The Trial by Franz Kafka (1925)

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

About Kafka

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

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

The Trial – style

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

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

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

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

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

The Trial – the setting

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

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

The plot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Episodic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crowded with characters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crowd scenes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Court officials

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

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

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

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

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

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

He goes on to meet:

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

The higher authorities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbiness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is no relief anywhere.

Sex…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even Joseph notices the ubiquity of woman in  his story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

… and violence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The trial of being

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Credit

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


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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: three quick shags then never see them again; or a longer term relationship but see them at three-week periods. (Putting it like this makes you realise how…. crass a lot of Kundera’s male characters and their supposed sexual wisdom, can easily appear.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Two – Soul and Body

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Three – Words Misunderstood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Four – Soul and Body

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Five – Lightness and Weight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Six – The Grand March

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Seven – Karenin’s Smile

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

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

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

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

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

And much more in the same vein.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts

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

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

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

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

Questionable wisdom

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

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

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

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

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

Is this deep? Or does it just sound deep?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wisdom about men and woman

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


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

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

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

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

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

The 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

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Russian history

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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.

Family Britain: A Thicker Cut, 1954-57 by David Kynaston (2009)

This is the second part of the second volume of David Kynaston’s social history of post-war Britain. As usual, it is a dense collage of quotes from the diaries, letters, interviews, surveys and speeches of an enormous range of people from Prime Minister Winston Churchill to vox pops of shoppers in the street via civil servants, actors, coal miners, housewives, writers who were kids at the time recalling their early memories (John Fowles, David Hare, Alan Bennett, Hunter Davies) – all combining to give you a really deeply felt sense of what it was like to live through these years.

Chronological events part one

Thus, without any preliminary introduction the book opens straight into a cabinet meeting discussing the problem of coloured workers, held on Wednesday 3 February 1954: ‘Are we to saddle ourselves with colour problems in the UK?’ Winston Churchill asked, a sentiment which is echoed half a dozen times as the race problem and the ‘colour bar’ are revisited throughout the book, reflecting the rising rate of immigration from the Commonwealth.

This very long book then touches on:

1954

  • the housing problem, the debate about whether to build flats or houses, and whether to shunt people out to the periphery (as believed by ‘dispersionists’) or keep them in high rise inner cities (‘urbanists’)
  • whether to decriminalise homosexuality, specifically in light of the trial of Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, Michael Pitt-Rivers and Peter Wildeblood, which began in 15 March
  • Billy Graham’s Greater London Crusade starting 1 March
  • the campaign to set up a commercial TV channel to rival the BBC’s monopoly; the canny entrepreneurs lobbying for commercial TV choose Sir Kenneth Clarke as their ultra-respectable front man and he gives a speech supporting it; next time he enters his club, he is roundly booed
  • 5 April Commons debate about the H-bomb, necessary if Britain is to remain ‘a world power’
  • repeated crashes of the British-built Comet airliner result in it being grounded and overtaken by the American Boeing
  • newspapers report on fighting at youth clubs and dance halls involving teenagers with a new look, the Teddy Boys: ‘The effect of the whole décor is thin, mean and sinister, and is obviously meant to be’ (Cyril Dunn in his diary)
  • Doctor in the House starring Dirk Bogarde is the box office smash of 1954
  • 6 May 1954 at Iffley Road track in Oxford, Roger Bannister breaks the four-minute mile
  • on 27 May, Hungary beat England 7-1 (West Germany go on to beat Hungary in the World Cup Final in July)
  • Iris Murdoch publishes her first novel, Under the Net. She is a committed communist
  • butter comes off the ration
  • June, Benny Hill shoots to TV stardom doing impersonations on Showcase
  • the myxomatosis epidemic among wild rabbits continued, eventually 99% of the population is wiped out
  • refrigerators are beginning to be a sign of status, notes sociologist Phyllis Willmott (p.399); restrictions on hire-purchase are removed for a wide range of consumer goods such as fridges, hoovers, radios, TVs, motorbikes and cars, setting in train the consumer society
  • August – Salad Days is a surprise hit in the theatre, starting a run which continues till 1960
  • Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring published, followed in November by the Two Towers
  • September – the Third Programme’s live broadcast of Benjamin Britten’s new opera, A Turn of the Screw
  • Kidbrook school opens, London’s first purpose-built comprehensive
  • October – an exhibition of paintings by John Bratby leads critic David Sylvester to coin the term ‘kitchen sink’ school, which goes on to be widely applied to theatre and film
  • 2 November – début of Hancock’s Half Hour on BBC radio
  • by the end of the year there are nearly 4 million TV licences

1955

  • January – BBC documentary Has Britain a Colour Bar? to which the answer was emphatically yes
  • February: road traffic has almost doubled since 1938 and so the government publishes a major road expansion plan including the building of two motorways, M1 and M6
  • government also announces plans to build 12 nuclear power stations, the most advanced scheme of nuclear power anywhere in the world
  • January – debut on TV of The Sooty Show and The Benny Hill Show
  • February – debut of Kitchen Magic, presented by Fanny Cradock, first of the celebrity chefs, coinciding with the era of rationing passing into memory i.e. the start of conspicuous consumption
  • March – national newspaper strike
  • 5 April Winston Churchill (aged 80) steps down as leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister
  • 6 April replaced by Anthony Eden (Eton and Christ Church, Oxford) who announces a snap general election for 26 May (the voting age was still 21, as it continued to be until 1969)
  • May General Election: Conservatives 321 seats, Labour 277, Liberals 6, the 17 communist candidates polled 33,000 votes between them. Turnout was down from 82 to 76% amid what Kynaston portrays as widespread apathy, the general interpretation being that the economy was booming, rationing was over, consumer goods were becoming widely available, who cares about politics? Hugh Gaitskell, and Kynaston, attribute it to Tory success with housewives.
  • May Day – Stirling Moss became the first British driver to win the Mille Miglia in Italy
  • May – The Dam Busters released, the outstanding British film of the year ‘maybe of the decade’
  • Miners strike, train drivers strike, dockers’ strike
  • 13 July Ruth Ellis hanged for murder, last woman hanged (the last men hanged were executed in August 1964)
  • August – Kingsley Amis’s second novel, That Uncertain Feeling, and publication of the first edition of the Guinness Book of Records
  • September – Henry Fairlie writes an article in the Spectator describing the ‘Establishment’ that runs Britain
  • 22 September – commercial television (ITV) starts broadcasting in the London area
  • October was dominated by controversy among politicians, press and people on the long-running saga about whether young Princess Margaret Rose (25) should or should not marry divorced father-of-two Group-Captain Peter Townsend (30) with whom she was clearly in love. After dividing the nation, she decided not to.

Sociological studies

About two-thirds of the way through the text it abruptly stops giving a month-by-month overview of political and popular events and turns into an extended consideration of various sociological issues, moving seamlessly through religious belief, attitudes to marriage, sex, homosexuality, unmarried mothers, abortion, prostitution, the role of women, women in the home, women in the workplace and so on.

As usual Kynaston draws evidence from a wide range of sources: from social historians, from the surprising number of surveys and sociological studies carried out at the time, from the diaries or letters of ordinary people and politicians or the autobiographies of writers, from questionnaires carried out by contemporary magazines, from government-sponsored reports, and so on.

Inevitably, in the longish sequence about the social expectations on women in the 1950s, the white, private-school-educated man Kynaston bends over backwards to emphasise his feminist credentials and bring out how lazy and selfish 1950s men were, and the pressure of social expectations on women. There’s a lot less about the social expectations on men – to be financial provider, role model, father, and good companion in marriage.

In fact, although a huge amount of the content is informative and illuminating, not much is very surprising: the four books I’ve read so far tend to confirm everything you already suspected, but just with an awesome range of witnesses and voices adding texture and lived experience to the statistics and stereotypes, making the era really come to life.

Some of the sociological findings do raise a smile for confirming sociology’s tendency to state the bleeding obvious. For example, on pages 576-77 Kynaston quotes several surveys which, after hundreds of interviews and hard work compiling the data, present the dazzling conclusion that, for lots of working women, the main motivation for going out to work was — to earn money! 73% of married women gave ‘financial reasons’ as their main motive for going to work. Not, maybe, earth-shattering news.

This list gives you a sense of the scope and number of surveys Kynaston refers to, as well as indicating the subject matter they address:

  • Brian Abel-Smith and Richard Titmuss study of NHS services underpinned the 1956 Guillebaud Committee report on the NHS which recommended no major changes
  • BBC survey 1955-6 about Britain’s decline (28% thought there’d been a decline in Britain’s economic ranking, blaming the trade unions and strikes)
  • White and Coloured by Michael Banton (p.451) recorded how cities across the UK recruited west Indian bus drivers and conductors through the first half of the 1950s
  • 1956 survey of racial attitudes in Birmingham (two thirds thought coloured people were intrinsically less intelligent than white people)
  • Family and Social Network by Elizabeth Bott (1957), including the Bott hypothesis that the connectedness or the density of a husband’s and wife’s separate social networks is positively associated with marital role segregation
  • Tom Brennan, author of a 1956 study of occupants of the Gorbals and attitudes to redevelopment
  • The Sexual, Marital and Family Relationships of the English Woman (1956) by Eustace Chesser (women look for physical strength in man more than looks; the higher up the social scale the more likely a woman was to experience sexual satisfaction; husband doesn’t pet enough [foreplay]; ‘overwhelmingly it was felt by wives that men wanted sex more frequently than women did’, p.592)
  • Citizens of Tomorrow by a working party of educationalists and sociologists
  • Peter Collison – study of the Cutteslowe Wall in Oxford
  • Professor Kate Fisher, pioneering historian of sex e.g. , Birth Control, Sex and Marriage in Britain, 1918-1960 (2007)
  • February 1957 Gallup survey about church going
  • 1954 BBC-commissioned Gallup survey into church attendance
  • anthropologist Frank Girling spent 18 months on a Scottish housing estate studying the unskilled workers and their families (women had a dominant position in the social life of the area and their homes)
  • Social Mobility in Britain by David Glass finding a generally low level of social mobility (p.410)
  • 1951 survey of British life by Geoffrey Gorer
  • Ken Grainger did a study of Herbert’s the machine tool firm in Coventry
  • Natalie Higgins, author of a study of marriage in mid-twentieth century England (women looked for a man who was clean, decent and hard working)
  • Margot Jefferys author of a study of married women working in the civil service
  • Pearl Jephcott investigated youth clubs in London and Nottingham
  • 1956 survey by Joyce Joseph of 600 adolescent girls attending school in the Home Counties and the West Country
  • 1949 Mass-Observation on household income
  • 1951 Mass-Observation survey of 700 working class housewives
  • 1955 Mass-Observation survey into capital punishment
  • 1956 Mass-Observation study of the housewife’s day
  • 1957 Mass-Observation survey on women in work
  • John Barron May’s study of a police division in inner-city Liverpool
  • John Barron May’s 1956 study of Liverpool’s Crown Street area
  • John Mogey’s study of working class life in Oxford
  • 1954 NHS survey of services for the elderly
  • Anthony Richmond author of The Colour Problem
  • Elizabeth Roberts, author of a 1990s oral history of Barrow, Lancaster and Preston – parents became closer to their children, than their own parents had been
  • Women of the Streets (1955) edited by C.H. Rolph
  • English Life and Leisure (1951)  by Rowntree and Lavers
  • Lulie Shaw, author of a study of a working class suburb in the 1950s
  • John Smith in 1955 conducted field work at the Peak Freen biscuit factory in Bermondsey
  • Steven Tolliday’s study of Coventry engineering workers
  • The Family Life of Old People (1957) by Peter Townsend
  • Margaret Williamson – interviews in the ironstone region of Cleveland: post-war fathers more involved and willing to play with their children than pre-war fathers
  • Family and Kinship in East London (1957) by Michael Young and Peter Willmott
  • More About the Sex Factor by Dr Helena Wright (1947)

The single finding I found most interesting was the notion that the extended kinship system Young and Willmott found in the East End (grandparents and siblings living nearby and able to babysit and do errands) disappeared as young couples moved out to housing estates on the edge of town, and to new towns. Being isolated and thrown back on their own resources coincided or led to a) families being smaller (two children) and b) a greater sharing of household work and parenting, more involvement by dads i.e. the loss of an extended family network was compensated by more ‘modern’ gender roles. Although it did also just lead to lots of lonely, isolated mums.

Chronological events part two

1955

  • October 15 Rock Around the Clock by Bill Haley and the Comets enters the Billboard Top 20
  • November: Cabinet decided not to support the Home Secretary’s plan for legislation to limit immigration from the Commonwealth
  • books of the year: The Cruel Sea, Reach for the Sky, HMS Ulysses
  • Christmas Day: Somerset Maugham published an attack on Kingsley Amis’s characters, calling them ‘scum’
  • December Clement Attlee stands down as leader of the Labour Party, replaced by Hugh Gaitskell (aged 49, educated at Winchester Public School and New College, Oxford)

1956

  • January – a concert by young turks Harrison Birtwhistle and Peter Maxwell Davies
  • February – London Transport starts to recruit staff from Barbados, followed by Trinidad and Jamaica
  • high prices bring discontent, complaints about Eden’s premiership, and worries about growing manufacturing competition from Germany and Japan
  • March – politicians and commentators react to news of Nikita Khrushchev’s speech denouncing Stalin and his crimes – a number of intellectuals quit the communist party and were to form the nucleus of the New Left which flourished in the 1960s
  • April – release of Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier amid an orgy of merchandising
  • April – Khrushchev and Soviet premier Bulganin visit Britain, attending a race meeting, tea with the Queen, lunch at the House of Commons, and questions at the Oxford Union
  • 8 May – first night of Look Back In Anger by John Osborne divides the critics
  • 19 May – Elvis Presley entered the British charts for the first time with Heartbreak Hotel
  • May – opening of the This is Tomorrow art exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, including Richard Hamilton’s iconic collage, Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing, the earliest example of Pop Art
Just What Is It That Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing (1956) by Richard Hamilton

Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing (1956) by Richard Hamilton

  • 12 June – bulldozers start clearing hedgerows for the building of the M6, Britain’s first motorway (opened in 1958, the M1 was opened in 1959)
  • winter, spring and summer dominated by strikes, strident speeches by trade union leaders and complaints from the media about their selfishness
  • October – Tommy Steele enters the top 20 with Rock with the Caveman becoming Britain’s first rock’n’roll star
  • 17 October Windscale nuclear power station became the first nuclear power plant to feed electricity into a national grid anywhere in the world
  • November – Post Office Premium Bonds launched

1957

  • Wednesday 9 January – Sir Anthony Eden resigns as Tory leader and Prime Minister on grounds of ill health
  • Thursday 10 January – replaced by Harold Macmillan (Eton and Balliol College, Oxford)

Suez and Hungary

Traditional history of the 1950s focus on the Suez Crisis as a symptom of the end of Britain’s role as a genuine global power. Characteristically Kynaston reserves it for almost an afterthought in the last fifteen or so pages of the book, and even then his account is interspersed with references to Elvis Presley, Fanny Cradock and petrol prices, and he doesn’t concern himself with the military or geopolitical issues, but focuses on how the unfolding crisis was received by his usual cast of diarists – Nella Last, Anthony Heap and so on – as well as the diary entries of Prime Minister Eden’s wife and the private thoughts of other politicians. Two things come over:

  • I hadn’t realised that the Anglo-French invasion of Suez and the Soviet tanks rukbling in to suppress the Hungarian Uprising were so closely synchronised – the first shots fired by the Hungarian security forces on protesters were on 23 October, the next day Soviet tanks occupied Budapest. On 29 October Israeli jets attacked Egyptian positions and on 31 October the British and French began bombing Egyptian positions on 31 October. Part of what made liberals so angry about Suez was that it was an illegal unilateral action not sanctioned by the UN. At a stroke this removed the moral superiority or ability of the West to criticise the Soviets. If there had been no Suez the West would have been infinitely better placed to protest the Soviet invasion and sanction the USSR.
  • I knew that Suez divided the nation but Kynaston’s strength, here as everywhere else in the book, is to use diaries, letters, speeches, memoirs to really bring home the virulent anger on both sides. As families and husbands and wives and generations bitterly fell out over the best course of action, it’s impossible not to see the parallels with Brexit.

Class

Of the Conservative Party’s 600 candidates in the 1955 general election, 80% went to private school, and 80 had gone to Eton. Ten of Anthony Eden’s 18-strong cabinet went to Eton, five of whom also went on to Christ Church, Oxford (‘the House’, as it is known). Small world, the ruling class.

The education dilemma

Nearly seventy years after the debates about education which Kynaston quotes so extensively in his book, we:

  • still have an extensive network of private schools, whose alumni continue to dominate all aspects of public and economic life
  • are still agonising and hand-wringing about whether selection at age 11, the 11-plus, and grammar schools are a good or a bad thing

Examples of such agonising and debating:

Why are the basic facts about education i.e. what works best for individuals and for society as a whole, still not definitely known? What have all those educationalists and university departments of education and educational psychologists and all the rest of them been doing for the past 65 years?

Consumer society

My impression of British history over the past 70 years is that people wanted more stuff.

Governments came and went, politicians agonised over the precise wording of manifestos and speeches, clever Oxbridge graduates devised wizard wheezes (the poll tax, universal credit) but Kynaston’s approach to history makes it crystal clear that most people don’t give a stuff about politics – again and again disillusioned politicians find themselves speaking to tiny audiences in the rain, or surveys show that half the people surveyed have never even heard the phrase ‘welfare state’, let alone have sophisticated ideas about how to fund it.

What comes over strongly – especially in the recurrent thread about housing, slum clearance, the creation of flats and so on – is that people want to be left alone to get on with their lives. Again and again we read that people want to live in houses because of the privacy and don’t want to live in flats because of the lack of privacy.

And all through the book there is a massive disconnect between the university-educated politicians and theorists and writers and planners and activators and sociologists and anthropologists who agonise about definitions of ‘community’ and the ‘working class’ and the ‘proletariat’ — and the people living in Coventry or Birmingham or Glasgow (the most rundown city in Britain) who want: a clean home, hot water, a sink, a bathroom, an inside toilet.

And once they’ve got that, they want one of those TV sets that everyone is talking about, and one of the new line of fridges in which they can put the new range of frozen foods which were just being launched in the mid-1950s, led by Birds Eye fish fingers, they want instant coffee and tinned beer they can bring home to sup as they watch Fabian of the Yard or Variety Hour..

An indication of how things were changing was Elizabeth David’s comment in the preface to the 1956 edition of A Book of Mediterranean Food that the food situation was ‘startlingly different’ to how it had been just two years before. Vacuum cleaners, washing machines, fridge freezers, convenience foods, formica table and work tops, affordable eating out (Berni Inns opened in 1954 with their trademark meal of rump steak, chips and peas, a roll and butter and pudding for just 7/6d). Local traders were closing down while Marks and Spencer opened stores throughout the country. Tesco opened its first true supermarket (entirely self-service) in Maldon in 1956.

And the age of DIY was dawning, with cheap and effective Dulux paint going on sale in 1953 while Black and Decker decided to enter the domestic market in 1954, selling drills and lathes and saws, and the first DIY magazine, Practical Householder, was launched in October 1955.

While Doris Lessing was writing articles in praise of Stalin and E.P. Thompson was agonising about whether to leave the communist party over Hungary – precisely the type of upper-middle-class university-educated people and highfalutin’ issues that upper-middle-class university-educated historians usually focus on in their highfalutin’ histories – the people, the ‘masses’ who they so fatuously claimed to be speaking for – were going shopping, collecting the new green shield stamps and buying a new Morris Minor on the never-never.

They knew who the future belonged to – and it wasn’t Comrade Khrushchev.


Related links

Related reviews

Reviews of fiction from the period

Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke (1953)

Arthur C. Clarke and John Wyndham were my favourite sci-fi authors as a boy, as an eleven, twelve, thirteen year old at the start of the 1970s. Clarke was still happily writing, I remember excitedly swapping Rendezvous with Rama with friends soon after it came out.

Childhood’s End is his fifth novel and one of the best books I had ever read. The memory of the book’s artful pacing, and the cumulative revelations leading up to the nihilistic final scenes, made an impact on my young imagination which has lasted all my life.

Premise

The idea behind the plot can be relatively simply stated.

There are lots of inhabited planets in the universe. Most of the inhabitants proceed through a similar cycle, from agriculture to industrialisation and scientific literacy, then the start of space travel and so on. It’s at this point that they are ready to move on to ‘the next stage’. A race called the Overlords is dispatched to guide them. Under the tutelage of the Overlords – who abolish war and poverty – the pupil race becomes wise and peaceful, experiencing a Golden Age.

But this is all deceiving. The Overlords have not been sent to supervise this golden age and are not there for the good of the pupil race at all. Another power, a power deeper and older and more powerful than them, the ‘Overmind’, has detected that the supervised species is about to move on to the next stage of evolution, to abandon physical bodies and become pure minds, initially as individuals, then uniting together to form a group mind, and then abandoning the host planet altogether to take to the stars and join the Overmind.

This is the basic plot of Childhood’s End. It is an epic story about the near future transformation of the human race into a completely new species and the end of the world as we know it, so big, so awe-inspiring, it reminds you of the galactic prophecies of H.G. Wells or Olaf Stapledon.

What makes it so powerful is that Clarke turns this story into a thriller. We don’t see this narrative told as a whole through the eyes of some future historian. Instead we discover it piecemeal through the eyes of a succession of pretty normal human characters, each of whom experiences a particular phase of the development, each of whom is granted a waystation revelation, learns a part of the truth, each of which is as much of a shock and surprise to them as it is to the reader, as the narrative as a whole slowly peels off skins like an onion, giving the reader a succession of imaginative jolts and marvels, a sense of mounting horror and suspense, right up until the shocking end-of-the-world scenes of the last few pages.

Key episodes

1 Earth and the Overlords

Thus the book opens by describing the work of two German rocket scientists, one captured by the Soviets, one by the Americans at the end of the Second World War. They are both nearing completion of plans for man-carrying rockets for their respective Cold War masters, when one day they look up and see the vast silver ships of the Overlords in the sky above them. At a stroke the world’s population realises that ‘we are not alone’. At a stroke, the rocket scientists realise their work is futile.

Five years later a lengthy section lets us get to know Rikki Stormgren, the Finnish Secretary General of the United Nations. We learn that within days of their arrival the Overlords (an earth nickname, not the name they give themselves) gave one speech across the whole world’s radio sets explaining that they are here to help not harm, to prevent the nuclear wars which might lead to humanity’s extinction – and then had settled down into a routine of inviting Stormgren to a weekly conference to discuss the management of earth.

To attend, Stormgren enters a metal pod via a set of retractable steps, then the pod zooms up into the stratosphere, entering a brief opening in the spaceship which immediately closes. When the pod door opens he finds himself in a comfortable room with a grille and a big screen which is blank and opaque. He hears the voice of the being named Karellan, who speaks perfect English, is always calm and polite, knows all about earth politics, and always gives wise advice about international problems. Despite questioning from Stormgren, Karellan gives little or nothing away about the Overlords.

The Overlords only interfere in earth affairs twice: in South Africa apartheid has collapsed and been replaced with persecution of the white minority which the Overlords intervene to put an end to. And – in a scene I have remembered my whole life – in Spain, at a bullfight, when the first toreador sticks a spear into the bull, the entire audience of 10,000 experiences what the bull feels and shrieks in agony (p.37). The Overlords abolish cruelty to animals.

Unsurprisingly, a movement has grown up resenting the Overlords’ intrusion in human affairs, the ‘Freedom League’ led by a man named Alexander Wainwright. One night Stormgren is kidnapped and – in scenes more reminiscent of a thriller – smuggled out of his house, swapped from a car to a lorry in a deep tunnel (to escape the Overlords’ detection devices), driven south then flown to South America where he wakes up in the hands of some goons from the Freedom League. They are fairly civilised, just want to know more about Stormgren’s weekly meetings with Karellan. As you might expect he is soon rescued by the all-powerful Overlords. In a compelling scene, the interrogators suddenly freeze in mid-sentence and Stormgren hears a polite voice emanating from a small metal sphere hovering at head height, which guides him out of the old mine works where he’s being held hostage, into one of the Overlords’ little flying machines, and so back to freedom (p.38).

Fifteen pages are then devoted to another episode featuring Stormgren as he discusses with his number two, Pieter van Ryberg, and the senior scientist at the UN, a Frenchman named Duval, a plan to see beyond the opaque screen in the ‘meeting room’. It takes Duval a few weeks to work up a super-powerful torch which Stormgren can hide in the base of the briefcase he always takes with him to the meetings. When the time seems right he can swing it up to face the screen and see if the torch’s beam illuminates what they all guess must be the room on the other side – and the Overlord who occupies it.

At this next meeting, Stormgren repeats the complaints of much of the population that they want to know what their rulers and masters look like. Karellan promises to make a global announcement that the Overlords will reveal themselves in fifty years time. Only then, he argues, will humanity have become completely acculturated and used to their presence, and their appearance won’t have the same impact.

As the conversation comes to an end Stormgren leaps up and swings the flashlight towards the opaque screen. He is just in time to see a room like the one he’s sitting in and a huge figure exiting an enormous door. What he sees shocks and stuns him for the rest of his life. We, the readers, have to wait till the next section to find out why.

2 The Golden Age (pp.56-119)

The fifty years are up. An Overlord flyer touches down on earth. The world’s press is gathered expectantly for the first Overlord to show himself. A doorway opens and gangway descends. Two little earth children from the crowd are invited up it. And then an enormous figures steps down the gangway, holding the sweet children in his arms. It is the figure of an enormous devil, deep red in colour, complete with horns and cloven hooves, leathery wings and long pointed tail! The social impact is immense. Now we learn what Stormgren had glimpsed in the spaceship fifty years earlier. And the meaning of his speculation that the two races must have met, sometime back in the mists of time, and something gone very badly wrong between them to leave such a diabolical folk memory.

But fifty years was the right period. Most people alive now accept the Overlords’ rule completely. Also, organised religion has faded away under the Rule of reason instituted by the Overlords and so there isn’t a great population of fundamentalists to stir up trouble (pp.56-58).

Clarke then embarks on a long description of the Golden Age of peace and plenty which the human race experiences. Ignorance, disease, poverty and fear cease to exist. Everyone speaks English. New agriculture supplies all food needs. Robots man the factories which supply a world of new consumer goods. The end of the Cold War, and all war, frees up resources and skills to be devoted to entirely peaceful ends. New technology creates flying machines which can get to anywhere on earth in under a day. Most people have at least two houses, often in exotic locations such as the top of Mount Kilimanjaro or deep in the Pacific depths.

With so much time on their hands humanity, as so often in these kinds of utopian visions, turn out to be immensely bookish, takes to higher education till age 25, becomes philosophers and poets and artists. Nobody has to do any work they don’t want to.

Like a good liberal Clarke imagines that all religious faiths will wither away. The Overlords give historical institutes a kind of historical TV machine which can show scenes from the past. Human historians immediately go back to check out the real people behind the legends of Moses, Mohammed, Jesus and so on. Organised religion does not survive the immense disillusionment of what they find (p.63). So religion disappears and the human race turns into millions of bookish, thoughtful, jolly nice chaps rather like, well, Arthur C. Clarke.

All this is exemplified in the social set around Rupert Boyce and his mixed-race wife, Maia, who give a stylish party at Rupert’s mountain-top home. Guests include a famous film producer, a minor poet, a mathematician, two famous actors, an atomic power engineer, a game warden, the editor of a weekly news magazine, a statistician from the World Bank, a violin virtuoso, a professor of archaeology and an astrophysicist. The world has turned into Hampstead.

Among the guests are George Greggson and Jean Morrel who are going to turn out to be tremendously important to the story, and the future of the human race.

They are astonished to discover that one of the guests is an Overlord, Rashaverak, who is quietly reading through Rupert’s world-famous and priceless collection of antique and ancient books about astrology, parapsychology, clairvoyance and so on.

Half way through the party, a bit drunk, George finds himself on the roof with another guest, a black man named Jan Rodricks, who is half-brother to the host’s wife, Maia. Jan is an astrophysicist, quiet and self-contained so George soon returns to the noisy party below,but Jan also will be a key player in the last stages of the novel.

George is talked by Rupert into attending a drunken session of Ouija the host has organised. It uses an up-to-date design by consisting of a round table of ballbearings on which is placed a circular tray. All the members – Rupert, Maia, George, Jean and, latterly, Jan – place hands on the tray while Rupert asks questions. Then the tray moves around the table towards the words Yes or No printed on the edge, along with all the letters of the alphabet and the numbers 1 to 10.

They seem to get half sensible answers to some of Rupert’s questions but drunk George thinks it’s all nonsense until Jan, out of nowhere, asks the identity of the Overlords’ home star. To his surprise the board immediately spells out the number NGS 549672 and most people are too puzzled by this to notice George’s partner, Jean, faint.

Jan recognizes this as a star-catalog number and travels to the Royal Astronomical Society in London where he looks it up and confirms it is a star which really exists and has been logged. Earlier we had observed him watching from Rupert’s roof one of the Overlords’ supply ships taking off from the moon and leaving a long tracer line across the sky: along with their appearance the Overlords no longer conceal that a) there is not in fact a fleet of ships but only one, the one hovering over New York, all the others were holograms and b) that they receive supplies from their home planet via a transhipping base on Pluto.

We cut to a discussion between Rashaverak – who witnessed the Ouija board scene – and Karellan. The latter says ‘it has begun’ creating a tremendous sense of suspense and anticipation in the reader, and they both indicate that Jean must, somehow, have been the channel through which this inaccessible knowledge had reached the Ouija board.

Jan then goes to visit Professor Sullivan in his research lab miles and miles underwater in the South Pacific Basin. For some time the Overlords have been collecting examples of earth’s flora and fauna. Jan has discovered that Professor Sullivan has been asked to supply examples of the world’s two largest creatures, the giant squid and the blue whale, for them. In fact they are going to build and design them from scratch with metal skeletons, cover them with rubber and plastic and paint them. Real samples would be difficult to get hold of and would stink and rot.

Jan proposes a scheme: that they build a hidey-hole into the metal whale and Jan stows away and flies to the Overlords’ home planet. Sullivan enthusiastically agrees to help. This storyline takes up twenty pages and brings us to the end of part two. Jan successfully stows away, the artificial whale is lifted up to the Overlord spaceship and it departs for its home planet.

Before departing Jan thoughtfully writes his sister Maia a letter laying out some of the practical issues: since the Overlord ships travel at near light speed, and Jan has identified that star NGS 549672 is 40 light years from earth, he will be gone for 40 years there and, assuming they send him right back, 40 years coming back. However, due to the weirdness of relativity, because he’s flying at near light speed, Jan himself will only age a few months. (Clarke gives an additional explanation that the line of light which Jan saw behind the departing spaceship wasn’t caused by anything so banal as flames from rockets, but due to the bending of light or maybe of the fabric of space-time itself, by the near light speed passage of the ship: he is not seeing a line of fire but a line of the bending of space into which the light of multiple stars is strained in order to create the impression of a line of light.) Jan is taking a supply of food, oxygen and will inject a narcoleptic to create a state of drug-induced hibernation for the duration of the flight.

This second section ends with Karellan holding a press conference at which he announces to the world’s press that the Overlords have discovered the presence of a stowaway, Jan, on one of their ships: he will be sent right back. But the incident has raised the whole issue of humans and space travel. The Overlords have allowed humans to develop the technology to fly to the moon and set up bases there. But now Karellan demonstrates why humans will never go to the stars. He conjures up a three dimensional hologram of the whole galaxy and then the universe. He points out that when the Overlords arrived mankind was on the bring of sparking a nuclear war. They saved them from that fate but if they can’t even manage the affairs of one little planet how, he rhetorically asks, would they cope with this: and the gorgeous fabric of millions upon millions of stars in the Milky Way strikes the attending press and scientists dumb.

3 The Last Generation (pp.120-189)

This final third of the novel is extraordinarily powerful and has two main threads. In the first we follow Jan Rodericks as he arrives at the Overlords’s home planet and what he finds and sees there. In the second, we follow Jean and George Greggson, who we met at Rupert’s party and now the significance of that seance session finally becomes clear.

We had already met the kind of people Clarke thinks will flourish in the future – film directors, poets, philosophers and the like. Now a group of these bien-pensant liberals establishes an artists’ colony on an island in the Pacific, which they immodestly name New Athens.

Among them are George and Jean Greggson, who by now have a seven year old son, Jeffrey, and a baby daughter Jennifer Anne. One day Jeffrey is playing on the beach when he feels a distant rumble and then the tide goes out out out and continues going out. Having seen footage and movies of this phenomenon I know this indicates a tsunami is coming but Jeffrey, inevitably, wanders down the beach following the tide until… a voice speaks in his ear telling him to Run run, and he turns and sets off up the beach and then up apath into the surrounding cliff as fast as his feet can carry him. It is a sweet bit of thriller detail when he finds a big rock blocking his way, the voice tells him to close his eyes, there’s a loud fizzing sound and when he opens his eyes the rock has gone so he can continue running.

All this is made that much more dramatic and involving by being told by Jeffrey in his own boyish words to his parents, who initially think he is making it up… until George himself visits the path and finds a rock which has clearly been blasted to nothingness. Only the Overlords could have done this. But why?

Then odd things start happening with Jennifer the baby. Her mother has a fit when she hears the rattle rattling but goes into the baby’s room to find it being shaken a metre above the baby’s head, unheld by any human hand. Jennifer begins to exercise other telekinetic powers. Soon food finds its way from the fridge to her cot by itself. She feeds and looks after herself, while her mother retreats into shock and George desperately tries to figure out what’s going on.

Eventually Kerallan tells them, explaining the basic premise of the narrative which I described above: the Overlords serve the Overmind, a vast cosmic intelligence, born of amalgamated ancient civilizations and freed from the limitations of material existence. The Overlords themselves are unable to join the Overmind, but serve it as a bridge species, fostering other races’ eventual union with it.

Now, Karellen explains, the time of humanity as a race of single individuals each with a concrete identity is coming to an end. The Overlords have been present at four such metamorphoses and know that it always starts with one member of the species ‘breaking through’. Then like the first crystal in a solution that one example catalyses all the others. Which explains why George and Jean become aware that other people’s children on New Athens are developing the same skills. Jeffrey had gone a long way down the road to individuality, but now he is called back into the group mind, also becoming indifferent to his parents’ existence.

All the children on new Athens become infected. Their minds reach into each other and merge into a single vast group consciousness. If the Pacific were to be dried up, Karellan explains, the islands speckling it would lose their identity as islands and become part of one new continent. Their children are now ceasing to be the individuals which their parents knew and are becoming something else, completely alien to the ‘old type of human’.

Adult society takes the decision to move all the transforming children to one continent, for their own safety and because their parents can’t bear their proximity, and cannot do anything for them now. Cameras are placed around their settlements to observe their strange behaviour. Sometimes they wander with their eyes closed. Sometimes they join hands and dance. They become filthy and ragged, their bodies mattering less and less.

The members of New Athens – that ideal colony of Hampstead intellectuals – are plunged into such grief and despair they blow themselves up with an atomic bomb planted at the base of the island. All over the planet the adult humans have to come to grips with the realisation that – their culture, their race, their species is ceasing to exist. Many choose not to live on.

Meanwhile, 40 light years away, Jan Rodricks emerges from hibernation on the Overlord supply ship and arrives on their planet. Clarke is really good at depicting a place which has physical reality but almost every aspect of which is genuinely alien and incomprehensible to him, not least the vast volcano-shaped mountain in the far distance which emits vast rings of smoke which then fly over the Overlord city. None of the Overlords were expecting him so no-one speaks English, until one slowly learns the language enough to give him a broken insight into their ways and purposes.

But then he is politely told that he will be placed on the next freight ship heading to earth and off he goes. Months later, as the Overlord shuttle enters earth orbit, Jan realises there’s something wrong. It takes him a moment and then he realises that there are no lights on the dark side of the earth, facing away from the sun. Almost as if those hundreds of brightly illuminated cities have… gone.

And of course this is what he discovers when the Overlord pod deposits him back on the surface. Karellan meets him and explains everything that has happened. The entire adult human race has either died out or killed itself. Jan is now the last man alive.

Only hundreds of millions of children – no longer fitting Jan’s definition of ‘human’ – remain on the quarantined continent, having become a single intelligence readying themselves to join the Overmind.

Jan finds that some Overlords have remained on Earth to study the children from a safe distance. When the evolved children mentally alter the Moon’s rotation and make other planetary manipulations, it becomes too dangerous to remain. The departing Overlords offer to take Rodricks with them, but he chooses to stay to witness Earth’s end and transmit a report of what he sees.

Before they depart, Rodricks asks Rashaverak what encounter the Overlords had with humanity in the past, according to an assumption that the fear that humans had of their ‘demonic’ form was due to a traumatic encounter with them in the distant past. But, in a really imaginative touch, Rashaverak explains that the primal fear experienced by humans was not due to a racial memory, but a racial premonition of the Overlords’ role in their metamorphosis. Time, as the Overlords have repeatedly told their human proteges, is much stranger than we can imagine. It was fear and anger and hatred of this future which endowed the figure of the devil with such terror.

Right up to the end the Overlords want to study what happens. They candidly explain to Jan that they are sad at their barrenness. Why do other species transform into mind and join the Overmind? Why can’t they? Hence their intense interest at studying, for example, all the books in Rupert Boyce’s library, hence their remaining on to study the children long after the rest of the human race has gone extinct.

Now Jan remains behind to witness the end of planet earth and relay his impressions and thoughts via radio to the Overlords whose spaceship retires to a safe distance, namely ‘six thousand million kilometres beyond the orbit of Pluto’ (p.189).

Jan describes earthquakes and spots of fire in the sky, and then how different fires come together to form a vast burning column which ascends from the planet into space. As the column disappears he experiences a terrible sense of emptiness when the children have gone. The atmosphere is leaving the planet taking with it everything which isn’t secured. Then everything around him and the earth itself become transparent and he can see a great white light emanating from the core of the planet upwards towards him.

The Earth evaporates in a flash of light. The children have used every atom of it as fuel to drive their final metamorphosis and journey to join the Overmind. Karellen looks back at the receding Solar System, reflects on the fate of the Overlords to obey, and the incomprehensible fate of the human race.

Critique

The everyday

It is a fantastic book, convincing and thrilling. Some critics think the human settings of each episode – the minutiae of Rikki Stormgren’s living arrangements and his kidnapping, or the immense labour spent describing the ins and outs of George and Jean Greggson’s marriage detract from the story, but I agree with Clarke’s approach and it’s what I like about Wyndham’s novels, as well. That these awe-inspiring changes happen to perfectly ordinary – or in fictional terms, ordinary – people. For me the fantasy is far more effective for being rooted in the everyday.

Anglocentric

When I read the long central section, the Golden Age, I thought, Wow! This is what the future’s going to be like! Clarke predicts that:

  • Everyone will speak English
  • Technology will do all the dirty jobs, giving everyone masses of leisure time
  • Everyone will have advanced university educations, often to age 25
  • organised religion will have withered away
  • quick cheap travel will be available for all

You can see how these assumptions grow out of faith that the post-war American economic boom would prove endless, and spread around the world, providing a never-ending stream of gee whizz technology.

When Clark wrote the Yanks were perfecting and marketing a dazzling array of household white goods – fridges, freezers, fridge freezers, ice machines, toaster, barbecues, hoovers, washing machines, tumble dryers. Futurologists, politicians and advertising companies thought it would never stop.

In economic, technical, scientific and cultural terms America emerged as the leader of the world. Hence the Overlords’ space ship hovers – as so many alien spaceships before and since have done – over New York, the only city which really counts in these kinds of stories.

But the 65 years since the book was published have proved otherwise. There are other countries in the world besides America. Not everyone wants to be American or to speak English. A whole load of angry Muslims can testify to that, not to mention Indians, Indonesians, the whole of South America, and so on.

The poor have not been eradicated. There is not enough food for everyone. There is not so little work to be done that everyone devotes their lives to leisure, poetry and philosophy. It’s striking how sci fi prophets from Wells to Clarke have all made exactly the same set of mistaken predictions based on:

  1. complete ignorance of economics
  2. complete ignorance of human nature

Economics Capitalism works through companies achieving competitive advantage. No company is going to introduce a new labour-saving technology which gives them a competitive advantage – and then let the whole workforce have half the week off. More likely they’ll introduce the technology and make everyone work harder, attending training courses and keeping up with the machines’ new higher levels of demand.

All through my teens in the 1970s Tomorrow’s World and every other magazine and new programme, all the articles by Asimov and Clarke and blizzards of other futurologists told us that technology was just about to usher in a new world of leisure. The great struggle of life by the early 21st century would be deciding how to spend all this leisure time, which course to take at the free universities, whether to become a poet or a painter.

Human nature Educated white men, bookish writers like Asimov and Clarke, imagined that in the future everyone would become educated and bookish like, well like them. That the future would be full of swots who, freed from the need to do work, would dabble in philosophy or art.

Has it turned out that way? Or was that just a laughably self-centred and blinkered view of human nature.

From Dickens through Wells and Huxley and then the great waves of 1950s sci fi gurus, right through to the present day, liberals all pin their hopes on education to bring about social reform. For me, this is a doomed approach. Maybe because I grew up among a lot of working class people who didn’t just not want an education, and were itching to leave school at 16 so they could get a job, money, a car and a girlfriend – but who also actively despised, bullied, threw stones and spat at anyone they caught reading.

Most people are not bookish. Plenty of people never read a book from one Christmas to the next. Those who do read, tend to read very intensively and make the cardinal error of thinking that everyone else is like them. Like all liberals, Clarke assumes that people want to be educated, want to be jolly bookish chaps like himself.

But they don’t, they really don’t.

Religion A massive tell-tale symptom of this secular liberalism is Clarke’s confidence that all religions will fade away, wither and die, disappear.

The numbers of people who admit to religious belief in the post-industrial west may well continue to decline, but in the rest of the world? In the Muslim world? In Latin America? In south-east Asia? In Africa? In nationalist India? All around the world passionate and sometimes violent religious belief continues to flourish.

It seems to me that sci-fi fantasies like this are messages from a specific place and time and culture which made the great mistake of assuming its very narrow and specific values would spread out to conquer all humanity.

Asimov, Clarke, Blish, they write stories in which techy white male Americans end up running everything, everyone speaks English, everyone uses American tech, everyone adopts American values, everyone is behind America’s efforts to colonise space.

As that period of American triumphalism (roughly 1950 to 1975) recedes, these works become more dated, period pieces, insights into a worldview which is becoming as remote as the medieval Europe which thought that the great Day of Judgement was just around the corner.

Maybe you could almost make the generalisation that science fiction, as a genre, expects just such a great change is just around the corner, comparable to all those feverish end-of-the-world predictions which seized men’s minds from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance.

In science fictions from Wells to Wyndham a great event is just about to take place which will change everything.

Maybe, not so deep down, science fiction as a genre feeds on that profound human wish that there should be an apocalyptic change or ending or transformation, now, within our lifetimes, something, anything, to relieve the boredom, oppression, grinding, numbing grind of the daily struggle for existence.

It’s true there have been real changes and great turning points over the past century – the beginning and end of the two world wars, the atom bombs on Japan, the Soviet detonation of a hydrogen bomb, Sputnik, men on the moon, the collapse of the communist bloc in 1990 – these have been big cultural, social, scientific and political changes.

But deep down they didn’t change anything. People everywhere have still had to scrape a living, worried about their children, got ill and died in the same old way. Only above a certain level of education and literacy, and from a particularly Western perspective, do better-educated professional people care much about these kind of historic events.

For most people most of the time there are no such transformations. Life carries on being as much of a struggle as it ever was.


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Other science fiction reviews

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

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same London of the future described in the Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love, then descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

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

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

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

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

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

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

1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s

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