reinforce Griffith’s point that an excess of smothering love desensitises children and risks turning them into emotionless zombies. Children need risk, and risk involves failure, it involves disobeying parents and being told off, and learning to cope with it. It means being introduced to all the ups and downs of adult life. Which these pampered, over-loved children never had.

Comments

On the back of the paperback edition there’s a quote from a laudatory review by novelist Jonathan Coe, who writes:

As a malevolent gesture in the direction of facts which we prefer to ignore, it provides a salutary chill.

Many blurb writers and reviewers are given to describing Ballard as a ‘prophet’ (maybe because they don’t know how else to categorise him) but I bridle at this description, I don’t really think he is ‘prophetic’. What struck me about Running Wild was:

  1. how old-fashioned the book seemed
  2. how inaccurate its social analysis is

1. Old fashioned

By ‘old-fashioned’ I simply mean that many of the phrases, and the entire concept of the text being notes from a doctor’s diary about a world-famous ‘case’, come straight from the pen of Arthur Conan Doyle in his Sherlock Holmes stories. Here’s the opening of Running Wild:

So much has been written about the Pangbourne Massacre, as it is now known in the popular press throughout the world, that I find it difficult to see this tragic event with a clear eye. In the past two months there have been so many television programs about the thirty-two murdered residents of this exclusive estate to the west of London, and so much speculation about the abduction of their thirteen children, that there scarcely seems room for even a single fresh hypothesis.

Compare and contrast with the opening of a typical Sherlock Holmes case:

The Lord St. Simon marriage, and its curious termination, have long ceased to be a subject of interest in those exalted circles in which the unfortunate bridegroom moves. Fresh scandals have eclipsed it, and their more piquant details have drawn the gossips away from this four-year-old drama.

It is the same lofty, confident, educated, man-of-the-world tone, and it is the same fundamental structure: a well-balanced, educated professional taking us for a foray into the dark underbelly of society, as Dr Watson does in so many of the 60 Sherlock Holmes short stories.

Prophetic

1. I don’t deny that there’s a lot about Ballard’s contemporary ‘urban disaster’ novels (CrashConcrete IslandHigh Rise and this one) which feel urgent and relevant because they describe a highly urbanised environment, dominated by concrete flyovers and council high rises, which people many people now live in. It’s a worldview which is easy to subscribe to if you’re a troubled teenager, or an over-thoughtful student, or an academic paid to write papers and books about urban alienation, and yet…

When you look really closely, Ballard’s view is not really that ‘prophetic’, and on several levels.

At its simplest, there may well have been a steady increase in the number of gated communities for the rich all over the industrialised world over the past thirty or so years but, far from providing a cradle for psychotic terrorist, children brought up as the pampered children of the rich… seem to enjoy it. Is Ivanka Trump a psychotic murderer? No. The children of the rich turn out, by and large, to be living a fabulous, jet-setting, luxury yacht and Manhattan apartment kind of life, thank you very much.

I’m not aware of the kind of massacre Ballard describes having happened anywhere in the world. It is a science fiction fantasy and exaggeration, for moralising or propaganda effect.

2. At a more grass roots level, Is the trouble with British society in 2020 that there are too many pampered children of the rich growing up in stiflingly loving families? Not really. Yesterday there was an article in the Guardian about the growing problem of child hunger and malnutrition, about the number of children who are now reliant on food banks and the larger number who are just above that level, but are still not getting enough food.

3. The book ends with the dramatic suggestion that it is from the children of the pampered middle-classes that the most ferocious terrorist groups emerge, and Ballard cites the well-known case of the Baader-Meinhof Gang, all of whom came from secure middle-class homes. But it seems to me that he is once again, writing about the past and not the future. The wave of middle-class terrorists who rocked Western Europe in the 1970s (the Angry Brigade, the Red Brigade, ETA, the Baader-Meinhof etc) had died off by the 1980s (although the independence movements of ETA and the IRA continued their bombing and shooting campaigns), but European middle-class terrorism had, for the most part, run its course.

What the world was trembling on the brink of was a new type of Islamist terrorism. Many people forget that the 9/11 airplane attacks on the World Trade Centre weren’t the first time the buildings had been attacked.

The 1993 World Trade Center bombing was a terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, carried out on February 26, 1993, when a truck bomb detonated below the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City. The 1,336 lb (606 kg) urea nitrate–hydrogen gas enhanced device was intended to send the North Tower (Tower 1) crashing into the South Tower (Tower 2), bringing both towers down and killing thousands of people. It failed to do so but killed six people and injured over one thousand. The attack was planned by a group of terrorists including Ramzi Yousef, Mahmud Abouhalima, Mohammad Salameh, Nidal A. Ayyad, Abdul Rahman Yasin, and Ahmed Ajaj. They received financing from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

To be blunt, the ‘psychotic’ element of Running Wild, the details of the cold-blooded mass killing feels sort of modern, but the format – the Sherlock Holmes-style casebook format – and above all the location and personnel – nice, middle-class professionals who are merchant bankers and TV producers – felt very dated. I live not far from Streatham High Street where two weeks ago a young Muslim man took a knife from his back pack and started stabbing all the passersby he could get to, before being shot dead by the police. British prisons are hotbeds of Islamic radicalisation. Every week Islamist murderers or plotters are released back into the community to resume their murderous activities, while at the same time, unprecedented numbers of British children need food aid just to get the basic nutrition they require to grow.

So in my opinion, Ballard isn’t ‘prophetic’ of any aspect of our contemporary situation. The reverse: his anxieties about the gated communities of the rich and the desensitising impact of cable TV seem distinctly quaint and old fashioned. I think the claim that he is ‘prophetic’ can only be made and sustained by humanities academics who, in this as in so many other areas of society, culture and politics, have been shown to be wildly out of touch with the actual reality of the society they live in.

Credit

Running Wild by J.G. Ballard was published by Hutchinson in 1988. References are to the 1997 Flamingo paperback edition.


Related links

Reviews of other Ballard books

Novels

Short story collections

Masculinities: Liberation through Photography @ the Barbican

Barbican Art does things big – exhaustively and exhaustingly BIG. To quote the press release:

Masculinities: Liberation through Photography is a major group exhibition that explores how masculinity is experienced, performed, coded and socially constructed as expressed and documented through photography and film from the 1960s to the present day.

The exhibition brings together over 300 works by over 50 pioneering international artists, photographers and filmmakers such as Richard Avedon, Peter Hujar, Isaac Julien, Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Robert Mapplethorpe, Annette Messager and Catherine Opie to show how photography and film have been central to the way masculinities are imagined and understood in contemporary culture.

300 works! I wonder if anyone’s ever done a study of the optimum number of works which should be included in an exhibition. Or the optimum number of contributors.

The Piranesi exhibition I went to last week contained 60 images and that was too many to process: I ended up studying about ten of the best. But 300 images! And over 50 contributors! Each with a long and detailed explanatory wall label explaining their career and motivation and the genesis and point of their particular exhibit.

It’s less like an exhibition than a degree course!

Untitled from the series Soldiers (1999) by Adi Nes. Courtesy Adi Nes & Praz-Delavallade Paris, Los Angeles

A degree course in Gender Studies. because Masculinities: Liberation through Photography tends to confirm my sense that, for many modern artists and for most modern art curators, gender and sexual identity are the only important subjects in the world. Thus, according to Jane Alison, Head of Visual Arts, Barbican:

‘In the wake of the #MeToo movement and the resurgence of feminist and men’s rights activism, traditional notions of masculinity have become the subject of fierce debate. This exhibition could not be more relevant and will certainly spark conversations surrounding our understanding of masculinity.’

In fact quoting this much makes me think it might be most effective simply to quote the entire press release, so you can see exactly where the Barbican Art curators are coming from, without any editorial comment by me. So here it is:

With ideas around masculinity undergoing a global crisis and terms such as ‘toxic’ and ‘fragile’ masculinity filling endless column inches, the exhibition surveys the representation of masculinity in all its myriad forms, rife with contradiction and complexity. Presented across six sections by over 50 international artists to explore the expansive nature of the subject, the exhibition touches on themes of queer identity, the black body, power and patriarchy, female perceptions of men, heteronormative hypermasculine stereotypes, fatherhood and family. The works in the show present masculinity as an unfixed performative identity shaped by cultural and social forces.

Seeking to disrupt and destabilise the myths surrounding modern masculinity, highlights include the work of artists who have consistently challenged stereotypical representations of hegemonic masculinity, including Collier Schorr, Adi Nes, Akram Zaatari and Sam Contis, whose series Deep Springs, 2018 draws on the mythology of the American West and the rugged cowboy. Contis spent four years immersed in an all-male liberal arts college north of Death Valley meditating on the
intimacy and violence that coexists in male-only spaces.

Untitled (Neck), 2015 by Sam Contis © Sam Contis

Complicating the conventional image of the fighter, Thomas Dworzak’s acclaimed series Taliban consists of portraits found in photographic studios in Kandahar following the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, these vibrant portraits depict Taliban fighters posing hand in hand in front of painted backdrops, using guns and flowers as props with kohl carefully applied to their eyes.

Taliban portrait. Kandahar, Afghanistan by Thomas Dworzak (2002) © Collection T. Dworzak/Magnum Photos

Trans masculine artist Cassils’ series Time Lapse, 2011, documents the radical transformation of their body through the use of steroids and a rigorous training programme reflecting on ideas of masculinity without men.

Elsewhere, artists Jeremy Deller, Robert Mapplethorpe and Rineke Dijkstra dismantle preconceptions of subjects such as the wrestler, the bodybuilder and the athlete and offer an alternative view of these hyper-masculinised stereotypes.

The exhibition examines patriarchy and the unequal power relations between gender, class and race. Karen Knorr’s series Gentlemen, 1981-83, comprised of 26 black and white photographs taken inside men-only private members’ clubs in central London and accompanied by texts drawn from snatched conversations, parliamentary records and contemporary news reports, invites viewers to reflect on notions of class, race and the exclusion of women from spaces of power during Margaret Thatcher’s premiership.

“Newspapers are no longer ironed, Coins no longer boiled So far have Standards fallen” from the series Gentlemen, by Karen Knorr (1981-83) © Karen Knorr

Toxic masculinity is further explored in Andrew Moisey’s 2018 photobook The American Fraternity: An Illustrated Ritual Manual which weaves together archival photographs of former US Presidents and Supreme Court Justices who all belonged to the fraternity system, alongside images depicting the initiation ceremonies and parties that characterise these male-only organisations.

With the rise of the Gay Liberation Movement through the 1960s followed by the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s, the exhibition showcases artists such as Peter Hujar and David Wojnarowiz, who increasingly began to disrupt traditional representations of gender and sexuality.

Hal Fischer’s critical photo-text series Gay Semiotics, 1977, classified styles and types of gay men in San Francisco and Sunil Gupta’s street photographs captured the performance of gay public life as played out on New York’s Christopher Street, the site of the 1969 Stonewall Uprising.

Street Fashion: Jock from the series Gay Semiotics, 1977/2016 by Hal Fischer. Courtesy of the artist and Project Native Informant London

Other artists exploring the performative aspects of queer identity include Catherine Opie’s seminal series Being and Having, 1991, showing her close friends in the West Coast’s LGBTQ+ community sporting false moustaches, tattoos and other stereotypical masculine accessories.

Bo from Being and Having by Catherine Opie (1991) © Catherine Opie, Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles; Thomas Dane Gallery, London; and Soloman R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

Elle Pérez’s luminous and tender photographs explore the representation of gender non-conformity and vulnerability, whilst Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s fragmented portraits explore the studio as a site of homoerotic desire.

During the 1970s women artists from the second wave feminist movement objectified male sexuality in a bid to subvert and expose the invasive and uncomfortable nature of the male gaze. In the exhibition, Laurie Anderson’s seminal work Fully Automated Nikon (Object/Objection/Objectivity), 1973, documents the men who cat-called her as she walked through New York’s Lower East Side, while Annette Messager’s series The Approaches (1972) covertly captures men’s trousered crotches with a long-lens camera.

German artist Marianne Wex’s encyclopaedic project Let’s Take Back Our Space: ‘Female’ and ‘Male’ Body Language as a Result of Patriarchal Structures (1977) presents a detailed analysis of male and female body language, and Australian indigenous artist Tracey Moffatt’s awkwardly humorous film Heaven (1997) portrays male surfers changing in and out of their wet suits…

Thus the press release for this huge exhibition. I’ve quoted it at length so you can:

  • get an overview of the exhibition’s contents
  • get a sense of the thinking behind the exhibition
  • get familiar with the dated sociological jargon which is used throughout – ‘interrogate’, ‘challenge’, ‘disrupt’, ‘heteronormative’, ‘male gaze’, ‘patriarchy’

So you can see the curators’ point of view and intentions before I start critiquing them.


The complete irrelevance of any of these ‘masculinities’ to my own life and experience

Almost none of the art or artists in this exhibition bore any relation to my experiences as a boy, teenager, young man, adult man, working man, husband, and then father of my own son. I thought it was quite an achievement to feature so much work by so many artists claiming to speak for or about ‘masculinity’ or men, but which managed to touch on so little of my own personal life experiences of ‘masculinity’.

I took photos of the wall captions as I went round the exhibition and so, as a sample, here are the subjects of the first 15 or so displays, with the exact subject matter of the sets of photographs highlighted in bold:

  1. Taliban warriors by Thomas Dworzak
  2. Beirut fighters by Fouad Elkoury
  3. Israeli soldiers by Adi Nes
  4. a video of a close-up of the trousers of a man who urinates in his pants and trousers, so you see the wet patch spreading by Knut Asadam (Pissing by Knut Asdam)
  5. American, German and British soldiers by Wolfgang Tillmans
  6. American cowboys by Collier Schorr
  7. a film by Isaac Julien about American cowboys, The Long Road to Mazatlan
  8. American photographer Sam Contis’s photos of a liberal arts college in the mid-West
  9. American photographer Catherine Opie’s photos of American footballers
  10. American artist Andy Warhol’s movies of male fashion models
  11. American photographer Herb Ritt’s photos of buff Hollywood garage attendants
  12. American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s photos of Arnold Schwarzenegger and female bodybuilder Lisa Lyon
  13. Akram Zaatari’s photos of Middle Eastern weightlifters
  14. 100 black and white photos of himself wearing y-fronts taken from all angles by Canadian transmasculine performance artist and bodybuilder Cassils
  15. a series of photos by a British photographer of London Fire Brigade firefighters at work and in the showers

Men I know

Down the road from me lives my neighbour Nigel. He regularly goes folk dancing with his wife. At weekends they go for long cycle rides in the country. I helped him with a bit of guerrilla gardening last autumn when we planted daffodils on a patch of waste ground at the end of our road, which are now flowering. Nigel tended one of the allotments at the end of our road, and we’d have lengthy chats about the best plants I could put in my back garden to encourage more birds and butterflies.

Occasionally, we see old Richard go slouching along the road to his allotment where he tends his bee hives and chain smokes. A few years ago he was in the papers, in a photo showing him wearing full beekeeping rig and handing a letter into Number 10 asking for more government help to protect bees.

I shared a house with two friends in my last year at university who did science subjects: Nowadays Tony works for the Worldwide Fund For Nature trying to save the rainforests, and David is a microbiologist who helps develop micro-devices which can be installed within the human body to secrete medicine at regular or required intervals, for example in diabetics.

My boyhood friend Jonathan runs a puppet theatre for schools. Tom works for a seaman’s charity in the East End. Adam works for The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Scotland, monitoring bird populations, nesting habits, tagging birds to follow their migration patterns.

My son is studying biology at university. He’s considering doing a PhD into plant biology with a view to developing more sustainable crops. We play chess when he comes home at the holidays, although I’m always nagging him for frittering away so much of his time playing online video games.

These are ‘masculinities’, aren’t they? These are ways of being male? At least I think Nigel and Richard and Tom and Jonathan and Tony and David, Adam and Luke and I are men. Aren’t we?

But there was nobody like us in this exhibition, what you could call ‘normal’ people. Not a hint of men who like birdwatching, or gardening, or keeping bees, or study plant science, or like folk dancing, or are helping the environment.

