The Good Soldier Švejk, Part One: Behind the Lines by Jaroslav Hašek (1921)

Švejk or Schweik, Shveyk or Schwejk (pronounced sh-vague) is a cultural icon in his native Czechoslovakia. His name is a byword and forms the basis of an adjective – Švejkian – which describes the insouciance and devil-may-care attitude of the common man in the face of hostile officialdom.

Švejk is a survivor, an amiably simple-minded, middle-aged man who never takes offence or gets angry, who walks through life with a sweet smile on his face, who faces down the various jumped-up officials and army officers who try to break him with a calm, imperturbable gaze, a survivor with a ready fund of cheerful stories about friends and acquaintances, which are appropriate for every situation he finds himself in, no matter how challenging, happy as long as he has a pint in one hand and his pipe in the other.

The Good Soldier Švejk as drawn by Joseph Lada

The Good Soldier Švejk is a very long book at 750 pages in the Penguin paperback translation by Cecil Parrott. But, unlike many supposedly ‘comic classics’, it is actually genuinely funny, in the way that Švejk’s imperturbable good humour either disarms or drives mad the endless stream of policemen, coppers’ narks, prison warders, lunatic asylum officials, army officers, chaplains and so on who confront and try to break him.

Švejk just doesn’t care. He lives in a shabby boarding house, frets about his rheumatism, and trades in mongrel dogs which he blithely tells everyone are thoroughbreds and pedigrees although they’re nothing of the sort. Some years earlier he had done military service in the 91st regiment but been kicked out for idiocy. He has a certificate to prove it – a certificate of imbecility – which he is liable to bring out and present to perplexed officials in the spirit of being helpful, ‘Yes, your worship, I am a certified idiot, your worship’.

Plot summary, part one

The story begins in Prague with Švejk’s landlady Mrs Müller, giving Švejk news of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo that precipitates World War I. Švejk sets the tone by not grasping the importance of any of this, and mixing the archduke up with several other Ferdinands of his acquaintance.

He goes to the local pub, the Chalice, landlord Mr Pavilec, where a police spy, Bretschneider, is encouraging the drinkers to speak their minds about the news, and then promptly arresting them for treasonous talk.

Švejk is arrested and taken off to police headquarters where he discovers numerous other innocents are filling the cells. He hears their stories which reflect the absurdity and randomness of police and official procedures, one of the guiding themes of the book. (Later he learns that the completely harmless landlord Pavilec was arrested at the same time as him but convicted and given ten years.)

But it is also where Švejk first demonstrates his uncanny ability to stay calm and reasonable in the face of ranting officials, like the police inspector shouting abuse at him for being a dirty traitor.

Švejk being yelled at by ‘a gentleman with a cold official face and features of bestial cruelty’

Švejk is taken before an examining magistrate, then back to the cells, and is then paraded before medical experts who have to decide whether he really is such an idiot as he appears.

They refer him to a lunatic asylum, which he enjoys a lot despite being forced to wear a white gown and where he is inspected by another set of experts, this time psychiatrists.

Eventually Švejk is kicked out and taken by the police back to another police station. Here he’s put in a cell with an anxious middle-class man who’s been locked up for doing something disreputable and is pacing up and down cursing the impact it will have on his wife and children. Švejk tries to calm him by telling some of his endless fund of stories about people he’s met or known or heard of, though some of the stories are comically inappropriate like the tale of the man who hanged himself in a police cell.

Švejk is then released from custody but is being accompanied through the streets by a policeman when they see a small crowd around a poster of the Emperor on the wall and Švejk gives vent to a patriotic cheer, which prompts his rearrest and return to the police station (for stirring up crowds, causing civil unrest).

Švejk is brought before yet another police official who listens to his excuses and, in an unusually piercing scene, looks into his wide-foolish, baby blue eyes for a long moment and… decides to release him. Švejk walks forward, kisses his hand, and then exits the police station and makes his way back to the Chalice pub where this whole sequence began.

Commentary

All this happens in the first 50 or so pages, the first quarter of volume one – and you can see straightaway that the ‘plot’, such as it is, consists almost entirely of Švejk the little man being dragged before an apparently unending sequence of police, warders, investigators, magistrates, doctors, and psychiatrists.

It is, essentially, the same scene of the little man facing down officialdom, repeated again and again.

Plot summary, part two

Švejk discovers that Mrs Müller has taken lodgers into his room while he was away. Švejk kicks them out and life returns to its easy-going normality for a week or so. But then Švejk receives his call-up papers to report to the nearest army barracks.

Incongruously, and memorably, he gets Mrs Müller to wheel him to the recruitment offices in Prague in a wheelchair, while he clutches his crutches, teporarily unable to walk because of his rheumatism.

Švejk is transferred to a hospital for malingerers because of his rheumatism, where he discovers the inhumane and brutal treatment the poor and sick are subjected to (and which some die of). He attends a compulsory church service for the malingerers, where they are given a sweary drunken sermon from the disreputable chaplain, Otto Katz.

Švejk bursts into tears at the constant swearing and emotional battering of Katz’s sermon. Surprised, Katz asks to see him, then takes him on as his assistant.

Švejk is inspected by the learned doctors

This pair have various adventures containing broad satire at the church’s expense – bluffing their way through Catholic services they don’t understand, being too drunk to remember the words, losing various bits of holy equipment (particularly the scene where Švejk is sent to buy Holy Oil and ends up in an art shop where he is sold painters’ oil).

Then Katz drunkenly loses Švejk at cards to Lieutenant Lukáš, an army officer much given to drinking, womanising and gambling.

Lieutenant Lukáš and Švejk proceed to have a series of adventures of their own, the most memorable being:

  1. when one of the lieutenant’s innumerable lovers and mistresses turns up unexpectedly and demands to move into the lieutenant’s rooms, until Švejk has the simple idea of telegraphing her husband to come and collect her, which all goes off with surprising civility
  2. and when Švejk obtains a pet dog for the Lieutenant by the simple expedient of getting one of his mates in the dog-catching underworld to steal one for him

Lieutenant Lukáš is delighted with his new dog until he bumps in the street into its former owner, one Colonel Friedrich Kraus von Zilllergut, to whom the dog, of course, goes running, and who – alas – turns out to be Lukáš’s senior officer.

Furious, Colonel Friedrich promises to get Lukáš moved up to the front immediately. Lukáš returns to confront Švejk with the fact he concealed that the dog was stolen, and has gotten him (Lukáš ) turfed out of his cushy life and sent into danger. But when Švejk looks at him with his mild clear eyes Lukáš, like everyone else who tries to get angry with him, feels his fury fizzle out in the face of such stolid, good-tempered imbecility.

And so volume one ends with the promise that volume two will follow the adventures of Švejk and Lukáš to war!

Religion

Hašek’s attitude towards religion is unremittingly satirical. All religion is an empty con, as far as he’s concerned, and if it had any meaning or content that was all finished off in the Great War.

Preparations for the slaughter of mankind have always been made in the name of God or some supposed higher being which men have devised and created in their own imagination… The great shambles of the world war did not take place without the blessing of priests… Throughout all Europe people went to the slaughter like cattle, driven there not only by butcher emperors, kings and other potentates and generals, but also by priests of all confessions… (p.125)

A central character in this first volume is the alcoholic, womanising, sceptical army chaplain Otto Katz who takes Švejk as his assistant and stars in a number of comic scenes:

  1. the first one is when he gives a rambling drunk sermon to a congregation of prisoners from the punishment barracks, who all nudge each other in anticipation of the chaplain’s regular drunken ranting
  2. in another he and Švejk get a visiting chaplain (who actually seems to believe in God and all that nonsense) blind, rolling drunk, until it’s safe for Katz to explain to him (the drunk chaplain) that he (Katz) only masquerades as a chaplain because it’s a well-paid, safe way of avoiding being sent to the front.

Satirical contempt is Hašek’s attitude to religion, and he yokes in the religions of the Incas or primitive tribesmen or Mongols to show how the same con has been pulled time and time again, marauding killers inventing some God in whose name they can commit whatever atrocities they like.

Švejk and the two drunken priests, the sincere one on the lft, Otto Katz on the right

Brutality

As I said, The Good Soldier Švejk is genuinely funny and yet, at the same time, it is surprisingly brutal. If I think of Edwardian comedy I tend to think of H.G. Wells’s comic novels featuring bumptious counter-jumpers like Mr Polly who are sort of comparable to Švejk, or the lighter moments of E.M. Foster, or the first novels of Aldous Huxley (1921, exactly same year as Švejk) – light comedy about vicars or chaps falling off bicycles.

By contrast Hašek’s book describes a world which, even in its civilian incarnation, is astonishingly harsh and brutal. Anyone in even the slightest position of authority seems to think it acceptable to shout and scream at anyone junior to them. All the characters find it acceptable to punch others across the mouth or box their ears or kick them downstairs. There are continual references to flogging as a casual form of punishment.

Švejk kicks the moneylender out of the house of Chaplain Katz

There is a generalised atmosphere of physical abuse which becomes a bit oppressive. On more or less every page people are kicked or hit or flogged:

  • p.163 Švejk tells the story of the trial of an army captain who was tried in 1912 for kicking his batman to death
  • p.165 the narrator describes informers who delight in watching fellow soldiers be arrested and tied up
  • p.167 Lieutenant Lukáš is described as routinely hitting his batmen across the jaw and boxing their ears

And the brutality applies not just to humans. When Švejk enters the employ of Lieutenant Lukáš we are told that all the Lieutenant’s previous servants tortured the his pets, starving the canary, kicking one of the cat’s eyes out, and beating his dog. Soon after starting work for him, Švejk even offers to flay the lieutenant’s cat alive, or crush it to death in a doorway, if he wants (p.167).

Or take Hašek’s detailed description of the physical assaults and torments to which supposed malingerers are subjected to by the medical authorities, described in chapter 8, page 62.

  1. cup of tea plus aspirin to induce sweating
  2. quinine in powder
  3. stomach pumped twice a day
  4. enemas with soapy water
  5. wrapped up in a sheet of cold water

More than one patient is described as having died from this treatment.

Maybe it’s a prejudice in me, but I can’t really recall this kind of thing, this level of violence and personal physical abuse, in any English novels of this era, certainly not in the comic novels – or when they do occur it is to highlight the psychopathic savagery of the exponents.

But here everyone behaves like this.

And this permanent background hum of punches and kickings and floggings occasionally rises to scenes of real horror. For example, in the barracks prison Švejk can hear other prisoners being beaten and tortured. He can hear the long, drawn-out screams of a prisoner whose ribs are being systematically broken (p.95).

And in the office of Judge Advocate Bernis are photos of the ‘justice’ recently meted out by Austrian soldiers in the provinces of Galicia and Serbia.

They were artistic photographs of charred cottages and trees with branches sagging under the weight of bodies strung up on them. Particularly fine was a photograph from Serbia of a whole family strung up – a small boy and his father and mother. Two soldiers with bayonets were guarding the tree, and an officer stood victoriously in the foreground smoking a cigarette. (p.93)

Goya’s drawings of the Horrors of war described all this a century earlier. What changed, maybe, was that the First World War was fought by civilian armies and so entire populations were subjected to horrors and atrocities with large numbers of soldiers either actively ordered to torture and murder civilians, or forced to stand by while it took place. Did anything like this happen in the West, I mean did the English army systematically torture and hang civilians in Flanders?

Kafka compared with Hašek – people

Bertolt Brecht pointed out that Josef Švejk is the identical twin but polar opposite of Kafka’s Joseph K.

Mulling over this remark, I realised this is because, for Kafka, other people barely exist: they are are sort of mirrors, or maybe extensions of the central protagonist’s own terror and anxiety, shadows dancing through the central figure’s endless nightmare.

Whereas Švejk’s life is full of other people – a steady stream of officials, doctors, police and army officers who try to break him, as well as the endless list of people he knows about or has met or heard or read about and who provide the subjects of the huge fund of stories, gossip and cheery anecdotes which he can produce at the drop of a hat to suit any situation.

So, at first sight they are indeed polar opposites – Kafka describes a haunted terrain of ghost figures, Hašek’s book is thronged with real substantial people, and can, up to a point, be taken as presenting a panoramic view of Austro-Hungarian society.

Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy

In chapter seven of The Castle the village mayor explains to K. how mistakes in the vast and complex bureaucracy up at the Castle have led to him being summoned to work as a Land Surveyor even though another department of the Castle had specifically cancelled this same request – but news of the cancellation didn’t come through in time. Now K is floating in limbo because the badly-run bureaucracy has both requested and not requested him, employed and not employed him: there is a reason for him being there, and no reason; hence his feeling of being a non-person, stuck in limbo.

Well, I was very struck when something almost identical happens in Chapter Nine of The Good Soldier Švejk. Here the narrator describes how Švejk comes up before Judge Advocate Bernis, and then proceeds to describe how, despite being ‘the most important element in military justice’, this Bernis is a masterpiece of ineptitude and incompetence.

Bernis keeps a vast pile of muddled documents which he continually loses and misplaces, and so simply makes up new ones. He mixes up names and causes and invents new ones as they come into his head. He tries deserters for theft and thieves for desertion. He invents all kinds of hocus pocus to convict men of crimes they haven’t even dreamed of. He presides over ‘an unending chaos of documents and official correspondence.’

But not only this. We learn that Bernis has a fierce rival and enemy in the department named Captain Linhart. Whenever Bernis gets his hands on any paperwork belonging to Linhart, he deliberately removes papers, swaps them with others, scrambles it up in the most destructive ways possible. And Linhart does the same to Bernis’s papers.

Thus their individual incompetence is compounded by active malevolence. And these are just two of the hundreds of thousands of incompetent fools who staffed the vast Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy. (In a satirical parenthesis we learn that the papers on Švejk’s case weren’t found till after the war, and had been wrongly filed in a folder belonging to JOSEF KOUDELA, and marked ‘Action Completed’.) (pp.91-92)

The Bernis-Linhart passage isn’t the only place in the novel where the bureaucracy of the police, legal system, medical authorities or army is described as being rotten and inept. In a sense, this vision of bureaucratic incompetence underlies the entire novel, with Švejk being an everyman figure sent on an endless picaresque journey through a landscape of muddle and confusion, which builds up into a powerful overview of a society in the grip of stasis and decay.

Indeed, even a casual search online turns up articles which paint a breath-taking portrait of the huge scale, byzantine complexity, and elephantine inefficiency of the Austro-Hungarian Empire:

Kafka compared with Hašek – bureaucracy

Anyway, the recurring presence of various wings of the state bureaucracy in The Good Soldier Švejk has two big impacts on our reading of Kafka.

1. Many critics praise Kafka for his ‘unique achievement’ in describing a vast, spookily endless and all-powerful bureaucracy. But Švejk is teaching me that such an enormous, omnipresent and incompetent bureaucracy really did exist in the late Austro-Hungarian Empire; that it is less a product of Kafka’s mind than we at first thought, that the general sense of decay which Kafka conveys was the actual state of the Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy in its dying days, even down to the details of the absurdity caused when different sections of the bureaucracy failed to communicate with each other.

2. Insofar as they are both dealing with more or less the same entity – this vast bureaucracy – then it makes us reflect on the differences between the ways Kafka and Hašek describe it, which can summed up as the inside and the outside:

Kafka describes the personal and psychological impact of a huge faceless bureaucracy on its victims (Joseph K and K) – we see it from inside their minds and we experience along with them the nightmareish sense of helplessness, anxiety and stress it causes them.

Whereas nothing at all upsets Švejk. The Good Soldier Švejk is, to a surprising extent, just as much of an indictment of the stupid, all-encompassing, vicious and inefficient Habsburg bureaucracy, but it is described entirely from the outside, in objective and comical terms. The effect on the reader is like reading a journalistic report in a satirical magazine. The continual atmosphere of blundering officialdom, cruelty and sometimes really horrible violence, is kept entirely under control, remote and detached by the tone of brisk satire, and above all by the burbling presence of the indefatigable, unflappable, undefeatable figure of Švejk. Without Švejk it would be a horror show.

Conclusion

I need to read a) other novels of the period b) some actual history of the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to discover just how true this was.


Related links

The Good Soldier Švejk

The Castle by Franz Kafka (1926)

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

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

Plot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Decline and entropy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crowded with people

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

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

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

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

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

Attics and inns

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

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

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

Less intense, more surreal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long-winded

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meanings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Samuel Beckett

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

Last word

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


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Dates are dates of composition.

 

The 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.

In the stories which Kafka left us, narrative art regains the significance it had in the mouth of Scheherazade: to postpone the future. In The Trial postponement is the hope of the accused man only if the proceedings do not gradually turn into the judgment. (Walter Benjamin)

Pages and pages and pages are devoted to 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, endlessly.

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.


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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)

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (1984)

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

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

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

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

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

Part One – Lightness and Weight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Two – Soul and Body

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Three – Words Misunderstood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Four – Soul and Body

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Five – Lightness and Weight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Six – The Grand March

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Seven – Karenin’s Smile

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

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

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

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

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

And much more in the same vein.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts

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

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

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

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

Questionable wisdom

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

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

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

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

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

Is this deep? Or does it just sound deep?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wisdom about men and woman

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


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

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

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

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

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

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

Natalia Goncharova @ Tate Modern

Major retrospective

This is the UK’s first ever retrospective of the Russian avant-garde artist Natalia Goncharova. It’s huge, bringing together over 160 international loans which rarely travel, including works from Russia’s State Tretyakov Gallery which houses the largest collection of Goncharova’s work.

The exhibition is imaginatively laid out with some lovely rooms, and it certainly gives you a good sense of her range of styles, not only in painting, but in lithographs, fashion and costume design, especially for modern ballet, posters, pamphlets and much more. But it also leaves you with a few nagging questions…

Peasants Picking Apples by Natalia Goncharova (1911) State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

Fabric design

Goncharova was born in Russia in 1881. She grew up on her family’s country estates in Tula province, 200 miles from Moscow. Her family were impoverished aristocrats who made their fortune through textiles, in fact the name of Goncharova’s family estate, Polotnianyi Zavod, means ‘cloth factory’. From early childhood, Goncharova witnessed the rhythms the farmers’ lives – working the land, planting and harvesting – and also became deeply familiar with all the stages of textile production, from shearing sheep to weaving, washing and decorating the fabric.

Hence two threads to her artistic practice:

  1. fabric design, which ran through the 1910s and led to her wonderful designs for the Ballets Russes in the 1920s and 30s, as well as commissions from fashion houses
  2. a profound feel for the rhythms of agricultural labour, which she depicted in a number of early paintings (like Peasants picking apples, above)

The first room epitomises both threads with several paintings showing agricultural labourers, in a highly modernist style, alongside a display case containing an example of the kind of traditional costume worn by the peasant women on Goncharova’s estate.

Installation view of Natalia Goncharova at Tate Modern

Cubo-futurism

What comes over is Goncharova’s very quick artistic development from about 1908, when she was doing stylised but essentially traditional paintings of peasant subjects, to 1911 when she had transformed herself into one of the leading lights of the Moscow avant-garde.

Her swift development was helped by two Moscow industrialists – Ivan Morozov and Sergei Shchukin – who had built up extensive art collections of leading European artists such as Cézanne, Gauguin, Picasso and Derain, and made their collections accessible to the public. These French works had an electrifying effect on young Russian avant-garde artists, which was accentuated by news of the new movement of Italian Futurism, which they could read about in international art magazines.

Goncharova swallowed both influences whole and became the leader of what contemporaries came to call Russian ‘cubo-futurism’. Various contemporaries are quoted commenting that she was the leader of the younger generation, not only in painting, but in self-presentation, creating an avant-garde ‘look’, as well as happenings, given walking through Moscow’s streets wearing stylised tribal markings on her face, or involved in volumes of avant-garde poetry published just before the Great War.

A work like Linen from 1913 seems to be a straight copy of Picasso-style cubism, cutting up an everyday domestic scene into fragments and pasting in some text, as if from a newspaper or advertising hoarding. The main differences from a cubist work by Picasso or Braques is that the text is in Russian, and the bright blue is completely unlike the cubist palette of browns and greys.

Linen (1913) by Natalia Goncharova. Tate © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

The 1913 exhibition and ‘everythingism’

This exhibition feels logical and well designed, and features at least two particularly striking rooms. The first one is dedicated to recreating the landmark retrospective Goncharova was given in September 1913 at the Mikhailova Art Salon in Moscow. The 19193 show included more than 800 works (!) and was the most ambitious exhibition given to any Russian avant-garde artist up to that date. Goncharova was thirty-two years old.

The curators have brought together thirty big paintings which featured in the 1913 show and created a central column in the style of those circular bulletin boards you get in Paris, on which they have plastered copies of some of the posters and reviews of the original exhibition.

Here we learn that Goncharova’s fellow artist and long-time partner, Mikhail Larionov, invented the term ‘everythingism’ to describe her openness to diverse styles and sources, the way her paintings invoke all kinds of sources from the folk designs of her family farm, through to the latest ideas from Paris and Rome.

Thus the thing which comes over from the 30 or so works in this room is their tremendous diversity. There’s a striking female nude which reminded me of something similar by Matisse, there’s a pipe smoker at a table, a motif familiar from Cézanne, there’s a surprising work which looks like a dappled impressionist painting. It really is a little bit of everything and so ‘everythingism’ seems an accurate label.

You could claim this is as a positive achievement, indeed one of the wall labels praised the lack of ‘hierarchy’ in Goncharova’s diverse styles and I understood what they were getting at. There was the implication that it is somehow masculine to want to be the leader of the avant-garde, at the cutting edge, always one step ahead: and somehow a slave of capitalist or consumer culture to need to create a unique brand or style.

By contrast, Goncharova is praised for her more easygoing, unmasculine and uncapitalist stance – allowing herself to be open and receptive to all kinds of visual approaches, mixing Cézanne with Russian icons, or cubism with peasant designs, or futurism as applied to distinctly Russian cityscapes. She was presented as ‘a universal artist’.

You can see how, at the time, she seemed to contemporaries to be a one-woman explosion of all the latest visual breakthroughs and trends because she was covering so much territory.

The drawback of this approach is that Goncharova risks, in retrospect, appearing to be a Jill of all trades but a mistress of none. Lots of the works in this room were interesting but you found yourself thinking, ah, that’s the cubist influence, that’s the futurism, that’s a touch of Cézanne, and so on. They all had her mark, but not so many seemed entirely her, if that makes sense.

For me the most distinctive work in the room was the series of paintings she called Harvest, which was originally made up of nine large works which were designed to be hung together. Two have gone missing but Tate have hung the other seven together on one wall and the effect is stunning.

Harvest: Angels Throwing Stones on the City (1911) by Natalia Goncharova. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

The palette of red, orange and tan runs across all seven paintings and gives them a tremendous visual unity. Also note the highly stylised, almost child-like depiction of the human figure, with simplified arms and legs and big simple eyes. The same big wide white eyes with huge jet black irises which appear in Peasants picking apples. This is maybe her core visual style.

Harvest uses Christian motifs. It was inspired by popular prints and the frescoes in Russian cathedrals and takes its images from the Book of Revelation in which the end of the world is presented as a symbolic harvest with the grapes of human souls being gathered and thrown into the winepress of God’s anger.

All in all, surprisingly religious, unironically religious, for an avant-garde artist. It comes as no surprise to discover that room six of the exhibition is devoted to just her religious paintings, featuring half a dozen enormous works she did on Christian subjects, notably four tall narrow full-length portraits of the four evangelists. I can see the way she has applied her distinctive cubo-futurist style to a very traditional Russian subject – I note her characteristic way with big white eyes – but I didn’t really warm to them.

The Four Evangelists by Natalia Goncharova (1911)

Fashion and design

Room four picks up the theme of Goncharova the fashion designer, showing work commissioned from her by the couturier to the Imperial court, Nadezhda Lamanova, in 1911-12. This room also includes work commissioned from Goncharova after the war by Marie Cuttoli, whose design house Myrbor showcased carpets and fashion designs by famous contemporary artists.

There’s a series of sketches from the 1920s, haute couture-style sketches which make the women subjects look as tubular as a Fairy Liquid bottle, with no hips or waist or bust, which were utterly unlike her modernist paintings, and looked more or less like any other fashion sketches for stick-thin flappers from the Jazz Age.

But on the opposite wall was a piece which I thought might be my favourite from the whole show, a study Goncharova did for a textile design in the later 1920s. I loved the vibrancy of the colours and the primitiveness of the design. In fact it’s only one of a series she did using bird motifs but, to me, it was a standout piece.

Design with birds and flowers – Study for textile design for House of Myrbor 1925-1928 by Natalia Goncharova. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

The Great War

In April 1914, Goncharova and Larionov were invited to Paris by the famous ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev to work on designs for his opera-ballet The Golden Cockerel. This was presented in Paris to great acclaim and the pair followed it up with an exhibition. But then the Great War broke out, and both were forced to return to Moscow. Larionov was called up for military service and sent to the front line, was wounded within weeks and invalided out of the army.

Goncharova responded to the crisis by creating a series of prints titled Mystical Images of War which brought together symbols Britain, France and Russia together with images from the Book of Revelation and Russian medieval verse. They use her trademark stylisation of the human face and eyes, and throw in the religious iconography which we’ve by now realised was a big part of her psyche.

The fourteen or so prints on display in room five are a really interesting mix of modern warfare and traditional Orthodox iconography, featuring angels wrestling biplanes, the Virgin Mary mourning fallen soldiers, and the Pale Horse from the Apocalypse. She chose to create prints in order to reach a broad popular audience with what are, essentially, patriotic rallying cries, which also feature patriotic heroes who defended Mother Russia against invaders.

‘Angels and Aeroplanes’ from Mystical Images of War by Natalia Goncharova (1914) © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

Books and photos

Room seven is a narrow corridor between the conventionally-shaped rooms six and eight. As in other exhibitions, this corridor makes a good space not to hang works of art, but to place books, pamphlets, photos, prints and posters related to the artist under review, in the long rack of display cases lining the wall.

For this exhibition the curators have displayed artist manifestos, exhibition catalogues and a number of books of poetry which Goncharova was involved in writing or designing or illustrating. The later part of the case displays the ephemera she produced for a series of artists’ balls in Paris, including posters, tickets and programmes. There’s a speaker on the wall from which comes a Russian voice reciting some of the avant-garde poetry included in the pamphlets on display. (It is, apparently zaum or ‘transrational’ poetry, from ‘World Backwards’ by Alexey Kruchenykh and Velimir Khlebnikov, and Vzorval or ‘Explodity’ also by Kruchenykh.)

Cubo-futurism

Room eight is devoted to another series of cubo-futurist works, highlighting classic Modernist-style depictions of factories and machines and cars and bicycles, all those implements of power and speed which were fetishised by the Italian founder of Futurism, Marinetti.

There are some great pieces here, classic Futurist depictions of machines and factories, a big painting of a bicyclist, another titled Aeroplane over a Train, and a vivid depiction of rowers on the river (which reminded me of the similar treatment given the same subject by Cyril Powers, the British printmaker, twenty years later, as featured in the current exhibition of the Grosvenor School of Modern Art at Dulwich Picture Gallery).

Cyclist (1913) by Natalia Goncharova (1881- 1962) State Russian Museum © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

Admirable though many of these paintings were, I began to be nagged or puzzled by something. Usually in a major retrospective, you are shown samples of the artist’s work throughout their career. Goncharova was established as a leader of the Russian avant-garde by the time of her huge exhibition in 1913, and lived on until 1962, producing works well into the 1950s.

So where are they? Where are all the later works? Here we are in room eight of ten and we are still… only at 1913?

The first eight rooms of this ten-room survey have all hovered around the years 1910 to 1914. Nowhere does the exhibition say so explicitly, but are we to conclude from this lack of later content that her golden years were a brilliant but brief period, from 1911 to 1914 or 1915?

Goncharova in Paris

Only in this, the ninth and penultimate room, do we learn what happened to Goncharova as a result of the Russian Revolution, namely that she and Larionov were on a tour with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes through Switzerland, Italy and Spain when the October Revolution broke out. The revolution, and then the civil war, prevented them from returning home, and in 1919 Goncharova moved into a flat in Paris that would remain her home for the rest of her life.

This penultimate room contains half a dozen works from the 1920s during which Goncharova received more commissions for ballet costume, some from fashion houses (as mentioned earlier) and a few funky commissions for interior design, including an impressive painted screen made in 1928 for the American patron Rue Winterbotham Carpenter. She did the interior designs for the Paris house of Serge Koussevitsky, exploring the motif of the Spanish Lady on a monumental scale.

When she had accompanied the Ballet Russe in Spain, Goncharova had become fascinated by the clothes of the Spanish women she saw, and ‘the Spanish woman’ became a recurring motif in her inter-war years, maybe because the vividness and ethnic distinctiveness of the outfits reminded her of the Russian peasant look she knew so well.

By far the most impressive work was a huge abstract work titled Bathers from 1922. It is immense, at least fifteen feet across, and reminded me of all kinds of other modernist abstract painters though I couldn’t quite put my fingers on who. First time it’s ever been exhibited in the UK and a coup for the exhibition organisers.

Bathers by Natalia Goncharova (1922)

Ballet designs

Anyway, the point remains – why isn’t there more of her work from the 1920s, 30s, 40s and 50s? You might have expected the last room in the show to cover the later part of her career but, instead, the exhibition takes an unexpected detour to make this final room, arguably the best in the exhibition.

It is a big space which has been specially darkened to create an atmospheric setting in which to review Goncharova’s work for the ballet and the theatre. Lining the walls are drawings and sketches for costumes Goncharova designed for productions of The Golden Cockerel (Rimsky-Korsakoff) and Les Noces (Stravinsky). There are some videos of her costumes and backdrops being used in revivals of the ballets, The Golden Cockerel footage is a silent but colour film of a production dressed in Goncharova’s costumes which toured Australia in the late 1930s.

But the highlights of the room are four or five of the actual costumes themselves, the costumes Goncharova designed for these classic ballet productions, which are featured in display cases around the room. They are all wonderfully bright and imaginative, drawing on the (to us) exotic and fanciful traditions of Russian legend and folklore.

Theatre costume for Sadko (1916) by Natalia Goncharova. Victoria and Albert Museum, London © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

And, last but not least, the room is filled with music, with clips from the famous ballet scores in question, wonderful Russian melodies filling the air as you stroll from wonderful costume to fascinating set designs, or stop to watch footage of actual performances using Goncharova’s colourful and vivid costumes.

The music, the darkened atmosphere, the videos of performances, and the glass cases of costumes – all make this room completely unlike the previous nine and a very evocative space to be in.

Summary

This is a major exhibition by a leading Russian artist who, for a period before the Great War, epitomised the avant-garde for her compatriots. She produced a lot of striking paintings, as well as pioneering designs for ballet costumes and sets, and a wealth of prints and posters and pamphlets and poetry books.

And yet I was left with two nagging questions: first, from such a profusion of images and designs, not that much really rang my bell. A lot of it was striking and thought-provoking and interesting – but possibly only the design with birds and flowers really set me alight.

The stylised human figures with those big eyes is the nearest Goncharova comes to having a recognisable ‘look’ and I liked it, but only up to a point. I actively disliked its application to the icons and evangelists and wasn’t, at the end of the day, that taken with the Great War prints, either.

Comparison with Käthe Kollwitz

Great War prints by a woman artist made me think of the epic prints created by the German woman artist Käthe Kollwitz. These are infinitely more powerful. Comparing the two made me think that maybe Goncharova was held back by her attachment to the Russian Orthodox tradition and its Christian iconography. Kollwitz, by contrast, has broken free of all traditional or religious straitjackets in order to create spartan images of humanity under stress which still speak to us today with horrifying force.

The Survivors by Käthe Kollwitz (1923)

Then again, maybe I’m comparing apples and oranges. Goncharova’s works were created at the very start of the war, when it was thought of as a religious crusade, and everyone thought it would be over by Christmas. Whereas Kollwitz’s haunting images were made nearly ten years later after not only bitter defeat, but collapse of the German state and descent into semi-civil war. So it’s not a fair comparison at all. But you can see why, if you set the two side by side – as we latecomers a hundred years later are able to – Kollwitz’s images are vital, a necessary record of a horrifying period; whereas Goncharova’s are an interesting and nice inclusion in a retrospective of her work, but have nowhere near the same importance or force.

Where is the later work?

And second, where was the work from the later years? Are we to deduce from its almost complete absence from this exhibition, that the curators consider Goncharova’s work from the 1930s, 40s and 50s to be poor or sub-standard? Or is it for some reason hard to borrow and assemble for an exhibition like this?

As far as I could see, the only work dating from either the 1940s or 1950s was one medium-size set design for Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird, which Goncharova drew in 1954.

Set design for the final scene of The Firebird by Natalia Goncharova (1954) Victoria and Albert Museum, London © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

I thought this was brilliant, vivid and fun, in a completely different style from everything which preceded it, like a highly stylised illustration for a children’s book. So is this what Goncharova’s work from the 1950s looked like?

Having devoted eight or so rooms to going over with a fine tooth comb the intricacies of her output from 1911 to 1915 or so, it’s a shame we didn’t get at least one room telling us what happened to her style in the entire last thirty years of her career.

Video

‘Visiting London Guide’ produce handy two-minute video surveys of all London’s major exhibitions. I include them in my blog because they give you an immediate sense of what the exhibition looks like.

Curators

Natalia Goncharova is curated by Natalia Sidlina, Curator of International Art, and Matthew Gale, Head of Displays, with Katy Wan, Assistant Curator, Tate Modern.


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Edvard Munch: love and angst @ the British Museum

The fin-de-siecle

The last decade of the 19th century is famous for its fin-de-siecle, decadent, dark imagery. In Imperial Britain this was epitomised by the decadent sexuality associated with the notorious trial of Oscar Wilde and the Yellow Book magazine and the pornographic prints of Aubrey Beardsley. In France there was a reaction against Impressionism which took many forms including the urban posters of Toulouse-Lautrec and the swarthy nudes of Paul Gauguin down in the South Seas. All were well-known and public artists, working in cosmopolitan cities which were the capitals of far-flung empires – London, Paris. They were famous and playing on large stages.

In the other countries of northern Europe, however, one of the most powerful artistic currents was Symbolism.

As the exhibition notes:

Symbolism was a literary and artistic movement that rejected representations of the external world for those of imagination and myth. Symbolists looked inwards in order to represent emotions and ideas.

In Belgium, north Germany and the Scandinavian countries, artists developed a wide range of techniques and styles, but tended to fixate on a handful of themes, namely sex and death. Death awaits with his scythe. Empty boats arrive at forbidding islands. Youths waste away from frustrated love. Beautiful young women turn out to be vampires.

Sex and death and anguish and despair, these are all much more personal, introverted, emotions. Wilde was a flamboyant public personality, Beardsley’s art was defiantly clear and elegant, both were immensely sophisticated and urban and cosmopolitan, confident doyens of the largest, richest city in the world.

Whereas much of the fin-de-siecle art from Belgium, Germany, Scandinavia was much darker, more personal. Of course they produced urban and sophisticated art as well – the 1890s is characterised by an explosion of diverse art movements – but there was also a big strand of empty lakes and immense dark pine forests and brooding skies and agonised artist-heroes.

Edvard Munch

Munch is slap bang in the middle of this social and cultural movement. His most famous work is The Scream, which was first made as a painting in 1893 and then turned into a lithograph in 1895 which was reproduced in French and British and American magazines and made his reputation.

The Scream is probably among the top ten most famous images produced by any artist anywhere, and has been parodied and lampooned and reproduced in every medium imaginable (pillow slips and duvet covers, posters, bags, t-shirts). It featured in an episode of The Simpsons, clinching its status as one of the world’s best known art icons. It’s up there with the Mona Lisa.

The Scream (1895) by Edvard Munch. Private Collection, Norway. Photo by Thomas Widerberg

Why? Why is it so powerful? Well:

  1. It is highly stylised and simplified – it barely looks like a human being at all, more like some kind of ghost or spirit of the woods.
  2. The rest of the landscape is drawn with harsh single lines, whose waviness seems to echo the long O of the protagonist’s mouth.
  3. Thus ‘primitiveness’ of the technique of wood carving – with its thick, heavy ‘crude’ lines – somehow echoes the primalness of the emotional state being described.

The exhibition

This exhibition brings together nearly 50 prints from Norway’s Munch Museum, making this the largest exhibition of Munch’s prints seen in the UK for 45 years.

It also includes sketches, photos and a few oil paintings, not least a big haunting portrait – The Sick Child – of his favourite sister, Johanne Sophie, who died of tuberculosis when she was just 13. These are set alongside works by French and German contemporaries, to present a powerful overview of Munch’s troubled personality, the artistic milieu he moved in, and his extraordinary ability to turn it into powerful images conveying intense, primal, human emotions.

Vampire II (1896) by Edvard Munch. The Savings Bank Foundation DNB, on loan to Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, Oslo

Claustrophobic

The exhibition is up in the top gallery in the Rotunda, a relatively small space, which was divided into smallish sections or rooms, the prints hung quite close together on the walls, and the place was packed, rammed, with silver-haired old ladies and gentleman. It was hard to move around. More than once I went to move on from studying a print and found I couldn’t move, with people studying the next-door prints blocking me to left and right and a shuffle of pedestrians blocking any backward movement. Imagine the Tube at rush hour. It was like that.

Possibly, in fact, a good atmosphere to savour Munch’s work. Trapped, claustrophobic, slightly hysterical. it forced me to look up at the quotes from his letters or diaries which have been liberally printed up on the exhibition walls. Just reading these immediately gives you a sense of where Munch was coming from, his personality and the motivation for his art.

For as long as I can remember I have suffered from a deep feeling of anxiety which I have tried to express in my art. (1908)

I was walking along the road with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted – and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there, trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature. (22 January 1892)

The angels of fear, sorrow, and death stood by my side since the day I was born.

All art, like music, must be created with one’s lifeblood – Art is one’s lifeblood. (1890)

I would not cast off my illness, because there’s much in my art that I owe it.

We do not want pretty pictures to be hung on drawing-room walls. We want… an art that arrests and engages. An art of one’s innermost heart.

Sexual anxiety

There’s plenty more where this came from. The exhibition gives a lot of biographical detail about his early life, describing the Norwegian capital of Kristiana, how it was connected to the rest of Europe by sea routes, how it was a small provincial town whose every aspect was dominated by the stiflingly respectable Lutheran church, but how young Edvard was attracted to its small bohemian, artistic set of poets and writers and artists, how he conceived a massive sequence of works about love and sex and death which he titled The Frieze of Life –

The Frieze is intended as a poem about life, about love and about death. (1918)

How he travelled to Paris and to Berlin and scandalised respectable opinion with the exhibitions he held there, but created a stir and won admirers for the stark, elemental quality of his woodcuts and prints. (The exhibition includes a map of Europe showing Munch’s extensive travels during the 1890s and 1900s, along with a selection of Munch’s personal postcards and maps.)

We are told Munch was born and brought up in a fiercely religious and conservative bourgeois family which was horrified when he fell in with Kristiania’s bohemian layabouts. These bohos practiced sexual promiscuousness, had numerous affairs, and so were plagued by jealousy and infidelity and fights – all exacerbated by the way they drank too much, far too much.

It seemed obvious to me that Munch’s anxiety was caused by the crashing conflict between his extremely repressed bourgeois upbringing and the chaotic and promiscuous circles he moved in as a young man. On the one hand was a young man’s desire and lust, on the other were all the authority figures in his culture (and inside his head) saying even looking at a woman with lust in his heart would lead to instant damnation.

The scores of images he made of women as vampires and weird gothic presences and looming succubi emerging from the shadows, represent a repeated attempt to confront the epicentre of that clash – sex, embodied – for a heterosexual young man – by sexualised young women. They attracted him like a drug, like heroin – but all these compulsive thoughts about them triggered the terror of physical disease – the appalling ravages of syphilis for which there was no cure – along with the certainty of eternal damnation – and all these led to anxious, almost hysterical thoughts, about the only way out, the only way to resolve the endless nightmare of anxiety – and that was release and escape into death, the death which he had seen at such close quarters in the deaths of his beloved mother and sister from tuberculosis.

The obsessiveness of his sexual thoughts, and their violent clash with orthodox Christianity, is most evident in the hugely controversial Madonna, an obviously erotic image to which he blasphemously misapplies the title of the chaste Mother of God. And, when you look closely, you realise that those are sperm swimming round the outside of the frame, and a miserable looking foetus squatting at the bottom left. Sex versus Religion! It’s amazing he wasn’t arrested for blasphemy and public indecency. In fact his 1892 exhibition in Berlin so scandalised respectable opinion that it was shut down after just a week.

Madonna (1895/1902) by Edvard Munch. Munchmuseet

So Munch’s vampire women aren’t real women, of course they’re not. They are depictions of male anxiety about women, namely the irreconcilable conflict between the demanding, drug-addiction-level lust many young, testosterone-fueled men experience, whether they want to or not – and the multiplicity of feelings of shame about having such strong pornographic feelings and experiences, and regret at handling relationships with women badly, and anxiety that you are a failure, as a man and as a decent human being, and terror that – if there is a God – you are going straight to hell for all eternity.

Plus, as the wall labels indicate, there really was a lot of heavy drinking in his circle and by him personally, which led to chaotic lifestyles among the bohemian set, and Munch became a clinical alcoholic. And this addiction – to alcohol – will, of course, have exacerbated all the psychological problems described above.

Exposure to so many of Munch’s prints – alongside detailed explanations of how he made them, the Norwegian and north European tradition they stem from, and so on – really rubs in the fact that he was a great master of the form. It’s not just the Scream. Lots of the other prints have the same archetypal, primitive power, and the exhibition brings it out by setting Munch’s work beside prime examples by other leading printmakers of the time, in France and Germany (many of which are themselves worth paying the price of admission to see).

The subtle prints

It tends to be the extreme images we are attracted to – the Scream, the Madonna, the numerous vampire women, the worrying image of a pubescent girl sitting on a bed. But some decades ago we crossed a threshold into being able to accept all kinds of erotic and extreme images, so these no longer scandalise and thrill us in the same way they did their initial viewers, although they still provide powerful visual experiences.

But having had a first go around the exhibition taking in these greatest hits, I slowly came to realise there was another layer or area of his work, which is – in a word – more subtle. If the most obvious and impactful of his images are about stress and anxiety mounting to open hysteria – there were also plenty of images which were far more restrained. In which – to point out an obvious difference – the women are wearing clothes.

Instead of vampire women whose kisses are turning into bites, these tend to be of fully dressed, utterly ‘respectable’ late-nineteenth century types, set outdoors, in open air situations where… somehow, through the placing and composition of the figures, a more subtle sense of aloneness and isolation is conveyed. They capture the mood of a couple who are, for some reason, not communicating, each isolated in their brooding thoughts.

The Lonely Ones (1899) by Edvard Munch. Munchmuseet

Like the complex ways relationships between the sexes fail, become blocked and painful in the plays of Munch’s fellow Norwegian, Henrik Ibsen. (Munch, as a leading artist of the day, was acquainted with both Ibsen and the younger playwright, Strindberg. It crosses my mind that if Munch’s more hysterical images can be compared to the highly strung characters in a Strindberg play, the more subdued and unhappy images in some way parallel Ibsen’s couples.)

Having processed the extreme images of vampire women, sex and death in my first go round, on this second pass I warmed to these less blatant images.

I noticed that the naked women images are almost always indoors (as, I suppose, naked women mostly had to be, in his day). But that the more ‘respectable’ and subtle images were all set outside, and often by primal landscapes – namely The Lake and the Forest – the kind of primeval landscape we all associate with Scandinavia and which really was available right on Kristiana’s doorstep.

The exhibition ends with a set of prints which perform variations on his characteristically hunched, half-abstract human figures – characteristically, showing one man and one woman – but in this series hauntingly isolated, leaning on each other – or against each other – in something which doesn’t look at all sensual but more like the survival techniques of characters from a play by Samuel Becket.

Towards the Forest II (1897/1915) by Edvard Munch. Munchmuseet

Less striking than the vampires and naked women and girls, I thought these strange, half-abstract, ‘lost souls in the landscape’ images had a kind of purity and haunting quality all their own.

Breakdown and rebirth

It comes as no surprise to learn that in 1908 Munch had a nervous breakdown. His anxiety, compounded by excessive drinking and sometimes fighting, had become acute, and he was experiencing hallucinations and persecution mania. He entered a clinic and underwent a comprehensive detoxification which lasted nearly eight months.

When he left, he was a new man. Well, new-ish. His work became more colourful and less pessimistic and the wider public of Kristiania for the first time began to appreciate his work. Critics were supportive. His paintings sold. Museums started to buy his back catalogue. His life improved in all measurable ways. But in a textbook case of the artist who needs his anxieties and neuroses to produce great works, everything he carved and painted from then on – portraits of rich friends, of the farm he bought, murals for factories – lacked the intensity and archetypal power of his early years.

Years later all that storm and stress and hysteria seemed so distant as almost to be inexplicable.It is typical that, decades later, he told the story of how his famous painting, Vampire II, got its title. He himself had simply titled it Love and Pain. Pretty boring, eh? But Munch’s friend, the critic Stanisław Przybyszewski, and clearly a man with a flair for publicity, described it as ‘a man who has become submissive, and on his neck a biting vampire’s face.’ And, looking back, Munch comments:

It was the time of Ibsen, and if people were really bent on revelling in symbolist eeriness and calling the idyll ‘Vampire’ – why not?

A man in remission from alcoholism and mental illness, the older Munch can be forgiven for not wanting to revive unhappy memories, and for wanting to palm off the idea for lurid titles onto his friends. But the prints themselves, and all his early writings, don’t lie. The later work is interesting and decorative – but it is the unhappy period covered by this exhibition which produced the intense and troubled works which seem to take you right into the heart of the tortured human condition.

Older, wiser and sober – Munch among his paintings at the end of his life

The promotional video


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One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1962)

Sleep apart, the only time a prisoner lives for himself is ten minutes in the morning at breakfast, five minutes over dinner and five at supper. (p.17)

It is the start of 1951 (p.36), some prisoners are discussing what will happen now that China has joined the Korean War, will there be a world war? (p.124) and Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, 40 years old (p.39) is prisoner S 854 in the 104th work team at an unnamed forced labour camp somewhere in Siberia, where the daytime temperature is -27 degrees C.

Daily life is about survival, decent boots, making the most of the pitiful thin fish soup and magara porridge, served for breakfast, lunch and dinner, trying to wangle your way out of the physically most draining labour and into something cushy like cleaning the floor of the guards’ room (nice and warm), trying to wangle a puff of someone’s cigarette butt, a fragment of extra food.

Shukhov has woken up feeling feverish so goes along to the camp doctor but is too late; only two prisoners a day are let off work and the two slots are already taken. Back in the barrack he and the rest of the 104th are told to dress, line up and march to the camp gates where they are thoroughly searched, before marching off to the building site of a new power station, rags and muffles pulled to cover as much of their faces as possible from the biting wind.

Solzhenitsyn emphasises that Shukhov is an ordinary guy, ‘a man of timid nature [who] knew no way of standing up for his rights’ (p.24). He is not educated, not an intellectual, thus the poem which the medical assistant Vdovushkin is writing ‘is beyond Shukhov’s ken’ (p.22) and he doesn’t understand the two men in the building site office who are discussing the merits of Eisenstein’s film Ivan the Terrible.

When Shukhov gets out, in two years time, he hopes to be a stove-setter or a carpenter or a tinker (p.39). He is meant to be everyman or, in this case, everyzek (zek being an abbreviation for the Russian for prisoner). He is a Christian, is surprised anyone isn’t, but right at the end tells the Baptist prisoner, Alyosha, that he doesn’t believe in heaven or hell. And he seems to half believe the folk myth that each month God creates a new moon. Why? Because he crumbles the old one up to make stars. (p.94) In his village they call the moon ‘the wolf’s sun’ (p.134).

Shukhov hasn’t been back to his home village of Temgenovo (p.84) or seen his wife since 1941 when he marched off to war. Ten years absence. During the war, in 1942, his unit was surrounded and captured by Germans. After a few days five of them managed to escape back to Russian lines. Three were shot dead by sentries, and the authorities considered Shukhov and his comrade must be spies. So they were convicted of treason and given ten years (pp.58-59).

He met team leader Tiurin in his previous camp, at Ust-Izhma (which is where he made the hand-made spoon which he still uses and hides carefully in his boot). Shukhov spent seven years in the far north, logging.

Well, a zek’s belly can stand anything. Scrape through today somehow and hope for tomorrow. (p.72)

The simple format of a day in the life allows Solzhenitsyn to describe a surprising variety of people, and the work they have to do, and the world of dodges and scams the zeks pull on each other and the authorities. Anything for extra food. Anything to be near a fire or – God be praised – inside out of the sub-zero cold

He describes the crucial relationship between a team leader and his men, in fact the complex web of networks a prisoner finds himself in. He casts an experienced eye on those around him, from the 16-year-old Ukrainian Gopchick, who is quick and savvy and will survive, to the recently arrived naval captain who still thinks the world owes him a favour, is not adjusting quickly enough to the necessary posture of complete submission.

They are marched out of the camp to the power station and, by the afternoon, have got stoves going to heat up the sand enough to make mortar and actually get so into their work, priding themselves on working as a team to send up mortar and bricks to the third story which they’re building, that they’re late finishing.

At going home time, just one zek who’s dropped off somewhere means the entire contingent of 463 zeks have to wait stamping their feet as the sun disappears and the stars come out. After a lot of pushing and shoving, they’re allowed through the wire perimeter fence and march back to camp. While standing around Shukhov spots a bit of hacksaw blade lying in the snow and quickly palms it. There’s a tense moment when each zek is searched before entering the main camp, but he successfully smuggles it through in his mitten and slips it in a crack in his bunk. Later he’ll find a stone, whet the blade, and make it into a cobbler’s knife. He earns a little bit of cash making slippers for zeks with money from rags and waste bits of wood.

Back inside the main camp, Shukhov carries out a number of complicated manoeuvres. He offers to stand in the cold queue for parcels for a posh zek named Tsezar, who turns up late and takes the place Shukhov has kept. In exchange Tsezar says Shukhov can have his portion of skilly for dinner. Graphic description of the mob of zeks trying to get into the hot filthy canteen, where the harassed cook serves out skilly which is glorified dishwater with a few fragments of rotten fish or vegetables.

Fine details of how you have to scrounge a decent tray to collect the bowls for your team. There are 24 in the 104th. Shukhov and Gopchik pinch trays, and bring the bowls to a section of bench where his ‘brothers’ are sitting. His body rejoices as the tepid skilly slips down into his belly, and he takes the old zek’s precaution of sucking the fish, its bones and gills and eyes, slowly and methodically. Calories in every slurp.

Then over to Hut 7 to swap a few hard-earned roubles for a tiny glassful of excellent tobacco from the Lett. Back to his hut to listen to Tsezar excitedly open his parcel (after it had been opened and rifled through by the guards, of course), and discuss it with the naval captain.

But the latter irritated Lieutenant Volkovoi, the Security Chief, at roll call. Now he is taken away for ten days in an isolation cell. Skilly only every other day, the walls covered with ice. Not everyone survives.

Then they’re turfed out of the huts for a final head-count, all five hundred of them under the frosty moon, with more swearing from the guards, and the hut-commander beating the slowcoaches. Shukhov gives Tsezar good advice about hiding the contents of the parcel and makes sure he is first back to protect its hiding place for him. Good to have someone like Tsezar as a friend.

He climbs up to his bunk, belly full of two helpings of the wretched skilly, Tzesar’s ration of bread hidden in his jacket to be enjoyed next morning. He lies on the hard mattress, no sheets, head on the pillow full of wood shavings, feet in the sleeves of his jacket to stop them freezing, grubby blanket pulled over him, and his coat laid on top of that.

It has been a good day.

People

  • the old artist with a grey beard who touches up the prisoners’ numbers
  • Andrei Prokofievich Tiurin, team leader of the 104th
  • Alyosha the Baptist, who’s hidden a copied-out manuscript of the New Testament
  • Buinovsky the ex-naval captain, only been in the camp three months, has a lot to learn, imprisoned because a british admiral he was seconded to during the war sent him a thank you gift, which led to his trial and imprisonment
  • Der, B 731, a convict-supervisor on the power station building site
  • Eino, an Estonian on the 104h
  • The camp security officer, known as ‘the Father Confessor’
  • Fetiukov, a snivelling sneak and hanger-on in the 104th
  • Gopchik, Ukrainian lad of 16
  • ‘One and a half’ Ivan, a thin weedy camp guard
  • Khromoi, the mess orderly
  • Kilgas the Lett in Hut 7, always has good tobacco
  • Kolya Vdovushkin, medical assistant to the camp doctor, who is writing a long poem
  • Panteleyev, member of the 104th
  • Pavlo, deputy of the 104th, with his rolling West Ukrainian accent
  • Stepan Grigorych, the camp doctor
  • Senka, deaf member of the 104th, he’d survived Buchenwald
  • Shkuropatenko B219, a supervisor at the building site
  • The Tartar, lean violent disciplinarian guard
  • Tsezar, team-mate of Shukhov’s who receives impressive parcels from home
  • Lieutenant Volkovoi, Security Chief, who used to use a thick bullwhip on the prisoners
  • S 123, a stringy old man serving a 25 year sentence

Demotic style

The translation by Ralph Parker dates from 1963. English writers, even up to the present day, especially if they went to private school, still think it is acceptable to write about ‘one’ doing this or that, and break the back of sentences in order to avoid ending a sentence with a participle (preferring to write ‘the man about whom I told you’ rather than what every normal person would say, ‘the man I told you about’).

Presumably Solzhenitsyn’s Russian is pretty demotic, capturing the everyday speech of the zeks, the swearing of the camp guards, and the thoughts of the profoundly uneducated Shukhov – and all this has forced Parker to be more demotic than, maybe, his natural English would have permitted.

Thus it would be ludicrous to have prison camp inmates saying ‘one does’ and one does not’ all the time and so, very sensibly, Parker uses the phrasing most ordinary people would use, using ‘you’, you have to look sharp, you have to keep your wits about you, you have to know when to bend to authority etc.

And he uses ‘fuck’ sparingly, for example when Solzhenitsyn conveys the attitude of the zeks to the guards and petty officials who lord it over them. Fuck ’em, is the attitude. I imagine camp inmates swore all the time. Maybe this was Solzhenitsyn’s own restraint, and maybe he knew what would bear publication in 1962. The subject matter was controversial enough, best not to offend the literary sensibilities of the editors and writers he was trying to recruit to his cause.

Proverbs

Instead of learned quotations, the poor and illiterate have folk wisdom and proverbs. Shukhov’s mind is full of them.

  • You’ve only to show a whip to a beaten dog. 53
  • Thrift is better than riches 71
  • A man with two trades to his name can easily learn another ten.
  • Hasty work is scamped work. 89
  • A man who’s warm can’t understand a man who’s freezing. 96
  • The quickest louse is always first to be caught in the comb. 131

In The Great Gatsby F.Scott Fitzgerald makes the simple observation that there are only two kinds of people, the sick and the well.

In Denisovich Solzhenitsyn divides people into two further categories – the warm and the freezing.

Also: the hungry and the full. As in Primo Levi’s accounts of Auschwitz, concentration camp inmates may not always be cold, but they are always hungry, permanently surviving on the verge of malnutrition.


Related links

Other Russian reviews

Russian history

Russian literature

Russian art

Conclave by Robert Harris (2016)

‘No emotion, Ray,’ warned Lomeli. ‘We need to think very clearly.’ (p.330)

The Pope dies in the middle of the night. Heart attack, according to the Vatican doctors. The Dean of the College of Cardinals, Jacopo Baldassare Lomeli, Cardinal-Bishop of Ostia, is woken in the early hours to come see the body and set in train the host of formal procedures prompted by the death.

Immediately we are thrown into the midst of the procedural and political complexities of the Holy City, and quickly ushered into a melee of bustling cardinals and archbishops, and to the monsignors and priests, secretaries, nuns and security men, who staff and run the Vatican.

It turns out that we are going to see the entire story from Lomeli’s point of view. The text is not a first-person narrative, it is a third-person narrative, but it follows Lomeli very closely and continually eavesdrops on his thoughts and feelings as the story unfolds.

This is because, as Dean of the College of Cardinals, it falls to Lomeli to make all the practical arrangements for the conclave which must now be called to elect a new pope – to invite the cardinals to Rome, to organise their accommodation, to supervise the transformation of the Sistine Chapel into a voting chamber, the whole thing. Thus Lomeli is the perfect character to accompany through all these arcane mysteries and also the man best placed to confront and unravel the knotty problems which the conclave, in the event, throws up…

Harris skips over the state funeral of the dead pope, which is irrelevant to his purpose, in order to jump to the moment three weeks later when the conclave of all the cardinals foregathers to elect the next pope. One hundred and seventeen cardinals are called from all over the world to the conclave. The successful candidate must gain two thirds of the votes i.e. 79. If the classic thriller is a question of Whodunnit, Conclave is a Whowillgetit: who will be the next pope?

Factual research and conclave procedure

In fact there are more than 117 cardinals in the world but, back in 1970, Pope Paul VI introduced an age limit: no cardinal over the age of eighty can vote. The procedure was further amended by Pope John Paul II in 1996. Thus only 117 are eligible.

Harris is a former investigative journalist, and the book is heavily loaded with factual information, from an intimate description of the interior of the Sistine Chapel as it is prepared for the Conclave of Cardinals, to a detailed description of the hostel on the south side of the Vatican, the Casa Santa Marta, where the cardinals all stay, with all kinds of scattered insights into the roles of the serving nuns or security police, and so on. Building up an in-depth and persuasive picture of how the place runs.

I was particularly fascinated by his description of the actual process of voting, which is surprisingly straightforward: each of the cardinals has a sheet of paper placed in front of their seat at the benches lined up in the Sistine Chapel and, after some preliminary prayer, they simply write down the surname of the cardinal they’re voting for in big block capitals then fold the piece of paper in half.

Then, one by one, they process up to the altar of the chapel where tellers are waiting, say a short formal prayer, place the folded paper on a chalice and tip the chalice up so the paper falls into an urn, while a secretary counts off their name. When all 117 have voted, the pieces of paper are then counted by one teller, another teller unfolds each one and reads out the name, handing the paper to an assistant who skewers it on a big needle attached to a red thread, so there can be no accidental double counting.

When all 117 have been read out and the votes totted up, the teller announces them, then the pieces of paper on thread are bundled into an oven and burnt.

There is another oven next to it (both being makeshift installations inside the famous chapel) beside which are two piles ‘cartridges’ filled with a chemical mix. After the count, an assistant places one or other of these cartridges into the second oven and ignites it. One produces a billow of black smoke, indicating that a pope has not been elected, the other produces white smoke, indicating that a pope has been elected.

I thought there might be speeches or presentations from the leading candidates but no: they all just vote and the results are read out. Then they traipse back to the Casa Santa Marta where lunch is served amid a hum of gossip and intrigue. And then they traipse back to the Sistine Chapel (or pack into the cheesy little white minibuses which are laid on to take them the half mile or so round the back of St Peter’s, in case it’s raining), troop into the chapel, take their places at the makeshift benches, listen to another prayer, then one by one write out their preferred candidate, walk up to the tellers table, tip their voting slip into the urn, and so on.

Generally, it only takes four or five ballots for a winner to gain the necessary two-thirds majority. In 1978 it took eight ballots to elect Cardinal Karol Wojtyła, Archbishop of Kraków, as Pope John Paul II. The rules have changed several times in recent decades but the current rule is that, if the first ballot gives no clear result, there follow four ballots a day, two in the morning, two in the afternoon. Wikipedia gives the full, current procedure:

In Harris’s novel, the process is given a sense of urgency and suspense because Cardinal Lomeli gets unofficial bulletins from the reliable Monsignor O’Malley, ‘Secretary of the College of Cardinals’, about the press speculation going on outside the Vatican, and in reply gives generalised advice for O’Malley to pass on to the Vatican press office.

The set-up

Even as Lomeli is called to the bedside of the dead pope on that fateful evening, he realises that the two or three other cardinals in attendance are already beginning to assert their authority and – gently but firmly – compete for the vacant position.

By the time we’ve jumped forward three weeks to the start of the conclave, the competition is overt and jostling for position among the three or four main contenders has become open. There is worldwide attention – as many as a billion and a quarter Catholics are waiting on the result, as well as every media organisation on the planet.

(The three week delay is to give time for every cardinal around the world to sort out their affairs, and fly to Rome, to get settled in at the Casa Santa Marta, and prepare physically and spiritually for the conclave.)

The media and the cardinals themselves acknowledge the leading candidates, representing the various wings of the church. Most obviously there is a liberal, Secretary of State Aldo Bellini, and a man-of-the-people conservative, the Patriarch of Venice, Cardinal Tedesco.

But there is also the smooth-talking, silver-haired operator, the Canadian Chamberlain of the Holy See, Joseph Tremblay, plus a number of ‘outsiders’, including the African cardinal, Joshua Adeyemi from Nigeria who, if elected, would obviously be the first black Pope.

Revelations

But just as the conclave is about to begin, just as the last of the cardinals arrives at the gate of the Vatican, and the last of the non-essential staff leave in order to ensure there are no distractions and no communication with the outside world (all phones and laptops must be handed over), Lomeli is thrown into turmoil by two revelations:

1. The Polish Woźniak, Prefect of the Papal Household, makes a fearful confession to Lomeli: on the very afternoon of his death the former Pope had summoned smooth Cardinal Tremblay and dismissed him from all his offices i.e. sacked him. Why? Woźniak doesn’t know.

2. Lomeli is still reeling from this revelation when he is summoned back to the gates and told that there is an unexpected cardinal there, one who is not on the official list. How can this possibly be the case? It turns out that Vincent Benítez, Archbishop of Baghdad, was made a cardinal by the dead Pope in his last few weeks, by a process known as in pectore, in his heart’, meaning the Pope didn’t tell anyone else.

This is pretty irregular but not unknown. Pope John Paul II had also created a cardinal in pectore, it was widely thought because the new cardinal was dispatched to work in China, where he had to conceal his identity from the authorities.

In the event the other cardinals take this discovery in their stride, welcoming cardinal Benítez during the first group meal, and he turns out to be a slender, quiet, but popular figure.

The plot

Having set the scene the book then rattles along at a steady pace, mixing factual background about this or that aspect of the voting, with acute insights into Lomeli’s own personal doubts and hesitancies – after the votes and communal meals we follow him back to his spartan quarters where he often prays for guidance, and the reader shares these moments of vulnerability, indeed all his moods – but the driver of the book is the well-calibrated description of the Race To Be Pope.

And, because it is a thriller, you won’t be surprised to learn that there is a steady stream of further revelations which shock and horrify Lomeli, who then has the agonising responsibility of whether to share them with the rest of the conclave. And face the accusation that when he does, he is only doing so in order to sabotage his opponents and place himself in pole position.

And although we are privy to all his thoughts – Lomeli repeatedly tells all the other cardinals, and himself, that he does not want to become pope, he saw what it did to the previous incumbents – nonetheless, as scandal engulfs not one but two of the leading candidates, in each consecutive ballot the vote for him increase, and the reader wonders whether he will, despite all his protestations, end up being elected. Whether, in fact, the man whose inner doubts and worries we have been party to, will turn out to be the next Pope.

But quite apart from his place inside the story, Lomeli plays a far more important function as our eyes and ears into what is going on, providing appropriate explanation whenever needed – and for his pondering over the meaning of the hints and implications which drive the plot.

In fact, slowly and inexorably Lomeli, who is supposed to be a frail 75-year-old Italian cardinal, turns into Hercule Poirot, a slow-moving, thoughtful but acute observer of other people, who puts together various pieces of evidence to piece together the mysteries hanging over the conclave.

Spoilers

Two more revelations dominate the main body of the story.

1. it emerges that the African cardinal, Adeyemi, thirty years earlier had had a brief affair with a very young novice and got her pregnant. Now she has turned up, assigned among the nuns who silently and reverently prepare and serve the cardinals’ meals between voting sessions. This middle-aged nun confronts Adeyemi in the canteen in front of all the other cardinals during dinner, and the resulting scandal ends his promising candidature.

But Lomeli is prompted to ask who arranged for this African nun to be transferred at short notice from Nigeria to Rome. And a trail of clues eventually leads him to a further revelation. When Woźniak told him about the former Pope dismissing Tremblay, there was mention of a report into his alleged misdeeds. Where can this report be? Probably among the dead Pope’s belongings. In his apartment. Which is sealed up with plastic ribbon and papal seals.

Well, Lomeli prays for guidance and decides he can’t do nothing, and so in the middle of the night he calmly breaks into the former Pope’s apartment and searches it until – in the tradition of schoolboy adventure stories – he discovers that the old Pope’s massive, antique wooden bed contains hidden compartments. And in these compartments Lomeli discovers the report the late Pope had commissioned which turns out to be a root and branch investigation into the finances of each and every one of the cardinals, with generally shocking results.

But in particular Lomeli discovers indisputable proof that smooth-operator Tremblay had been paying other cardinals to vote for him. This is the sin of corruption or simony.

Not only that, but he discovers it was definitely Tremblay who arranged for the African nun to be brought to Rome to stymie Joshua’s chances! What a schemer! What a crook!

As usual we are given access to Lomeli’s private thoughts as he ponders what on earth to do, before deciding that God has helped him discover all this, and it is not his job to conceal it: if he waits till after Tremblay is elected pope and this all gets out – as, he ruefully reflects, every secret the Vatican has tried to smother for the previous fifty years does, eventually, leak out – think what damage it will do to the institution he has served all his life.

And so he co-opts the assistance of the steely-willed head of the Vatican’s nuns, Sister Agnes, head of the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul, and between them, overnight, they make 118 photocopies of the dead Pope’s damning report into Cardinal Tremblay’s activities and place one on every seat in the cardinals’ refectory. As they come down to breakfast the next morning, one by one they read it, leading to uproar. In a dramatic scene Tremblay stands, confronts the accusations head on, and claims Lomeli has only done this to sabotage him, Tremblay, and promote his, Lomeli’s, chances of becoming pope.

Which, for a moment, sways the cardinals against Lomeli until the steely little nun Sister Agnes breaks all convention by speaking in the refectory, demanding to be heard, and announces to the horrified cardinals that she can vouch for the fact that it was Tremblay who requested the African nun be transferred to Rome and thereby sabotaged cardinal Adeyemi’s candidature.

After which the tide turns against Tremblay, and he can only stand begging for understanding and denying it’s true as the rest of the cardinals turns their backs on him.

And so, with only eighty pages of this 380-page-long book left to go and the two front runners, Adeyemi and Tremblay, dramatically withdrawn from the race, who on earth is going to win?

Two bombshells

With Adeyemi and Tremblay knocked out, the next ballot puts Lomeli ahead as front runner, though without the necessary two-thirds majority, when there is an abrupt and shocking change in the tone of the book. A car bomb goes off in St Peter’s Square out front of the Vatican. And a suicide bomber blows himself up. And a terrorist goes into a Catholic church in Munich and starts machine-gunning the congregation.

Suddenly, and irrevocably, the rather charming, old-world if intriguing atmosphere of the novel is shattered. If you have any imagination, you can hear the screams of the wounded, the smell of burned flesh, the body parts scattered across the cobbles. For me this sudden eruption of the real world shattered the rather quaint, almost Ealing Comedy era atmosphere Harris had created.

Lomeli finds out what has happened from O’Malley and then, as usual, agonises about whether to even tell the other cardinals. they heard the loud explosion. Indeed some of the stained glass in the lobby of the chapel was blown in, but it is against the rules of the conclave to bring in any extraneous subject – otherwise it would turn into a political talking shop, not a retreat for spiritual meditation.

Eventually, Lomeli decides he will tell the assembled cardinals what is going on (it is, as it has been all the way through, his job to run the conclave, as Dean of the College of Cardinals: that’s why Harris chose him to be the main protagonist of the story).

Once he has it prompts two speeches from the assembled cardinals. First of all the son of peasants, the ultra-conservative Patriarch of Venice, Cardinal Tedesco, declares that, in light of this atrocity, all the Catholics in the world will be looking for strong leadership. If he’d stopped there he would have seized the meeting, but he unwisely goes on to lambast all the progressive tendencies of the last 50 years, tolerance of homosexuality, of divorced Catholics remarrying, up to and including the mass immigration which has seen countless mosques being built across Italy, home of the Catholic Church, and it s during his tirade against Islam that the first cries of ‘Shame’ and ‘Boo’ are heard.

When he finally sits down, to everyone’s surprise it is the shy, retiring and inexperienced Vincent Benítez, Archbishop of Baghdad, who asks to be heard, and makes an impassioned plea for tolerance and forgiveness. He has tended to Christians dying in Muslim lands and can tell his fellow cardinals that not one of them wanted vengeance. they all died in the spirit of Christ, asking for their murders to be forgiven.

This quiet speech for the first time creates a real sense of religion, of holiness, in the chapel. Lomeli finds himself being lifted by it, and when the next ballot is held he unequivocally votes for Benítez and then listens, dazed, as the votes are counted and the secret cardinal of Baghdad is voted Pope!

But that isn’t the second bombshell. This comes when Prefect of the Papal Household, Woźniak, staggering at the news, asks to take Lomeli aside for a hurried word. Right back at the start of the narrative it had been Woźniak who told Lomeli that the previous Pope had dismissed Tremblay and Lomeli had asked him to do a bit of digging, which led to the revelation that the former Pope had commissioned the report. But  Woźniak had also done a bit of digging into Benítez while he was at it.

Back then, three days earlier, he’d told Lomeli that Benítez had been involved in a car bomb explosion in Baghdad, been injured but (obviously) survived, and there were some references to him being booked into to go to a clinic in Switzerland, a visit which was then cancelled and here he is at the conclave, having just been voted Pope. But Woźniak has only just had time to find out more, to contact the clinic and discover it is a clinic for gender reassignment.

My God. Lomeli runs through to the small Room of tears where Benítez is already being fitted into the papal robes. They have sent the white smoke out the chimney. Already the crowd in St Peter’s Square is roaring. He is only minutes from making his appearance and his first speech.

Lomeli turfs everyone else out the room and demands Benítez tells him the truth. So he does. Benítez was born with the genitals of a girl, but his parents (like so many parents in developing countries, wanting a boy) raised him and dressed him as a boy and, of course, as soon as he started attending seminary school, and then into the junior priesthood, he didn’t give sex a thought, he didn’t see other men’s genitals, his looked normal to him. It was only when he was injured in the car bomb and went to hospital, that a full inspection revealed he was a woman. He went straight to the former Pope to discuss it, and himself made a booking at the gender reassignment clinic. But then realised this is the way he’s made. This is the way God made him. And this is the destiny God has chosen for him. Who is he to say no to God.

And leaving Lomeli perplexed and bewildered the new Pope continues dressing ready to greet his flock of over 1 billion souls, the first ladyboy to be Pope!

Clichés and clarity

On page one we read a description of cardinal Lomeli making his way at two in the morning to the pope’s apartment.

The Rome air was soft and misty yet already he could detect the first faint chill of autumn. (p.1)

Later on we read that:

Once, in his youth, Lomeli had enjoyed a modest fame for the richness of his baritone. But it had become thin with age, like a fine wine left too long. (p.115)

A cliché can be defined as a thought or description which you’ve read or heard so many times before that it slips past the eye or ear with the minimum amount of disturbance, barely registering, like soothing background music in a restaurant or hotel lobby. It is designed not to detain you but speed you on your way to your business appointment.

This is true of a great deal if not most of Harris’s writing – it is smooth and effective without stirring any ripples. If you pause for thought, it is at what he is reporting – documentary explanation of the byzantine procedures of the Vatican or the latest revelation in the fast-moving plot – but never the way he reports it. As befits a man trained by years in journalism, Harris’s English is unfailingly clear and lucid.

Harris isn’t an awful writer, he is a very good writer, but of a kind of clear and rational prose which is almost devoid of colour. This is very effective when conveying factual information (and his novels tend to be packed with factual information which needs to be written out as clearly as possible in order for the reader to understand what is at stake.) But it leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to character.

I’ve just read Munich, his thriller set during the 1938 Munich Crisis and the best parts of it, the bits which have stayed with me most, are his documentary descriptions of the actual meetings between Neville Chamberlain and Hitler. The personalities of the two male protagonists of the thriller plot pale into insignificance next to the factual content. They are like competent watercolours placed next to an oil painting.

Same here. Lomeli is meant to be Italian, a crusty, 75-year-old, dogmatic, Catholic cardinal of an Italian; just imagine what a rebarbative, rich, gnarly old cuss he must be, and all the sins and corruption he must witnessed, and the decades of in-fighting and politicking he has had to navigate. You’d imagine he would have wildly un-PC views about race, homosexuality, women and so on. Just imagine the depths of cynicism this tottering old Italian must have sunk to, what a monstrous character could have been created.

And yet, in Harris’s hands, Lomeli is a decent chap who thinks in perfectly lucid, grammatically perfect, English sentences. There is no confusion in his mind. He reacts to new information or insights with the thoroughness of a computer, processing them and thinking entirely rationally about what to do next. If he is temporarily at a loss, things soon reappear to him in a cool rational way.

Harris makes a few gestures towards Lomeli’s age, his decrepit body, his wavery voice and the fact that he has difficulty sleeping, but these are all on the surface. Lomeli’s mind is never confused or overcome by bias or prejudice or cantankerous feelings. In fact he hardly has any feeling. Harris gives him ‘moments of doubt’ when he kneels and prays to God for help and advice. But none of these convey any emotion at all, let alone a sense of genuine religious anguish or loss. They are window dressing.

This is because Lomeli is a cypher, a cog at the centre of the plot. In a thriller, the plot is everything, literally everything. Each new development must be communicated in as clear a way as possible so that the reader can share the sense of suspense and thrill and excitement. Any lingering over description or psychology just gets in the way of the slow release of new information to build up suspense.

So Lomeli is given a few superficial trappings of age and experience:

He switched on the stuttering light and checked himself in the bluish glow: front first, then his left side, then his right. His profile had become beaky with age. He thought he looked like some elderly moulting bird. (p.138)

But no real psychological depth, no sense of the countless physical degradations of age or the incredible depth of experience such a man must have. Instead he sounds much like you or me, a decent chap doing a tricky job.

Instead he is Hercule Poirot in the Vatican, on the trail of several mysteries, as the clock ticks on and the conclave votes go by – breaking into sealed apartments, investigating the dead pope’s last wishes, uncovering sin and corruption.

And, at the end of the day, what he uncovers (until the final revelation) is relatively clean and straightforward:

1. Adeyemi had an affair with a pretty young woman which, to most of us, is acceptable and forgiveable. It was a breach of trust and an abuse of his position. But it wasn’t the systematic sexual abuse of under-age boys, which is the real story in the modern Catholic Church. This subject is referred to a couple of times by Harris’s cardinals but is treated very much as something of the past, something that has been dealt with and is behind the church now. Which we know not to be true. The opposite. It shows every sign of growing to really profoundly undermine the Catholic Church forever.

2. Similarly, we learn that Cardinal Tremblay has doled out what appear to be mere tens of thousands of Euros to cardinals to get them to vote for him; but there is no mention of the far, far bigger, scandalous involvements of the Vatican Bank with the Mafia, with organised crime, drugs and people smuggling, and a shadowy network of freemason, which emerged in the 1980s.

In the middle of the book, when not much had been revealed and it is full of dark premonitions, I imagined the big secret would turn out that Tremblay had murdered the Pope because he was uncovering a vast web of financial corruption. It all turns out to be that Tremblay was directing Church funds towards the generally backward and impoverished dioceses of cardinals he hoped would vote for him.

In other words, Harris’s protagonist uncovers ‘scandal’ but it is relatively clean and respectable scandal. Nothing to seriously frighten the horses.

Maybe this is part of the deal he did with the Vatican, whose authorities gave him such full access to the Vatican, even rooms off limits to the public and gave him every help and advice. Maybe in return Harris pledged to keep the ‘scandal’ on the safe side. Or maybe there was no deal or understanding, Harris was just being tactful and polite. Or maybe these relatively minor transgressions were his plan all along.

Whatever the motivation, in his earlier novels, protagonists proceeded from the everyday world and slowly uncovered vast and horrifying conspiracies which underlie it – hence their tremendous grip and excitement. Whereas this ‘thriller’ about the Vatican, in the end delivers ‘revelations’ which are pale and insignificant compared to the actual scandals which have rocked and continue to rock the Catholic Church.

Hence, for me anyway, a tremendous sense of disappointment and anti-climax.

The car bombs

That said, the midly intriguing narrative is turned upside down by the car bombs which, for me, ruin the tone of the book. they introduce a note of real tragedy and bloodshed which is all to recent and real for a Londoner like me. And all the less necessary as, in the end, their only use in the plot is to provide the opportunity for a speech by the arch conservative which loses him the papacy, and the quiet speech in favour of forgiveness which wins it for Benítez.

And then there is the revelation that the new pope is a woman!

This, for me, reduced the whole thing to an extended joke, with this revelation as the punchline. The climax of Harris’s first and best book, Fatherland, was the revelation of the Holocaust in a Nazi Germany which had won the war and successfully covered its appalling secret. The slow uncovering of the truth and the final scenes of full knowledge, made my hair stand on end with genuine fear and terror.

The last few pages of Conclave did quite the reverse, and make me laugh out loud at its politically correct, bien-pensant, North London liberalism.

Not only have almost all the cardinals all the way through been immaculately correct in their attitude to black and other Third World cardinals, none of them has had a flicker of a thought about women, let alone choirboys (with the egregious, scapegoating exception of Adeyema), and now the result of all this praying by all these decent, upstanding, compassionate old men turns out to be… electing a woman Pope!

Very funny. Very suave. Very slick. But more like a Guardian editorial turned into a novel than his earlier, genuinely gripping, thrillers.


Related links

Robert Harris’s thrillers

1992 Fatherland – Berlin 1964. Germany won the Second World War. Xavier March is a cop in Berlin, capital of the huge German Empire. The discovery of a corpse in a lake leads him on an increasingly nail-biting investigation into the dark heart of the Nazi regime and its most infamous secret which, in this terrifying parallel universe, has been completely buried.

1995 Enigma – Bletchley Park 1943, where a motley collection of maths, computer and coding geniuses are trying to crack the Germans’ Enigma codes. The hero – weedy geek Tom Jericho – discovers that the gorgeous, sexy woman who seduced him and then as casually dumped him a month later, is in fact a spy, stealing top secret intercepts from the base for her Polish lover. Or is she?

1998 Archangel – Dr Christopher ‘Fluke’ Kelso, a populist historian of contemporary Russia, stumbles across one of the secrets of the century – that the great dictator Josef Stalin had a son, brought up by communist fanatics in the forests of the frozen north, who is now ready to return to claim his rightful position as the ‘Great Leader’ and restore Russia to her former glory.

2007 The Ghost – The unnamed narrator is a ghost writer called in to complete the memoirs of former UK Prime Minister Adam Lang (a thinly disguised portrait of Tony Blair) after the previous writer died mysteriously. Marooned with the politico and his staff in a remote mansion on the coast of New England, the ghost writer slowly uncovers a shattering conspiracy.

2011 The Fear Index A series of bizarre incidents plague American physics professor-turned-multi-billionaire hedge fund manager, Alex Hoffmann. Slowly it becomes clear they are all related to the launch of the latest version of his artificial intelligence program – VIXEL-4 – designed to identify and manage anxiety and fear on the financial markets, but which has gone significantly, bewilderingly, beyond its money-making remit.

2013 An Officer and a Spy A long, absorbing fictional recreation of the Dreyfus Affair which divided France at the end of the 19th century, seen from the point of view of a French army officer who played a key role in the prosecution of Alfred Dreyfus as a German spy, and then slowly, to his horror, uncovers the evidence which proves that Dreyfus was innocent all along, and his trial one of the great miscarriages of justice in history.

2016 Conclave We follow Dean of the College of Cardinals, Jacopo Lomeli, as he supervises the conclave called in the Vatican to elect a new Pope, only to discover a number of scandals which compromise most of the leading candidates, and lead up to a very unexpected result.

2017 Munich A young German civil servant tries to smuggle a key document showing Hitler’s true intentions to his opposite number during the fateful Munich Conference of September 1939, complicated by the fact that the pair were once friends who shared a mistress until she met a terrible fate at the hands of the Gestapo.

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