The Journey To The East by Hermann Hesse (1932)

A slender novella, 88 pages in the Picador paperback version, The Journey To The East is a first-person narrative told by a former member of the secretive ‘League’ of poets, writers and seekers who, in their different ways, all undertook journeys to the East in ‘the troubled, confused, yet so fruitful period following the Great War’ (p.5).

What sets it apart, at least to begin with, is that it is nothing like a sensible factual account of a straightforward ‘journey’ such as you might read by traditional travel writers like Robert Byron or Peter Fleming.

Instead it is more like a fairy story, in which the ‘travellers’ encounter legendary figures and mythical beasts, pass through fictional lands from fables and fairy tales, and travel not only in space, but in time – back into the past, penetrating ‘into the heroic and the magical’ (p.7).

One day, when I was still quite a new member, someone suddenly mentioned that the giant Agramant was a guest in our leaders’ tent, and was trying to persuade them to make their way across Africa in order to liberate some League members from Moorish captivity. Another time we saw the Goblin, the pitch-maker, the comforter, and we presumed that we should make our way towards the Blue Pot.

The giant Agramant, the Goblin. It is fairy land.

Despite these imaginative frills, though, the League feels like a Christian monastic order – casual phrases continually remind the reader that Hesse had an intensely pious Christian upbringing, against which he rebelled but whose stern moral seriousness he kept for the rest of his life.

Thus newcomers to the League are ‘novitiates’, must take an ‘oath’ to renounce the world and its temptations, must wear a ring proclaiming their membership of the order. The journey is referred to as a ‘pilgrimage’ and the travellers as ‘pilgrims’. The leader of the narrator’s group talks freely about ‘grace’ and ‘repentance’, both utterly Christian concepts.

But at the same time it is a phantasmagoria of all the cultural greats through the ages:

Our League was in no way an off-shoot of the post-war years, but that it had extended throughout the whole of world history, sometimes, to be sure, under the surface, but in an unbroken line, that even certain phases of the World War were nothing else but stages in the history of our League; further, that Zoroaster, Lao Tse, Plato, Xenophon, Pythagoras, Albertus Magnus, Don Quixote, Tristram Shandy, Novalis and Baudelaire were co-founders and brothers of our League.

This is a kind of greatest hits of world culture. And the way the ‘pilgrims’ travel is both a physical path or itinerary, very much in the style of medieval pilgrims –

And as we moved on, so had once pilgrims, emperors and crusaders moved on to liberate the Saviour’s grave, or to study Arabian magic; Spanish knights had traveled this way, as well as German scholars, Irish monks and French poets.

But also an imaginative one, as they travel through realms of magic and myth, experiencing not only all times, but the real and the imaginary on the same terms.

The core of the experience, the thing which, looking back, the narrator realises brought him the greatest happiness, was:

The freedom to experience everything imaginable simultaneously, to exchange outward and inward easily, to move Time and Space about like scenes in a theatre.

When you reflect on this, it sounds increasingly like the adventures of someone in their library – with the leisure time to roam freely over time and space, and between factual and imaginative literature.

The plot

The first-person narrator is ‘a violinist and story-teller’ who joined the League with the aim of travelling to the East to meet the princess Fatima and, if possible, to win her love (we learn that all League members have quirky or idiosyncratic goals, one wants to see the coffin of Mohammed, another to learn the Tao).

But the oddest thing about the story is that… they don’t travel to the East. About a third of the way through the text, the narrator tells us that at an early point of the journey, while they were still in Europe, at a place called Morbio Inferiore, a municipality in Switzerland, one of his team’s most loyal servants, Leo, goes missing, so the entire squad sets out to find him, searching up hill and dale.

Not only do they never find him, but his group begins to squabble amongst itself, loses focus. Somehow the journey was abandoned and he never made it to the East. Now, we learn, the narrator is struggling to set it all down in a written account, in a bid to revive the heady joy of those young days.

Now the narrative cuts to ‘the present’, some ten years after the journey. The narrator tells us it is a long time since he was active in the League, he doesn’t know whether it exists any more, he’s not sure it ever existed and these things ever happened to him.

And now the narrator tells us that the episode of missing Leo has given him writer’s block, he doesn’t know how to tell the episode correctly, and can’t manage to get the story past it.

And in an abrupt and surprising switch, the narrative stops being about any journey to the East whatsoever.

Now, surprisingly, the scene cuts back to the narrator’s home town and becomes spectacularly more realistic and mundane. To address his problem of writer’s block, the narrator goes to meet a friend of his who’s a newspaper editor, named Lukas, and who wrote a successful book of war memoirs.

Discussion of the war memoirs gives rise to a consideration of how difficult it is to describe any human experience, at how you need to create eras or characters or plots to even begin to get it down.

Even further than this, how some experiences are so intense or evanescent, that you can’t even be sure you had them. In which case, how do you describe them? Lukas replies that he wrote his book about the war because he simply had to, whether it was any good or not was secondary, the writing itself was vital therapy, which helped him control ‘the nothingness, chaos and suicide’ which would otherwise have overwhelmed him (p.46)

So. This is less a book about a journey anywhere, and a lot more a book about the difficulty of writing a book. Ah.

When the narrator tells Lukas how, in writing his account of the journey to the East, he’s got blocked on this episode of the missing servant, Leo, Lukas promptly looks Leo up in the telephone directory and finds there is a Andreas Leo living at 69a Seilergraben. Maybe it’s the same guy, he says – as if we’re in a 1930s detective novel and not the imaginative phantasmagoria we started out in. ‘Go and see him,’ the editor suggests.

So the narrator does, and finds 69a Seilergraben to be an apartment in an anonymous building in a quiet street. The narrator knocks on the door, questions the neighbours, hangs around, and goes back on successive days. Finally he sees this Leo exit his apartment block and walk quietly to the park where he sits on a bench and eats dried fruit from a tin.

This is not at all the mystical imaginative phantasmagoria I was promised on the back of the book, is it? This is staggeringly mundane.

The narrator approaches Leo, and tries to remind him of their time back in the League and on the great journey East which, the text confirms, happened some 10 years earlier. But Leo is calmly dismissive and walks off, leaving the narrator standing alone in the park as dusk falls, in the rain.

Now he is rejected like this, we learn the narrator is prone to depression, in fact to despair and thoughts of suicide.

I had experienced similar hours in the past. During such periods of despair it seemed to me as if I, a lost pilgrim, had reached the extreme edge of the world, and there was nothing left for me to do but to satisfy my last desire: to let myself fall from the edge of the world into the void — to death. In the course of time this despair returned many times; the compelling suicidal impulse…

In other words, he shows the same bouncing from one to extreme to the other that characterised the Steppenwolf and his moods of suicidal despair. And very like the author himself, a glance at whose biography reveals attempts at suicide, prolonged psychotherapy, and a spell in a mental sanatorium.

The narrator gets home and sits down, still damp from the rain and writes a long letter to Leo, then falls asleep. When he wakes up Leo, is sitting in his living room. Leo reveals he is still a member of the League and says he will take the narrator to see the current President. Leo leads him through the streets of the quiet town by a circuitous route, stopping at various inconsequential locations including a church, to an anonymous building, which is large and labyrinthine on the inside (reminding me of the labyrinthine buildings Franz Kafka’s protagonists stumble through).

The narrator is led into an enormous room full of shelves lined with books which turn out to be the archive the League. Leo suddenly starts singing and, as in movie special effects, the archive recedes into the distance and in the foreground appears a large judgement chamber.

A jury assembles and a ‘Speaker’, who acts like a judge. It has turned into a sort of court-room, which makes the comparison with Kafka feel overwhelming – a confused little man dragged to judgement before a huge, imposing court which he doesn’t understand. The essence of the Kafkaesque.

For the first time the narrator is named as ‘H.H.’. H.H.? So a barely veiled reference to the author himself which, yet again, could barely be more like the Kafka who named his two most famous protagonists K. and Joseph K. with his own initial.

The ‘Speaker’ refers to H.H. as ‘the self-accused’ and asks him:

‘Is your name H.H.? Did you join in the march through Upper Swabia, and in the festival at Bremgarten? Did you desert your colours shortly after Morbio Inferiore? Did you confess that you wanted to write a story of the Journey to the East? Did you consider yourself hampered by your vow of silence about the League’s secrets?’
I answered question after question with ‘Yes’…

So I was expecting H.H. to get hammered, but, surprisingly, he is now given permission to go right ahead and write a full account of the League and all its laws.

He is handed a copy of the manuscript of the Journey he had been working on and which had got bogged down at that moment when Leo left the group. But now, when he rereads it, he feels it is bodged, clumsy, inaccurate and – further – as he tries to amend it, he watches the letters change shape, become patterns and pictures, illegible, the entire manuscript changes form in front of his eyes.

Rather improbably, the Speaker gives him free run of the immense archive to research his book, which leads to a passage where H.H. rummages through the archives to find records about his friends and then himself, but finds the records written in strange languages and arcane scripts. Slowly he realises there isn’t enough time in the world to go through this immense and probably infinite library.

From all sides the unending spaciousness of the archive chamber confronted me eerily. A new thought, a new pain shot threw me like a flash of lightning. I, in my simplicity, wanted to write the story of the League, I, who could not decipher or understand one-thousandth part of those millions of scripts, books, pictures and references in the archives! Humbled, unspeakably foolish, unspeakably ridiculous, not understanding myself, feeling extremely small, I saw myself standing in the midst of this thing with which I had been allowed to play a little in order to make me realize what the League was and what I was myself.

the court magically re-assembles, with the Speaker presiding. Now we learn that this little episode was a further step in H.H.’s trial, to show him how vain and presumptuous his aim of writing a history of the league was. The Speaker asks if he is ready for the verdict on him, and whether he wants it delivered by the Speaker or the President himself.

In a surreal development, the grand figure who emerges from the bloom of the archive hall turns out to be none other than… Leo! The Leo he had followed into the party, who is himself the Leo who was his group’s servant on the Journey and now he comes to think about it, was the same President who initiated him into the League and gave him his ring.

H.H. is covered in shame and confusion. To think that he could write a history of the League. To think that he had imagined the League had ended or had never existed. Now Leo recounts H.H.s sins against the League. Forgetting about its existence. Losing his League ring. Even their long walk through the town had been a test because H.H. should have gone into the church and worshipped, as is fitting, instead of standing outside locked in his impatient egotism. It is his egotism which made him deny the League and sink into a world plagued with depression and despair.

Again, as in so many of Hesse’s books, which you imagine will be about Eastern philosophy, the most eloquent passages are about misery and despair. Leo tells the jury how H.H.s loss of faith in the League led him down into the pit, and delivers some puzzling lines:

‘The defendant did not know until this hour, or could not really believe, that his apostasy and aberration were a test. For a long time he did not give in. He endured it for many years, knowing nothing about the League, remaining alone, and seeing everything in which he believed in ruins. Finally, he could no longer hide and contain himself. His suffering became too great, and you know that as soon as suffering becomes acute enough, one goes forward. Brother H. was led to despair in his test, and despair is the result of each earnest attempt to understand and vindicate human life. Despair is the result of each earnest attempt to go through life with virtue, justice and understanding and to fulfill their requirements. Children live on one side of despair, the awakened on the other side. Defendant H. is no longer a child and is not yet fully awakened. He is still in the midst of despair.’

So: Despair is what you enter when you are no longer a child, when you become a questing adult, and before you are initiated or awakened.

Now President Leo initiates H.H. for a second time, giving him a replacement ring and welcoming him back into the ranks of the League.

This really is nothing at all about any literal Journey To The East, is it? It is about adventures of the spirit, or maybe psychological experiences, in a quiet Swiss town.

Now the President leads H.H. to the final test. He is shown the League archives about himself. Specifically, he is shown several other accounts written by members of his group or party on his Journey of ten years ago. Here he is horrified to read that it is he, H.H. that the other members of the group blamed for Leo’s disappearance, for accusing Leo of having taken key documents with him, it was he, H.H. who was blamed by the rest of the group for spreading dissension.

He learns something about trying to write ‘the truth’ (something which is, to be blunt, fairly obvious), which is that everyone has a different account of what happened, and no ‘truth’ can ever be arrived at.

If the memory of this historian was so very confused and inaccurate, although he apparently made the report in all good faith and with the conviction of its complete veracity – what was the value of my own notes? If ten other accounts by other authors were found about Morbio, Leo and myself, they would presumably all contradict and censure each other.

No, our historical efforts were of no use; there was no point in continuing with them and reading them; one could quietly let them be covered with dust in this section of the archives. ..

How awry, altered and distorted everything and everyone was in these mirrors, how mockingly and unattainably did the face of truth hide itself behind all these reports, counter-reports and legends! What was still truth? What was still credible ?

The final few pages end on an enigmatic moment and symbol. Tucked away in the shelf where his records are stored, he finds a grotesque little statuette, like a pagan idol. Only slowly does he realise it is two-sided, shows two human figures joined at the back. And then slowly makes out that one is a depiction of himself, with blurred features, weak and dying. And as he lights another candle he sees something stirring in the heart of the glass statuette, and realises that some kind of life force is moving from his half of the statuette over into Leo’s

And in the last few sentences of the book he remembers a conversation he had with the servant Leo on the Journey, ten years earlier, amid a wonderful festival early in the journey, where Leo had explained that a pet or writer drains himself in order to give eternal life to his work, just as a mother suckles a baby and gives the babe life, at her own expense. So the poet.

And on this slightly ominous, pregnant image the book ends. The narrator feels very sleepy. He turns to find somewhere to sleep. Maybe enacting exactly the gesture whereby the poet, writer or maker, gives all their spirit and life force to their creation and then expires.

Thoughts

Well, it turns out not to be a literal Journey To The East in the slightest. Anyone expecting a straightforward narrative of a pilgrimage to India will be disappointed and puzzled.

However, anyone familiar with Hesse will be less surprised by its combination of the strangely mundane and the wildly phantasmagorical. This is the same combination as in Steppenwolf, which evolved from being a dull account of a middle-aged boarder in a provincial boarding house into the giddy surrealism of the Magic Theatre.

And Steppenwolf also covered a similar range of emotional or psychological states – to be more precise, it displayed a similar, almost schizophrenic, tendency to jump between extremes of Despair and the giddy heights of ecstatic imaginative delirium.

I had this impression of Hesse as being a lofty propounder of high-minded Eastern philosophy. I wasn’t prepared to encounter so many characters who were so full of despair, self-loathing and so many discussions of suicide.

And I’m still reeling from the way the book is not about a Journey To The East at all; it’s much more about the psychological adventures or journey of a middle-aged man living in a Swiss town. All the key events happen in the narrator’s mind. It is a psychological odyssey.

Building a universe

It’s a small detail, but it’s interesting that Hesse includes among fellow members of the League, not only some of his real-life friends, but characters from his other books.

Thus the character ‘Goldmund’, one of the two leads in Narziss and Goldmund, crops up in his initial memories of the Journey, as does the painter Klingsor, who is the fictional lead of Hesse’s earlier novel Klingsor’s Last Summer.

And when I started reading Hesse’s final novel, The Glass Bead Game, early in the introduction the narrator mentions the League of Journeyers To The East as forerunners of the game. Hesse was quite obviously creating a kind of larger imaginative canon, an imaginarium, in which characters not only from history, not only actual writers and composers, along with mythical and legendary figures, but figures from his own earlier fictions, could meet and mingle on equal terms.


Images of war in The Journey To The East

I am always interested in the social history revealed by older texts. It is striking that Hesse doesn’t just launch straight into his fairy-tale journey, but feels the need to define the times, the era, the period against which his pilgrim is reacting, and that he defines these times by repeated references to the social, economic, cultural and spiritual chaos following Germany’s defeat in the Great War.

Ours have been remarkable times, this period since the World War, troubled and confused, yet, despite this, fertile…

It was shortly after the World War, and the beliefs of the conquered nations were in an extraordinary state of unreality. There was a readiness to believe in things beyond reality…

Have we not just had the experience that a long, horrible, monstrous war has been forgotten, gainsaid, distorted and dismissed by all nations? And now that they have had a short respite, are not the same nations trying to recall by means of exciting war novels what they themselves caused and endured a few years ago?…

At the time that I had the good fortune to join the League – that is, immediately after the end of the World War – our country was full of saviors, prophets, and disciples, of presentiments about the end of the world, or hopes for the dawn of a Third Reich. Shattered by the war, in despair as a result of deprivation and hunger, greatly disillusioned by the seeming futility of all the sacrifices in blood and goods, our people at that time were lured by many phantoms, but there were also many real spiritual advances. There were Bacchanalian dance societies and Anabaptist groups, there was one thing after another that seemed to point to what was wonderful and beyond the veil. There was also at that time a widespread leaning towards Indian, ancient Persian and other Eastern mysteries and religions…

His name is Lukas. He had taken part in the World War and had published a book about it which had a large circulation…

And indeed, from a structural point of view, this editor, Lukas, is included mainly for the discussion he promotes about the struggle he had to write his memoirs of the war, and his eventual conclusion that it was better to write something rather than nothing – even if untrue or less than perfect – if only because the act of writing was so therapeutic and saved him from terrible feelings of despair and suicide.

I’m doing no more than suggest that Hesse, who is generally thought of as a kind of high-minded explorer of timeless values was, in fact, very much a man of his times, and that his thinking was marked and shaped by the great cataclysm which he and his nation lived through just as much as all the other authors of the Weimar period.

Credit

Die Morgenlandfahrt by Hermann Hesse was published in German in 1932. The English translation by Hilda Rosner was published by Peter Owen Ltd in 1956. All references are to the 1995 Picador paperback edition.


Related links

20th century German literature

The Weimar Republic

German history

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse (1922)

Siddhartha is a brief (119-page) telling of the life story of a (fictional) contemporary of the Buddha, a fellow seeker after truth and spiritual enlightenment. The book describes his life and experiences as he follows his own personal path to enlightenment.

Siddhartha is told in simple, lucid prose and has, from start to finish, the feel of a fable, or of a certain kind of old-fashioned children’s story.

I read it in the beautifully clear and rhythmic English translation by Hilda Rosner, which was first published in 1951.

In the shade of the house, in the sunshine of the riverbank near the boats, in the shade of the Salwood forest, in the shade of the fig tree is where Siddhartha grew up, the handsome son of the Brahman, the young falcon, together with his friend Govinda, son of a Brahman. The sun tanned his light shoulders by the banks of the river when bathing, performing the sacred ablutions, the sacred offerings. In the mango grove, shade poured into his black eyes, when playing as a boy, when his mother sang, when the sacred offerings were made, when his father, the scholar, taught him, when the wise men talked. (Opening sentences)

Hermann Hesse

Siddhartha was Hesse’s ninth novel. Hesse had been born in 1877 into a devout Swabian Pietist household ‘with the Pietist tendency to insulate believers into small, deeply thoughtful groups’. He was an intensely serious young man who rebelled against his parents, tried to commit suicide, was sent to mental homes and then a boys’ institution, leaving school as soon as he could. He never attended university and became an apprentice at a bookshop. With few connections he struggled to get his early works of poetry or short fictions into print.

His breakthrough came with publication of the novel Peter Camenzind in 1904 and became popular throughout Germany. He married, had three children and supported himself for the rest of his life as a writer. Reading Schopenhauer had interested him in Eastern philosophy, and in the 1900s he read a lot about the subject.

Seven more novels followed. In 1911 he went on a trip to the East, to Sri Lanka, Borneo and Burma. On return it was clear his marriage was breaking down. The Great War broke out. His son fell ill and his wife developed schizophrenia. In 1916 Hesse went into psychotherapy, which led him to personal friendship with Freud’s disciple, Carl Jung. In 1919 Demian was published, then in 1922 Siddhartha.

The historical Buddha

The Buddha’s given name was Siddhārtha Gautama. He was born into an aristocratic family in what is present-day Nepal, around 480 BC (though his dates and all the facts relating to his life are open to extensive debate).

He renounced his privileged life and spent years travelling, learning, observing. One day he sat under the banyan tree and had a religious vision. He realised that all of life as commonly accepted amounts to duḥkha or suffering, and that only complete detachment from the wishes of the ego, the mind and body can bring complete detachment from self, and so achieve the end of dukkha – the state called Nibbāna or Nirvana.

‘Buddha’, by the way, is not a name but an adjective or title, meaning ‘Awakened One’ or the ‘Enlightened One’.

Siddhartha – part one

With fairy tale simplicity Hesse describes the efforts of Siddhartha, son of a worthy Brahmin in north India at the time of the Buddha, to attain wisdom. He meditates, he practices the ablutions and the rituals required of a high-caste Hindu Brahmin, and also reads the holy books, but he is discontent. He feels he will never attain wisdom this way.

And so he asks his father if he may leave in search of wisdom, Initially reluctant, his father lets him and, as he walks out of his ancestral village, Siddhartha is joined by his faithful friend, Govinda.

They spend ‘about three years’ (p.16) with the Samana, a sect of monks or spiritual devotees who live in the jungle, learning their ways. Then rumours arrive of a man named Gotama who is also known as the Buddha or enlightened one. Siddhartha asks the head Samana for permission to leave the community to go see this Gotama. This makes the head Samana angry, but Siddhartha (once again) overcomes all objections, and leaves.

Siddhartha and Govinda come to the town of Savathi, where Gotama has established a community of monks and followers, living in the Jetavana Grove just outside town, which a rich follower has given him.

In the morning they watch Gotama going to beg food for his mid-day meal, looking much like any other yellow-cloaked devotee. In the afternoon they hear him preach the four main points and the Eightfold Path, the way to escape the eternal recurrence of reincarnation into lives of suffering and pain, the way to escape from the cycle into the bliss of Nirvana.