Instead this exhibition’s view of masculinity is almost deliriously narrow: alternating between ridiculous American stereotypes of huge steroid-grown athletes or shouting fraternity members, and equally stereotyped images of flamboyant, make-up wearing gays working in nightclubs or part of the uber-gay communities of downtown New York or San Francisco’s Castro district. It is an exhibition of extremes and stereotypes.

Rusty, 2008 by Catherine Opie © Catherine Opie, Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles and Thomas Dane Gallery, London

Paul, who I worked with for all those years in TV, wasn’t camp or flamboyant, he was just a guy who liked a beer and a laugh and happened to be gay. As was his boyfriend. As was Edwin, the Viking-looking giant with a beard who I worked with at a government agency, who also just happened to be gay, it was no big deal, and really hated the way everyone expected him to conform to ‘gay’ stereotypes.

Exactly the kind of dated gay stereotypes which exhibitions like this promote and propagate.

Slavish worship of American culture

Once again I find it weirdly unself-aware that an exhibition which so smugly uses words like ‘transgressive’, ‘interrogate’, ‘disrupt’ and ‘subvert’ about its exhibits, is itself so completely and slavishly in thrall to American photographers and American subject matter and so utterly kowtows to the cultural dominance of The Greatest City in the World (if you’re an art curator) – which is, of course, New York.

The Barbican is in London. Which is in England. Not in New York or San Francisco. And yet only one of the first fifteen or so of the featured photographers was British, and I can only remember two or three other Brits among the remaining 35 or so exhibitors.

The art élite

So by about half way through the exhibition it had dawned on me that there is a very strong political element to this show, just not the one the curators intend. It is that:

Once again an exhibition about gender and race and identity proves beyond doubt the existence of a transnational art élite, made up of international-minded, jet-setting artists and photographers and film-makers, and their entourage of agents and gallery curators, who have more in common with each other than they do with the rest of the populations of their host countries.

What I mean is that the curators and critics who’ve selected the works and written the catalogue of a show like this have much more in common with their counterparts in the art worlds of New York or Berlin or Shanghai than they do with the men or women in the streets of their own cities. They speak the same art language, use the same art theory buzz words and jargon, all agree on the wonderfulness of New York, and all share the same supremely woke and politically correct attitudes to LGBT+ and transgender and BAME rights which, the exhibition strongly implies, are the most important political or social issues anywhere in the world.

They liberally throw around words like ‘elite’ and criticise pretty much all white men for their ‘privilege’. It obviously doesn’t occur to them that being part of the jetsetting, international circuit of artists and art curators is also to belong to a privileged élite.

As a small symbol of this, after having read a host of wall labels castigating élite, men-only, members-only clubs and fraternities – which had the result of hyper-sensitising me to the the wickedness of these restrictive organisations – I couldn’t help smiling when I read on the Barbican website about an ‘exclusive Members’ talk’ which is available to Barbican members only.

Preaching to the converted

And so when I watched the curator of the exhibition speaking to the assembled journalists, critics and reviewers about #MeToo and toxic masculinity, and watched the approving nods and murmurs of her audience, I realised she was praising the values and priorities of the art world and its ferociously politically correct denizens, to exactly the kinds of journalists and critics who inhabit that world and attend these kinds of launches. And it crossed my mind that I had rarely in my life seen a purer example of ‘preaching to the choir’ and reinforcing entrenched groupthink.

Horseshoe Buckle, 1962 by Karlheinz Weinberger © Karlheinz Weinberger

Initial summary

To summarise so far:

  • It felt to me that the exhibition is wildly, almost hallucinatorily partial, misleading and inaccurate about its purported subject matter – masculinity. It simply ignores and neglects almost everything I think about when I think about my own and other men’s masculinity.
  • But what it undoubtedly is, is a handy survey of the deeply entrenched anti-heterosexual, anti-male, anti-white, pro-feminist, pro-black, pro-queer attitudes which now dominate universities, colleges, the art world and art galleries. So the exhibition has this additional layer of interest which is as a fascinating sociological specimen of the current attitudes and terminology of the über-woke.

I’m not against or opposed to those positions and views, in fact I broadly support them (pro-feminism, pro-LGBT+, anti-racism etc). I’m just modestly suggesting that there’s more to the world of men than this polemical and extremely limited exhibition – either American footballers or street queens of New York – gets anywhere near suggesting. In fact there is much more to culture, and politics, and the world, than a relentless obsession with ‘gender’.

Highlights

Having got all that off my chest, you may be surprised to learn that I really enjoyed this exhibition. There’s so much stuff on show they can’t help having lots of really good and interesting art here, and – as usual with the Barbican – it is presented in a series of beautifully designed and arranged spaces. So:

I loved Herb Ritts‘ pinup-style black-and-white photos of incredibly buff and sexy (male) garage hands, stripped to the waist.

What’s not to love about Robert Mapplethorpe‘s photos of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lisa Lyon in their bodybuilding prime?

I really liked Akram Zaatari‘s photos of Middle Eastern weightlifters: he found a trove of badly degraded, faded, marked and damaged photos, then blew them up to wall size, warts and all. The weightlifters are dressed in loose loincloths, a world away from the slick professionalism of Schwarzenegger et al, and then further removed by the spotty blotchy finish of the damaged negatives. I like all art which shows the marks of industrial processes, decay, found objects, Arte Povera etc, art which records its own struggle to emerge from a world of chaos and war.

Bodybuilders Printed From A Damaged Negative by Akram Zaatari (2011)

I liked the work of German feminist photographer Marianne Wex. In the 1970s she made a whole set of collages where she cut out magazine images of men sitting with their legs wide apart and juxtaposed these with magazine images of women sitting primly with their legs tight together. This was funny for all sorts of reason, but also had multiple levels of nostalgia: for the black and white world of 1960s and 70s magazines (and fashions – look at the hair and the flares on the men).

There was a room on the ground floor which I nicknamed ‘The Grid Room’ which contained three massive sets of images laid out as grids, and which I liked simply because I like big grids and matrices, geometric and mathematical designs, in the same way as I like Carl Andre’s bricks. The grids are:

1. German-American photographer Karen Knorr’s series Gentlemen, 1981-83, consists of 26 black-and-white photographs taken inside men-only, private members’ clubs in central London and accompanied by texts drawn from conversations Knorr claims to have overheard.

a) they’re strikingly composed and arranged photos
b) the overheard conversations are amusingly arrogant and pompous, if a little too pat to be totally plausible
c) but what makes this funniest of all is that Knorr is surprised that the inhabitants of expensive, members-only private clubs will be a bit, you know, pompous

2. Back in the 1990s Polish-American photographer Piotr Uklański created a vast, super-wall-sized collage of A4-sized publicity photos of Hollywood actors dressed as Nazis from a host of movies.

It is 18 columns by 9 rows, which means it shows the images of 162 actors playing Nazi. The wall label suggested that the work is an indictment of Hollywood and its trivialisation of atrocity and, in the context of this exhibition, it is also meant to be an indictment of ‘toxic masculinity’ and the hyper-masculinity promoted by the Nazis.

But look at it. It isn’t really either of those things. What it obviously is, is an invitation to identify the actors and the movies they’re in, lots of fun in a Where’s Wally kind of way. Can you spot Clint Eastwood from Where Eagles Dare, Lee Marvin in The Dirty Dozen, Leonard Nimoy from the spisode of Star Trek where they beam down to some planet which is having a Nazi phase?

And then, for me, any serious intention was undermined when I noticed that two of the belong to Monty Python actors Michael Palin and Eric Idle dressed as Nazis (6 rows down, 10 and 11 across). And when I noticed the face of Norman Wisdom (from his 1959 movie, The Square Peg, where Norman is asked to impersonate a Nazi general he happens to look like), I couldn’t help bursting out laughing.

(Having googled this artwork and studied the results, I realise that Uklański changes the arrangement of the photos from site to site, with the order of the faces different in each iteration. The version below gives you an immediate impression of the work’s overall impact – imagine this spread across an entire wall, a big art gallery wall – but in this version Norman’s photo, alas, is absent.)

The Nazis by Piotr Uklanski (1998)

3. The third big grid is a set of 69 black-and-white photos taken by American photographer Richard Avedon and ironically titled The Family, each one depicting key politicians, military men, lawmakers and captains of industry who held the reins of power in America in the Bicentennial year of 1976.

The overt aim is to shock and appal the modern social justice warrior with the fact that almost all the movers and shakers are white men (though I did, in fact, count six women in the grid and two or three black people). But it just didn’t seem too much of a surprise to me that nearly fifty years ago the make-up of the ruling class was different from now or, to put it another way, over the past fifty years the representation of women and black people at the highest levels of American power have changed and improved.

Anyway, any political message was, for me, eclipsed by the hazy memories of the 1970s which these photos evoked – the era when Gerald Ford hastily replaced that excellent American president, Richard Nixon and when Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize (1973). There’s a youthful Jimmy Carter (elected Prez in 1977), a serious-faced Ronald Reagan (another most excellent American President), and gorgeously handsome Teddy Kennedy, for so long the poster boy for liberal Democrats.

Americana

As you can see from the three works in The Grid Room, even when I was trying to overlook it, I couldn’t help noticing the American subject matter or the American provenance of most of the photographers.

The America worship continues into the next room, which is devoted to the American tradition of the college fraternity, and the secret initiation rituals they apparently hold.

Thus artist Richard Mosse made a film by asking members of an American fraternity house to have a shouting competition, with the young student who could shout loudest and longest winning a keg of beer. Having contrived this artificial situation in which he films the faces of young American men shouting their heads off till they’re red in the face, Mosse then described his film as ‘a performance of masculinity and elite, white male rage’.

Is it, though? I’d have thought it was a highly contrived set-up, Mosse bribing the men to act out a certain kind of behaviour which he then turned round and criticised using his modish sociological jargon.

Also note how the word ‘white’ in sentences like that is slowly becoming a term of abuse. Mosse is, of course, himself ‘white’, but he’s the OK sort of ‘white’. He’s artist white.

Next to it is a work by American photographer Andrew Moisey, who spent seven years studying college fraternities and putting together The American Fraternity: An Illustrated Ritual Manual. This, you won’t be very surprised to learn,

explores the relationship between hegemonic masculinity and the toxic culture of American fraternities.

Toxic men. Toxic masculinity. White male rage.

The gay American photographer Duane Michals is represented by a series of photos depicting a grandfather and grandson with an eerie, surrealist vibe.

There’s a sequence of photos by American-based Indian photographer Sunil Gupta, who recorded New York’s gay scene in the 1970s.

Untitled 22 from the series Christopher Street, 1976 by Sunil Gupta © Sunil Gupta. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2019

Reclaiming the black body

Upstairs, in the section devoted to Reclaiming the Black Body, there’s a series by American photographer Kalen Na’il Roach which are described as explorations of ‘the construction of the African-American family and the absent father’.

Nearby is a set of brilliant photos by black American photographer Rotimi Fani-Kayode, who arranged human bodies in all manner of creative and interesting poses, all shot as clear and crisply as anything by Robert Mapplethorpe. There was a really beautiful, crystal clear and vivid and intimidating and erotic photo of a black man holding a pair of large scissors against his thigh, wow.

Untitled, 1985 by Rotimi Fani-Kayode © Rotimi Fani-Kayode

Queering masculinity

There’s an entire section of the exhibition devoted to gay masculinity titled Queering Masculinity. Among many others, this contains a set of photos by American photographer George Dureau, ‘a prominent figure in the queer and non-conformist communities in New Orleans’s French Quarter’, which included some disturbing images of a handsome young man with a hippy hairdo who had had both legs amputated right at the top of the thighs, images which didn’t make me think about masculinity at all, but about disability.

A corner is given to the technicolour experimental underground film Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965) by rebel film-maker Kenneth Anger, which explores the fetishist role of hot rod cars among young American men, and whose soundtrack – Dream Lover by Bobby Darin – wafted gently through the galleries as the visitors sauntered around, looking at these collections of cool, gay and black American photography.

And also upstairs was a fabulous series of black and white shots by American photographer David Wojnarowicz, who got his friends to wear a face mask of French poet Arthur Rimbaud and pose in unlikely locations around New York.

And there’s work by Peter Hujar, ‘a leading figure in New York‘s downtown cultural scene throughout the 1970s’ who photographed its various gay subcultures.

David Brintzenhofe Applying Makeup (II) 1982 by Peter Hujar © 1987 The Peter Hujar Archive LLC; Courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

There’s photos by Paul Mpagi Sepuya, an American photographer from who explores ‘the studio and darkroom as a site of homoerotic desire’.

And photos by Elle Pérez from America which are concerned with ‘the artist’s relationship with their own body, their queerness and how their sexual, gender and cultural identities intersect and coalesce through photography’.

While ‘in her meticulously staged photos, American artist Deanna Lawson (b.1979) explores black intimacy, family, sexuality and spirituality.’

Then there’s American avant-garde artist, composer, musician and film director Laurie Anderson who is represented by her 1973 work Fully Automated Nikon (Object/Objection/Objectivity) which records the men who cat-called her as she walked through New York’s Lower East Side.

One of my favourite sections was black American Hank Willis Thomas’s ironic and funny collages, Unbranded: Reflections In Black by Corporate America which cut and paste together tacky old adverts featuring black people from the 70s, 80s and 90s. As the wall label explains:

Thomas sheds light on how corporate America continues to reproduce problematic notions of race, sexuality, class and gender through the white male gaze.

(Note: ‘the white male gaze’. The male gaze is bad enough but, God, it’s twice as bad when it’s the white male gaze. Just as male rage is bad, but white male rage, my God, that’s unforgiveable. You don’t have to read many of these wall labels to realise that everything is so much worse when it’s white.)

There are photographers and artists from other countries – from the Lebanon, Cameroon, Holland, Ghana, Norway and so on. Even, mirabile dictu, some British artists. But in every room there are American artists and wherever you look there are images of New York or San Francisco or Los Angeles, while an American pop song drifts over the images of American cowboys and American bodybuilders and New York gays.

It is a very America-dominated exhibition.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the woke, LGBT+-friendly, feminist, anti-patriarchal and anti-white curators are willing to disrupt, subvert, interrogate and question every received opinion, stereotype and shibboleth about the world today except for one – except for America’s stranglehold on global art and photography, except for America’s cultural imperialism, which goes unquestioned and uncommented-on.

Before this form of imperialism, British art curators bow down and worship.

Second summary

Well, if you’re a white man and you enjoy the experience of being made to feel like a privileged, white racist, elitist, misogynist, homophobic, transphobic, sexist pig by lots of righteous black, gay and women photographers, this exhibition will be right up your street.

But having said all that, I did, ultimately, and despite everything, really enjoy it. In fact I might go back for seconds. There is a huge amount of visually interesting and varied work in it and, as I’ve explained – to take the whole thing on a completely different level – it is a fascinating sociological study of up-to-date, woke and politically correct attitudes and sociological terminology.

And also because the picture of Norman Wisdom dressed as a Nazi was so utterly unexpected, so surreally incongruous among the rest of the po-faced, super-serious and angry feminist rhetoric that I was still smiling broadly as I walked out the door.

Norman Wisdom as General-major Otto Schreiber in the hit movie, The Square Peg (1959), subverting seriousness


Dated

Not only does the exhibition mostly deal in types and stereotypes, but so many of them are really dated.

The concept of the male gaze was invented in a 1975 essay by film critic film critic Laura Mulvey. Not one but two quotes from it are printed in large letters across the walls of feminist section of the exhibition, rather like the Ten Commandments used to be in a church.

Karlheinz Weinberger’s photos of leather-clad rebels date from the early 1960s.

Kenneth Anger’s film Kustom Kar Kommandos is from 1965.

Annette Messager’s series The Approaches is from 1972.

Laurie Anderson’s piece is from 1973.

Richard Avedon’s set, The Family, was shot in 1976.

Sunil Gupta’s street photographs of gay New Yorkers are from the mid-1970s

Hal Fischer’s amusing photos of gay street fashion are from 1977.

Marianne Wex’s project ‘Let’s Take Back Our Space: ‘Female’ and ‘Male’ Body Language as a Result of Patriarchal Structures’ dates from 1977.

David Wojnarowicz’s briliant series ‘Rimbaud in New York’ was taken between 1977 and 1979.

Andy Warhol’s film about Male Models is from 1979.

Hank Willis Thomas’s funny collages use magazine photos from the 70s and 80s

Karen Knorr’s series about knobs at posh clubs were shot from 1981 to 1983.

Herb Ritts photos of stunning hunky men date from 1984.

Now of course a lot of the other pieces are from more recently, from the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s, and I am deliberately cherry-picking my evidence, but you get my point.

If the whole issue of gender and masculinity is as hot and urgent and topical as the curators insist, why are they going back to the 1960s and 1970s to illustrate it? My answer would be that, although many of its details have been subsequently elaborated and extended, the basis of the curators (and most of the artists’) liberate worldview date back to the late 60s and early 70s, the era which saw the real breakthroughs for modern feminism, gay rights, and a more ambitious form of black civil rights.

In other words, when you go to a contemporary exhibition of feminist art or gay art or lesbian art or politically motivated black art, you are in fact tapping into movements which have been around for about fifty years. This what gives them a curiously dated, almost nostalgic feeling. The artists and the curators may try to dress these tried-and-tested approaches up in the latest buzzwords or drum up some fake outrage by mentioning the magic words ‘Donald Trump’, but I remember going to exhibitions by gay and lesbian and feminist and black artists in the 1980s, and 1990s, and 2000s, and 2010s which all said more or less what this one does: Blacks are oppressed, women are oppressed, gays and lesbians are oppressed.

For an exhibition which is claiming to address one of the burning issues of our time it seemed curiously… dated. All these carefully printed photographs and films, how very retro, how very 1970s they seem. It’s as if the internet, digital art and social media have never happened. I described the exhibition to my daughter (18, feminist, studied sociology, instagram and social media addict) and she said it sounded boring and preachy.


Counting the countries of origin

It’s good to count. Actually counting and analysing the data about almost any subject almost always proves your subjective impressions to be wrong, because all of our unconscious biases are so strong.

Thus when I looked up the countries of origin of all the photographers represented in this exhibition, I realised the raw facts prove me wrong in thinking that most of the exhibitors are American. Out of 54 exhibitors, some 23 were born in the States and another 3 or 4 emigrated there, so the number of ‘American’ photographers is only just about half of those included.

This exercise also highlighted the true range of other nationalities represented, which I had tended to underestimate. There are, for example, seven Brits, double the number I initially remembered.

However, these figures don’t quite tell the full story, since a number of contributors might not be from the USA, but are represented by their images of the USA. Thus Sunil Gupta is from India but is represented by a suite of photos from 1970s New York (as well as a second series of photos about gay life in India).

Isaac Julien is a British artist but is represented by two movies, one about American cowboys and one – a big one which has one of the Barbican’s entire alcoves devoted to it – a black-and-white movie set in a glamorous American cocktail bar, and set to evocative American cocktail jazz.

To really establish the facts on this one issue of American influence, I suppose you’d have to itemise every single one of the images or films on show and indicate whether they were American in origin or subject matter – which is a little beyond the scope of the present review, and possibly a little mad.

Here’s the complete list of photographers represented in this exhibition with their country of origin, which can be roughly summarised as: the exhibition includes as many American, American-based, or America-covering photographers as those from the rest of the world put together.

  1. Bas Jan Ader (Dutch)
  2. Laurie Anderson (USA)
  3. Kenneth Anger (USA)
  4. Liz Johnson Artur (Ghanaian-Russian)
  5. Knut Åsdam (Norway)
  6. Richard Avedon (USA)
  7. Aneta Bartos (Polish-American)
  8. Richard Billingham (UK)
  9. Cassils (Canada)
  10. Sam Contis (USA)
  11. John Coplans (UK emigrated to USA)
  12. Jeremy Deller (UK)
  13. Rineke Dijkstra (Holland)
  14. George Dureau (USA)
  15. Thomas Dworzak (Germany)
  16. Hans Eijkelboom (Holland)
  17. Fouad Elkoury (Lebanon)
  18. Hal Fischer (USA)
  19. Samuel Fosso (Cameroon)
  20. Anna Fox (UK)
  21. Masahisa Fukase (Japan)
  22. Sunil Gupta (India)
  23. Kiluanji Kia Henda (Angola)
  24. Peter Hujar (USA)
  25. Isaac Julien (UK)
  26. Rotimi Fani-Kayode (Nigeria)
  27. Karen Knorr (German-American)
  28. Deana Lawson (USA)
  29. Hilary Lloyd (UK)
  30. Robert Mapplethorpe (USA)
  31. Peter Marlow (UK)
  32. Ana Mendieta (Cuba, moved to New York)
  33. Annette Messager (France)
  34. Duane Michals (USA)
  35. Tracey Moffatt (Australia)
  36. Andrew Moisey (USA)
  37. Richard Mosse (Ireland)
  38. Adi Nes (Israeli)
  39. Catherine Opie (USA)
  40. Elle Pérez (USA)
  41. Herb Ritts (USA)
  42. Kalen Na’il Roach (USA)
  43. Paul Mpagi Sepuya (USA)
  44. Collier Schorr (USA)
  45. Clare Strand (UK)
  46. Mikhael Subotzky (South Africa)
  47. Larry Sultan (USA)
  48. Wolfgang Tillmans (Germany)
  49. Hank Willis Thomas (USA)
  50. Piotr Uklański (Polish-American)
  51. Andy Warhol (USA)
  52. Karlheinz Weinberger (Switzerland)
  53. Marianne Wex (Germany)
  54. David Wojnarowicz (USA)

Third summary – why American influence is so malign

The reliance on exaggerated American stereotypes of masculinity explains why the exhibition simply omits the vast majority of male experience

American attitudes to masculinity – American images of masculinity – are grossly exaggerated, hyper-commercialised, and do not represent the experience of masculinity of men from other countries.

(Possibly they don’t even represent the experience of most men in America itself: just on the curators’ favourite subject of ethnic minorities, about 18% of Americans are Latino, compared to only 12% or so who are black. But I don’t think I saw any images of Latinos, or the names of any Latino photographers or artists anywhere in the show. To adopt the curators’ own values of diversity: Why not?)

So one way to sum up this exhibition (it’s so huge I’m aware that there are, potentially, lots of ways to do this – a feminist take, a view which focused more on the gay or black or non-western perspectives) is to posit that the Americanness of half the exhibition, photos and photographers – and the overall sense you have of the exhibition’s cultural narrowness and exaggeration – are intimately connected.

Reading my way carefully around the exhibition reminded me all over again – as hundreds of documentaries and articles and news reports have over the past few decades –

  1. just how polarised American society has become
  2. how a great deal of this polarisation is in the realm of culture
  3. and how exhibitions like this tend to emphasise, exaggerate and exacerbate that atmosphere of poisonous polarisation

The relentless criticism of toxic masculinity and the male gaze and manspreading and men-only organisations, along with the continual suggestion that being white is a crime, have their ultimate source in the turbo-charged feminism, political correctness and woke culture of American universities, art schools and liberal media.

My point is that the the poisonous cultural politics of America are deeply rooted in the extremes images of masculinity which America developed since the Second World War – and that these extremes, along with the anger and vilification they prompt on both sides of the political and cultural divide – are just not applicable outside America.

Does Norway have a massive film industry devoted to promoting impossibly buff and hunky images of super-tough men? Is French culture dominated by the ideal of the gunslinging cowboy? Is Czech sporting life dominated by huge, testosterone-charged American footballers? In 1950s did Greek husbands throw open the doors to their suburban houses and shout, ‘Hi honey, I’m home!’

No. Since the war many European countries, led by France, have vehemently resisted the bubblegum stereotypes and crass vulgarity of American culture. The American example just doesn’t apply to Swiss watchmakers and French winegrowers and Greek hotel owners and Italian waiters.

Obviously accusations of patriarchy and sexism and toxic masculinity and the male gaze and white anger can be, and routinely are, levelled at all men in any Western society, but my suggestion is that the level of anger and rancour which politically correct and woke culture have reached in America is unique.

America has morphed during my lifetime into a violently aggressive and angry society which stands apart from all other industrialised countries (look at the levels of gun crime, or the number of its citizens which America locks up, 2.2 million adults, more than all the other OECD nations put together).

The anger of American liberals against Trump has to be witnessed to be believed, but so does the anger of American conservatives and the mid-West against the tide of immigrants and liberals who they think are ruining their country. America has become a swamp of hatreds, and it is an American civil war, it is not mine.

And here’s my point – an exhibition which defines ‘masculinity’ very heavily through the lens of such an unhealthy, sick and decadent society is giving a wildly twisted, biased, partial and inaccurate impression of what the word ‘masculine’ even means because it is deriving it very heavily from a culture which is tearing itself apart. We are not all American footballers or New York gay pioneers.

So although only half the exhibition is made up of American photographers and American subjects, nonetheless the poisonous rhetoric of the American cultural civil war (‘toxic masculinity’, ‘white rage’, ‘the male gaze’) infects the conception, selection and discourse of the exhibition so thoroughly from start to finish, that it helps explain why the vast majority of much more humdrum, down-to-earth types of non-American, everyday masculinity – the kinds you or I encounter among our families and friends and at work, the kind I experience when I help Nigel plant the daffodil bulbs in the waste ground at the end of our road – are so utterly absent from this blinkered and biased exhibition.


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Barbican

And concerts

The Soul of the Marionette by John Gray (2015)

Everywhere , the self-assured confidence of priests, scribes and intellectuals has been mocked by unexpected events… (p.143)

‘Humanity’ is only a name for a ragtag animal with no capacity to take charge of anything. (p.145)

The Soul of the Marionette

The Soul of the Marionette is a short, easy and very stimulating read. Its brevity is indicated by the way it’s set in a larger-than-usual typeface for a Penguin paperback in order to pad it out its 170 or so pages. Really, it’s two extended magazine essays linked by a common theme.

John Gray (b.1948) is a retired political philosopher. He mainly taught at the London School of Economics with spells at Yale etc, so he’s an academic by trade.

For the past thirty years or more he’s been writing non-technical and accessible books, as well as numerous articles and reviews, and from time to time popping up with thought pieces on Radio 4. All of them bang on the same theme over and over again:

1. Modern liberals are wrong Modern progressive thought is wrong. Modern secular thinkers are wrong.

How so? In several connected ways. ‘Modern liberals’ think history is progressing towards a good end, think that there is some purpose or end-point of evolution, think that human societies are heading onward and upward, becoming more enlightened, liberal, permissive and diverse.

The belief that evolution is advancing towards some desirable end is ubiquitous… (p.61)

BUT

Evolution has no attachment to the attributes modern thinkers imagine are essentially human… (p.143)

Above all, modern liberals think human nature can be changed. All Gray’s work presents a barrage of arguments designed to annihilate this position:

2. The survival of violence and barbarism disproves the idea that humans are ‘improving’ Evolution has no goal or plan or design or intention. Stuff is just changing and humans are mad if they think they can alter it very much. Progressives like to think that we ‘learn from history’ or that liberal values are succeeding around the world – but violence, terrible crude sadistic violence, is still practiced all round the globe. There may be no repeats of the two epic world wars, but violence and brutality haven’t gone away; they have merely been scattered and diffused into the form of asymmetrical conflicts in a variety of failed states such as Syria, or sudden eruptions of barbarism as in Burma, or the ongoing horrors of the war in the Congo.

Or else a permanent state of civil unrest, where violent protests teeter on the brink of uprisings and armed conflict. This is the new normal.

In a scathing passage, Gray describes how violence has been internalised in the West, in the ways that America, for example, the supposed ‘land of the free’, imprisons more of its citizens than any other country in the world, and experiences almost daily mass shootings, with the result that its entire police force is now a warzone militia armed with machine guns and bullet-proof vests.

About 40,000 people were killed by guns in America in 2017, compared to the 2,500 who died on D-Day. Gray’s point is that homicidal violence hasn’t gone away because world wars have cease; it’s just become normalised in other ways.

The normalisation of amoral hyper-violence in American culture. This movie is a ‘comedy’.

3. The popularity of dictators demonstrates that human societies aren’t particularly progressing On a purely political level, the elections of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Erdoğan in Turkey, the endless rule of Putin in Russia, and the increasing authoritarianism of Xi Jinping in China – all show conclusively that political or cultural history is not moving steadily upwards towards some progressive, liberal nirvana.

Even more disillusioning for progressives is that most of these leaders were democratically elected because, as one section of the book emphasises, people more than anything else want meaning, order and security in their lives. People prefer meaning, order and security to uncertainty and chaos. You and I, being enlightened progressives, may think that the leaders I’ve listed above are not going to provide the meaning and security which they promised their electorates, but that only proves Gray’s other point, that none of us are really in control of our lives: we choose one thing, we get something completely different.

Most people’s lives are demonstrably in the grip of various impersonal, suprahuman forces – but almost all of us desperately want to feel that we’re in control. Electing strong leaders with assertive agendas gives us electors the illusion of control, that we’re taking part in a fightback against them, the nameless forces which seem to be ruining the world.

4. Technology changes, but people don’t change Above all (to repeat the point, as Gray does again and again), modern liberals think human nature can be changed and improved – but it can’t. The amazing technologies we have developed over the past 200 years have given over-educated and under-experienced Westerners the deluded sense that we can change human nature. Technologies may change, but people don’t change.

Thus one of the book’s central strands is an allusive history of human attempts to create super-humans, from Frankenstein in 1816 to all the hype about artificial intelligence in 2020.

Gray makes the simple point: How can we hope to make better, superior versions of human beings, when we don’t even understand ourselves? Scientists still don’t actually understand how minds work, how consciousness arises from matter, how flashing synapses produce the strange thing called consciousness.

Eradicating evil may produce a new species, but not the one its innocent creators have in mind. Humans have too little self-knowledge to be able to fashion a higher version of themselves. (p.43)

And:

We think we have some kind of privileged access to our own motives and intentions. In fact we have no clear insight into what moves us to live as we do. The stories that we tell ourselves are like messages which appear on Ouija boards. If we are authors of our lives, it is only in retrospect. (p.137)

5. Artificial intelligence is doomed to fail for the simple reason that we don’t understand human intelligence. This is why all the exhibitions I’ve been to recently showcasing artificial intelligence seemed so pathetic and inadequate. (And it’s not just me saying that: the BBC journalist sent to review the Barbican’s exhibition about artificial intelligence also thought the sum total of the best examples of artificial intelligence the curators could assemble from across the world, was ‘pathetic’.)

It’s because any ordinary person knows that machines which can climb up a flight of stairs on their own or a computer which can beat the world chess champion or one which does cumulative facial recognition, are trivial and irrelevant compared to what it is like to be a person – a confused, sleepy, fantasy-driven human consciousness making endless mistakes about bus times or shopping lists or homework or the countless other chores we struggle with every day, as well as trying to manage personal relations with family, friends and work colleagues.

Compared to the complexity of being human, beating this or that chess champion is so very, very narrow an achievement on the part of the programmers who have been slaving away perfecting chess programs for fifty years or more, as to be almost sublimely, hilariously irrelevant.

In fact the most telling thing about artificial intelligence – which comes over very strongly when you read interviews with the scientists developing it – is how keen they are to rush towards a post-human future. But why? Because, Gray says, they cannot cope with the human present.

Struggling to escape from the world that science has revealed, humanity has taken refuge in the illusion that science enables them to remake the world in their own image. (p.30)

6. Communism and other failed utopias Gray reserves some of his most scathing criticism for communists, the followers of Lenin and Stalin, who – in effect – thought that it was worth murdering millions of people in the here and now in order to secure a remote future in which everyone will live in peace. And then in the Cold War era to foment small wars around the world (Africa, South America, South-East Asia) in order to bring an end to war.

Same with the Nazis, who thought they could create a better world by first of all exterminating all the Jews and then all the Slavs.

In the twentieth century the worst episodes of mass killing were perpetrated with the aim of remaking the species. (p.88)

All the atrocities of the 20th century were carried out in the name of building a better world. Gray mocks modern liberals who carry on the same mantra (obviously without the holocausts) because they are basing it on the same basic delusions – that you can remodel human nature. You can’t.

