Ignorance by Milan Kundera (2002)

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

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

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

Ignorance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The characters

Irena

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

Emigration-dreams

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

Gustaf

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

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

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

Josef

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

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

The great broom

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

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

Josef’s brother

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

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

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

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

The teenage girl

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

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

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

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

Gustaf and Irena’s relationship decays

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

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

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

The teenage girl attempts suicide

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

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

Burying the dead

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

The suicide survives

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

The implications of human lifespan

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

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

Human memory

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

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

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

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

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

Back to the narrative

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

Josef reflects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Irena and music

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

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

Josef and N

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

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

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

Irena and Josef

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

The suicide girl grown into a woman

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

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

Irena and Josef

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

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

Gustaf and Irena’s mother

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

Irena and Josef

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

Gustaf and Irena’s mother

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

Irena and Josef

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

The suicide girl

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

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

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

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

Josef leaves

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

Credit

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


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

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

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

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

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2002 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

Identity by Milan Kundera (1998)

Chantal at the hotel

Jean-Marc and Chantal are going to spend the weekend at a small hotel on the Normandy coast. Chantal arrives first. The waitresses are discussing the disappearance of some rich person as described on a popular TV show Lost To Sight. She wonders how anyone can go missing in a world where every move is monitored by CCTV camera, where privacy is dying. She imagines losing Jean-Marc that way one day.

Jean-Marc visits an old friend

Meanwhile Jean-Marc has gone to Brussels to see an old school friend, F, because he is dying. They were close until he heard that F. refused to stand up for him in a meeting where he was universally attacked. At that point he completely cut F. out of his life. Looking down at his wasted body he realises how stupid that was. F. describes having an out-of-body experience.

F. describes some incident from their school days which Jean-Marc can’t remember. Suddenly it dawns on him that the purpose of friendship is to keep old memories alive.

Chantal and the daddies on the beach

After a bad night’s sleep troubled by a dream, Chantal walks down to the beach. On the way she observes fathers festooned with sacks and slings carrying babies and pushing prams. They have been daddified. On the beach she watches more dads flying enormous kites. She reflects that none of these absorbed men will turn and look at her, flirtatiously. Men don’t turn and stare at her any more 😦

Types of boredom

Jean-Marc has driven from Brussels to Normandy and parked at the hotel. He walks down to the beach, passing a girl wearing a walkman and half-heartedly jiggling her hips. Being a Kundera character he has to analyse and categorise everything, so he posits three kinds of boredom:

  1. passive boredom – the girl dancing and yawning
  2. active boredom – the men flying kites
  3. rebellious boredom – kids smashing up bus shelters

Down on the beach he comes across sand yachts being raced. Suddenly he sees one hurtling at high speed towards Chantal far out on the beach. He runs towards her trying to warn her. In the event, the sand yacht passes wide of her and, as he catches up with her, he realises it isn’t her at all.

Chantal is menaced in the café

Because Chantal had got bored of the beach and gone up to a café complex perched on a cliff. It’s empty apart from a surly waiter and his mate, who deliberately intimidate her, turn up the rock music loud, and threaten to prevent her leaving. At the last minute stepping aside so she can exit, her heart pounding with fear.

Men no longer turn to look at Chantal

Jean-Marc is appalled that he couldn’t tell his lover’s reality from a distance. He arrives back at the hotel and goes up to the room they’ve booked to find Chantal waiting. She is still in shock from the encounter in the café but she is also having a sustained hot flush. I surmise this is from the menopause, though Kundera doesn’t use the word; all we know is she is ashamed of feeling hot and perspiring. She tries to distract him by blaming her odd mood on the thought she had earlier – men no longer turn to stare at her.

Chantal’s work in advertising

A few hours later they’re at dinner, discussing her work in an advertising agency. She describes her two faces, the mocking one which thinks advertising is ridiculous, and the hard-faced professional one which has allowed her to succeed.

Now the company has got a brief to come up with adverts for a funeral parlour. This allows the characters to quote poems about Death, namely some lines from Baudelaire, as you do.

Chantal’s dead son

Talk of death makes her think of her son by her first husband, who died when he was just five. Her husband and his family told her to hurry up and have another one so she’s forget. This filled her with so much loathing that she vowed to divorce him and so a) she went back to work, not as a teacher as she had been but in advertising and b) as soon as she met Jean-Marc and was sure he was the one, this is what she did.

That night Jean-Marc has a dream in which Chantal appears to him vividly in every detail, except for her face. How do we know when someone is the person we love? If their face completely changed, would it still be the same person?

Existence and identity

By this stage (page 32) the reader has realised that the novel is a classic Kundera production, insofar as it is a prolonged meditation on a theme of existence, an aspect of the human condition. There’s no secret about it. The title broadcasts it. The theme is identity, what it is, and how fragile it is, how it can vanish and reappear from moment to moment in our quotidian lives.

Chantal in the bathroom, in the boardroom

The next morning he wakes up to find her already in the bathroom cleaning her teeth. For a moment he watches her unobserved being functional. Then she notices him and her whole body changes into the softness of love. They drive back to Paris and he drops her at work. Later, that evening, Jean-Marc arrives at Chantal’s advertising agency, and catches a glimpse of her being swift and professional with two colleagues and wonders at the change in her identity.

That morning, in the bathroom, he had recovered the being he’d lost during the night, and now, in the late afternoon, she was changing again before his eyes. (p.33)

Also by this stage, the reader realises the pint of the book is just these fine distinctions, the way the characters, and the author, notice and analyse the myriad fine shifts in identity, from moment to moment, and across larger periods, during the change in their relationship.

Chantal’s fantasy about being a rose

When she was a girl Chantal had a fantasy about being as powerful and ubiquitous as a fragrance which would spread through the lives of men. But she was not by nature promiscuous and, as she’d grown older, had become more monogamous. So monogamous and devoted to Jean-Marc that she began to have feelings about her dead son where she was glad he was dead. Why? Because it meant her devotion to Jean-Marc, to her chosen one, was total.

The anonymous letter

One morning she receives an unsigned unmarked letter with the text: ‘I follow you around like a spy – you are beautiful, very beautiful’, which upsets her all day. Luckily, when she gets home, her letter is trumped by one from the hospital telling him that his old schoolfriend F. has died. This triggers a couple of pages on ‘the meaning of friendship’ i.e. to keep memories alive, memories being necessary for maintaining ‘the whole of the self’.

With typical morbid negativity, Kundera (well, his character) considers that friendship is dying and that modern friendship is merely ‘a contract of politeness (p.46).

Leroy, head of the advertising agency

CUT to a different type of scene and a new character, Leroy, who is supposed to be the whip-smart head of the advertising agency where Chantal works. Every week he does a presentation analysing a campaign which is in the media. Having worked in TV for 15 years I don’t recognise anything Kundera describes about TV, his version is far more casual and chaotic than the well-organised, budgeted and crewed TV productions I worked on. Similarly, I don’t believe this portrayal of an advertising agency. The character Leroy instead comes over as a sexed-up university lecturer, a type Kundera was familiar with since he was an academic for decades. The ‘analysis’ Leroy gives is about sex sex sex – the humanities lecturer’s favourite subject and not, as the advertising and marketing people I’ve met, about ratings, audience segments, personas channels and ratings. Leroy doesn’t sound anything like an advertising exec. He sounds like a film studies lecturer:

‘The issue is to find the images that keep up the erotic appeal without intensifying the frustrations. That’s what interests us in this sequence: the sensual imagination is titillated, but then it’s immediately deflected into the maternal realm.’ (p.50)

He goes on to tell his staff that new film footage shows the foetus in the womb sucking its own willy, fellating itself. Can you imagine a modern advertising executive playfully mentioning that in a presentation about a new campaign? No.

The self-fellating foetus

Amazingly, at the end of the day, when she climbs the stairs to the accompaniment of loud banging and drilling (because the lift is out of order), and in a menopausal flush, the self-fellating foetus is what she chooses to tell Jean-Marc about. Which prompts his clever-clever thought that the foetus feels a sexual impulse before it can even think of pleasure.

So our sexuality precedes our self-awareness. (p.53)

Modern society spies on everyone

But she has a different take on it. Chantal is appalled that even in the womb, ‘they’ can spy on you, that nowhere is safe nowadays from the prying eyes of the media, and she tells macabre stories of how they cut off Haydn’s head after his death to analyse his brain and various other famous clever people whose brains were experimented on after their deaths. Influenced by her hot flushes, she blurts out that only the crematorium, only being burned to ashes, means you will be finally, completely safe from them.

At the grave of her son

Next day she visits her son’s grave and talks to him. She realises that, if he still lived, she would have to have engaged herself with the horrible world and accepted all its stupidities. His death freed her to revolt against a world she hates, to be truly herself. She silently thanks her dead son for this gift.

The second anonymous letter

Chantal receives a second, longer anonymous letter, the author has been following her movements. It’s signed C.D.B. The reader reflects that this is another aspect of identity, where identity is withheld, the letter is from someone but a person with no name.

Jean-Marc remembers giving up medicine

Jean-Marc recalls his dead friend F. telling him about the boyhood memory, namely that at age 16 or so Jean-Marc was disgusted by the eye, by the eyelid sliding over the cornea. Jean-Marc went on to choose to study medicine aged 19, but after three years realised he couldn’t face blood and guts, the body, its decay and death.

The letter suggests she wears cardinal red

Chantal receives more letters, which are becoming more passionate, in a French way. The writer dreams of wrapping her in a red cardinal’s costume and laying her one a red bed. So she buys a red nightdress, as you would do if an unknown man was writing you anonymous letters, and is wearing it when Jean-Marc comes home one day, and she sashays round him, seducing him, and so he ravishes her and, thinking of the letter, she climaxes. She shares the fantasy of wearing cardinal red in a crowd and, aroused a second time, he makes love to her again. I admire the rapid recovery time of his penis. Or is he just an empty cipher for the author’s psychological-erotic fantasies?

The obsession of all Kundera’s books with love-sex is wearing me down. There is so much more to life than love-sex.

Is the letter writer the young man in the café?

At first Chantal thinks the author of the letters is a moony young man who’s often in the local café. But one day she walks boldly almost up to him as he sits outside nursing a glass of wine, giving him ample time to at least smile, but he doesn’t register her existence at all.

Is the letter writer the beggar in the square?

Then she suspects it’s the incongruously well-dressed beggar who hangs about in their square, near the big lime tree. To test her theory she goes up to him and offers money into his outstretched hand, only at the last minute realising she doesn’t have any coins then, worse, that the only paper she has is the ludicrously large sum of 200 Francs. The beggar is flabbergasted and she realises it isn’t him.

Or is the letter writer Jean-Marc?

Then she begins to suspect it is Jean-Marc, specially when she realises that the pile of bras she’s been hiding the letters under has been riffled through, then carefully restored.

And indeed, on page 88 this suspicion is concerned as we flip over to Jean-Marc’s point of view, and are told why he wrote her an anonymous letter. It was to cheer her up when he saw she was depressed, after she had said that men no longer turn to look at her in the street i.e. she has become middle-aged and unattractive. That’s why he playfully signed the second one C.B.D. short for Cyrano de Bergerac, the lover who hid behind the mask of another. Soon he wrote another one, and soon he became hooked.

How writing the letters changes Jean-Marc’s view of himself and of Chantal

And as he did so, it created a different idea of Chantal in his mind. The fact that she has kept and hidden the letters from him, suggests she might countenance an affair with an anonymous letter writer. She is ready to be unfaithful.

For her part, Chantal has a whole fleet of complicated reactions (the point of a Kundera novel is to place the characters in a situation and then analyse their motives and reactions to the nth degree), the main one being the disturbing suspicion that Jean-Marc is trying to trap her. But why? Because he is going to dump her for a younger model.

The flush

Worth pausing to consider The Flush. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being a key incident was that, after turning up on his doorstep from her remote provincial town, Tereza a) made love with Tomas but then b) came down with a heavy flu fever. He was forced to nurse her back to health and during that nursing discovered all kinds of emotions within himself he didn’t know he had. That fever recurs again and again through the story, as the characters reassess its importance and consequences.

Kundera uses the same technique here with respect to Chantal’s hot flushes. The first time the couple met was at a conference at an Alpine hotel, where he was a ski instructor and invited along to mingle with the guests after a session. They were briefly introduced and made a little small-talk then went their ways. But the next evening he went back determined to find her again, and the moment she spotted him, she flushed crimson all across her chest and breasts. That flush decided their love, for both of them.

Now she is flushing again, although it is due to the menopause, her physiology confusing, or sending confusing signals, over the terrain and memory of that initial, primal flush. This is a key element of a Kundera narrative, repetition with variations, variations of interpretation.

Back to the narrative

Jean-Marc is sad because by creating a simulacrum of a lover, he has conjured into being a simulacrum of Chantal. And if Chantal is not real, but a simulacrum, then so is their relationship. And in fact so is his life, which he has committed to her. He decides to the end the whole thing and writes a farewell letter.

He’s just about to post it in the apartment building mailbox when he is accosted by a woman with three children – it is Chantal’s sister-in-law, the (rather bossy) sister of Chantal’s first husband, the one who blithely said let’s have another child to help us forget the one that’s just died.

The fantasy

Quite abruptly the book changes tone and pace. Up till now this couple had been drifting peacefully from episode to episode, a morning here, arriving at work there, cleaning teeth, hiding letters – and Kundera has been cascading his own thoughts and their thoughts and analyses of each others’ feelings like confetti in the breeze.

All of a sudden the pace picks up and it turns into a farce, then a fantasy, then a kind of nightmare all happening in real time i.e. in one extended breathless fifty-page-long passage.

The sister-in-law’s unruly children

The sister-in-law’s kids run riot in Chantal’s room and Jean-Marc feebly tries to get them to leave. He is distracted by the sister-in-law flirting with him (in KunderaWorld a man and a woman cannot be in the same space without flirting and talking about sex), she even leans forward and whispers the bedroom secrets of Chantal and her first husband in Jean-Marc’s ear.

At which moment Chantal herself arrives in the door. She is livid. She bought this place to get away from her wretched sister-in-law and her brood. And then she sees that the kids have rifled through her pile of bras which are all over the floor, one of them on one of the kids’ heads, and the mystery letters are scattered all over the floor. She orders them to leave, all of them, orders her sister-in-law to leave.

Chantal and Jean-Marc argue

She and Jean-Marc have a blistering argument in which she asserts that she bought this flat so as not to be spied on, with the heavy implication that his letters say he is a Spy and, worse, she knows that he has been searching her room till he found her stash of his letters. And he realises she knows and is crushed. And in a few swift exchanges they reduce their relationship to ashes.

Chantal packs her bags and leaves for London

With steely self-control she goes into her bedroom, closes the door and doesn’t come out all night. Jean-Marc is forced to sleep on the spare bed. Early in the morning she has packed her bag and declares she is off to a conference in… in… London springs to mind, yes, London. In fact her office had been planning a trip to London, but not for three weeks. Several points:

  1. Earlier in the novel the seed of this was planted when Kundera invented an ageing English lecher who hit on Chantal on a visit to her office and left his card. They often joked about this figure who they blew up into a master of monstrous orgies, and gave him the nickname Britannicus.
  2. This had led Jean-Marc in the final letter, to suggest that he was ending the series because he had to leave to go to, to… on a whim he had written London.
  3. Incidentally, Chantal sleeps badly because, being trapped in a Milan Kundera novel she has all sorts of inappropriately intense erotic dreams. The narrator wonders whether all virtuous women have to combat erotic orgiastic fantasies all night long, before showering and facing the day with a straight face (p.115). Let me ask my female readers: Do you struggle every night with erotic fantasies of sexual promiscuity? In my opinion, this is more ageing male sex fantasy.

In fact Chantal has no plan but stumbles out the house and onto the first bus which comes along. As it happens it is going to the Gare du Nord from which trains head to London, she at first imagines she won’t get off at that stop, then she does, then she buys a ticket, then she bumbles down onto the platform where – in a coincidence which doesn’t make sense in any rational terms – she discovers her entire office waiting for her! What! How, why?

On the Eurostar

Onto the Eurostar they get and Chantal finds herself seated opposite the self-style super-clever boss of the advertising agency, himself sitting next to a middle aged female admirer. (Makes it sound more like a cult than a professional place of work.) Remember how Leroy regaled his staff with stories about the foetus that could self-fellate in the womb? Well, now he treats Chantal and the older woman to a prolonged analysis of the command in the Book of Genesis (‘Go forth and multiply’) which boils down to the categorical imperative that everyone must fuck. Chantal is wet and aroused. She admires Leroy for his ‘dry as a razor’ logic (while this author thinks he’s a dickhead).

Chantal fantasises about forcing the prim woman into an orgy

Down into the black hole of the Channel Tunnel the train hurtles as Leroy continues his prolonged sermon on the important of sex and coitus and coupling and fucking, while the middle-aged woman wails about ‘the grandeur of life’ etc, and Chantal sitting opposite her fantasising about leading this prim and properly dressed lady to Leroy’s bed, which is set on a grand stage amid smoke and devils.

Jean-Marc decides to head off Chantal at the Gare du Nord

Meanwhile, Jean-Marc had woken up to discover Chantal gone and himself packed his bags, he knows when he’s not wanted. He leaves his keys on the coffee table, slams the door and blunders out into the street. London? OK, London, he hails a cab and asks it to take him to the Gare du Nord. Here he blunders up to the ticket desk, buys a ticket to London, and is the last person to board the Eurostar, setting off through the carriages to find Chantal.

Jean-Marc sees Chantal behaving like a different person on the Eurostar

He does, spotting the back of her head as she engages in the long ‘razor sharp’ fantasy about fucking and deflowering the prim lady. Jean-Marc is appalled (yet again) at how unlike his Chantal she seems, animated and confident and professional. Though he doesn’t know that Chantal is now consumed with eroticism, imagining the middle aged lady stripped naked and forced to take part in an orgy while all around naked bodies couple and bump (p.134).

Jean-Marc tried and fails to reach Chantal in the London terminal

The train arrives in London and everyone disembarks. Chantal goes off to a phone booth to make a call (we are still before the era of mobile phones) and when Jean-Marc tries to get to her he is blocked by a film crew (film crews often play this role as frustraters, getting in the way, as in Slowness and the Farewell Party) filming a group of oddly dressed children, presumably for a commercial, and when he tries to push through he is firmly restrained by a policeman. By the time he’s let go, Chantal has disappeared.

Jean-Marc wanders the streets of London

Now Jean-Marc is lost, walking the streets of London, and he feels he has returned to his true self, a drifter, a loser – Chantal always made five times what he earned, he was always dependent on her charity. Now he’s homeless and looking for a bench to doss down on.

He finds one in a typical Georgian London square, opposite a big house with a grand portico and when the lights go on inside he knows this is the house where Chantal has come to attend the orgy, the orgy led by that lecherous Englishman who visited her in Paris, ‘Britannicus’.

Jean-Marc enters the house where the orgy is happening

Jean-Marc opens the door (unlocked) and goes up the stairs to a first floor where a huge clothes rack holds the clothes of all the people he knows are stripped off and fornicating like wizards in a room not far away. But at this point a tattooed bouncer in a t-shirt appears and manhandles him back down the stairs and into the street. I couldn’t help warming to this bouncer, one of the few characters in the book not overloaded with smart-alec psychological analysis.

Chantal at the (largely invisible) orgy

Chantal is in the middle of an orgy, or is dominated by the image of an orgy where, at the moment of climax, all the participants turn into animals. She opens her eyes to find she is naked and a blonde woman is trying to drag her somewhere for a sexual encounter but the spittle in her mouth makes Chantal want to gag (as in fact, we have seen her revolted reaction to the thought of the saliva in other people’s mouths throughout the novel; the Saliva theme is up there with the Flushing theme as a recurring image throughout the book).

Chantal and the septuagenarian orgy impresario

Then she is alone in a big cavernous room with the host, Britannicus, who is of course fully clothed and pulls up a chair and starts reassuring her that she is perfectly safe. He calls her Anne and she protests it is not her name, they are stripping her of her identity, but she can’t remember what her name is, she can’t remember anything about herself, she can’t she can’t…

And then she wakes up and it was all a dream.

Seriously. It was all a dream. ‘Wake up, wake up,’ Jean-Marc is shaking her awake and she wakens, hot and sweating and terrified from this long elaborate dream and everything is alright and she is safe in his arms.

Now, on the last page, Kundera invites the reader to decide at just what point his story ceased being ‘realistic’ and turned into this rather delirious dream, just where ‘reality’ crossed ‘the border’ into ‘fantasy’: was it when the train went into the Channel Tunnel? when Chantal announced she was leaving for London? maybe even when Jean-Marc began sending those letters?

Who knows 🙂 and it is difficult to care enough to try and decide. As if he himself can’t be bothered, Kundera only devotes a short paragraph to the questions and, unusually for him, doesn’t dwell on them.

Instead, in the last paragraphs, Chantal and Jean-Marc are in bed together. Once she has totally woken up, she vows she will henceforth sleep with the light on every night, so she can see him.

And that’s it. Finis.

Conclusions

This is a very strange book.

Having read his book of essays on the theory of the novel I understand how Kundera regards the novel as an investigation of aspects of human existence. That explains why, having chosen ‘identity’ as the theme of this one, he then crams every possible permutation on the theme into this little text. And yet, even on that basis – as a self-consciously contrived experiment – it seems oddly… limited. After years of thought, is this little story of two lovers who have an argument the most thorough investigation he can think up of the theme of identity in the modern world? Very limited…

Early on, the book contains some very sensitive moments, moments which genuinely capture the strange and evanescent feelings you might have for a lover or someone you’ve been married to for years, sudden distances and misapprehensions. These are delicately done. When Jean-Marc mistakes the woman on the beach for Chantal, or sees another side to his lover when she’s at work, these are novelistically interesting and on-point for his theme.

The trouble is that these early subtle moments are lost in a story a) whose scaffolding i.e. the plot, becomes more and more crude and stupid as it progresses, and b) are set next to examples of blundering crudity – for example, the extremely crude and horrible sex soliloquies of the monstrous head of her advertising agency, Leroy, yuk, what an idiot, and what crude bluster.

These are so bad and boorish and coarse that they tend to destroy the delicate filament of the earlier, subtler perceptions, blowing them away like a gossamer spider web in a hurricane.

The abiding memory of Identity is not so much of pornography – in a way straightforward pornography might be refreshingly honest, but the striking thing about the orgy scene is that there is, in fact, no description at all of an actual orgy – but of a sensibility which is obsessed with the erotic urge, which can’t conceive a human character without having him or her immediately thinking erotic thoughts, waking from steamy dreams, flushed by arousal, fantasising about whispering erotic provocations in the ears of the daddies on the beach (as Chantal does), imagining each other’s former sex lives, even the ghastly sister-in-law is within minutes flirting outrageously with Jean-Marc, leaning forward to whisper Chantal’s sexual practices with her first husband in his ear… not pornography so much as lust lust lust.

And this crude hectoring about sex and eroticism and fantasy and orgies, for me, eclipses and overshadows the more subtle insights Kundera has about identity in a relationship. Shame.

Is Kundera flirting with the reader?

Are Kundera’s books flirtations? Does Kundera flirt with his readers? I am not using the word in its ordinary sense, but as he himself defines it in The Unbearable Lightness of Being:

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. (The Unbearable Lightness of Being, p.142)

‘A promise of sexual intercourse without a guarantee.’

Throughout the book there is a permanent erotic charge and expectation, from Chantal imagining trying to seduce the daddies on the beach on page three or four, onwards. The night after she has the big argument with Jean-Marc, she is plagued with all manner of erotic fantasies. Then, on the Eurostar, she can’t control her fantasies about stripping and serving up the prim middle-aged woman to her boss at the advertising agency to be raped on a stage amid smoke and devils. That’s quite steamy, wouldn’t you say? And then the entire fantasy sequence which constitutes the final third of the novel climaxes in her attendance at an orgy, paralleled by Jean-Marc’s feverish fantasisies about what she is doing, and what is being done to her, at the orgy.

Except that… there is no orgy. She awakes (strangely, with no explanation of how she got there or why she’s naked) in a remote room in the big house in London, where no sex is going on at all, and she is alone. She (and we) actually sees no sex taking place, she has no sex with anyone, no contact with any man at all. Her only contact is with a blonde woman whose only role is to remind Chantal of her long-running aversion to saliva and French kissing, yuk.

So both lead characters fear and fantasise about a gross, mass orgy and yet… we never see a single breast or penis, and no sex of any kind is described.

In this sense, then, the entire book can be seen as a prolonged promise of sex, ‘without a guarantee’. In other words, as Kundera engaging in a prolonged ‘flirtation’ with the reader.

Credit

Identity by Milan Kundera was first published in Linda Asher’s English translation by Faber and Faber in 1998. All references are to the 1999 Faber paperback edition.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

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

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

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

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (1984)

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

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

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

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

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

Part One – Lightness and Weight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Two – Soul and Body

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Three – Words Misunderstood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Four – Soul and Body

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Five – Lightness and Weight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Six – The Grand March

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Seven – Karenin’s Smile

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

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

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

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

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

And much more in the same vein.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts

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

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

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

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

Questionable wisdom

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

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

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

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

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

Is this deep? Or does it just sound deep?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wisdom about men and woman

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


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

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

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

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

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

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

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

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

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

Short sections

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Lost Letters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Mother

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

This is an orgy, well a ménage à trois. Marketa knows Karel has a high sex drive. Early on in their marriage it became clear that he would be the unfaithful one and Marketa would suffer but enjoy moral superiority. Then one day, in a sauna at a spa (the Czechs and their spas!), Eva walks in, naked, beautiful and confident, and starts chatting to Marketa. Soon they are good friends and it makes Marketa feel in control when she introduces Eva to Karel and they become lovers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. The Angels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Lost Letters

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

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

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

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

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

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

and again, a bit later:

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

And then:

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

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

Another theme of the story is how fatuously stupid Westerners are. Several scenes and characters exist solely to satirise the West. For example Bibi dreams of being a writer but comes over as a narcissistic fool. They do contrive a meeting with a real published author, Banaka, who comes over as a pompous bore. One day he turn up in her cafe drunk and on the verge of tears because he was the victim of a poor review in a newspaper. Pathetic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Five – Litost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Litost!

Part Six – The Angels

This begins as a literary-political essay about Prague which Kundera calls a city of forgetting. In the works of Kafka Prague is a city which has forgotten its own name, full of unnamed streets and even the characters have forgotten their own names – Josef K. Kundera then moves on to discuss T.G. Masaryk, seventh president of Czechoslovakia, who was installed by the Russians in the aftermath of the crushing of the Prague Spring, and who is known as ‘the president of forgetting’ (p.158). Among other things he sacked some 150 Czech historians, as part of a repressive policy of obliterating the past and writing a new official version.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Seven – The Border

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A cultural conservative?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pessimistic stuff, isn’t it?

Lost in the West

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

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

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

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

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

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

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


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

Cassandra Darke by Posy Simmonds (2018)

Cassandra Darke is 71 years old, which is an immediate change and relief from the protagonists of Posy Simmonds’s two previous graphic novels, Gemma Bovery and Tamara Darke, who were both nubile, lithe, sexy, twenty-something, young women whose lives revolved around a series of romantic ‘liaisons’.

By complete contrast, right from the start of this book we are in the company of, and listening to the narrating voice of, plump and bustling, grumpy old misanthrope Cassandrara who is more than usually bad-tempered because it is Christmas-time and we know from her previous cartoon strip that Posy Simmonds particularly dislikes Christmas, as does her Scrooge-like creation.

However, if the reader thinks they’ve escaped from ‘Simmonds World’, a smug, self-centred world of upper-middle-class, white London professionals, where all the women are obsessed by men and define themselves by their sexual relations (or lack of) with men – they would be wrong.

The character of Cassandra is great – she doesn’t give a stuff about anything, swears freely and has a bad word for everyone, but, barely had I started enjoying her rude obnoxious character than – like all Simmonds’s women – she began to define herself, and her life and career, in terms of men, starting with her husband, Freddie.

Thus it was forty years earlier that Freddie and Cassandra set up a swish art gallery together. However, some time later Freddie ran off with Cassandra’s half-sister, Margot, and the pair got divorced. Cassandra was able to carry on earning a living by dealing art from home, and from writing. Then, decades later, Cassandra bumped into Freddie at an art fair and he told her he’d been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease and asked if she like to take over the old gallery from him. She agreed to.

Anyway, this is all background to the issue which dominates the opening pages, which is that Cassandra has been caught dealing fake copies of valuable sculptures. She has charged a rich American collector £400,000 for an illegal copy of a limited edition modern piece of sculpture and he has found this out and sent her a letter threatening to take her to court.

Thus the book opens on a note of unease as Cassandra, although in posh Burlington Arcade surrounded by happy Christmas shoppers, is show trying to avoid the widow of the sculptor in question, and delays going back to the gallery, strongly suspecting that bad news is waiting for her. As it is.

In a sequence which is now shown but briefly referred to, Cassandra is duly tried and convicted of fraud, her case being reported in sundry newspapers. She might well have gone to prison but – being posh – is let off by the (woman) judge with a hefty fine and told to do community service.

Nonetheless, she still has to sell off her private art collection and the house in Brittany (I know: imagine the heartbreak of having to sell your house in Brittany!) to pay the fine.

Here is the first page of the book, establishing Cassandra’s look and character, and the central London setting of most of the story, and straightaway the sense that something is wrong. Cassandra is trying to avoid Jane McMullen, wife of the sculptor whose work she has fraudulently sold, and who – it turns out – is looking for her in order to deliver the letter which accuses her of dealing in fakes.

First page showing Cassandra emerging from Burlington Arcade and spotting an old acquaintance she wants to avoid © Posy Simmonds

December 2017

The accusations, her arrest, and trial and conviction and sentence are all dealt with very quickly, and the narrative jumps to a year later, December 2017, as Cassandra is nearing the end of her community service.

We now find Cassandra without work but still living in her nice house in ‘Osmington Square, SW3’ i.e. Chelsea, nowadays populated by rich Chinese and Russian billionaires and their wives and nannies.

Osmington Square, where Cassandra lives, mostly empty apart from a few Russian or Chinese nannies and their charges © Posy Simmonds

Cassandra gets home to find an invitation to Freddie’s memorial service – the Alzheimer’s has finally killed him. She takes a taxi to the service and hides up in the gallery of the Mayfair church, making acerbic comments about all the other attendees, including her half-sister Margot (who Freddie ran off with all those years ago) and Margot and Freddie’s grown-up daughter, Nicki, who Cassandra cheerfully refers to as a ‘shit’.

Then Cassandra sneaks out and walks through the dark Christmas London streets, morbidly reflecting on Freddie’s sad decline into senility, thinking how she would prefer to commit suicide than end up like that, and then weighing the different methods of killing yourself. Cheerful stuff!

Cassandra ponders different ways to kill herself © Posy Simmonds

Once home, Cassandra finds gravel in her kitchen which looks like it must have come from her small back garden, and at first panics and thinks someone has broken in. But she discovers nothing has been stolen, calms down, and then decides it must be Freddie and Margot’s grown-up daughter Nicki, who she let stay in the downstairs flat the previous year, and for some reason has come into the main house.

Cassandra goes down to the basement flat to explore, and finds some dirty clothes and then, rummaging in the linen basket – finds A GUN, a pistol! Christ!

A gun and a peculiar pink glove with kind of raised blotches on it, and a little make-up bag, all bundled up in dirty linen and stuffed at the bottom of the bin! What is Nicki involved in?

Cassandra goes back to the house and sits obsessively running through all the other people who have had access to the flat, for example the two different cleaners she’s used, any other friends or relations… but keeps coming back to Nicki, bloody Nicki. A GUN! What the hell is she doing leaving a GUN in her flat?

The events of 2016

In order to discover how we got here the narrative undergoes a big flashback, going back in time a year to the middle of 2016. It was then that Nicki Boult, Freddie and Margot’s daughter, turned up out of the blue at Cassandra’s gallery, saying that she was broke, had lost her studio in Deptford and her share of a flat, and asking Cassandra if she can stay?

After initially saying No, Cassandra relents and says Nicki can stay in the basement flat providing she earns her keep by doing regular chores for Cassandra.

Nicki Boult arrives, asking Cassandra for a job or a place to stay © Posy Simmonds

(As a side note, Cassandra tells us about Nicki’s art, which is a kind of performance art. Nicki goes to galleries and stands in front of paintings of women being harassed, attacked or raped, copies their poses or has written on her body or clothes the message RAPE IS NOT ART and has a friend video it all. Radical, eh? As Cassandra sourly points out: ‘And you think that people can’t work that out for themselves?’)

Anyway, Nicki moves in and is soon helping Cassandra with all sorts of chores from walking her repellent little pug, Corker, to helping with prints and such. We see Cassandra going about her usual day, being rude to everyone she can – telling kids cycling on the pavement to get off, calling a jogger a ‘prancing ponce’, insisting a woman pick up the poo her dog has just deposited, and so on. She’s a great stroppy old woman.

Cassandra being fabulously rude to everyday people in the street (French translation) © Posy Simmonds

So the pair’s daily routine is established and settled by the time of the first big important sequence in the plot, which is the hen party of Nicki’s friend, Mia. Nicki doesn’t really want to go, not least because Mia’s booked a burlesque session to kick-start the evening, but reluctantly she dresses up as a cowgirl, wearing kinky boots, a pink tutu, a pink bra and pink cowboy hat. She looks like a strippagram.