Govinda is entranced and goes forward, with other pilgrims, to ask Gotama to take him into his community, and he is accepted. However, Siddhartha doesn’t. Siddhartha explains to Govinda that he has no doubt Gotama’s teachings are correct but he doesn’t wish to follow another man’s teachings, he wants to know.

Later he bumps into Gotama himself and politely asks permission to talk to him, and explains this conviction, that the Buddha’s teachings can be communicated and followed by others; but this isn’t what he’s after. He isn’t after teachings, the world is full of teachings. He is after the Buddha’s experience but that experience is, by definition, incommunicable.

Thus Siddhartha must leave the community and must find his own way. Gotama warns him against the chains of opinion and knowledge, and against being too clever.

‘Be on your guard against too much cleverness.’

But Siddhartha is determined and leaves the community, and his best friend Govinda behind.

Walking alone he has a revelation of his own – all this time, pursuing the teachings of the ancients or gurus, he has been motivated by one thing: fear of his Self, fleeing from his Self. What would happen if he accepted his own Self, his selfness, as supreme, as the basis of his existence.

‘I do not want to kill and dissect myself any longer, to find a secret behind the ruins. Neither Yoga-Veda shall teach me any more, nor Atharva-Veda, nor the ascetics, nor any kind of teachings. I want to learn from myself, want to be my student, want to get to know myself, the secret of Siddhartha.’

This is connected with a revelation of the multitudinousness of life, the blue sky and the green forest. Everything has a distinct itness. Trying to abolish the many in order to penetrate through to The One – as the Brahmins do – is a mistake.

Cleaving to his Self for the first time he feels genuinely alone, not a member of his caste or a pilgrim among pilgrims or a scholar among scholars. The world melts away and he stands like a star in the heavens. He is just Siddhartha, the one and only Siddhartha and the realisation makes ‘a feeling of icy despair’ go through him, but at the same time he is more awake than he’s ever been before. He is awakened. He is reborn.

Siddhartha – part two

Siddhartha walks through the world, enlightened. No longer does he reject and spurn the things of the world as a veil to be penetrated. The reverse: now he celebrates the amazing diversity, colour and beauty of the natural world.

But this second part is dominated by what happens next. Siddhartha takes a ferry over a river and comes to a town where he admires a beautiful woman being carried by four bearers on an ornamented sedan chair. He makes enquiries. It is Kamala the noted courtesan. He is struck. He goes into the town and has his beard cut off and his hair cut and oiled. He bathes in the river. Then he presents himself to Kamala’s people and she grants him an audience.

Long story short: he becomes her lover and best friend. She teaches him the forty ways of love, finding pleasure in every look, word and every part of the human body. She tells him she needs her lover to be rich and well-dressed and gives him an introduction to the town’s leading merchant, Kamaswami.

Siddhartha impresses Kamaswami with his education and calmness. He is hired into the business. He does well, but never really gains a taste for it, the business itself. Instead he brings calm, detachment, education and a winning manner which pleases clients.

The years pass. The awakening he experienced after leaving Gotama slowly fades. He acquires wealth, a house by the river, fine clothes. No longer a vegetarian, he eats meat, gets drunk on wine. His face grows lined and corrupt. He becomes addicted to gambling with dice, gambling for immense stakes, loses fortunes, wins back fortunes – all to show his contempt for ‘riches’ and all the things the little people value. His inner voice has grown silent. He is in his forties with his first grey hairs (p.65).

He goes to see Kamala and she, also, is upset. They make love deeply. He goes back to his house, feels sick and glutted, wishes he could vomit up his corrupt life. Goes into his pleasure garden, sits under his mango tree, reviews his life, thinks he has lost all the fire which motivated him to learn the Brahmin scriptures, to outdo Govinda in wisdom, everything he learned with the Samana and understood about the Buddha – and yet though he has gained the outer trappings of Kamaswami’s people, people of this world, he is not one of them. He is lower than them. They give themselves to their loves and passions and work and anxieties. Siddhartha only pretends, in this as in everything else.

He looks up at the stars above his mango tree and realises all this is dead to him. He says goodbye to his mango tree and his pleasure garden and his town house and walks away, leaving everything behind. Kamaswami sends out searchers but never hears of him, Kamala is saddened but gladdened that he has been true to himself. A few months later she realises she is pregnant with his child.

Siddhartha wanders. He comes to a river and is so overcome with disgust at what he has become that he leans over the river as if to fall in and drown. He is contemplating suicide. Then out of some remote part of his soul comes the word Om, the beginning and end of Brahmin prayers, the syllable of reality. And he stops, repeats the syllable, is suddenly overcome by tiredness, sinks down onto the roots of the tree and sleeps, the word Om echoing through his unconscious.

When he wakes he feels a new man, refreshed and cleansed. A monk is watching him. It is his old friend Govinda, who was passing with fellow Buddhist pilgrims and saw Siddhartha sleeping in this place which is dangerous for its snakes and wild animals, and decided to stop and look over him. Now he has awoken, Govinda will join his colleagues. Siddhartha says, Don’t you recognise me? The short answer is, No, because Siddhartha has become fat and lined and worn and is wearing rich man’s clothes. Siddhartha tells his old friend all of those attributes are fleeting. Beneath them all, he is still following his quest. Govinda digests this, then bows and goes his way.

Siddhartha reflects on how far astray his old life had led him. In fact he reviews his entire life and all its changes. He realised he was over-educated when he was young, fenced in with prayers and ablutions and meditation. He had to get out and experience the futility of riches and sensual love for himself. Now he knows. Now he has awoken refreshed, a new man, as if his long sleep was one long Om-based meditation.

It is the same river he was ferried across 20 years ago. It is the same ferryman who, after a bit of prompting, remembers him. Siddhartha says he wants to give the ferryman his fine clothes and in return become his apprentice. The ferryman’s name is Vasudeva. He accepts. Siddhartha moves in to share his humble house and food and learn the trade. Slowly the two men come to look alike, taking turns to ferry people across the wide river, or sitting in silence for hours listening to it, learning from its wisdom.

One day Siddhartha articulates to the ferryman what the river has taught him: it has surpassed Time. Its beginning, middle and end are all simultaneously present. It is always changing but always the same. Nothing is past or future, everything exists in a permanent present, including Siddhartha. The river is the voice of life, the voice of Being, of perpetual Becoming (p.87).

Then news comes. The Buddha is dying. The couple of old men find themselves ferrying increasing numbers of monks and pilgrims who want to see the Enlightened One before he attains Nirvana. Among them is Kamala who has long since abandoned her trade as courtesan, given her money and troth to the Buddha. Now she is travelling with her son by Siddhartha.

They stop to rest on the far side of the river and Kamala sleeps, but wakens with a cry. She has been bitten by a poisonous snake. Siddhartha and Vasudeva hasten to her side. They try to cleanse the wound but it is already turning black. Kamala is dying. She lingers long enough to recognise Siddhartha and say how pleased she is to see the old sparkle and happiness in his eyes. She proclaims the boy is his son. She had wanted to see the Enlightened One before she died, but is content to see Siddhartha, who has a wisdom of his own.

Kamala dies. They burn her body on a funeral pyre.

Soon Siddhartha realises that his 11-year-old son is a spoiled mummy’s boy. He thinks that by love and patience he can reconcile him to living with two ageing rice-eating poor men. But he can’t. The boy has tantrums, breaks things, is nothing but trouble.

One day Vasudeva takes him aside and tells him he must take the boy back to his own kind. There is a lesson here. Did not Siddhartha have to immerse himself in the destructive element of life, did it not take him decades to find his own path and his own wisdom? Well, he can’t short-circuit it for the boy. The boy should be returned to his own kind, to his mother’s house or to a teacher, to grow up among other rich children and find his own path.

But Siddhartha can’t bring himself to do it and the boy comes to hate him, defying him, speaking harsh words every day. Finally he steals their money, runs away, rows the ferry boat to the other side of the river and is gone. Vasudeva wisely counsels Siddhartha not to follow his errant son, but Siddhartha has to. The world and its pain are too much with him.

Siddhartha finds himself arriving at the edge of the town, by the old pleasure ground of Kamala. He stands transfixed, his mind full of memories of their young, ripe, hot-blooded time. He sits down in the dust, in a trance. He is only wakened when Vasudeva lightly touches his shoulder.

Back at the ferry, Siddhartha’s psychological wound – from the loss of his son – continues to chafe.

One day looking down into the river he realises his face reminds him of his father’s face, his father who he ran away from and never saw again and who probably died lonely, who probably suffered the same way Siddhartha is now suffering. How ridiculous, how absurd, the tragi-comic cycles of life, the endless repetition of suffering.

Vasudeva is getting old. He takes Siddhartha to sit by the river and listen. And Siddhartha hears all the voices of all the people, the plights, the lives as the river flows past, into the sea, evaporates into the sky, forms clouds over the hills, condenses and falls as rain which feeds a thousand springs which flow together to create the river. Eternal and ever-changing. And the thousands of voices converge to speak the syllable of perfection, Om.

Siddhartha feels healed, complete. He rises above his own personal suffering and becomes one with this vast unity of the world. And now Vasudeva stands and says it is time for him to slough off the skin of the ferryman Vasudeva and return to the unity of the cosmos. And he walks away from Siddhartha clothed in light.

In the final chapter Govinda arrives again. He had heard of a ferryman of great wisdom. Once again he doesn’t recognise Siddhartha till the latter announces himself. But the point of these last ten pages is that Govinda asks for help, for Siddhartha’s wisdom and when the latter explains it, it really is wisdom. It struck me with the force of a genuinely holy writing.

For Siddhartha explains that there is no such thing as time. All things are permanently present, all pasts and futures are contained in the now, and are part of a vast unity. If this is so then there are no real oppositions. Oppositions occur only in the words of teachings. To teach you have to take a view and be partial, separating x from y. But Siddhartha now scandalises Govinda by saying there is no real difference between Sansara, the Sanskrit word which betokens change and the eternal cycle of suffering, and Nirvana, the supposed heaven where the soul escapes the eternal cycle of suffering.

These, Siddhartha says, are just binary concepts required for clear doctrine and teaching. In reality everything is part of everything else. In this sense, there is no right or wrong, and certainly no good or bad. Good and bad are inextricably mixed, just as past and future are eternally present.

Therefore, the logical response, is to love the world as it is because it contains the entire future and all of heaven, here, now, implicitly. The correct attitude is complete compassion and complete love for everything as it is.

Govinda asks for a final word of help or advice and Siddhartha tells him to bend and kiss his forehead. And as he does so Govinda sees and hears all the voices of all the people in the world, all the babies, old people, lovers, warriors, priests and even gods and goddesses, a thousand thousand thousand voices and features, past and future, all contained in one vast cosmic unity. And he realises that only one other person has ever had the same level of wisdom and serenity and the same half-mocking smile on his lips. By a different route, Siddhartha has become as enlightened as the Buddha.

The personal quest

And so Siddhartha’s determination to go his own way is justified. The final wisdom, in practical terms, seems to be that everyone must find their own path:

There was no teaching a truly searching person, someone who truly wanted to find, could accept. But he who had found, he could approve of any teachings, every path, every goal, there was nothing standing between him and all the other thousand any more who lived in that what is eternal, who breathed what is divine.

Conclusion

This is a beautiful and inspiring book. You don’t necessarily have to agree with any of the Eastern philosophy on show, to find that many of the thoughts and ideas about life, about our paths through life, about trying to find meaning, ring a bell. Hesse’s novels have always been popular with the young, teenagers and students – but as a middle-aged parent I found much of what the characters discuss just as relevant to me, now, at this stage of my journey.

Above all, after over a thousand pages of bleakness, crudity, violence, rape, murder and madness in the novels of Hermann Broch and Alfred Döblin, it is a welcome relief to read a book in which people smile, enjoy the sight of the blue sky and the sound of a flowing river, are kind and wise and considerate and courteous to each other. It is like re-entering the real world after a prolonged visit to a lunatic asylum.

To put it another way, the longer Broch went on, the lengthier his dense and abstract and wordy philosophical disquisitions went on, the more impenetrable, hair-splitting, utterly academic and impractical they seemed. Whereas Hesse’s focused fable provides countless places where the character’s eloquent and strangely practical thoughts strike home to your heart and make you reflect on your own life and journey.


Related links

20th century German literature

  • The Tin Drum by Günter Grass (1959)

The Weimar Republic

German history

The Anarchist by Hermann Broch (1931)

Introduction to Hermann Broch

Here’s a brief biographical sketch from a New York Times review of the paperback reprint of The Sleepwalkers

Born in 1886, Broch was a product of that fin-de-siecle Vienna that he analysed devastatingly in his brilliant study Hugo von Hofmannsthal and His Time‘ (recently available in English). The dutiful son of a Jewish textile manufacturer, he attended the local technical institute, took his engineering degree at a textile school in Alsace-Lorraine, traveled to the United States to observe milling procedures and in 1907 patented a cotton-milling device. When his father retired in 1915, Broch took over the business and in the next 10 years became what he cynically termed a captain of industry.

At the same time, he nurtured ambitions for an intellectual career. For years he sporadically attended courses in mathematics and philosophy at the University of Vienna and wrote essays and reviews for various liberal journals. In 1927 he dismayed his family by selling the plant and declaring his intention to pursue a doctorate. But within a year, disenchanted by the disdain for ethical questions displayed by the Vienna Circle of logical positivists, he gave up his academic plans and turned to fiction. As he wrote in a ‘Methodological prospectus‘ for his publisher, he had become convinced that those realms of experience rejected by contemporary philosophy can best be dealt with in literature.

The Sleepwalkers (1931-32) is a thesis novel with a vengeance. According to Broch, sleepwalkers are people living between vanishing and emerging ethical systems, just as the somnambulist exists in a state between sleeping and walking. The trilogy portrays three representative cases of ‘the loneliness of the I’ stemming from the collapse of any sustaining system of values. (In Search of the Absolute Novel by Theodore Ziolkowski)

The Anarchist is the second in the trilogy of novels which Broch published simultaneously under the umbrella title The Sleepwalkers in 1931. An English translation by Willa and Edwin Muir was published in 1932 which, as far as I can tell, remains the only English version. Some English editions have an introduction; mine doesn’t. What the book is really crying out for is notes of some kind but I suspect that sales of it are so minuscule that any annotation project would never be viable.

The Anarchist

It is March 1903 and Broch throws us straight into the fray. 30-year-old clerk August Esch (‘lean and robust’, p.208, ‘a strong fellow and not in the least afflicted by nerves’, p.219; with ‘short stiff hair, dark head and tanned ruddy skin’, p.231) lives in Cologne.

He has just been fired from his job as a clerk at Stemberg and Company, wholesale wine merchants, due, he believes, to the machinations of the hypocritical head clerk (p.201) Nentwig, who he will spend the rest of the book doggedly hating. Esch was caught out in some minor error of the accounts while he believes Nentwig to be guilty of much larger scale frauds, though he can’t prove it. This grudge will fester through the entire novel and form the core of Esch’s slowly mounting sense of global injustice…

Esch walks along the canal to the low-rent bar-cum-restaurant run by Mother Hentjen, a fat 36-year-old woman once married to Herr Hentjen whose portrait hangs on the wall. Sometimes the rowdy boozy male customers take the serving girls Hede or Thusnelda home and sleep with them, it’s that kind of place.

Angry Esch shares a beer and a bratwurst with Martin Geyring, the cheerful crippled socialist agitator and member of the Social Democratic Party, who walks with crutches. Geyring tips him off about a vacancy for a clerk in the Central Rhine Shipping Company in Mannheim. Esch goes back to Stemberg and blackmails a good reference out of the vile Nentwig. He applies for the Mannheim job and gets it and a few day later sets off by train.

He arrives at the premises down on the docks and is shown to his unglamorous offices, a glass-partitioned box at the end of a long row of sheds (p.173). He is informed that the proprietor, a Mr Bertrand, a ‘renegade officer’, is a decent sort (p.187). Now, anyone who’s read the first book in the trilogy knows this must refer to Eduard von Bertrand, who was a major character in it, and a successful businessman back when that book was set, in 1888.

Anyway, August finds accommodation with a brother and sister who rent rooms, a customs inspector from the docks named Balthasar Korn and his ‘elderly virgin’ sister, Erna (in fact she’s not a virgin, p.210, but is much later described as ‘that skinny sallow little thing’, p.329). Erna is looking for a husband so she loses no opportunity to flirt with Esch, to hint at her fine collection of lingerie, to press her thigh against him when the trio go to bars or restaurants.

One day, down at the docks, Esch comes across a gentleman complaining that the stevedores are unloading his luggage in a clumsy way which might damage it. Esch steps in to reprimand them and the gentleman introduces himself as Herr Gernerth, new lessee of the Thalia Variety Theatre (p.177).

Gernerth gives Esch free tickets and Esch takes along Korn and Erna. Among the other acts is a gripping performance by a knife thrower and his beautiful assistant who adopts a crucifixion pose against a back backcloth while he sends razor sharp daggers whistling past her body.

Entranced and haunted by the deep feelings this sight awakens, Esch returns repeatedly and eventually is introduced to the couple, Herr Teltscher, whose stage name is Teltini, and Ilona, both of them Hungarian by birth (p.184). He is also, apparently, Jewish (p.206), Jewishness and anti-Semitism forming a small but persistent hum in the background.

They all go for a meal together. It becomes clear Korn is hitting on Ilona big time, putting his arm round her shoulder, while Esch is irritated by the old ‘virgin’ Erna continuing to press up against him.

A new character is introduced – Fritz Lohberg, a prim and innocent young tobacconist who Esch buys his cigarettes from. Lohberg’s shop is light and pleasant and the smell of tobacco gives it a lovely manly feeling of good fellowship. That said, Lohberg is a bit of a milksop: he is a member of the Salvation Army and keeps pamphlets on his counter promoting vegetarianism and against alcohol.

Korn follows Esch and also becomes a fellow of Lohberg’s shop, though Esch resents his big bearish vulgarity and Lohberg is terrified of him.

Korn finds out that Lohberg is going to an evening rally of the Salvation Army and insists they go along. To his surprise, Esch finds the Army’s singing and the religious sincerity very moving and comes within an ace of singing along himself. He realises how lonely he is. He has darker, brooding thoughts, about life and death and our essential loneliness, which remind the reader of some of the darker thoughts of the protagonist of the previous novel, The Romantic.

Esch has presentiments and feelings which he can’t bring into focus or define but which are mixed up with smells of the city at dusk, of fresh air out under the trees, or the dense cigar smoke of beer-cellars.

That night, driven by something like spiritual yearning, he finds himself loitering outside Fräulein Korn’s bedroom, making a bit of a noise, and hearing responding noises inside, until he is emboldened to go in. She is not naked but not wearing much and happy to flirt and encourage him. However, as things become serious, she suddenly calls a halt and utters those philistine, bourgeois, narrow, provincial words: ‘When we’re man and wife’ – and Esch recoils, not only as an homme moyen sensual who has been balked of the physical pleasure he was psyched up to enjoy, but also because he was in the midst of a kind of spiritual transport, and hardly anything in the world could have disgusted him more than the bathetic and banal linkage of coitus with the legal forms demanding by petty-minded and the conventional.

From that moment he hates Erna with a passion, and Erna returns the scorn with knobs on. She takes great delight in confirming Esch’s growing suspicions that someone else is padding around the house late at night, and that it is none other than Ilona, who has started to sleep with her crude, bearish brother.

Martin the trade union activist had popped in to see Esch every time his work took him through Mannheim, and now tells him he’ll be addressing a political meeting and invites him. Esch goes along to the meeting in the public room of a small tavern, although he recognises one of the policemen on the door who warns him to keep away.

In the event there is a lot of barracking from the floor when Martin utters unpatriotic sentiments, at which point a load of police enter the premises, go onstage to announce that it is shut down and they must all disperse, and arrest Martin for sedition (p.204). In sympathy with the arrest of their trade union representative the transport and dockers union goes on strike, meaning loading and unloading on the docks where Esch works comes to a standstill and he is increasingly at a loose end.

One night Esch is sitting in Gernerth’s seedy office at the theatre when Teltscher enters, sweating and beaming after his act. But when he demands payment, Generth goes into a familiar obstructive routine about overheads, rent, expenses and so on, and the pair of them wish that if only they could come up with an act which had next to no overheads but would really pack the punters in.

Out of the blue Generth suggests women wrestlers!

Korn makes his entrance into the office to meet Ilona, who is by now hopelessly infatuated with him, then they go off for the night. Gernerth, Teltscher and Esch discuss the women wrestler idea some more and Esch volunteers to pay a call on the theatrical agent, Oppenheimer, on the scheduled trip back home to Cologne he was due to make in a few days (p.206).

It’s a deal. If Esch can drum up some women wrestlers and, even better, some financing, then he can buy into the business and take a share of the profits. Suits Esch. Since the dockers strike started, there’s been nothing to do except hang round the docks, bored.

There’s a comedy of manners scene where Esch invites the weedy religious Lohberg to tea with Erna, the man-eater, who decides that, to spite Esch, she will match Lohberg’s investment in the women wrestling scheme i.e. invest 1,000 Marks. During the rather stiff and formal tea, Erna wonders if Lohberg is a virgin. She wonders if he cries during sex. Esch watches her and is disgusted.

Driven by his obscure yearning for purity or atonement, aroused by attending the Salvation Army meeting, Esch makes the irrational decision that he will serve the new women wrestling scheme. He has no money to invest, but he will devote time to making it happen, in fact he decides to quit his job at the wine importers. In some obscure way, he feels that serving like this will pay his debt. It’s something to do with being a book-keeper and wanting to keep tidy accounts where debts match credits, something to do with Martin being in prison while he is still a free man…

So returning from Mannheim back to Cologne, Esch visits Mother Hentjen, bringing her a nice present of a model of the Schiller Memorial outside that Mannheim theatre, but she inadvertently lets slip some remarks about her mysterious past, and disappears in a huff.

Esch goes to the office of the legendary theatrical agent, Oppenheimer, only to discover it is a messy shambles and that Herr O keeps irregular hours, according to the scornful neighbours.

(America In case I haven’t mentioned it before, Esch is obsessed with the idea of emigrating to America, something he discusses with both Lohberg and Korn. It reminds me that Kafka’s first attempt at a novel, begun in 1912, describes a young man emigrating to America in search of a better life. It reminds me of Bertolt Brecht’s obsession with America, its gangsters and its place names, none of which he had visited in the 1930s. It reminds me of the descriptions in George Grosz’s autobiography of his boyhood obsession with America. Was it a widespread movement at the turn of the century, this German romantic ideal of emigrating to the New World?)

The women wrestler idea progresses: Oppenheimer rustles up a variety of women from the music halls of Cologne and gives them exotic performers names. Esch attends an ‘audition’ where they try to persuade them to put on tights and wrestle, although some of the women flatly refuse and walk out.

Meanwhile, in a different part of his mind, Esch grows steadily more obsessed with the injustice of his friend Martin Geyring the trade union activist being locked up in prison. He discovers that Martin was locked up as a result of a deal done between Bertrand, owner of the major import-export firm in the area, and the police. Hmmm, so not such a decent guy after all.

After some thought, Esch writes an article or letter decrying the injustice of Martin being in gaol and delivers it in person to the Social Democrat paper, The People’s Guardian. Here he is humiliated by the editor’s blasé and patronising attitude, politely pointing out that they wrote all the articles about Martin that they needed to at the time he was arrested, not weeks later (p.228 ff).

The editor lets slip that Bertrand is a sodomite, although only ‘down in Italy’ (p.230). To the reader of the previous novel, The Romantic, this is a dynamite revelation because it sheds a new light not only on Bertrand’s dandyish personality, wit and irony, but on the odd, teasing relationship he had with The Romantic‘s lead female character, Elisabeth.

Anyway, in this novel Bertrand slowly comes to symbolise to Esch all the wickedness and corruption in the world, which he feels oppressed by but is too thick and uneducated to analyse coherently.

Thus, by half way through the novel, Esch is describing Bertrand as ‘the Antichrist’ (p.237). This seemed such an excessive thought that I wondered whether the novel might be leading up to Esch assassinating Bertrand. This is typical of hundreds of sentences describing Esch’s thoughts:

It was a matter of striking a blow at the whole thing, or at least at the head of the offence. (p.243)

In fact a constellation of feelings begins to coalesce in his mind: Esch felt a powerful sense of yearning for something higher when he attended the Salvation Army meeting; he is disgusted by Korn and Ilona’s affair; he sublimates or vents this in mounting antagonism to the fact that Teltscher and Oppenheimer are Jewish. When he sees Teltscher and Oppenheimer walking towards him chatting about the wrestling project, Esch bursts out in anti-Jewish insults and Oppenheimer is prompted to say ‘he’s an anti-Semite’ (p.238), although, a little puzzlingly, they continue on pretty good terms.

All this combines with the powerful but incoherent sense Esch has that things are in chaos, that the whole world is ruled by the corrupt (the sodomite Bertrand), that there is injustice everywhere (his friend Martin in gaol). In particular this offends his book-keeper’s ‘upright soul’ and sense that there must be order – every debit must be balanced by a credit. (p.242)

So by this stage, half way through the novel, I wondered whether the novel is meant to be the portrait of a nascent fascist, a proto Nazi…

More plot

Since many summaries of the novel I’ve read describe it as a rollicking account of Esch and his troupe of women wrestlers, I was struck by how little description of them the book contains. There’s a page or so on the process of hiring the women wrestlers, training them and organising them. There’s a bit about sending out posters and publicity, a paragraph describing Teltscher supervising the unloading of the state sets at the Cologne docks, but then – in a glaring omission – no description of the Grand Opening Night. And only the briefest paragraph cursorily describing one fight. You might have expected at least a page about the actual art of wrestling, the different holds and manoeuvres, the rules maybe, explaining how they were staged and arranged, who the best ones were, and so on.

None of that is here. Instead Broch takes it as read that they become a regular nightly attraction at the Alhambra theatre, and gives us one description of Esch proudly walking among the packed tables at the cabaret theatre, and beginning to enjoy the profits he is sharing.

In other words, Broch is more interested in the ongoing evolution of Esch’s character than in external events, per se, and certainly than the women’s wrestling which is all but ignored. Shame. Could have been interesting, in its way, and possibly very funny. But Broch isn’t that kind of writer.

Esch is at Mother Hentjen’s looking at the wine list when it dawns on him that he should use his expertise to improve it or to get her better deals. Looking through a newspaper he reads about wine auctions held at a place called Saint-Gaor up the Rhine.

So he persuades a reluctant Frau Hentjen to accompany him, and Broch describes at length a day trip down the Rhine wherein the interest is, as usual, in the changing moods of the two characters, closely connected with the time of day and the setting (on the ferry up the Rhine), walking through the shadowy streets, climbing the dusty path up the Lorelei. By the end of the trek, Mother Hentjen is so exhausted that, plumped back in her seat on the train home she makes no complaint when Esch brushes her cheek then kisses her – because she is too exhausted to notice.

Back at her restaurant in Cologne she livens up a bit, but bids him her usual brisk goodnight, treating him the same as all the other punters, but Esch loiters, then goes up to her room, inflamed with conviction that the kiss was a promise and also overcome with the same kind of overblown semi-religious, world-saving fervour we’ve seen mounting in his character throughout the story.

Thus he overcomes Mother Hentjen and rapes her, not in her bedroom but in an out-of-the-way alcove which contains two spare beds, although she keeps on shaking her head, No, till the end.

Esch settles in to be Mother Hentjen’s lover but in a very peculiar way, and Broch devotes a couple of pages of characteristically long, impressionistic sentences describing the strange trance Hentjen goes into whenever Esch approaches. He comes to her in her afternoon siesta or at night after closing time and how she submits to his embrace from a great distance, from a place where she doesn’t even acknowledge herself any more, so that the more furiously Esch labours in vain to prompt an animal grunt of lust from her, the more determined she becomes to stay silent.

Nonetheless, Mother Hentjen accepts his animal lusts on her body, and they become an item – for this reader, at any rate, an odd and disturbing item.

Esch continues his obsession with emigrating to America. He goes into a bookshop (something he has rarely done in his life – an indication of his low level of education and intelligence) and buys a book about America, poring over the sepia photos and memorising facts and figures about this marvellous country. In his simplicity he imagines it as a place of justice and honour where innocent trade union organisers aren’t locked up (like Martin) at the behest of perverted company owners (like Bertrand).

Gernerth comes up with the idea of hiring a negro woman wrestler. Already the wrestling women have been given (entirely fake) names and are claimed to be from different countries. In each bout care is taken that the German girl ends up triumphant.

Esch repeats his suggestions of emigrating to America. Teltscher says he’ll stand no chance in America where they already have women’s wrestling, but in Mexico or South America there’s a shortage of women, so if the wrestling doesn’t turn a profit, the women can always go back on the game. But blondes, they must be blondes. Latinos like blondes.

So Esch, naively in this as in all his other endeavours, returns to scouring the bars and brothels of Cologne, this time looking for blondes. In an obscure wish to avoid Mother Hentjen’s reproaches, and to show that he isn’t using the services of prostitutes on his investigations, Esch goes out of his way to also visit the homosexual brothels.

This is a rather cack-handed plot device which allows Broch to take us into gay brothels circa 1903. Here Esch quickly discovers that Bertrand is a legendary sodomite, possessed of vast riches, a luxurious house and a steam yacht crewed by handsome young men, and that he enjoys picking up rent boys, for a while.

Esch discovers one such boy, Harry Köhler who, he discovers, had a brief relationship with Bertrand. Over drinks in a bar Esch hears Harry repeat Bertrand’s notions about love being based on detachment, which the reader of the first novel remembers Bertrand elaborately explaining to the sceptical Elisabeth 15 years earlier. Clearly it is his established spiel.

Anyway, it is Mother Hentjen’s birthday and we are surprised to be reminded, from the way she is described as fat and old and dried-up, that she is just 37.

She has gotten used to Esch turning up towards closing time, and taking her to the alcove (not her private bedroom) where on the spare bed he spears her stiff, unyielding and silent body. On the night of her birthday she is, for once, slightly responsive, but Esch realises she is consumed with jealousy over his involvement with the women wrestlers, and suspects he has a woman in every town he travels to. With indeterminate seriousness, she threatens to ‘do him in’ if she finds him being unfaithful to her. By this stage I was finding the petty-minded, stupid behaviour of a lot of these characters rather tiresome.

Esch, driven by increasingly obscure but powerful urges to ‘do the right thing’, whatever that is, decides it is time to extract from the wrestling business the initial investment and profits due to Fräulein Erna and Lohberg back in Cologne. He goes to see Gernerth who protests like fury, not least because the women wrestling attraction is losing popularity and struggling to make a profit. He gives Esch half what’s owed to his friends.

Esch take the train back to Mannheim and looks up Fräulein Erna, has tea with her and the milksop Lohberg. When Esch reports that he’s only brought only half the money owed to her, Erna flies into a fury. Despite this, a little later Esch is standing over her as she writes a receipt and finds himself stroking her cheek and then they kiss and then they go up to her bedroom and make love.

Immersed in the flow of the text, I accepted this development as many others, which I didn’t really understand or believe, but which flowed with the same lack of logic as him raping Mother Hentjen. I’d have preferred Erna to have remained an entertainingly vicious enemy and felt simply disappointed that they ended up sleeping together. Aren’t people boring, at least in novels. In novels, in fiction, in literature, it is so often about love love love or sex sex sex.

Anyway, Erna consents to have sex with Esch every night of his stay in Mannheim, despite the fact that they both know she is engaged to the weedy tobacconist, Lohberg. Which is so wildly beyond the psychology of any woman I’ve ever met or heard about that, by this stage, I seemed to be reading a novel from a parallel dimension. Or a different time. Or a different culture.

Esch dutifully visits Martin in prison and is infuriated that he seems to be taking his incarceration so calmly. Martin was, in fact, only sentenced to three months, for sedition, but Esch has worked himself up into a vast confused state of anger at the entire order of things, based on confused grievances at: poor Ilona having to stand by the board and have daggers thrown at her, at Martin being arrested simply for calling for the brotherhood of man, and at the corruption of Bertrand the unnatural sodomite who seems to be able to get away with it all.

This is all muddled in with his Salvation Army experience of yearning for a better world and, on the other hand, his narrow-minded, book-keeper’s obsession with balancing accounts, making everything just so and imposing order, an order which, in his feverish hallucinations, seems to include sacrifice, his own acts of sacrifice plus some obscure sense that someone must die or be murdered.

For some reason, murder and death and sacrifice have, by this stage, become the keywords of the text.

This delirious brew detaches itself from reality in an extended sequence where Esch takes the train from Mannheim to Badenweiler on the edge of the Black Forest. For it is here – according to one of the rent boy, Harry Köhler’s, friends in the gay bar, a fat musician named Alfons (his wobbling folds of fat are repeatedly described) – that Bertrand has his big estate.

As in a dream, Esch walks through town to the gates of the estate, walks unopposed through the gates, enters the house, mounts the stairs and finds himself meeting Bertrand, shaking his hand, welcomed into his study and talking to him. There follow pages of heady, pseudo-philosophical conversation which sound fine but didn’t mean anything to me. Here’s Bertrand:

‘No one can see another in the darkness, Esch, and that cloudless clarity of yours is only a dream. You know that I cannot keep you beside me, much as you fear your loneliness. We are a lost generation. I too can only go about my business.’
It was only natural that Esch should feel deeply stricken, and he said:
‘Nailed to the cross.’

This means nothing to me and apart from the fact that a dream sequence appears to have strayed into an otherwise fairly realistic novel, I just couldn’t process or compute this sequence.

According to the Wikipedia summary of the novel, Esch had visited with the intention of murdering Bertrand. But I found Esch’s consciousness so confused that I found the Bertrand visit a series of inconsequential and dreamlike sentences which conveyed no hard facts or events. It didn’t help that the visit is immediately preceded by a long digression describing a kind of dream voyage by ship to America. Taken together the entire thing seemed like a strange, dreamlike fantasy.

Certainly at no point did I feel it was ever Esch’s intention to hurt Bertrand and the scene contains no sense of threat or danger, and no dramatic reversal as of Bertrand talking him out if it, at all.

Esch goes to see Martin a second time in prison and slips him a packet of cigarettes while the easy-going warden turns a blind eye. Martin casually suggests Esch will never see him alive again, which just exacerbates Esch’s confused sense that some kind of sacrifice is required for him to be free of the past.

Esch returns to Cologne after his six-day excursion and returns to Mother Hentjen’s restaurant. His thought processes are really confused by now. He gets angry that MJ is once again cool to him in front of all her customers and storms out. But then he returns after the restaurant has closed, insists on being taken up to her bed, and assaults her almost at once.

Afterwards she is quiet as he goes off into one of his complex, contradictory long fantastical thought processes which winds him up into such a fury that he slaps her round the face and immediately proposes that they get married, to which she meekly replies yes. The reader is by this stage in the twilight zone of a completely alien psychology.

Next morning, the sight of the portrait of the original Herr Hentjen hanging on the wall of the restaurant drives Esch to (yet another) paroxysm of fury. He calls for paper and pen, and there and then writes a letter to the Chief of Police denouncing Bertrand as a homosexual and a pervert, folds it in his pocket.

He posts it next day on  hi way to see Gernerth who, he discovers, is away from his office. Then Teltscher the knife thrower arrives and tells him just how weak the women wrestling business has become (there were only fifty customers in the audience the night before), and they discuss how they can recoup their investment from the mysteriously absent Gernerth.

Esch is still nudging Teltscher to come to America with him where Esch – like an idiot – thinks they’ll all be able to live in castles and Ilona will live in a deer park like a princess.

Later, Esch swings by the gay bar again and is surprised when Alfons the fat musician comes in looking dishevelled and distraught and tells him that Harry is dead, killed himself with an overdose. Why? asks Esch, and Alfons points to the newspapers.

They are edged with black and the entire city is mourning the abrupt death of the eminent businessman Eduard von Bertrand. Reading the small print, Esch sees that Bertrand shot himself. Because he is by now quite deranged with narcissistic self-absorption, Esch doesn’t in the slightest blame himself for giving the letter to the police which must have prompted an initial visit to Bertrand who must have realised he would be outed and imprisoned etc, and so decided to kill himself. None of this terrible agony is described or even hinted at. Instead we simply see it from Esch’s blunt, stupid point of view and his only reaction is to think – utterly irrationally – that this means Martin the cripple will no longer follow and menace him with his crutches (?).

Esch pushes off, leaving Alfons to have an extended reflection on his own life and how, as a fat gay musician, he is in touch with sensations and feelings which straight men with their incessant tragic pursuit of women, will never know. Men chase women because they think the intensity of their possession will protect them from their fear of death. Then when it doesn’t protect them, they rage against the women for failing them, and beat them. Alfons feels well out of the whole farce.

Cut to Ilona getting out of the bed she shares with Korn who is fast asleep and snoring. She also reflects on her life, on the man who committed suicide for her sake and the other man who she was unfaithful to and who nearly killed her, and to the venereal disease she was given as a girl which made her infertile. Then she sneaks down the hall and slips into bed beside skinny Fräulein Erna.

Back with Esch in Cologne, Oppenheimer and Teltscher are both keen to track down Gernerth who has disappeared on family business to Munich, apparently. The theatre’s rent and wages for the staff and performers all fall due at the end of the month, in a few days’ time. But Gernerth doesn’t appear and when they call in the police, the latter ascertain that Gernerth had withdrawn his entire company’s funds from his bank and done a bunk.

He’s disappeared with all their money, leaving them liable for all the company’s debts.

To my surprise this isn’t as ruinous for Esch as I’d expected. Oppenheim and Teltcher concoct a new plan to use the theatre properties which the Hungarian appears to own, and to rent out a new theatre and put on the knife throwing act among others. They persuade Esch to take out a mortgage on Mother Hentjen’s restaurant in order to finance the new business, Oppenheimer pocketing a 1% fee.

I wasn’t clear just how much Esch was being fleeced by this, but just like Joachim von Paselow in The Romantic it is clear that he is unworldly and impractical and easily duped. Not least because his head is continually occupied with obsessions about making ‘sacrifices’ in order to ‘redeem Time’ and bring about ‘a new world’, and so on.

While Esch’s head is full of this nonsense, Mother Hentjen gets on with repainting her restaurant and the others set up their theatre company and Esch has the claustrophobic feeling that all his best efforts to escape – to make some kind of grand sacrifice, to restore order to the world or, most ambitiously, to take everyone off to America where they would be reborn and live like kings – have failed, and that the banal world of the everyday is everywhere rising up to stifle him.

It was a vicious circle from which there was no escape. (p.336)

And so Esch slowly resigns himself to his place in the actual world, sometimes taking out his frustration at not being able, by some dramatic sacrifice to rise to a higher sphere of perfection, by beating the crap out of Mother Hentjen, and in due course they are married.

In a super-brief, one-paragraph coda right at the end of the text, the narrator tells us that when the theatre Teltscher and Ilona had set up in Duisburg goes bankrupt, Esch and Hentjen invest in their next venture, which also fails, and so lose all their money.

But then Esch unexpectedly gets a job as head book-keeper in a large industrial concern and so they live relatively well, Mother Hentjen grows to genuinely admire him, and he hardly ever beats her any more.

And that is that.


Social history

I’m not sure these are novels anyone would read for pleasure, exactly. The ‘drawing’ of the characters is detailed but feels alien, in fact doubly alien, because

  1. The language the novels are translated into is not idiomatic English, it’s like an English no-one ever spoke or wrote, strongly betraying its Germanic roots.
  2. The behaviour and attitudes of the characters is so alien to English traditions, in all kinds of ways.

Sex

In English literature until some time in the 1970s sex was avoided or buried in euphemisms. The German attitude is strikingly more blunt and crude.

  • Esch is experienced in ‘drinking dens, brothels and girls’ (p.226)
  • When Esch is half way through seducing Erna and she rebuffs him, he just goes off and spends the night with a more accommodating woman. Simple as that.
  • Esch is upset that Ilona is spending the night with Korn, not because of any outraged morality, but simply because he thinks Korn is a crude bear who doesn’t deserve her.
  • When Erna first meets Lohberg the naive tobacconist, she frankly wonders whether he’s ever had a woman and whether, during the heat of sex, he would be moved to tears (p.211). That’s not the kind of speculation you get in Virginia Woolf or Aldous Huxley, is it?
  • We are told that Esch fairly regularly ends the evenings at Mother Hentjen’s by taking Hede home and sleeping with her. Hede is never introduced as a character, we never hear her speak or feature in anyone’s consideration.
  • In a passage which is striking because the author and character take it for granted, Esch – at a loose end because of the strike – conceives a way to pass the time which is to make a list of all the women he’s ever had, and send them postcards. There’s no subtlety and no qualms or hesitation or periphrasis about the idea – he’s shagged a certain number of women and now he gets a pen and paper and racks his brains to make a list, after a while adding in the dates and locations so far as he can remember.

Compare and contrast with the Anglo-Saxon tradition, where sex is hedged around with the barbed wire of Puritanism and prudishness. To understand English literature you have to understand that the English have been terrified of open, honest descriptions of sex and sexual attraction until relatively recently.

I suppose a possible upside of the Anglo approach is that you could argue that sexual euphemism has taken its place alongside other English euphemisms and circumlocutions – for example around class, one’s place in society, and socially appropriate behaviour – to create what amounts, in England, to an entire culture or irony and misdirection.

As far as I can tell, throughout the 19th century the Continentals (especially the French) thought the English were disgusting hypocrites about sex, preserving a Victorian chasteness in our literature and public discourse (politics, religion), while the streets of London were heaving with prostitutes who accosted almost everyone every evening in the most brazen way; that we went to great lengths to preserve our self-image of gentlemanliness and stiff upper lip and imperial attitudes etc, while casually nipping over to Paris for scenes of gross debauchery. Whereas the French prided themselves on integrating sex and sexuality more honestly into their culture and literature.

So I suppose that the hypocrisy – of double standards – which the French so despised in the English might be related to all the other types of our multiple levels of irony, double entendre, misdirection and circumlocution about sex. In other words, that the English sense of humour which the Continentals remarked on, was closely connected to the English inability to discuss or describe sex honestly, which they also remarked on.

Anyway, the point of this excursion is simply to point out that this vast apparatus of irony, euphemism, and long-winded circumlocution about sex which characterises so much English literature is simply absent from this book. It doesn’t exist and nobody seems to miss it. They think about sex a lot, they have sex, sometimes they feel a bit jealous – that’s about it.

Therefore, although they contain a) extended nature descriptions, of parks and gardens and twilit skies and b) go into extended detail about the mental states of their central protagonists and the difficulty they have pinning down evanescent thoughts and ideas – these novels nonetheless completely lack the subtlety or understatement about social relationships and sex which a reader of English novels is used to.

There’s a strange kind of haunting absence about them.

Class

English literature, like English society, is absolutely drenched in class distinctions, the most fundamental of which is the gap between those who went to posh private schools – and dress and talk and exude confidence accordingly – and the rest of us, who didn’t.

Obviously, other 19th century European nations also had class hierarchies, sometimes more rigid than ours when it came to the top layers of aristocracy, court formalities etc.

But below that level, it’s harder to make out class distinctions in foreign literature. Thus in The Anarchist Esch is educated enough to be a clerk but doesn’t know what the ‘premiere’ of a play means (p.221), and I think Mother Hentjen’s is meant to be a pretty rough establishment, full of pipe-smoking working class types, who routinely take one or other of the ‘waitresses’ home to sleep with them, but there are none of the class markers I’d be used to in an English novel.

For example, none of them seem to have an accent. No distinction is made about the way they talk. They all appear to talk the same dialect, language and register. The interplay of accents and class distinction through vocabulary or turn of phrase which make up a huge amount of the dialogue in English novels (whether characters say ‘Hello, old boy’ or ‘Alright, mate’) is utterly absent from these books.

When rough Esch meets urbane Bertrand they speak the same language, use the same phrases, there is no way of distinguishing between the crude wife-beater and the suave gay company chairman by anything they say.

The only bit of linguistic distinction, the only place where Broch indicates that different people have different registers, idiolects and so on, relates to Ilona who is Hungarian and so doesn’t speak German very well. That’s it. All the other Germans appear to speak pure German without inflection or distinction.

Could it be that there is a lot of variation and distinctiveness in the characters’ speech in the original German and that all this has been lost in translation?

What is entirely missing from the novel is any sense of the self-consciousness and social awareness of class which so dominates English literature, snobbery in other words.

Snobbery plays a huge role in the English novel, from Jane Austen through Dickens and Thackeray and on to the incredibly upper-class characters in late George Eliot or Henry James, characters who skilfully navigate the complex social etiquette surrounding class (and region and education) in England.

All that social subtlety, all those velleities, all those implications through the careful selection of the mot juste in description or dialogue, are completely absent from these works.

Esch thinks the company chairman, Bertrand, must be a pretty decent sort. He thinks Martin the trade union activist is an honest bloke. He dislikes Korn because he’s so bearishly unthinking. That’s it. There is none of the social subtlety of the English tradition.

Comedy

A German joke is no laughing matter. (Mark Twain)

As a result of its blunt straightforwardness regarding a) sex and b) society and class, there is little or no comedy in the novel. Maybe I’m being obtuse, but you’ve read my summary of the plot and there aren’t many comic scenes, are there?

The only scene with a tincture of comedy is the tea party held by Fräulein Erna for Esch and Lohberg, where we see the three of them jostling and competing. Or Erna and Esch competing over the weedy tobacconist. But the humour mostly comes from Lohberg’s incomprehension of why the other two are bickering i.e. their thwarted lust for each other. And that is, at bottom, a fairly crude situation.

As I read about Martin the cripple or Bertrand the dandy company owner, and crop-haired Esch stumping around the cobbled streets of Cologne on his way to the dockers’ dive run by Mother Hentjen, I kept thinking of the stark German Expressionism of the 1900s, and then of the deliberate cripples and grotesques of Weimar art.

Stark and ugly is the German style. For example, nothing that Oppenheimer says is remotely funny or even interesting, but the way he is a tubby, little man with a disorderly office paints a picture which is sort of humorous in the Germanic way, in the way of laughing at crude stereotypes.

Philosophy

So what does the book have to offer if it lacks these mainstays of the English tradition? The answer is what I called in my review of The Anarchist, Broch’s phenomenology – his interest in the feeling of thought, his fascination with the way his central characters struggle to formulate and fully experience their own feelings and intuitions and ideas.

Yet there was an obscure miscalculation somewhere that he couldn’t quite put his finger on… (p.215)

This, it seems to me, is the strong point and main feature of the novels – the way Broch captures the fleeting quality of thought itself. Up to a point.

The big downside to the novels, in my opinion, is that these thoughts all too often turn out to be those of psychotics and religious hysterics.

Thus Joachim von Paselow, from the first novel, becomes steadily more deranged with paranoia, his thoughts eventually swamping the text in a goo of half-baked religio-philosophical ramblings.

In just the same way, the book-keeper August Esch, who starts the novel as a reasonably sensible character, by the end is consumed with absurdly over-the-top, overblown hyper-emotions.

Here’s a small example. The crude, blunt character Balthasar Korn arrives home to find a little drinks party going on in his front room, and rudely shoos the milksop tobacconist Lohberg off his sofa in order to plonk himself down on it. A pretty trivial moment. Here it is described from Esch’s point of view:

The noise which the man Korn raised while doing this was extraordinary, his body and voice filled the room more and more, filled it from wall to wall; all that was earthly and fleshly in Korn’s ravenously hungry being swelled beyond the confines of the room, threatening mightily to fill the whole world, and with it the unalterable past swelled up, crushing everything else out and stifling all hope; the uplifted and luminous stage darkened, and perhaps indeed it no longer existed. ‘Well, Lohberg, where’s your kingdom of redemption now?’ shouted Esch, as though he were seeking to deafen his own terrors, shouted it in fury, because neither Lohberg nor anybody else was capable of giving an answer to the question: why must Ilona descend into contact with the earthly and the dead?

Much of the later parts of the novel are like this, with way over-the-top hysteria prompted by apparently trivial, everyday occurrences.

By the end of the novel I had come to feel all the passages like this – and some go on for pages and pages – amounted to pretentious, adolescent bombast.

How I longed for one witty turn of phrase which would defuse this universal Weltschmerz, for the acid wit of an Evelyn Waugh, the levity of a P.G. Wodehouse, God for just a little English irony and self-deprecation.

But right to the end Broch appears to take everything as tragically as his pathetic, lowlife characters.

Credit

The English translation by Willa and Edwin Muir of The Sleepwalkers by Hermann Broch was first published in 1932. All references are to the Vintage International paperback edition of all three novels in one portmanteau volume which was first published in 1996.


Related links

20th century German literature

The Weimar Republic

The Romantic by Hermann Broch (1931)

It was only fragments of the past that fleetingly emerged, and important and trivial things flowed chaotically through one another… (The Romantic, page 11)

Hermann Broch (1886 – 1951) is considered one of the major European Modernist authors. He was born in Vienna to a prosperous Jewish family and worked for some time in his family’s factory. In 1909 he converted to Roman Catholicism and married Franziska von Rothermann, the daughter of a knighted manufacturer. In 1927 i.e. aged 40, Broch sold the textile factory and decided to study mathematics, philosophy and psychology at the University of Vienna, and to pursue a full-time career as a writer. At the age of 45, in 1931, his first major literary work, the trilogy The Sleepwalkers, was published in Munich.

The Sleepwalkers consists of three medium-sized novels:

  • The Romantic (1888)
  • The Anarchist (1903)
  • The Realist (1918)

The dates are not my addition, they’re part of the formal, full titles of each novel, indicating:

  1. That each novel is, among other things, a portrait of its era
  2. That Broch is quite a schematic writer. Recall that he chose to study maths at university. Note that 1888 to 1903 is 15 years, and 1903 to 1918 is 15 years. So a span of 30 years. And it is symmetrical. And it is a trilogy, suggesting three points of focus…

Reading Hermann Broch

I read the trilogy in the English translation made by prolific translators Willa and Edwin Muir soon after the original German publication, back in the early 1930s.

There’s no getting round the fact that Broch is pretty difficult to read, for a number of reasons:

Long paragraphs Weaned on a hundred years of post-Hemingway minimalism, Anglo-Saxon readers are used to short sentences in short paragraphs. Whereas Broch – like Kafka – routinely deploys paragraphs which last an entire page, sometimes two, sometimes even more, so that the reader is confronted by what initially appears to be a wall of words.

In the modern Anglo-Saxon tradition, dialogue is broken up so that each exchange starts on a new line, making it visually and psychologically easy to follow. Not here. Extended dialogues are presented as unbroken blocks of text, which can make them hard to follow. If your focus drifts at all, it’s quite easy to find you’ve ‘read’ an entire page with absolutely no memory of what happened.

Long sentences The very long paragraphs contain some very, very long sentences. Routinely I got into the habit of having to reread entire paragraphs, and certainly some of the half-page-long sentences. Rereading helped them swim up into meaning.

The translation In almost every sentence there are ungainly and sometimes grammatically questionable turns of phrase.

Besides, visiting Berlin but twice a year, he had abundance to do when he was there. (p.11)

Perhaps his mother was really against his being sent to Culm, but one could put no dependence on her. (p.13)

Nevertheless she resolved to ask Joachim some time what was his birthday. (p.74)

Is this because German has such a different language from English, and the Muirs have stuck as close as possible to German word order? Or is it because Broch’s ‘Modernist’ German would be difficult even for a German speaker and the translators have tried to capture that difficulty?

There is no real way of knowing, but reading Broch is emphatically not like reading an English author.

Difficult descriptions Some of the text swims into view and suddenly you understand what is going on, who is talking, and what they’re saying. Then at other moments the text becomes blurry, describes the characters’ confused emotions or intuitions or misperceptions even, at moments (particularly when seen through the eyes of the central character, Joachim von Pasenow) what seem almost to be hallucinations.

Yet now suddenly everything had receded to a great distance in which Ruzena’s face and Bertrand’s could scarcely be told from each other. (p.56)

A lot of the time you’re not sure whether this is carefully calculated effect, or the cumulative impact of the long sentences in long paragraphs rendered into unidiomatic English. Is it you or him?

Stream of consciousness After a while I began to realise that, at least in part, it’s him i.e. it is a calculated effect. As you get used to Broch’s ‘background’ style, you begin to be able to make out passages where the characters have giddy, dizzy moments of misperception, the central character, Joachim von Pasenow, in particular being subject to all kinds of odd and confusing thoughts.

Things were as elusive as a melody that one thinks one cannot forget and yet loses the thread of, only to be compelled to seek it again and again in anguish. (p.114)

And you realise that at least part of Broch’s intention is to capture the flow of thoughts, and the evanescence of consciousness. Broch takes us into the mind of Joachim, and then of the two other central characters, in order to show us how multi-levelled consciousness is, and how often half-formed ideas or impressions float across our minds without ever coming into focus, often because we don’t want to fully acknowledge them.

Phenomenology I wonder what kind of philosophy Broch studied at the University of Vienna because this focus on trying to describe the actual processes of consciousness – the flavour of different thoughts, and the ways different types of thought arise and pass and sink in our minds – reminds me that Phenomenology was a Germanic school of philosophy from the early part of the century, initially associated with Vienna.

In its most basic form, phenomenology attempts to create conditions for the objective study of topics usually regarded as subjective: consciousness and the content of conscious experiences such as judgements, perceptions, and emotions. Although phenomenology seeks to be scientific, it does not attempt to study consciousness from the perspective of clinical psychology or neurology. Instead, it seeks through systematic reflection to determine the essential properties and structures of experience. (Wikipedia)

That’s not a bad summary of what Broch appears to be doing in this novel. Here’s how one character feels about ‘love’:

It was an almost joyful ground for reassurance that the feeling which she hopefully designated as love should have such a very unassuming and civilised appearance; one had actually to search one’s mind to discern it, for it was so faint and thin that only against a background of silvery ennui did it become visible. (p.70)

Just one example of from hundreds of a Broch character seeking, searching to define and make out feelings or ideas or notions which hover on the edge of consciousness or definition.

Novel of ideas The ‘novel of ideas’ is a notoriously slippery concept to define. This is more of a novel with ideas.

This is most obvious in the cleverest character, Eduard von Bertrand, who makes subtle, sophisticated or ironic speeches about love or religion or the notable speech about African Christians over-running Europe (see below).

But other characters also struggle to define and understand ideas. When Elisabeth is at home with her parents in the country there is a two- or three-page passage where she reflects at length on the special nature of her parents’ marriage, which includes a meditation on the true meaning of collecting, of making collections (to overcome death, p.71) and of age, which she experiences not as an idea but like a serpent stifling her consciousness.

Joachim spends his entire time trying to sort out his ideas about honour, duty, the army, the uniform and so on and, in the final third or so of the novel becomes obsessed with religious imagery, with a conviction of his own sinfulness and that God is punishing him (what for? well, that’s what he spends his time agonising about).

But the most philosophical character is the narrator. Personally I feel the novel gets off to a rocky start, we are introduced to too many characters in a quirky and almost incomprehensible way. But once it beds in, you are never more than a few pages from an extended description which tends to morph into ‘philosophical’ thoughts about many aspects of the quiet bourgeois style of life the book describes: the effect of the music Elisabeth plays in a piano trio (p.92) or an extended description of the landscaping of the garden round the Baddensens’ manor house, or so on.

It is not a novel of ideas in the sense that it proposes a massive concept of society like 1984 or is full of clever character sitting round discussing Important Subjects, as in an Aldous Huxley novel. It is more a novel which describes the complex feelings and intuitions of its characters which sometimes invoke larger ideas or notions. In one scene Elisabeth and her mother pay a visit to the von Pasenows. The conversation is getting a little rocky when the pet canary starts singing.

They gathered round it as round a fountain and for a few moments forgot everything else; it was as though this slender golden thread of sound, rising and falling, were winding itself around them and linking them in that unity on which the comfort of their living and dying was established; it was as though this thread which wavered up and filled their being, and yet which curved and wound back again to its source, suspended their speech, perhaps because it was a thin, golden ornament in space, perhaps because it brought to their minds for a few moments that they belonged to each other, and lifted them out of the dreadful stillness whose reverberations rise like an impenetrable wall of deafening silence between human being and human being, a wall through which the human voice cannot penetrate, so that it has to falter and die. (p.77)

There aren’t any real ‘ideas’ in this passage. Maybe it would be accurate to call it a kind of philosophically-minded description. A novel written by a philosophically-minded author. Not so much a novel of ideas as a novel of thoughtful descriptions.

The Romantic (1888) – plot summary, part one

So, I found the book quite difficult to get into because its style, layout, and approach are all alien to the super-accessible, Americanised prose we are all used to in 2020.

But, rather like getting into a cold swimming pool, if you persist, your body acclimatises to the style and you begin to grasp the basic structures of the novel, and on the back of that, to understand and appreciate what, after a while, you realise are moments of great beauty and sensitivity.

And you also come to realise that the book is built about sets of binary opposites with an almost mathematical precision (see my comment about schematic, above).

Joachim von Pasenow was sent by his landowning family to army cadet school aged ten (p.24), unlike his elder brother, Helmuth, who remained on the estate to run the family farm. The story opens with Joachim now aged about 30 (he has spent 20 years away from home, p.40), still in the army, a lieutenant (p.15) and about to be promoted to captain (p.89).

Town versus country Thus the brothers represent alternative destinies: Joachim lives in barracks in Berlin; Helmuth has stayed on the family farm in the country to help his ageing parents. So a basic binary in the novel is the contrast between urban people and values (‘you people who live in cities’) and rural lives and values (p.29).

One must not judge things merely from the standpoint of the city man; out there in the country people’s feelings were less artificial and meant more. (p.52)

But Joachim is not quite the representative of urban life I’ve just suggested. We soon get to know about a good friend of his who he met in the boy cadets and became a brother officer, Eduard von Bertrand. Bertrand quit the army and has become a businessman, a cotton importer (p.26), familiar with the Stock Exchange and the mysteries of banking and business ledgers. He has a

sureness and lightness of touch, and his competence in the affairs of life (p.147)

He has grown his hair curly (his ‘far too wavy hair’, p.51), wears smart suits, and has travelled widely, most recently to America, all qualities which Joachim mistrusts or actively despises.

So if Helmuth represents life back on the farm and Bertrand represents smart wheeler-dealer city life – then Joachim is the man in between – attracted but repelled by Bertrand’s stylish cynicism, equally attracted by his memories of simple life on the family farm, but repelled by the reality of his parents’ stultifying boredom and vulgarity.

The virgin versus the whore Same when it comes to women. Joachim’s father comes to see him in Berlin and the son is, reluctantly, obliged to take him to see the sights, which includes dinner at the Jäger Casino, where they come across two fancy women. (I think they’re high class prostitutes, but the social manners of the time being depicted and the elliptical way everyone refers to them don’t make it utterly clear.) Joachim’s father bluntly hands the dark-haired woman a 50-mark note with the apparent idea that he’s buying her for his son, but she suddenly runs off to cry with the lavatory attendant (?).

Joachim is, characteristically, disgusted by his father’s crudeness, but also haunted by the girl’s beauty and by the fleeting moment when she flirtatiously runs her hand over his close-cropped army haircut. His dad goes back to the farm, and Joachim spends days scouring the working class districts of Berlin with a half-formed intention to find the girl. One day she steps out of the crowd and into his life.

She is named Ruzena. She is not German but Czech, to be precise Bohemian (p.17), and speaks German badly (‘Not like you friend; he’s ugly man’) in a harsh staccato style.

Joachim takes Ruzena for lunch, then they take a carriage out to ‘the Havel’ – a park in West Berlin – she takes his arms under hers as they stroll beside the misty river, till it starts to rain and they take shelter under a tree where she leans against him. They kiss.

Back in Berlin he walks her to the door of her apartment where they kiss again, he turns and begins walking away, but turns again, runs up to her. She takes him upstairs and strips him and they have sex, for days afterwards he is haunted by the vision of her long black hair spread like a fan across her white pillow.

But – as usual – Joachim is conflicted. On his visit up to town, his father had suggested that Joachim pay court to the daughter of an aristocratic family in the neighbourhood, the Baddensens. She is named Elisabeth, who (to make things as simplistically symbolic as possible) is a posh, innocent blonde compared with Ruzena’s sensuous dark colouring. Elisabeth is the daughter of the Baron and Baroness von Baddensen, who live in the old manor-house on an estate at Lestow (p.24).

So Joachim is caught between the pure, angelic, blonde virgin of an eminent, rich family – or a raven-haired sex goddess, a courtesan who’s not even properly German, but has stolen his heart… or his loins, anyway.

Honour versus cynicism Yet another binary pairing occurs when Joachim’s elder brother is unexpectedly shot dead in a duel. a) In plot terms, since Joachim is now the only heir of the farm, his father wants Joachim to return to the land, to rural life with its illiterate peasants and simpler, Christian values. b) But in terms of the schema, Bertrand now grows in weight as a symbolic figure. He is given speeches praising city life, and deprecating rural values, especially rural – and by extension European – Christian faith.

In a striking speech he compares the waning of European Christianity with the passionate adherence of the African converts German and other European missionaries are making in Africa right now (1888). One day, Bertrand fancifully predicts, a great tidal wave of African Christians will sweep into a heathen Europe, reconverting it, and enthroning a black Pope in the Vatican (p.29).

The cause of Helmuth’s death wasn’t accidental. It was a duel, an old-fashioned duel, fought over ‘an affair of honour’ with a Polish landowner (though we never find out the precise cause).

So Helmuth’s straightforward ‘honour’ is compared & contrasted with Bertrand’s more worldly-wise cynicism. It’s not that Bertrand is a particularly fiery atheist, he is just a modern, successful business man who doesn’t understand how such 17th century values as duels and ‘honour’ have lived on into the age of trains and factories (p.51).

The character of Joachim von Pasenow

And, as usual, Joachim is the man in between, caught between his brother’s impeccable rectitude, which he himself feels was excessive, but repelled by Bertrand’s casual dismissal or at least questioning of it.

It is this aspect of being a man caught in between two worlds which really defines Joachim’s character, and the phrase ‘two worlds’ occurs a number of times in his internal monologues. He is perpetually uneasy.

During the last few days he had become uncertain about many things, and this in some inexplicable way was connected with Bertrand; some pillar or other of life had become shaky… and there had grown within him a longing for permanence, security and peace. (p.31)

Joachim, the man in the middle of all these binary opposites, could, I suppose have been wise and witty, or brisk and soldier-like – but instead he comes over as neurotic and tense, so profoundly confused, about even simple things like who he’s walking behind in the city streets, ‘so susceptible to this feeling of insecurity’, that the reader starts to think he must be having a nervous breakdown.

For a moment everything was confused again and one did not know to whom Ruzena belonged… (p.56)

Joachim is easily confused. He doesn’t understand other people’s motives, or over-thinks them. He confuses people in a surreal way, so that the sight of his fiancée Elisabeth climbing up into a train departing for the country is so exactly like the movements of his father undertaking the same action, that Joachim momentarily confuses them both, to such an extent that he becomes speechless.

‘In his fantasy’ (p.24), Joachim imagines Ruzena lives in one of the small shops he walks past in Berlin, with her dark-haired mother. All fantasy.

He sees an Italian-looking man at the Opera with black hair, hears him speaking a foreign language, and in a fantastical way comes to believe that it is Ruzena’s brother, on no evidence at all. He proceeds to superimpose her features on his, and the ‘brother’s’ features onto Ruzena – all baseless fantasia.

It is typical of Joachim’s diseased fantasy that, when he returns home for his brother’s funeral and sits in the room with the coffin he fantasises that it is he, Joachim, in the coffin (p.41). He dreams that Ruzena has killed herself by drowning herself in the river at the Havel Park – but next thing, is fantasising that it is he who has drowned, or that it is his eyes which look up out of her face (p.123).

A fantastic association led his thoughts quite into the absurd, and the confusion became almost inextricable… (p.88)

Walking through Berlin he finds himself following a fat bearded man waddling along and on absolutely no evidence concludes that he must be Bertrand’s business agent.

Even though Joachim knew that what he thought was without sense or sequence, yet it was as though the apparently confused skein concealed a sequence… (p.48)

He can’t control his neurotic and destructive fantasies.

After a while I noticed the number of sentences which include two perhapses: perhaps it was this, perhaps only that –

Perhaps they were tears he had not noticed, perhaps however it was only the oppressive heat… (p.44)

Well, that might be taken as sarcasm, or it might not (p.76)

Ambiguity and uncertainty are sewn into the fabric of the text throughout.

Joachim often gets confused by the actual experience of his thoughts. His thoughts hove into view but don’t quite crystallise or complete, before they melt away. His mind has many levels and on all of them he is subject to confused impressions, misidentifications, and ungraspable insights.

… at the same time and in some other layer of his mind… (p.35)

Then, just when it was becoming visible, the thought broke off and hid itself… (p.67)

A new feeling had unexpectedly risen in him; he tried to find words for it… (p.74)

Some of this feels a little like the interior monologue brought to unmatched heights in James Joyce’s Ulysses, but only a little. In Joyce’s novel entire passages are conveyed in a swirl of consciousness, in which language itself breaks down. Nothing like that happens here. Language remains correct and grammatical, it’s the characters thoughts which break down and evade their grasp.

Urban alienation The most obvious way that the book is ‘modernist’ is the way the central character’s confusion and neurosis is directly linked to the bustling crowds of late-nineteenth century Berlin (what the book describes as ‘the labyrinth of the city, p.22) which he finds overwhelming.

But now his thoughts jostled each other like the people in the crowd round about him, and even though he saw a goal in front of him which he wanted to reach, it swam and wavered and was lost to view like the back of the fat man before him. (p.49)

Against the anarchy of modern values Joachim the soldier struggles to hold himself erect and firm but is constantly fighting a losing battle.

It often required an actual effort to hold things firmly in their proper shapes, an effort to difficult that many a time all those people who bustled about as if all was in order seemed to him limited, blind and almost crazy. (p.113)

This is epitomised by the odd, extended passage early in the novel where Joachim tries to express to himself why the concept of the uniform is so important. For him his uniform is a ‘bulwark against anarchy’ (p.23) and the sight of civilian clothes sometimes makes Joachim feel physically sick.

The dangers of civilian life were of a more obscure and incomprehensible kind. Chaos and disorder everywhere, without a hierarchy, without discipline. (p.60)

When he meets Bertrand wearing civvies, Joachim is as embarrassed and ashamed to be seen with him as if he were naked (p.27). When his parents start sending him letters requesting that he quit the army and go to run the family farm, Joachim likens the idea to being stripped of his uniform and dumped naked in the Alexanderplatz (p.59).

The tangle of nets which stretched over the whole city, the net which he felt everywhere… an impenetrable, incomprehensible net of civilian values which was invisible and yet which darkened everything. (p.62)

Interlude: Why is the novel titled The Romantic?

It would be easy to answer that Joachim is a man whose head is full of ‘romantic’ notions of honour, duty, love and Christian faith and rural values, and the novel shows the stress all these ideas come under – but it’s not quite that simple.

For Joachim is far beyond having a ‘romantic’ turn of mind. He’s mad, actually. He regularly hallucinates – as in merging different people – is puzzled and confused about how to behave and what to think. And also he is simply too stupid to understand what Bertrand is saying half the time. I.e. Joachim is not a portrait of a throwback to an earlier, more romantic era – he is a neurotic on the edge of a breakdown, quite a lot more of a hard-edged figure.

Also he is a soldier. There’s a moment in Joachim’s rooms where Bertrand proposes an elaborate and humorous toast to Ruzena and, seeing it through Joachim’s eyes, we realise that he simply doesn’t understand what Bertrand is on about. He suspects it’s some complicated ploy to take Ruzena away from him, whereas the reader can see it’s just an elaborate and humorous toast.

Later in the book, Joachim tries to provide a regular income for Ruzena, and Bertrand recommends him to his lawyer to arrange it all, and the lawyer quickly sees that Joachim is useless at making decisions, in all the aspects of practical life.

Later still, in conversation with Elisabeth, Betrand tells her point blank that the ability to ‘love’ requires a modicum of wisdom, or at least cleverness – and that Joachim lacks both.

After a while I realised that Joachim is scared of everything and everyone. He is certain Bertrand is out to ‘get’ him, to drag him into civilian life, to steal his black-haired beauty or his blonde virgin. He is insistently paranoid. Unless his uniform is done up just so, unless he hold himself stiff and erect, then some nameless, dreadful thing will happen.

So it seems to me that Joachim is less a ‘romantic’ than a delusional, borderline hysterical, neurotic, extremely uptight and dim junior army officer. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see him as precisely the kind of narrow, patriotic, sexually tortured junior officer who went on to carry out countless coups throughout the 20th century, imprison and execute the liberal opposition, close bars and brothels and impose a strict sexual morality which reflects his own neuroses.

In conclusion, the protagonist of this novel is not at all what the title ‘The Romantic’ might lead you to believe.

Also, he isn’t the only ‘romantic’ character in the book. Elisabeth is, in her way, a desperate romantic i.e. she wants wishful fantasies to outweigh reality. She wants to live with her mummy and daddy forever and ever. And then there’s Ruzena who, Bertrand decides, is a romantic child, as helpless as a little animal.

So maybe the novel would more accurately be titled The Romantics.

The Romantic (1888) – plot summary, part two

Joachim is called down to his parents’ farm for the funeral of Helmuth. This means abandoning Ruzena in Berlin. She has just recently got a job as a showgirl-cum-actress through contacts of Bertrand’s.

Characteristically, Joachim had no idea about how to fulfil this ambition of hers ‘with all his mooning, romantic fantasies’ (p.64), whereas Bertrand was easily able to pull a few strings and make it happen. Which is why Joachim envies and despises him. (As the novel progresses we get more and more ‘leaks’ as to what Bertrand makes of his former comrade in arms; he thinks of Joachim as a ‘clumsy fellow’, p.92, and later on will simply call him stupid.)

Bertrand pays a courtesy call on Ruzena and walks her home and then Ruzena leans into him and lifts her mouth to be kissed, exactly as she did with Joachim. But Bertrand chastely kisses her cheek, she goes into her apartment block while he lights a cigar and strolls jauntily away. You begin to realise Bertrand has the measure of both Joachim and Ruzena, and is amusing himself with them.

Similarly, when Bertrand goes down to stay with the von Pasenow family at their estate in Stolpin, Joachim has a (characteristically) fatalistic intuition that Bertrand will take Elisabeth from him and, just as inevitably, Bertrand does.

The three go riding together and – in a strange and persuasive moment – Joachim reins his horse in just as it was about to take an easy jump, making it stumble and hurt its ankle; so that he reluctantly says he better walk it home – leaving Bertrand to embark on an extended and highly philosophical seduction of Elisabeth.

It is a characteristically Broch touch that Joachim doesn’t understand then or forever after just what impulse made him rein in his horse, thus almost certainly hurting it, thus forcing him to leave Bertrand and Elisabeth alone, thus almost certainly pushing them together, thus almost certainly sabotaging the plans the parents of both families have to make a convenient match between them.

It’s not rocket science, but it’s typical of Joachim’s puzzled personality that he agonises about it; and it’s typical of Broch’s approach to the novel, to the idea of fiction, that this is the kind of psychologically charged moment he likes to depict and then have his characters mull over for pages of dense, psychologically-charged prose.

Joachim’s father has a stroke. He begins behaving oddly. The stroke occurred when he was writing a furious letter disinheriting Joachim for his ‘treachery’ of insisting on going back to Berlin and refusing to stay and run the family farm. Joachim goes down to see him and stay. He pays some visits to Elisabeth where their relationship proceeds in a halting, frosty kind of way. After vegetating at the farm for some time, Joachim makes an excuse to return to Berlin for three days and immediately sends for Ruzena. She comes running, cooks for him, they go to bed. Joachim is unhappy with Ruzena’s career on the stage – where she gets plaudits from strange men – and suggests to her that he sets her up running a little lace shop.

This is a typically stupid Joachim suggestion based solely on the warm impression he gained from looking into a lace shop in which a mother and daughter were bent over their needles on one of his many walks around Berlin. Ruzena enjoys the attention she gets as a showgirl and so she angrily rejects Joachim’s suggestion, and angrily asks if he’s been put up to it by his ‘bad’ friend, Bertrand, who she’s never liked (p.117).

Joachim’s father deteriorates and so he is compelled to accompany a nerve specialist from Berlin down to the family home. Here the father makes another scene in a small gathering of his wife, Joachim, the village priest, the family doctor and the nerve specialist. He insists on rising from his sick bed and taking the head of the table from where he issues denunciations, telling everyone that his son Joachim is dead and buried in the local cemetery but still doesn’t write to him anymore. The people round the table look at each other. Father is losing his mind.

Meanwhile, Bertrand, back from a business trip to Prague, drops by Joachim’s flat to pay a courtesy call on Ruzena. Here he unwittingly presses all the wrong buttons, exacerbating her sense of grievance that Joachim wants to take her off the stage (and deny her the first really fulfilling activity she’s ever had in her life) and in a rather surprising development, she becomes so furious that she rummages around in Joachim’s drawers, finds his service revolver and shoots Bertrand.

Not badly. In the arm. She drops the revolver, he bleeds. It is a scene from an opera or a late 19th century melodrama. He insists she accompanies him in a hansom cab to the hospital where he has the wound dressed but when he comes out she has gone.

After seeking her in vain for a few days, Bertrand writes to Joachim who comes up from the farm. He explains what happened. Joachim sets out on a trawl of Berlin nightclubs, cafes etc. Eventually he finds Ruzena sprawled in the loos of a louche club. She is in a terrible state and has become a prostitute again. When he pleads with her to come home with him she locks herself in a cubicle. Joachim waits outside for an hour and then is horrified to see her emerging on the arm of a fat client, and getting into a cab together. Looks like his affair with the Bohemian beauty is over.

This leads to the sequence of scenes where Joachim, driven by ‘romantic’ notions, decides to settle some money on Ruzena. Bertrand’s lawyer sizes him up quickly, realising that the stiff-necked man in front of him is ‘helpless’ in the face of the real world (p.131). To Joachim, inside his head, everything feels tangled and entrapped in a closing mesh over which presides a vengeful God. Whereas to the lawyer facing him, Joachim’s case is one of a type he sees all the time – army officer of good family needs to pay off illicit lover, in order to clear way for marriage to eligible heiress, and he gives him brisk practical advice on how to do it, while useless Joachim sits in front of him, racked by terror of The Evil One.

Joachim goes straight from this meeting (stopping only to put on his best pair of army gloves) to the house in the western suburbs of the city which the von Banndensen family take for the season, knocks, enters, and asks Freiherr von Baddensen for his daughter’s hand in marriage. He and his wife are thrilled, but caution that they must speak to Elisabeth first.

A day or so later Joachim meets Bertrand and explains what he’s done. Bertrand is shrewd and supportive. In a classic piece of dramatic irony, the narrator then tells us why: that Elisabeth came to see Bertrand the day before, taking a carriage to the hospital and insisting on seeing him in a small private reception room to ask his advice.

Here they have a reprise of the semi-philosophical love-sparring which they had first had on the day of the horse ride. During this, Bertrand a) points out that Joachim is ‘too stupid to love’ (p.135) b) that he, Bertrand, loves Elisabeth, but will be leaving the country soon and so they cannot marry. Therefore c) she should marry Joachim.

It was difficult to gauge the tone of this. Is it light satire or – what it feels more like – Bertrand being quite brutally unfeeling and playing with Elisabeth’s emotions. All the time he is telling her they can’t be together, he is kissing her and telling her how much he loves her. Is he deliberately tormenting her? Or is he himself not quite in control of the situation? Anyway, having exhausted themselves, Elisabeth decides that she will marry Joachim and leaves the feverish Bertrand  to return to his hospital bed.

The narration returns to the ‘now’ from which this flashback occurred i.e. to Joachim talking to Bertrand, and Joachim declares more fiercely than ever that he will marry Elisabeth.

This leads on to an extraordinary scene where Joachim pays a formal visit to the von Baddensens, there is a formal dinner, toasts are proposed in champagne, and then everyone leaves the happy couple alone. And there follows an extremely tense and embarrassing scene where the two lovers, neither of whom really wants to get married, have to go through the ghastly farce of Joachim getting down onto his knees to propose. In a very ‘modern’ touch, Joachim has a hallucination of the room’s walls moving away, of all the furniture moving away from him to an infinite distance while his heart freezes as he touches Elisabeth’s dainty little fingers which are as cold as ice (p.142), a chill which is like ‘a dreadful foreboding of death’ (p.153).

Not the least weird aspect of this very weird scene is that they both end up talking about Bertrand who is a more central part of their lives than each other.

In the coach back from the von Baddensens, Joachim has a typical one of his hallucinations, an overwhelming sense that both his father and Bertrand must have died, together, that evening. Of course, neither of them have. Joachim isn’t a ‘romantic’. He is delusional.

Joachim goes to see Bertrand in hospital and tell him about his proposal and acceptance and Bertrand is humorously supportive and, as always, Joachim feels he is being deluded, deceived, having rings run round him.

Elisabeth and Joachim get married. they fuss and fret about whether she’ll come to stay at his house, given that his father is now an invalid, or she go separately to stay with her parents, or whether they should go to the house in the suburbs of Berlin which her parents have gifted the couple. Joachim urgently needs the worldly wisdom of Bertrand to answer these questions for him, but Bertrand is not there.

During the marriage ceremony, Joachim is overcome with religious terror, that he is an imposter, one of the damned, and barely hears the words of the service at all. He is an Expressionist hysteric. He is screaming inside like Munch’s picture.

They go to stay in a hotel in Berlin and several pages are spent describing the inner turmoil of Joachim’s mind. In his head Elisabeth has always been a pure virginal figure – he is agonised by the presence a toilet next door, he cannot possibly imagine her using it – and he sees himself as her knight in shining armour devoted to protecting her. Thus the last few pages of the novel describe his agonising before he can bring himself to knock on her hotel door (they have separate rooms), going to the bed, kneeling beside it and kissing her hand. He wishes Bertrand were there to help him. He wishes Elisabeth were Ruzena with whom everything seemed easy and natural. By slow steps he lies down on the bed beside her and falls asleep. Elisabeth smiles and, after a while, falls asleep too.

This, I suppose, we are meant to take it, was the manner of the wooings and marriages of the Broch’s parents’ generation. Joachim is nuts, that’s extremely clear. And yet the message is subtler. For all the lies and evasions it is based on, I for one ended the book admiring the determination of both these dim, unprepared innocents to make the most of the situation they find themselves in. If they go on to have a formal, staid, distanced but affectionate and respectful marriage, who’s to say there’s anything wrong with that?

Religion

In the second half of the book, religion becomes a more and more dominant theme. Joachim’s confused thoughts gather together bits and pieces from the village priest, memories of extravagant religious pictures he saw in Dresden, attendance at church parades with his corps, and a few private visits to churches, to convince him that God is punishing him for his sins.

Inevitable fate, inescapable discipline of God! (p.122)

I can see how some readers might take this at face value and I’d be surprised if there aren’t hundreds of academic essay about religious imagery in the book. And yet to me it seems obvious that it’s all due to the fact that Joachim is an idiot.

He is terrified of civilians. He can’t handle the chaotic hustle and bustle of the big city. He doesn’t understand what Bertrand does, he doesn’t understand business. He has no idea how to make a bequest to Ruzena. He has no sense of how to run his parents’ farm as a business.

He is, in other words, hopeless and impractical and dim. His increasing turn to God and religion, therefore, seems to me the refuge of an idiot. Because he doesn’t understand anything about the actual world he finds himself in, he retreats to thinking it’s all part of a Divine Plan against him.

So, in my opinion, the religious aspect of the last third of the book has no real religious content but represents Joachim’s stupidity and his paranoia. It is more an investigation of how the stupid and the paranoid come to have religious faith. It’s not so much that it’s consoling (which it is) as that it is easy to understand. God is Daddy. Daddy is punishing me. I have been a bad boy. Not difficult, is it?

Descriptions

Once you have slowed right down to the speed of this odd book, and once you get into the habit of often rereading entire paragraphs to decipher what they’re about, I found myself admiring whole passages for their evocativeness and beauty.

They are not examples of good English prose, in fact they are often disfigured by unbeautiful phraseology (is that Broch or the Muirs?) but nonetheless there are passages of extended description which really manage to convey a room, a view, a landscape, a scene or setting and, in particular, the strange evanescent feeling of fleeting thoughts – with a depth and power which I found increasingly rewarding.

You really feel like you are entering the minds of the characters, above all the neurotic army lieutenant Joachim von Pasenow. Although, by the end, I wondered if the novel wasn’t about a so-called ‘romantic’ at all, but really about a near-simpleton. A good deal of Joachim’s agonising and tortured reflections about God or his uniform or civilian life etc really boil down to the fact that he’s a stupid person who doesn’t understand what’s going on around him, and finds it a real challenge coping with even the basics of adult life.

Maybe the book could have more accurately been titled The Idiot.

The dense crowd around him, the hubbub, as the Baroness called it, all this commercial turmoil full of faces and backs, seemed to him a soft, gliding, dissolving mass which one could not lay hold on. Where did it all lead to? (p.49)

Where indeed?

Credit

The English translation by Willa and Edwin Muir of The Sleepwalkers by Hermann Broch was first published in 1932. All references are to the Vintage International paperback edition of all three novels in one portmanteau volume which was first published in 1996.


Related links

20th century German literature

The Weimar Republic

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

The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin (1974)

This is a good, deep and thoughtful novel even if, in the end, you disagree with some of its ideas and aims.

It is a) set in the far future, b) in a solar system far, far away, and c) starts off as a variation on the age-old science fiction theme of the innocent who arrives in a new world / new civilisation, notes the myriad of ways in which it is different from his home country / civilisation, and then slowly realises he is a pawn in a murky geopolitical power-play.

At various moments it reminded me of some of the earliest science novels such as Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy in which a sleeper wakes into a drastically changed human society and spends the rest of the book being lectured about the badness of the bad old days, or HG Wells’s The Sleeper Awakes where a Victorian man wakes in the far future to discover not only that an entire cult has built up around him, but that society is fiercely divided into haves and have-nots and his very awakening triggers a violent revolt by the underclass.

In this novel a naive idealist goes to a more sophisticated future culture and finds himself triggering a major revolt of the long-suffering underclass, which is put down with bloody violence. So at moments I had a strong sense of deja vu.

Urras and Anarres

In this variation of the theme, there are two sister planets, apparently of the ‘Cetian’ system, named Urras and Anarres, which (seem to) orbit each other and so appear as each other’s moons.

Both are occupied by human-type entities, who in fact refer to themselves as Mankind. (There are teasing references to two other planets beyond the immediate system, Haina and Terra, the latter presumably being ‘our’ Earth: only towards the very end of the book do we learn – from the Terran ambassador no less – that Terra is indeed our earth, that it is eleven light years from Tau Ceti, that humanity almost destroyed itself and has ravaged Earth’s environment, and was only saved by the arrival of the more advanced Hainish. There is some intriguing speculation that at some point in the remote past all these planets were colonised by humanoids – which would include Earth, p.119.)

Anyway, these are just intriguing grace-notes of the kind science fiction writers love teasing their readers with and science fiction readers love working up into elaborate theories.

More central to the story is that 170 years before it begins, technology on Urras led to the development of spaceships which could voyage to its ‘moon’, Anarres. The first arrivals were disappointed to discover the supposedly green planet was in fact a mostly windswept desert of dust, where only rare regions had even low-lying trees, where there were no birds or land animals, for life was still at the fish stage.

Initially, the Urrasti mined the new planet, sending back metals and petroleum which had become rare on Urras due to over-development. But some kind of social revolution was taking place on Urras, led by a woman philosopher and social reformer named Odo. Odo developed a pacifist, anarchist, communitarian, vegetarian, holistic philosophy in several books – the Prison Letters and the Analogy (p.74) – and her teachings spread, threatening to undermine the materialist Urrasti way of life, leading to ‘the Insurrection’ in the year 747. (Odo had a husband, mentioned once, Aseio, p.157)

And so the authorities – ‘the Council of World Governments’ (CWG) – on Urras realised a clever way to square the circle would be to pack off the entire sect of ‘Odonians’ to their ‘moon’, where they could put all their utopian visions into practice, and also continue to provide the raw materials Urras required.

And so, over a course of 20 years, some million Odonians were ferried up to Anarres, at first settling what became the capital city, Abbenay (which means Mind in the new language they began to use), slowly moving out to colonise the other regions (and discovering just how barren and inhospitable Anerras is).

Shevek

And it’s at this point that the narrative opens, focusing on the experiences of the young Anarresti physicist, Shevek. It opens with Shevek boarding one of the rare (only ten or so a year) cargo flights which travel from Anerras back to the ‘mother’ planet, Urras. The populations of the two planets remain in touch, but – as you might expect – as their social systems, languages and customs have diverged, so suspicion and reserve have arisen on both sides. (In fact, again only towards the end of the book, we learn that the emigration involved signing certain Terms of Settlement which mandated that no Urrasti were allowed off their occasional cargo ships.)

The narrative proceeds by alternating chapters describing Shevek’s arrival on Urras, with others giving flashbacks to his childhood, boyhood, and young manhood on his home planet. This sounds like a gimmick but it works wonderfully well, in the second half of the novel the alternating timezones create a powerful rhythm and create a deepening emotional connection with the supremely clever but naive, idealistic and yet troubled Shevek.

In other ways, it is is slowly, through the slow revelation of Shevek’s backstory and experiences, that the book reveals its depths.

Initially, we are led to believe that Anarresti society is a Utopia – a non-materialistic, communal society, where there is so little personal property that there aren’t even personal pronouns (no ‘my’, ‘your’, ‘his’ or ‘her’s), where children are raised communally, where everyone works voluntarily and eats freely from the communal refectories, there is no profit motive and no power complexes, in fact no government, just ‘syndicates’ which specialise in particular areas of work, and a central administration of the division of labour (DivLab) which uses computers to organise the population’s work rotas.

‘We have no government but the single principle of free association. We have no states, no nations, no presidents, no premiers, no chiefs, no generals, no bosses, no bankers, no landlords, no wages, no charity, no police, no soldiers, no wars. Nor do we have much else. We are sharers, not owners.’

If they are mostly brain workers, then every tenthday (they don’t have seven-day weeks, they have ten-day ‘decads’) they will be rotated to some kind of manual labour. They speak Pravic, a language invented to be rational and without all the words for possession, ownership and exploitation. Anyone beginning to display such tendencies is (mildly) criticised for being a ‘propertarian’, or told to ‘stop egoising’ and put the community first.

The sexes (there are two sexes, named men and women) are completely equal, participate equally in work and decision making and scientific study etc, and sex is easy and casually available as and when couples feel the need, with no shame or taboos. If couples partner up, fine, if they break up, fine, just as Shevek’s parents split up when he was small, and he was brought up in a communal centre.

Because Anarres is relatively impoverished, there is no waste and everyone lives frugally. Because there are no land animals, everyone is vegetarian.

In other words, Anarres – at least to start with – has very much the feel of a hippy Utopia circa 1974.

Shevek on Urras

When Shevek arrives by rocket on the mother planet Urras – heralded as ‘the first visitor from the moon in 170 years’ – he of course discovers that, although its inhabitants have more goods and services, their society is unrecognisably different from his communal homeland. Urrastis are ‘propertarians’, society is ruled by the profit motive, everyone has titles and formal terms of address (unlike the simple one-word names of Anerras which, we learn, are allotted by computer).

The first time he is taken to the two-mile-long shopping street – Saemtenevia Prospect in the capital city, Nio Esseia (p.110) – Shevek is made physically ill by the excess and the waste.

And so on. As is standard with this kind of ‘innocent abroad’ narrative, we are made to see the corruption, waste and greed of our own wretched capitalist system via a description of a supposedly ‘fantasy’ civilisation as seen through the eyes of an archetypal outsider.

As well as the fondness for titles and possessive pronouns, Shevek discovers (i.e. Le Guin satirises) various other aspects of Urrasti-American culture. Shevek discovers that women on Urras are second-class citizens, very much confined to the home as housewives, and banned from the university, which he finds unnerving and bizarre.

He can’t believe the staggering scale of the conspicuous consumption, the myriads of different clothes, along with the numerous forms of address and politeness, none of which exist on simple, honest Anerras.

He is appalled at the way everything is packaged and wrapped, even the wrapping paper is wrapped in wrapping paper. Waste upon waste.

He goes to the theatre and doesn’t understand the play which is full of snide references to copulation which never actually mention the fact; everyone titters and guffaws but he doesn’t understand their hypocritical shying away from the basic facts of life.

He goes to a museum and is appalled by all the relics of bloodthirsty barbarity it contains.

Shevek the physicist

The institution of the University looms large and makes me realise I haven’t yet explained that, as well as some trade between the two planets, there is also intellectual exchange, and that Shevek is an intellectual prodigy.

The descriptions of his childhood are used to explain Anerras’ utopian social structure to us, but also to bring out Shevek’s unique vision, his intellectual precocity. We are shown Shevek quickly outdoing his college teachers, one of whom in particular – the sneaky Sabul –  suffers from an inferiority complex vis-a-vis the much better-endowed intellectuals of the richer, larger mother planet, and so sends some of Shevek’s graduate work back to academics on Urras.

It is this – Shevek’s intellectual promise – which leads to the invitation from leading academic figures on Urras to visit them, to take a rocket journey back to the home planet, and to the extended passages where the disorientated visitor is shown round this brave new world by his hosts – all this allowing Le Guin to make her points about the unattractiveness of materialism, capitalism, conspicuous consumption, the oppression of women which this simple, honest, open man is introduced to.

Politics

But again, as you might well expect for this kind of storyline, there is trouble in paradise. We slowly learn that Urras is divided between two power blocs, the runaway capitalism and conspicuous consumption of A-Io, and a rival state named Thu, an authoritarian system that claims to rule in the name of the proletariat.

Ring any bells? It would have done in 1974, when this aspect of the story would have been an obvious reference to the way the world was divided between two rival superpowers, super-capitalist USA, and the ruthlessly authoritarian Soviet Union which practiced every kind of tyrannical practice in the name of the ‘proletariat’.

It turns out that the scientists – and so the political leaders – of A-Io and Thu have both realised that Shevek’s physics is teetering on the brink of a major breakthrough in the understanding of spacetime, a new theory called ‘transilience’ which could, potentially, lead to the development of vastly more powerful forms of instantaneous communication and maybe transportation across stellar distances.

Thus, as you might have predicted, on one level the novel turns into a kind of Cold War thriller, in which Shevek – who had naively come back to the mother planet seeking to establish ‘brotherhood’ and a new understanding (p.121) – slowly realises that his smiling, obliging hosts in A-Io are after his knowledge, but so are agents of Thu who have been sent to ingratiate themselves with him, namely Dr Chifoilisk who tries to persuade him that Thuvians are revolutionaries, like the Odonians. He becomes a pawn in the power politics of Anerras.

Indeed, Shevek eventually becomes so disillusioned that he throws in his lot with the inevitable ‘underground’ movement, getting in touch with them in their haunts on the derelict Old Town part of the capital city, and becoming the symbolic figurehead of an immense protest march of the underclass which wins through the city streets to the Capitol Square, where Shevek makes an inspiring speech about brotherhood and solidarity just before state security helicopters open fire on the crowd, massacring unarmed women and children, and Shevek makes a getaway, helping a mortally wounded man to a hideaway in a derelict warehouse where he stays with the man till he dies of blood loss and shock.

This as well, reads like an only slightly paranoid version of the police state many liberals thought America was in danger of becoming in the final stages of the Vietnam War, with mass civil disobedience leading to atrocities by the National Guard.

From that point onwards Shevek freely expresses his disgust with Urras:

‘There is nothing you can do that profit does not enter into, and fear of loss, and a wish for power. You cannot say good morning without knowing which of you is `superior’ to the other, or trying to prove it. You cannot act like a brother to other people, you must manipulate them, or command them, or obey them, or trick them. You cannot touch another person, yet they will not leave you alone. There is no freedom. It is a box – Urras is a box, a package, with all the beautiful wrapping of blue sky and meadows and forests and great cities. And you open the box, and what is inside it? A black cellar full of dust, and a dead man.’

Utopia and universities

In the preface to this novel, Le Guin explains how she came across anarchist writings, for example of Kropotkin, and found these a more attractive alternative to the more authoritarian Marxism as, indeed, many well-heeled bourgeois academics and writers have. How wonderful to live in a world with no bosses, no state and where everyone co-operates willingly for the common good!

And, at least to begin with, the description of the utopian arrangements on Anerras for work or sex or education or relationships or family or farming or building and so on come across as idyllically simple and fair and soul-building, allowing each to contribute to society voluntarily, how and as and when they wish.

And it is a central flaw or issue with the book that virtually all the characters are intellectuals: Shevek’s school and college career leads straight into a job in the university (though with breaks for quite demanding manual labour); his wife Takver is also an academic, a marine biologist; their friends are writers or fellow intellectuals, and they are all shown having extended arguments about the soul of man, and justice, and property and ownership and communal living and so on. And when he arrives on Urras it is to join the faculty of the famous Ieu Eun university and mix with, yes, more lecturers and professors who spend all their time talking about society and justice and so on.

In fact, although it is regarded as a masterpiece of science fiction, The Disposessed could be considered a sort of campus novel, a tale of two university campuses, and all its lead characters are almost exclusively academics.

He crossed the campus on his way to a lecture. (p.171)

Because Shevek is a young man finding his way in the central chapters about his life on Anerras (aged 24 on p.156 as he falls in love with the marine biologist) and because so much of the book has the feel of an undergraduate debating society, it is a surprise to learn that he has just turned 40 at the point where he decides to take the fateful trip to Urras, and has – by that point – spent over ten years working on the problem of Simultaneity – the General Theory of Temporality.

Towards a subtler picture

The essentially white liberal bourgeois academic milieu and the prolonged and high-minded debates about social organisation and justice sometimes give it the feel not only of a campus novel, but of a very 1970s campus novel, with all the characters, whether radical or reactionary, worrying about the advent of The Revolution as if it’s just around the corner, just the way people used to talk about The Revolution in the 1970s.

And, as mentioned, the book has a lot of rather cliched themes – the innocent traveller to a more corrupt culture and the solitary idealistic figure who becomes the trigger for a violent insurrection.

BUT. But but but… I found the second half of the book steadily improved, grew richer and deeper and – crucially – was less expected and predictable. In the alternating flashback chapters we come to ones which describe a really profound drought which affects Anarres and leads to a disastrous famine. Food is short all over, and Shevek volunteers to go and help with famine relief.

Now we begin to see cracks in the high-minded fabric of the utopia. Now we see people not mucking in together, people behaving selfishly, people trying to protect their own. And, during the extensive description of this time, Le Guin emphasises that the entire communal lifestyle is only possible because it is necessary. Part of the reason there is no conspicuous consumption and waste is because there just aren’t enough resources on Anarres to make very much more than basic recycled cotton clothes, and the dreariest of simple vegetarian diets.

Slowly, in a number of scenes, we come to see that even people raised from childhood in an egalitarian society can become selfish, jealous, snide, threatening and violent, if the circumstances are correct.

These scenes – and the commentary of the characters such as Shevek and his wife and best friends discussing them – are genuinely interesting reflections on human nature in an entirely invented culture and civilisation, coming under pressure.

Keng

Similarly, towards the end of the novel, after the climactic massacre in Capitol Square, Shevek manages to evade the sinister, black-clad security forces, and his friends in the ‘Underground’ smuggle him to the neutral city of Rodarred, where he seeks asylum in the Terran Embassy. (A setting which gives rise to all kinds of intriguing contrasts between the physique of the Anarrasti – big and haired all over – and of the Terrans – slight and smooth). And here he meets the slight, smooth-faced female ambassador whose name, Keng, suggests she is of Chinese ancestry.

Here a number of threads are tied up.

  1. Keng arranges with the authorities of A-Io that Shevek can return to Anarres unharmed (in fact he will be carried there by a ship of the fourth race of humanoid mentioned, the Hainish)
  2. The climax of Shevek’s mission is that he explains that he has developed the theory which could lead to Transilience and a technology of instantaneous communication (it is here we learn from Keng that the planets we’re on are eleven light years from Earth i.e. messages to Terra take at least 11 years there and 11 years back, so instant messaging would transform all the humanoid civilisations). And he asks Keng if she can arrange for the crucial handful of physics equations to be beamed to all the humanoid planets simultaneously, so no one culture gets exclusive use of them.

So they have a fascinating conversation, the slight Terran ambassador and the hulking hairy Anarresti. But what pleased me because it was unexpected and yet seemed psychologically true is that, after Shevek has finished a long speech about how much he now hates and detests Urras and its grotesque capitalist luxury and inequality… what was strangely moving is that the ambassador then makes a speech in which she explains that, from the perspective of the ravaged, ruined Earth, Urras is Paradise!. Sure it has its inequalities and tensions, but her home planet is desolate, barren, a place of ruins and total poverty. At least Urras has life and invention and colour and exuberance.

It’s not a very profound fictional move, but it exemplifies the way this slow-building but eventually wonderful and moving book looks at themes and ideas which, to begin with, seem rather stereotyped and over-familiar, and then subjects them to more penetrating examination than you’re used to in the generally sensationalist genre of science fiction.

Time and meaning

And it’s symptomatic of the way the book leans towards a more ‘serious’ tone and attitude, that the final chapter isn’t triumphalist or doom-laden, it doesn’t end in flames or indeed anything very decisive. Only here, right at the end, do we learn about the opposition stirred up to Shevek’s idea of travelling to Urras among his fellow anarchists and communalists.

Like people everywhere, it turns out that they can be quite as paranoid, suspicious and vindictive as anyone else – Shevek is treated as a traitor, his wife is cold-shouldered at her work, and even their ten-year-old daughter is bullied and victimised at her learning centre.

All this reinforces the metaphysical strand at the heart of the book, that life isn’t a fixed state, happiness isn’t something you achieve and then relax. Life is a continual process, and its meaning derives from the union of past and future in a continual flux.

This issue – the question of the meaning of human existence in an endlessly changing world – maps beautifully onto Shevek’s intellectual concerns as a physicist trying to reconcile two completely different theories of time, he devotes his life to seeking:

the unification of Sequency and Simultaneity in a general field theory of time,

The fact that Le Guin was raised in the home of two successful academics at first glance helps explain the limitations of the novel – as I’ve mentioned – to a cast list mostly made up of academics and intellectuals who spend nearly the whole book having philosophical discussions,

But on the upside, it means that she does manage to capture the feel of academic research, the mundaneness of it. The scene – a sequence of a few days – where Shevek – after a disastrous social outing on Urras where he gets humiliatingly drunk on champagne which he’s never drunk before – tells his servant to close ad lock the doors, allow no-one admission, and then spends day after day sitting at his desk, getting up, walking round, staring out the window and… suddenly sees the solution, the answer, the way to reconcile the two contradictory ways of thinking about and measuring time… this scene for me marvellously captures the joy of silent, entranced, intellectual effort, and its deep rich rewards, as you become aware of your mind unfolding a huge new way of seeing life.

In a smaller but comparable way, it may occur to the reader that, the alternation of the chapters, which alternate between the ‘present’ of the main narrative, and a series of flashbacks – all of which are bound together by a narrative which starts with Shevek leaving his home planet and ends with him returning – in their structure reflect Shevek’s attempt to integrate a linear and a circular theory of time. That the narrative structure in some sense embodies the theory of integrated time which Shevek is working towards…

Conclusion

It’s not a perfect book, and many elements have dated in ways I’ve indicated. But at its core is a really serious attempt to engage with a number of issues – about politics and society, about the possibility of a fair and just civilisation – about the life of the mind – and above all about time and our place in time’s flux – which are rare to encounter in any genre of fiction.

The Dispossessed is not wonderfully written. But it is wonderfully and seriously imagined.


Related links

Other science fiction reviews

Late Victorian
1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1900s
1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1910s
1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1920s
1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, where they discover…

1930s
1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years – surely the most sweeping vista of any science fiction book
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Oxford academic Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra, as the natives call the planet Mars

1940s
1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950s
1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – the florid revenge of Gulliver Foyle, a fastpaced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport and a terrifying new weapon has been invented
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1960s
1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1970s
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?

1980s
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the ‘Golden Era’ of the genre, basically the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke* – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa

Albert Camus on Franz Kafka (1942)

In 1942 Albert Camus published his famous long essay, The Myth of Sisyphus in which he addressed the issue of Suicide i.e. Is the world so empty, pointless and absurd that we might as well cash in our chips?

He takes a hundred pages or so to answer No, the basis of his argument being that at the core of every man is a Revolt Against His Fate.

Revolt gives life its value. Spread out over the whole length of a life, it restores its majesty to that life. (p.54)

Rather oddly, Camus added on to his passionate essay a 14-page appendix about the work of Franz Kafka, to be precise:

Hope and the Absurd in the Work of Franz Kafka

The whole art of Kafka consists in forcing the reader to reread.

This is comparable in its bluntness to Walter Benjamin’s thought that the most important thing about Kafka was his failure. But then critics are much given to saying the most important thing about x is y — it is a structural limitation of the genre (and, maybe, of how we think about aesthetics).

Anyway, Camus is approaching Auden’s view that Kafka was the master of the parable which everyone interprets in their own way, from a different angle, from the insight that you get to the end of a Kafka story and are left wondering what it meant. Hence you are forced to reread it.

Camus speaks of Kafka’s symbols as overflowing with meaning, as refusing to deliver a pat meaning.

His summary of the plot of The Trial makes it sound quite a lot like his own novel The Outsider in that he focuses on the last act where Joseph K is brutally murdered and more or less skips the weird atmosphere, the strange encounters, the agonisingly long dialogues and the eerie details (all those attic rooms) which characterise the previous 250 pages.

He is on to something when he talks about the ‘naturalness’ with which Kafka’s characters accept their inexplicable predicaments.

The more extraordinary the character’s adventures are, the more noticeable will be the naturalness of the story: it is in proportion to the divergence we feel between the strangeness of a man’s life and the simplicity with which that man accepts it. It seems that this naturalness is Kafka’s.

Other critics have brought out the way that Kafka’s language is calm and sensible, and lacks almost all metaphor and simile: is flat and factual and precise. Early on Camus begins to impose onto Kafka his own conception of ‘the Absurd’.

He will never show sufficient astonishment at this lack of astonishment. It is by such contradictions that the first signs of the absurd work are recognized.

I’m afraid I recoiled at much of the pretentious rhetoric Camus employs in this essay. In my review of Camus’s other essays in The Myth of Sisyphus collection, I highlight the contrast between the pre-war essays full of lush verbiage and inflated rhetoric and the post-war essays which are immensely more chastened, more overt and accessible. This one definitely belongs to the pre-war, hothouse period.

The Castle is perhaps a theology in action, but it is first of all the individual adventure of a soul in quest of its grace, of a man who asks of this world’s objects their royal secret and of women the signs of the god that sleeps in them. Metamorphosis, in turn, certainly represents the horrible imagery of an ethic of lucidity. But it is also the product of that incalculable amazement man feels at being conscious of the beast he becomes effortlessly.

But Gregor Samsa feels no amazement, none at all, at changing into a giant insect, in fact neither do his family. He never does and his family, after their initial shock, settle down to accepting it s part of everyday life. That’s the whole point.

Camus wants to impose on Kafka a simple set of binary oppositions of which one is his pet notion of The Absurd.

These perpetual oscillations between the natural and the extraordinary, the individual and the universal, the tragic and the everyday, the absurd and the logical, are found throughout his work and give it both its resonance and its meaning. These are the paradoxes that must be enumerated, the contradictions that must be strengthened, in order to understand the absurd work.

Though he is correct to point out the reconciliation in Kafka’s stories of the mundane practical prose of everyday life on the one hand and, on the other, an almost supernatural anxiety.

There is in the human condition (and this is a commonplace of all literatures) a basic absurdity as well as an implacable nobility. The two coincide, as is natural. Both of them are represented, let me repeat, in the ridiculous divorce separating our spiritual excesses and the ephemeral joys of the body… Thus it is that Kafka expresses tragedy by the everyday and the absurd by the logical.

Or – the horrific, the terrifying is all the more effective if it is understated. As with all his early essays Camus veers in and out of making sense.

The human heart has a tiresome tendency to label as fate only what crushes it. But happiness likewise, in its way, is without reason, since it is inevitable.

Contrary to what he said a moment ago about the ‘incalculable amazement’ Gregor feels at turning into an insect, he is closer to the mark when he points out the combination of the extreme and the everyday. Thus this man to whom befalls the most amazing thing that has ever happened to anyone, ever, is a boring travelling salesman whose first thought is concern about what his boss will say when he’s late for work (Gregor having, in a very characteristic Kafka way, not yet acknowledged that he is never going back to work).

Camus tries to persuade us that The Castle complements The Trial in ‘a barely perceptible progression’ which represents ‘a tremendous conquest in the realm of evasion.’

The Trial propounds a problem which The Castle, to a certain degree, solves. The first describes according to a quasi scientific method and without concluding. The second, to a certain degree, explains. The Trial diagnoses, and The Castle imagines a treatment. But the remedy proposed here does not cure. It merely brings the malady back into normal life.

Like a lot of Camus this sounds good but melts in your hands. If it is an interesting idea it deserves to be expanded and explained at greater length. He is right to point out how K. is the more buoyant of the two protagonists, never gives up hope, remains optimistic even though he quite obviously will never make it into The Castle, never realises or accepts that each new chapter ‘is a new frustration’. Camus notes how K. strives endlessly to try and become normal, to become one of the villagers, like everyone else – to be accepted.

Camus refers o God a lot in his discussion of The Castle and talks about Kierkegaard’s notorious leap of faith (Kierkegaard thought man can never know whether or not there is a God; he has to take a leap). He refers to Nietzsche and uses words like ‘existentialism’, but without persuading the reader that he really understands what he’s talking about. As with his other early essays we see the triumph of rhetoric over meaning.

That stranger who asks the Castle to adopt him is at the end of his voyage a little more exiled because this time he is unfaithful to himself, forsaking morality, logic, and intellectual truths in order to try to enter, endowed solely with his mad hope, the desert of divine grace.

He tries to appropriate Kafka for his own concerns, and in particular the special use of the word ‘hope’ which he had developed in The Myth of Sisyphus. In that essays ‘hope’ is the word he gives to the thousand and one ways people turn away from and deny the reality of life, hoping for a God or a political party or a cause or something to transform the absurdity of the world.

The word ‘hope’ used here is not ridiculous. On the contrary, the more tragic the condition described by Kafka, the firmer and more aggressive that hope becomes. The more truly absurd The Trial is, the more moving and illegitimate the impassioned ‘leap’ of The Castle seems. But we find here again in a pure state the paradox of existential thought as it is expressed, for instance, by Kierkegaard: ‘Earthly hope must be killed; only then can one be saved by true hope,’ which can be translated: “One has to have written The Trial to undertake The Castle.’

Clever sounding, but what does it mean? In the essay’s final page he tries to do the same thing as in Sisyphus, which is bring a discussion which began with despair and the Absurd round to a positive conclusion, something along the lines of: Embrace the Absurdity, relish the challenge of the universe’s meaninglessness. Feel the fear, and do it anyway 🙂

It is strange in any case that works of related inspiration like those of Kafka, Kierkegaard, or Chestov -those, in short, of existential novelists and philosophers completely oriented toward the Absurd and its consequences – should in the long run lead to that tremendous cry of hope. They embrace the God that consumes them. It is through humility that hope enters in.

If you say so. But I think Camus is hopelessly [sic] distorting Kafka. There is no hope in Kafka. There is no uplift or rejoicing. By this stage I’ve realised that Camus is imposing his own dynamic onto Kafka (as, according to Auden, everyone does). I realise that he is imposing his own newly minted concept – The Absurd – on Kafka in order to make Kafka perform the same movement from despair to hope, or Revolt and lucid hope, which he has enacted in Sisyphus.

The absurd is recognized, accepted, and man is resigned to it, but from then on we know that it has ceased to be the absurd. Within the limits of the human condition, what greater hope than the hope that allows an escape from that condition? As I see once more, existential thought in this regard (and contrary to current opinion) is steeped in a vast hope.

1. I don’t think this is a very accurate or useful summary of the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre or the earlier existentialist philosophers. 2. There is no hope in Kafka, in fact the essay on Kafka by György Lukács which I’ve just read references a characteristically bleak and wry quote from Kafka on precisely this subject:

In conversation with Max Brod, after Brod had asked whether there is ‘hope outside this manifestation of the world that we know’, Kafka is said to have replied: ‘Oh, plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope – but not for us.’

Now that is the true Kafka note, the bleak humour but also the teasing quality, the feeling that, as Walter Benjamin pointed out, he is privy to some kind of doctrine or knowledge that none of the rest of us understand: that his works are all fragments pointing towards some amazing new doctrine which, however, was never completed and never could be completed.

Comparing Camus’s superficial references to Kierkegaard and ‘the existentialists’ against this quote from Kafka, or against the force of Benjamin’s tremendously powerful essay, makes me realise that Camus is out of his depth.

He simply isn’t mature enough, clever enough or deep enough to grasp the unfathomable abyss which Kafka is plumbing. Thinking he can go from a set of superficial remarks about Kafka’s symbols and the elementary observation that The Castle complements The Trial before hurrying on to declare that, in the end, embracing the Absurd is paradoxically hopeful and uplifting — Camus comes over as an excitable teenager. His concluding remarks are painfully trite.

His work is universal (a really absurd work is not universal) to the extent to which it represents the emotionally moving face of man fleeing humanity, deriving from his contradictions reasons for believing, reasons for hoping from his fecund despairs, and calling life his terrifying apprenticeship in death. It is universal because its inspiration is religious. As in all religions, man is freed of the weight of his own life.

But Kafka emphatically was not freed of the weight of his own life. Camus is thinking about the emotional journey which he himself has just been through in The Myth of Sisyphus and not at all of the actual writer Franz Kafka who was more oppressed from start to finish of his career by the unbearable weight of his own life than any other writer in history. Who couldn’t escape himself or the delusion of trying to escape himself, no matter where he turned, who saw error building upon error and doors closing at the end of every corridor.

You can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world, that is something you are free to do and it accords with your nature, but perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could avoid. (Kafka, Letters)

Camus’s distance from Kafka’s books is symbolised by the mistake he makes about the end of The Trial where he has the two men who arrest Joseph K. ‘slit his throat’, whereas, in fact, ‘the hands of one of the men closed round his throat, just as the other drove the knife deep into his heart and turned it twice.’ Camus has maybe misremembered this because it is, at some level, a little more capable of redemption that what Kafka actually wrote, which seems to me to be absolutely pitiless. Into the heart goes the metal knife. And then they twist it. There is no hope or rejoicing and no clever paradox about it. Camus’s final remarks are incoherent and, I think, profoundly irrelevant.

For if nostalgia is the mark of the human, perhaps no one has given such flesh and volume to
these phantoms of regret.

‘Phantoms of regret’ is a wholly inadequate phrase to convey anything to do with Kafka’s work. Camus’ prose is overblown, romantic, melodramatic and immature whereas Kafka’s was precise, understated, and unsparing.

The translation

Hope and the Absurd in the Work of Franz Kafka was translated by Justin O’Brien. Is it O’Brien’s fault or Camus’s that the text is often badly phrased and poorly structured, sometimes becoming incomprehensible?

A symbol is always in general and, however precise its translation, an artist can restore to it only its movement: there is no word-for-word rendering.

There are works in which the event seems natural to the reader. But there are others (rarer, to be sure) in which the character considers natural what happens to him.

In the fullest sense of the word, it can be said that everything in that work is essential. In any case, it propounds the absurd problem altogether.


Related links

Related Kafka reviews

Dates are dates of composition.

Reviews of other books by Camus

György Lukács on Franz Kafka (1955)

Brief biography of György Lukács

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Modernism as a symptom of capitalist society

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Specific points

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Franz Kafka

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

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

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

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

Thoughts

Pros

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

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

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

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

Cons

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

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

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

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

When he suddenly states that:

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

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

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

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

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

So it’s a complicated business, reading Lukács.


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Dates are dates of composition.

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera (1978)

We are all prisoners of a rigid conception of what is important and what is not. We anxiously follow what we suppose to be important, while what we suppose to be unimportant wages guerrilla warfare behind our backs, transforming the world without our knowledge and eventually mounting a surprise attack on us.
(The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, page 197)

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is divided into seven parts, each of which is a self-contained story although, as the recurring titles suggest, with recurring themes:

Part One – Lost Letters
Part Two – Mother
Part Three – The Angels
Part Four – Lost Letters
Part Five – Litost
Part Six – The Angels
Part Seven – The Border

Short sections

And each story is itself broken up into numerous, very short, numbered sections, often as short as a page long. For example, the first story, Love Letters, is 22 pages long and is divided into 19 sections.

The reading experience is dominated by this fragmentation of the narrative into short sections. Kundera uses the ‘short section technique’ for a number of purposes.

One is to continually change perspective on events, shedding ironic light on his characters’ mixed motives and misunderstandings. The most obvious way is to describe a piece of dialogue or event, and then devote separate sections to the speakers’ often wildly differing interpretations of what they just said or meant.

It also allows him to switch from close-up description of actions carried out by the protagonists, to higher-level reflections, about human nature, the character of irony or comedy, generalisations about men women and love, or about fate and destiny – and especially about Czech history, and of course, focusing on the most traumatic event of his lifetime, the communist coup of 1948 and its consequences.

The ‘short section technique’ allows Kundera to set off a train of events and then to step right outside them and present them from the perspectives of the different characters, revealing – more often than not – that they completely misinterpret each other’s motives. This has been the bedrock of his authorial approach since his first novel, The Joke – the basic premise that people really, really don’t understand each other, and that pretty much all our intentions and aims and plans turn out to be wildly miscalculated, and consistently backfire.

I read all Kundera’s books back in the 1980s when he first became very fashionable, and I had remembered Laughter and Forgetting for being lighter and funnier than its predecessors – but this, I think, was a misleading memory. Although the text is much more broken up and ‘bitty’, more interrupted by digressions and ideas – the actual content is just as grim as its predecessors. The opening story, in particular, leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

1. Lost Letters

It is 1971 and Mirek is a dissident who played a prominent role in the 1968 Prague Spring, then, after the Russian tanks and half a million Warsaw Pact soldiers invaded Czechoslovakia, was thrown out of his job and became an unperson. Since then he’s religiously kept all his diaries and journals and the records of meetings of him and dissident friends, despite them all advising him to burn or destroy them. But:

It is 1971, and Mirek says that the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting. (p.3)

When we read that grand opening sentence back in the early 1980s (the book was published in English in 1980) we all thought it said something profound and beautiful about human nature and politics and society, and the need to resist the ever-growing forces of oblivion (as well as being a good example of Kundera’s straight-out, intellectual, almost academic style. No long paragraphs setting the scene or describing dawn over Prague or an unmarked car drawing up outside a house, none of the normal conventions of fiction. Instead Kundera goes directly to the beliefs and ideas of his main characters.) Anyway, rereading the story today, I realise this simple interpretation doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

The main event in the story is Mirek driving out to the village to meet up with an old flame of his, his first love in fact, Zdena. Why? Because she has a big cache of all the letters he wrote to her and he wants to secure, protect and guard his archive. Also, there is a deeper psychological reason. He wanted:

to find the secret of his youth, his beginnings, his point of departure. (p.18)

The body of the short story concerns Mirek’s thoughts and reflections about Zdena, for example the fact that, back when they were going out, she was plain and ugly, his friends, and even she herself, were surprised that he was going out with her. Nobody knew that he was timid and shy and a virgin.

As he drives, Mirek realises that his car is being followed, by a car driven by a couple of security goons who make no attempt to hide. When Mirek stops at a friend’s mechanic shop to get the car tuned up, the goons stop too, and watch him, with a smirk.

So that when he finally arrives at Zdena’s house, and is reluctantly invited in, and makes his pitch to ask for his letters back, and she surprises him by saying a categorical NO… Mirek is convinced it’s because she is in league with the security men, and is keeping the letters to hand them over to the authorities, preparatory to his arrest and trial etc. She always was a communist die-hard, a party fanatic, even when they were going out together, as he now remembers bitterly.

But the narrator has told us otherwise. He has explained that Zdena was not a party fanatic but simply clove to the party after Mirek dumped her. After he dumped her, she needed to have something she could trust and base her life on, and this became an absolute faith in the Party. It was Mirek who made her what she is.

And, we learn, she is not at all in league with the security men, who she doesn’t even know about. She is simply scared – scared witless, scared of how it’s all got too big and scary, how they’re arresting people, how he might be bringing trouble into her life. She is simply too paralysed by fear to hand the letters over.

Demoralised, Mirek gets back into his car, the security men get back into theirs, and they tail him back to Prague, despite a small interlude when he throws them off in a village and sits parked by the railway station, dazed, pondering his past and future.

The narrator now picks up the theme about memory and forgetting which was announced at the beginning, reflecting that Mirek’s true motive in seeking the letters wasn’t because he never loved Zdena, or regretted loving Zdena. It’s because he loved Zdena so much and is now embarrassed about being associated with such a plain, if not ugly woman, that he wants to erase her from his past. Which leads us up to the author’s message, a characteristically jaundiced view:

By erasing her from his mind [by finally repossessing the letters] he erased his love for her… Mirek is as much a rewriter of history as the Communist Party, all political parties, all nations, all men. People are always shouting that they want a better future. It’s not true. The future is an apathetic void of no interest to anyone. the past is full of life, eager to irritate us, provoke and insult us, tempt us to destroy or repaint it. The only reason people want to be masters of the future is to change the past. They are fighting for access to the laboratories where photographs are retouched and biographies and histories rewritten. (p.22, italics added)

So 1. that grand opening statement turns out to be a lie. Mirek is lying to himself. His grand claim to want to preserve the past from forgetting is completely contradicted by this analysis of his motives. According to his creator, Mirek is every bit as mendacious and controlling as his enemy, the Communist Party.

And 2. when Mirek arrives home he discovers the police are already there, have ransacked his apartment, and read through all the diaries and journals in which he recorded meetings with other dissidents, their criticism of the Party, their analysis of its tyranny after the crushing of the Prague Spring. In other words, they have seized all the documents in which he foolishly implicated and betrayed his closest friends. The last sentences of the ‘story’ are bleak and unforgiving.

After a year of investigatory custody he was put on trial. Mirek was sentenced to six years, his son to two years, and ten or so of their friends to terms of one to six years. (p. 24)

So let us return to that ringing opening line – ‘the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting’: it now appears to be contradicted in at least two ways.

  1. Although it’s Mirek’s own line, we have seen that, when push comes to shove, he doesn’t believe it; his quest to reclaim Zdena’s letters is, according to his creator, a quest to erase and rewrite the past as completely as the Communists want to.
  2. Worse, it turns out to be a ludicrously selfish and self-serving position and one which ended up condemning his best friends – and his own son – to years and years in prison.

Could it be that the opposite is true? That maybe the past ought to be forgotten? Certainly I think so. I completely disagree with the old cliché “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It’s the other way round. Those who obsessively remember the past, are doomed to walk within the confines and categories it imposes on us. In Northern Ireland throughout my life and in Yugoslavia during the 1990s, there were groups of people who clung on to the past, cherished and nurtured their grievances, thirsted for revenge, determined to re-enact the past (the freedom struggle of the Irish people, the freedom struggle of the Serbian people) but this time to win. it seemed back then that it is precisely those who remember the past, who are doomed to repeat it.

Maybe the content of the story proves the complete opposite of that ringing opening declaration.

2. Mother

Marketa and Karel are married. At first they lived with his parents, but Marketa and his mother had daily run-ins, which became so intense that they eventually moved to the other end of the country to be as far as possible away. Then Karel’s father died and Mother was left alone, and Marketa, as she got older, softened. It is Easter and Marketa invites Mother to come and stay for a week, Saturday to Saturday, because they’ve something planned for Sunday.

This is an orgy, well a ménage à trois. Marketa knows Karel has a high sex drive. Early on in their marriage it became clear that he would be the unfaithful one and Marketa would suffer, although she would enjoy the perks of an unassailable moral superiority.

Then one day, in a sauna at a spa (the Czechs and their spas!), Eva walks in, naked, beautiful and confident, and starts chatting to Marketa. Soon they are good friends and it makes Marketa feel in control when she introduces Eva to Karel and they become lovers.

The irony is, we learn a few pages later, that Eva and Karel had been lovers for years before this. Their first meeting and love-making is very erotically described. It had been Eva who suggested that she approach Marketa. And so the three of them have settled into having periodic three-way sex. Sunday evening has been set aside for one such session.

But Mother mischievously declares she will only leave on Monday and both Karel and Marketa fail to argue her out of her decision.

On the fateful Sunday evening, the girls have slipped off to the bedroom to change into their sexy outfits (a negligee so short it reveals her pubes, for Eva, a pearl necklace and garter belt for Marketa) and are about to return to the living room, where they’ve been chatting and drinking for Karel, for the erotic entertainment to begin… when Mother comes in!

Now, the saving grace is that Mother has gotten pretty short-sighted and so doesn’t even realise the girls are wearing next to nothing (Marketa scampers out to throw on a raincoat). In fact Karel maliciously welcomes her untimely visit because he’d been getting irritated with the girls. And the story is unusually sympathetic to Mother – unusual in the sense that almost all Kundera’s narratives focus on horny men. She has stumbled back into the living room because she is troubled by the memory of reciting a poem which she had described earlier, over dinner, to Marketa and Karel. She had told them it was a poem about the Austro-Hungarian Empire which she recited at the end of the war. But Karel points out that she left school well before then. Alone in her bedroom, it dawns on her that he is right, and that it was a Christmas poem, not a patriotic one, and that she had recited it years earlier. And now she blunders back into the living room – just as the orgy is about to begin – to set them all right. And, in this odd, ludicrous setup, proceeds to recite the poem again, reviving the distant memory of her girlhood.

And then she goes one further by pointing out that Eva reminds her of Nora, a friend of hers when she was a young woman. And all of a sudden Karel has a flashback, remembers being four years old, in some spa town, and being left in a room, and a little while later the tall, statuesque naked body of Nora entered the room and took a nightgown off a hook. The memory of being four, of being small, and looking up at this huge naked Amazon, has stayed with him ever since.

Having said her piece and fussed around a bit more, Mother goes quietly back to her room. Immediately, Karel arranges Eva as he remembers Nora standing in that distant boyhood memory, and kneels down so that she is towering over him. Fired with lust, Karel proceeds to make love to both women furiously.

But, as with all Kundera, there are other perspectives. While he is tupping them, Marketa is miles away, trying to reduce Karel’s fornicating body to a headless machine. And afterwards, as the girls are lying on the couch, Eva quietly invites Marketa to come away with her and have a threesome with her husband. And Marketa quietly accepts.

Karel may be lost in his childhood reveries, but this doesn’t stop the other characters – his wife and mistress – carrying on living their own lives, pursuing their own goals and agendas.

3. The Angels

The angels are those who believe the world is full of order and rationality. They are humourless imposers of order and pattern and meaning. They are terrifying because they want to abolish all the muddy, confused, speckled, mongrel mixedness of the actual world and real people. Kundera identifies them with the Communist Party, Soviet tyranny, feminists, modern literature teachers, and with hypocrites like the French surrealist poet Paul Éluard, who wrote inspirational poems about Freedom while at the same time supporting the Czech regime which sent poets to their deaths.

To begin this assault Kundera creates a pair of earnest and utterly humourless American feminist literature students who don’t understand that a play by Ionesco is meant to be absurd and funny. And when they do grasp this basic fact, he satirises the funny little choked breathy noise they make. He is referring to their laughter.

The students have a narrow, dogmatic literature teacher, Miss Raphael, who is lonely. She is looking for a circle of like-minded believers to dance with. She has tried the Communist Party, the Trotsykists, the anti-abortionists, the pro-abortionists (this pairing is included to show that she has absolutely no moral underpinnings or beliefs, but is just looking for a gang she can join).

Then Kundera describes the way the idealistic young people, students and writers and artists, danced in the street after the communists came to power in Czechoslovakia in 1948, danced and laughed, even as innocent politicians and poets and artists were being executed in prisons just a few miles away.

Thus they danced in circles, the high-minded angels, laughing their laughter of joy because the world is so ordered and rational and just. And – in a touch of magical realism – their dancing bodies slowly lifted off the ground till they were dancing in the air.

Similarly, when the two humourless feminist students give their humourless interpretation of Ionesco to their class, their humourless teachers joins hands with them and they, too, rise up into the sky.

But not everyone can join a circle. Circles, in fact, can’t be broken. Unlike ranks. Anyone can slip into the ranks of an army, they are designed to allow any number of new members to fit right in. But getting into a circle is hard, if not impossible, without momentarily breaking it. Circles are exclusive.

Kundera very forcefully emphasises how he doesn’t belong to the flying circles of dancing angels, sublimely convinced of their own rectitude. He was once a Communist, he once danced in those circles, but he was unwise and tactless and expelled from the party, and forbidden to work. He was kicked out of the circle and he has been falling ever since (for nearly 30 years, by the time this book was published) falling falling falling like a meteorite broken loose from a planet (p.66).

Then he gives us an extended example of how his misplaced humour prevented him from ever dancing with the angels.

Forbidden to write for any official outlet, friends got Kundera a job writing an astrology column in a popular magazine for young socialists. It was harmless work, and not particularly well paid. But after a few years, the intelligent young woman editor – known only as R. – who had given him the job was called in for questioning by the security police. Does she realise she is ridiculing socialist youth? Does she realise she is mocking the people? Does she realise she has been associating with notorious enemy of the people Kundera?

She is promptly sacked from her job and when she turns to others in the media, they all cold shoulder her as well. Her career is through. Her life is over. She meets Kundera in a borrowed apartment and she is so terrified by what is happening to her, that she has to keep going to the toilet, her bowels are that upset.

And as he listens to her repeated flushing of the toilet, Kundera realises he has become a curse to those he knows and loves. He really cannot go on living in his homeland, bringing bad luck down on everyone he knows. He will have to go into exile. He will have to carry on falling, falling, falling away from the circles of the angels, the laughing angels, laughing because they know the Truth about a world which is orderly and rational and for the best, rejoicing in how:

rationally organised, well conceived, beautiful, good and sensible everything on earth was. (p.62)

4. Lost Letters

The title makes you think it might return to the character Mirek, who we met in the first story. Not at all.

It concerns Tamina. She is a Czech exile, working in a café in an unnamed Western town. She and her husband fled Czechoslovakia illegally, pretending to go on holiday. Thus she never brought all her belongings. Her husband got ill once they were abroad, sickened and died. Hollow and sad, she works at the café, listening to every customer who wants to bend her ear.

One day one of the customers, a tiresome wannabe writer named Bibi, mentions that she and her husband are thinking of going on holiday to Prague. Suddenly Tamina wakes from her sleep. Back in Prague, in a drawer in a desk in her mother’s flat, is a bundle of all the diaries she kept during her eleven-year marriage to her husband.

Suddenly Tamina is fired up and wants them back. She has been living like a ghost. The prospect of repossessing them promises to fill in her life, colour it in, give it detail and background and depth. The rest of the story details her struggles, first of all to get her mother-in-law to unlock the desk and get out the notebooks (every phone call to Prague costs her an arm and a leg), then to persuade her father to take it from the provincial town where they live to Prague where he can hand it over to Bibi.

Just about everything which could go wrong does go wrong, but the ‘story’ is really a peg for Kundera to hang miscellaneous thoughts on. One of these is an extended disquisition about graphomania, namely that back at the beginning writing promoted mutual understanding. But in our current state of graphomania, the opposite is true:

everyone surrounds himself with his own writings as with a wall of mirrors cutting off all voices from without. (p.92)

and again, a bit later:

The proliferation of mass graphomania among politicians, cab drivers, women on the delivery table, mistresses, murderers, criminals, prostitutes, police chiefs, doctors and patients proves to me that every individual without exception bears a potential writer within himself and that all mankind has every right to rush out and into the streets with a cry of ‘We are all writers!’

And then:

Once the writer in every individual comes to life (and that time is not far off), we are in for an age of universal deafness and misunderstanding. (p.106)

This was written over forty years ago. How prophetic of the age of Facebook and twitter.

Another theme of the story is how fatuously stupid Westerners are. Several scenes and characters exist solely to satirise the West.

For example, Bibi dreams of being a writer but comes over as a narcissistic fool. They do contrive a meeting with a real published author, Banaka, who comes over as a pompous bore. One day he turns up in her café drunk and on the verge of tears because he was the victim of a poor review in a newspaper. Pathetic.

In another scene, a professor of philosophy holds forth about the nature of the novel. On a separate occasion, Tamina is with Bibi, her husband and a Japanese woman, watching TV on which two authors get irate. One of them is insisting that the fact that he spent his entire childhood in the village of Rourou is important, very important, vitally important if you are to understand his work. A new character, Joujou, tells everyone in the room, straight-faced and humourlessly, that she rarely used to have orgasms, but now she has them regularly. Bored, Bibi remarks offhand that what they really need round here is a revolution to shake things up.

Since all Kundera’s work up to this point describes what a revolution really looks like in practice i.e. the repression, the arrests, the executions, and the systematic humiliation of the entire population, it is difficult to think of anything she could say which would be a more damning indictment of her empty-headed idiocy.

After struggling to get through to her bloody family in Czechoslovakia, Tamina finally gets through to her brother and persuades him to travel to the provincial town and gather her diaries and notebooks from her mother-in-law. He reports that he’s done so, but found the drawer unlocked and the notebooks ransacked. Her mother-in-law has been through them, maybe read everything. Suddenly they don’t feel so precious…

Bibi abruptly announces she is not now going to Prague so Tamina shifts her attentions to Hugo, a young man with bad breath who regularly visits the café and is in love with her. Torpidly, she lets herself be taken out for a date, then back to his place, and stripped naked and penetrated, all without any excitement or interest, solely because Hugo says he will go to Prague and get her things. But he is irritated at her complete passivity. In subsequent meetings she just sits there dumbly while he craps on about his big plans to write a book, yes a book! a book all about power and politics. And then he tells her he has published an article about the Prague Spring which means he will not be allowed to travel to Czechoslovakia. He is sure she understands, he had to, he owed it to the world to share his article.

And suddenly she is so revolted by him, and the memory of him penetrating her, that she runs into the toilets and copiously strenuously throws up. And her vomiting seems, to this reader, to also be a reaction to the self-deception, narcissism and superficiality of the spoilt West.

There was only one thing she wanted, to preserve the memory of her husband and their time together untainted. And just about everyone she knows has conspired to foil that endeavour and desecrate his memory.

She went on serving coffee and never made another call to Czechoslovakia. (p.115)

What this story has in common with the first Lost Letters is how bleak it is.

Part Five – Litost

Kristyna is in her thirties. She lives in a small town with her husband, a butcher, and their little boy. She is having an affair with a mechanic who she allows to penetrate her in the locked security of the garage tyre bay. Then she meets the student, home from university for the vacation, and is seduced by his ways with big words and poetic quotations. He is desperate to make love but she wants him to remain on the level of poetry and ideas. Saying yes would drag him (and her) down into the world of the mechanic. So she meets with him in out-of-the-way places and lets him kiss and touch her but always refuses to go all the way. Finally the holidays end and they make a last-minute pact: she will come up to Prague and stay the night in his accommodation. They both know what this means.

Litost is a Czech word which combines grief, sympathy, remorse and an indefinable longing (p.121). It is ‘a state of torment caused by a sudden insight into one’s own miserable self’ (p.122). Kundera gives us some stories from the student’s past to flesh it out.

The night Kristyna is coming to stay, the student’s professor, who Kundera wittily names Voltaire, tells him the greatest poet in the land is having a get-together that night and he’s invited. The student is thrown into a quandary: sex or literature? He is young. He chooses sex.

When Kristyna arrives in Prague she is horrified at the seedy little restaurant he’s arranged to meet her in, the kind of place the butcher takes her to. It’s dirty and full of drunks and they give her a table by the toilets. By the time the student arrives, she’s ready to give him a piece of her mind. But he also is chagrined: she is wearing the most embarrassingly provincial clothes imaginable, including heavy strings of pearls and black pumps.

He tries to mollify her and they go out into the streets. She had dreamed of nightclubs and theatres and glamour – but he is only a poor student, after all. He takes her to his garret; it is small and shabby. Suddenly he has a brainwave. He tells her about the evening of poets, and says he’ll go (he can’t take her, it’s men only) but he’ll take a book and get it autographed by the greatest poet.

She willingly agrees, chooses a book off the poet’s shelf and settles down while he hurries off.

Kundera, with the airy candour which has become second nature, tells us that he’s writing all this in 1977. He eventually couldn’t put up with life in communist Czechoslovakia and drove west, as far west as he could till he stopped in the Breton town of Rennes. Now he is setting this passage fifteen years earlier, in the happier days of 1962. He paints a charming eccentric portrait of an evening’s drinking and squabbling among a variety of poets he humorously names after famous poets in the Western tradition, namely Goethe, Verlaine, Petrarch, Yesenin, Lermontov, and the cynic and anti-poet Boccaccio.

This extended depiction of a bunch of boisterous drunken poets is mildly entertaining but I was struck by the echoes of his novel, Life is Elsewhere, about a lyric poet, in which we met Lermontov quite a few times. And by the way Lermontov, in this book, dismisses all the rest of the poets as ‘Mama’s boys’ (p.141) – exactly the accusation Kundera threw at lyric poets as a class in the earlier novel.

Eventually the party breaks up and all the poets group together to help carry Goethe downstairs because he is very old and can’t walk without crutches. Then Lermontov gets in the taxi and volunteers to take him home and handle Mrs Goethe, who is a dragon and always cross when her husband stays out late.

The student walks with Petrarch who tells him lots of things about love, for example love and laughter are opposites. Then rushes back to his garret where Kristyna is awaiting him. He presents her with the book of poetry which he got Goethe to sign and indeed write a long personal message for her, and she is genuinely thrilled. He tears off his clothes and jumps into bed with her and she kisses him back but then, when he tries to part her thighs, refuses. And refuses and refuses and refuses. All night long, For hours. He is fired up and hard as rock. But she still wants to preserve the student on a different plane from the rest of her life. (Also, the delivery of her son was so difficult the doctors told her she must never again get pregnant or it would endanger her life.)

Eventually the student rolls off her body and onto his back and, for some obscure reason, Kristyna reaches out and grasps his rigid member, but doesn’t move it or do anything to relieve the pressure. Just holds it. Like a mother, like a sister, passionlessly.

Litost!

Part Six – The Angels

This begins as a literary-political essay about Prague which Kundera calls a city of forgetting. In the works of Kafka, Prague is a city which has forgotten its own identity, full of unnamed streets and houses, and even the characters have forgotten their own names – Josef K. of The Trial declines to become just K. in The Castle.

Kundera then moves on to discuss T.G. Masaryk, seventh president of Czechoslovakia, who was installed by the Russians in the aftermath of the crushing of the Prague Spring, and who is known as ‘the president of forgetting’ (p.158). Among other things he sacked some 150 Czech historians, as part of a repressive policy of obliterating the past and writing a new official version.

Tamina reappears, she of Part Four. She is sad because she has forgotten so many details about her husband, not least after making love to the despicable, smelly Hugo. Her plight reminds Kundera of his father, whose dementia meant he slowly lost the power of speech until finally all he could say was one phrase: ‘That’s strange!’

Kundera’s father was a musicologist and had been working on a study of Beethoven’s variations. With the airy confidence with which he slips so much factual content into all his books, Kundera proceeds to stop the narrative while he writes a page or two about the profundity of the variation form, ‘the form of maximum concentration.’ Indeed:

This entire book is a novel in the form of variations. The individual parts follow each other like individual stretches of a journey toward a theme, a thought, a single situation, a sense of which fades into the distance. (p.165)

And the figure of Tamina is at its heart, the faithful lover who struggles to remember her beloved.

The rest of the story is odd, and reminds us that, although we remember the sex, and the politics and the philosophy, dreams and fantasy are also a recurring theme in Kundera’s work.

A nice-looking man named Raphael comes into the café, knows Tamina’s name, and asks her to leave with him. They go outside and get into his sports car, and drive off, drive into the country, the green landscape turning sandy, then ochre. It reminds Tamina of the landscape her husband was forced to work in, when he was kicked out of white collar jobs and ended up working a digger on building sites.

He parks by a river and points down towards where a boy is holding the painter of a boat. As in a dream she gets into the boat and he starts to row, but she takes over, rows and rows, they arrive at a strange strand, are greeted by children, she disembarks and is shown the way to a dormitory where she’ll be sleeping, the children tell her that only children live on the island (she walks along the shore and ends up back where she started), and are divided into ‘squirrels’ and ‘tigers’, they are fascinated by her mature breasts and black pubic hair, and she finds herself at night being touched and stroked so she achieves a strange kind of climax, until one day one little urchin twists her nipple hard and she throws them all off, she tries to join in their games, like hopscotch, but gets things wrong, they chase her, catch her in badminton nets, a little like other outsiders in science fiction scenarios, finally she runs down to the seashore and swims, while they yell at her from the shore, she’s a strong swimmer and swims all night imagining she must reach the other side, but when dawn breaks she realises she’s only a few hundred yards from the island and is overcome with fatigue.

Some of the children come out in the rowing boat to watch her curiously, they make no offer to help her, and watch, while she goes under, once, twice, and then drowns.

Part Seven – The Border

This appears to be a whole-hearted satire of life in the West. Jan is from the East and observes the people round him like a zoologist. Jeanne likes to sit cross legged like the Buddha while she traces the outline of the coffee table before her, drawing attention to herself and her asinine comments. Jan drops in on the Clevis family. They are card-carrying liberal progressives, who subscribe to all the best liberal opinions and when he drops in they’ve just finished watching a TV programme on which representatives of all the schools of thought debated one of the big issues of the day, which is whether women should go topless. Jan listens to their fourteen-year-old daughter shout that she’s not going to be anybody’s Sex Object, while her mother cheers her on. The narrator reflects that millions of women across the west have burned their bra and now go about their days work wobbling as Nature intended.

They remind me of the right-on, vegetarian, socialist feminist family, the Webers, in the Posy Simmonds cartoon strip. And any number of other right-on families who were mocked and satirised in the 1970s.

The Clevises point out that poor Jeanne has gone through tragic times because her son ran away for a few days. Jan reflects on what the term tragic means in his country and how trivial it is in this country.

Jan is seeing a girl from a sports rental company. She is an orgasm fanatic. She is determined to have as many as possible, and gives him a running commentary when they’re making love, telling him just what to do when, and where to put his hands and whether to speed up or slow down. She’s like the cox of a rowing eight.

There’s a lot more discussion of sex. Jan speculates there are three kinds of erotic history: all the women you’ve had; all the women you could have had but let slip; and then all the women you could never have had. He is alarmed that more and more women seem to be slipping into this category. Is it because they have ‘begun to organise and reform their perennial fate?’ (I take it he’s referring to feminism).

There’s a passage about the male gaze (presumably Kundera was introduced to all these ideas, along with humourless feminist students, only once he’d arrived in France, in 1975), which he takes for granted as already being a well-known concept. This was forty years ago. Less well known, he asserts, is the fact that the object can look back. The object can cease to be an object, open its eyes, and unsettle and unnerve the gazer, and his protagonist goes on to discuss about various examples of women who bite back, with his girlfriend Edwige, the feminist.

For example, their friend Barbara is known for giving orgies (who are these people? how did he get to know so many women obsessed with sex? how come I never met or heard of anyone like this when I was a young man?) One day she invites their friend Ervin who arrived to find two pretty women and Barbara. Barbara got out an egg timer then the three women stripped naked. Then she told Ervin to strip naked which he quickly did. Then she set the egg timer and said he had precisely one minute to get a hard on or they’d throw him out. And all three women stared at his crotch laughing. Then they threw him out.

Then Jan and Edwige discuss rape. Jan sees rape as integral to eroticism, whereas castration is its negation. Edwige says if rape is integral to eroticism, then we need to develop a new form of eroticism. He defends women who say the word ‘no’ when they don’t mean it. She gets angry and says ‘no means no’. He trots through a repertoire of sexual scenes – the woman acting coy, having to be brought round, concealing her charms, the man having to talk her round, persuade her to reveal herself, and so on. He calls them time-honoured images. She says they certainly are time-honoured – and idiotic! Time to change them all!

And so it goes on, the never-ending ping-ping game between men and women.

Meanwhile, the notion of the border is applied to several situations. A friend is dying of cancer. Jan reflects how very close death is all the time to each of us. The border is an inch away. Ten years ago he used to be visited by a woman for sex. They both stood and stripped in the same hurried way each time. One time she caught his eye and smiled a sad sympathetic smile. Jan was inches away from bursting out laughing, which would have ended their sexual affair. The ‘border’ was there filling the room. But he stifled his laughter, stayed this side of the border. Another time he chatted up a young woman on a train but it just wouldn’t click, despite taking her to the dining car, then out into the corridor and lifting her head into the light as he had done a thousand times before. There was a border of seduction, but he just couldn’t cross it.

There’s also a border when it comes to repetition. Every time something is repeated it loses part of its vital force. Every action therefore has a border, this side of which it retains meaning, that side of which it has become meaningless automatism.

Similarly, many of Jan’s fellow exiles initially felt great attachment to their old country and fiercely vowed to fight for its freedom. But that passion faded, and now many are scared to admit they have passed beyond a psychological border where they realise there is no cause and no fight. And no purpose.

Their friend Passer dies of cancer. At his funeral the hat is blown off the head of Papa Clevis and in successive gusts blown to the feet of the solemn funeral orator. Everyone strains to contain their laughter. Then it blows into the grave itself. When the orator bends to throw the first earth into the grave he is stunned. The watchers strain every sinew not to burst out laughing.

Jan attends one of Barbara’s legendary orgies and is appalled to discover what a bully she is, pushing and arranging and goading and forcing everyone to have a good time. Jan buddies up with a bald man who quips ‘Major Barbara’ and comments that she’s like a coach training her team for the Olympics. Barbara spots them chatting and separates them, taking the bald guy off to a corner where she starts masturbating him, while Jan finds himself being handled by the clumsy provincial stripper who had started proceedings. He finds himself looking over at the bald man, and coming up with more jokes and references and ludicrous metaphors, and suddenly both he and baldie burst out laughing. Barbara is furious. She expels Jan from the party.

Sex is a serious business. It cannot stand being mocked. Now, as Jan moves into his forties (Kundera was nearly 50 when this book was published) he finds himself more and more aware of all these borders: death just inches away; absurdity underlying all our behaviour; sex just a facial flicker away from guffaws.

In the last sequence in the book, just before he goes abroad for good (to America, I think), Jan takes his feminist girlfriend to an island which is a nudist colony. In their rented cottage they strip off, then walk down to the beach to join grandparents, parents, teenagers and toddlers, all stark naked.

Here his misunderstandings with Edwige – and the entire novel’s theme of misunderstandings – reaches a kind of climax. She is obsessed with ‘the Western Judaeo-Christian’ tradition of shame of the body. But Jan is thinking about something quite different. More and more he has been dreaming of a state of bodily arousal which is pleasure but innocent of climax; a pre-sexual state, which he associates with the Greek myth of Daphnis and Chloe.

They sit on the beach in the sun, watching all the naked people around them, and Jan murmurs ‘Daphnis’. Edwige hears this and pounces on it, convinced he shares her feelings about a feminist escape from the Judeao-Christian sexist tradition. He nods agreement although he is sick to death of her trite, stupid obvious ideas, the way she feeds everything into the same half dozen, half-baked ‘issues’. Instead he is consumed with a sense of the sheer absurdity of human existence, and this conviction – so similar to the recurring obsession of his author and creation – is cemented in the vivid image which ends the book.

A group of Edwige’s nudist friends has just come up and been introduced to Jan, and Edwige has mentioned Jan’s throwaway idea that they should name the anonymous little island Daphne.

Everyone was delighted with the idea, and a man with extraordinary paunch began developing the idea that Western civilisation was on its way out and we should soon be freed once and for all from the bonds of Judeo-Christian thought – statements Jan had heard ten, twenty, thirty, a hundred, five hundred, a thousand times before – and for the time being those few feet of beach felt like a university auditorium. On and on the man talked. The others listened with interest, their naked genitals staring dully, sadly, listlessly at the yellow sand. (p.228)


Thoughts

Are these stories continually interrupted by multiple digressions into interesting topics? Or essays on interesting topics into which ‘characters’ and their slender narratives are occasionally inserted?

Of the five books by Milan Kundera which I’ve read so far, this one has by far the most ‘interruptions’ and digressions; it feels the most finely balanced between narrative and editorial, between story and lecture.

For example, the story titled Litost, with its rhetorical questions and technical explanations (of foreign words and their etymologies) keeps reverting to the nature of an academic essay, a quality demonstrated by one of the last sections which is titled Further Notes for a Theory of Litost. 

Or take the section about the two types of laughing, the demonic which celebrates chaos, and the angelic which celebrates order, which underpins the sections about Angels i.e. that their laughter is repressive.

Or Kundera’s touching memoir of his senile father, and the way he (Kundera) came to understand his father’s scholarly fascination with the variation form.

In fact Part Six has an extended passage remembering much more about his father the musicologist: how he explained to the young Milan the structure and purpose of the key system, before Kundera himself goes on to give his account of the collapse of that system, as overthrown by Schoenberg, the reluctant revolutionary, who ushered in the twelve-tone system, which was to dominate international classical music after the Second World War.

There’s a lot lot more topics like this: on the nature of absurdity and human intention; on the nature of love; on the nature of political and cultural forgetting.

A cultural conservative?

Although he is a striking radical in the technique he brings to the novel, in chopping it up into these bite-sized sections, and inserting all kinds of authorial asides, and with the brisk no-nonsense way he gets straight to the gist of a character’s thoughts… in other ways, when you look at what his discussion values, Kundera can come over as a surprisingly cultural conservative.

In this book he thinks ‘beauty’ is a thing of the past which has been buried under a deluge of pop music and public announcements. He thinks Schoenberg murdered music and, as with the three-hundred page diatribe against lyric poetry which is his second novel, Life Is Elsewhere, he did it with the best of intentions. His innovation represented the death of classical music, but he made it with excitement and daring, and his post-war devotees were zealots and extremists of the kind Kundera deplores.

Bleakly, he says that everyone who spouts the big word Progress, imagines it means progress towards a bright new future. They don’t realise that what they are moving towards is death (p.179).

He hates pop music. There are a couple of pages comparing the Czech pop singer Karel Gott with the president of forgetting, T.G. Masaryk, in the sense that both want to bury the past. Pop music is ‘music without memory’, music deprived of the legacy of Bach to Beethoven, music reduced to the stumps of its basic elements, mindlessly repeated over a nightmareishly amplified totalitarian beat.

Towards the end of the book he rubbishes the entire notion of ‘progress’.

Jan had never shared Passer’s enthusiasm for observing how things change, though he did appreciate his desire for change, considering it the oldest desire in man, mankind’s most conservative conservatism. (p.215)

Pessimistic stuff, isn’t it?

Lost in the West

In this the book represents Kundera’s uneasy transition to the ‘free’ society of the West. In a sense, it was easy to write in the East because art, poetry and literature were taken seriously, especially by the regime, which paid artists and writers the great tribute of locking them up and, in the Soviet Union, of murdering them.

In the communist East there was not only a shortage of food and consumer goods (cars, fridges), which meant you made do with a much more threadbare lifestyle – but a shortage of types of lifestyle. At its simplest, you were either for the regime or against it, and everyone trod a very careful path so as not to put a foot wrong and be dragged off to prison.

This was Kundera’s first book published since he defected to the West (in 1975) and although his technical achievement (the chopping up of narratives into micro-sections and their interleaving with meditations on all kinds of subjects) has reached giddy heights, it seems to me that he is struggling with the sheer profusion of narratives available in the West.

Put simply, there’s so much crap. Radios are on everywhere blaring out idiot pop music, muzak in lifts and supermarkets, so much cheap food the inhabitants make themselves sick and fat, shiny adverts bombard you from radio, TV, cinema and huge hoardings.

And people fuss and fret about such trivia – epitomised by the monstrous superficiality of the would-be novelist Bibi in Part Two, or the ludicrous self-centred ‘tragedy’ of Jeanne in Part Seven, or the stupid television debates about whether women should or should not go bare breasted on beaches. Is this it? Is this what thousands of years of human civilisation dwindle down to? An endless froth of trivia?

Maybe this is what he means when he says that the entire book is about Tamina, protagonist of the fourth and sixth stories, which is at first a puzzling statement, since a number of the other characters (Mirek and Karel spring to mind) are well defined and memorable. But:

It is a novel about Tamina, and whenever Tamina is absent, it is a novel for Tamina. She is its main character and main audience, and all the other stories are variations on her story and come together in her life as in a mirror. (p.165)

And who is Tamina? She is an exile in the West. She loves her country and feels she left her soul there. But all her attempts to reclaim it are foiled. She is appalled by the superficiality (Bibi) and selfishness (Hugo) and pretentiousness (the writers bickering on TV) of ‘cultural’ life in the West. And what happens to her in the end? She drowns.


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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