7. Humans are, at bottom, incapable In fact, the reality is that humans barely understand themselves, and are laughably unable to ‘take control of their own destinies’:

Today’s Darwinists will tell you that the task of humanity is to take charge of evolution. But ‘humanity’ is only a name for a ragtag animal with no capacity to take charge of anything. (p.145)

Thus the comedy of climate change is that these pathetic people, this pathetic species, having created a global catastrophe, thinks it can change or fix anything. Oh no it can’t. Watch and learn.

8. The fundamental basis of all modern liberal thought – that things will get better i.e. history has a direction and an end goal – is based on Christian theology If you go back to the ancient Greeks or sideways to read the surviving works of the Aztecs, you find societies which were under no illusion that things – society of human nature – would ever change. Their religions and rituals were not linear and progressive but cyclical, based on the circular rhythm of the seasons plus the recurring astrological cycles.

Aztecs did not share the modern conceit that mass killing can bring about universal peace. They did not envision any future when humans ceased to be violent. (p.86)

The notion that history has a purpose and is heading for a Grand End-Point is a Christian idea (in fact it may be a Zoroastrian or Eastern idea originally, but it was picked up and incorporated in Christianity from its earliest days and thus spread throughout all Christian and post-Christian societies).

It is Christian theology which declares that history is heading to a Glorious End-Point when the Son of Man will return in glory and wind up history as we know it, at which point the dead will be raised and everyone will be judged and dispatched to heaven or hell.

Modern liberals unwittingly base their concept of history as a steady improvement towards some kind of nirvana or utopia on this very Christian theology, but without the subtle and complex insights into human nature developed by Christian thinkers over 2,000 years. Progressives have been:

reared on a curdled brew of Socratism and scraps of decayed Christianity… (p.160)

This is why progressive liberalism feels so shallow. It is piggy-backing on the back of Christian theology, but without the deep and penetrating insights into all aspects of the human psyche which tens of thousands of Christian theologians and writers carried out.

Secular thinking follows a pattern dictated by religion while suppressing religion’s most valuable insights. (p.19)

Instead, modern liberals join hands, sing Things Can Only Get Better and are shocked and amazed when they don’t. Their conviction that everyone is a progressive liberal at heart, if only they had enough education and the opportunity to read the right newspapers, cannot cope with the actual world in its often violent and even evil reality.

This basic naivety explains, in Gray’s opinion, the fact that ‘liberals’ are continually surprised at renewed outbreaks of human atrocity. ‘Liberals’ and ‘modern thinkers’ thought we had learned from the Holocaust and had ‘progressed’, and so they were unable to compute modern horrors like the wars in Yugoslavia, the Rwanda genocide or 9/11 or the Syrian civil war or the Rohynga massacres… and on and on it goes, the roll call of never-ending atrocities.

Events like that just don’t fit into the narrative that every day, in very way, we are becoming more tolerant and free and fair-minded and equal and ‘woke’ and aware. Oh no, Gray says, we aren’t.


Cherry picking from literature

The book’s strength is also its weakness. This is that it takes the form less of a sustained argument than of a kind of daisy chain of potted analyses of authors who Gray likes or whose works provide useful ammunition for his position.

It is very much not a work of political philosophy, in fact it references hardly any philosophers of any kind (apart from two or three pages about Thomas Hobbes and the same about Jeremy Bentham) and certainly no contemporary philosophers.

Instead Gray takes us on a hugely entertaining and colourful journey through the thought of a bright and shiny array of creative writers through the ages, cherry-picking authors whose mordant and gloomy points of view echo, support or anticipate his own.

This is exactly what Christians do with the Bible. The Bible is so vast, varied and contradictory, that you can find quotes to support almost any point of view, from the most socially conservative to wacky science fiction fantasies if you put your mind to it.

And as a literature graduate I know the same is true for the corpus of secular literature, especially if you broaden it out to include all European literature, and extend it back in time to the Renaissance, the Middle Ages or, as Gray does, back to the ancient Greeks.

There are now so many points of view, expressed by so many hundreds of thousands of authors, that – if you adopt Gray’s approach – it is easy to cherry pick ‘proofs’ and ‘evidence’ for any point of view imaginable.

Of course none of this is proof of any kind about human nature or human existence or consciousness or history etc. Proof in any of these areas would require an engagement with the latest scientific literature in areas of consciousness, AI, sociology and so on, with properly carried out studies, and with a world of data and statistics.

Gray skips lightly away from any such engagement and instead gives us an entertaining stroll through some of his favourite authors, who each get a thumbnail biography and then four or five pages summarising their thoughts and musing about human nature, history and so on.

And it comes as no surprise to anyone that all of these thinkers, plus his interpretations of various historical cultural events (his scepticism about the so-called ‘scientific revolution’, his dazzling reinterpretation of Aztec culture), all go to reinforce his anti-liberal, anti-modern secular bias.

A daisy chain of authors

This is a complete list of the authors and works referenced in The Soul of the Marionette:

Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811)’s essay The Puppet Theatre (1810) paradoxically suggests that it is the puppet who is free because he is not conflicted by a torn and agonised self-consciousness.

Novelist and poet Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990) in The Avignon Quartet describes a modern-day Gnostic.

Communist crystallographer J.D. Bernal (1901-1971) speculated that human society would be replaced by a Utopia of post-human cyborgs.

Director of Engineering at Google Ray Kurzweil (b.1948) published a book with the sub-title When Humans Transcend Biology.

Polish-Jewish writer Bruno Schulz (1892-1942) wrote short stories on the theme of Gnosticism i.e that the world wasn’t created by a benevolent all-powerful God but by a blind or malevolent Demiurge, which explains why it is so botched and chaotic. Only those who come to know this (gnosis is Greek for knowledge) can, through an arduous apprenticeship and reading many mystical books, arrive at true knowledge of their place as souls trapped in fallen bodies in a badly made world, and break out towards the light of the True God.

Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) is famous for his sensuously melancholy verse but also wrote a long work of thoughts about human nature, the Zibaldone, which is bitingly pessimistic about human nature and ridicules the idea that science will improve humanity. He is particularly savage about Christianity which, he thinks (with plenty of evidence to back him up) promotes a universalist claim, Christ’s injunction to his disciples to convert the whole world, which – in practice – gave carte blanche to force everyone in the world to convert, at the point of a sword or under threat of being burned at the stake. This, in Leopardi’s view, explains why the barbarity of the Middle Ages far eclipsed anything known or comprehensible in the ancient, pre-Christian world.

American poet and short story writer Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849) wrote some fictions which touch on the Gnostic theme in which characters have dreams which come true, or dream a better world into existence.

Mary Shelley (1797-1951) wrote Frankenstein, always predictably dragged out on these occasions as the forerunner of all ‘modern’ debate about creating artificial life or intelligence.

The Symbolist poet Villiers de L’Isle-Adam (1838-1889) coined the word ‘android’.

Gustav Meyrink (1868-1932) wrote The Golem (1915) another novel about people creating new uber-humans.

Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) in his story The Circular Ruins imagines a magician whose dreams come true before he realises that he himself is someone else’s dream.

Polish science fiction author Stanislav Lem (1921-2006) in his novel Solaris (1961) imagines a planet whose surface seems to be alive and conscious in ways we cannot conceive, and which communicates with the humans in the space station orbiting it by creating people from their past or creatures from their dreams.

American science fiction author Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) wrote a whole series of novels exploring the possibility of alternative consciousness, and how individual consciousnesses might be able to bend and warp reality. Gray devotes an unusually prolonged passage to Dick and his works.

H.G. Wells (1866-1946) wrote The War of the Worlds suggesting other intelligences have no concern about us.

Michel Faber (b.1960) wrote Under The Skin in which aliens come to earth purely to capture and eat humans, whose meat is tasty!

Boris and Arkady Strugasky‘s novel Roadside Picnic is about people who venture into the forbidden zones where alien spaceships landed, settled, then took off again. The thrust of all three of these stories is why should we think artificial intelligences we create (if we ever do) will give a damn about us.

T.F. Powys (1875-1953) wrote a series of novels in the 1920s and 30s which featured God or Devil or Demiurge characters appearing as normal people, giving rise to a lot of discussion about creation and reality.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) masterpiece Leviathan is based on the idea that people will do anything, and submit to a strong central authority to avoid violence. But Gray thinks this is a chimera, a far too rational view of human nature. All the evidence suggests that people can initiate and put up with a quite staggering degree of violence i.e. human nature isn’t as one-dimensional as Hobbes paints it.

John Dee (1527-1608) was Elizabeth I’s astrologer and magician and an epitome of Gray’s view that what modern secular thinkers like to think of as ‘the scientific revolution’ was in fact deeply intertwined with all kinds of magical and voodoo beliefs, the prime example being Sir Isaac Newton who formulated the laws which underpinned the new scientific view of the universe but was also a mystic and heretical Christian who devoted an enormous amount of energy trying to decipher the prophecies contained in the Book of Revelation.

Norbert Wiener (1894-1964), mathematician and philosopher, helped the Manhattan Project, is acknowledged as the father of cybernetics, and envisaged a future where man makes machines which outdo man.

John von Neumann (1903-1957), mathematician, physicist and computer scientist, also helped with the Manhattan Project and founded game theory. The ideas of both men underpin futurists’ confidence that man can remake man, or make a super-man machine, or machines which can help people achieve super-lives.

Guy Debord (1931-1994) is popular with students of the humanities and the arts because of his book Society of the Spectacle which expands on Marxist ideas that governments control us by getting us to buy into the mindless entertainments of the mass media. More than that, even political protests or extreme events like terrorist attacks, are all part of The Spectacle. Gray is, as you might expect, bitingly sceptical about Debord, concentrating on his career after the 1968 revolution failed to materialise, wandering the French provinces, slowly expelling all the members of his organisation, the Situationist International, drinking heavily, coming to the despairing conclusion that there can be no revolution because The Spectacle can assimilate anything and eventually committing suicide in 1994.

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) the ultimate in rationalist philosophers who formulated the ideas of Utilitarianism and said social policy should be judged on whether it promotes the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Gray describes Bentham’s idea for the Panopticon, a prison built in a circle so guards at the centre could monitor all the prisoners, and then goes on to claim that we live in a surveillance society infinitely more thorough and extensive than anything Bentham could have imagined.

E.M. Foster (1879-1970) famous for his novels of Edwardian upper class life, wrote a striking science fiction story, The Machine Stops (which I happen to have read and reviewed). Gray criticises the story for giving no indication of how the bubble world entirely controlled by some vast central machine came into existence. But he mentions it in order to speculate about how our societies might collapse and fall.

Samuel Butler (1835-1902) wrote his satirical vision of the future, Erewhon which predicted there would be labour-saving machines and robots in the future. Well, half of that was correct.


Straw men

Most debaters set up straw men i.e. simplify the arguments of their opponents in order to caricature and counter them. I was struck by the way Gray does just this – establishing an entity or group or party or movement of ‘modern secular thinkers’ which he then proceeds to hammer from all directions – struck because he doesn’t mention a single name. Instead he rings the changes on a generic set of terms for ‘the Enemy’, which I began to find interesting in themselves:

  • many people today…
  • modern secular thinkers believe mankind can be recreated in a higher form…
  • it does not occur to these sublime moralists that in human beings the good and the bad may be intermixed…
  • those who aim to fashion a higher humanity with science…
  • … Gnostic themes that unnoticed or repressed, shape much of modern thinking…
  • this view of things is nowadays close to being incomprehensible…
  • The modern world inherits the Christian view…
  • … human impulses that modern thinking denies..
  • … how tenuous are the assumptions on which western thinkers base their hopes of peace…
  • … modern humanity insists that violence is inhuman…
  • … believers in reason, lacking any deeper faith and too feeble to tolerate doubt…
  • modern individualism tends…
  • Today there are some who expect such machines to be among us within a few decades…
  • …this modern catechism is mistaken…
  • modern thinkers have imagined that humans can achieve a state of freedom…

You can see how the repetition of the central terms builds up an image of a straw man (or straw liberal) who is particularly dim and uninsightful – but without troubling to name names or quote any texts.

Mentioning specific named writers would, of course, instantly complicate the situation, because it is unlikely that any ‘modern secular liberal’ is quite as dim as Gray likes to make out.


Sick writers

There are many ways to be entertained, amused and informed by this lovely jumble sale of a book, but I noted another strand which unintentionally confirms one of my own bête noirs or obsessions: which is that writers – poets and novelist and playwrights and philosophers – are, on the whole, among the very last people whose advice you want to take about life and living, seeing as almost all of them have been sick misfits, with a variety of mental illnesses and substance addictions. Thus:

Kleist was forced to join the civil service which he hated, wanted to be a writer but struggled to produce anything which satisfied him, tried and failed to join up to Napoleon’s army and ended up committing suicide in 1811.

Schulz was forced to become a school teacher in order to support ailing relatives, hated his job, struggled to write, had a failed engagement to a woman, and, as a Jew, was murdered by the Nazis.

Leopardi was a hunchback with poor sight, who was frail and sickly all his life, having a long but unsuccessful involvement with a married woman, living most of his life in poverty, before moving to Naples and dying of TB aged 38.

Edgar Allen Poe was a disastrous shambles of a man, who never secured a regular income despite starting umpteen magazines and journals, living hand to mouth in poverty, a chronic alcoholic, before being discovered roaming the streets of Baltimore out of his mind and wearing someone else’s clothes, dying in a pauper’s hospital aged 40.

Philip K. Dick was mentally ill for most of his life, dosing himself with alcohol and amphetamines to fuel his prodigious output of disturbing novels until he suffered a full-blown mental collapse in 1974, during which he claimed to have a had a great Revelation about life which he spent the rest of his life struggling to understand. Psychosis, five marriages, heavy drug addiction, repeated suicide attempts.

Guy Debord heavy drinker, despair, suicide aged 63.

Not exactly role models, are they? More to the point, where are all the people of their times who lived healthy, happy, fulfilled and productive lives? Well, they were too busy living life to the full, to write anything.

In other words, writers, on the whole, are a self-selecting and self-reinforcing, self-supporting, self-promoting group of the sick, the mentally ill, the addicted, impoverished, failed and frustrated.

To put it another way, writers in their writings tend to give a wildly inaccurate picture of human nature and human society. The works and thoughts of any ‘creative’ writer should, therefore, be taken with a large pinch of salt and not treated as any kind of ‘truth’, let alone as lessons by which to live life.


Gray’s prescription – withdrawal

Seeing all around him chaos, resurgent barbarism, and an array of misguided beliefs in meliorism, social improvement and scientific advances, Gray recommends withdrawing into yourself and there seeking to achieve harmony through acceptance of the fact that you are an irrational, conflicted being which doesn’t understand itself, let alone the world it lives in – and cultivating an inner freedom.

It’s worth quoting the book’s final passage in full as this turns out to be a surprisingly frank and candid piece of advice about how to live.

We do not know how matter came to dream our world into being; we do not know what, if anything, comes when the dream ends for us and we die. We yearn for a type of knowledge that would make us other than we are – though what we would like to be, we cannot say.

Why try to escape from yourself? Accepting the fact of unknowing makes possible an inner freedom very different from that pursued by the Gnostics. if you have this negative capability, you will not want a higher form of consciousness; your ordinary mind will give you all that you need. Rather than trying to impose sense on your life, you will be content to let meaning come and go. (p.165)


My thoughts

I agree with him.

I too believe human nature is unchangeable, that Western progressive liberals make up a minority of the human population which they arrogantly and ignorantly claim to speak for, that their view of human nature is insultingly shallow (amounting to little more that shouting ‘racist’ or ‘sexist’ at anyone who doesn’t fit their narrow parameters) and that their shallow ideology:

  1. fails to grasp, understand or prevent the failure of their political movements, as represented by the election of Trump, Johnson, Brexit
  2. fails to understand why populations would democratically elect right-wing populists such as Bolsonaro or Erdogan and above all
  3. fails to understand or explain why people continue to be barbaric, violent and sadistic in terrible conflicts all around the world

It’s not that progressive liberalism is morally wrong. It is that it is factually inadequate, biologically illiterate, philosophically impoverished, and so politically and socially misleading.

It is doomed to fail because it is based on a false model of human nature.

As to Gray’s prescription, that we abandon the effort to understand either ourselves or the world around us, I think this is a nice idea to read about, here or in Ursula Le Guin, or in a thousand Christian or Eastern mystics. It is a nice fictional place to inhabit, a discursive possibility, in the same way that I – and billions of other readers – inhabit novels or plays or works of art for a while.

But then I am forced to return to the workaday world where I must earn a living and look after my family, and where simply ‘letting meaning come and go’ is not an adequate guide to life.

To thinking about life, maybe. But not to actually living it.


Related links

John Updike on Franz Kafka (1983)

In 1983 American novelist John Updike was commissioned to write the introduction to a new collection of the complete short stories of Franz Kafka. Here are his main points:

Kafka is one of many who reacted to the arrival of the ‘modern’ world around the turn of the century. For him it manifested as:

a sensation of anxiety and shame whose centre cannot be located and therefore cannot be placated; a sense of an infinite difficulty within things, impeding every step; a sensitivity acute beyond usefulness, as if the nervous system, flayed of its old hide of social usage and religious belief, must record every touch as pain.

In Kafka this is combined with immense tenderness, unusual good humour, and formal skill.

He dwells on Kafka’s instruction to Max Brod to burn all his writings and summarises Brod’s reasons for not doing so (while pointing out that Kafka’s girlfriend at the time of his death, Dora Dymant, did burn all the letters, notes and sketches in her possession – alas).

He describes how not only all three novels but many of the short stories were left unfinished, such as The Great Wall of China or The Burrow.

The manuscripts suggest that Kafka wrote fluently as long as the inspiration lasted, but then stopped, when the inspiration stopped. More interestingly, he was happy to leave them in an ‘open’ state as a collection of fragments, splintering off in different directions from a core insight. Rather like the Great Wall itself which, according to the historian who is the narrator of that piece, was built as standalone fragments, which often never joined up.

Updike dislikes some of Kafka’s earliest fragments because of their adolescent showiness, the way they depict extravagant physical and psychological contortions. But even in a text as early as Wedding Preparations the fundamental basic narrative trope is there, the fact of non-arrival.

Updike points out how many of Kafka’s German readers and critics praise the purity of his Germany prose style, something which is pretty much impossible for us to hear in any English translation.

Thomas Mann paid tribute to Kafka’s ‘conscientious, curiously explicit, objective, clear, and correct style, [with] its precise, almost official conservatism.’

My ears pricked up at this description because there certainly is something very precise and official in the formalistic phraseology, especially in the later stories, many of which are cast in the form of reports or investigations or historical essays, and which use wordy and pedantic official-sounding formulae.

Updike touches on Kafka’s own feel for the different registers of German prose, and for Jewish diction in German, quoting Kafka saying:

“Only the dialects are really alive, and except for them, only the most individual High German, while all the rest, the linguistic middle ground, is nothing but embers which can only be brought to a semblance of life when excessively lively Jewish hands rummage through them.’

But despite his interest in Yiddish street theatre, and the fact that he taught himself and then began having formal lessons in Hebrew, Kafka’s prose is the extreme opposite of this ‘Jewish rummaging’, and Updike quotes Philip Rahv aptly describing Kafka’s style as ‘ironically conservative’. This seems to me a spot on description of the laboured officialese or parody of academic style of the later stories: here is a typical paragraph from Investigations of a Dog:

When I think back and recall the time when I was still a member of the canine community, sharing in all its preoccupations, a dog among dogs, I find on closer examination that from the very beginning I sensed some discrepancy, some little maladjustment, causing a slight feeling of discomfort which not even the most decorous public functions could eliminate; more, that sometimes, no, not sometimes, but very often, the mere look of some fellow dog of my own circle that I was fond of, the mere look of him, as if I had just caught it for the first time, would fill me with helpless embarrassment and fear, even with despair.

Kafka himself dated his breakthrough to a mature style from the night of 22-23 September 1912 when he wrote the entire story The Judgement  at one sitting. Soon afterwards he wrote what may be his signature work, The Metamorphosis, in a few weeks.

Updike points out how the apple which his father throws at him and which gets embedded in his exoskeleton and rots and decays symbolises the psychological trauma and wounding his father caused him.

Updike carefully considers the physical specifications Kafka gives for the insect and comes to the conclusion that it is no known species – neither cockroach nor dung beetle nor centipede, because Kafka only uses elements of its physicality at certain moments, to make specific points. They don’t necessarily have to hang together.

(One could observe that this aspect of the description is another example of Kafkaesque fragmentation – the elements don’t necessarily join up, just like the great wall.)

It certainly explains why, when the story was published in 1915, Kafka begged the publisher not to commission an artist to draw it. The story can’t be filmed or dramatised, it is a very literary text in the way that details emerge only as and when needed to bring out the psychological points. It is not meant to be physically but psychologically consistent.

Updike describes how much of the mature style is present in The Metamorphosis:

  • official pomposity, the dialect of documents and men talking business
  • a love of music which is the reverse of a longing for complete silence
  • animals which take a high intellectual line but are stuck in bodies befouled with faeces and alive with fleas

Kafka wrote the long letter to his father in November 1919, when he was 36, gave it to his mother, his mother kept and read it then handed it back, saying it was best not to bother his busy father with it, and Kafka lacked the courage to hand it over in person, or post it.

Updike suggests it’s not necessarily Hermann’s fault that his super-sensitive son turned him into a psychological trauma, a monster, the unappeasable Judge.

It is Franz Kafka’s extrapolations from his experience of paternal authority and naysaying, above all in his novels The Trial and The Castle, that define the word ‘Kafkaesque’. Like ‘Orwellian’, the adjective describes not the author but an atmosphere within a portion of his work.

Updike brings out Kafka’s success as a professional man. He earned a Law Degree, had experience of merchandising through his father’s business, worked for thirteen years for the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia where his speciality was factory safety, and his reports were admired, trusted, and published in professional journals. He retired as Senior Secretary and a medal of honour ‘commemorating his contribution to the establishment and management of hospitals and rest homes for mentally ill veterans’ was in the post to him when the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed in 1918.

In other words Kafka’s daily engagement with the prose style of officialdom, of reports and studies and memoranda, go a long way to explaining the continual parody of officialdom and its prose mannerisms which we find in almost all his work.

Updike has a section touching on Kafka’s Jewishness and his interest in the history and practices of Jews. Kafka blamed his father for assimilating too well into Germanic society, for neglecting much of the family’s Jewish heritage, but he also wrote words about the ‘abolition’ of the Jews which were eerily prescient of the rise of the Nazis – although also, realistically, they were no more than a sensitive awareness of the fragile status of Jews even in Franz Joseph’s Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Despite all this Jewish self-awareness Updike brings out how Kafka’s characters are mostly Christian (Gregor Samsa’s family cross themselves and celebrate Christmas). This Christian character seems dominant in the novels and many of the stories. But when the stories become deep and allegorical, or where they go into the countryside and deal with peasants and pre-modern behaviour, I, personally, am unable to distinguish between rural folk tradition, and the other, separate tradition of Jewish heritage, folk tales and practices. I have to rely on Jewish commentators and critics to guide me.

Updike concludes by giving a very eloquent summary of the feel or vibe or mindset conjured up and described in the Kafka universe:

Part of Kafka’s strangeness, and part of his enduring appeal, was to suspect that everyone except himself had the secret. He received from his father an impression of helpless singularity, of being a ‘slave living under laws invented only for him.’ A shame literally unspeakable attached itself to this impression. Fantasy, for Kafka even more than for most writers of fiction, was the way out of his skin, so he could get back in. He felt, as it were, abashed before the fact of his own existence.

More than abashed. Horrified.


Related links

Related Kafka reviews

Dates are dates of composition.

Vladimir Nabokov on Franz Kafka (1954)

Vladimir Nabokov

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

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

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

Nabokov’s approach to literature

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

‘Caress the details, the divine details!’

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

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

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

John Updike’s introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vladimir Nabokov on The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

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

By contrast in The Metamorphosis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nabokov is unforgiving of the philistine family.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts

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

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

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

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


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Dates are dates of composition.

The Castle by Franz Kafka (1926)

[K.’s assistants] rushed to the [telephone], asked for the connection – how eager they were about it! in externals they were absurdly docile – and inquired if K. could come with them next morning into the Castle. The ‘No’ of the answer was audible even to K. at his table. But the answer went on and was still more explicit, it ran as follows: ‘Neither to-morrow nor at any other time.’

‘When can my master come to the Castle?’
‘Never,’ was the answer.

Plot

In The Trial Joseph K is ‘arrested’ (although he remained, in practice, entirely free to continue going about his business as he wishes) and spends the rest of the increasingly fraught story having encounters with Court officials, friends, lawyers and other advisers who (he hopes) can help him make his case to the Court and clear his name. But there never actually is a trial, Joseph K never gets to meet any important official, all the officials he does meet turn out to be powerless, he never manages to clear his name and, in the sudden, short, final chapter, he is taken to a quarry and miserably murdered. Kafka wrote The Trial in an intense burst in the second half of 1914 and abandoned it in January 1915.

Seven years later, Kafka began writing The Castle, working intensely on it from January to September 1922. But didn’t finish this novel, either, and the manuscript breaks off in mid sentence.

It opens with a Land Surveyor, referred to throughout simply as K., arriving in the depths of a snowy winter at an unnamed village in the shadow of a looming castle (which turns out more to be a ramshackle collection of low buildings) and checking into a rundown inn, the Bridge Inn, for the night. Here he is not made particularly welcome, and a young man bursts in to tell him he needs a pass to be there, and rings up the Castle to confirm the fact.

This sets the tone for the rest of the (unfinished) novel which K. spends trying to get an audience or meeting with anyone up at the Castle who can tell him what his task is, and what he’s been hired to do. In this he fails as completely as Joseph K. does to find anyone to present  his case to. Instead K. ends up wasting most of his time in interminable conversations with characters from the village – starting with the landlord and landlady of the Bridge Inn, and their daughter, and his two so-called assistants, and a messenger from the Castle who K. hopes will get him an entrée there but rapidly turns out rarely to actually visit it. And so on. K’s asks them all for help and advice about how to get an interview with anyone of importance at the Castle, but their replies and interpretations are so tortuous, convoluted and contradictory hat he never makes it anywhere near the famous Castle, and then the text stops in mid sentence.

Just like The Trial, then, The Castle is an exercise in long-winded, verbose and dialogue-heavy delaying.

Just like Joseph K, K. meets a sequence of people, and has long exchanges with each of them about his plight, which, far from clarifying the situation, leave him steadily more puzzled and confused than when he started.

‘You misunderstand everything, even a person’s silence.’ (The landlady to K., p.72)

Just like Joseph K, K. forms immediate and very sexual relationships with the women that he meets. In K’s case this is Frieda, the serving woman in another inn which K. goes to in the hope of meeting the legendary Castle official, Klamm. In a bizarre scene, which i had to reread to make sure I had it right, K. ends up making love to this barmaid who he’s only just met, on the floor behind the counter, among the beer slops and fag ends.

Just like Joseph K, K. becomes increasingly obsessed with his forlorn quest, until it is all he can think about day and night – the simple goal of gaining access to the Castle, which is turned down by officials on the phone, pooh-poohed by the peasants that he meets, mocked by his landlady, and generally ridiculed by everyone he meets, while he is slowly, step-by-step, reduced in status, worn down and humiliated.

Decline and entropy

Reading The Trial acclimatised me to numerous aspects of Kafka’s approach or worldview. One is that things are never as grand or formal or impressive as they initially seem; they are always disappointing. The movement is always downwards.

‘You’re still Klamm’s sweetheart, and not my wife yet by a long chalk. Sometimes that makes me quite dejected, I feel then as if I had lost everything, I feel as if I had only newly come to the village, yet not full of hope, as I actually came, but with the knowledge that only disappointments await me, and that I will have to swallow them down one after another to the very dregs…’ (p.126)

In The Trial an impressive-sounding magistrate turns out to be a shabby little fat man with no control over anything. Joseph’s uncle recommends a well-connected advocate who, in the event, turns out to be ill and bed-ridden, and who candidly admits that advocates like himself are virtually powerless – in fact they may end up damaging a client’s chances. People’s reputations and power decay virtually in front of us. Every new opportunity turns out to be a dead end or worse, a setback.

Well, The Castle is dominated and defined by the same trajectory, by a hundred little fallings-off and declines and disappointments. The very first disappointment is that the Castle itself turns out to be a lot less castle-ey than we were led to believe.

It was neither an old stronghold nor a new mansion, but a rambling pile consisting of innumerable small buildings closely packed together and of one or two storeys; if K. had not known that it was a castle he might have taken it for a little town… on approaching it he was disappointed in the Castle; it was after all only a wretched-looking town, a huddle of village houses, whose sole merit, if any, lay in being built of stone, but the plaster had long since flaked off and the stone seemed to be crumbling away.

An early example of people being disappointing is the young man who bullies K. within an hour of him arriving at the Bridge Inn, officiously telling K. he needs a pass to stay at an inn and documents to prove he is who he says he is, who rings up the Castle and generally throws his weight about. But later the landlord of the inn tells K. that this young man is only the son of an insignificant under-castellan, a man of no importance or authority.

Also early on, there’s a small symbolic enactment of this relentless entropy in the incident of the bell. The morning after his arrival in the village K. sets off to walk up to the Castle but gets bogged down in the deep snowdrifts in the village, eventually has to knock on a peasant door for help, before being given a sleigh ride back to the inn where he’s staying. As he’s being driven away:

A bell began to ring merrily up there, a bell which for at least a second made his heart palpitate for its tone was menacing, too, as if it threatened him with the fulfilment of his vague desire. This great bell soon died away, however, and its place was taken by a feeble monotonous little tinkle which might have come from the Castle, but might have been somewhere in the village. It certainly harmonized better with the slow-going journey, with the wretched-looking yet inexorable driver…

It’s a small moment, but it’s typical of the way that in things great and small, from the overall shape of the entire narrative down to tiny details – everything falls away into a state of confusion and uncertainty:

‘If you had followed my explanation more carefully, then you must have seen that the question of your being summoned here is far too difficult to be settled here and now in the course of a short conversation.’
‘So the only remaining conclusion,’ said K., ‘is that everything is very unclear and insoluble…’ (p.66)

Take the handsome, slender messenger who comes to the Bridge Inn from the Castle and announces himself as Barnabas. Initially K. hopes Barnabas, as an official messenger, can take him with him up to the Castle, but it turns out that this is a misunderstanding and, after a trudge through the snow, they arrive not at some official residence but at the house of Barnabas’s parents, who turn out to be two decrepit old crones. K.

had been bewitched by Barnabas’s close-fitting, silken-gleaming jacket, which, now that it was unbuttoned, displayed a coarse, dirty grey shirt patched all over, and beneath that the huge muscular chest of a labourer.

Barnabas goes from being a slender official messenger, elegant in fine silk, to a coarse and oafish peasant wearing dirty patched clothes, even as we watch.

It is typical of Kafka that when K. finally manages to see the village Mayor he finds him far from being a superb figure of fitness and power, but ill in bed with gout, fussing and fretting and cared for by his wife, Mizzi. Later (and there’s almost always a ‘later’ moment in Kafka, when someone else comments on an important encounter Joseph K or K. has had, generally undermining and contradicting it), later the landlady tells K. that the Mayor is actually pretty powerless, it’s his skinny mousey wife who’s the power behind the throne.

‘The mayor is someone entirely without consequence, didn’t you realise?’ (p.77)

And so it goes on, Decline. Fall. Entropy. It is characteristic that beautiful young Frieda, within days of starting her affair with K., loses her beauty and goes into a decline (p.122) Everywhere, in aspects large and small, people, bells, buildings turn out to be less impressive or authoritative or even comprehensible than first imagined. Everything disappoints, everywhere the protagonist’s hopes or plans are dashed, on every front he finds himself being squeezed into a narrower and narrower corner.

‘If that is so, madam,” said K., ‘then I beg your pardon, and I’ve misunderstood you. For I thought – erroneously, as it turns out now – that I could take out of your former words that there was still some very tiny hope for me.’

Crowded with people

Another quick and obvious thing you notice is that The Castle, like The Trial, is packed with people. It has a surprisingly large cast:

  • the landlord and the landlady of the Bridge Inn where K is staying
  • Schwarzer, the son of the Castellan who bullyingly tells K. he needs a pass to stay at the inn
  • the peasants drinking in the hotel bar
  • the schoolteacher who tells him everyone is disappointed by the Castle
  • the cottage K. stumbles into up in the village, which contains two men in a bath (one of them the tanner Lasemann), an old man a woman breast-feeding, and a horde of screaming children
  • Arthur and Jeremiah, two thin men walking by the cottage who are hailed by the owner
  • the stooping coachman called Gerstacker who drives K back to the Bridge Inn in his sledge, after K. has got lost wandering the streets of the village
  • Barnabas the messenger who arrives at the Bridge Inn with a letter for K.
  • Barnabas’s family, consisting of his aged mother and father and sisters Olga and Amalia
  • Klamm, the legendary official from the Castle who everyone talks about and K. becomes obsessed with meeting
  • Momus, Klamm’s secretary
  • Vallabene, Castle official Momus works for
  • Frieda, daughter of the Bridge Inn landlady, and mistress of Klamm, who is working at the Count’s Inn where K. goes to find Klamm, and who K. has an affair with
  • the Mayor and his mousey wife, Mizzi
  • Sordini, a minor official in the Castle, who features in the Mayor’s extremely long-winded explanation of the bureaucracy up at the castle
  • the schoolmistress Gisa who sets her cat to scratch K. (p.117)
  • Pepi the stocky sturdy replacement for Frieda as barmaid at the Herrenhof (it is a minor element of the ‘Kafkaesque’ that the male protagonist is always horny; within moments of meeting Pepi K. is lusting after every bit as much as he did after Frieda [and the word used is ‘lust’, p.91])

Not only a fairly large cast but more intricately intertwined than in The Trial. Admittedly when K. discovers that the young woman he has so abruptly had sex with, Frieda, is in fact Klamm’s mistress, this very much echoes the situation in The Trial where the young woman, Leni, who throws herself at Joseph K. (to be precise, who falls backwards onto the carpet and pulls Joseph on top of her, thus making her intentions plain) is also the mistress of the Advocate Huld. Same with the Law Court Attendants wife who first with Joseph, but snogs another young man, Barthold, and turns out to ‘belong’ to the Examining magistrate.

Structurally, if we put aside the actual sexual content of these encounters for a moment, they can be seen to be yet another variant on the basic structure from which his texts are built, namely that things turn out to be something other than the protagonist thought. He thinks a woman is flirting with him alone, but she turns out to have multiple other lovers is cognate with the structure of Joseph being recommended to meet the Advocate who turns out to be ineffective and maybe even damaging to his cause.

But when we learn that Frieda is the daughter of the landlady of the Bridge Inn; and that Frieda’s mother was herself, in her time, a mistress of Klamm’s, then the latter book begins to feel more incestuous, more claustrophobic.

Attics and inns

One of the things I noticed in The Trial is the way so many of the ‘offices’ or rooms of supposedly important officials, and of the painter Titorelli, seem to be located right at the top of rickety staircases in dusty airless attics. The same initially happens here.

The house was so small that nothing was available for K. but a little attic room, and even that had caused some difficulty, for two maids who had hitherto slept in it had had to be quartered elsewhere. Nothing indeed had been done but to clear the maids out, the room was otherwise quite unprepared, no sheets on the single bed, only some pillows and a horse-blanket still in the same rumpled state as in the morning.

But in the event K. doesn’t get to meet as varied a selection of bureaucratic officials as Joseph K. and spends more of his time in the two village inns and at the schoolhouse.

Less intense, more surreal

The Trial is the better book. It gives you the pure Kafka experience, the sense of a hyper-sensitive man drowning in a sea of bureaucratic mysteries which he can never solve.

It has its bizarre moments but is mostly a kind of sustained meditation on the nature of the Court which has accused Joseph K and, by extension, of the nature of his guilt which is, in fact, tied to his entire existence. His mere existence implicates Joseph K. and it’s in this sense that Kafka’s friend and executor Max Brod makes the case for it being at bottom a religious book, an examination of the fundamental nature of human existence.

Moreover, the metaphor of ‘the trial’ is extremely large and flexible, it extends out into all kinds of meditations and metaphors to do with an extended range of related subjects such as ‘the Law’ and ‘Guilt’ and ‘Innocence’. Characters can say things which both apply to Joseph K’s plight in a literal sense, but also have quite weighty double-meanings to do with the nature of Divine Law and human existence etc.

And because the legal systems of any country are so complicated and bureaucratic, the central metaphor of a ‘trial’ allows Kafka to generate a potentially endless sequence of characters who are either officials of the Court or experts or advisers about the law or the Court or the bureaucracy and so on. You can see the truth of Max Brod’s comment that the Trial could have been extended almost indefinitely.

By contrast, the fundamental concept of ‘the Castle’ is a lot more vague and limited. The Castle is up on the hill and (supposedly) contains ‘the Count’ and his officials, but it doesn’t really provide a lot of metaphorical or conceptual framework, certainly not as much as the idea of a trial and of the Law.

This may partly explain why The Castle seems less unified and inevitable and quite a bit more random that The Trial. Whereas most of the encounters in The Trial were aligned with the fundamental metaphor of the Court, many of the incidents in The Castle seem simply bizarre and surreal.

Take the case of the assistants. When K. arrives at the Bridge Inn he says his assistants are following him not far behind. Then, impatient, he sets off to explore the village for himself but gets lost in the heavy snowdrifts, is rescued by some villagers who dry him and warm him and who, as they escort him back to their front door, hail a couple of young locals who are walking by. When K. gets back to ‘his’ inn, the one he’s checked into, he discovers the very same pair of men have arrived there and are telling everyone they are K’s assistants. Then – and this is the bizarre thing – K. himself accepts that they are indeed his assistants and treats him for the rest of the book as if they are, even though they haven’t brought the surveying equipment he said they had, and have different names, and behave like irresponsible children most of the time (‘ludicrously childish, irresponsible, and undisciplined’, p.123).

This doesn’t add anything to our understanding of the Court or the purpose of the book, it just becomes a permanent, bizarre addition to the narrative. Their exaggerated childishness and bickering soon reminded me of Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee, which made me see the entire book in a different light; less 20th century ‘surreal’ than in the tradition of Victorian ‘nonsense’ verse and prose.

Similarly, K. is told that the important Court official Klamm is at another inn in the village, the Count’s Inn, and so treks off through the deep snowdrifts to try to meet him. Characteristically, this attempt fails, for Klamm is locked in his private room. But K. he does get chatting (at length – all Kafka dialogue is immensely long-winded) to the barmaid, Frieda, one thing leads to another and suddenly they are in an embrace, rolling among the beer slops on the floor behind the bar. This goes on for hours and, in his characteristically obscure and long-winded way, it appears as if they have sex, then fall asleep there, for most of the night.

As if this wasn’t fantastical enough, when they finally disengage K. and Frieda discover that the two assistants… have been perching on the edge of the bar all night long, and have presumably observed everything which went on.

Now this isn’t a necessary or logical consequence of K.s quest to meet the authorities, it is more a bizarre incident, made more bizarre by the presence of the two assistants perching like buzzards on the bar.

It’s easy to apply the word ‘surreal’ to these moments of Kafka, and he was certainly writing at exactly the moment that the idea of surrealism and the term surrealism were coined (by the French avant-garde poet Guillaume Apollinaire in a play performed in 1917, and taken up and popularised by André Breton, who published his Surrealist Manifesto in 1924). Breton defined surrealism as:

thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation

The early Surrealists were obsessed with ‘automatic writing’ where the writer went into a dream or fugue state and wrote or dictated whatever came into his mind unhindered by any rational censorship or conscious intentions.

Well, on one level, Kafka’s two main novels do indeed have a horrible, irrational dreamlike or nightmare quality, the kind of nightmare where you’re running fast but not moving, or trying to keep above the waves but feel yourself being relentlessly pulled down. Thus the scene where K. is chatting to the barmaid one minute and the next, somehow, having sex with her behind the counter, is a sort of letting loose of usually suppressed sexual fantasies, a delirious improbability carried out in the dream-novel in a way it never could be in real life. And then the detail of the whole thing happening under the gaze of the two bird-like assistants definitely has the uncanny quality of Surrealism.

And yet a lot of other elements in the works are far more conscious and crafted and consistent than that.

For example, the messenger from the castle tells him that, while they try to sort out whether he has actually been hired to do any land surveying for the Count, K. is being offered the post of janitor at the little local school.

Because K. is now in a relationship with Frieda – in fact K. himself offers to marry her and everyone accepts that they are now engaged – he feels obligated to take the job although it is an obvious come-down from the figure he presented on his first arrival at the village, that of a confident, urbane professional man.

Not only is this a very Kafkaesque degradation or lowering of K.’s status, but he is then informed that the school building only contains two classrooms, with no other rooms whatsoever, and that therefore he and Frieda (and the two giggling assistants who follow him everywhere) will have to set up a camp bed every evening in the schoolroom once school is over, but be sure to be up and packed away before the schoolmaster then the children arrive the next day.

In practice this is a profoundly humiliating arrangement and again has a nightmareish quality because, inevitably, the very first morning of the new arrangement Frieda and K. oversleep and find their ‘bedroom’ overrun by schoolchildren laughing and pointing at them as they get out of the rough ‘bed’, made of a straw palliasse on the floor, and pad around in their underwear – at which point the smartly dressed schoolteacher and schoolma’am arrive and are outraged.

I think I’ve had dreams like this, being discovered in a public place half-dressed and with an oppressive sense of being publicly humiliated.

But the point I’m driving at is that true surrealism is bizarre in all directions, is unexpected and unpredictable, tigers turn into steam train, eyes are cut open, it can be fantastical and horrifying and weird. Early surreal works were often scrappy and unfinished precisely because their exponents were trying to achieve spontaneity, to throw off professionalism and reason and control in order to let the unconscious break through.

Whereas, although Kafka may achieve some ‘surreal’ effects with some of his nightmareish scenes and some of the fantasy-like details in them — his dreams invariably head in the same direction – in the direction of humiliating, degrading and wearing down the protagonist.

In this sense, Kafka’s works are highly conscious and contrived and artificial products: they are not at all open-ended and unexpected: the complete opposite: the degradation of Joseph K and K. and Gregor Samsa are highly predictable and move in one direction only – relentlessly down.

Long-winded

A major part of the protagonists’ problems in these two core Kafka novels is that everyone they talk to gives contradictory advice, or starts off urging one course of action but then hedges it with caveats and ends up advising the direct opposite. Joseph K and K. never know who to believe.

Partly this is to do with the convoluted content of each one of these long dialogues, and an analysis of them would take up many volumes. Easier to summarise is their immense length. God, everyone talks to immense and hyper-verbose excess! Here’s the landlady in conversation with K, telling him how naive his hope to meet the Castle official Klamm is.

‘Upon my word,’ said the landlady, with her nose in the air, ‘you put me in mind of my own husband, you’re just as childish and obstinate as he is. You’ve been only a few days in the village and already you think you know everything better than people who have spent their lives here, better than an old woman like me, and better than Frieda who has seen and heard so much in the Herrenhof. I don’t deny that it’s possible once in a while to achieve something in the teeth of every rule and tradition. I’ve never experienced anything of that kind myself, but I believe there are precedents for it. That may well be, but it certainly doesn’t happen in the way you’re trying to do it, simply by saying “No, no”, and sticking to your own opinions and flouting the most well-meant advice. Do you think it’s you I’m anxious about? Did I bother about you in the least so long as you were by yourself? Even though it would have been a good thing and saved a lot of trouble? The only thing I ever said to my husband about you was: “Keep your distance where he’s concerned.” And I should have done that myself to this very day if Frieda hadn’t got mixed up with your affairs. It’s her you have to thank – whether you like it or not – for my interest in you, even for my noticing your existence at all. And you can’t simply shake me off, for I’m the only person who looks after little Frieda, and you’re strictly answerable to me. Maybe Frieda is right, and all that has happened is Klamm’s will, but I have nothing to do with Klamm here and now. I shall never speak to him, he’s quite beyond my reach. But you’re sitting here, keeping my Frieda, and being kept yourself – I don’t see why I shouldn’t tell you – by me. Yes, by me, young man, for let me see you find a lodging anywhere in this village if I throw you out, even it were only a dog-kennel.’

Poor K. thinks he’s understood the gist of this long monologue:

‘Thank you,’ said K., ‘That’s frank and I believe you absolutely. So my position is as uncertain as that, is it, and Frieda’s position, too?’

But, of course, and as usual for Kafka’s protagonists, it immediately turns out that he hasn’t:

‘No!’ interrupted the landlady furiously. ‘Frieda’s position in this respect has nothing at all to do with yours. Frieda belongs to my house, and nobody is entitled to call her position here uncertain.’
‘All right, all right,’ said K., ‘I’ll grant you that, too, especially since Frieda for some reason I’m not able to fathom seems to be too afraid of you to interrupt. Stick to me then for the present. My position is quite uncertain, you don’t deny that, indeed you rather go out of your way to emphasize it. Like everything else you say, that has a fair proportion of truth in it, but it isn’t absolutely true…’

‘Like everything else you say, that has a fair proportion of truth in it, but it isn’t absolutely true.’ That could stand as a motto for both novels.

There is often very little ‘information’ or factual content in these countless dialogues. Instead their sole purpose often consists solely in being so long-winded and tortuous as to perplex and punish the protagonist.

Take this characteristic block of dialogue from the Mayor, who spends Chapter Four explaining to K. the processes at work in the organisation that runs the Castle, how different departments might issue contradictory instructions, how discrepancies might not be cleared up for years, or might suddenly and abruptly be cleared up and yet nobody be told about them, causing yet more confusion. Who, by the end, has thoroughly demoralised poor K. and utterly exhausted the reader.

‘And now I come to a peculiar characteristic of our administrative apparatus. Along with its precision it’s extremely sensitive as well. When an affair has been weighed for a very long time, it may happen, even before the matter has been fully considered, that suddenly in a flash the decision comes in some unforeseen place, that, moreover, can’t be found any longer later on, a decision that settles the matter, if in most cases justly, yet all the same arbitrarily. It’s as if the administrative apparatus were unable any longer to bear the tension, the year-long irritation caused by the same affair – probably trivial in itself-and had hit upon the decision by itself, without the assistance of the officials. Of course a miracle didn’t happen and certainly it was some clerk who hit upon the solution or the unwritten decision, but in any case it couldn’t be discovered by us, at least by us here, or even by the Head Bureau, which clerk had decided in this case and on what grounds. The Control Officials only discovered that much later, but we will never learn it. Besides by this time it would scarcely interest anybody. Now, as I said, it’s just these decisions that are generally excellent. The only annoying thing about them – it’s usually the case with such things – is that one learns too late about them and so in the meantime keeps on still passionately canvassing things that were decided long ago. I don’t know whether in your case a decision of this kind happened – some people say yes, others no – but if it had happened then the summons would have been sent to you and you would have made the long journey to this place, much time would have passed, and in the meanwhile Sordini would have been working away here all the time on the same case until he was exhausted. Brunswick would have been intriguing, and I would have been plagued by both of them. I only indicate this possibility, but I know the following for a fact: a Control Official discovered meanwhile that a query had gone out from the Department A to the Town Council many years before regarding a Land Surveyor, without having received a reply up till then. A new inquiry was sent to me, and now the whole business was really cleared up. Department A was satisfied with my answer that a Land Surveyor was not needed, and Sordini was forced to recognize that he had not been equal to this case and, innocently it is true, had got through so much nerve-racking work for nothing. If new work hadn’t come rushing in as ever from every side, and if your case hadn’t been a very unimportant case – one might almost say the least important among the unimportant we might all of us have breathed freely again, I fancy even Sordini himself. Brunswick was the only one that grumbled, but that was only ridiculous. And now imagine to yourself, Land Surveyor, my dismay when after the fortunate end of the whole business – and since then, too, a great deal of time had passed by suddenly you appear and it begins to look as if the whole thing must begin all over again. You’ll understand of course that I’m firmly resolved, so far as I’m concerned, not to let that happen in any case?’

If you find that paragraph hard going, you are not alone. I found much of The Castle very hard to read because it consists of page after page of solid blocks of tortuous dialogue just like this.

I’m tempted to say that it’s not really the situations Kafka’s protagonists find themselves in which are the problem – a) being told you’ve been charged with something but never being able to find out what and b) arriving at a castle to do some work and discovering nobody will acknowledge you or clarify what work you’re meant to be doing, if any.

No, it’s not the situations they’re in which are Kafkaesque, so much as the massive, inordinate, unending stream of interpretations and advice and tips and insider knowledge etc which their situations are subjected to by every single person they come into contact with – that is the core of the Kafkaesque.

At the heart of the Kafkaesque is people’s unending need to talk talk talk. The Kafkaesque would cease to exist if people just shut up. Or spat it out in a sentence. Twitter would sort out K.’s problems in a few moments. But instead, he is forced to listen to monstrously long monologues by the Mayor or the Landlady, which leave him bitterly concluding:

‘This is a great surprise for me. It throws all my calculations out. I can only hope that there’s some misunderstanding.’

But there hasn’t been a misunderstanding. Or, to be more precise, everything is a misunderstanding, everyone is in a permanent state of misunderstanding everyone else.

Meanings

‘It’s so hard to know what’s what,’ said Frieda. (p.142)

Kafka knows what he’s doing as he creates fables with enough layers, and enough symbolism, to be susceptible to multiple levels of interpretation. The three principal ones which first spring to mind are religious and social-cultural and political.

1. Religious I mean the way in which Max Brod mostly interpreted the stories, as allegories or fables of Man looking for the Meaning of Life, for The Answer, trying to find the God or representative of God (priest etc) who will provide peace and fulfilment and knowledge about the True Path – but the permanent sense of frustration and perplexity which the Good Pilgrim is subjected to.

2. By social-cultural one I mean a reading which focuses on the oppressive and entirely secular bureaucracies which seem endless and impenetrable, which sweep us up in their processes and do with us as they please, without us ever finding out who to appeal to or how to get our case heard. Kafka is often taken as being ‘prophetic’ of the way large bureaucracies – whether belonging to the state or the private sector – especially after the Second World War, came to be seen as reducing individuals to the status of ciphers.

It is a characteristic of modern (i.e. since about the First World War) bureaucracies that they rarely admit their errors but prefer to hide behind jargon and contradictory statements.

‘Frankly it isn’t their function to hunt out errors in the vulgar sense, for errors don’t happen, and even when once in a while an error does happen, as in your case, who can say finally that it’s an error?’

3. The Political is a more intense of the bureaucratic interpretation and argues from what we know happened after Kafka’s death i.e. the domination of Europe by terrible, deadly bureaucracies which consigned vast numbers to starvation, forced labour and death, in the name of ‘quotas and collectivisation (in Stalin’s Russia of the 1930s) or in the name or purifying Europe of its race enemies (under Hitler’s Nazis).

4. There is a fourth type of interpretation, which is hermeneutical where ‘hermeneutics’ means:

the theory and methodology of interpretation, especially the interpretation of biblical texts, wisdom literature, and philosophical texts (Wikipedia)

This occurred to me as I read the scene in Chapter Four where K. produces the letter he’s received from Kramm with a flourish and gives it to the Mayor as evidence that he has been taken on as a land surveyor. The Mayor then proceeds to read the letter closely and undermine all its claims to authority and even coherent meaning. When he’s finished, K. says there’s nothing left except the signature.

So you could say that Kafka’s novels revolve around, not so much the big Religious Questions which Max Brod read into them – but more technical philosophical debate about meaning. What does the letter mean? What did the phone call to the Castle mean? What does the landlady’s lengthy advice mean?

K. has lots of encounters, conversations, promises, threats, advice and so on. But almost always he then meets someone who immediately contradicts and undermines them. No meaning remains stable or fixed for long.

Worse, some of the characters suggest that, just possibly, K.’s entire system of meaning is alien to the villagers. According to Frieda her mother, the landlady

‘didn’t hold that you were lying, on the contrary she said that you were childishly open, but your character was so different from ours, she said, that, even when you spoke frankly, it was bound to be difficult for us to believe you.’ (p.138)

Subjected to this continual attrition erosion of meaning, can anything be said to be meaningful? In this respect, then, the books can also be interpreted as very 20th century meditations on the meaning of meaning, and of the difficulty, nay, the impossibility of ever really communicating anything to another human being.

‘He’s always like that, Mr Secretary, he’s always like that. Falsifies the information one gives him, and
then maintains that he received false information.’ (The landlady, p.102)

‘To anyone who knows how to read official communications, and consequently knows still better how to read unofficial letters, all this is only too clear. That you, a stranger, don’t know it doesn’t surprise me.’ (The Mayor, having demolished the content of Klamm’s letter)

Samuel Beckett

As soon as I read the name Klamm, and began to learn that he is a major character who, however, never actually appears, but about whom all the other characters speculate, I thought of the plays of Samuel Beckett – plays with titles such as Krapp’s Last Tape – and of course, of his masterpiece, Waiting For Godot. And the entire book radiates the wordy futility of Beckett’s novels.

Last word

‘Doesn’t the story bore you?’
‘No,’ said K., ‘It amuses me.’
Thereupon the Superintendent said: ‘I’m not telling it to amuse you.’
‘It only amuses me,’ said K., ‘because it gives me an insight into the ludicrous bungling which in certain circumstances may decide the life of a human being.’


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Dates are dates of composition.

 

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (1984)

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

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

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

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

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

Part One – Lightness and Weight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Two – Soul and Body

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Three – Words Misunderstood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Four – Soul and Body

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Five – Lightness and Weight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Six – The Grand March

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Seven – Karenin’s Smile

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

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

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

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

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

And much more in the same vein.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts

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

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

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

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

Questionable wisdom

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

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

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

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

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

Is this deep? Or does it just sound deep?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wisdom about men and woman

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


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

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

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

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

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

Life Is Elsewhere by Milan Kundera (1969)

And all the secrets we discovered were
Extraordinary and false
(from August for the people by W.H. Auden)

Kundera’s second novel, Life is Elsewhere, is – at least to begin with – a bit of a disappointment after the pyrotechnics of his first, The Joke. The former book was packed with sophisticated ironic effects by virtue of being told by half a dozen narrators who all had different perspectives on the central event. If nothing else, this made for a dynamic reading experience, as the reader was often ahead of various characters in understanding what was going on, or was enabled to assemble the ‘meanings’ of various events from multiple points of view – the cumulative effect being to produce a narrative not only of events, but of what those events ‘meant’, how the meaning of the events was continually changing and, by implication, a sustained meditation on the meaning of ‘meaning’.

Life is Elsewhere is much more traditional and boring in this respect, being told by one, omniscient narrator who has a rather smothering claustrophobic presence. And the story itself takes the time-honoured shape of the Bildungsroman, a straightforward, linear description of the ‘psychological and moral growth’ of a central character.

So there’s only one central character. And we are told his story in chronological order.

The character in question is a fictional poet, who Kundera names Jaromil. We are told how his parents met and married, how he was conceived, and his precocious way with words when still a toddler. This is all set in the early 1930s, not very distant from Kundera’s own birth year of 1929. Jaromil is the apple of his mother’s eye. She makes posters of his childish sayings and hangs them on the wall of the room he is given when still a boy. And he himself shows a precocious ability at drawing although, for some reason, he gives all his human figures dogs heads – a childish eccentricity.

Then, suddenly, it is 1938 and France and Britain hand over the Sudetenland to Germany without a fight. A year later German troops are in Prague, and then the Nazis start rounding up students, communists, socialists and shipping them off to concentration camps. We are told about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi Stellvertretender Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia, in June 1942 and the ferocious reprisals the Nazis carried out.

But Jaromil and his Mother are too young to be caught up in all this and go to a spa, where they meet an artist who gives a professional opinion on the young boy’s youthful drawings.

The novel is 300 pages long and feels long. But what struck me is its fairy tale quality, the feel of a fable. In the real world, work and the hassles of parenthood fill up time with a never-ending sequence of harassing demands. Whereas a fiction like this is able to alight on certain key moments – the moment of Jaromil’s conception, the moment his mother begged his father to inseminate her once again so she could have a baby girl, but the father withdrew and curtly announced he wanted no more children.

These are talismanic moments, selected like the ones in a fairy tale because they are key to the overall fable, while all else is rejected.

We selected this episode out of dozens in order to show that the pinnacle of happiness Jaromil had experienced up to this point in his life was having a girl’s head on his shoulder. (p.110)

It comes as no surprise, when Jaromil and Maman arrive at the spa that they find it in a beautiful rural setting, so much so that it appears to young Jaromil to be ‘a fairy-tale world’ (p.29), in fact, once I’d noticed it, I realised that a succession of milieu through which Jaromil moves are described as magical or fairy tale.

  • Through the magic of poetry (which is the magic of inexperience)… (p.111)
  • A poem is a magical land where rivers change their course. (p.194)
  • ‘The magical thing about it is, ‘continued Jaromil… (p.196)
  • Tears signified to him a magic elixir… (p.257)
  • Through the magic of poetry all things become the truth… (p.271)
  • It seemed to him that the magic moment was returning, the magic evening when he had sat in her room and they had had eyes only for each other… (p.293)

His nursery. His infant school playground. The spa. The artist’s studio. All these settings are just so, just exactly the ones required to tell a story like this, of the psychological and spiritual evolution of a sensitive soul. Moments are selected like jewels, spangling against the grey cloth of the everyday, and presented for the reader’s delectation, along with authorial commentary.

Maman ends up having an affair with the artist – that’s to say he successfully seduces her, and then submits her to an interesting, amusing and erotic series of transformations. He doesn’t just paint or draw her, he paints on her, stripping her and decorating her body with modernist lines, and then taking photographs of her. Then making passionate love to her. Pages are taken up with Maman’s bewildered reflections on these events.

Meanwhile, Jaromil hits an early puberty and begins to fantasise about the body of the family’s maid, Magda. There is an extended, mildly comical account of one night at home, when his parents have gone out, and he knows Magda is taking her evening bath, and Kundera describes the more and more contorted pretexts Jaromil tries to contrive to enable him to walk breezily into the bathroom, see the maid’s naked body, and walk out again. But he fails to carry them through. He is too shy.

Xavier

Part two of the book, commencing on page 65, is titled Xavier and is deeply confusing. A young man bursts through a woman’s window and reassures her that he means no harm, but at that moment her husband lumbers upstairs towards the bedroom, so the young man hides under the bed, the big husband carries the woman to the bed, the young man sneezes, the big husband hears and goes to the wardrobe to see if a man is hiding there, the young man bursts out from under the bed and pushes the husband into the wardrobe and locks it, and grabs the young woman and takes her on an adventure, he wakes up in another room and…

And so, slowly and confusedly, we realise the entire section is made up of the never-ending adventure of this character, Xavier, who goes from one half-fulfilled dream to another, repeating the same general contours of adventure and excitement and rescuing young damsels against an ever-changing backdrop.

It’s only well after the section has concluded, back in a section about Jaromil, that we discover the by-now teenage poet invented a character named Xavier and wrote down his poetic adventures. So what we have just read is a version of Jaromil’s journal. OK. It was bewildering and left-field when it first appeared…

Other lyric poets

When we return to Jaromil’s story it is to discover that his father is arrested and executed by the Nazis just before the end of the war. But the real innovation in this section, something which dogs the rest of the story is the appearance alongside Jaromil, of a shopping list of the greatest lyric poets from the entire European tradition.

The narrator makes explicit comparisons between Jaromil’s background, upbringing, family situation, early life experiences and shows how closely they mirror those of the great lyric poets such as the Czechs Frantisak Halas and Jiri Wolker, the Germans Rilke and Hölderlin, the Russians Esenin, Mayakovsky, Blok and Pushkin, the Englishman Shelley, the Frenchmen Baudelaire and de Nerval, but most of all  the French boy wonder poet, Rimbaud, and the short and easily offended Russian poet, Lermontov.

(It is Rimbaud who gives the book its title, a quote from one of the prose poems he wrote in a storm of creativity when he was just 17: La vrai vie est absente – the real life or just ‘real life’ is absent. I wonder why Kundera shortened this to ‘life’ is absent.)

These other lyric poets start out as comparators for Jaromil, but quite soon they start to take over the text. I mean that, after many sections describing this or that about Jaromil, a new section will set off describing ‘him’ and you have to have your wits about you to realise it’s now describing an event in the life of Rimbaud or Lermontov. More and more their names are scattered across the text as Kundera uses the events in  Jaromil’s fictional life to bring out the resemblances between the lyric poets – Baudelaire, aged 40 and still scared of his mother, de Nerval mesmerised by the mother who died when he was a boy, and so on…

Jaromil, we come to realise, is not-that-subtly being presented as a type, as a category of European thought. The Lyric Poet. And the essence of the Lyric Poet (in Kundera’s view) is that he is an immature mummy’s boy.

  • The lyric poet spends a lifetime searching for signs of manhood in his face. (p.97)
  • Tenderness is the fear of maturity. (p.112)

Jaromil wants to be a man, a real man. He wants to possess a woman, many women. He wants to write great poetry, he wants to be accepted by the other poets.

In the last third of the book Jaromil is a young man and is introduced to writers and poets through the artist, the one he had the lucky meeting with at the spa when he was a boy, the one he went to for art lessons, the one who seduced, stripped, painted and photographed his mother (in what are, arguably, the book’s most memorable scenes).

The poets meet upstairs in a pub, argue and get drunk a lot. The format of their arguments is uncannily like the format of the rhetorical questions the narrator asks all through the text: is Surrealism a revolutionary movement? Can poetry help build the new socialist society? And so on.

On the periphery of the poets he meets a sweet and soulful young woman. But she is as innocent and virginal as Jaromil and many pages are spent describing their painful and embarrassing fumbles. These are counterpointed with his now-adult encounters with the artist, and his bohemian coterie, who Jaromil shocks with the vehemence of his revolutionary nihilism, and with the arguments of the established, published poets, who grumble on during the era of the 1948 Communist coup and beyond, endlessly nagging at what kind of poetry is revolutionary, whether it’s kitsch rhymes for the masses, or the hyper-modern Russian avant-garde style poetry which rejects all the old bourgeois forms.


Kundera the narrator

A highly intrusive narrator

Kundera’s narrator doesn’t just intrude a bit on the story: he selects, presents and displays events for our delectation. He whips the text up out of nothing. He is an impresario of the text.

The most obvious symptom of this is his use of rhetorical questions to set up each new section or scene, a tactic which is present from the very first sentence of the book.

Exactly when and where was the poet conceived? (First sentence, page one)

and litters the text thereafter:

  • And what about her son’s soul?
  • But why did Jaromil continue to be an only child? (p.24)
  • And how did Jaromil fare with his unique inner world? (p.33)
  • Was she thus telling him the real truth at last? (p.54)
  • For Jaromil it [the concept of death] was infinitely far away; it was abstract; it was not reality, but a dream. What was he seeking in that dream? (p.104)
  • What was the source of her sorrows? Who knows… (p.143)
  • If Jaromil had become a zealous functionary, whose work affected the fate of adults, can we still maintain that he was on the run? (p.163)

All these rhetorical questions are a bit reminiscent of a certain type of academic presentation, of a lecture, reminding us that Kundera was indeed a professor of literature for many years (1952-75). They cut to the chase. They eliminate the need for hundreds of sentences setting up a location and a time of day, and a place wherein a great spiritual turning point is going to happen. No, Kundera can simply ask, ‘And how did Jaromil fare with his unique inner world?’ and then get on with answering his own question.

Not having to paint in any kind of background or set any scenes liberates Kundera to get right to the psychological point he wants to make about his characters. It makes the text very cost-effective.

The royal ‘we’

Related to this is the way Kundera he freely uses the royal ‘we’, the authorial ‘we’, to establish his own narratorial omniscience, and to forge a knowing acquaintance with the reader, the ‘we’ coercing us to acknowledge shared assumptions and experiences. The rhetorical questions are often answered by the authorial ‘we’. Why was Jaromil unpopular at school?

  • We are almost embarrassed to say: it was not wealth, it was mother love (p.20)
  • We don’t know why she laughed. [the young woman Jaromil was feebly trying to make love to] (p.133)
  • If we were to ask Jaromil how old the two characters were [in a long poem he’s just written] he’d stammer in embarrassment… (p.138)

And

  • Other [pictures] of certain scenes which we had better pass over. (p.36)
  • We don’t wish to imply that Jaromil was not interested in bodily beauty. (p.110)

Which is related to the use of the phrase ‘let us’, in the sense of ‘let us explore this moment  / word / event a little further’, which also brings out a strong scholarly, academic tone of the narrator.

  • He was one of the elect. Let us examine this word a little closer. (p.99)
  • Ah, let us mercifully skip over some fifteen or twenty minutes of Jaromil’s torment. [he is trying to undress a young woman who is refusing to help] (p.132)
  • Let’s keep Jaromil’s picture before us a while longer. (p.219)
  • Let us also recall the historical context… (p.230)
  • Let us leave our novel for a little while, let us carry our observatory to the end of Jaromil’s life… (p.271)

This ‘we’ is not embarrassed about picking up the narrative, fiddling with it, and plonking it back down right where he wants it.

  • At the end of the last section we left Jaromil in the redhead’s bed. (p.186)
  • Do you hear the distant sound of Death, impatiently stamping its feet? Let it wait, we are still here in the flat, in another novel, in another story… (p.286)

Analysis and italics

Kundera is the kind of author – or thinker about his stories and characters – who is continually analysing their every thought and gesture and turn of mind and habits. One tell-tale sign of this is his use of italics. He is keen not just to explain what they’re thinking or doing, but to delve ever deeper, to really dig down into their psychological sub-strata. In doing so he is keen to clarify the ideas and motivations of the characters he has invented and displayed for our entertainment. And to do this he often finds himself writing like an expository writer, rather like the new theory French writers of the 1960s, who felt compelled to show where they’d revealed a new depth of analysis, by writing it in italics.


The plot part two – History intrudes

I enjoyed the second half of the book more because it moves away from the cloyingly claustrophobic relationship between mother and son which dominates the first half, and focuses increasingly on politics and the tragic political, social and personal consequences of the Communist takeover of power.

Kundera has by now established that all the great mummy’s boy lyric poets were enraptured by the idea of Death and ran off to be soldiers with no idea of the reality – from Shelley travelling to Dublin with pockets stuffed with incendiary pamphlets designed to spark an insurrection (p.175), to Lermontov, a sickly misfit who insisted on joining the Russian army and died in a pointless duel, from Rimbaud who fantasised about manning the barricades during the Paris Commune of 1870 (but was too young) and who instead terminated his precocious poetic career by going off to become a gun-runner in Africa, to Byron who fantasised about joining the great Pan-Hellenic Fight For Freedom, but ended up dying of a mosquito bite in Missolonghi. They were sickly and died pathetically young, like John Keats coughing his lungs up in Rome.

All mother’s boys, all struggling to escape the apron strings, and above all, to prove themselves real men. Kundera throws in withering comparisons with the students of his day – 1948 in Prague – and at the time he was writing the novel – 1968 in Paris – who wrote lyrical slogans all over the walls, calling for a new world, revolution and overthrow.

Slowly we realise what form this wish – the primal wish of the lyric poet to hurl himself into a Cause, to run towards battle and engage with the real world and wrestle with death and stop being a mummy’s boy and become a Real Man – will take for Jaromil.

In the context of the Communist takeover of power in Czechoslovakia, it means he wilfully becomes hard-hearted, he joins the young zealots, he publicly derides the art and poetry of his mentor, the old artist. He derides his own earlier poetry. He quotes the Soviet poet Mayakvsky, who said he stamped on the throat of his own, earlier, bourgeois poetry. Jaromil writes Stalinist poems for workers.

And now Kundera skillfully uses the interplay he’s created between his fictional poet and the real-life poets and the events of 20 years later – 1968 – to begin to scathingly criticise the unthinking, stone-faced, hard-hearted zealotry of the young. For:

Revolutions are lyrical and in need of lyricism. (p.193)

Counter-intuitively, and to the reader’s great surprise, it turns out that the entire book is going to be a condemnation of lyric poetry and of the role it plays in revolutions; is devoted to showing the linkage between the immature absolutism at the heart of revolutions and of youthful lyricism. The way both are totalising, both want to overthrow the complex messy real world, and create a new one of compulsory beauty and harmony and order.

Kundera dissects the psychology behind the lyric impulse: Unable to confront the complexity of adult life, the lyric poets create an alternative world, beautiful and perfect and utterly unreal.

This is the basic situation of immaturity. The lyrical approach is one way of dealing with this situation: the person banished from the safe enclosure of childhood longs to go out into the world, but because he is afraid of it he constructs an artificial, substitute world of verse… He becomes the centre of a small universe in which nothing is alien, in which he feels as much at home as an infant inside its mother… (p.219)

The rousing slogans Jaromil finds himself called upon to create for revolutionary youths marching in the streets of Prague in 1948, are identical to the ones the zealous French students of 1968 will paint all over the walls of the Sorbonne (p.172) calling for the complete overthrow of the existing order and the installation of something which is only a dream and a fantasy, slogans like:

  • Beneath the pavement, the beach!
  • Be realistic – demand the impossible!

In everything I’ve read about the Paris évènements (simply the French word for ‘events’) of 1968, in every documentary, every film, and every art exhibition I’ve seen which references them — the presenters, producers and curators are one hundred per cent behind the students and nostalgic that they themselves weren’t there during this heady lyrical revolutionary time!

It is a bracing surprise and antidote to come across a noted and world famous liberal’ author – who is wholeheartedly against the students and their high-minded slogans, and has gone to such trouble to create such an extended and scathing indictment of the youthful, revolutionary, lyric impulse as an entity.

In amidst the confusion of the 1948 coup and its aftermath, Jaromil has dumped the frigid girlfriend, but then wasted a huge amount of time fixating on a pretty blonde shop assistant from a department store. He tails her everywhere like a useless puppy, and, back in his bedroom, masturbates continually as he imagines finally losing his virginity to her. One evening he is waiting at the department store when her not-so-pretty red-headed friend exits and, before he can bolt, she walks right up to him. She claims to know that he has a crush on her. She’s noticed him looking at her in the shop. She’s noticed him hanging round the shop every evening. On one notable occasion Jaromil had followed the blonde home to her apartment and hung around in the street hoping to catch a glimpse of her – only to see the red-head at the window. And she saw him!

Of course she has utterly misinterpreted the situation when she thinks Jaromil carries a torch for her, but Jaromil is too terrified to put her right.

They walk and before he knows it are kissing, she invites him up to her place and he is about to go through the usual existential agonies when she simply puts her hands between his legs and touches his penis. Which is rock hard. The rest follows like clockwork. Afterwards, as they lie in bed, she asks how many women he’s had and our lyric poet smirks and remains mysteriously silent. The reader laughs because we know the answer is ‘None’ and that he has just lost his virginity.

But, as is always the way with Kundera characters, with Kundera men, as soon as Jaromil has acquired a basic fluency at sex (and above all mastered the technique of undressing a woman, something which has caused him agonies of embarrassment throughout his adolescence) he becomes dissatisfied with the redhead. She natters on all the time. Especially about her family.

The janitor’s son

At school Jaromil had been picked on as a weakling and had formed only one friendship, with the janitor’s son. Now, years later, the janitor has risen to become a senior policeman. He makes a friendly call on Jaromil’s mum, leaves an invitation. So Jaromil goes round to the big building of National Security, signs in his name, and is met by the janitor’s son. (I don’t think we ever learn his name. He is always referred to simply as the janitor’s son, presumably to keep ever-present in our minds the way he, too, is taking revenge for having been an outsider and bullied at school.)

They settle into his office and the man swanks about his heavy responsibilities and the challenge the police face in these difficult times, rounding up enemies of the revolution.

Kundera emphasises that Jaromil, living in a lifelong bubble of mummy’s love, is blissfully unaware that tens of thousands of his fellow Czechs have been arrested, many of them tortured, some of them executed, all on trumped-up charges. All Jaromil sees is the janitor’s son’s manliness. He is a real man. He has manly responsibilities. He has a gun strapped to his belt. This is the real life Jaromil’s been seeking all his years. The Real Life that Shelley and Rimbaud and Lermontov were ever-seeking. A life of Action and Responsibility.

And thrown into the mix, is the long long long, very long list of humiliations public and private which Jaromil has lived through and the book has described, from being bullied at school, to not knowing how to take a girl’s bra off, from being ridiculed in assemblies of mature poets and authors, to being mocked by editors and publishers for being one more among thousands of aspiring poets, and – in a tragi-comic scene towards the end of the novel – being forced to turn down the offer of sleeping with a beautiful woman film-maker because he is crushingly conscious that he is wearing the big grey flannel pants which his mother still lays out for him every morning, as if he were still a schoolboy!

The zealot, Kundera suggests, is overflowing with a thirst for revenge. But not the wide-minded, imaginative revenge which helps to usher in a New World. Just revenge. Just punishment. Just the ability to threaten, intimidate, bully, arrest and, if necessary, torture all those who mocked and persecuted him when he was a boy.

The revolution hands over the running of society to small-minded bullies.

The betrayal

Jaromil is invited to an evening of poetry at a police academy in the countryside arranged by his friend the janitor’s son. Improbably, he is a fan of Jaromil’s Stalinist poetry. A dozen poets attend and Jaromil finds himself drawn into the intense question and answer session which follows the recitals. At the front of the audience is a stunningly gorgeous woman who keeps looking at him. The last stretch of the novel is characterised by Jaromil’s hapless attempts to sleep with her. On the occasion referred to above she invites him up to her apartment but at the last minute he is embarrassed at the thought of his big grey pants. Then he is invited to take part in a film, where he is taken to some country location and asked to recite his poems amid bucolic scenery. But Jaromil is so terrified of her and of the whole situation that he forgets the words to his own poems and, while the whole crew mocks him, is eventually ordered just to stand dumbly opening and closing his mouth while the director assures him they’ll dub the poems on later. Humiliation.

It is in this mood of maximum frustration and humiliation that the tragedy occurs. The redhead is late for their next meeting and Jaromil flies into a fury. She at first says she had to stay late to comfort a colleague who’s having trouble in love. Jaromil is even more angry that some shopgirl comes before his feelings, so the redhead quickly retraces her steps and says she is in fact late because she was saying a final goodbye to her brother (the one she once shared a room with, to Jaromil’s intense immature jealousy, and who she’s always wittering about).

Now she tells him that her brother is planning to flee the country illegally the next day. This triggers a tremendous argument in which Jaromil says how can she be such a traitor – she should have told him the truth straightaway – she doesn’t really love him if she’s prepared to lie to him. He reduces the woman to tears, which (obnoxiously) he finds magical and soothing.

By this stage, I think we are safe in concluding that Jaromil is a thorough-going sneak and bastard.

Next day he dresses smartly and goes to see his friend the janitor’s son at the building of National Security, looking across the table at him ‘as one tough-minded adult faces another; equal to equal; man to man.’ And he calmly betrays his girlfriend and her brother to the security police. The janitor’s son calls in other officials. They take down the girlfriend and her brother’s names and details. Jaromil feels like he is in the real world now, this is Real Life. Jaromil leaves the building feeling Big and Full of Destiny.

He goes home and tries to write a poem but then gets restless and takes a tram to the redhead’s apartment and is surprised to see two men waiting outside it. He hides. When she turns up around 6pm, from work, the two men approach her, they talk for a moment, then they take her to a waiting car and drive off. He goes home troubled. Next morning he goes to see the janitor’s son who thanks him profusely for his prompt and patriotic action, and sends him off with a pat on the back. For the last few pages of this section Kundera shows us the inner workings as the despicable Jaromil decides that the sacrifice of one skinny freckled red-haired girl is well worth it in order to create a better future, a perfect future, in which politics and love will be identical and everyone will do the right thing.

The red-headed girl

The penultimate section up sticks and shifts perspective to years later, telling what happened next.

The redheaded girl was locked up in prison for three years. In this short epilogue, upon release from prison she goes to the train station to take a train to her home town but then hesitates… and decides instead to go to the apartment of… her older lover. He is forty. They met when she was seventeen, erotically talented and eager to please an older man. Not only herself, but she organised some straight and some lesbian orgies for his pleasure. Then she met and fell in love with a young poet, obviously Jaromil, though he goes unnamed.

The older man was happy; he didn’t want any of his mistresses becoming too dependent on him. He guided her through their courtship, gave her advice, and kept the poems Jaromil wrote her, though he despised them.

Then one evening she came to tell him she was leaving him, that she really loved the young poet and was going to dedicate her life to his. She was late leaving and late arriving for her date with the poet. He was cross. She made up an excuse about a colleague at work and when that didn’t wash, invented a story about her older brother preparing to flee the country. She had no inkling that the poet would report her and her brother to the police, or that she’d be arrested, or sentenced to prison.

Now the older man tells her that the poet died soon afterwards. He just got ill and died, nothing dramatic or lyrical. His mother moved away. Nobody remembers him anymore.

The redhead turns away: even her plans to cold shoulder and ignore the poet have come to nothing. It was all a meaningless nightmare. For nothing.

And suddenly the older man realises why she hesitated at the train station about whether to go straight home, and then… and decided to come and see him first. Her brother, totally innocent, was also arrested. She thinks he is still in prison somewhere. So that when she finally faces her family, how will they believe that it was not her who betrayed him and destroyed their family, but some unknown young man who isn’t even alive any more?

Overcome with pity, the man stretches out her hand to touch her cheek… and she bursts into tears.

For me, these last fifteen or so pages were better than all the rest of the novel put together. Jaromil is a vile creature and creates a slow-building sense of contempt and anger. And somehow, intertwined with this, is all the tricksiness of Kundera’s narratorial devices and conceits, the transposition of eras and the merging of Jaromil’s story with episodes from all the other lyric poets of the European tradition. Very clever.

Whereas this short section feels like a straightforward account of a terrible event. Most of Kundera’s stories are cerebral, detached, witty and paradoxical. They prompt admiration. But this tragic epilogue, like the coalmining scenes in The Joke, convey you to a genuine time and place in history where life was terrible, and so have real emotional depth.

The final end

In the short final passage we learn how Jaromil died. He was not yet 20. He is invited to a party at the film director’s. It is full of literati and artists. One of them, a big bluff fellow, confronts Jaromil and asks him if he knows what’s happened to the old artist, the one we saw spot Jaromil’s talent at the spa and then paint his mother? He was declared a a bourgeois enemy of the people, deprived of his studio and paints, and forced to work on a building site. Unlike Jaromil, who has become a Stalinist lickspittle. Jaromil takes a feeble mummy’s boy swipe at the big man, who grabs his arm, turns him round, picks him up by the collar and seat of his pants, and throws him out into the freezing cold (it is a Christmas party).

Absolutely humiliated, and without his coat or jacket, Jaromil can’t leave and travel across town, but he is too frightened to go back into the party, not for hours, not until the last guest has left. By that stage he is shivering uncontrollably. He tiptoes in, collects his jacket and coat and staggers home where he takes to his bed, hallucinates a bit, looked after and tended, as always, by his loyal dutiful Maman. And dies.

Concluding thought

What actually remains of that distant time? Today, people regard those days as an era of political trials, persecutions, forbidden books, and legalised murder. But we who remember must bear witness: it was not only an epoch of terror, but also an epoch of lyricism, ruled hand in hand by the hangman and the poet. (p.270)

This is a complicated thesis, and the book presents a complex case: it seems to be arguing that youth, and the vigour and idealism of youth, and its partner – wonderful, boundless, inspiring passionate lyrical poetry – are all intimately tied in with the crushing annihilating force of the police state which is always unleashed by revolutions: in France, in Russia, in Iran, in the Arab Springs – the intoxicating, life-affirming springtime of peoples is always followed by mass imprisonment and the zealous repression of anything and anyone who doesn’t conform to the revolutionaries’ impossibly other-worldly and lyrical ideas.

Thus this long densely argued book conveys a bleak lesson, but one which Kundera himself lived through, so his testimony carries weight.

Enough weight to overthrow the prejudices and conventions most of us have accepted most of our lives, that lyric poetry is inspiring and uplifting?

Maybe not to overthrow it… but certainly to trouble it.


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

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