She is, in fact, another one of Posy Simmonds’s nubile, leggy, twenty-something, single women who look so sexy in a bra and panties (cf all the pics of Gemma Bovery stripped naked or in black stockings and suspenders.)

Nicki at Mia’s hen night, in her pink tutu and bra, and drinking too much © Posy Simmonds

Nicki goes to the party but is ill at ease and drinks too much. The girls play a game of Dare and Nicki’s dare is to get a phone number off a complete stranger, so she is egged on to go up to the bar and approach a rough but handsome dude for his number. Drunkenly, Nicki gives him Cassandra’s name and phone number, but when it’s his turn to give his, as the dare demands, the guy refuses. He and his mates are moving on so he asks if she wants to come? But Nicki realises she’s drunk too much, is going to be sick, and stumbles downstairs to the loo.

Suddenly the stubbly guy from the bar appears behind her, puts his hand over her mouth and pushes her into a side room, presumably intending to rape her. Nicki bites the hand over her mouth drawing blood. The guy slaps her and grabs her again but she reaches down and back to grab his balls and squeezes. The guy loses his hold and staggers backwards, allowing Nicki to escape into the girls toilet. Here she waits and waits until the coast is clear, stumbles back upstairs to her friends, half explains what happened, wraps her coat around her, they’ve called an Uber for her. But!! The guy and his mates are still hanging round outside, so she dodges into an alleyway.

Here Nicki is terrified to discover another young man lurking in the shadows (men! they’re everywhere!) but this one is friendly and guesses she’s hiding from the three bad guys. He tells her when they’ve gone and she stumbles back into the street, orders another Uber, staggers out of it up to Cassandra’s front door because she realises she’s lost her keys… incoherent.. Cassandra looks at the state she’s in with disgust.

Next morning Cassandra is going about her business when she is surprised to get a text on her phone: ‘Big mistake Cassandra!! Break yr fucking legs thats a promise cunt’. It’s from the would-be rapist – remember, Nicki gave him Cassandra’s name and phone number. Amusingly, Cassandra thinks this txt might be from a rival art collector and sends a rude text back, only to receive another: ‘ur dead meat whore’.

Much puzzled, Cassandra returns from a little walk to find a young man on her doorstep, very polite, looking for ‘the young lady’. Cassandra guesses he means Nicki and explains that Nicki lives in the basement flat.

Cassandra gets on with her day. It’s a Sunday and since her ‘lady who does’, Elsa, doesn’t come at the weekend, Cassandra has to fix her own lunch (fix her own lunch! I know, how dreadful! Personally, I am continually brought up dead by the little details in all Posy Simmonds’s graphic novels which indicate just how posh and privileged her character are: not actual aristocracy, just used to a certain level of culture and education and savoir vivre – fine food, fine wine, fine art, fine writing.)

Cassandra phones the rival art dealer and quickly discovers it’s not him sending the texts. In fact, while they’re talking, another abusive txt arrives, plus a photo of whoever it is’s dick. Cassandra is too mature to be offended, just startled and puzzled.

Later Nicki surfaces. She has been for a walk and a chat with that bloke she met briefly in the alleyway, now we learn he’s called Billy. How did he find her? Last night, drunk, she dropped her keys in the alley, which had her address on them. Now Billy tells us more about the would-be rapist and txt abuser. He’s Dean Hart, a nasty piece of work. Billy gives her a full profile: he and Deano grew up together, they used to hang out and do graffiti together, then Deano went a bit mental, took to snorting coke and gambling, supported by his family who are East End crooks.

Later, we see Billy on his way home, back to his mum’s flat in a tower block. He is waylaid by some of Deano’s sidekicks who tell him Deano wants to see him. (This and the subsequent conversation Billy has with his plump, working class mum are a welcome change from the bourgeois writer-and-art-dealer class Simmonds usually deals with.) Billy’s mum said someone called round asking for him, a Dean something. Billy says, ‘Next time tell him I don’t live here any more, I’ve moved out.’ He packs his things and leaves, walking away from the East End council flats…

Simmonds and her young women: love love love is still on Nicki’s mind. It is, after all, weeks since Nicki’s last relationship, weeks, people! So she obviously needs a new man in her life asap. All Simmonds’s heroines can’t function without a man (Gemma Bovery, Tamara Drewe and now Nicki). Thus she goes out for a drink with Billy, their eyes meet, she wonders whether he fancies her? Ooh-er, it’s so exciting! They leave the pub, snog, walk, then run back to the basement flat for a shag.

Trouble is, Billy’s in a fix. Not only has he not gone to meet Deano as his minders told him to – he’s got something that belongs to Deano – a GUN!

Down in the basement, after the shag, Billy tells her more. A while ago Deano bumped into him in some pub and persuaded him to go with his minder – his uncle ironically nicknamed ‘Nanny’ – to Newbury races. They gambled and made money, get bored, drive home in gathering mist, get lost looking for some country pub and pick up a girl hitch-hiker.

Billy falls asleep, wakes up as they arrive back in London, turning into Billy’s family’s scrap metal yard. Deano gets out with the girl and heads into the house, ignoring Billy, telling Nanny to bring his fags and the tripod. (Tripod? Maybe to film him and the girl having sex.) Billy is rooting around for the fags when he finds some odd kind of pink glove, and a little make-up bag, and a jacket, heavy, with something bulky in it. It’s A GUN! What the…?

Billy suddenly wonders what he’s doing hanging round with these people and… here’s the crux and the slightly implausible thing about the entire plot — he pockets the gun and the glove and the make-up bag. Nanny doesn’t notice, he’s busy in the boot getting the tripod out, now he locks the car with a remote and walks off across the yard ignoring Billy and Billy thinks… screw it! and runs off in the other direction. With the gun and the glove and the make-up bag.

Now he’s on the run from Deano and his mob, with a gun of theirs. He tells Nicki all this, says he’s moved out of his mum’s place, is kipping on a mate’s floor. And so Nicki asks him to move into the basement flat.

Back to Cassandra’s narration. Cassandra spends the day visiting three old ‘friends’ who might possibly be behind the mystery texts, but they are all quite frank and friendly, it’s obviously none of them. Mystery.

Nicki explains her next art project, making objects out of the cardboard boxes the homeless sleep in on the streets of London. Nicki on the phone describing how wonderful Billy is to a friend. Then Nicki has a call with Billy while he’s at work on set. Via basic electrics and wiring he’s got himself a career as an electrician on TV productions.

Cassandra hosts a dinner for gay Teddy Wood and his partner Yves – wonderful food and wine ruined by the very loud love-making of Nicki and Billy downstairs. Amusing pictures of a furry of bodies and limbs – Cassandra envisions two pigs rutting and is furious the evening is spoiled.

Next day, walking in the square, Billy admits to Nicki that he lied about his family situation. In fact he was once married and has a son, Jack. Nicki berates him for lying, and asks if he’s telling the truth now? Of course, he smiles at her. OK, she says.

Cassandra books her regular Christmas trip to a five star hotel in Biarritz – she usually loves the bracing winds and isolation, but this time has bad dreams, cuts the trip short and returns to London.

Cassandra watching Billy and Nicki snogging in the park – and then on holiday in out-of-season Biarritz © Posy Simmonds

Arriving home in Osmington Square earlier than anticipated, Cassandra is horrified to find her house festooned in fairy lights and illuminated Father Christmases and a crowd gathered outside. A friend of Nicki’s is collecting donations in a bucket because they are putting on a show in support of the homeless and the show is… Nicki doing a striptease in the window! At the show’s climax Nicki removes the big feathery fans to reveal her bare breasts each adorned with a shiny star over the nipple! Posy Simmonds does love drawing naked foxy babes.

Cassandra doing a burlesque strip tease in the window of Cassandra’s house to raise money for the homeless © Posy Simmonds

Furious, Cassandra storms inside, turns off the power and the lights and gives Cassandra a good talking to, accusing her of caring bugger-all for the homeless but putting on the show to promote herself, her brand, on social media.

She also makes the fairly obvious point that how can doing a strip-tease be considered an act of the ‘feminism’ that Nicki is always going on about? Surely she is ‘playing out male fantasies’, ‘objectifying the female body’ and all the other things she claims to be vehemently against?

Anyway. Cassandra gives her till Saturday to clear out.

December 20 17.15 One of Deano’s associates, Pete, tracks down Billy’s ex, Dee, and tells her that Billy won a packet on a long-term bet on the horses, and he and Deano want to give him his winnings. Naively, Dee tells Pete that Billy said something about a party in a pub in Soho tomorrow.

December 21 20.15 Pete waits at the Jutland pub, in phone contact with Nanny in a waiting Range Rover. He spots Billy, then follows him through the West End to catch a bus west, phoning his movements through to Nanny who follows.

Meanwhile, this is the same December 21st that the novel opened with, the one where Cassandra is in Burlington Arcade, avoiding Jane McMullen because she knows she is going to hand her a letter telling her her fraud has been discovered and her wronged client is going to sue.

Now, having arrived late at the gallery and been handed the letter and reading it and realising her world is about to come tumbling down, Cassandra arrives back at her house same time as Nicki, disgruntled and worried. She, absent-mindedly asks Nicki to take her ugly little pug Corker to ‘do his thing’ in the square.

Nicki does so but at that moment her mum (Margot, Cassandra’s step-sister who stole her husband Freddie off her 40 years ago) rings on her mobile, to tell her the news about Cassandra i.e that she’s been caught out in her fraudulent dealings. Distracted, Nicki lets the little dog, Corker, wander off.

Meanwhile, Billy has got off the bus from the West End and walks through the snow and darkness towards Osmington Square, followed by Pete, who is giving directions to Nanny who is following in the Range Rover. They pull up in the square and the next thing Billy knows he’s confronted by Pete and Nanny, who punches him in the face, knocks him down and kicks him in the ribs. The dog barks so Pete kicks it in the head. The thugs wander off as Nicki comes running up. She calls an ambulance. She realises Corker is dead.

Next day we see events from Cassandra’s point of view. Nicki’s mother (Margot) turns up to collect Nicki and drive her to their home in the country. With Billy in hospital, Nicki had gone through his rucksack and found the gun and a weird pink glove. She wraps it all up in an old sheet and shoves it in the bathroom bin of the basement flat and gets in the car with her mum. On the drive west she finds herself telling her mum about Billy and his, er, ‘involvements’, triggering a lecture about getting mixed up with the criminal classes.

December 2017

So this brings us back to where we started – to a full year later, and to Christmas 2017 (all the previous section happened in the run-up to Christmas 2016). (Does that mean the gun and the glove have lain hidden in the downstairs flat for a whole year? I am slight confused by this or, if I’ve understood it correctly, slightly incredulous.)

So here we are right back at the scene from near the start of the book where Cassandra has just found the gun and glove and make-up bag in Nicki’s bin and is wondering how the hell it got there. On impulse – and a bit drunk from drinking most of a bottle of claret – Cassandra brings the gun and glove and the clip of bullets up from Nicki’s flat, handles it drunkenly, before stashing it in her own washing machine.

Next day (the day after Freddie’s memorial service which we saw at the start of the book) Cassandra phones Margot, Freddie’s widow, to find out where Nicki is so she can question her. She finds out that Nicki is now living in a shared house in Tooting and working at a swanky art dealers in Dover Street. Cassandra goes to the dealers and confronts Nicki about the gun. Nicki bombards her with explanations, about it being Billy’s, well, not Billy’s it really belongs to Deano who she’s never met, and Billy took it and she was etc etc. Cassandra becomes very confused and threatens to call the police. Nicki say that’s rich, coming from a convicted fraudster.

Cassandra turns away in fury. Too angry to catch a bus home, she pads the streets of London at Christmas-time – thus allowing Simmonds to give vent to one of the most consistent of her themes – something which appears throughout the Posy comic strips – a really jaundiced venomous hatred of Christmas. ‘I pad past Christmas windows, their sterile perfection contrasting with the scrum of shoppers inside, racking up debt, sharing their seasonal bugs – norovirus, coughs, colds, flu.’

Illustration from Cassandra Darke by Posy Simmonds © Posy Simmonds

Back home in bed, Cassandra has a nightmare in which she is back in court and the judge accuses her of pandering to rich art collectors, price fixing, knowingly taken part in the laundering of money by criminals until the judge finds her… ‘a waste of space’. Reflecting that maybe her whole life has been a waste.

Cut to Billy at MacDonalds with his mum and son Jack. He’s surfing through the news on his phone, as you do, when he stumbles across a news item about a woman’s remains recently found in a wood, with a quilted coat and a distinctive pink glove! Same as the one he took from the car! Same as the one belonging to that hitch-hiker! God, is the body hers?

Billy is stunned. He immediately leaps to the conclusion that Deano and his lot must have murdered and dumped the hitch-hiker.

He texts Nicki and they meet on the Embankment. Now it is that we learn for the first time that, after he got beaten up and hospitalised, it was Billy who suggested they break off the relationship. If it was a relationship. As usual for a Simmonds heroine, Nicki is confused about her emotions and her feelings etc.

Sometimes Nicki wondered if all that stuff hadn’t happened, would she and Billy still be an item?They’d never examined their relationship at the time, had left their feelings for each other unspoken. It wasn’t just sex, there were feelings, Nicki knew. Quite strong feelings. (p.76)

(Maybe this is what helps the book feel like ‘chick lit’ – the heroine’s endless agonising about whether she has feelings and what kind of feelings and whether he shares her feelings and, you know, they need to talk about their feelings and their relationship, we need to talk, I need to talk, are we an item, do you have feelings, is this just about sex or about something more…? Repeat ad infinitum without ever getting anywhere, as the Bridget Jones’ column and books and movies amply demonstrate.)

Back to the plot: Now, at their rendezvous on the Embankment, Billy tells Nicki that Nanny and Pete have been keeping tabs on him, sending him photos of places he’s been to. They’ve turned over his flat twice and demanded to know where the gun is. But he just keeps lying and saying he never took it. (I find it a little hard to believe this has been going on for a year: if I was them I am sure I could hurt him until he admitted nicking the gun and… simply handed it back over. Wouldn’t that be the simple thing to do?)

Like a good middle-class young lady, Nicki tells him he should go to the police. Like the working class boy he is, Billy says no, it’ll be Deano and Nanny’s word against his, and whatever happens, sooner or later they’d get their revenge.

Cut back to Cassandra and some tiresome feminism is injected into the story. She is sitting at home at Christmas feeling sorry for herself, feeling that the world finds her a ‘failure as a woman’ because she hasn’t lived as ‘a woman ought to live’ i.e. got married, had children, grandchildren. I’ve news for her: the world doesn’t give a toss what she does with her life. Only in her head does this self-condemning monologue grumble on. Meanwhile she has led a pampered, privileged life most of us could only fantasise about: she’s had more than enough money, a good education, choice, freedom, travel, comfort, art, opera, theatre, films, books… Ah yes, but ‘society’ (whatever that is) considers her ‘a failure as a woman’ (whatever that means). This is what my daughter (the 17-year-old feminist) calls ‘white feminism’ i.e. the self-centred grumbling of privileged, white, middle-class women. Get over yourself.

There’s a knock at the door and Cassandra opens it to find Nicki with Billy. Nicki admits the truth, about giving Deano Cassandra’s phone number at the hen night (thus explaining Deano as the source of the violent threats and the dick pic), explains how Billy is involved, swears he fled the scene with the gun, brought it with him in his backpack when he moved in with Nicki (which explains the existence of the gun), how they’ve come to the decision to tell the police, but they need the gun. Where is it?

Furious, Cassandra kicks them out, and then – Billy having told her that the body and suspected murder were reported on ‘Crimefile’ – she looks up and watches it on the BBC iPlayer. Through her eyes we watch as the programme interviews the couple out walking their dog who found the corpse.

Cassandra finds herself wondering who the poor woman was. She gets out the gun and glove and the little make-up bag from the washing machine where she’d stashed it. Rummaging through it she comes upon a pack of paracetamol with the label of a pharmacy still attached. She looks it up and discovers this pharmacy is way out East, so Cassandra catches the tube out there to go and investigate.

Cassandra on the tube © Posy Simmonds

Cassandra wanders round the scuzzy district of Lowbridge Road looking for the pharmacy. The Asian couple who run it can’t remember any particular young woman buying it (and, anyway, wasn’t it bought over a year ago?) and neither can any of the other shopkeepers she tries, though she does pick up the knowledge that some of the houses in the area are packed with sex workers, foreign mostly.

Cassandra asks the pharmacy in Lowbridge Road whether they remember who bought the bottle of paracatemol © Posy Simmonds

In fact ill luck befalls her and Cassandra manages to lose her wallet, containing her cash and bank cards. Thus she experiences a whole 90 minutes of feeling poor and abandoned. It starts to rain. She begins to panic. No Oyster card, no money for a taxi. Finally she realises she can pawn her gold necklace, and makes enough money from it to buy a tube fare back to Knightsbridge, where she is once again safely among her people.

Back in her house, Cassandra gets the gun and glove out and ponders her next move. Thinking about the slimeball who sent her those vitriolic texts, she takes a photo of the gun and texts it back to him, a year after the original exchange: ‘Hi, remember me? Keeping your gun safe. And the left hand glove too. Vital evidence I’d say. What’s it worth to you, Deano? You tell me. Cassandra’

Cut to the office of Deano’s scrap metal yard where we learn that i) prolonged taking of drugs has half-unhinged Deano and ii) when the text arrives, it prompts another outpouring of regret, with Deano saying he never meant to kill that girl.

Soon afterwards, Deano goes for a drink and (incredibly fortuitously) sees Billy. Deano follows Billy to a bar where he’s meeting Nicki. Nicki tells Billy what Cassandra’s done i.e. only gone and texted a photo of the bloody gun to Deano, the silly so-and-so. Billy says he’ll go mental! Outside, Deano sees Billy and Nicki smooching and recognises her from that nightclub a year earlier, the infamous hen party evening when Nicki told him her name was Cassandra, and then bit him and squashed his balls.

When Nicki and Billy part, Deano follows Nicki down into the Tube, gets out at Knightsbridge stop with her, follows her along into Osmington Square. Simmonds does that thing where she uses just pictures, with no words, to rack up the tension, in this instance to portray the nagging anxiety of a woman walking on her own in the dark.

Now Deano makes his move, accosting Nicki in the street brandishing a knife, demands the gun, demands to know where she lives. Nicki starts screaming HELP! At that moment, Cassandra, who – as we have seen – had been playing with the gun, emerges from her front door holding it like an American cop, pointing at Deano.

Momentarily confused, Deano loosens his grip on Nicki who runs off. Deano recovers his nerve and crosses the road to Cassandra, who says, ‘Drop it, I’ll shot’, but he knows she won’t. Instead she throws it over the railings into the basement area, but Deano attacks her anyway and, after a tussle, stabs her in the stomach. ‘Stupid arse… what have you done?’ she gasps as she clutches the wound and falls to the pavement. Deano panics and flees. Nicki calls an ambulance and gives a statement to the police.

A wordless page follows which shows Cassandra in bed in hospital, sleeping, on a drip. Waking and talking to the police. Back to sleep. And then:

January Cassandra recovers and winds up the story, tying up all the loose ends.

She’s come to stay with her half-sister Margot in the country (a very idealised super-rural country, a country of postcards very like the perfect countryside around Stonefield in Tamar Drewe). She’s learned not to despise Margot so much, realising she has a lot in common with Margot and that what Margot calls ‘healing’ and ‘closure’ are actually quite enjoyable.

Dean Hart was arrested and confessed to the stabbing which, along with the bloody knife and the photos Nicki took of the fight, convicted him. He also confessed to strangling the girl during sex play a year before. Nanny and Pete were also arrested.

Best of all, Cassandra’s enquiries about the dead girl were followed up by the police who went to Lowbridge Road and on to a squalid flat inhabited by five other girls. Her name was Anca Radu, she was 23, grew up in a Romanian orphanage, was groomed and trafficked to the UK as a prostitute, escaped from the flat, hitched a lift, but was dropped in the middle of nowhere, which is where she had the bad luck to be picked up by Deano, taken to London and then killed, accidentally or not.

Lastly, in hospital the doctors discovered that Cassandra has pancreatic cancer. Given the gloomy thread running throughout the book in which Cassandra periodically worried about becoming senile like her poor husband, and pondered different ways of killing herself to avoid that fate, the reader understands when Cassandra says this diagnosis is a perfect solution. It comes as no surprise that she has chosen not to receive treatment.

She is selling the house in Osmington Square and will give the proceeds to charities, including refuges for women.

Thoughts

Issues

One of the pleasures of the book is the way that various contemporary ‘issues’ familiar to Londoners are dramatised via the characters.

Off the top of my head I remember the several places where Nicki and Cassandra discuss or argue about the purpose and merits of ‘feminist’ art.

Similarly, the ‘issue’ of homelessness is raised via Nicki’s burlesque strip tease fund raiser, but also in the paired moments when Cassandra refuses to give change to a beggar (at the start) and does (after herself being briefly moneyless in the East End).

And the entire plot rotates, to some extent, about sex trafficking from eastern Europe. Other thoughts – about art and class are snagged, or rise briefly to the surface of situations or conversations then disappear again. Taken together, these issues, large or trivial, and other references (to Uber taxis) make the book feel surprisingly contemporary. Gives the reader the simple pleasure of recognition, of recognising the rather mundane world around us transformed into art, well, comic strip cartoons.

White collar versus gangland crime

Implicit in the whole story is the contrast between Cassandra and her smart, Mayfair form of white-collar crime, and the much more brutal, unhinged crime of Deano and his family out in the East End. Two wrongs, two types of wrong, and prompts broader comparisons between life in Chelsea and life out East in the endless tower blocks of east London.

Cassandra’s redemption

Obviously the narrative arc as a whole depicts Cassandra’s ‘redemption i.e. by doing one brave act she stops being such a grumpy so-and-so and sheds her grumpy, sourpuss persona. No more fretting about how ‘society’ sees her. No more dismissing Margot who, at the start of the book, she had found unbearably pompous and touchy-feelie. Instead, acceptance of her own mortality, acceptance of emotions and emotional intelligence.

It is a timeless stereotype that urban characters have to go to the countryside to be ‘complete’, to achieve ‘authenticity’.

Most of all, maybe, it wasn’t the act of bravery – pointing the gun at Deano and saving Nicki so much as the sympathy Cassandra showed for the once-unnamed and now identified person of the murdered woman. It was discovering her identity more than anything that happens to wretched Deano, which matters most. Giving her a name, an identity, and so some respect.

Loose ends and problems

But many things are left unresolved and unredeemed. Cassandra is still a convicted criminal. We have no sense whether Billy and Nicki are going to live happily ever after, or even whether Deano will go to prison. Presumably…

In terms of plot there is a glaring hole which is the improbability of Billy nicking Deano’s gun in the first place. Even he can’t explain why he did it and it is left to the reader to conclude that he did it because otherwise there would be no story.

And the flashback structure – which worked so well in Gemma Bovery and Tamara Drewe – left me a bit confused. The mapping of two Christmases onto each other, the year long gap, forced me to go back and reread bits to understand the precise sequence of events. And also the way Billy split up with Nicki after he’d been hospitalised wasn’t told at the time, but reported a year later, in retrospect, so it took me a moment to fit that into the timeline.

Art

The use of colour makes for a deep and rewarding visual experience. But to be honest, although some pictures seemed to me to perfectly convey the intended atmosphere – especially lots of the scenery, of London or the countryside – there is an obstinate ungainliness or scrappiness about almost all of the frames which nagged at me, which held me back from going over the top and declaring it a masterpiece etc.

For example, here is Cassandra in a shop near Burlington Arcade, presumably Fortnum and Masons. The top picture of her mooching across a snowy road with her snub nose, pince-nez, slice of lipstick along her thin lips, and characteristic trapper’s fur hat, are all immediately grabby and evocative.

But in the pic below it, look at the girl standing on the right. She just feels to me anatomically incorrect and, stylistically, a throwback to the Posy strip of the 1980s. If Cassandra is fully imagined and drawn, many of the peripheral characters feel less so.

Cassandra in Fortnum and Masons © Posy Simmonds

Here is Cassandra arriving late at her gallery to find the gallery assistant furious that she’s been delayed getting away and organising her own Christmas. Look at the assistant’s face. It is oddly unstable, in the first picture she is characterised by enormous shark’s teeth and big angry eyes – throughout the sequence she has lizard eyes i.e. not with a circular human black pupil, but with vertical slits of pupils. But then in the right-hand picture she suddenly has much softer features and just dots for eyes, a reversion to the Posy strip style, which suddenly makes her seem much less offensive, much less real. In the bottom row second from the left, something odd has happened to her left eye. It’s an example of the way many of the faces in Simmonds are unstable and undergo sometimes striking variations.

Cassandra and her gallery assistant © Posy Simmonds

I know I’m nit-picking but you will read articles claiming Simmonds is the pre-eminent graphic novelist in Britain and I’m not entirely sure. Although I liked the scenery and many of the settings, I still didn’t wholeheartedly enjoy her depiction of faces which too often seemed odd, inconsistent and sometimes positively cack-handed.

Still, that reservation apart, it’s a very enjoyable graphic novel and a very skillful weaving of so many contemporary ‘issues’ into what is, in the end, an extended cartoon strip. And the real point is Cassandra’s journey to redemption, to a form of happiness and closure. If you focus on that, on the skill with which she imagines, describes and draws the central figure – then nitpicking about details tends to fade away.


Credit

All images are copyright Posy Simmonds. All images are used under fair play legislation for the purpose of analysis and criticism. All images were already freely available on the internet.

Related links

Other Posy Simmonds reviews

Very Posy by Posy Simmonds (1985)

From 1977 to 1987 Posy Simmonds drew a regular cartoon strip in the Guardian gently mocking the middle-class lifestyles and liberal concerns of a regular cast of a dozen or so fictional characters, centred on:

  • Wendy Weber, a former nurse married to verbose polytechnic sociology lecturer George Weber, and mother of a brood of six children, ranging from little Benji to teenage glamour-puss Belinda
  • Jo Heep, married to tedious, drunk whisky salesman Edmund Heep, and mum to two rebellious teenagers who’ve adopted the punk look
  • Trish Wright, married to philandering advertising executive Stanhope Wright, mother of a young baby

Throughout the period the cartoons were periodically gathered together into books, namely:

  • Mrs Weber’s Diary (1979)
  • True Love (1981)
  • Pick of Posy (1982)
  • Very Posy (1985)
  • Pure Posy (1987)

And these books were themselves gathered together into a huge compendium volume, Mrs Weber’s Omnibus which was published in 2012 and now appears to be the only way to get hold of the cartoons.

Very Posy is the third the series of collections, given that 1981’s True Love was a one-off ‘graphic novel’, loosely based on the schoolgirl crush of one of the characters, Janice Brady, for a regular cast member, tall, suave, philandering advertising executive Stanhope Wright.

Historical timeline

Very Posy brings together 91 Posy cartoon strips from 1981 through to 1985. These were the years when I was a student at university. I looked up a historical timeline of the period and discovered that the key events were:

1981

  • Mrs Thatcher is Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
  • Ronald Reagan is President of America
  • Leonid Brezhnev is leader of the USSR
  • In January the Yorkshire Ripper is caught, bringing to an end a reign of terror over the Yorkshire region where he had murdered 13 women over a five year period
  • The Iran Hostage Crisis (which had started in November 1979) ends in January 1981 with the release of American diplomats in Tehran
  • April 4 – first flight of the Space Shuttle Columbia
  • From April to July there are riots in major British cities, the biggest being the Brixton riot in London, the Handsworth riots in Birmingham, the Chapeltown riot in Leeds and the Toxteth riots in Liverpool.
  • MS-DOS was released by Microsoft along with the first IBM PC
  • On 29 July Lady Diana Spencer married Prince Charles
  • In September 1981 a Welsh group, Women for Life on Earth, arrive at Greenham Common air force base to protest against the decision of the British government to allow cruise missiles to be stored there

1982

  • The first CD player sold in Japan
  • Dutch Elm Disease destroys millions of Elm Trees
  • On Friday 2 April Argentina invades the Falkland Islands, sparking an international crisis and a war with Britain which lasts until British victory on 14 June
  • September, the American centres for Disease Control used the term ‘AIDS’ (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) for the first time.
  • November – Leonid Brezhnev dies and is replaced as leader of the USSR by Yuri Andropov

1983

  • The June 1983 general election returns a Conservative government led by Mrs Thatcher with an increased majority of 188 MPs, against the Labour Party led by Michael Foot
  • What would become the world’s most popular word processing programme, Microsoft Word, is launched.
  • In Ethiopia following the worst drought in history the death toll reaches a staggering 4 million.
  • The US starts deploying Cruise Missiles and Pershing Missiles in Europe at the Greenham Common Air Force Base, prompting the growth of the women-only camp of protestors
  • On Saturday 17 December 1983 members of the Provisional IRA set off a bomb outside Harrods in Knightsbridge, killing three police officers and three civilians, and injuring 90 people.

1984

  • February – Soviet leader Yuri Andropov dies and is replaced by Konstantin Chernenko
  • April – the National Cancer Institute announced they had found the cause of AIDS, the retrovirus HTLV-III
  • DNA profiling developed
  • Apple releases the Macintosh computer.
  • 12 October – the IRA bomb the Grand Hotel in Brighton during the Conservative Party conference in a bid to assassinate Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher narrowly escaped injury, five people were killed and 31 were injured
  • 31 October – Indira Ghandi, first woman Prime Minister of India, is assassinated by her own bodyguard and Sikh nationalists
  • 6 November Ronald Reagan re-elected President of the United States, defeating Democrat Walter Mondale.
  • Following the widespread famine in Ethiopia many of the top British and Irish pop musicians join together under the name Band Aid and record the song “Do They Know It’s Christmas, recorded on 25 November and released on 3 December.
  • December 2-3 – the world’s worst industrial accident when the Union Carbide Pesticide plant in Bhopal India leaks lethal gas, leading to a death toll of some 4,000, some estimate long term deaths at 16,000

1985

  • January – Palestinian terrorists the Italian Cruise Liner Achille Lauro and murder an old Jewish man in a wheelchair.
  • March – on the death of Konstantin Chernenko, Mikhail Gorbachev becomes General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party and so leader of the USSR.
  • May – the Heysel Stadium disaster when Juventus football fans trying to escape from Liverpool fans were pressed against a collapsing wall in the Heysel Stadium in Brussels, Belgium, before the start of the 1985 European Cup Final, leading to the deaths of 39 people – mostly Italians and Juventus fans and 600 injured.
  • Music CDs commercially launched.
  • 10 July – The Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior is sunk by French Agents, killing a Dutch photographer.
  • Saturday 13 July – the Live Aid concert is watched by an estimated 1.9 billion viewers, across 150 nations, nearly 40% of the world population.
  • 19 September – Mexico City Earthquake kills 9,000
  • In response to the spread of AIDS governments around the world launch health and public awareness programs, including the promotion of condoms and safe sex.
  • The first .com domain name is registered and the first version of Windows is released.

Very Posy

Next to none of these world-changing (Gorbachev), traumatic (assassinations, terrorist bombings, famine) or innovative (slow spread of personal computers) events are reflected in the Posy strip. The opposite. The Posy strip formed a safe haven from politics and the hurly-burly of events reported everywhere else in the Guardian newspaper. Instead we are treated to the overwhelmingly domestic concerns of the Weber, Wright and Heep households.

Interestingly, Simmonds mixes the strips up so they are deliberately not in chronological order, with strips from 1985 near the beginning, and ones from 1981 at the end. If there is any structure it is a subtle seasonal one with the book opening and closing with Christmas cartoons, with some summer holidays ones in the middle, some spring showers in the first half, giving the whole thing a subtle underpinning of the changing calendar year.

Themes

Women and feminism (21)

  • A soap opera In the form of an opera i.e. everyone sings rhyming arias, Trish Wright rages at her broken washing machine till smug husband Stanhope offers to do it all down the laundrette but discovers it’s not such an easy process as he thought.
  • Men at work Seedy Edmund Heep, in a workspace surrounded by pin-ups, is preparing lewd Valentine Day cards for some of the young women in the office but when he goes to give them he discovers the girls also have pin-ups, of fit young men and he and the other men are (hypocritically) appalled. Tsk, men, eh.
  • The rebirth of Venus in which three women discuss and pester a friend into losing weight in a series of pictures which spoof and parody Botticelli’s famous Birth of Venus to make a feminist comment on how women are forced to conform to body stereotypes.
  • A super woman’s day A cartoon showing how impossible it is to be a modern woman and expected to serve up breakfast to the family, wave them off to work, arrive at the office, do some wise shopping at lunchtime, return to the office, greet the kids back from school, read to them, cook dinner, serve dinner and still have the energy to be… a whore in the bedroom!
  • In a maternity ward three or four female relatives have come to visit a mum with a newborn baby, and the strip shows us all of them, plus visitors to the other mums, all agreeing that a girl is nice but a boy would be better!
  • Momma’s fault Wendy is watching a TV soap in which three generations of women all blame their mother’s for ruining their lives – while her own children stand by, ignored.
  • Acceptable lies and the unacceptable truth A hectic strip in which her assistant and colleagues all lie to clients and customers to cover the fact that Jennifer Cole is not at work because she’s at home looking after her kids during the school holiday. The strip is rounded off with a feminist motto as twee and smug as any Victorian doily: ‘As business folk you now know why / Us working mums are bound to lie.’
  • Waiting for mummy In an anonymous family the mum works while the dad looks after the kids (he is shown reading the paper and ignoring them) until the harassed mum gets home and finds she has to comfort her little girl, and the baby, and her husband and look after the dinner which is coming to the boil. Oh the world is so unfair to women!
  • Debits and credits ‘A full-time working mum has many cares…’ which include trying to persuade her needy infants to accept certain friends round for tea simply to repay the debts she’s accrued from their mums looking after her own kids. Oh it’s so tough being a working mum!
  • Mother’s quiet time Jocasta visits an old friend who’s just had a baby, to discover she is at her wit’s end by the constant endless crying of her infant.
  • Public view A straight-out feminist view on breast-feeding which takes a classical painting of a mother breast-feeding which everyone finds adorable and acceptable in an art gallery, and then cuts and pastes the same image into all kinds of social situations where everyone disapproves.

  • The milk of human kindness A split-screen strip, on one side a frowsy mum, Rose, is disgruntled because she helped out a businesswoman friend for a few hours, tidied and breast-fed the baby and then the businesswoman got home and was disgusted by the breastfeeding and made her feel really inferior – on the other side of the strip the slick businesswoman, Rose, is pissed off because she got home to find Rose had breastfed her baby which made her feel like a negligent mum, made her feel really inferior.
  • Taboo At a packed family lunch Sophie, one of the older Weber children comes and whispers in Wendy’s ear. Then Wendy whispers in all the other women’s ears. Only right at the end do we discover Sophie had whispered that she’d started her period and she nails Wendy’s hypocrisy, for she’d said it was something perfectly natural, something to be celebrated, not something to be hushed up. So why did she whisper about it and not tell anyone?
  • Useful occupations An elderly woman takes a call from her daughter who is upset that she didn’t get a job she applied for. She tries to cheer her up, not least by explaining that women didn’t go out to work in her day – which doesn’t get a very sympathetic response.
  • Medical precautions Jocasta visits her GP who tells her he is planting a chaperone at the door – leading to a misunderstanding where Jocasta assures the doctor he doesn’t think he’ll try anything and the doctor assures her the chaperone is for his sake, in case Jocasta tries anything – leaving them both seething.

  • Fly’s undoing At a business meeting the only women present manages to persuade the men to back her deal. However she knows they’re all going to go off to the gents and persuade each other to change their minds. She wishes she could be a fly on the wall and… is miraculously transformed into a fly and flies into the gents’ and does indeed hear the hawks talking the doves out of agreeing her deal!
  • Paradise lost the Weber’s are on holiday on a hot beach and the women are going topless when George realises a couple of beach bums are commenting, in French, on the shape of every passing woman’s breasts. He intervenes giving them a feminist lecture, name-checking Lacan and Levi-Bruhl and Rousseau to blast them for objectifying women and giving them another chain to shackle them and so on. The French guys just yawn, stretch and stroll away.
  • Grief A woman’s unrestrained grief embarrasses her friends and family. People think grief should be more restrained and demure. The dichotomy is expressed by a contrast between a Picasso image of a weeping woman and an emollient Victorian image of a slightly sad and dignified lady. Sexism!!

Grief by Posy Simmonds

  • The nightmare of Pauline Woodcock Pauline Woodcock (42) international finance correspondent flies to an assignment in the Middle East but has a nightmare in which she is refused entry to the conference because it is for men only, and is forced to go and sit among the harem women who criticise her for having no husband or family and hating women. But it is only a dream and so not a very valid satire on the sexism of Muslim countries.
  • Momentous news Diane, aged 36 and a TV producer, has finally gotten pregnant but when she tells her friends at a garden party they reveal that everyone they know is having a baby late, it’s a fashion, it’s a trend thus patronising and humiliating her.
  • A message to the Monstrous Regiment Peculiarly, this is the final cartoon in the book: It is in the form of a message from Field Marshall Sir Desmond Blundel-Bolass to what he calls The Monstrous regiment, obviously meaning the entire female population, saying they’re a proud little regiment with a long track record of cooking and cleaning and child-rearing, but recently there have been signs of bolshiness and women deserting the regiment to take up jobs in industry, business and so on. THIS MUST STOP and women return to their proper subservient roles. Maybe it triggered a laugh of recognition at the time (1984) but to me it seems elaborate and ‘clever’ but oddly pointless.

Difficulties of motherhood and childcare (2)

This obviously overlaps with the large number of working mum strips, with some of the Childhood and small children strips, and with the Divorce strips, all of which depict small children shedding light on the hypocrisies of divorced couples.

  • Music and movement At little Katy’s birthday party the parents gather in the kitchen and nervously discuss the way the five year olds are jigging and jiving to highly sexualised pop music, while George delivers another of his pretentious semiotic interpretations which is no good to anyone.
  • Charity begins at home Working mum Gemma leaves her two little kids in the care of wonderful nanny, Anita, but she tells so many people how wonderful Anita is that one by one all the other middle class mums in the street get Anita to care for their children until her place looks like a zoo – much to Gemma’s chagrin.

Childhood and small children (7)

  • Timor mortis The Weber children’s guinea pig dies and the parents, and grandma, give the kids contradictory stories about what happens to dead animals
  • On a long-distance drive George and Wendy are pestered to pull over at a roadside pub where the kids pig out on steak and chips but George eventually explodes at the so-called waiter and describes at length why every single item was disgusting.

  • Music and movement At little Katy’s birthday party the parents gather in the kitchen and nervously discuss the way the five year olds are jigging and jiving to highly sexualised pop music, while George delivers another of his pretentious semiotic interpretations which is no good to anyone.
  • The birth of the blues A mum has had a baby and is at home nursing it surrounded by cooing friends and family. The strip focuses on the baby’s sister who is hassled by the grown-ups into saying ‘thank you’ for having a new brother.
  • Monkey business Wendy takes the younger children to the zoo where they see monkeys mating and ask mummy what they’re doing. This dilemma has already cropped up at least twice already in the strip. This time Wendy patiently explains a gentle form of the birds and the bees and the gag is that, as she does so, the monkeys put their hands over their baby monkey’s ears to protect their innocence.
  • Just rewards Billy’s mum takes him to play at a friend’s house where he misbehaves – saying rude words, screaming, snatching things. but each time mummy tells him to stop he does. This, the mum explains to her friend, is because she’s instituted a reward system – every time he obeys mummy he gets a reward, and enough rewards buy him a toy. Cut to Billy who has worked out how to play the system, and so deliberately plays up wherever they go – in order to obey the instruction to behave – and thus earns lots of toys!
  • The dark Two of the Weber kids lock themselves inside the old fridge the Weber’s have thrown out to Wendy’s hysterical horror.

Divorce (3)

This is here because after a divorce, Simmonds is interested in the experience of the mother who usually ends up keeping custody of the children, and so ‘divorce’ comes under the broader heading of Women-Feminism-Motherhood-Childcare-Divorce.

  • Unworthy thoughts Two little children come back from a weekend with their daddy and tell the divorced mummy what a great time they had, he took them on a CND march, introduced them to his lovely new girlfriend, had a barbeque and bought them new clothes. The mum promptly rings up the dad to give him a ear-bashing, asking him why on earth he’s being so nice and trying to suck up to her?
  • Home-sick A divorced dad takes his small kids out to a burger bar and the little girl immediately feels sick. All the way home, including on the bus, he is trying to get the little girl to throw up in the street before she gets home. But she doesn’t. She saves it up for the moment she walks through his ex’s door and throws up all over the phone books – prompting a prolonged ear-bashing from his ex about filling them with junk food etc etc.
  • Dad’s girlfriend A divorced woman’s two little kids are joking and taking the mickey out of her ex-husband’s new girlfriend, Lynn, at which the mum’s smirk of satisfaction grows larger and larger… unti lthe kids say they don’t want to go to dad and Lynn’s at Christmas – at which point the um realises this will ruin all her plans to go skiing with her new boyfriend Robert… and immediately leaps to the defence of Lynn, telling the kids what a wonderful person she is and how she has a really cool new video!

Sex and adultery (7)

  • Strangers in the night In bed together Stanhope discovers his wife is reading a sexy bodice-ripper and teases her about it.
  • Acting one’s age At a crowded theatre bar, Stanhope makes eye contact with a promising young floozy and Simmonds uses the technique whereby they send dotted eye signals at each other while, in another familiar move, she makes the whole thing a parody, with Stanhope imagining the programme to a grand theatrical production of Their Affair… while his wife spots him and reconceives the same events as a tawdry TV comedy titled ‘It always ends in tears’.
  • And no questions asked Stanhope wakes up in bed with a nubile young woman he has slept with and Simmonds uses the comic, or sardonic technique, of counterpointing all the polite things they say to each other with what they’re really thinking, Stanhope in particular smiling smiling and thinking ‘God, when are you going to bugger off?’
  • Flattery A young woman spends half the strip flattering and chatting up a TV star at a party, giving it her best shot until right at the end he makes his excuses and wanders over to the next pretty fan. This is counterpointed by the same events as enacted by a ewe (Aries) trying to chat up a lion (Leo).
  • Married person’s guide to lunching A series of nine lunches which chart the rise, bloom and decay of an affair carried out , as usual, by Stanhope Wright and his latest victim (which includes a(nother) pastiche of Manet’s painting Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe).
  • The transports of love An ironic reference to Stanhope’s car: in the first half he uses it to whisk a pretty young thing off to the countryside where they have a shag, in a picture wherein the car is transformed into an 18th century rococo four-poster bed surrounded by fluttering cherubim – and in the second half, it becomes the scene of an agonised conversation while Stanhope sits with the girl trying to dump her.
  • Derek’s deadly sins A year in the life of a fat gluttonous exec named Derek who regularly stuffs down a heavy lunch with the unbearable Edmund Heep. During the year he chats up a pretty young woman at the office party, and to please his new mistress loses weight, buys new clothes, and the other pub goers take the mickey out of the ensuing affair which runs through May and July but comes a cropper when Derek’s wife finds out about the affair, the relationship breaks up and by the end of the year Derek is back to wearing bad clothes and has his great big beer belly back again.

Academia (8)

  • In his good books Wendy has to sit through dinner with George’s academic colleagues from the Poly all showing off but when they ask her her favourite book, she says Mrs Tiggiwinkle by Beatrix Potter
  • Full stretch George does his yoga while worrying that he is becoming out of touch with developments in the humanities, and ponders resigning.
  • Liaison Presumably published around Valentine’s Day time, this ironically describes the rivalry between the Liberal Studies and Business Studies departments at George’s poly, ending with the suggestion that the two departments amalgamate, which is ironically depicted with one of Simmonds’s flowery rococo pastiches of a valentine’s card between the two.
  • An important meeting George and a colleague go to see the Chairman of governors of the poly but emerge with a surprisingly favourable decision – a big drawing shows what was going on inside each of their skulls, namely that the Chairman made a quick decision because he has a hangover.
  • Unwrappings George and Wendy’s American friend Frisbee Summers is staying. the family pop into a newsagents and while Wendy buys the kids ice-creams George and Frisbee end up discussing the top-row porn mags in high-falutin’ terms of signifying aspects of patriarchal ideology etc. Until Wendy bursts their bubble by whispering ‘Perverts!’ at them both.
  • A notice goes up at the Poly telling staff that unofficial visitors are not allowed. George and his fellow parents on the faculty realise this is a directive designed to stop parents bringing in their children during half term.
  • Eros denied the entire strip is told as a spoof of the Greek gods, wherein Eros fires a dart which hits Mrs Rutland, the Dean’s wife, as she’s chatting to George, and she is suddenly overcome with passion for him, making him blush and the gods panic until another of the gods sends a divine wind to blow away her infatuation and she is restored to normal banality.
  • Funeral rights George is blubbing so much at the funeral of a colleague from the poly who was killed in a car crash that Wendy is proud of him for breaking down sexist stereotypes which insist men keep a stiff, upper lip, and feeling free to express his emotions and… then starts to worry that such an excessive display of mourning will lead colleagues to think he must have been having an affair with the dead woman!
  • The sausage roll that changed the world At a party at his polytechnic, George is pressing the Dean about rumoured cutbacks which might run his new course on Turn of the century Vienna, when the Dean chokes on a sausage roll and Wendy steps in to perform the Heimlich manoeuvre thus saving the Dean’s life – who promptly changes his tune and tells George he’ll see what he can do. (‘It’s an ill windpipe…’)

Middle class mores and hypocrisies (12)

  • Shifting values George and Wendy take a crappy painting his aunt has left him to a valuers who makes an elaborate song and dance over it so that G &W’s opinion is transformed.
  • Black looks George tells Wendy he has just been through an ordeal every bit as bad as the mocking looks he got from his working class dad and his mates when young George went home as an Oxford student – but this time it was the black looks he got as he walked the gauntlet of Belinda and her unemployed punk mates hanging outside the house, as George unpacked the crates of Rioja wine from their Volvo.
  • Left overs George and Wendy have friends round for dinner who praise the cassoulet until Wendy reveals it’s from the freezer of Aunt Gwen who died recently, and left them all her belongings including the contents of her freezer.

  • Killjoy was here Stanhope gets a taxi back from the airport, tanned and still holding his skis from a wonderful skiing break but the glum cab driver soon brings him back to earth and depresses him.
  • Cornish wrestling Taking a cab to the station after a relaxing half-term holiday in Cornwall, George finds a ten pound note down the side of the seat and spends the whole journey agonising whether to hand it in as lost, or use it to pay the fare. He pays the fare.
  • Lingua franca Pippa offers Wendy and the kids a lift back from school and on the way reveals that she’s taken her daughter out of state school and sent her to a private boarding school. ‘They’re very strong on English,’ Pippa explains. They have to be, her daughter in the back thinks – almost all the young ladies at the boarding school are from abroad.
  • Snobs Wendy’s daughter is upset that they won’t buy her a leather skirt for £60, saying all the other girls have got one, and look down on her because she’s poor. What a sordid attitude, Wendy exclaims and tells her daughter that she is in fact, relatively well off with a home and a room of her own and goes to a good school – not to ‘that revolting school in Prosser Street – with all those nasty thugs from the flats.’ To which the family cat comments ‘Sordid attitude’ and Wendy realises what a hypocrite she is.
  • Carping at the shop corner A little gaggle of locals carp about how the local corner shop has changed over the years.
  • Standards of living Wendy leaves Benji with a friend and when her mother and Wendy go to collect him later, the mother spots about a thousand fire and health hazards in the home, whereas Wendy only sees the Noddy book (which I think is meant to be a joke because Noddy books were under fire for being racist).
  • A garden of Eden In early September George and Wendy and a couple of friends are sunbathing in the garden. Then their teenage kids turn up and they become uncomfortably aware of the bumps and blemishes and flab and cover themselves up. Paradise lost.
  • Every picture… At the Wrights’ lovely holiday cottage Stanhope’s art student daughter Jocasta takes Polaroid photos of each other. The joke, such as it is, in the discrepancy between the personal worries and grievances we get to read in their thought bubbles, and the big cheesy smiles they put on for the camera. My daughter read this strip and said, ‘What are they meant to do… shout and scream at the camera? Everyone smiles for bloody cameras and then gets back to their lives.’
  • Lady Bountiful Wendy is walking home from Sainsburys with a friend who points out that Wendy smiles inanely at everyone she meets. Wendy corrects that she only smiles at people less fortunate than her, or who she thinks needs encouraging.  The punchline is that she realises why… why people smile back at her. Standing there weighted down with carrier bags and trailing two mewling children, the reader can see why.
  • Bivouac throughout the strips ‘Bivouac’ is the name given to a kind of Ikea self-service home furnishing company. the strip describes the excitement of buying something in the store, loading it into the car and can’t wait to get it home, then having second thoughts about the extravagant expenditure, and then bickering about who persuaded who to buy it, and then the fate of the bi boxes from Bivouac which is to sit unopened and unloved.

Christmas (8)

Simmonds appears to hate Christmas. Put it this way, all the Christmas-themed strips parody, undermine or satirise the season and its sentiments.

  • Village Christmas
  • What’s in store George and Wendy take the kids to a panto, where they each find something to offend all the family!
  • Och! They’re such a worry The Heeps’ punk sons get kicked out of parties and are forced to go home for New Year’s Eve
  • Festive whirl A circular strip in which George is reluctant to go to a Christmas party, is chivvied into going by Wendy, says they won’t stay long but ends up having a whale of a time, chatting to everyone, then starting to have regrets in the car home, saying he made a number of faux pas, can’t believe he said this, can’t believe he was indiscreet about x, and wakes up the next morning determined not to go to the next Christmas party. Until…
  • The strip World of work has a Christmas theme, consisting of Edmund Heep and a colleague discussing how to wangle the longest break over Christmas.
  • Christmas present George is revolted by a traditional Christmas card from Aunt Bunny containing a traditional cake. George rails against ‘Looking Back Disease’, everyone wanting to preserve a fantasy of some Olde Worlde Christmas and says, if he had his way, they’d dispense with the stagecoach on the Christmas card cover, the Victorian dress, and the port and the lanterns and the snowman, and the robins, out with Santa, in fact out with everything except a message of goodwill. Except that, as he’s dispensed with each of these things, they have been removed from the strip itself until it is just… George and Wendy and a few kids huddling together on a great wide snow-covered plain… with the sound of something hungry howling in the distance.
  • Past 2 o’clock The posh lady with the stiff hairdo and the frightfully, frightfully manner is woken by strangers knocking at the door. It is a reincarnation of Joseph and Mary turned away from the inn and trudging through the snow, and so the humour comes from the tone of voice and excuses made by the posh lady as she explains that she can’t put them up in the main house – the builders are making a frightful mess, but she can put them up in the shed next door, it’s currently housing Sara’s pony but they’re going to do it up and put in a shower and a utility room and decorate it with some rather super tiles they saw in France etc.
  • Christmas wishes A rather bleak strip consisting of two nearly identical big pictures, at the top George and Wendy wishing us a Happy Christmas next to a mantlepiece covered with Christmas cards – underneath, exactly the same scene, but each of the cards has been transformed by one of the worries of contemporary life e.g. a nuclear power station has appeared on the hill behind the sleigh, the wise men had been pointing at a star but now they’re pointing at a mushroom cloud, some deer were looking at a decorated Christmas tree but now they’re looking at a barbed wire fence with a Ministry of Defence Keep Out sign on it. It’s quite funny as humour, but it’s really interesting as social history, as a reminder of just how terrified everyone was of nuclear war or a nuclear accident back in 1983, 36 long years ago.

Pastiches and parodies (7)

Many of the cartoons liven up otherwise mundane events by dressing them in parodies of 18th century rococo or Renaissance paintings, or set them to the tunes of Elizabethan or Victorian songs (updating the words for comic effect) or in other ways frame or transform events into alternative genres, such as when Stanhope imagines a possible affair with a young woman in terms of a grand theatrical production, and visualises a theatre programme giving his and her names as the leading roles…. whereas his wife sees what is going on and imagines the same events as the subject of a silly TV sitcom titled ‘It always ends in tears’.

So humour is often derived not from the events, but from this clever transplanting of them into comically inappropriate genres and formats.

  • The joke Valentine’s Day card in Liaison
  • The appearance and speech of the Greek gods in DIY
  • The use of theatre programmes and the Radio Times format to parody Stanhope chatting up a young lady at the theatre in Acting one’s age
  • Spring fever Spotty punk Julian Heep tries to talk young Helene into shagging him but she refuses saying he’ll just tell everyone at school. The final scene parodies a classical painting of a young man putting his arms round a lady dressed in a classical gown.
  • The transformation of the car into a rococo love nest in Transports of love
  • The rebirth of Venus in which three women discuss and pester a friend into losing weight in a series of pictures which spoof and parody Botticelli’s famous Birth of Venus to make a feminist comment on how women are forced to conform to body stereotypes.
  • Cat lovers is told in the form of a rhyme (as are several others), thus: ‘The cat sat on the mat. Back to the flat come Pat and Jack. Jack hates the cat. The cat hates Jack. Pat loves the cat. The cat loves Pat. Pat sat on Jack’s lap. Jack pets Pat. Jack and Pat want a nap. Scram, cat, scram! Drat the cat!’ which tells the tale of a couple coming back to the flat, smooching and then wanting to go to bed… only to find a big cat poo on the duvet. In strips like this you can see a basic childishness, a simple-mindedness about the strip, which means it wasn’t a big departure for Simmonds to branch out into children’s books – the most successful of which were about… cats!

Teenagers (7)

  • Nature, nurture (and nutrition) Fashionable young Belinda Weber has scorned going to university as her parents hoped and is helping out as waitress in a Directors Dining Room because, as she shouts at her mother, she is sick of living in a poky conversion, sick of kidney beans and lentils, sick of pine dressers. She wants to meet someone rich and drive a Saab and live in a nice house. Thatcher’s children.
  • Virtue’s work Father Stanhope gives lazy skiving art student Jocasta a talking to about needing to get a job.
  • Reaction A mother has a trio of teenagers over, slumped in front of the telly, and is appalled at how heartless and cynical they are, fondly remembering when they were small and got upset at Disney films etc. Suddenly she hears them yukking and moaning and goes in to discover that… they are appalled and revolted by the middle-aged clothes, the bell-bottoms and open shirt being worn by a TV news reporter!
  • Honcho Gun The two punk sons of Edmund and Jo Heep go to the cinema but are so obnoxious they keep being asked to move and are eventually kicked out. Home embarrassingly early, they fend off a bollocking from their dad by ad libbing an enormous long complicated science fiction plot which they make up. ‘When in a spot, baffle ’em wiv Sci-Fi!’
  • Home Jocasta is skint and fed up of living in sordid student accommodationso she turns up back at her parents’ house and moves in, stuffing her face with good food, smoking on the sofa and reading in the bath. As so often, there is an ironic narrative counterpoint to all this as music staves run above the strip depicting the lyrics of the Victorian song ‘there’s no place like home’. My daughter read this strip and asked me, ‘Is it meant to be funny? Because it’s just… obvious’.
  • ABC (as it is spoken) Two young leather-jacketed dudes go into their local pub where the landlord asks them for proof of their age and they get stroppy. The ‘gag; is that the entire dialogue, by all parties, consists of abbreviations: ‘L.O.’ ‘2 G.n.T’ ‘A?’ and so on. Clever. Not particularly funny.
  • Marriage à la mode Belinda announces to her parents that she is going to marry one of the rich directors at the offices where she works as a cook. George and Wendy are distraught that Belinda’s not making the most of her education, those A-levels, doesn’t want to be the strong, independent feminist they brought her up to be and worst of all, wants George to ‘give her away’ at the traditional church service… like a medieval chattel. Ugh!

Second homes (5)

  • Village Christmas The book opens with quite a bitterly satirical cartoon showing a cluster of village cottages round a village church covered in snow in complete silence on December 22, and then in successive pictures how holiday home owners arrive down from London, animate the houses with lights and real fires and arguing and partying over Christmas, nursing hangovers on Christmas Day, and are packed up and gone leaving the village silent again, by 27 December. Looking back from 2019 it’s fascinating to see the seeds of the current housing crisis and resentment at the holiday home-owners who have gutted large numbers or rural and coastal communities, being sown so long ago. But the really striking thing about it is how beautifully it is drawn. In the rest of the book Simmonds’s looseness with faces, which are often erratically drawn, is still in evidence. But her depiction of things, and the details of scenes and scenery (indoors or out) go from strength to strength.
  • Home is the sailor During this period Simmonds introduced the Cornish seaside hamlet of Tresoddit whose point is that it is overrun with Londoners who’ve bought up all the available cottages as second homes.
  • One man’s meat The Weber’s visit posh friends who have a home in the country, and the mum delivers a long speech about how the locals buy really expensive processed food at the local store instead of eating the kind of fresh, vegetarian fare which she recommends.
  • Up and down in the country A satirical speech delivered by the same pomaded lady in a quilted Barbour jacket as the previous strip, who explains the work of the Society for the Preservation of Owners of Second Homes or POSH.
  • Nice little men The same woman with a Barbour jacket and over-elaborate hairdo has such a worry about her second home in the country, and calls out a simply super little man who lives locally, but the nice little man overhears her describing him in belittling, superior, patronising tones on the phone and so does a rush job and clear out grumpily… leaving posh lady wondering ‘But he was such a NICE little man, too.’

Edmund Heep the alcoholic (3)

  • Edmund Heep steps in for a colleague at a conference and gives a deeply embarrassing speech
  • Distinguished service Heep is out of action nursing a hangover so his secretary Jackie has to rummage around in his chaotic filing system to find the needed paperwork.
  • World of work On a crowded bus at Christmas, Heep discusses with a colleague precisely how many days off work they can wangle, this Christmas and next Christmas holidays. Neither of them understand why the two blokes behind them become so angry that one of them shoves Heep’s hat down over his ears until… they pair get off the bus at the next stop and go into the local Job Centre – at which they simply feel SHAME.

Miscellaneous (3)

  • Upright citizens Waiting in a long bus queue an old lady reflects that it’s one of life’s little unfairnesses that whereas young people can lounge or sit in doorways, the elderly cannot without being taken for vagrants.
  • Minor op Wendy goes into hospital for a minor operation. The amusement comes from the way Simmonds quotes Shakespeare’s ‘All the world’s a stage’ speech to name all the ‘roles’ someone having an operation is called on to perform.
  • The house that Jack bought Nice middle-class Jack sells his house in order to move into the one Mr Shite is selling him but at the last minute Shite gets a higher offer and sells it to someone else leaving Jack’s family stuck in expensive rented accommodation. This just seems to be an utterly humourless comment on the sheer hell of trying to buy or sell a house in Britain.

Politics (2)

  • Don’t know A visually funny strip where Jocasta the art student is wakened by a ringing at her doorbell, trudges all the way down the stairs and the hallway to answer the door to a man canvassing for the local Labour candidate. Jocasta takes the flyer, trudges back upstairs and dumps it next to all the other ignored flyers.
  • Judicium extremum Atom bombs fall and wipe out the world. At the pearly gates there are two queues of the dead, one of hawks and one of doves, both of them blaming each other for what has happened.

Household chores and worries (1)

Possibly the once about the Bivouac shopping trip fits in here as well.

  • DIY A parody in which the Greek gods of the household oversee George and Wendy’s frustrated attempts at spring cleaning.

Thoughts

This detailed enumeration of the strips makes it crystal clear that it contains little or no politics but is overwhelmingly concerned with the cosy mundanities, and stroppy grievances and petty frustrations, of domestic and personal life. Feminism, or the role of women, and in particular a) harassed mothers and b) even more harassed working mums, are the most recurrent subjects.

On the plus side is young Belinda Weber, the glamorous teenager/young woman, strong, independent-minded, who rejects all her mother’s pussy-footing, soft soap liberalism and just wants to marry a millionaire. It’s odd how, having root and branch rejected old-style feminism, Belinda is consistently shown as a well-adjusted, happy winner.

One other thing is striking to the modern reader, which is that all the characters are white and straight.

There are no black, Asian, Muslim or ethnic minority characters, whether in the street, in shops, in the various offices or at the poly, in the schools or at any of the parties, lunches and get-togethers. Race appears as an issue once or twice, for example in the strip when Wendy says she smiles at the new Pakistani woman who’s moved into the street, and says the one person she doesn’t smile at is the appallingly racist woman across the road. When Edmund Heep irritates the men sitting behind him on the bus, one of them is black. That appears to be it.

Similarly, there are no gay or lesbian characters anywhere. The rights and wrongs endured by middle-class white women women women women are proclaimed from the hilltops. The experiences of black, Asian, immigrant or lesbian and gay people are invisible. The Posy cartoon strips are a strictly white, middle-class and heterosexual affair. This, I think, goes a long way to explaining why they have such a cosy, reassuring feel. Nothing threatening or strange ever happens in them.

cf Celeb

Surfing cartoons on the internet I stumbled across the ‘Celeb’ strip drawn by ‘Ligger’, which has been appearing in Private Eye for 30 years or so, describing the sardonic attitudes of an ageing rock star named Gary Bloke. Every one of these Celeb cartoons made me laugh out loud.

Celeb by Ligger

I found more laughs in one Celeb cartoon than the entire 488-page Posy collection but then laughs are not really what she’s after.

Credit

All Posy Simmonds cartoons are copyright Posy Simmonds. All images are used under fair play legislation for the purpose of analysis and criticism. All images are freely available on the internet.


Related links

Other Posy Simmonds reviews

Europe’s Inner Demons: The Demonization of Christians in Medieval Christendom (1) by Norman Cohn (1975)

Norman Cohn (1915-2007) was an English academic historian. In the 1960s he became the head of the Columbus Centre, which was set up and initially financed by Observer editor David Astor to look into the causes of extremism and persecution. As head, Cohn commissioned research and studies from other academics on numerous aspects of persecution, and himself wrote several books on the subject, namely:

  • The Pursuit of the Millennium (1957) which traced the long history of millenial, end-of-the-world cults which, more often than not, seek scapegoats when the Great Awakening or Rapture or whatever they call it fails to happen
  • Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come: The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith (1993) which traced millennial religious themes to their sources in ancient civilizations
  • Warrant for Genocide (1966) about the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an anti-semitic forgery which surfaced in Russia in 1903 and claimed to describe a Jewish conspiracy for world domination

Europe’s Inner Demons is roughly in two halves: what it builds up to is a description of the witch craze and witch trials of early modern Europe and America (i.e. the 1600s and 1700s). But it’s the first half which interests me more. In this Cohn describes the origin and meanings of many of the absurd accusations which were later to be brought against the ‘witches’, following them from their origin in pagan times, through the early medieval period, and climaxing with their deployment in the arrests, torture and execution of the Knights Templar in the early 1300s.

It happens that I’ve just finished reading a book about the Knights Templars, which mentions Cohn’s book, and so I was inspired to read the first half, up to and including the Templars trial.

Cohn shows that:

  • In pre-Christian, pagan Rome writers and authorities attributed inhuman and uncanny activities to minority, outsider groups who they associated with secret societies dedicated to overthrowing the state. Chief among these was the (originally traditional) event of the Bacchanalia, which, originally, was an orgiastic festival celebrating the god Bacchus but, over time, became associated with dark nights, wine and promiscuous sex. Cohn shows how traditional Roman writers came to associate it with darker, anti-social motivations. A fateful link was made between tiny, minority sects who held secretive activities – the worry that these sects were in some way anti-social, dedicated to social revolution – and the attribution to them of increasingly absurd accusations, such as child murder, ritual sacrifice, the drinking of human blood, and deliberately indiscriminate sex – all designed to undermine traditional values and hierarchies and relationships.
  • In the early centuries of Christianity, pagan and Roman writers redirected the tropes they’d developed to blacken the followers of the Bacchanal at the new Eastern religious sect, accusing the Christians of unholy rituals at which they drank the blood of ritually murdered individuals, or engaged in promiscuous sex. Cohn points out that these are easily understandable distortions of a) the Eucharist, where Christians really are enjoined to drink the blood of Christ and b) the Loving Cup or various other references to group love, team love, Christian love, which had a purely Platonic, non-sexual meaning. But not for the accusers and propagandists who scraped the barrel of the human psyche to dredge up all the worst crimes they could think of.
  • Once Christianity had become established (by, say, around 400) the powers-that-be began to persecute Christian heretics and Cohn shows how these heretics now found themselves subject to the same slanders and propaganda as the early Christians had been – dark rumours of midnight masses, perverted rituals, the slaying of a victim whose blood was then drunk and body eaten. And he shows how the ritual victim was all-too-often said to be a baby.

Medieval pessimism

A big-over-arching idea which I found particularly powerful was Cohn’s contention that as the Middle Ages progressed, Christianity – and western culture, such as it was in the early Middle Ages – became more pessimistic.

Going back and reading the early Church Fathers – Tertullian and Justin Martyr and St Jerome and so on – he says you are struck by their conviction that the end of the world is just around the corner and the Day of the Lord is at hand. The early Christians are strong in their faith and happy, burning with conviction that the End is Nigh, that any day now the Lord will return in splendour and all their sufferings will be justified.

However, as the years, then decades, then centuries go by, hopes fade, the Roman Empire is overthrown, societies sink into less advanced forms, the economy collapses, waves of barbarians fight their way across the old imperial lands. And Jesus does not return. By around 1000 AD, medieval culture can be described as depressed. And in its disappointment, it looked with ever-greater desperation for scapegoats.

The atmosphere was changing. Fantasies which in the early Middle Ages had been unknown in western Europe were turning into commonplaces. (p.41)

This is reflected in the rise of the figure and role of Satan and his demons. Cohn has a fascinating chapter (pp.16-34) describing the development of Satan, the Devil. In the Old Testament he is barely mentioned. When bad things happen it is generally because the Old Testament God is wilful and capricious and swayed by his bad moods. Satan does appear in the Book of Job but he is more of a collaborator with God than his enemy; it is Satan who comes up with new ways to persecute Job. It is in the so-called inter-testamentary period – between the last of the accepted books of the Old Testament, written about 300 BC and the first books of the New Testament, written about 50 AD, that Satan undergoes a sweeping change of character. Historians usually attribute this to the influx of Eastern, Zoroastrian and Manichean ideas coming from the Persian Empire in the greater multicultural atmosphere created by the triumph of the Roman Republic and then Empire.

Anyway, in the New Testament, Satan has become a completely new thing, a tormentor and tempter sent to oppose Jesus at every step. Satan’s demons possess innocent people and only Jesus can exorcise them. In the climax of a series of tests, Jesus is made to go out into the wilderness to be confronted and tempted by the Devil in person.

Cohn shows how in the early centuries of the church, saints and holy men were still supposed to be able to drive out demons and Satan’s helpers, merely by revealing the consecrated host or a cross or saying Jesus’ name. But in line with the growth of medieval pessimism, the years from around 1000 AD saw greater and greater anxiety that the Devil was taking over the world which translated into ever-more paranoid fears that secret societies and heresies were flourishing everywhere, dedicated to the overthrow of existing society and to establish the triumph of the Antichrist.

Slowly and steadily, the myth of Devil worship, and the details of how this worship was carried out – by murdering a baby, drinking its blood or its ashes mixed with blood, and then weird rituals to do with black cats (lifting its tail to kiss its anus) – were carefully elaborated by successive generations of highly educated and paranoid Catholic intellectuals.

The stereotype of the Devil-worshipping sect was fully developed, in every detail, by 1100. (p.76)

Heretic hunting and the inquisition

Cohn devoted a chapter to the rise of inquisitions, carefully delineating the difference between secular courts and their power, and the power vested in one-off inquisitors by the pope. He describes the hair-raising campaigns of heretic-hunting inquisitors in Germany and the South of France in the 1200s, notably the egregious Conrad of Marburg appointed inquisitor in central Germany in 1231, or John of Capestrano, appointed heresy inquisitor by the pope in 1418. Already, in 1215 the Lateran Council, by insisting that bishops do everything in their power to suppress heresy on pain of dismissal, had incentivised people across society to come forward with denunciations. Basically a lot of people were tortured into confessing and then burned to death. A lot.

Along the way we learn about the beliefs, the demographics and then the terrible persecutions endured by groups such as:

  • the Paulicians – Christian sect which was formed in the 7th century and rejected a good deal of the Old and much of the New Testament, originally associated with Armenia and horribly persecuted by the Byzantine Empire
  • the Bogomils – sect founded in the First Bulgarian Empire by the priest Bogomil during the reign of Tsar Peter I in the 10th century, a form of opposition to the Bulgarian state and the church, they called for a return to what they considered to be early spiritual teaching, rejecting the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Dualists or Gnostics, they believed in a world within the body and a world outside the body, did not use the Christian cross, nor build churches, as they revered their gifted form and considered their body to be the temple, giving rise to many forms of practice to cleanse oneself through purging, fasting, celebrating and dancing.
  • the Waldensians – originated in the late twelfth century as the Poor Men of Lyon, a band organized by Peter Waldo, a wealthy merchant who gave away his property around 1173, preaching apostolic poverty as the way to perfection. Waldensian teachings quickly came into conflict with the Catholic Church and by 1215, the Waldensians were declared heretical and subject to intense persecution.
  • the Fraticelli ‘de opinione’ – members of the Franciscan order of monks who rebelled against its growing worldliness and corruption (St Francis had died in 1226) and tried to return to a really primitive material life, owning literally nothing, and having no food from one day to the next. Declared heretics in the 1400s, Cohn goes into great detail about the trial of leading Fraticelli in 1466.
  • the Cathars – from the Greek katharoi meaning ‘the pure’, the Cathars were a dualist or gnostic movement which became widespread in Southern Europe between the 12th and 14th centuries. They believed there were two gods, one good, one evil – diametrically opposed to the Catholic church which believes in only one God. The Cathars believed the God of the Old Testament, creator of the physical world, was evil. Cathars thought human spirits were the genderless spirits of angels trapped in the material realm of the evil god, and destined to be reincarnated until they achieved salvation through the consolamentum, when they could return to the benign God of the New Testament.

The self-fulfilling nature of torture

Cohn introduces the reader to each groups’ likely beliefs and social origins, then describes how the secular and religious authorities (i.e. the King of France or Holy Roman Emperor or pope) launched an inquisition, sometimes even called a ‘crusade’, against each of them. (The crusade to exterminate the Cathars in the south of France became known as the Albigensian Crusade, 1209-1229).

And then he makes his over-arching point which is that, time and time and time again, the use of torture made ‘heresies’ appear to explode, appear to be held by huge numbers of people, at all levels of society, as innocent victims were roped in and tortured and, quite quickly, would say anything and implicate anyone in order to stop the torture (or, more cruelly, to prevent their family and children being tortured, too).

Yet as soon as they were free to speak in front of secular courts, again and again these supposed ‘heretics’ recanted and said they only confessed to the bizarre rituals, murder, cannibalism and orgies, because they were tortured into saying so.

Cohn shows that there were real heretics i.e. groups who rejected the worldly corruption of the Catholic Church and tried to return to the simple, pure, ascetic life of the early apostles and that, on its own terms, the Church was correct to be concerned about them and to try and bring them back within the fold.

But that the way it did this – by trying to blacken their name by getting members to confess under torture to midnight masses where the Devil appeared in the shape of a black cat, and then a baby was ritually burned to death and its ashes mixed in with wine which all the followers had to drink to assert their membership — all this was fantasy cooked up in the feverish brains of Catholic propagandists and the inquisitors themselves.

What interests Cohn is the way these fantasies became formalised, and turned into part of received opinion, official ‘knowledge’ – not least when a list of these perverse practices was included in a formal papal bull, Vox in Rama, issued in 1233, which included the accusation that the Devil in person attended the midnight covens of the Waldensians and other heretics. In other words, by the early 13th century these absurd fantasies had received official sanction and recognition from the highest religious authorities on earth.

Although each of the heretic-hunting frenzies Cohn describes eventually burned out and stopped – sometimes due to the death or discrediting or, in the case of Conrad of Marburg, the assassination of the lead inquisitor – nonetheless, the period as a whole had established the absurd practices of all heretics and enemies of the Church as accepted, indisputable fact, sanctioned by the pope and the entire church hierarchy.

The crushing of the Knights Templar (pp.79-101)

Cohn then goes on to show how precisely the same old tropes, the same accusations of unnatural and blasphemous crimes, were dusted off and dragged out to accuse the Knights Templars, in their trials which lasted from roughly 1307 to 1309. His account is largely the same as Michael Haag’s in The Tragedy of the Templars: The Rise and Fall of the Crusader States namely that the whole farrago of trumped-up accusations was made by King Philip the Fair of France in order to get his hands on the Templars’ vast amounts of gold and land. Its more proximate cause was that Philip wanted to merge the two great crusading orders, the Templars and Knights Hospitallers, into one super-order and then place himself at the head of it in order to lead a mighty new crusade – but that was never very likely to, and indeed never did, happen.

Instead Philip’s loyal bureaucrats pounced, arresting all the Templars on the same day and submitting them to torture to force them to admit to the same litany of crimes: that at the initiation ceremony they were forced to spit on the cross, to kiss their initiator on the lower back, buttocks or mouth, agree to sodomy if requested by a senior brother, and other blasphemous acts such as worshiping a malevolent satanic head.

All the Templars who were tortured signed confessions agreeing this is what they had done – understandable, seeing that the tortures included:

  • having your hands tied behind you, being hauled up via a hook secured to the ceiling, then suddenly released, coming to a stop with a jerk, so that the tendons, muscles and sometimes bones on your shoulders and bones were abruptly torn or shattered
  • having your feet covered in grease and pit in a naked fire, where they roasted until the toe and feet bones fell out of the cooked flesh

As one Templar said, rather than submit to the tortures he would have confessed that he personally murdered Jesus Christ. The sorry saga dragged on for three years because Pope Clement feebly tried to rescue the order which was, theoretically, answerable only to him. But being himself French and a nominee of the French crown, and based in Avignon on French soil, he eventually, feebly acquiesced in the crushing of the order, the confiscation of its wealth and the burning at the stake of its four most senior officers (plus at least a hundred others).

The fate of the Templars is a sorry, sordid tale of greed, corruption and unbelievable cruelty, but for me is one more proof that the nominally Christian Middle Ages were a complicated mixture of genuine religious belief, almost incomprehensible religious fanatacism, alongside staggering cruelty, all underpinned by very recognisable motives of greed and ambition.

More generally, Cohn’s review of how society has tended to demonised outsider groups -from as far back as we have records – sheds sobering light on this permanent tendency of human nature, and shows how even the most ridiculous prejudices and bigotries can be entrenched as established ‘fact’, and then revived as and when needed to persecute the different, the strange, the non-conformist, the helpless. Couldn’t happen now? Well, the career of the fanatical heretic-inquisitor Conrad of Marburg could be usefully compared to that of Senator Joe McCarthy. And in our own time, right now, 2019, we are seeing the revival of all kinds of tropes and stereotypes designed to justify prejudice and persecution. At least we don’t strappado people or burn them to death – but the underlying impulses of human nature haven’t changed one whit.

Some Knights Templar being burned at the stake, illustration in the Chroniques de France ou de St. Denis.


Related links

Reviews of other books and exhibitions about the Middle Ages

Count Zero by William Gibson (1986)

He drank off the black bitter coffee. It seemed to him, just for a second, that he could feel the whole Sprawl breathing, and its breath was old and sick and tired, all up and down the stations from Boston to Atlanta…’ (p.286)

The setting

This is the second novel in what came to be known as Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy (because there ended up being three of them: his debut, Neuromancer, and the third novel, Mona Lisa Overdrive.)

It is the future. Vast urban sprawls cover half of America, housing estates and huge malls under enormous geodesic domes blocking out the sky. Japanese culture and cuisine is widespread and everyone uses the New Yen as currency. Computers and digital technology, chips and disks, fuel a digital economy. Oil appears to have run out – possibly because Russia took control of the global supply after a brief war which America and the West lost – to be replaced by hydrogen cells. Electricity is generated by the Eastern Seaboard Fission Authority whose well-protected gleaming towers of data can be seen by hackers in cyberspace. The real power in the world lies with vast multinational corporations known as zaibatsus. At the other end of the food chain, down on the littered streets, cheap bars and derelict spaces are full of veterans from the war, damaged physically or psychologically, many of whom turn up as protagonists in the Sprawl novels and in some of the Sprawl-related short stories collected in Burning Chrome (1986) published at the same time as the novels.

‘Sprawltown’s a twisty place, my man.Things are seldom what they seem.’ (Lucas, p.205)

This setting – ‘the street’ – is characterised by two things:

  1. a Raymond Chandler film noir sensibility in which the world is entirely made up of crime and gangs –  especially the terrifying Yakuza gangs
  2. drugs, lots of drugs, everyone is on one type of drug or another, the hero of Neuromancer is off his face a lot of the time, and the drugs range from cheap street drugs like amphetamine (known on the street as ‘wiz’) to new, biochemically-engineered mind-enhancing substances (like ‘the most expensive designer drugs’ which the character named The Wig devotes himself to taking, p.173)

The result is a prose style which combines the basic mood of a thriller – the permanent edginess of protagonists on the run from threatening crime lords or criminal organisations or the cops or someone  – but soaked in slangy, hip, knowing references to the ho-tech, drug-soaked, street gang components of this louche futureworld.

The feel

All that said, Count Zero immediately feels much broader and lighter than Neuromancer. That debut novel was set mostly at night, in often claustrophobic settings, bars, clubs, hotel rooms, dingy back alleys. Also the prose was extremely dense, studded with references to arcane technology or drugs or street gangs. There was barely a run-of-the-mill sentence in the whole book.

Count Zero is much more relaxed and diffused in several ways: its prose style is a lot less hectic – there are plenty of straightforward, factual sentences in it – but also the settings are more varied, and some of them even take place in daylight!

In fact whereas Neuromancer stuck pretty closely to the adventures of its computer hacker hero, Case, Count Zero is a complicated and canny weaving together of what start out as several completely distinct plotlines, featuring completely freestanding characters. Only as the story progresses do we slowly discover how they are linked.

Turner

Turner is an experienced kidnapper of top scientists. In the future this is a recognised profession. The huge scientific multinational corporations which control the world are prepared to pay kidnappers like Turner to poach the star scientists of the rival corporations.

‘You took Chauvet from IBM for Mitsu and they say you took Semenov out of Tomsky.’ (0.68)

Turner is – like the protagonist of every thriller ever written – an outsider, a rebel, the man who doesn’t fit in. Oh how we all wish we could be like him!

Turner himself was incapable of meshing with the intensely tribal world of the zaibatsumen, the lifers. He was a permanent outsider, a rogue factor adrift on the secret seas of intercorporate politics. (p.128)

‘A rogue factor adrift on the secret seas of intercorporate politics’ – cool!

Strikingly, the novel opens with a chapter describing how Turner was blown to pieces by an assassin’s bomb in India, and expensively fitted back together using future technology bythe clients who find him useful. Recuperating in Mexico, he hooks up with a pretty woman he meets in a bar and they have an idyllic romance, with sex on the beach, and sex in the bedroom.

Then – as with half the protagonists in the Burning Chrome stories and in Neuromancer – she walks away, leaving him devastated.

Turns out she was a therapist hired by the client to get Turner back into shape. The client now shows up and tells him this. Turner, super-tough guy that he is, accepts it without a flicker. (This opening reminded me of the idyllic Third World setting at the start of the second Jason Bourne movie, where Jason and his true love are enjoying idyllic times in a beach-front shack in India, till she is killed by mistake by an assassin sent to terminate Jason.)

These are rock solid, straight down-the-line, Hollywood-level, tough guy thriller clichés, and you can see the appeal.

  1. Every timid, shy, boring salaryman and commuter (like myself) thrills to the adventures of people like Turner – young (he is 24, p.131), super-fit, super-alert, super-trained, no-nonsense, super-brave, possessor of ‘a ropey, muscular poise’ (p.129): faces down men bigger and harder than him, immediately wins over the tough bitch in the team, wow, what a man! (it was, apparently, in a review of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service published in the Sunday Times in 1963 that the critic Raymond Mortimer wrote, ‘James Bond is what every man would like to be, and what every woman would like between her sheets.’ Nothing has changed in 56 years.)
  2. And yet, just as predictably, it turns out this tough guy has a heart of soppy mush — for the right woman he can be a perfect gent, picnics on the beach and cunnilingus in the bedroom. What a guy!

We follow as Turner is hired for a new job by his former partner, Conroy. He is to be in charge of setting up a base in the desert with a ragtag bunch of fellow mercs, ready to receive the absconding scientist, Christopher Mitchell, who will be escaping from Maas Biolabs’ high security research base in Arizona. Mitchell is a star science researcher who had developed the ‘hybridoma techniques’ on which much contemporary technology is based (p.127). A very important guy. the client is Hosaka Corp who want his brains and expertise. It’s a major assignment. You won’t be surprised to learn that things go disastrously wrong,

Marly

The Turner chapters are intercut with chapters following Marly Krushkhova, the pretty, rather naive ‘disgraced former owner of a tiny Paris gallery’. She promoted a painting which turned out to be a forgery, so she was fired by the shareholders. Now she’s going for a job interview with a business owned by Josef Virek, rumoured to be the richest man in the world.

Marly is disconcerted to discover that Virek is not present in person, but that she is transported to a life-size hologram of a street in Barcelona, where she sits next to a hologram of him on a park bench and they chat.

In fact, the hologram tells her, the actual ‘Virek’ exists only as a disembodied brain kept alive in a vat in a him security compound in Stockholm.

He doesn’t want to hire her for some straightforward gallery job. Virek wants Marly to track down the artist who created a particular artwork which he once saw and was taken with – a Damian Hirst-style vivarium full of a random collection of detritus.

Virek will authorise money for her use to hire an apartment, planes, whatever she needs in her quest. ‘How long do I have?’ she asks. ‘The rest of your life,’ he replies. It takes a while for her to really understand that he is giving her an unlimited supply of money, over an unlimited period of time, to use all her contacts in the art world to track down the artist who made this one piece.

And, once she has staggered out of the hologram room to be met by Virek’s smooth-talking assistants and given the first instalment of money, she begins to realise that she is being followed and monitored at every step, not least by a suave Spanish man, Paco, who keeps appearing in the background whenever she meets contacts and begins her investigation.

This Quest will turn out to be the central driving force of the narrative, but the fact that Virek is so obscenely rich also gives Gibson plenty of opportunity to reflect on the nature of money, lots of money, super-money, and the effect it has on its owners and on those around them. In this futureworld where people routinely alter their consciousness either with mind-bending drugs or by encountering 3-D holograms or by entering the dizzying world of cyberspace, the rich can quite literally bend reality to their wishes.

‘The unnatural density of my wealth drags irresistibly at the rarest works of the human spirit…’ (p.27)

How could she have imagined that it would be possible to live, to move, in the unnatural field of Virek’s wealth without suffering distortion? Virek had taken her up, in all her misery, and had rotated her through the monstrous, invisible stresses of his money, and she had been changed. (p.107)

Virek’s money was a sort of universal solvent, dissolving barriers to his will… (p.2420

Count Zero

Bobby Newmark, self-styled ‘Count Zero’, still lives with his mom in a crappy apartment in the vast area of cheap, high-rise housing known as Barrytown, New Jersey. He is an apprentice computer hacker, a cowboy of cyberspace, a ‘hotdogger’, hanging round the estate’s chrome-lined bars, trying to be fit in with the local gang members, but keenly aware that he is only a beginner with only a basic, entry-level hacker’s view of cyberspace.

He was like a kid who’d grown up beside an ocean, taking it as much for granted as he took the sky, but knowing nothing of currents, shipping routes of the ins and outs of weather. He’d used decks in school, toys that shuttled you through the infinite reaches of that space that wasn’t space, mankind’s unthinkably complex consensual hallucination, the matrix cyberspace, where the great corporate hotcores burned like neon novas, data so dense you suffered sensory overload if you tried to apprehend more than the merest outline. (p.62)

A local crime boss, Two-A-Day, hands Bobby a state-of-the-art console and asks him to hack into the financial records of some company. Things are going OK when Bobby suddenly experiences an enormous counter-surge of energy directed against him which stops his heart in the real world. Bobby starts to die, when some other undefined force leans in to cyberspace, releases him, and he regains consciousness on his mom’s carpet throwing up.

What the…?

He goes looking for Two-A-Day at the local crappy bar, Leon’s, where Gibson gives us florid descriptions of the drug-selling, computer-game-playing lowlifes. On the TV news he sees that his mum’s flat, indeed the entire row of apartments on that block, have been destroyed by a bomb. Christ! They’re after him.

Bobby goes and hides down a back alley by a dumpster which turns out be a bad idea because someone savagely mugs him. Whoever it is, slashes his chest open and also steals the console Two-A-Day gave him.

When Bobby comes round he is being sewn up using futuristic technology, and then delivered to Two-A-Day’s vast penthouse apartment where he meets a couple of soft-spoken, nattily-dressed and terrifying black men, Beauvoir and Lucas.

Beauvoir explains what’s happened: Two-A-Day had been given some new, high-powered anti-ice (ice being security software devised by corporations to protect their digital assets in cyberspace) program to by unnamed powerful agents. Unwilling to risk anything himself, Two-A-Day had sub-contracted the thing to Bobby – the idea being that, if it’s booby-trapped or dangerous it’ll only be worthless Bobby who gets wasted.

Well, something bad certainly happened to Bobby when he tried to use it. 1. Was that a failure of the program, or was it booby-trapped, or did it trigger a prepared defence mechanism in the corporation Bobby tried to hack?

But 2. and more importantly, whoever mugged him stole the console with the software inside. Now the very High-Ups who sub-contracted testing it to Two-A-Day are pissed off with him… and he is pissed off with Bobby, who needs to get it back.

Three mysteries

These are the three storylines which we follow in short, alternating chapters of Gibson’s over-heated, amphetamine-fuelled prose.

As the night came on, Turner found the edge again. It seemed like a long time since he’d been there, but when it clicked in, it was like he’d never left. It was that superhuman synchromesh flow that stimulants only approximated. (p.126)

All the characters hover on the edge of mind-altering psychotropic drug highs, or mind-expanding plug-ins to the dizzying landscape of cyberspace, or are involved in terror-inducing chases by cops or all-powerful threatening powers. With the result that the prose, and even more the plot, has you permanently on edge. It is a fantastically thrilling, gripping and exciting novel but which can also, partly because of the permanent obscurity Gibson maintains around some of the key motivators of the plot, become quite wearing and draining.

Basically, the narrative hangs around three cliffhanging challenges:

  1. Will Turner’s handling of the defection of the high-level scientist work out as planned?
  2. Who made the artwork that Virek hired Marly to track down, and why is Virek so obsessed by it?
  3. Will Bobby ‘Count Zero’ manage to find the people who mugged him and stole his console, and what is the truth about the new super-program inside it?

Continuities with Neuromancer

I thought the book would be part of the Sprawl trilogy because set in the same futureworld, I hadn’t realised it would literally follow on from the first book, referencing many of the characters and incidents mentioned in Neuromancer and taking them further.

For example, you will remember that the climax of Neuromancer is set on a space station orbiting the earth, only much more than a space station, more like a miniature town set inside a vast offworld which rotates to give it gravity and includes luxury hotels, swimming pools and pleasure gardens. One whole end of this was sealed off and the home of the legendary Tessier-Ashpool family which are the richest in the world and built it.

The Quest in Neuromancer is that Case and the ferocious Molly Millions, she with the 4-centimetry retractable razor blades under each fingernail are hired to co-ordinate an attack on the heart of the Tessier-Ashpool stronghold – Molly has to kidnap the daughter of old man Ashpool, named 3Jane because the wicked old man has manufactured clones of his daughters, and drag her to a jewel-studded head, there to utter the codeword which activates it, at the same time as Case the hacker has hacked into the Tessier-Ashpool security system and disabled it.

Straightforward as this may sound the novel kind of crumbles or disintegrates into increasingly visionary prose as the goal of the Quest is reached and we learn, through welters of mystical-cum-hi-tech prose, that two separate artificial intelligences crafted by 3Jane’s mother, are, at the mention of the codeword, allowed to unite thus creating a sort of super-intelligence which, at that moment, becomes identical with all of cyberspace. In a sort of apocalyptic vision the matrix becomes self-aware, and although it doesn’t affect the material reality of humans out in the real world, it is a transformative event in the collective consensual hallucination of all the world’s data which we call ‘cyberspace’.

‘It’s just a tailored hallucination we all agree to have, cyberspace…’ (the Finn, p.170)

What happens in Count Zero is this story continues. It is seven years after the events of the first novel (p.177) and the sharp-dressed spades Bobby has met are privy to what’s happened to cyberspace since that seismic event, namely that the One has split into a variety of entities which share the names of traditional voodoo gods and goddesses. Yes, voodoo. The latter half of the book is coloured by what Beauvoir and Lucas tell Bobby about the presence in cyberspace of these gods who represent primeval forces, though it is very hard to understand whether they existed before cyberspace, since the dawn of time and have infiltrated it, or are entirely man-made constructions, or what.

‘Jackie is a mambo, a priestess, the horse of Danbala…Danbala rides her, Danbala Wedo, the snake. Other times she is the horse of Aida Wedo, his wife…’ (p.122)

Beauvoir brings Bobby to a bar, Jammer’s, on the 14th floor of a high-rise block in New York.

The most important event in the Turner plotline is that, when the ultralite arrives at the reception site prepared by Turner and the other mercs, it is carrying not Mitchell, but his teenage daughter Angie. Even as she arrives a ferocious firestorm breaks out, presumably Maas Biolabs’ security people having followed its course and now attacking. Turner unstraps the girl from the ultralite and runs with her to a small, high-powered, self-steering jet which takes off at terrific speed just as Turner watches the campment and all the mercs manning it – who we have spent half the book getting to know – vaporised in some kind of semi-nuclear blast.

Bloodied and half conscious Turner steers to plane to crash land near the ranch of his long lost brother, Rudy, and his partner, Sally. Here they fix up the girl, whose name is Angie and have a couple of scenes reminiscing about the old days, about mom and pa and huntin’ and fishin’ in the unspoilt countryside.

This is precisely the kind of low-key interlude you get in Hollywood thrillers, a break after an over-tense fight/crash/conflict sequence. Then it is time to load up into a spare hovercraft (yes, hovercraft are a popular form of transport in this futureworld) and head off, with a vague plan of hiding out in the Sprawl, the name given to the vast urban conurbation stretching from Boston to Florida.

Meanwhile Marly’s investigations keep turning up the name of Tessier-Ashpool and her quest leads her to buy a ticket to the off-world satellite, named Freeside – exactly the place where Neuromancer climaxed. Now, though, the entire section of the satellite which contained the Tessier-Ashpool compound has been hacked off and set into a separate orbit.

Here Marly discovers a mad old cyberhacker, Wigan Ludgate known as The Wig hiding out, guarded by a young crook on the run, Jones (‘me, I came here runnin” p.274) – both of them protective of the core of the complex which is a vast space in which great clusters of waste objects and detritus float in zero gravity. ‘The dome of the Boxmaker’ (p.312)

Attached to a wall is a multi-armed computer-driven robot which uses its arms to grab passing flotsam, cut and shape them with a laser, and then place them in vivariums. This is the robotic creator of the work of art which so entranced Virek.

But along the way, being sent messages from Virek in cyberspace, when she jacks into simstim, by couriers and agents, she’s slowly come to realise that the artist is in danger. Virek doesn’t just want an art work. And now, here in this gravityless dome, a screen flickers into life and his face appears, explaining.

He explains that for some time he’s known that a Christopher Mitchell working at Maas Biolabs has been fed information from some source in cyberspace, this being the real source of Mitchell’s astonishing tech breakthroughs. And his numerous agents and researches have led him to believe that the source of this information, the superbrain behind it, also made the vitrines he set her to track down. Now she has found the source, and is agents, having followed her all the way, are at the doors of the Tessier-Ashpool satellite.

Meanwhile, in the Jammers bar in New York, Bobby and his minder Beauvoir are joined by Angie and Turner. On his long journey – interspersed by attacks from various unnamed opponents (Maas? Hosaka? Conroy?) – Turner has had plenty of opportunity to learn that Angie’s brain has been laced with some kind of physical entity (‘a biosoft modification has been inserted in his daughter’s brain’). This may or may not explain her ability to see visions. While asleep she dreams of voodoo gods and talks to them and, sometimes, they speak through her mouth, as one possessed. At one point she retales to Turner the events at the climax of Neuromancer which we recognise though mean nothing to him.

By the time Turner and Angie meet up with Beauvoir and Bobby in the New York bar, all these characters have had quite a few conversations about what is going on in cyberspace, what the voodoo gods represent, and how they’re linked to the events in the Tessier-Ashpool offworld compound (which, of course, most of them only know about from confused rumour).

The result, for the reader, is to be in a state of sort of permanently confused tension. Turner is chased and attacked, the girl Angie has premonitions of disaster, Bobby is mugged and then on the run from Two-A-Day and whoever his bosses are, the New York nightclub is surrounded by threatening mobs who are under someone’s control, when they open the door laser guns are fired through it.

Only right at the end is Turner contacted by the man who hired him, Conroy, who explains at least part of the plot. According to him, Josef Virek, the world’s richest man, has heard about a new form of biosoft developed by Mitchell and his investigators were all over Mitchell’s attempt to escape Maas. But when he sent his daughter out instead – her head actually laced with the new biosoft invention) Maas’s own men pursued Turner and Angie, observed by Virek’s men, and complicated by the fact the corporation who was paying for Mitchell to be extracted, Hosaka, thought they’d been double crossed and were also tracking Turner.

By the end of the book I think that one of Beauvoir’s speculations may be close to the truth, that The One created at the end of Neuromancer has, for reasons unknown, split into multiple lesser entities and that these, having ranged through all mankind’s systems of signs and symbols, have settled on the voodoo gods as appropriate interfaces with mankind that humans will understand. The least incomprehensible, anyway.

In Jammer’s Bobby jacks into the matrix to find out why the club is surrounded and how to get rid of the mob and the attackers, when a series of things happens. He is sucked into a powerful programme and suddenly is sitting in the same park on the same bench next to Josef Virek as Marly had early in the novel. But the women he jacked in with, one of Beauvoir’s black associates, was killed almost immediately. Virek has no idea who Bobby is and orders his sidekick, Paco to shoot him but, just as Paco lines up a gun, another far bigger program and presence erupts out of the flower beds and chases Virek’s screaming figure down the path and obliterates him.

It is Baron Samedi, one of the voodoo presences and he is taking his revenge for one of their number being killed by a Virek programme. In his vat in Stockholm Virek’s life support fails. He is dead with the result that a) up in the dome of the Boxmaker his face suddenly disappears from the screen where Marly had been listening to his orders and b) outside Jammer’s the assassins and mercs who had assembled to grab Angie – which was the goal of them surrounding the place – are abruptly called off.

Conroy, the menacing merc who had hired Turner for the extraction job and who appears on a videocall right at the end explaining to Turner the combination of forces who’ve been pursuing him, well in the attack on the merc’s camp back at the moment when Angie’s ultralight touched down and which killed all the other mercs Turner had assembled – one of them (Ramirez) had a girlfriend, Jaylene Slide, a mean bitch who is plenty angry at Conroy.

‘I’m Slide,’ the figure said, hand on its hips. ‘Jaylene. You don’t fuck with me. Nobody in LA,’ and she gestured, a window suddenly snapped into existence behind her,’ fucks with me.’ (p.292)

Turns out she has been tracking him down to his current location in a hotel in New York, Park Avenue to be precise. And, as we and Turner are watching Conroy’s face on the screen, we hear her order her buddies to blow up the entire floor of the building where Conroy and his team are based. Conroy hesitates a moment and then there’s a loud bang then the picture flickers off.

Before being blown up Conroy had told Turner that Hosaka and Maas, the two giant corporations had reached a settlement about Mitchell’s death, a discreet payout with no publicity in the way of giant corporations.

And so, in the space of a few pages, all the baddies who have been chasing our heroes and fuelling the nail-biting narrative, disappear! Turner, Angie, Bobby – suddenly they’re all safe.

Loose ends

So once again, as in Neuromancer, the novel’s climax is an odd mix of the entirely worldly thriller element (Slide’s revenge against Conroy) and typical corporate cynicism (Maas and Hosaka making up) with a strangely mystical and difficult to understand element (the voodoo gods who destroy Virek). And I think that is a deliberate point – the point that the complexity of cyberspace has produced entities which are literally beyond human comprehension and with goals and aims of their own which interact and overlap with human motivations but are extra to them.

Anyway, most of the human characters survive and in a couple of pages at the end of the main narrative we are given a little of their subsequent careers. The teenager Angie, bloodied by some of her experiences, but unbowed, uses her access to the voodoo gods to establish a career as a simstim star for the global entertainment corp, Sense/Net.

If you remember, right back when Bobby jacked into Two-A-Day’s console and was being killed, it was she who stepped in to save him. Thereafter, for the rest of the book, they have a close psychic ink which neither can quite explain and becomes more important as Bobby jacks in in subsequent sequences. The upshot is that Angie hires Bobby as her ‘bodyguard’ in the new life she carves out for herself in California.

Marly returns to Paris unscathed by her adventures and ends up curating one of the largest art galleries in the city.

Turner returns to the ranch where he had briefly holed up with Rudy and Sally earlier in the book. It’s typical of the plot’s complexities that during those brief few days he managed to fall in love with Sally (his brother’s partner) and impregnate her (p.194). Rudy himself was, with the inevitability of a Hollywood thriller, killed by Turner’s pursuers when they tracked the crashed jet to their ranch – but they let Sally live and she gave birth to Turner’s child nine months later. He’s quit the kidnapping business.

But behind all this is the uneasy knowledge that the matrix of cyberspace has, apparently, become home to sentient beings, who take the shape of voodoo gods and can intervene in human affairs. Should we be worried? Is this all going to lead to some Terminator-style apocalypse? You have to read the third in the trilogy to find out.

P.S. the Finn

I should add that Beauvoir at one stage takes Count Zero to see the Finn, an outrageously foul-mouthed, dirty and senior hacker who, it turns out, was the man who passed on the dodgy console to Two-A-Day. It’s only right at the end of the book, and after reading the ending a couple of times, that I think I worked out that the console is one of many objects made by the machine in the Dome of the Boxmaker, which Wigan Ludgate, in his madness, sends off to an unnamed fence back on earth, who I think we are meant to deduce is the Finn. So the program inside the workaday-looking console is in fact an advanced product made by the voodoo AIs. And which explains why Angie, who is a separate creation of the voodoo AIs via her father, Mitchell, was able to lean into it when it began to overpower and kill the Count back in the early pages of the novel.

I mention all this a) because it ties up a loose thread, b) because it gives you a sense of the complexity – and the wacky characters – which the narrative delights in c) because the Finn will turn up in the next novel, Mona Lisa Overdrive.

Credit

Count Zero by William Gibson was published by Victor Gollancz Ltd in 1986. All references are to the 1993 Grafton paperback edition.


Related links

Reviews of books by William Gibson

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 future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

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

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
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 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
1957 The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle – a vast cloud of gas heads into the solar system, blocking out heat and light from the sun with cataclysmic consequences on Earth, until a small band of maverick astronomers discovers that the cloud contains intelligence and can be communicated with
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

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1963 Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle French journalist Ulysse Mérou accompanies Professor Antelle on a two-year space flight to the star Betelgeuse, where they land on an earth-like plane to discover that humans and apes have evolved here, but the apes are the intelligent, technology-controlling species while the humans are mute beasts
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War has become an authoritarian state. The story concerns popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world in which he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Forever War by Joe Haldeman The story of William Mandella who is recruited into special forces fighting the Taurans, a hostile species who attack Earth outposts, successive tours of duty requiring interstellar journeys during which centuries pass on Earth, so that each of his return visits to the home planet show us society’s massive transformations over the course of the thousand years the war lasts.

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
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – burnt-out cyberspace cowboy Case is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in the ‘Sprawl trilogy’
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa

1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative history Charles Babbage’s early computer, instead of being left as a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population under control

%d bloggers like this: