The Trial by Franz Kafka (1925)

‘It gives me the feeling of something very learned, forgive me if what I say is stupid, it gives me the feeling of something abstract which I don’t understand, but which I don’t need to understand either.’
(Frau Grubach, The Trial page 27)

About Kafka

The Trial was left unfinished at Kafka’s death from tuberculosis in 1924. In one of the most notorious incidents in literary history, Kafka asked his friend and literary executor, Max Brod, to burn all his stories, novels, notes and drafts after his death, but Brod ignored this request, carefully edited the surviving texts, and arranged for their publication and promotion throughout the 1920s.

Thus The Trial was published in 1925, The Castle in 1926, America in 1927, and a collection of short stories in 1931. It was Brod’s decision not to burn, and then his dedication to editing and publishing the works, which made Kafka, already known in German literary circles, world famous.

The Trial – style

Not experimental in form As great works of literature go, The Trial is straightforward enough to read. There is no formal experimentalism, no cutting between points of view or stream of consciousness or insertions of bits of diary or newspaper, or any of the other tricks the Modernists used.

Blocks of prose The most notable feature is that, contrary to modern practice, the paragraphs are very long – pages and pages long. And the dialogue is embedded in them. Extended exchanges between two or three characters go on in one long, monolithic block of prose – utterly contrary to the modern practice of starting a new paragraph for each speaker, and each new bit of dialogue, no matter how brief.

These great blocks of solid text make Kafka’s prose rather hard going. You can’t tell at a glance whether a page consists of description or dialogue, and there are hardly any ‘breaks’, places where you can enter the big, solid page of print. The text looks and feels like an imposing monolith of words. If your concentration lapses even for a few seconds, it’s difficult to track back to the last bit you were paying attention to. There are no visual cues, making it hard to find your place again when you pick the book up after a break.

This might sound trivial but, in my opinion, contributes to the sense of struggle, effort and oppressiveness which the book radiates.

German Although Kafka was born and lived most of his life in Prague, he wrote in German. He spent most of his working life in an office at the Workers Insurance Office in Prague, only right at the end of his life quitting this job to go and try and earn a living in Berlin by his writing.

The Trial – the setting

It’s Joseph K’s birthday. He’s 30 years-old. He works in a bank where he holds the ‘comparatively high post’ (p.10) of ‘Assessor’ (at one point he refers to himself as ‘the junior manager of a large Bank’, p.48), and is deferred to by lowly clerks. He has a big office with a waiting room attached, and ‘an enormous plate glass window through which he looks down on ‘the busy life of the city’ (p.70).

Joseph lives in a rented room in a boarding house, and his landlady is Frau Grubach. Other lodgers include Fräulein Bürstner, a typist (p.16) and Frau Grubach’s nephew, one Captain Lanz, ‘a tall men in the early forties, with a tanned, fleshy face’ (p.91).

The plot

The plot is in a sense simple, has the simplicity of a fable or dream fantasia.

On the morning of his 30th birthday, Joseph K’s breakfast isn’t brought in by the cook, Anna, as usually happens. Instead two men arrive and announce themselves to be officials who have placed him under arrest. Their names are Franz and Willem. While Franz explains the situation, Willem sits in the living room and calmly eats Joseph’s breakfast (p.11). Neither are wearing official or police uniforms, but are dressed casually. They aren’t violent or threatening, their tone is much more of hard-done-by and misunderstood lowly bureaucrats just doing their jobs. Through the window, an old couple in the apartment opposite watch the goings-on. And the warders seem to have brought three ‘assistants’ who are rummaging around in the apartment, as well, looking at family photos on the piano (p.16).

This opening sets the tone of mystery and uncertainty. In the very first sentence we learn Joseph has been placed ‘under arrest’, but it’s never really clear what this means. Even the officials carrying out the arrest aren’t really certain about it.

‘I can’t even confirm that you are charged with an offence, or rather I don’t know whether you are or not. You are under arrest, certainly, more than that I do not know.’ (The Inspector, page 18)

Indeed, the officials leave Joseph free to go about his life exactly as before. He goes to work, he meets friends and his fiancée after work, everything continues as normal except for his nagging worry about what  being ‘under arrest’ means.

The following Sunday he is invited to a so-called ‘interrogation’. But when he turns up at the appointed location at the appointed time, he finds it is more like a meeting in a crowded church hall. The officials seated up on the stage are trying to make themselves heard, before Joseph tries to make a speech, despite various distractions in the audience.

In the next chapter he goes to the office of ‘the Prosecutor’, which turns out to be a dingy room at the end of a grubby corridor littered with shabby appellants and clients, and this meeting, also, becomes hopelessly confused, as Joseph finds himself distracted by the pretty wife of one of the officials.

In other words, The Trial is emphatically not a case of Joseph being arrested, carted off to prison and subject to harsh interrogations, the kind of thing which became routine in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany and all the other totalitarian states which copied them during the 1930s and 40s.

Far from it. There is no police station or cell, no actual interrogation, nothing that well-defined and recognisable. Instead, there follows a series of dreamlike, very long-winded, and claustrophobically frustrating scenes.

Episodic

This air of continual uncertainty about what is going on, and what Joseph should do about it, and where and when and why he should be attending hearings, or whether he should be preparing documents to present to this or that official – he doesn’t know and his adviser, his uncle, having claimed intimate knowledge of the Court only ends up confusing things – all these levels of uncertainty are reinforced by the episodic structure of the novel.

The chapters start with variations on the same phrase – ‘One afternoon’, ‘A few evenings later’, ‘In the next few days’, ‘During the next week’, making each episode only loosely connected to the previous one, if at all.

The reasons for all this are clarified in Max Brod’s afterword to the novel. Here Brod explains that Kafka a) never finished the novel b) left it as a collection of fragments, of finished and unfinished chapters, and other scraps. It was Brod who decided what to include and exclude. Put simply, he included all of what seemed to be the ‘finished’ chapters, and excluded the fragments which were self-evidently incomplete.

As to the ordering of the chapters, again Brod relied on the fact that he had listened to Kafka reading excerpts of the book out aloud to Brod and other friends, and discussing it with them. That gave him a good sense of how things were meant to follow each other. Still, the novel we read is not the author’s final, definitive version: it is the best guess of an assistant.

All this helps to explain the ‘episodic’ feel of the ‘book’, as if the consecutive chapters nearly but don’t quite link up.

But then, this fragmentary and provisional state is entirely in tune with the text itself, which is also structured according to a kind of dreamlike lack of logic or consequence. Everyone talks to Joseph about his arrest and trial but he is at no point detained anywhere, or prevented from doing anything, and there is no actual trial in the entire book.

Indeed, as the book progresses you being to realise that the so-called ‘trial’ simply amounts to Joseph’s knowledge that he has been charged. He doesn’t know what for, and nobody can tell him. The ‘trial’ really amounts to the pervasive sense of guilt and unease which his plight comes to bleed into every area of  his life and every waking thought.

It’s in this sense that the trial is more of an existential condition rather than a procedure or event. The chapters don’t really move on ‘events’ or any kind of narrative, so much as deepen the mystery and confusion surrounding Joseph’s situation.

You begin to realise that there really could, in theory, have been any number of chapters in the book, since there isn’t really a plot as such. As you read on, you can see how Kafka laboured hard over getting down his conception of a man lost and persecuted by a world he doesn’t understand… but also why the approach he’s taken almost militates against it ever really being finished… The encounters with court officials, and the bad advice from relatives, and the bizarre encounters with various female characters, could all be expanded indefinitely. As in a nightmare.

Crowded with characters

I read The Trial when I was at school and over the years had developed the common impression that Joseph K. is one man alone against a vast faceless monolithic bureaucracy. But that is a completely misleading memory. The book is actually crowded with people, and shows Joseph embedded in multiple webs of relationships – personal, social, sexual, familial and professional.

Home and family In his boarding house live Frau Grubach, Fräulein Bürstner, a typist (p.92) and Frau Grubach’s nephew, one Captain Linz. Fräulein Bürstner is soon joined by a lodger to share her room, the sickly pale Fräulein Montag. There’s also Anna the cook (who we never meet) and reference is made to the house-porter and his son.

In Chapter Six Joseph’s Uncle Albert K. turns up (his name is only given on page 111). Albert shows Joseph a letter Joseph’s niece, the 17-year-old Erna, has written the uncle, expressing her concern about Joseph, who has promised to go and visit her but never has. That’s why Albert’s come to see him. Uncle Albert takes his nephew off to see the Advocate Huld.

In other words, far from being one man against a faceless world, just considering Joseph’s home already furnishes us with quite an extensive cast. In other words, the novel is surprisingly busy and populated.

The neighbours Joseph’s arrest is watched through the window from the apartment across the way by ‘two old creatures’, and a tall young man with a reddish beard (p.17). ‘A fine crowd of spectators!’ cries Joseph. Who are they? We never find out, they are just silent watchers, adding to the sense of voyeurism and unease.

Work At work Joseph interacts with a number of junior clerks, the Manager of the Bank invites him for a drive or for dinner at his villa (p.24) and the Deputy Director invites him to a party on his yacht, and then crops up in most of the subsequent Bank scenes, poking and prying around in Joseph’s office. At other points Joseph is seen giving orders to any number of junior clerks and, in several scenes, we see him dealing with customers of the bank, including a manufacturer, and then a cohort of three business men.

So, once again, he isn’t a solo agent, but embedded in a network of professional relationships.

Crowd scenes

There are not only far more characters than you might have expected, but plenty of actual crowds.

In Chapter Three Joseph is told to attend an ‘interrogation’ at a set time and place the following Sunday. But first of all he has a hard time finding the building, as it is in a warren of slums, the kind of late-Victorian slum where everyone is out on the street yelling and fighting or selling stuff from cheap stalls, or cleaning doorsteps etc. (This page and a half describing Juliusstrasse, p.42, is an interesting piece of social history and reportage.)

And when he gets to the building itself, Joseph discovers it is a rabbit-warren of corridors and staircases. And when he finally arrives at the room where the so-called ‘interrogation’ is meant to take place, he discovers it is packed out with a crowd, like a meeting in a village hall –

K. felt as if her were entering a meeting-hall. (p.45)

– and that the official meant to be conducting the ‘interrogation’ is ‘a fat little wheezing man’ sitting up on the stage, by a table along with a number of other officials and assistants. In fact there is no procedure at all, there is no actual interrogation, just long dialogues where both sides try to figure out what is happening, all of which is interrupted by a student right at the back of the hall, wrestling a women to the ground in a clinch, it’s not clear whether they’re having sex or not but it’s certainly a love or sexual embrace, which utterly distracts the crowd from the proceedings up at the front.

This is the complete opposite of the icily terrifying interrogation scenes in books like Nineteen Eighty-Four or Darkness at Noon. The initial scenes in the slum street reminded me of Dickens, and then the scene amid the crowded meeting is like a very long-winded dream which is going nowhere but in which you feel you’re drowning or asphyxiating, mixed in with surreally jarring details.

The whole book is like that, a series of encounters with grand-sounding officials who turn out to be shabby little men tucked away in grubby attic rooms who, when pressed, know remarkably little about the procedures of the Court, have only heard about the higher officials, point out the many ways Joseph has blotted his copybook and upset the powers-that-be without even realising it, and give ominous but often contradictory advice which, far from helping Joseph, sinks him deeper and deeper into a sense that he’ll never understand what’s going on or be able to do anything about it.

Court officials

Joseph meets umpteen representatives of ‘the authority’ under which he seems to have been arrested, starting with the two warders who make ‘the arrest, Franz and Willem, followed by the Inspector who takes over Fräulein Bürstner’s room to turn it into a makeshift office, and proceeds to explain everything, but in an obscure and puzzling way.

It is also odd and confusing that the three ‘assistants’ who are fussing around in the background of Fräulein Bürstner’s room turn out, on closer inspection, to be three young clerks he knows from his bank – Rabensteiner, Kullich and Kaminer.

It’s also confusing that later, describing it all to Fräulein Bürstner and apologising for the way they moved furniture around in her bedroom, Joseph refers to them collectively as ‘the Interrogation Commission’ (p.33) a phrase none of them had used. In other words, Joseph himself collaborates in making what was in reality two shabby badly-paid warders and a lowly inspector, appear and sound like something much more grand and official.

When, in Chapter Two, Joseph goes to the building in Juliusstrasse as instructed over the phone, he meets the ‘Examining Magistrate’, presiding over an ‘Interrogation Chamber’. But in reality the magistrate is a comical fat little man and the Interrogation Chamber is like a packed village hall.

In fact all the way through, the so-called officials have grand-sounding titles which contrast mockingly with their shabby surroundings (‘the dimness, dust, and reek’, p.47), their cheap suits and lack of authority or knowledge.

When he looks down at the first row of men in the meeting hall which constitutes the Interrogation Room, Joseph expects to see a row of wise and seasoned lawyers, but instead sees a row of senile old men with long white beards. All his expectations are subverted. Everything is old, decayed, ineffectual. This continual subversion of expectations is a form of satire, a kind of dream satire.

He goes on to meet:

  • the Law Court Attendant
  • the grey-haired worn-out litigant
  • a warder smartly dressed in a smart grey waistcoat who represents the Inquiries Department
  • the Clerk of Enquiries
  • the Law Court Attendant
  • the Advocate Huld
  • the Chief Clerk of the Court
  • the businessman
  • the painter Titorelli
  • the chaplain

The higher authorities

The most obvious thing about the ‘authorities’ that everyone tells him about, is that even though Joseph himself believes it to be a grand and mighty organisation…

There can be no doubt that behind all the actions of this court of justice, that is to say in my case, behind my arrest and today’s interrogation, there is a great organisation at work. (p.54)

… in reality, the only people he ever comes into contact with seem to be at the very bottom of the hierarchy, very junior officials who, once he gets to know them, stop being intimidating and, quite the opposite, come over as paltry and whinging, spending their time complaining that they don’t like their jobs, don’t know what this case is all about etc etc.

So if the low-downs are a shabby bunch, surely the higher-ups must be more impressive? But in conversation after conversation, not only with members of ‘the Court’ but with hangers-on and outsiders, like the Law Court Attendant’s wife, they all convey the same sense that the hierarchy of officials extends infinitely upwards, and can never be reached.

‘The higher officials keep themselves well hidden.’ (p.120)

‘For the Judges of the lowest grade, to whom my acquaintances belong, haven’t the power to grant a final acquittal, that power is reserved for the highest Court of all, which is quite inaccessible to you, to me, to everyone.’ (Advocate Huld p.175)

In the real world of 1910s Austro-Hungarian Prague, there was, of course, en entirely public hierarchy of law courts, from local to municipal up to a High Court and then to the Emperor, who could be appealed to by legal petition. Kafka knew all about it since he himself had studied law at university.

In parallel, in the Roman Catholic religion of Kafka’s Prague, there were numerous intermediaries – priests then bishops, archbishops, then saints, the Virgin Mary and then God himself who could be appealed to by prayer.

Both of these hierarchies have an end, a top, an ultimate authority.

But Kafka’s hierarchy has no top, no pinnacle. You can appeal upwards for the rest of your life, and never reach anyone who has the ultimate say. Because there is no ultimate say.

The ranks of officials in this judiciary system mounted endlessly, so that not even adepts could survey the hierarchy as a whole. (p.132)

Chapter Seven is the one which really brings this home, being the Advocate’s account of his situation, in which – typically – he laments the plight of advocates such as himself (i.e. one of being miserably ignored by ‘the higher authorities’), and the likely fate of any appeals Joseph might make (waste of time). If you don’t have time or patience to read the whole book, you could (arguably) read Chapter Seven to get a vivid understanding of what the ‘Kafkaesque’ really means.

Shabbiness

The novel is full of shabby, half-derelict buildings. All the locations of the great Authority which Joseph is trying to identify are rundown, dirty, and generally located up rickety staircases in the attic rooms of derelict buildings out in the suburbs.

The whole milieu, all the settings, are deliberately opposite to the Grand Palaces and Castles and Institutions of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy which Kafka began writing under. Google anything about modern-day Prague and you get images of brightly painted palaces and castles and Baroque churches and olde buildings.

Kafka’s Pargue couldn’t be more different, shabby and dirty and rickety and tumbledown. The ceiling of the court in Chapter Two is so low that people watching proceedings from the gallery are bent nearly in two, and use pillows to prevent their heads banging against the roof.

In Chapter Three Joseph can’t believe that such an important personage as the Examining Magistrate lives in a creaky garret at the top of some narrow stairs (p.69). When he goes up there to investigate, Joseph discovers a long narrow hallway, lined with benches on which sit the shabby, defeated clients of the Court (p.73).

When Joseph starts to feel faint because it’s so hot and stuffy, a young woman attendant (there always seems to be one of these at hand) opens a skylight, and so much soot immediately falls into the corridor that they have to close it and wipe Joseph down (p.78).

It is symptomatic that even the dining room in Frau Grubach’s house is inconveniently long and narrow, into which two cupboards are wedged at angles and the table so long it makes the window at the very end all but inaccessible (p.89). All the buildings and stairs and corridors and rooms are like this – difficult, and inconvenient.

Or that the bedroom of the Attorney Huld is so dark and dingy, illuminated only by one weak candle, that Albert and Joseph are half way through a long explanation of Joseph’s case to the bed-ridden Advocate, before either of them realise that there is another guest in the bedroom, completely hidden in the shadows, namely the Chief Clerk of the Court (p.116).

On a later visit the Advocate tells him the defence attorneys are in fact only barely tolerated by the court and that their room is small and cramped, right up in the attic, lit only by a skylight which is so high up the only way to see out of it is to get a colleague to hoist you up onto his back, and even then the smoke from the nearby chimney would choke you and blacken your face. Plus there’s a hole in the floor through which, if you’re not careful, you might stick your leg (p.129).

When in Chapter Seven Joseph catches a taxi to go and consult with the painter Titorelli, on the advice of ‘the manufacturer’ who he meets at work (at the Bank), Joseph is dismayed to find the painter’s studio in a slum neighbourhood, with a gaping hole in the doorway, some disgusting effluent oozing out of a pipe, inexplicably a baby lying in filth and crying, and the garret up disproportionately high, long, narrow stairs, and the artist’s studio ‘a wretched hole’ (p.160) made of bare wooden planks, in which you can hardly take two paces in any direction. Although there is a window set in the ceiling, as the atmosphere grows more and more stuffy, and Joseph breaks into a sweat, he’s told it can’t be opened, oh no.

There is no relief anywhere.

Sex…

Part of the dreamlike atmosphere is the way Joseph drifts easily from woman to woman: I mean that he has barely encountered a woman before they routinely start flirting with him, and sometimes have sex with him.

Given the generally Victorian tenor of the book, with its insistence on correct dressing and formal manners, it is incongruous how, every time he meets a new woman, Joseph immediately starts thinking about ‘having’ her – and how easy these women then are to be seduced, holding hands, then kissing and, in some instances, having sex.

Elsa Joseph tells us he has a girlfriend of sorts, Elsa, who dances at a cabaret, and receives guests during the day in bed (p.24). I couldn’t work out fro the text whether this just meant she had Bohemian manners, or was a prostitute. (I’ve subsequently read that yes, she is intended to be a prostitute.)

Fräulein Bürstner In the course of a long conversation with Fräulein Bürstner in which he apologises for the impertinence of the men who ‘arrested’ him and took over her room for the purpose, Joseph takes her hand, then kisses her fingers and they begin a flirtation.

The Law Court Attendant’s wife When he visits the ‘court’ where his first ‘interrogation’ takes place, proceedings, such as they are, are interrupted by the bright-eyed woman at the back falling to the ground in the grip of a young man.

When Joseph returns to the ‘court’ the following Sunday, he finds it empty except for the same young woman. She shows him the books lying on the Examining Magistrate’s table – which he imagines will be weighty books of law – but they are in fact cheap pornography (p.61).

The woman shows him round, explaining that she is married to an official of the court, the Law Court Attendant, then starts flirting with him, ‘offering’ herself to him.

She tells him how the Examining Magistrate works late into the night and one night, she discovered him at the end of the bed, holding a lamp, and remarking on how beautiful she looks. He sent her a pair of silk stockings as a wooing present. He, the magistrate, knows that she is married. She is telling him naughty or provocative stories in order to signal her sexual availability, which she then makes overt when she pulls up her skirt to admire her stockings. A page later she tells him:

‘I’ll go with you wherever you like, you can do with me what you please. I’ll be glad if I can only get out of here…’ (p.65)

But she and Joseph have barely got into their flirtation before another young man, Bertold, appears in the meeting room and takes the wife off to an alcove for an intense conversation, which – to Joseph’s astonishment – soon progresses to him kissing her on the neck. When Joseph steps forward to protest, the young man sweeps the woman up in one arm (a gesture which, by itself, is surreal enough) and carries her away upstairs for the ‘use’ of the Examining Magistrate.

if she’s the mistress of the Examining Magistrate why was she flirting so fiercely with Joseph? Why did she let the other man kiss her? What does any of this mean?

Leni Then, in Chapter Six, Joseph’s Uncle Albert arrives and takes him by taxi to the home of the Advocate Huld, another rundown house, mostly in darkness. They’re shown up the stairs to the official’s room by another dark-eyed beauty, who we learn is named Leni (p.113) and is the old man’s nurse (he’s had a heart attack and is bed-ridden).

Half way through the conversation with the official they all hear a plate smash somewhere in the house and Joseph volunteers to go investigate. Down in the darkened hallway, Leni takes his hand and leads him away from the others, sits on his lap, kisses him and then pulls him forward onto the floor on top of her. The text then cuts to him getting up and adjusting his clothing. Presumably they have, in this lacuna, had sex! (p.123).

This seems to be confirmed when, at the end of the chapter, a furious uncle Albert asks Joseph what the devil he thinks he’s playing at, not only walking out on a vital meeting which will decide his future, but then sleeping with the nurse who is, according to Uncle Albert, also the Advocate’s mistress.

Again, a woman who appears to be ‘giving herself’ to Joseph, turns out to ‘belong’ to another man – and a man higher up in the authorities and officials of the Court. Is that the point? That any woman he flirts with turns out to be already co-opted by the Court? That the Court owns not only him, but all his personal relationships?

The pubescent girls In Chapter Seven, when Joseph visits the painter Titorelli in his rickety slum, part of the slum vibe is the way a gaggle of pubescent street girls flock around the visitor, and tease and torment the painter, continually interrupting their conversation through the keyhole and poking object, paper and straw, up through the floorboards. An unnerving note being struck when the ringleader of the girls gives Joseph an unmistakably flirtatious and sexually knowing look, as she shows him up to the painter’s garret.

Even Joseph notices the ubiquity of woman in  his story.

‘I seem to recruit women helpers’, he thought almost in surprise: ‘first Fräulein Bürstner, then the wife of the Law Court Attendant, and now this cherishing little creature…’ (p.121)

(The ‘cherishing little creature’ being sexy Leni who is sitting on Joseph’s lap at that moment.)

So, taken together, you get the strong feeling that these aren’t real ‘women’, so much as counters or markers in the elaborate game which is being played out.

Because it’s not as simple as the male protagonist finding a steady stream of women throwing themselves at him. That would be level one male sexual fantasy. Instead, there’s this added level that all the women who do so are already sexually involved with at least one, sometimes two or more, other men.

The Law Court Attendant’s wife is also snogging Bertold and seems to be the Examining Magistrate’s mistress. Similarly, Leni has sex with Joseph but appears to be the Advocate’s mistress, and, when he visits in Chapter Seven, he finds another client of the Advocate’s, along with Leni, both half undressed.

Like everything else, these sexual partners are themselves ambiguous and unstable, not fixed points. They present another layer of human interactions which turn out to be unreliable and ambiguous, continually putting the meaning of what Joseph thinks he’s doing in doubt.

Just as all the Court officials he meets turn out to be low-ranking and as powerless and confused as him i.e. are not what they seem – so all the women appear to make what, in the ordinary world, would be pretty binding commitments to Joseph (holding hands, kissing, groping and having sex) and yet are continually revealed to belong to someone else, to not be in the kind of relationship with him with Joseph mistakenly imagined.

… and violence

On the whole the novel eschews violence. Almost all of it consists of long-winded dialogue between bemused and puzzled characters, often with a lot of late-Victorian politeness and courtesy.

Which makes the occurrence of the rare moments of actual violence all the more shocking. In Chapter Five, titled ‘The Whipper’, Joseph is at work in the bank, when he hears noises from one of the many storerooms. When he opens it he discovers to his horror the two ‘warders’ who came to ‘arrest’ him, Franz and Willem, stripped half naked while a big rough, sunburned man wearing a leather jerkin like a blacksmith, is whipping them with a hard rod while they scream in pain.

This is so brutal and so unexpected, so completely unlike the dreamlike wanderings round a busy city and peculiarly inconsequential encounters in shabby rooms at the end of long dirty corridors, that it is difficult to know how to react.

Joseph reacts by desperately offering the man money to let Franz and Willem go, but – and here’s a very characteristic Kafka touch – the whippees themselves refuse. They acknowledge their guilt. And what is their crime? Having been too fond and familiar with Joseph. He is partly to blame for their shocking punishment.

But hang on – why is all this taking place in a room in his bank? It is like a Terry Gilliam film, where someone opens a door in a boring bank and there are two half-naked men being whipped. When one of them lets out a particularly piercing scream, Joseph shoots back out of the room and slams the door shut. He notices a couple of the bank’s clerks walking towards him to investigate the scream and so, in a fluster, orders them to go about some other business.

What makes this scene even more bizarre, is that – having gone home and been troubled about what he saw all night – the next day at the Bank, Joseph tentatively goes along the corridor to the same room, opens the door and… discovers the three men in exactly the same postures, and picking up the conversation where it left off! That really is like something out of a film or, a nightmare.

And it is also symptomatic of the highly episodic nature of the book in the way it is a stand-alone episode, self-contained and leading, apparently, nowhere. Did Kafka intend other scenes of extreme violence, of which there is now no trace? Or was it consciously intended to stick out on account of its violence?

We can guess that this is one of the many editorial problems which the author faced, which led to him abandoning the book and then, a decade later, being so embarrassed by it that he asked Brod to burn it all.

The trial of being

Chapter Seven is the one which really brings into focus the way that the trial has nothing to do with anything Joseph K. has actually done: it is a trial of his very existence. It brings into doubt everything about him.

By the time we get to this chapter, the trial has come to obsessing Joseph K. and is forcing him to go back over every single action he’s ever taken, every thought and gesture, to try and discover what it was that he did wrong.

To meet an unknown accusation, not to mention other possible charges arising out of it, the whole of one’s life would have to be passed in review, down to the smallest actions and accidents, clearly formulated and  examined from every angle. (p.143)

I think this is the sense of Brod’s remarks about Kafka’s religious concerns. This hypersensitive paranoid self-consciousness reminds me of the 17th century Scottish Presbyterians and English Puritans who kept minutely detailed diaries and journals dedicated for just one purpose: to monitor every act and thought which might indicate whether the author was among those pre-determined by Calvinist theology to hell and damnation.

The entire book describes Joseph K.’s efforts not so much to defend himself as to discover what it is he’s been charged with, and in fact he never finds out.

In fact the entire book is a masterpiece of (very verbose) obfuscation and delay, by which I mean that pages and pages and pages go by of dialogue between Joseph and the Inspector or Examining Magistrate or the Law Court Attendant or the Advocate Huld or the Chief Clerk of the Court, and each, in turn, tut tuts over Joseph’s behavior and attitude and explains some of the processes, while continually emphasising that they don’t understand most of it, no, a man in his position barely understands the cases that pass through his hands, may spend weeks or months preparing papers which they send off to higher authorities but never see again, or are returned unread, or may have a damaging rather than a meliorating effect, you never can tell.. and so on and so on.

In fact the majority of the text is taken up by that testimonies of these ‘lower’ officials which rarely if ever describe any tangible process, but repeat in ever more tormenting detail what a lowly role they hold and how little they understand.

By half-way through the book you can see why Max Brod wrote that Kafka could have gone on adding an indefinite number of extra chapters, making up a never-ending sequence of interviews Joseph has with a never-ending series of minor officials, each with grand-sounding titles who, when he actually meets them, turn out to be ill or old or fat or grubby little men, shacked up in makeshift offices up in the attics of slum buildings in out-of-the-way parts of the city, who proceed to spend entire chapters telling him that his case is going badly, oh very badly, or that he’s missed some golden opportunities to improve his lot, but, ho hum, they must do what they can, although they don’t really have much power and most of their efforts come to nothing or might even be counter-productive, but he will certainly have to come back and talk to them at greater length. Again. Forever.

It is the repetition of this kind of scene which gives the book its dream-like feel and structure, the sense of fighting with a giant blancmange which can never be seized or grasped or properly pinned down or attacked, let alone defeated.

It gives you a really uncomfortable cumulative sense of smothering and asphyxiating in a series of long drawn-out very wordy encounters with petty officials which always leave you even more in the dark than when you started.

And always accompanied by the constant, hyper-anxious sense that, whatever you’re doing, it is wrong – you are offending and alienating people, the people you share a house with, your work colleagues who notice you increasingly neglecting your duties, every single figure of authority you come into contact with who looks at you, shakes their head and says ‘Tut tut, if only you’d come to me sooner’… and all the time, you don’t know what it is you’ve done wrong!

Credit

The Trial by Franz Kafka was published in German in 1925. The English translation by Willa and Edwin Muir was first published in 1935 by Victor Gollancz, then by Penguin in 1953. All references are to the 1977 Penguin paperback edition.


Related links

Related reviews

Max Brod’s postscript to The Trial

Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka was born in Prague, capital of Bohemia, a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1883. Despite being born in what would become the capital of Czechoslovakia after the Great War, he was educated, spoke and wrote in German. Kafka died in June 1924 at the age of 40 from laryngeal tuberculosis. By the time of his death Kafka had published three collections of short stories, but he left behind a vast collection of manuscripts, notes and sketches, including the drafts of three book-length novels. Knowing he was dying, Kafka appointed his best friend, the successful literary journalist Max Brod, as his executor and asked him, verbally, and in writing, to burn every scrap of his notes and manuscripts.

Famously, Brod ignored the request and went on to meticulously organise and edit the (often unfinished) manuscripts, arranging for their publication, and thus ensuring that Kafka went on, after his death, to ultimately become one of the most famous authors of the twentieth century.

Why did Brod ignore his friend’s final request? The Penguin edition of The Trial prints the short epilogue in which Brod justifies ignoring Kafka’s last wishes, and explains why he instead preserved them all, edited them, and published them as the three novels – The Trial (1925), The Castle (1926) and America (1927) – and then a short story collection in 1931.

This is a detailed précis of that note.

Kafka’s reluctance to publish his writings

Brod tells us that nearly everything that Kafka published during his lifetime had to be extracted from him by (Brod’s) extensive persuasion and guile.

Kafka always referred to his writings as his ‘scribblings’ and other self-deprecating terms.

Kafka frequently read his writings to his small circle of friends ‘with a rhythmic sweep, a dramatic fire, a spontaneity such as no actor ever achieves.’

But he was reluctant to publish anything due to:

  • ‘certain unhappy experiences which drove him to a form of self-sabotage and a nihilistic attitude to his work
  • he always applied the highest religious standards to his own work and felt it fell short

(‘Religious’!? Yes, Brod thinks Kafka was a seeker ‘for faith, naturalness, and spiritual wholeness’. Many later critics have interpreted Kafka’s writings in all kinds of ways: Brod is the founder and chief proponent of seeing them as religious works.)

Kafka once told him that false hands were reaching out to (mis)lead him, while writing.

Kafka told him that what he had published so far had ‘led him astray in his further work’.

Kafka’s wish to have his writings burnt

Kafka left no will. Among his papers were found two documents in which he asked Brod to burn everything. One was a folded note which contained the following sentences:

Everything I leave behind me… in the way of notebooks, manuscripts, letters, my own and other people’s sketches and so on, is to be burned unread and to the last page, as well as all writings of mine or notes which either you may have or other people, from whom you are to beg them in my name.

There was also a yellowed and much older piece of piece of paper with a hand-written note. In it Kafka acknowledges that some of his stories are in print and so unavoidably in the public domain, then goes on to say:

Everything else of mine that I have written (printed in magazines or newspapers, written in manuscripts or letters) without exception, so far as it can be got hold of, or begged from the addressees… all this, without exception and preferably unread (although I don’t mind you looking into it, but I would much prefer that you didn’t, and in any case no one else is to look at it) – all this, without exception, is to be burned, and that you should do it as soon as possible is what I beg of you.

Brod’s reasons for refusing Kafka’s request

First, Brod says that some of his reasons for refusing the request are ‘private’. (Well, that’s frustrating, it would be good to know what they were, I wonder if he ever revealed them anywhere else…)

As to the ‘public’ reasons which Brod is minded to share with us, these are:

1. Once, during a jokey conversation about wills, Kafka had shown Brod the same folded note quoted above, and explained his wish to have all his writings burned, to which Brod had jokily given him fair warning, that if it came to it, he would refuse to follow these instructions. Franz made a joke of it, they both laughed, but as a result, Brod is convinced that Kafka knew in advance that his wishes would not be carried out. Thus, if he had truly wanted the papers burned, he would have appointed a different literary executor, a relative, a lawyer, someone with no interest in them as literature.

2. Brod tells us that, after this conversation in which he’d said that he wanted no more of his works to be published, Kafka had contradicted himself by allowing further works to be published, including four short stories in a volume titled The Hunger Artist.

3. Brod says that both the notes were written at a time in Kafka’s life when Brod knows that he was full of ‘self-hatred and Nihilism’. But in his last few years, according to Brod, Kafka’s life took an unexpected turn for the better, and he became much more happy and positive. The entire mind-set in which he wrote the notes became redundant.

4. As Brod stated at the start, every single piece of Kafka’s which was ever published had to be extracted from him by Brod’s persuasion and guile. But in every case, after they were published, Kafka was always pleased with the results. I.e. Brod had first-hand experience of seeing that, deep down, and no matter how much he publicly dismissed his works, Kafka did enjoy seeing his work in print, but was just hyper-sensitively shy about it.

5. All the arguments Kafka gave as to the negative personal and professional effect publishing had on him – such as that they created bad examples which misled his muse, or expectations which he couldn’t live up to – were rendered void by his death. Their publication would have no more effect on him.

These are the five ‘public’ reasons Brod gives for ignoring Kafka’s written wish that all his works be burned ‘unread’.

Max Brod and The Trial

Brod tells us that he came into possession of the manuscript of The Trial in 1920. [From another source I discover that Kafka wrote the book in a sustained burst of activity from August to December 1914, then in January 1915 dropped it, never to return.)

Kafka never actually wrote a title on the manuscript, but always referred to it as The Trial in conversation, so we can be confident about the title. The division into chapters, and the chapter headings are also Kafka’s. (Each of the chapters was neatly stored in a folder, even the unfinished ones.)

But The Trial is unfinished. The chapters themselves were never arranged in a final order. There is an obvious beginning (in which Joseph K is arrested), and a chapter titled The End (which he wrote early on, apparently, and in which Joseph K is murdered), but the order of all chapters in between was fluid.

To order them Brod tells us that used his own judgement, heavily based on the fact that Kafka had read a lot of the novel out loud to him and other friends, so he had a good feel for the intended order of most of it.

Before the final chapter, which features the death of the protagonist, Brod tells us that Kafka planned to include many more stages of the agonisingly uncertain processes and encounters described in the existing text, but Brod tells us that Kafka told him that the case was never to reach the supposed ‘highest Court’, and so:

in a certain sense the novel was interminable, it could be prolonged into infinity.

He tells us that the writing of the book wasn’t cut off by Kafka’s death from tuberculosis in 1924, but that Kafka had abandoned it earlier [1915, as mentioned above], when ‘his life entered an entirely new atmosphere’. It was abandoned, and after a few years Kafka felt unable to return to its mood and story, unable ever to complete it. Hence his written wish to have it (and the other unfinished novels) destroyed. You can understand Kafka’s motivation: he knew what his original intention had been, knew that he had nowhere near completed it, and knew that he would never again be in the frame of mind, to re-enter the text and complete it.

So, we conclude, Brod’s labour on the manuscript of The Trial amounted simply to:

  • separating the obviously finished from the obviously unfinished chapters
  • placing the finished ones in the correct order according to internal logic and what he remembered of Kafka’s readings
  • then approaching publishers to get it published

Which it was, in 1925, the year after Kafka’s death, bringing its dead author a trickle and then a flood of posthumous recognition.

Pretty obviously, the literary world owes Brod a vast debt of gratitude for his act of friendly disobedience.


Related links

  • Metamorphosis (1915)
  • The Trial (1925)
  • The Castle (1926)
  • America (1927)

Ignorance by Milan Kundera (2002)

This is a really enjoyable book and feels like a return to form for Kundera. I hate to say it because it sounds like such a cliché, but it feels that the reason for this is simply to be that, after three novels set predominantly in France and in a Western consumer capitalist culture which Kundera can’t help but loathe and despise – this one returns to Czechoslovakia, to his homeland – and feels significantly more confident, relaxed, integrated, deep and thoughtful as a result.

It’s a novel about returning from exile. It’s set soon after the collapse of communism in 1989 and the liberation of Czechoslovakia from Russian rule, and describes the journeys back to newly-liberated Czechoslovakia of two émigrés, one man, one woman.

But it is a Kundera novel, so the narrative, such as it is, is routinely interspersed with digressions and thoughts and analyses, primarily about the characters’ perceptions and feelings, then of their personal situations, then of their positions as symbols of ‘the émigré’, then explanations of the broader historical background to their situation, and then, stepping right back from the present, Kundera aligns their ‘returns’ with a) the classical legend of Odysseus, maybe the greatest symbol in European literature of the Returner, and b) with passages about the different words in European languages which attempt to convey the many feelings of the returner, nostalgia, longing for home, and so on.

Ignorance

Thus we discover he is using the word ‘ignorance’ not at all in the common or garden sense of ‘lack of knowledge or information’, but in a subtler sense moderated by placing all around it words from other languages (such as the German Sehnsucht and the Czech stesk) which express ‘nostalgia’, longing, the act of missing something or someone – then by examining its Latin root, to produce a wider deeper definition:

To be unaware of, not know, not experience; to lack or miss. In that etymological light nostalgia seems something like the pain of ignorance, of not knowing. You are far away, and I don’t know what has become of you. My country is far away, and I don’t know what is happening there. (p.6)

Arguably, the rest of the text is an extended mediation on the meaning of this concept, the suffering of the exile, and the bewilderment of return.

Odysseus is doubly relevant: not just as a returner, but a returner after an absence of twenty years, he is surprisingly close to Kundera’s fictional character. It was in 1968 that the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia and suppressed of the Prague Spring, but only in 1969 that they imposed their new government which proceeded to implement its harsh crackdown on all liberals and dissidents. So it was 20 years later that Russian communism collapsed and the Russia-backed Czech communist government fell.

And Odysseus was away from his homeland (Ithaca) for a long 20 years: 10 years fighting at Troy, three wandering across the Mediterranean and having the extraordinary adventures all children learn about; then seven trapped by the magician Calypso, who was also his lover.

Now these disparate elements – geopolitics, personal stories, etymological precision and ancient myth – could easily have hung apart and pulled in different directions. In my opinion his use of these kinds of disparate elements, or different levels, failed to gel in the previous couple of novels.

But here they meld perfectly. All four of these levels or themes naturally complement each other. The feelings and experiences of the present-day émigrés really does illuminate your understanding of how Odysseus must have felt, pitching up in his homeland twenty years after leaving it. And Kundera’s subtle insights into Odysseus’s plight really does help to amplify the bitter experiences of his émigrés in the present day.

To both of them Kundera applies his insights about memory and forgetting, namely the idea developed in Identity that part of the point of friendship it to tell each other stories about the old days and keep memories alive. Exiled to a foreign land, with no friends, those memories atrophy and die. The more intense Odysseus’s longing for his native land – the less he can remember anything about it.

Émigrés gathered together in compatriot colonies keep retelling to the point of nausea the same stories, which thereby become unforgettable. But people who do not spend time with their compatriots, like Irena or Odysseus, are inevitably stricken with amnesia. The stronger their nostalgia, the emptier of recollections it becomes. (p.33, emphasis added)

Plus (as a big history fan) I am fascinated by the light Kundera sheds on the political and social and cultural changes which took place in a communist-dominated society, how it changed so quickly after the fall of communism, and the myriad little insights thrown up as his two protagonists move among this familiar but alien world.

For me, all of these elements come together to make a really fascinating and engaging book.

The characters

Irena

The woman protagonist, Irena, fled Czechoslovakia with her husband Martin, with one little girl and pregnant with another, back in the 1970s. Émigrés from communist countries weren’t all that welcome in the Paris of the 1970s, dominated by its communist party and the fashion for left-wing students. Her husband fell ill and died, and she had a hard time bringing up the girls (cleaning houses, caring for a paraplegic, p.28).

Emigration-dreams

All the émigrés have them, both she and her husband are plagued by them, dreams in which you are wandering the streets of a strange city and the see the uniforms of the Czech police and awake sweating in panic. Dreams like that. Sometimes they came during the day, in the middle of a meeting, a sudden shaft of memory, walking through a green part of Prague, for a moment, becomes more real than the real world. The continual eruption of the unconscious.

Gustaf

Then she met Gustaf, a Swede who’s fled his homeland to get away from his homeland. They become friends then lovers, then partners. He disconcerts her by saying his company are going to open up a small office in Prague. She wants to get away from the old life, not have it hanging over her all the time. Especially her self-centred, garrulous mother. After the fall of communism his company expands this to buying a house in central Prague, with a flat in the eaves where Gustaf stays on his business trips.

Now Irena flies back to Prague and is able to stay there, while she looks up her old friends and has a sort of hen night for women friends only. This scene registers their different reactions, some jealous, some bitter, everyone keen to tell how much they suffered, the ‘suffering contests’ (p.41).

All of this is interesting and moving and subtly described – very unlike the sex comedy shenanigans of the previous novels, Slowness and Identity, which I didn’t like. When references to Odysseus’s experiences as an exile returning after twenty years are interleaved with Irena’s it doesn’t feel contrived or arch; the two complement each other really well.

Josef

In the airport Irena spots a man she knew twenty years earlier. He had been someone else’s boyfriend who she had flirted with at some party downstairs in a bar in Prague. But then she got married and left the country. But she’d always wondered what would have happened. When she introduces herself to him, he is flustered and shy.

Then we cut to his point of view and learn why he is flustered. He is called Josef and he has absolutely no memory of her whatever, can’t even remember her name. He also fled Czechoslovakia, settling in Denmark and marrying. Now his wife is dead and he is making the pilgrimage home.

The great broom

He wriggles free of her and goes on his own quest in Prague, his own odyssey. He goes to the cemetery where his parents are buried and is appalled by how cramped it is, overshadowed by high rise blocks and freeways. He reflects than an invisible broom has swept across the landscape of his childhood, wiping away everything familiar.

And it seems to be getting faster. Things changed slowly ‘back in the day’, now they change before your eyes. This is brought home in the dining room of the hotel where he’s staying and he realises spoken Czech has changed in intonation and tone in the twenty years he’s been away. Now it feels like ‘an unknown language’ (p.55)

Josef’s brother

Then Josef goes on to meet his brother and the sister-in-law who never liked him. I really liked this scene, the way his sense of the feelings of the other two fluctuate, how Kundera captures the changing mood, the sudden embarrassing silences. He realises he must have been seen as The Betrayer, the lucky younger son who ran away. His flight bedevilled his brother’s career as a surgeon, casting a blight over it. Josef had turned his back on a career as a doctor (turning his back on the family tradition pursued by his grandfather and father) in order to become a vet. The motives for his flight are examined.

Josef left in a hurry and mailed his brother the key to his apartment, saying take what he wanted. Now his brother gives him a bundle of notes and journals and diaries and letters. Back at his hotel he goes through them. He realises he has forgotten most of his childhood.

The law of masochistic memory: as segments of their lives melt into oblivion, men slough off whatever they dislike, and feel lighter, freer. (p.76)

He is disconcerted at the combination of ‘sentimentality and sadism’ (p.83) displayed by the diaries of himself as a frustrated virginal teenager.

The teenage girl

Kundera now creates ‘out of the mists of the time when Josef was in high school’ a virginal girl his own age who has just split up with her first boyfriend. She enjoys the fist pangs of ‘nostalgia’, the first teenage tryouts of that feeling of wanting to ‘go back’ (in her case to the happy days when she was going out with X; but you see how this mention of nostalgia ties in with the book’s theme).

She goes out with young Josef. He is petulant and frustrated. When she announces she is going off on a school skiing trip he has a tantrum and dumps her.

Josef tears up his diary and throws the pieces away. But,

The life we’ve left behind us has a bad habit of stepping out of the shadows, of bringing complaints against us, of taking us to court. (p.90)

Gustaf and Irena’s relationship decays

I thought the book was about Irena’s first and major visit back to Prague, but this passage makes it clear that, her partner Gustaf having opened an office in the city, she found herself spending more and more time there, watching as Prague rapidly becomes westernised, repaints itself and fills up with tourists.

Meanwhile her relationship with Gustaf peters out. They stop having sex. They stop even talking because he enjoys talking in American English, talking loud and long, whereas she clings to the French she had learned in Paris, and behind that to the Czech she grew up with, neither of which Gustaf understands. Now, meeting the strange man (Josef) in the airport has revived something in her. He had given her the number of his hotel and when she gets through after trying half a dozen times, she is thrilled and aroused at his voice.

All this contrasts with the gabby loudmouth Gustaf who she can hear downstairs keeping her horrible chatterbox mum in stitches. Josef represents escape from two people she’s come to loathe.

The teenage girl attempts suicide

The narrative cuts back to that teenage girl after her second boyfriend cruelly dumps her. We are intended by now, I think, to realise that the sentimental and sadistic boyfriend was none other than Josef, and I think the distraught girl was a young Irena.

We are told how the teenage girl goes on the school ski trip, one evening walks away from the chalet, as far as she can, swallows a bunch of sleeping pills she’s stolen off her mother, and lies down in the snow to die.

Burying the dead

This narrative breaks off to revive a thought that had been mentioned earlier (and which recurs in Kundera’s later fiction) which is the correct disposal of the dead. When Josef’s wife dies, he fights an almighty battle to stop her family claiming the body and burying it in the family plot. Josef feels she would be abandoned among strangers. (This parallels Chantal’s anxiety in Identity about what happens to the bodies of the dead the instant they’ve gone i.e. they lose all privacy and pored over by pathologists and police and strangers, cut open and humiliated. Which is why she insists on being cremated.)

The suicide survives

She had lain down under a beautiful blue Alpine sky, her head woozily full of images of a beautiful death. She wakes up under a black night sky feeling awful and in fact unable to feel half her body. Evidently she is not dead, and she staggers back to the ski chalet where the doctor diagnoses her with frostbite and says part of her ear will have to be chopped off. Word goes round the other kids and teachers about the girl who tried to kill herself. She is mortified. Now her life divides into two halves – the innocent years under the blue sky of childhood, and the years of knowledge under a black sky.

The implications of human lifespan

There now follow some fascinating passages about the human condition. Nothing impenetrable or difficult, it’s all very accessible. It’s as if he’s made philosophy entertaining. It’s like Heidegger turned into a newspaper editorial.

First idea is a consideration of how much our lifespan – say 80 years – affects meaning. If human beings lived for, say 160 years, then the notion of a Great Return which his book is about, would dissolve into just one of the many peregrinations 180 year-olds would be prone to.

Human memory

Next, Memory. The fact is that human memory retains no more than a millionth, maybe a hundred millionth of our actual lived experiences. If human beings remembered everything they would cease being human and be a different species. One of the things that defines us is the way we forget almost everything.

And why do we remember some things and not others? Because they are part of the complex narratives we tell ourselves about our lives. And these narratives, obviously, vary hugely from person to person.

It’s not just that people remember the same event differently (as Kundera has given us ample examples of throughout his work), but that quite often two people don’t even remember the event at all. Thus Irena powerfully remembers her first meeting with Josef, and remembers him as a symbol or talisman of the single life she left behind when she married her husband soon after. Whereas Josef doesn’t remember her at all.

Kundera evinces both Irena’s experience after he husband died and Josef’s after his wife died: for both of them the shared memories which made up their relationships required constant discussing and sharing. Once the sharing ended, the memories started to decay, worryingly quickly.

Kundera’s discussed some of these issues before but, as I’ve said, they seem to arise more naturally from the subject matter and setting in this book than they do in its immediate predecessors. The result is that it feels more graceful. There are fewer abrupt handbrake turns.

Back to the narrative

Irena goes strolling round Prague, revising the middle class area where she grew up. She walks through woodland to the back of the famous castle. She thinks about her upbringing, the poets and storytellers and the little theatres with their humour – the ‘intangible essence’ of her country.

Josef reflects

He drives out into the country. He reflects on the destiny of the Czechs, a small nation, whose history has been one of fear and domination, yet have refused to bow to their larger neighbours, like the Danes he has settled among.

He and his sister-in-law had bickered about a painting, a painting by a painter friend of his depicting a working class neighbourhood in the flamey colours of the Fauves. Now he realises he doesn’t want it anyway. It would be a splinter of old Prague in his clean, windswept Danish existence. Out of place.

Man cannot know the future because he doesn’t understand the present

This point is made very amusingly though the example of Schoenberg the revolutionary Austrian composer. In the 1920s he announced that his new twelve-tone system would ensure the dominance of German music for a century. Barely ten years later he, a Jew, was forced to flee Nazi Germany, to America. Here he continued to write and developed the fans and acolytes who were to dominate post-war classical music and impose the atonal ‘system’ onto serious music until well into the 1970s.

But where is he now? In Kundera’s view forgotten and ignored (I’m not sure that’s quite true, but his system certainly doesn’t dominate classical music the way it used to).

Anyway, Kundera introduces another level to explain what he means. Imagine two armies meet to determine the fate of the world but unknown to either one carries the plague bacillus which will wipe out the civilisation they’re fighting over.

Same with Schoenberg and his arch-enemy Stravinsky who he spent fifty years slagging off. In the event both were blown away by radio. The advent of radio in the 1920s was the start of the great plague of noise and din and racket which, in Kundera’s view, has ruined music forever. Kundera lets rip with some classic cultural pessimism:

If in the past people would listen to music out of love of music, nowadays it roars everywhere and all the time, ‘regardless of whether we want to hear it’, it roars from loudspeakers, in cars, in restaurants, in elevators, in the streets, in waiting rooms, in gyms, in the earpieces of Walkmans, music rewritten, reorchestrated, abridged, and stretched out, fragments of rock, of jazz, of opera, a flood of everything jumbled together so that we don’t know who composed it (music become noise is anonymous), so that we can’t tell beginning from end (music become noise has no form); sewage-water music in which music is dying. (p.146)

So who cares any more whether Schoenberg or Stravinsky was right. Both have gone down under a tsunami of sewage-water music.

Irena and music

As so often in Kundera, having shared a thought or idea with us for a couple of pages, he then applies it to one of his walking experiments, also known as ‘characters. Thus we eavesdrop on how much Irena hates the way music blares from every outlet, how much she wants to get away from it to a realm of quiet. On one side of her the bedside radio which, even in its speech programmes, contains snippets of sewage music; on the other side Gustaf snoring like a pig. (This trip to Prague has crystallised how much she hates him.)

She is tense because it is the day when she’s made an appointment to meet Josef.

Josef and N

Before he left the country, Josef had been helped by N., a devout communist who stood up for people like him. Josef goes to meet him, his head full of questions about how he felt about collaborating in the oppression of his people, how things changed towards the end, what he feels now. But N.’s house is packed full of his grown-up kids milling around and he and Josef can’t manage to get a conversation started. He laments the capitalist commercialisation he sees all over the country. N. nods his head. ‘National independence has been an illusion for some time, now.’

Josef abandons his plans to engage in Weighty Conversation and, as soon as he does so, experiences a sudden release and sense of liberation. Suddenly he and N. are like two old friends chatting and gossiping about the past. (There is a certain polemical purpose in the notion that Josef the émigré has more in common with a former communist than with his own brother. His brother represents bitterness, and his wife, Josef’s sister-in-law, would string up the old communists if she could. Josef’s relaxed and warm conversation with his old friend shows how irrelevant that witch-hunting mentality is to the situation. Celebrate what we have in the here and now. Not least because ‘they’ – N. nods towards his adult children – have no idea what they’re talking about.)

The memory theme reappears because N. thanks Josef for acting as his alibi to his wife, on an occasion when N. was off with his mistress. Josef has absolutely no memory of this happening and doubts it was him, but acquiesces in the story. Earlier, his brother had reminded him of some boyhood lines he had supposedly uttered, and his sister-in-law reminded him that he used to scandalise the family with his anti-clerical sentiments. Josef remembers none of this, none of it.

Irena and Josef

They meet at his hotel. They chat and get on. She describes how alien she feels in Prague and yet how she has been cold-shouldered in Paris. The French accepted her and Martin as Heroic Exiles. When the wall came down and she could go back, she realised her few friends slowly lost contact with her because she was no longer interesting.

The suicide girl grown into a woman

I was wrong about the suicide teenager being Irena. It’s her best friend from the old days, Milada, who alone of the cackling women at the hen night reception for Irena, makes the effort to talk to her and understand her. At the time Kundera had told us that she had a very particular hairstyle, the hair cut to perfectly frame her face. Now we realise it is to hide the ear she had cut off because of the frostbite. For her, while Josef and Irena get to know each other in the Prague hotel bar, it is another boring day driving out to a suburb, having a beer and a sandwich alone in a bar.

Except that she has learned that he has come back, the teenage boy who rejected her and prompted her suicide attempt and the loss of her ear. Him. Josef.

Irena and Josef

It’s so noisy with sewage-water music in the bar that Josef invites Irena up to his bedroom. He’s reading the Odyssey. They explicitly compare Odysseus’s 20 year exile with Irena’s own. Talk swiftly moves to Odysseus and Penelope’s first night back in bed. Irena describes it then, half drunk, describes it again using coarse sex words. Both are immediately aroused and tumble into bed. Yes. It is a Milan Kundera novel where, no matter how artful, erudite and thought-provoking the ideas and discussion, straightforward heterosexual penetrative sex is never far away.

It was the sound of those rude words in their native Czech. Both have been married to or living with people who don’t speak Czech. The sound of those words in their native tongue, certainly stimulates Irena to ecstasies of sexual abandonment, she wants to do everything, try every position, and then describe out loud her crudest fantasies, voyeurism, exhibitionism (to be honest, in the era of Fifty Shades of Grey, these do not sound like the wildest fantasies).

Gustaf and Irena’s mother

She is a loud bossy vulgar woman who Irena has been trying to escape all her life. She lives in one of the rooms of the big house Gustaf’s company bought after the liberation. He gets back after a heavy lunch with clients. She has put on some dance music and playfully dances round the room. She takes his hand and makes her dance with her. She pulls him over towards the wall-length mirror. She places her hand on his crotch. They continue dancing. She lets her robe fall open so he can see her breasts and pubic triangle. They continue dancing. She slips her hand down his trousers to touch his hardening member.

Irena and Josef

Irena is exhausted and drunk. She bursts into tears. One thing leads to another and suddenly she realises the awful truth – he doesn’t know who she is. He didn’t on the plane, or in their follow-up phone calls, or downstairs in the bar, or now. She stands and demands he tell her her name. He is silent. Oh dear.

Gustaf and Irena’s mother

Gustaf withdraws from Irena’s mother’s quavery wobbly body. In the darkness she intones that he is quite free to make love to her whenever he likes, but under no obligation. Now, throughout the book we’ve been gently reminded that Gustaf is a bit of a mother’s boy, who fled the responsibility of his wife and child. Now, we realise, he has finally arrived home. Irena’s mother offer him precisely the reassurance and mother love he’s always sought. He reaches out to stroke her cellulite-wobbly buttocks.

Irena and Josef

Abruptly drunk tearful Irena collapses on the bed and passes out. She starts snoring. Josef knees beside her naked body and wonders: could he spend his life with her? she is so obviously in love with him? is she the sister-lover he’s been seeking (on and off) throughout the book?

The suicide girl

Alone and sad, she is in her flat, she is a vegetarian because she is terrified by the thought of eating bodies, that we are all bodies, that she is a body. She has a sad snack dinner and looks at herself in the mirror. She lifts up her hair and looks at her damaged ear. She became a scientist and dreams about flying off into space to find a world where people don’t have bodies.

I thought she and Josef would have had some dramatic reunion in which she blamed him for ruining her life (after he, the selfish teenager, dumped her, she made her suicide attempt, then had part of her ear cut off due to frostbite and gangrene, then she was too scared to show herself to men and never married). But it doesn’t happen, and it feels like an opportunity (deliberately) missed. Remember when he wrote:

The life we’ve left behind us has a bad habit of stepping out of the shadows, of bringing complaints against us, of taking us to court. (p.90)

I thought this was a strong hint that the jilted girlfriend was going to step out of the shadows to confront Josef. Shame. It feels a little like coitus interruptus, a little like the flirting with the reader Kundera does in all his books, promising big things which, somehow, don’t quite come off.

Josef leaves

He writes sleeping snoring Irena a brief sincere note, telling her she has the hotel room till noon the next day. Then packs his bags, goes downstairs, tells reception there’s a guest sleeping in the room who’s not to be disturbed, takes a taxi to the airport and catches his flight. The plane flies up through the clouds and into the big empty black empyrean of night dotted with stars.

Credit

Ignorance by Milan Kundera was first published in the English translation by Linda Asher by Harper Collins in 2002 All references are to the 2003 paperback edition.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

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

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

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

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2002 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

The Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera (1986)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. The Depreciated Legacy of Cervantes (1983)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Dialogue on the Art of the Novel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Notes inspired ‘The Sleepwalkers’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Dialogue on the Art of Composition (1983)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Somewhere behind (1979)

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

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

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

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

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

6. Sixty-Three Words (1986)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Central ideas

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

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

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

Last thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

Credit

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


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

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

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

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

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (1984)

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

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

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

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

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

Part One – Lightness and Weight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Two – Soul and Body

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Three – Words Misunderstood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Four – Soul and Body

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Later, when the supposed engineer doesn’t get back in touch, she becomes paranoid. What if it was a set-up? What is she as somehow filmed or recorded. And her mind goes back to how, in the months following the Prague Spring, the new hardline communist authorities broadcast secret recordings made of émigrés and dissidents, obviously only the most shameful bits when, after a bottle of wine or so they were persuaded to turn on their colleagues or admit what a crappy country Czechoslovakia is, or admit to being wife-beaters or closet paedophiles or anything – anything the agents provocateurs could wheedle out of them which could then be carefully edited and broadcast on Radio Communism to destroy the images of all the would-be leaders of the people and cow the populace into even deeper passive stupor.

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

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

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

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

Part Five – Lightness and Weight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Six – The Grand March

This is the shortest and the silliest part of the novel. Although it is packed with serious themes it feels somehow the most superficial. In a great hurry Kundera progresses through the anecdote about how Stalin’s son died, in a Second World War prisoner of war camp, arguing with British prisoners about his messy defecating habit, then Kundera picks up this idea of shit and runs with it through references to various theologians and their ideas of the relation between the human body and its creator, forcing a binary choice on us that either man’s body is made in the image of God’s – in which case God has intestines, guts, and defecates – or it isn’t, in which case it isn’t perfect and godlike, and neither is creation.

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

He then hurries on to rope in sentimentality, defining it was the awareness of how much one is moved by the notion that the world is a perfect and beautiful world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He tries to redeem it by piling in ‘tragic’ material about  his characters, for example we learn about ‘Simon’, the son Tomas abandoned, who discovers his father is now working as a farm labourer as he, Simon is, having left an academic career and married a devout wife and become a Christian. He and Tomas exchange a few letters but remain (as all Kundera characters do) at cross-purposes. When he receives a letter that Tomas and Tereza have been killed in a car accident, crushed by a truck which rolled onto their car, he hurries to the funeral.

Hmm. I don’t mind their deaths being reported at one remove, and by a fairly new character, but… this ‘Simon’ feels like he’s been introduced too quickly to properly perform the task.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Seven – Karenin’s Smile

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

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

This last section is very beautiful, quite sentimental and made me cry. Which is odd because it’s still packed to the gill with references to philosophers (we learn about Descartes’ theory that animals have no souls and no feelings, a merely machines; compared with Nietzsche who had his final nervous breakdown and collapse into madness, after he saw a man whipping a broken-down horse in the streets of Turin), as well as more or less every event in the characters’ lives being packed with philosophising about human nature.

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

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

And much more in the same vein.

In among all the lugubrious lucubrations, some stuff actually happens, mainly that their beloved dog of ten years, Karenin, falls ill of cancer, and wastes away until Tomas is forced to put him out of his misery.

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts

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

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

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

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

Questionable wisdom

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

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

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

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

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

Is this deep? Or does it just sound deep?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wisdom about men and woman

Sames goes, but that much more, for his sweeping generalisations about love and sex, men and women. Why that much more? Because the past forty years have seen a transformation in relationships between the sexes, and a massive shift in what is acceptable behaviour and speech about women. It feels like the tide has gone a long way out and left a lot of what Kundera wrote seeming very dated.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

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

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

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

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

The 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 his 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 but enjoy 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 peace and fused a bit more, Mother goes quietly back to her room, whereupon Karel arranges Eva as he remembers Nora in that distant memory, and kneels down so 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, tries to reduce Karel to a headless machine. And afterwards, as the girls are lying on the couch, Eva quietly reinvites 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 turn up in her cafe drunk and on the verge of tears because he was the victim of a poor review in a newspaper. Pathetic.

A professor of philosophy holds forth about the nature of the novel. On a separate occasion Tamina’s 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. In the room Joujou tells them, 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 he husband is 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 name, full of unnamed streets and even the characters have forgotten their own names – Josef K. 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. He 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 totalitatarian 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

Laughable Loves by Milan Kundera (1969)

This is a collection of seven short stories by Milan Kundera, the Czech novelist, that first appeared in Czechoslovakia in 1968, during the thaw in the communist dictatorship known as the Prague Spring – but was then banned after the Russian invasion of August 1968 reasserted communist censorship and oppression.

All the stories are about love – more crudely, about sex – and about the ridiculous misunderstandings and ludicrous behaviour it provokes in people.

1. The Hitchhiking Game

A young man and his girlfriend are driving out of town to a holiday in the country. They start bickering. She needs to stop for a pee so he pulls into a gas station. She finishes and walks a way down the road, and when he pulls out of the gas station onto the road, she puts out her hand and pretends to hitch-hike. He pulls over and adopts the character of a driver offering a lift to a pretty young woman, and she slips into the character of an innocent young woman being picked up by a strange man.

And for the rest of the story they both play these roles but the point of the story is the way they both quickly find them tiring and constraining. The interest is in the way the two protagonists find the game opening up unexpected vistas within themselves, parts of their psychology they didn’t know they possessed.

To cut to the chase, they end up at some restaurant and hotel where, through a string of casual comments, the game develops into her playing a cheap hooker and he being her bored client. This excites both of them and they hurry up to the bedroom. She surprises herself because – once liberated from her usual constraint and good manners by the role playing – she becomes foul mouthed and foul-acting, really playing the part of an experienced whore and, to her amazement, having a fierce and deep erotic experience.

Unfortunately, as Kundera explains, the young man worshipped her rather than loved her. He worshipped an image of her. And the role-playing destroys that image of purity and innocence which he so wanted to possess. He fucks her and rolls off and refuses to touch or talk to her. And then hears her begin to sob. ‘Can we stop playing the game now?’ she asks. But he remains silent as her crying becomes louder and louder.

Not a very cheerful start to the collection.

2. Let The Old Dead Make Room For The Young Dead

Two characters, a man and a woman, bump into each other in the street in a provincial town. Twenty-five years ago she got married and lived here briefly before moving to Prague. Ten years later he husband died and asked to be buried here. Once a year she returns, but is upset to discover that the lease on the grave has expired and his body has been removed and replaced with another. The surly official at the cemetery gives her this gnomic excuse, which gives the story its title: ‘Let The Old Dead Make Room For The Young Dead’.’

Wandering the streets, waiting for the return train to Prague, she bumps into an old acquaintance. The local cafes are filthy so he invites her to his apartment for a coffee and a chat. He notices she is old. The veins on her hands stick out. He himself is worrying about ageing. He’s 35 and has just noticed the bald patch appearing at the back of his head.

They go back to his apartment (the reader used to Kundera’s stories feels an ominous sense of inevitability that they will end up having sex). And indeed it turns out they were in love fifteen years ago, and had a brief fling, one night of love in his student accommodation, but he was too timid and shy to really appreciate it, she stripped in the dark, he couldn’t see her face, she moaned something as she climaxed and to this day it haunts him that he couldn’t hear, he couldn’t understand. She is like a lost secret.

Now they have met again and both look back at their affair 15 years earlier, with regret, but really with a kaleidoscope of feelings which are continually changing shape and colour as their dialogue develops, shedding new light on past events, and how they’ve misinterpreted and misremembered them.

He eventually takes her in his arms and begins caressing her, and for a moment she becomes once again the mature sexual woman of 15 years ago, like riding a bike it all comes flooding back. But when he goes to french kiss her it crosses some psychological boundary and she clams up. Suddenly she sees herself as she knows she looks in the mirror, blue-veined hands, wattled throat.

And she realises that she had been seeing herself through the prism of his 15-year-old memory of her. He had been describing their night of love 15 years earlier and she had enjoyed being fifteen years younger. Now he threatens to strip her and reveal what fifteen years have done to her body and that will shatter the image he has created by his words and which she treasures. She says No.

Really, the story is like a short play, but with the author continually arranging events so as to prompt a steady stream of psychological insights. When I reviewed the plays of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, I came across the fact that the French have a tradition of a ‘theatre of ideas’ which the Anglo-Saxon world lacks i.e. a long tradition of accepting that the ‘plot’ is arranged in order to throw up and display interesting and stimulating ideas.

Well Kundera’s fictions are ‘fictions of ideas’ in exactly the same sense. There’s a story, of sorts, in these tales, but it is swamped by the weight of witty, unexpected, paradoxical and sometimes penetrating insights which the author garlands them with.

Thus it is that the older woman has one of those blinding insights which Kundera characters are prey to, in which she realises that the past is pointless, that all monuments to human achievement will crumble, and that therefore her attachment to her dead husband (and her annual pilgrimage to his grave) and her attachment to the idealised version of herself and her body which the nameless man has preserved from their one and only, distant sexual encounter, all of this will crumble and fade.

And so, in wilful defiance of the passage of time and of her entire former attitude towards preserving the past, she stands and begins to take her clothes off. The idealised past will be annihilated by the present, no matter how imperfect.

3. Nobody Will Laugh

Klima is a lecturer in art history. He is a modernist who rattles the conservatives at his college. He is a womaniser, who has had plenty of women traipsing through his flat over the years, as well as lending it to friends, who often have loud parties, thus he has acquired a bad reputation with the building housing committee.

The story has a Kafkaesque feel in that the protagonist is subjected to an inexplicable and, ultimately, destructive persecution. It all starts when a funny little man, an unemployed scientist, contacts Klima and asks him to review an article about an obscure artist which he has spent three years researching and writing. In a light-hearted moment, over a bottle of slivovitz with his girlfriend, Klara, Klima dashes off an ironically effusive letter to this Mr Zaturetsky, vaguely promising a review. For Klima is a joker –

I waved my hand, declaring that the purpose of life is to give amusement, and if life is too lazy for this, there is nothing left but to help it along a little. (p.69)

But, as we know from The Joke, even the most casual off-hand quips can have catastrophic consequences.

Thus, in a light-hearted gesture begins a sequence of unfortunate events which ends up with Klima sacked from his job, kicked out of his apartment and dumped by beautiful Klara. Because Zaturetsky proceeds to haunt his life. He sends more letters asking when the review will be ready. He turns up at the college to find out what days Klima lectures on, and then is present every day. Klima changes the days on which he lectures (in secret, and so illegally). Zaturetsky pesters his secretary, Mary, with questions, until one day she weakens and admits  his real address.

Next day Klima is out but Klara is in when Zaturetsky knocks at the door. He is a funny little man. Klara tells him Klima isn’t there, which is true. Next day Zaturetsky catches Klima at his office, forcing Mary to let him in.

Klima has an inspiration. Trying to reverse the direction of attack, he accuses Zaturetsky of indecently propositioning his girlfriend. Zaturetsky is horrified, indignant and then furious. Flippant Klima regrets his stroke of fun. A few days later he gets a letter from Mrs Zaturetsky threatening legal action unless he withdraws his accusation.

And so it goes on. The Zaturetskies discover that Klara works in a clothes factory and bully their way into it, to track her down. Fortunately, they are both short-sighted and miss her. Still Klima now feels like a hunted animal, and so does Klara.

What gets her is that Klima won’t simply write the wretched review. Just do it, for God’s sake! Klima tries to explain that some of his lies – about Zaturetsky propositioning her and so on – are his lies which he owns, part of him, part of his character. Writing a review praising Zaturetsky’s wretched article would be an objective lie, forced out of him by alien means and an enduring untruth. Klara’s got no idea what he’s on about.

Finally he is called in to a meeting of the local communist party committee. This – like all such committees in all such stories – is populated by vengeful harpies and toxic apparatchiks who completely twist every aspect of Klima’s life to make him out to be an unreliable class enemy. The women on the committee extract admission of his womanising lifestyle which offends them and which they dress up as making him completely unsuitable for teaching the pure new young generation. The male bureaucrats accuse him of giving up lecturing altogether, thus breaking his contract. They both bring to a head his unpopularity with just about every other inhabitant of the apartment building.

Klima finally has a meeting with Mrs Zaturetsky, the tall thin unwell working woman who adores her husband and won’t hear anything bad said about his character or his essay, which she is convinced must be a masterpiece. He tries to explain why it is a second-rate collection of plagiarisms, but she can’t hear him. He loses everything.

All at once I understood that it had only been my illusion that we ourselves saddle events and control their course. The truth is that they aren’t our stories at all, they are foisted on us from somewhere outside; that in no way do they represent us; that we are not o blame for the queer path that they follow. They carry us away, since they are controlled by some other forces; no, I don’t mean by supernatural forces, but by human forces, by the forces of those people who, when they unite, unfortunately still remain mutually alien. (p.88)

4. The Golden Apples of Eternal Desire

The unnamed narrator is in awe of his friend, Martin. Martin is happily married to a beautiful wife who he adores, and has just turned 40. Nonetheless he carries on an extraordinary game: absolutely wherever he and the narrator go they carry out a compulsive ‘game’ of chatting up almost every single or available woman they see. It is so compulsive it has become an obsession, and has a number of rules. The most obvious is dividing the meetings with women into registrations and contacts. A registration is where you simply find out the name of a woman you’ve noticed. A contact is where you make a date. It is not at all necessary to actually take this forward to the next step i.e. physical intimacy. In fact this doesn’t appear to have a name within the system. The idea is not at all to reach consummation. It is about celebrating the Eternal Chase.

All this is explained by the narrator in the course of a particular ‘adventure’. This begins when Martin spots a pretty young woman in the cafe where they’re drinking. They follow her to the cloakroom where Martin insists on slipping into her bag the heavy book the narrator has just borrowed from the library. Perplexed by his quick talking, the woman agrees to take the book and look it over. She is a nurse at a town outside Prague. She promises to meet them at the town on the coming Saturday.

On the big day the narrator borrows a nifty little Fiat from a friend and he and Martin motor out to the town. On the way they stop at a lake and quickly slip into trunks and go for a swim (this is all so unlike my own experience of life in England – borrowing other people’s cars, pulling over when they see people with wet hair and asking the way to the lake – that it might as well be happening on another planet).

Martin spies a beauty in a bikini facing the lake, and asks a couple of local kids for her name. When one of them tells our guys her name, the narrator explains that that is a registration. One more name has been added to the ever-expanding list of names of girls they could sleep with in the future. Happy with having made a registration, they get back in the car and drive on.

Then they arrive at the hospital and find the nurse, who says she’s got a friend to pair off with the narrator. She arranged to borrow a house on a nearby lake for the evening. (There’s a lot of borrowing of cars and properties in these stories.) She has to go back to work, she’ll see them this evening.

For the next couple of hours the pair chat up more or less every woman they meet, taking names (registration) and even making more arrangements to meet (which they cheerfully fail to keep). Their insouciance is surreal. Eventually they arrive back at the hospital and park outside and wait. I’ve forgotten to mention that Martin, during the course of the afternoon, had mentioned to his pal that he has to be back in Prague by nine o’clock! His wife had a bad week at the office and he wants to be kind to her and return by 9 so he can play a nice game of rummy with her!

The narrator is surprised but not that surprised. He knows Martin loves his wife. In fact, now he thinks about it, he can’t remember any of the registrations a contacts from the last year or so getting anywhere near consummation. Not to worry. They wait a bit and become impatient. Finally the narrator sees in the rear-view mirror a couple of nurses done up to the nines emerging from the hospital. He abruptly declares they’ve waited long enough and need to leave now to be sure of getting Martin home in time for his wife. Martin doesn’t complain and off they roar.

I felt at that moment that I liked Martin and that I also liked the banner under which he had been marching all his life: the banner of the eternal pursuit of women. (p.113)

This is a strange little story about male obsession and its weirdness, which wasn’t helped by the fact that it’s in a poor translation.

5. Symposium

The interesting thing about this story is the headings. Five doctors sit around chatting about sex (of course), and even the smallest events or parts of the conversation are given their own headings. Thus nurse Alzhbeta, from the start, is flirting with handsome, mature Dr Havel and earns an admonition from him. And so the next section is headed Havel’s admonition even though it is only one paragraph long.

Thus the entire text is broken up into micro-sections and each one is given a name. This has the effect of making the whole thing extremely stagey, or like the screenplay for a movie – very artful, very arranged, very just so. Taken out of the messy river of life, these moments stand alone, cleaned up and displayed for our inspection and for the author to make an endless stream of witty, paradoxical comments about.

It is a comedy of sexual errors. Five doctors are chatting after hours, three men, two women, and the entire story is as tangled a web of erotic misunderstandings and emotional misreadings as you can imagine.

The chief physician is having an affair with a mature woman doctor. Dr Havel is wise and attractive to all women, and so has earned the nickname of Death, because ‘he takes [i.e. screws] everyone’. Although he hasn’t slept with Nurse Alzhbeta, who really fancies him, fancies him so much that, late on in proceedings, when they are all quite drunk, she does a mime striptease, elaborately bumping and grinding and pretending to take off all her clothes, while remaining fully dressed, swinging and swaying her big breasts right above Dr Havel’s embarrassed head.

When she has finally finished and goes to sit down on Havel’s lap, he moves his legs, without thinking, merely because he wants to avoid contact with her – but with the result that she falls to the floor with a bump. Humiliated, Alzhbeta gets up, marches to the door, dramatically declaring, ‘You don’t know, you don’t understand.’ and exits.

The others continue their endless droll conversations about sex and desire and the erotic, and who fancies who, they nickname the chief physician Don Juan, and there is a characteristic Kundera-esque section where he explains how, in the good old days, Don Juan was a conqueror of women but in our fallen times, with women being so much more docile and willing (and nobody believing in God any more) Don Juan is more of a collector, a different kind of figure altogether (pp.140-141).

The youngest person present is the lanky, slow-witted junior Dr Flaischman. He is comically convinced that the thirty-something woman doctor is secretly in love with him and sending him coded signals throughout the evening. In one of the genuinely comic moments, he makes it clear to everyone that he’s going outside for a leak, and winks at the woman doctor, convinced she will follow him.

Down the corridor he goes, out into the ground, finds a nearby tree and is just unzipping when he hears footsteps approaching. Without looking round he says, ‘I knew you’d come’, and the chief physician replies, ‘Yes, I prefer peeing outside’. That made me laugh.

On the way back, though, Flaischman smells gas. It’s coming from Nurse Alzhbeta’s room. The door is unlocked, he bursts through it, a ring on the oven is on spewing out gas, the nurse is lying sprawled stark naked on the bed (of course). He turns the gas off, flings open the windows and calls for help. Several hours later, after the patient has been pumped full of oxygen and had a blood transfusion and is well on the way to recovery, the remaining four characters reconvene in the drinking room to reflect on what just happened.

The story is like a play, an intellectual play, not least because it is made up almost entirely of dialogue with precious little description. Every single piece of dialogue introduces new ideas, the dialogue packed with theories and counter-theories about love and sex. Kundera loves paradox. He freely uses the word ‘precisely’, in the way of European intellectuals, to make each thought appear that much more incisive and logical.

Thus the passages where they speculate why Nurse Alzhbeta tried to kill herself are called The Chief Physician’s Theory, Dr Havel’s Theory, and the Woman Doctor’s Theory, and each one is witty, plausible and false, for they all relate her action to her strip-tease and to her frustrated love for Dr Havel. All wrong. Even wronger is poor Flaishman’s conviction that Nurse Alzhbeta (like the woman doctor) is secretly in love with him, Flaishman. He reproaches himself for having not treated her better. He blames himself for her suicide attempt. Next day he takes her flowers in her hospital bed, chats to her, pats her shoulder, convinced she is forlornly in love with him. All ludicrously wrong.

The actual reason is that much earlier in the evening, Dr Havel had given the nurse some ‘pep’ pills because she was tired after a long day and wanted to perk up for the little drinks party. Only what he gave her were actually sleeping pills, because he wanted her to feel super-tired and bugger off and leave him alone. Drunk and shattered, Nurse Alzhbeta had then gone back to her room, popped a little pan of coffee on the hob and taken the pills as she got undressed, by which time they took effect and she fell asleep on the bed (stark naked, of course), while the pan boiled over and the water put out the gas flame but the gas kept on pumping into the room.

So it was not suicide caused by any of the clever theories the doctor’s cook up. It was cock-up not catastrophe. Beneath all humanity’s grand plans and theories lies… randomness and accident.

A story like this makes you marvel at Kundera’s brevity. Whole dazzling verbal and intellectual effects are created in half-page snippets of dialogue.

But there is a downside to his technique which is that – no human beings ever spoke like this. Nobody was ever this witty and concise, and paradoxical, and intellectual and incisive. In this way, Kundera’s fictions are rather like Oscar Wilde’s. Dazzlingly witty, pithily expressed, always graceful and alert and sometimes very funny – and yet, somehow, ultimately, often, strangely empty.

And contrived. Ultimately, I didn’t really believe in any of these characters. The tone of some of the stories is more like a fairy tale than an adult fiction, and the characters are more like ciphers than human beings. In some of these stories the clockwork machinery which propels the automata around the stage for our amusement seems just a little bit too contrived and neat.

6. Dr Havel After Ten Years

Dr Havel is ten years older and no longer so attractive as he was when we met him in the previous story. In Symposium the other characters nickname him Death, because he ‘takes’ (meaning he sleeps with) everything.

Now he is old and ill, he suffers from gall bladder failure, he is often in pain, it is sometimes all he can do to walk around the block. So he sends himself off to a spa to recover. (This is yet another exotic and wonderful element of Kundera’s fiction; his Czechoslovakia is dotted with spas and his Czech characters are often popping off to them or work at them [The Farewell Party is entirely set in a spa, a key meeting in the poet’s early life in Life Is Elsewhere takes place at a spa. Whereas in my entire life I don’t think I’ve ever been to a spa, not to ‘take the waters’: I’ve been to Bath or Buxton as spas but neither time did I take any waters, just wandered around like all the other tourists.)

At the spa he is treated by a muscular blonde administrator of the cures and baths, who he tries to chat up but who completely ignores him. He flirts with a posh horse-faced woman guest who also ignores him. He tries it on with several other women who all ignore his advances. Tut tut, Dr Death’s powers have gone.

In his consultant’s room, on a whim he asks to phone his wife, who he’s left at their apartment back in Prague. She is gorgeous, a movie star, younger than him and famous. And crazed with jealousy. She almost prefers it when he’s ill, because then he knows he’s not on the pull. Whenever he’s absent from her, she knows he can sleep with any woman he wants. Or used to be able to… She can’t initially believe he is sincere, but he begs her to come and visit her at the spa, so she does, the next day.

Dr Havel is deliriously happy when he sees her bus draw in, and escorts her round the spa and the town. Everywhere they go his wife draws admiring glances and he takes special care to ensure the muscular bath supervisor, the horse-faced lady, and all the others who have turned him down, see him kissing, canoodling and joking with his stunningly beautiful and famous wife.

With the result that, the next day, after she’s left (she’s due to do some filming back in Prague) Dr Havel encounters the same series of women but this time they all make it abundantly clear that they will talk to him, and even meet for a date and a drink, with hints of lots more if he wants it. His association with the film star has transformed him in their eyes. By sleeping with him, some of her glamour and meaning will rub off on them.

This is so unlike the behaviour of any woman I’ve ever met or read about that I can only consider it a kind of middle-aged, male fairy tale. Read in this spirit it has the child-like inevitability and good humour of a parable or fable, like real life refined and purified and simplified and made charming – as real life so rarely is.

7. Edward and God

Most commentators I’ve read consider this the best of the seven stories, and I agree. I think it’s because it has the most formal beauty, it has the most satisfying shape. Most of the others are fairy tales or fantasies but ‘deformed’ by elements of adventitiousness or arbitrariness or accident. Edward and God, on the other hand, has the kind of perfection which real fairy tales have, which have been handed down over the generations and worn smooth like pebbles in a stream so that only the absolutely essential elements of the story remain, so that the narrative unfolds with  wonderfully pleasing sense of inevitability.

Edward is a young teacher. He is in love with beautiful Alice. But despite going on numerous dates with her she is prim and proper and upright, kisses him with dry kisses, won’t let him touch her breast etc. (Yes, this is yet another story about a randy young man desperate to sleep with a young woman, but in this case this plot device really works.)

One day she surprises him by asking if he believes in God. Of course not, he says. He’s a communist, a modern man. They debate the existence of God etc a little but it dawns on Edward that if he is to get into Alice’s pants he must ape her faith. So he starts going to church with her and, when he starts singing and when he kneels and prays, to his great surprise, he finds it reassuring and comforting. He becomes quite devout. He even begins to outdo Alice, kneeling more often, praying louder, and crossing himself in the street, when they come across an ancient cross pinned to a wall.

Which triggers an unfortunate sequence of events. Because Edward is spotted by the school janitor who reports him to the thin, ugly directress of the school, and Edward is called before the school committee, who are ready to come down on him like a ton of bricks. To suspend or even sack him.

But suddenly, in this fraught situation, Edward has a blinding revelation. Rather than deny their accusations and play into their hands, he must go along with their conception of him. Denying the accusation will make them angry because it defies the conclusion they’ve already reached and therefore their intelligence. Immediately confessing in full will flatter their intelligence.

And so Edward immediately admits that, although he is a modern man, a communist, a man of the people, a man of the future and so on, he just can’t help believing in God. The most vehement accusers breathe a gratified sigh. They were right all along. And now they can set about helping this poor wrongheaded young man back to the light.

To cut a long story short, Edward is handed over to the school directress for improvement and rectification. She has a reputation for being attracted to younger men. Over the course of their first few re-education sessions together, Edward continues to play the role of misguided youth, yearning to be re-educated out of his wrong-headed belief in God i.e. he lies his face off in order to play to the role his accusers have assigned him.

As you might expect from a Kundera story, the central events turn around sex, namely that, as the re-education sessions progress, the directress brings out wine, adopts a more friendly tone, says she understands the torments of youth and she is here to help – in an increasingly meaningful and suggestive way.

The comedy reaches a climax when, at the third of fourth session, she has a little too much to drink, puts on the radio and insists that Edward dances with her. He knows what is coming next and is terrified that his body won’t respond. The directress is fearsomely ugly, skinny, with a long narrow face, scrappy black hair and a prominent moustache. As they dance he feels his manhood recoiling and shrinking in terror. She kisses him. She places his hand on her breast. Then she disappears into the bathroom telling him she’ll be back in two ticks and reappears in the doorway wearing a see-through nighty.

The moment has come but as the directress approaches, Edward backs away, the directress follows him, until they end up chasing each other round and round the coffee table in the middle of her living room.

It is a farce. But a very clever, very funny one. For suddenly Edward has another of his blinding revelations. He stops dead and says he can’t. His faith won’t let him. God won’t let him. And while the directress is spluttering something about don’t be so ridiculous, Edward suddenly commands her to kneel. KNEEL. Bewildered the directress does so. AND PRAY. She begins to recite the Lord’s Prayer. And, looking down at her as she prays, looking down at this image of communist power brought low, of the head of his school obeying him, and of a half naked woman paying obeisance to him… suddenly his manhood experiences a surge of power. He tears off his clothes and takes her there and then, fiercely and unforgivingly.

And to his amazement it is the most fulfilling sexual experience of his (admittedly young) life. The directress is overjoyed and tells him his re-education is coming on in leaps and bounds. Who knows, soon he may merit a promotion.

Meanwhile, Alice, remember her? The sweet virginal devoted Christian who refused barely even to kiss Edward? Next time they meet, after he’s been hauled before the school committee, she is all over him and, to his amazement she kisses him with soft wet kisses, and she lets him touch her breasts, and even… wander below the borderline at her navel. And she has arranged for them to borrow a relative’s country cottage for the weekend! Wow! Why the complete change? Because he is a martyr for the faith. The story is all over school and beyond of how he stood his ground against the persecutors and stood up for the Lord!

Edward is at first astonished that this legend about him has sprung up so quickly, and then disappointed that Alice can abandon her principles so easily. One minute she is telling him God has forbidden adultery and sex before marriage and vehemently, vigorously prevents him touching any naughty parts of her body; the next minute she’s all for illicit sex.

He realises, with a sinking heart, that in her own way she is just as malleable and manipulative of principles as everyone else. Despite now being able to get his wicked way, Edward is disappointed.

And then, as you might predict, their night of love at the borrowed cottage is similarly disappointing. She insists on closing all the curtains and having the light off, and then she ‘sacrifices’ his body to her. But everything about it seems staged and false to Edward and, again, he finds his manhood hesitating and not rising to the occasion. By various strategems he manages to keep it up and complete the act of love but next morning he finds himself having an argument with her, about her lack of principles.

So in the end he ‘wins’ Alice, but discovers her type of narrow-minded officiousness repels him and, after a harsh argument dumps her; while he discovers that he has something immeasurably better if inexplicable with the skinny ugly directress who, nonetheless, when she kneels before him and prays, unleashes erotic forces he didn’t imagine were possible.

This story feels as perfectly formed as a fairy tale in the sense that all the elements fall into place with a lovely inevitability, and that the ‘moral’ of the story is also pleasingly counter-intuitive but, on reflection, psychologically satisfying. And it contains some very funny moments: there is intellectual comedy in the way Edward strings the committee along with his play-acted shame and comradely regret; and there is basic physical comedy in the skinny half-dressed sex-mad directress chasing the harassed young man round her coffee table.

Thoughts

I know the word ‘loves’ is in the title, but after a while I got fed up of the unrelentingness of the predatory male sexuality depicted in each of the stories. I longed for even a page which didn’t mention sex or love or erotic adventures. In amidst the relentless sexualisation of the stories, I sometimes found passages about age or youth, or about politics or religion, which were like oases, where, for a brief moment, you could get away from the oppressive sense of hairy men, young and old, relentlessly obsessed with getting their end away, whatever the cost.

But just a little below the surface concern with sex and breasts and bodies, underlying all the stories, is Kundera’s very mid-European sense of the sheer Absurdity of human existence, the sense that whatever we think we’re doing, the world has other ideas.

This is the way life goes: a man imagines that he is playing his role in a particular play, and does not suspect that in the meantime they have changed the scenery without his noticing, and he unknowingly finds himself in the middle of a rather different production. (p.229)

All the characters without exception are misguided and misinterpret each other.

The narrator’s voice

The vital element in all Kundera’s fiction is the quality and character and technique of the narrator’s voice. If you concentrate just on the plots and storylines you are missing the elephant in the room, which is the immense self-confidence with which he makes himself part of the narration, with which he creates a confidential, witty and incisive narratorial voice, interrupting and arranging the narrative just so, clinically dividing it up into neat, pre-packaged sections designed for him to make a witty or thought-provoking comment about love or human nature.

Sometimes the stories approach closer to the character of a lecture than a traditional fiction. The paradox is that, the more archly and overtly intrusive the narrator is, the more effective the story often is.

Thus Edward and God is the ‘best’ story, but it is also the most artificial. Several times the narrator addresses the reader in paragraphs which begin ‘Ladies and gentlemen…’, as if he’s the impresario of a theatre appearing in front of the curtain and directly addressing the audience before or after a play has been performed.

Kundera’s books came to attention in the West in the early 1980s at the same time as the wave of Magical realists from South America. They share a rejection of the ‘naturalist’ tradition, and an openness to elements of magic and fantasy. But Kundera’s stand alone and distinct in the extreme staginess of his voice, always guiding, pushing and coaxing his characters, and constantly commenting on the action and digressing with his own thoughts about politics and death and human nature and, of course, sex.

Not just staginess, but age and wisdom. Kundera’s voice is older and wiser than those of his characters and, by implication, than of us, the reader. It gives the sense of having experienced everything, and understood everything and forgiven everything, and now he is going to present some puppets for our entertainment, put them through their paces, and take every opportunity to reminisce and share the wisdom gained from a long and rich life:

  • Let us try to understand… (p.33)
  • We should perhaps find in her dismay something akin to the dismay of a very young girl who has been kissed for the first time… (p.45)
  • We can advantageously start Edward’s story in his elder brother’s little house in the country
  • We must recall (for the sake of those to whom perhaps the historical background of the story is missing)… (p.209)
  • Ladies and gentlemen, these were weeks of torment… (p.210)
  • Let us stop and consider this word… (p.237)
  • Ah, ladies and gentlemen, a man lives a sad life when he cannot take anything or anyone seriously. (p.242)

If you can put aside the fact that he is almost always talking about sex, love and eroticism, many of these interventions could be those of a wise grandfather, telling a time-honoured tale (and, at bottom, all these tales of love and loss are time honoured, repeated in every generation).


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

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

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

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

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

Life Is Elsewhere by Milan Kundera (1969)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Xavier

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

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

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

Other lyric poets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Kundera the narrator

A highly intrusive narrator

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

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

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

and litters the text thereafter:

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

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

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

The royal ‘we’

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

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

And

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis and italics

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


The plot part two – History intrudes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The janitor’s son

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

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

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

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

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

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

The betrayal

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

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

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

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

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

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

The red-headed girl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The final end

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

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

Concluding thought

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

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

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

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

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


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

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

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

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

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

The Joke by Milan Kundera (1967)

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

Czech history – a postwar snapshot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Themes in Milan Kundera’s fiction

Communism

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

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

Cynicism and the absurd

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

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

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

The personal and the private

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

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

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

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

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

The Joke – structure and style

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

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

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

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

Kundera’s prose style is flat and factual…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thus:

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

See what I mean by a very intellectual author.

The Joke – the plot

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

The fateful postcard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the mining camp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Revenge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jaroslav and the Ride of the King

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kostka’s story

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

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

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

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

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

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

So both were acting under pitiful delusions about the other.

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

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

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

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

Back to Helena

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another view

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

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

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

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

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


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

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

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

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

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

Ring of Steel by Alexander Watson (2014) A synopsis

Introduction

Ring of Steel sets out:

  1. to explore how opular consent for  the First World War was won and maintained in Austria-Hungary and Germany from 1914 to 1918
  2. to explain how extreme and escalating violence radicalised both German and Austro-Hungarian war aims, leading to the institution of slave labour and the stripping of agricultural and industrial resources in the occupied territories, and encouraging plans for the permanent annexation of Belgium, northern France and west Russia
  3. to describe the societal fragmentation caused by the war, especially in an Austria-Hungary already deeply fissured by ethnic tensions and which eventually collapsed into a host of new nation states; Germany was more ethnically homogenous and had been more socially unified in support of war so the end, when it came, unleashed a flood of bitterness and anger which expressed itself not along ethnic but along class lines, leading to street fighting between parties of the extreme left and right: the communists were defeated, the Nazis were born

Chapters

  1. Decisions for war
    • The conspirators– Elements in the Austro-Hungarian Foreign Ministry and military had been waiting an opportunity to suppress little Serbia, located just on the empire’s border and endlessly fomenting nationalist unrest. When Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian (A-H) throne was assassinated on 28 June in the Serbian capital, Sarajevo, the Austrians blamed Serbia and spent most of July devising an ultimatum so extreme that they, and everyone else in Europe, knew it could not be fulfilled. Germany, not that concerned, gave A-H unqualified support, the so-called ‘blank cheque’. Both countries changed their tune when they realised that Russia was mobilising to support the Serbs, their fellow Slavs.
    • War of existence – Why was the Austro-Hungarian hierarchy so harsh on Serbia? A review of the many tensions tearing the Austro-Hungarian empire apart. ‘The actions of Austro-Hungarian rulers in the summer of 1914, although secretive and aggressive, were motivated less by belligerence than a profound sense of weakness, fear and despair’ (p.14).
    • The miscalculated risk – The pressures on German Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg reflected a nation anxious about the growing might of Britain and France, the industrialisation of Russia, but well aware of the risk of world war. Hollweg gambled that a) the Austrians would defeat Serbia quickly, within a week and b) that Russia would be so slow to mobilise that the conflict on the ground would be over and the whole thing handed over to international mediation. He was wrong on both counts.
    • World war – Russia mobilised out of fear that an A-H victory over Serbia would:
      • give the whole Balkan region to Germanism
      • demolish Russia’s traditional claim to lead the Slav peoples
      • relegate Russia out of the league of Great Powers.
    • Fear and anxiety led Russia to full mobilisation. Hearing of this, German Chancellor Bethmann panicked and tried to curtail Austrian aggression. Too late.
  2. Mobilising the people
    • Assassination – The impact of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand on public opinion i.e. increased racial tensions across the Austro-Hungarian empire (p.57) Germans attack Czechs, Poles attack Germans.
    • The July crisis – Austria-Hungary issues its ultimatum to Serbia on 23 July. 27 July Serbia rejects it. 28 July Austria-Hungary declares war. The emperor Franz Joseph issued a proclamation to his people defining it as a defensive war. This excuse would be echoed by the German authorities and the Kaiser, who sincerely felt they were pushing back on a decade of slow encroachment by France and Russia, against a series of Balkan wars and international crises in all of which Germany had been ganged up on by France and Britain and Russia.
    • Mobilisation – Millions of men were mobilised with bewildering speed. Companies large and small lost their workforces, producing a depression and unemployment. Families lost wage earners. Widespread fears of terrorism and spies. The Kaiser made the grand declaration that he no longer recognised political parties – we are all Germans now. Fear of invasion by backwards Russia persuaded leaders of the largest party in Germany, the million-strong supposedly left-wing SPD, to back the government. On 4 August the Reichstag voted overwhelmingly for war credits, establishing the Burgfrieden ‘fortress peace’, the sense of one nation united to defend its values. 250,000 men volunteered to fight in August alone. Networks of women’s support groups sprang up across Germany. Austria-Hungary was very different: loyalty to the emperor and Hapsburg dynasty aroused much loyalty, but each of the different nations and races considered their own positions and ambitions – the Hungarians, the Poles, the Czechs. The Poles set up a volunteer Polish Legion which was to form the seed of the independent Polish nation declared in 1918. Many local imperial leaders took the opportunity to lock up troublesome nationalists, inflaming nationalist tensions.
  3. War of illusions
    • War plans – The German army only had one plan, the infamous Schlieffen Plan drawn up in the 1890s, which called for the army to knock out France with a lightning 6-week strike through Belgium, ensuring a swift capitulation (as in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War) before turning all its attention to Russia, which it was assumed would mobilise very slowly. Wrong. The attack through Belgium a) took too long b) guaranteed that Britain entered the war in defence of France and Belgium, with just enough soldiers to force the German advance to a halt. Meanwhile, in the east, the Russians mobilised faster than expected and invaded East Prussia. Everyone expected Austria to conquer little Serbia in weeks but due to ‘spectacularly incompetent’ leadership, its invasion not only failed but was repelled. Both nations, in other words, were scuppered right at the start by the ‘illusions’ and over-optimistic plans of their military leaders.
    • The Western Front – On the night of 1 August German forces secured Luxemburg’s railways. Deployment of 2 million men, 118,000 horses, 20,800 rail transports carrying 300,000 tons of material to the border with France and Belgium go like clockwork. But as soon as the large-scale invasion started things began to go wrong. The Belgians were better armed and more resistant than expected. The French stood their ground and even counter-attacked. Both sides were jittery. Suspicion of potshots by civilians, spies and franc-tireurs drew terrible revenge. Houses, sometimes entire villages were burnt down in revenge for supposed snipers. Civilians were taken as hostages, used as human shields, executed as spies or massacred. The Germans atrocities in Belgium were a propaganda gift for the Entente and sealed the German army’s reputation for brutality but Watson shows that, given half a chance, the French could match them. In any case, everything on the Western Front was dwarfed by the brutality of the Russian army as it invaded and occupied East Prussia.
    • The Hapsburg war – ‘The Hapsburg army fought a vicious and unusually unsuccessful war in the summer of 1914’ (p.136). Watson explains in detail why the Austro-Hungarian army was repulsed from Serbia (‘a spectacular humiliation’) and, because of the changes of mind of supreme commander Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf (‘indecisions and errors’ p.148) led to catastrophic defeat in Galicia, the Polish-speaking eastern border of the empire, which the Russians swiftly over-ran. In one month of terrible decisions, Conrad had nearly destroyed the entire Hapsburg army (p.156).
  4. The war of defence
    • Invasion – News of the Russian sweep into Galicia and Eastern Prussia, and the atrocities they were committing, prompted fear and anxiety, and its corollary, patriotic fervour, across Germany.
    • Allenstein – Watson focuses on this town of 33,000 in East Prussia as an example of what happened when the Russians invaded i.e. the sudden threat of arbitrary violence which the mayor, police and other civil authorities desperately tried to fend off i.e. by handing over all the food the Russians demanded.
    • Russian atrocities – The Cossacks raped, burned and pillaged wherever they went. In the first two months some 1,500 civilians died. As in the west, a lot of the violence was fueled by the ordinary soldier’s fear of being shot by civilians, by spies, by the general terror created by this new kind of warfare. Preventing atrocities depended on the officers, and military discipline was more patchy in the Tsar’s army than in the western armies. 1 in 20 of those killed were cyclists. Bicycles were unknown in Tsarist Russia, so soldiers who saw bicycles assumed they were some kind of weapon, arrested the cyclists, smashed up the bikes and, more often than not, shot the cyclist on the spot. The Russians also deported tens of thousands of ‘suspect’ civilians into the Russian interior, often dumping them in makeshift camps, or just in the open steppes, where about a third died of illness and neglect. 800,000 refugees fled west and were distributed through the Reich and efficiently looked after, charity raising huge sums, and their stories helping to solidify Germany’s resolve to fight on. Russia’s atrocities in the first few months helped make the war last so long (thus helped the revolution).
    • Race war – Wherever they went, the Russians carried out pogroms against Jews.
    • Life in Great Russia – The Russians’ brutal and counter-productive efforts to make occupied Galicia (which straddles the modern-day border between Poland and Ukraine) part of Mother Russia by suppressing nationalist Poles, Ukrainians and, especially, Jews.
    • ‘Unwelcome co-eaters’ – In Watson’s view the Russian occupation of Galicia sowed the seeds of the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Galicia was the breadbasket of the empire; combined with the naval blockade which the Entente began to put in place, this ensured food shortages, slowly developing towards starvation over the next four years. But also, over a million refugees fled Russian-occupied Galicia into the Empire. But whereas a flood of Prussian refugees into the Reich cemented Germany identity, here the arrival of Poles, Ruthenians, Jews and other minorities in German-speaking, Hungarian or Czech lands bred ‘resentment and hostility, social tensions and racial antagonism’ (p.205). Watson quotes an Austrian civilian describing the penniless refugees as ‘unwelcome co-eaters’.
  5. Encirclement
    • The long war – By Christmas 1914 it was clear this was a new kind of war, the stalemate in east and west was going to take time to beat down and, in the meantime, this would be a people’s war, requiring unprecedented levels of public support and consent.
    • A war of love – A description of the widespread volunteer activity in civilian Germany, including Liebestätigkeiten, ‘activities of love’, including sending Liebesgaben or ‘gifts of love’, i.e. socks and gloves and pants and scarves, to the millions of men at the front. In January the Reich set up its first propaganda campaign, to educate the population about Britain’s starvation blockade of Germany, and the need to ration food. The cult of nail figures.
    • Germany versus Britain – The German ruling class and intelligentsia were bitterly disappointed that Britain ended up joining the war against them – many had gambled that she would stay out – and, when Britain imposed a complete naval blockade of Germany – which had never been self-sufficient in food production – this resentment was focused by government propaganda into real hatred. Gott strafe England became a popular greeting. All this helped conceal the fact that the German authorities badly mismanaged the production and distribution of what food there was.
    • Austria-Hungary’s local wars – As soon as war started the Austro-Hungarian army, which turned out to be rubbish at fighting other armies – in Serbia or Galicia – turned out to be excellent at suppressing dissidents, spies and traitors in their own countries, waging what Watson describes as a ‘war on its own peoples and civil administrations’ (p.253). The inevitable result was that, over the next four years, all of those subject people lost faith in the Hapsburg administration and increasingly hankered after rule by their own kind. Watson’s descriptions of the Hapsburg army’s banning of Czech symbols and language in Bohemia has to be read to be believed, as an example of self-defeating heavy-handedness. On 23 May 1915 Italy, formerly their ally, declared war on Germany and Austria-Hungary. Italy had been bribed by France and Britain with the promise of extensive Austrian territory and with gold. The deep sense of bitterness and betrayal in the Central Powers was further exacerbated. Austria-Hungary now had to face war on a new front.
  6. Security for all time
    • Mitteleuropa – In September 1914 Chancellor Bethmann Holweg approved a provisional ‘war aims’ plan. The goal was long-term security, which required pushing the borders with France and Russia further away, by permanently annexing Belgium and northern France and West Russia. These areas could then be turned into colonies, run by populations bred to supply the needs of the Reich. This had to be kept secret because the public was told it was a war of defence, but debate about whether it was, in actuality, a war of annexation, and just what should be annexed, and how and when, continued to exercise German leaders and politicians throughout the war.
    • Eastern utopias – In 1915 Germany counter-attacked against Russia and took back East Prussia and Galicia as well as conquering Tsarist Poland and the Baltic states. Watson describes the German plans to administer and exploit this large new territory, including the racialisation of the civil administration, and the asset stripping of most of Poland.
  7. Crisis at the front
    • Blood – By the start of 1916 all sides knew they were in a war of attrition. The idea of bleeding the opponent white underpinned the three big offensives of the year, the Germans against Verdun, the British on the Somme, and the Russian Brusoliv offensive.
    • The Grognards – The armies of all the combatants were much larger than they’d been in 1914, much better armed and supplied, but had also changed social composition. Lots of the career officers had been killed, replaced by men of lower social classes. Combined with fewer keen volunteers, this led to more tension in the ranks.
    • Verdun – Verdun was a complex of forts which stuck out into the German trench line. General von Falkenhayn, Chief of the German General Staff, carefully planned co-ordinated attacks on the complex, designed to draw in an endless stream of French troops who could be massacred by the Germans facing them and controlling the flanks. In the event, both sides suffered immense casualties, about 300,000 men killed and wounded.
    • Brusilov’s offensive – The Russians stormed through the Austro-Hungarian Fourth and Seventh Armies in the East, ‘yet another blow to the sinking prestige of the Hapsburg monarchy’ (p.310).
    • The Somme – The Somme offensive failed because Field Marshall Haig broadened its at-first limited and carefully planned objectives into unacheivable over-reach. Watson thinks the Entente failed to deploy superior material and manpower in a focused enough way to secure a breakthrough. The biggest impact (apart from 100s of thousands of dead and maimed men) was the psychological blow to the German army which, for the first time, really felt the Entente’s superiority in men and materiel.
    • Outcomes – By the end of 1916, stalemate on all fronts. The Central Powers defeated and occupied Romania in autumn 1916. Late in the year a) German officers were posted to shadow their counterparts at all levels of the useless Austro-Hungarian army i.e. to help them b) in August the German General Staff was reorganised into a new body, the third OHL (see below).
  8. Deprivation
    • Suffering and shortage – Rationing, ersatz food (bread made of sawdust or sand, sausages made from slime and water), foraging, the black economy.
    • The causes of shortage – An economic survey of the shortfall of agricultural production before and during the war.
    • Mismanaging shortage – Various impacts of rationing and food shortages ‘huge inefficiency and disastrous errors’ (p.359).
    • Shattered societies – In Germany the beginnings of class resentment, in Austria-Hungary further polarisation between nationalities and races (e.g. Hungary refused to share its food surpluses with starving Austria), rising crime, loss of faith in the authorities, youth rebellion. There were food riots and, for the first time in two years, strikes. The social compact which had helped the Central Powers enter the war, was breaking down.
  9. Remobilisation
    • The Third OHL – 29 August 1916 Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg was appointed commander of the German army, with Erich Ludendorff as his Quartermaster General. OHL stands for Oberste Heeresleitung, Supreme Army Command. Over the next two years this pair gained total control of Germany’s war machine and, eventually, of its society, completely eclipsing the Kaiser and the civilian authorities
    • The Hindenburg Programme – The complete remodelling of German society from top to bottom, for Total War, refocusing agricultural and industrial output. Crucially, it represented an ideological shift from state authorities working through consent to working through compulsion.
    • Forced labour – In occupied Belgium, among prisoners of war in the Reich, and slave labour in Poland. ‘At war’s end 1.5 million prisoners were spread across 750,000 German farms and firms’ (p.389) about a third of them Poles.
    • The occupied territories – By 1916 the Germans had overrun 525,500 square kilometres and taken control of 21 million non-German citizens (p.392). The Germans stripped labour, agricultural goods and machinery from occupied lands, the worst case being the ‘Ober Ost’ region in the Baltic, under Ludendorff. The Belgians got off lightest because of the Commission for Relief in Belgium, organised by millionaire mining engineer and future U.S. president Herbert Hoover (p.406).
    • By far the most important thing to emerge from this analysis of German OHL attempts to militarise society, fleece occupied countries and create a mass semi-slave workforce was that it didn’t work – it did not succeed in either feeding the German population better or significantly increasing war output. A lesson the Nazis failed to learn.
  10. U-boats
    • The worst decision of the war – In January 1917 the Reich declared ‘unrestricted’ U-boat warfare on merchant ships supplying Britain and France. This was bound to impact America, who made up over half the shipping. As American merchant ships began being sunk American public opinion became vociferous for war. On 6 April 1917 America entered the war on the Entente side, changing the Entente into ‘the Allies’. Watson explains the background to the German decision i.e. an authoritative report analysed the shipping Britain required, the tonnage U-boats could sink, and calculated that Britain’s food supplies could be driven into crisis and Britain forced to capitulate before the Americans entered. In other words it was yet another German gamble which, like the Schlieffen Gamble back in 1914, utterly failed.
    • The unrestricted submarine campaign – A fascinating account of the development of the U-boat fleet, the experience of sailing on a U-boat, the resilience of its crews, some amazing stories of miraculous escapes, then analysis of why the strategy failed; partly due to the Allies adopting a convoy system, to the use of mines, mostly because Germany never had enough submarines but most fundamentally – because the strategy was based on faulty calculations.
    • Wonder weapon blues – At first the German population was given a huge lift by publicity around the new policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, putting its faith in this new ‘wonder weapon’ to end the war soon. Watson describes the enormous propaganda drive which surrounded subscription to the Sixth War Loan. America suspended diplomatic relations in February 1917, but German military leaders and intellectuals didn’t mind because of their confidence in the wonder weapon. But even patriots were dismayed when, on 1 March, allied newspapers published the notorious Zimmerman telegram in which the German Foreign Minister had offered an alliance with Mexico against America, in return for which the Mexicans would be handed the states of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. To educated people it came as no surprise when America then declared war on Germany on 6 April 1917. And it was no coincidence that a few weeks later Germany saw the first really large-scale strike of the war when 217,000 workers downed tools in Berlin (p.446).
    • In Watson’s opinion the decision to launch unrestricted submarine warfare was the single biggest cause of the defeat of the Central Powers (p.449).
  11. Dangerous ideas
    • Reactionary regimes – 1917 brought big changes. The Hapsburg emperor Franz Joseph died and was succeeded by the 29-year-old emperor Karl I, who turned out to be shallow and indecisive. The Austrian Chief of Staff, Conrad von Hötzendorf, who had overseen so many defeats, was replaced in February 1917. In March 1917 the Tsar of Russia was overthrown and replaced by an uneasy partnership between a middle-class Provisional Government and the Petersburg workers and soldiers’ soviet. President Woodrow Wilson’s announcement that America was fighting the military regime and not the people of Germany was cleverly devised to drive a wedge between population and rulers. Watson describes the response of the Kaiser, the third OHL, the socialists and the conservatives in the Reichstag to combat these political pressures.
    • Going for broke – Early in 1917 at a conference with the Chancellor and the Kaiser, Hindenburg and Ludendorff pushed through a policy of Maximum Annexation, with a view to permanent control of Belgium, northern France, Poland, the Baltic and the Balkans. In secret, the new young Austrian emperor had opened a channel of communication with the French and British, prepared to concede a peace ‘with no annexations and no reparations’. The Allied leaders were interested but the opportunity was crushed by the Italian Prime Minister who refused to abandon the promise he’d been made of gaining significant Austrian territory. Her peace overtures rebuffed, Austria found herself tied to an increasingly militant Germany.
    • Opposition – How the A-H nationalities – the Czechs, the Poles, the south Slavs and the Hungarians – distanced themselves from the failing Habsburg administration. In Germany there was a rise in strikes, and for the first time, mutinies, in the navy. Evidence that the example of the Petersburg Soviet had spread among politically-aware workers. The SPD split, with an Independent SPD pursuing calls for an immediate peace, and a tiny splinter group, the Spartacists, who would be involved in the post-war revolutionary uprisings.
  12. The bread peace
    • Brest-Litovsk – The Bolsheviks staged their coup d’état in November 1917, taking control of the Russian government, and a few weeks later sued for peace. The armistice on the eastern front started on 15 December 1917. Peace talks were held at the town of Brest-Litovsk. The Bolsheviks delayed and played hardball, so the Germans attacked and moved forward 200 kilometres in five days. Panicking, Lenin signed a peace treaty on 3 March 1918, by which he conceded 2.5 million square kilometres of territory with 50 million inhabitants, 90 percent of Russian coal mines, 54 % of its industry and a third of its railways and agriculture (p.494). Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister Count Ottakar Czernin made one of the greatest mistakes of the period by signing an independence deal with Ukraine which gave the new country much of southern Poland, in exchange for Ukraine sending urgently needed food supplies to the empire. In the event the grain never turned up, but the entire Polish provisional council and Hapsburg diplomats in Poland resigned in protest.
    • Goodbye Galicia – The ill-fated decision to cede Ukraine land traditionally associated with Poland finished all lingering loyalty to the Hapsburgs. Watson details the riots in Cracow, the replacement of the Hapsburg eagle with Polish symbols, while Hapsburg insignia and even medals were publicly ridiculed, hanged and spat on. The corollary of this upsurge in nationalism was the end of the empire’s easy-going multinationalism, with a rise in attacks on non-Poles and especially Jews.
    • The Hapsburg military – In summer 1918 Austria-Hungary could have sued for a separate peace with the Allies, but failed to do so. After the peace with Russia about a million prisoners of war began returning, many bringing with them the virus of Bolshevism, but even more disillusioned by the futility of war. The army handled them badly, sending them to quarantine camps to be debriefed, where conditions were bad, then deploying them to areas where nationalism was rising and threatening the empire. Too late. Nationalist leaders in Poland and Czechoslovakia were finished with the Hapsburgs. Yet instead of negotiating a separate peace and possibly hanging onto their empire, the Austro-Hungarian ruling class tied its wagon to Germany’s fortunes. In May the emperor Karl made a humble trip to OHL headquarters in Spa, to apologise to Hindenburg and pledge his nation’s army to the neverending war.
  13. Collapse
    • The last chance – The Germans made a final, enormous and well-organised push on the Western Front in spring 1918. Watson shows how the preparations were immaculate but the offensive lacked clear targets. If the advancing spearheads had taken the major supply depots of Amiens or Haezebrouck, the Germans might have forced the Allies to the negotiating table. But Ludendorff made the fateful decision to support the army which made the quickest breakthrough of Allied lines, the Eighteenth Army attacking south of the Somme. It certainly shattered the British Fifth Army, took some 90,000 prisoners, and advanced 60 kilometres. But it was 60 kilometres of wasteland, still devastated after the terrible Battle of the Somme of 1916. It had no strategic importance. He followed this up with ‘Operation Georgette’ which broke through French lines on the Chemin des Dames and advanced 20 kilometres in a day, the biggest advance in one day achieved by either side at any point of the war. But this and the final attack in Champagne merely highlighted a fatal truth. No matter how far they advanced, the British and French always had more men and munitions, and the Americans were coming. German supply lines became stretched. Ammunition was running low. And the men, who had suffered huge losses, kept being recycled back to the Front and expected to fight again and again. But they were exhausted.
    • Defeat – Which explains why, when the French and British counter-attacked in mid-July, the Germans collapsed. Soon the Allies couldn’t cope with the number of Germans who were surrendering. The failure of the German spring offensive had brought it home to them, one and all, that they could never win. In which case, they just wanted the war to end. Between March and July the German army suffered 980,000 casualties, and the Allies captured 385,000. There were mutinies but also plenty of cases where officers led their men in surrendering. All ranks up to and including the High Command realised they had lost. Ludendorff had a nervous breakdown and a nerve specialist was called in to keep him going. On 28 September he gave in to reality and told Hindenburg that Germany must ask for an immediate armistice.
    • Revolution – It all ended very quickly. By October the German and Austrian rulers had agreed to approach Woodrow Wilson asking for an armistice. Watson details the complicated sequence of events. American demands hardened after a U-boat sank a ship in the Atlantic, killing women and children and some American civilians. Negotiations between the German leaders were tortuous. I knew the Generals suddenly became impatient for the war to end, but had no idea that they then changed their minds and tried to get the Kaiser to fight on. But by then power had shifted to the Reichstag and the bulk of the population. Demoralised by the publication of Germany’s initial peace overture of 3 October, the sailors of the German fleet simply refused to put to sea for a last-ditch Götterdämmerung battle with the British. Instead, they instigated mutinies which swept across barracks in Germany, leading to the declaration of a Munich soviet and a communist revolution in Berlin. A hurriedly convened committee of left and centre politicians announced that the Kaiser had abdicated (although he hadn’t). The long awaited armistice came into force on 11 November 1918. By then Austria-Hungary had collapsed. The Hungarian Revolution started on 27 October with thousands streaming onto the streets in defiance of the Hapsburg army, with soldiers mutinying and the Hapsburg insignia everywhere torn down and replaced by the red, white and green flag. On 31 October crowds took to the streets of Prague declaring Czech independence. More violent was the declaration of independence in Poland, accompanied by violence against rival Ruthenes and, as usual, pogroms against Jews. If the peace of November 1918 signalled a genuine return to the status quo ante in France and Britain, it brought just the opposite in central and eastern Europe, it led to entirely new and unprecedented political and nationalist forces being unleashed, forces which destabilised the new fledgling nations for years, until they were all caught up in the conflagration started by the Nazis, which itself only ended in 45 years of subjection to the Soviet Union.
  14. Epilogue – It took a long time to sign the peace treaties. Peace with Germany was only signed on 28 June 1919, with Austria in September 1919, with Hungary in June 1920.  Most of the Central Power leaders escaped scot free, the Kaiser enjoying retirement in his Dutch villa, General Hindenburg never ceasing to blame ‘the politicians’ for Germany’s defeat and, amazingly, getting elected President of the Weimar Republic in 1925. The enormous reparations imposed on Germany are usually named as the cause for post-war Germany’s financial and political instability. But Watson singles out Woodrow Wilson’s claim that the key to the peace would be the principle of ‘self determination‘. This led many people to hope for a nation and government of their own in a region which was just too racially intermixed. With the result that racial conflict was to plague all the post-war nations of central and eastern Europe for decades to come. Above all, tens of millions of people were left wondering what all their suffering and loss had been for, and with a deep, abiding, smouldering sense of resentment and anger. Bitter and violent anger combined with ethnic and racial tensions were to lead Europe into an even worse disaster just 20 years later. For which, read The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End 1917-1923 by Robert Gerwarth (2016)

Related links

Other blog posts about the First World War

%d bloggers like this: