The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (1984)

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

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

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

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

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

Part One – Lightness and Weight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Two – Soul and Body

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Three – Words Misunderstood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Four – Soul and Body

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Five – Lightness and Weight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Six – The Grand March

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Seven – Karenin’s Smile

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

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

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

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

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

And much more in the same vein.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts

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

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

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

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

Questionable wisdom

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

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

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

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

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

Is this deep? Or does it just sound deep?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wisdom about men and woman

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


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

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

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

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

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

The Joke by Milan Kundera (1967)

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

Czech history – a postwar snapshot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Themes in Milan Kundera’s fiction

Communism

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

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

Cynicism and the absurd

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

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

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

The personal and the private

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

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

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

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

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

The Joke – structure and style

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

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

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

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

Kundera’s prose style is flat and factual…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thus:

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

See what I mean by a very intellectual author.

The Joke – the plot

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

The fateful postcard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the mining camp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Revenge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jaroslav and the Ride of the King

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kostka’s story

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

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

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

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

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

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

So both were acting under pitiful delusions about the other.

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

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

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

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

Back to Helena

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another view

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

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

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

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

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


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

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

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

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

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum (2003)

I went back to my apartment from which no policeman could evict me now. There was no one home, and finally I was able to weep freely. To weep for my husband, who perished in the cellars of the Lubyanka, when he was thirty-seven years old, at the height of his powers and talent; for my children, who grew up orphans, stigmatised as the children of enemies of the people; for my parents, who died of grief; for Nikolai, who was tortured in the camps; and for all of my friends who never lived to be rehabilitated but lie beneath the frozen earth of Kolyma.
(Olga Adamova-Sliozberg, labour economist, arrested in 1936, released in 1954, describing her formal exoneration in 1956, quoted on page 461)

Applebaum is not just a leading researcher and scholar of 20th century Russian history, she is also a senior journalist, having worked for The Economist, The Spectator and The Washington Post. This explains much of the power of this book. Of course the subject matter is horrifying, but Applebaum also knows how to tell a good story, to explain complex issues, and to put the key points clearly and forcefully.

Her terrifying history of the Soviet system of prison labour camps, or ‘gulags’, is in three parts: part one the rise from 1917 to 1939 – then part two, 250 pages describing in eye-watering detail the horrifically barbarous reality of ‘life’ in the camps – then part three, describing the further rise of the gulag system after the Second World War, before its long, slow decline after the death of Stalin in 1953.

Key learnings

Big Russia is the largest country in the world, spanning 12 time zones. Most of the east, especially the north east, is uninhabited frozen tundra. The Tsars had a long history of not only locking up political opponents but sending them into exile at remote settlements, far, far from the key cities of the West, Moscow and St Petersburg. I.e. the communists were building on an already well-established Russian tradition.

Empty Moreover, there was a long-established tradition of trying to populate the vast open spaces of continental Russia. Catherine the Great was concerned all her reign with this ambition, and it is described as a key aspect of domestic policy in Dominic Lieven’s history of Russia before the Great War, Towards The Flame.

Forced labour Russia also had a well-established tradition of using forced serf labour to build grandiose projects. The most famous was Peter the Great’s creation of St Petersburg out of a swamp, using vast numbers of forced peasant labour. Everyone remembers Peter the Great – tourists ooh and aah over the beautiful boulevards. No one remembers the hundreds of thousands of forced labourers who worked and died in squalid conditions to build it.

Thus, the idea of setting up prison camps far away from the main cities, in the remotest distant parts of Russia, with a view to a) settling them b) developing untapped mineral wealth, had ample precedents in Tsarist practice. But the communists took it to a whole new level.

GULAG is an acronym standing for Glavnoye Upravleniye Lagerej or Main Camps’ Administration. I was struck by the hideous coincidence that the Russians used the same term as the Nazis (and which therefore appears in so much Holocaust literature such as Primo Levi), Lager. Hence its abbreviated appearance as the suffix of numerous specific camps: Dallag, Dmitlag, Lokchimlag, Vishlag, Sevvostlag.

Concentration camp Applebaum gives a brief history of the term ‘concentration camp’ which I thought was invented by the British during the Boer War, but apparently was coined by the Spanish. In 1895 they began a policy of reconcentracion to remove peasants from the land and concentrate them in camps, so as to annihilate the troublesome Cuban independence movement (p.19) – a practice copied by the British against the Boers in South Africa, the Germans against the Herero tribespeople in South-West Africa, and more or less every other colonial nation, at some point.

She defines a concentration camp as a prison camp where people are put not for specific crimes they’ve committed but for who they are. ‘Enemy of the people’, ‘saboteur’, ‘traitor’, these terms meant more or less anything the authorities wanted them to.

People at the time, in Russia and abroad, thought there was some vestige of ‘justice’ in the system i.e. that people were imprisoned because they had done something ‘wrong’. It took many a long time to grasp that ‘revolutionary justice’ wasn’t concerned with individuals but, like everything else in a centrally managed state, ran on a quota system. A certain number of traitors needed to be rounded up each year, targets were set, so ‘traitors’ were found and arrested.

Once the Soviet authorities had established complete freedom to arrest and sentence whoever they wanted, they could also use the system for practical ends. When the state needed engineers and geologists to help map out the vast projects to be built by forced labour, such as the White Sea Canal – they simply arrested and imprisoned leading geologists and engineers. ‘Recruitment by arrest’. Simple as that.

Camp life I was tempted to skip the central section about life in the camp but it in fact turned out to be absolutely riveting, much more interesting than the factual history. Applebaum has personally interviewed scores of survivors of the camps, and weaves this testimony in with selections from the hundreds of Gulag memoirs to give a fascinating social history of all aspects of camp life, beginning with the experience of arrest, imprisonment and the invariably nightmare experience of train shipment thousands of miles.

Of the first 16,000 prisoners entrained right across continental Russia to Vladivostock then piled into completely unprepared cargo ships to be sent to Magadan, the wretched port which was the jumping off point for the bitter and fatal Kolyma mining area in the far north-east of Russia, only 10,000 made it to Magada, and half of them were dead within the first year of labour.

The nature of the ‘work’ in the camps, the special destinies of women and children, the nature of death – including suicides – methods of escape and, above all, the multifarious strategies of survival prisoners adopted, are all described in fascinating and appalling detail.

Memoirists The two top Gulag memoirists are Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago) and Varlaam Shalamov (The Kolyma Tales), though we also hear a lot from Alexander Dolgun, Yevgenia Ginzburg, Leonid Finkelstein and Lev Razgon,

Russia

The net effect of the book is to make me fear and dislike Russia even more.

The failure of state planned economies State-controlled communism never did or could work. No matter what the rhetoric emitted by its propaganda departments and foreign fans, the Soviet system amounted to a vast bureaucracy of central planners laying down impossible targets for every aspect of economic production and a) they didn’t know what they were talking about b) they were under pressure from the dictators at the top to perform miracles c) so they set impossible quotas.

Then middle and lower management had to find ways of achieving these impossible targets or, more likely, faking the results. The result was vast piles of long, detailed reports, packed with glowing statistics, which were quoted in all the press and propaganda channels, while the society itself got poorer and poorer, in many places starved, and there were shortages of everything.

In this respect the Gulags were simply a microcosm of wider Soviet society. They were as slipshod, ramshackle, dirty, badly and cruelly run, as the rest of Soviet society.

Quotas The entire system didn’t run on flexible responses to changing needs and situations. Instead bureaucrats at the centre set quotas. You either exceeded your quota and got a reward, reached the quota and were judged satisfactory, or failed the quota and were sacked. Nobody assessed production on the basis of what society actually needed. The central assumption of a communist society is that the Bureaucracy knows what society needs, knows what is good for it. Thus from 1929 onwards Stalin decided that what Russia needed was mass industrialisation. Factories, canals, railways were prioritised; consumer goods, decent accommodation, even food itself, less of a priority.

Because the quotas were so unrealistic, often the only way to fulfil them was to drastically compromise on quality and cut every available corner. Hence to this day Russia’s rotting infrastructure, built in a hurry by people lying and cheating about quality and design and durability, at every opportunity.

The Gulag So this was the mismanaged society of which the Gulags were simply a vicious microcism. At any one moment the population of the Gulags hovered around 2 million. The majority of the population was common criminals – so-called ‘politicals’, the kind of people we in the West used to campaign about, were always in a minority. The kind of people literate enough to write memoirs were in a tiny minority.

From the start Applebaum describes how the system of labour camps began immediately the Bolsheviks took power, as a result of the Red Terror of 1918, but that for most of the 1920s there were clashing priorities. In line with the early idealism of the Revolution many policy makers, bureaucrats and camp commanders thought the camps main purpose was to re-educate ordinary and political criminals in order to turn them into ideal Soviet citizens and rehabilitate them into the Model Society.

It was as late as 1939, when Lavrentia Beria became head of the NKVD, that he for the first time established a thorough-going and consistent policy: the forced labour camps existed to contribute to the Soviet economy, end of. Production output was all that mattered. He instituted systematic reform: Quotas were raised, inspections became more rigorous, sentences were extended, the slave labour day became longer.

Stupid projects The White Sea Canal was the first massive prestige project undertaken with forced camp labour. The Bolsheviks thought it would show the world the dynamism of their new kind of society but instead it demonstrated the absurd stupidity of Soviet aims and methods. Stalin wanted to achieve what previous Russian rulers had dreamed of doing, opening a waterway from the Arctic to the Baltic, thus allowing goods to be transported to from anywhere along the immense Arctic Coast to Archangel, from where it would be dispatched along the new canal to Petersburg, and so into the Baltic and to market in Europe. Applebaum details the ridiculous way the impatient builders began excavations without proper maps, or full architects’ plans, but above all, with slave labourers equipped with no modern tools.

There were no mechanical tools or machines whatsoever, no diggers or drills or trucks, nothing. The entire thing had to be built by hand with tools and equipment built by hand by slave labourers barely surviving on thin soup and sawdust bread in sub-zero temperatures.

Anything up to a quarter of a million prisoners are thought to have died during the canal’s construction. In the event – because of the lack of machine tools and the extreme rockiness of the terrain – a decision was taken early on to limit the depth of the canal to the depth required for river boats but not deep enough for sea ships. This fateful decision ensured that the canal was never successful. It’s still open and carries between ten and forty shallow-draft ships per day, fewer than the number of pleasure steamers on the Thames.

The White Sea Canal was the first of countless similarly grandiose schemes trumpeted with high hopes in the state-controlled press, which relied on slave labour to be built, and which were failures at every level, due to catastrophically bad planning, bad implementation, bad management, bad materials, bad equipment and, above all, the terrible morale of slave labourers who did everything conceivable to cut corners and work as little as possible, simply to survive on the starvation rations which barely kept them alive, let alone fuelled them for hard heavy labour.

The book gives far-reaching insights into this mindset, which has tended to afflict all subsequent ‘socialist’ governments throughout the world, making them hurry to show the world how fabulous their economic system is by building grandiose vanity projects, cities in the middle of nowhere, airports nobody uses, dams which silt up – which plagued the Third World for generations after the Second World War. There is something incredibly childish about it all.

Crime and punishment The intellectuals, especially True Believers in Communism, those who really thought they were building a better society, suffered most after arrest and imprisonment. They still thought life had some kind of meaning, that there is some kind of justice in human life. They wrote long letters to the head of the NKVD, the Politburo, to Stalin himself, arguing that there must have been a mistake.

But there was no mistake. Or rather the mistake was theirs in naively thinking that Soviet society was governed by any rational sense of ‘justice’. As the communist state’s grand plans failed one after another, the paranoid imbeciles at the top concluded it couldn’t possibly be their stupid economic theories which were at fault – the only explanation must be that there were vast networks of spies and saboteurs and ‘right-deviationists’ and Trotskyists undermining the glorious communist achievement at every step.

Thus when people began starving to death in the hundreds of thousands due to the villainously stupid decision to collectivise agriculture in the Ukraine and south Russia in the early 1930s, the centre couldn’t admit this was because the entire idea was cretinously self-defeating, but instead issues ‘quotas’ of saboteurs which local authorities must arrest.

Because The Quota was all that mattered, police and NKVD would just go to the villages concerned and arrest everyone they saw, women and children and babies included, until the quota was fulfilled. Job done. If the famine continued, it was obviously because the quota hadn’t been enough. So arrest more.

This is how the Gulag filled up and explains why it was a) always bursting at the seams, with camp bosses continually complaining to the centre about lack of room, food and facilities b) was always more full of peasants and working class than the small number of ‘politicals’, and c) why so many of them died.

They were rarely ‘extermination camps’ like the Nazi death camps of the same period – people died because of the criminal squalor, dirt, disease, lack of food or water or medical facilities. Over and over again Applebaum quotes prisoners’ descriptions of 40 people packed into rooms designed for five, of nowhere to sleep, no water except the snow which you had to melt yourself, no mugs or plates so water had to be scooped up in bark or rags, no spoons to eat the watery soup filled with rotten vegetables. Cannibalism – which became widespread in the Ukraine famine of 1933 – was also not unknown in the camps.

Over and again, trainloads of prisoners arrived in locations ordained to become camps to find nothing, absolutely nothing at all. Hundreds of thousands of city dwellers were dumped in frozen fields or bare tundra. They had to excavate holes in the ground with their bare hands and huddle together for warmth for the first few weeks. Immediately, the weak started dying. Only the strong survived the weeks necessary to chop down trees and assemble basic shelters from logs, and so on.

It is a picture of unrelieved squalor, poverty, stupidity, cruelty, degradation and inhumanity.

The purges By the mid-1930s Stalin felt secure enough in his control of the Soviet state to turn on his enemies and anyone from the early days of the Bolshevik party. It began with targeted arrests, torture, execution or dispatch to the camps, but became a wave of persecution and just kept on growing throughout 1937 and 1938. This was the era of the Show Trials which stunned the world and much of the Soviet population, seeing heroes of the Revolution stand up in court and confess to the most absurd crimes (a process described in Arthur Koestler’s novel Darkness at Noon).

However, although this wave of arrests is famous in the West, it’s partly because it affected high-profile people and intellectuals and, as Applebaum shows, these always made up a tiny fraction of the Gulag population. In 1938 it was estimated that only 1.1% of prisoners had a higher education. Half had only a primary school education, about a third were semi-literate (p.270).

And contrary to common belief, it wasn’t during this period, in the 1930s, that the Gulag Archipelago hit maximum size. That happened after the war – 1952 appears to have been the peak year, with a prison population of some 4 million.

Women and children Anyone with a heart will find it difficult to carry on reading after the chapter describing the plight of women and their children in the camps. It goes without saying that rape, sometimes gang rape, was a permanent threat to all female prisoners. Applebaum describes how initially idealistic women soon had to adapt to life among hardened criminals, quickly becoming mistress or moll to some hard man. There’s a particularly grim account of how a sweet, pretty blonde turned into, first a mistress, and then herself rose through unflinching cruelty to become a powerful camp boss.

The hardest stories are the countless times new-born babies were separated from their mothers as soon as they’d been weaned – not only that but were then indoctrinated in state-run nurseries into believing their mothers were ‘enemies of the people’ so that, even if the mothers ever managed to track down their children, it was to find Party zealots who refused to acknowledge or talk to them.

How could a nation, how could a people, how could so many people behave with such utter heartlessness?

Such were new Soviet Man and Woman, products of a system devised to bring heartless cruelty to a peak of perfection.

Crime Paradoxically, the group which thrived most in the Gulag was the really hardened criminals. There was, and still is, an elaborate hierarchy of Russian criminals. At the top sit the vor v zakone (literally ‘thieves-in-law), the toughest of the tough, convicted multiple offenders, who lived by a very strict code of honour, first rule of which was ‘Never co-operate with the authorities’.

Applebaum’s section about these super-hard criminals is fascinating, as all depictions of criminal life are, not least for the light it sheds on post-communist Russia where large numbers of hardened criminals moved into the vacuum created by the fall of communism, and remain there to this day.

Orphans There’s also some discussion of the huge number of orphans which were produced by the State breaking up millions of families during the 1920s and 1930s. These homeless kids took to street life, stealing, pimping, dealing drugs, became the petty criminals who graduated into Russia’s big criminal underclass. At numerous points the authorities realised the problems this was causing and tried out various policies to abolish it. Too late.

I’ve been reading Martin Cruz Smith’s brilliant thrillers about communist and post-communist Russia featuring tough guy investigator Arkady Renko, and the later ones give quite a lot of prominence to a street kid he picks up and tries to give a decent home, named Zhenya. The novel Three Stations, in particular, introduces us to the dangerous gangs of street kids who Zhenya associates with and/or avoids. It was a revelation to learn that this problem – Russian cities thronged with gangs of criminal homeless kids – is as old as the Revolution, and was partly caused by it.

How many

A best guess is that some 18 million Soviet citizens passed through the Gulag system between 1929 and 1953. Over 4 million German and other nation prisoners of war were held in camps during and for some time after the Second World War. An additional 700,000 Soviet citizens, many Red Army soldiers returning from incarceration in Germany, were held in so-called ‘filtration camps’. And a huge number of citizens underwent internal exile, were removed to distant lands, though not kept in official gulags: for example, over 2 million kulaks were sent into internal exile in the early 1930s alone. The best estimate is that there were around 6 million special exiles.

Added up, the total number of forced labourers during the history of the gulags is around 28 million.

Conclusions

Applebaum’s book is not only extraordinarily thorough, deeply researched and beautifully written, but it organises its subject matter with immaculate clarity and logic.

The division of the book into three parts – pre-war, life in the camps, post-war – works perfectly, as the social and political and economic circumstances of each era differed so much, particularly in part three when the death of Stalin (in 1953) prompted a quick but chaotic ‘thaw’ in the administration of Soviet ‘justice’ and the swift release of hundreds of thousands of prisoners.

She is excellent at explaining the various methodological issues which confront the historian of this subject e.g. central and local archives contain thousands of official statistics and inspectors’ reports about the hundreds and hundreds of camps, but almost all of them contain substantial fictions and exaggerations – no numbers anywhere, about anything, from the Soviet period can be trusted.

She thoroughly explains the problem of simply trying to define the gulags, since camps came into existence for ad hoc project purposes, or changed function from forced labour camps to normal prisons, and back again, and so on.

Similarly, there are big problems defining the different categories of inmate – political, criminal, foreign – which the Soviet authorities themselves changed and redefined. And that’s before the Second World War, when the entire picture was further confused by the influx of huge numbers of prisoners of war, by the German seizure of most of European Russia and the collapse of production which led – once again – to widespread famine. And then, after the war, the forced relocations of entire nations moved at Stalin’s whim thousands of miles from their homelands, like the Crimean Tartars or the Chechens.

It is an epic story, involving not just every stratum of Russian society but victims from the Baltic states, Poland and Ukraine, along with entire populations of Crimean Tartars, Chechens and so on.

Stepping back it is like watching a huge ink blot spread over the map of the world from Petersburg to Moscow and all European Russia, then slowly across the Asian landmass and, after the Second War, well into Europe and then bursting into the huge area of China, before breaking out in various Third World countries across Africa, Asia and South America. What a global disaster!

The downside of the book is having to nerve yourself to read so many horror stories, whether at national local or individual level, the mental damage caused by immersing yourself in cruelty and heartlessness and suffering and death on a Biblical scale.

The upside is the astonishing clarity with which Applebaum defines the issues, presents the evidence, makes her decisions, divides the subject logically and then describes it in prose of inspirational clarity and intelligence. The book itself is a triumph of civilisation and intelligence over the crude barbarity of the subject matter.

In the final section Applebaum points out the effect on contemporary Russia of never facing up to the enormous crimes and injustices of the Soviet past. Briefly aired in the 1990s it has now been resolutely forgotten, with the result that some of the political figures involved in the final stages of the prison system in the 1970s and 1980s continued to hold positions of power and were never prosecuted. The FSB, successor to the KGB, still has rights to intercept mail and phone calls. And ideas of free speech and freedom of the press continue to be much more limited in Russia than in the West (and appear to deteriorate with every passing year).

Lots of cogent reasons why, as I said at the top, the book makes me fear and dislike Russia even more than I already did. It’s 15 years since Gulag was published. Political and social conditions under Vladimir Putin’s semi-permanent rule have not improved. I wonder if we will end up going to war with Russia.

Applebaum quotes the Russian philosopher Pyotr Chadev, who returned to St Petersburg from the West in 1836 and wrote an essay which included the sentence:

Contrary to the laws of the humanity Russia moves only in the direction of her own enslavement and the enslavement of all neighbouring peoples.

Tsar Nicholas I had Chadev placed under house arrest and word put around that he was insane. Plus ca change…

Summary

This is a really excellent history book, one which – as they say – everyone should read. Or, maybe more realistically, should be compulsory reading to anyone harbouring nostalgia for communism as a form of government or economic theory.

Or – as she says in her conclusion – should be compulsory reading for all those who are beginning to think that the Cold War was a futile waste of time.

Her book goes a long way to justifying the description of the Soviet Union as an ‘evil empire’. In the pampered West plenty of academic may poo-poo that idea – but ask the Czechs, the Poles, the East Germans, the Hungarians, Bulgarians, Romanians, Estonians, Latvians, the Lithuanians, or the Crimeans or the Chechens how much they enjoyed living under Soviet rule.

Map


Related links

Related reviews

History

Exhibitions

Camp memoirs

Fiction

Family Values: Polish Photography Now @ Calvert 22 Foundation

Calvert 22 is the foundation and gallery set up to promote art and culture from the former communist countries of Eastern Europe and the USSR.

The foundation as a whole is currently hosting a season titled Family Values: Polish Photography Now, a season of photography and events examining Polish visual culture from the second part of the 20th century through to the present day.

At the centre of the season sits the first exhibition devoted to Polish photography in the UK. The exhibition showcases the work of six photographers who all explore the themes of family and home and often, by implication, the nature of our familiar and social identities.

Zofia Rydet (1911 – 1997)

Having worked as a photographer in communist Poland since the 1950s, and gained some success, with exhibitions held and books published about her work, it was only in 1978, at the relatively advanced age of 67, that Zofia Rydet embarked on the monumental project that was to consume her until she died and to make her name.

She set out to make a photographic portrait of every person in Poland. (The population of Poland in 1978 was 38 million.)

Over the course of twenty years she photographed 20,000 people in their homes, the pace of the project only limited at the end by her increasing physical frailty. The work is known as the Sociological Record (1978 – 1997).

Installation view of photos by Zofia Rydet at Calvert 22

Installation view of photos by Zofia Rydet at Calvert 22

Much admired in Poland, Rydet is only now coming to wide international prominence. Her work – this vast sociological study – has never been seen in the UK before, and it is fascinating.

Most of the photographs were taken in the villages and towns of Podhale, Upper Silesia, and Suwalki. They are almost entirely portraits of children, men, women, couples, families and the elderly shot in their homes amid their familiar belongings.

She cajoled the participants into place and carefully arranged their belongings and possessions around them, subtle indicators of their everyday lives, random objects picked up on holiday or in shops, alongside religious icons and images which (we guess) have a much deeper meaning and power.

Rydet tended to photograph her subjects straight-on, using a wide-angle lens and a flash. The images are static, revealing, and somehow, at the same time, both bleakly realistic but also mysteriously moving.

Couples from the Sociological Record series (1978-1990) by Zofia Rydet. Courtesy The Zofia Rydet Foundation and Museum of Modern Art Warsaw

Couples from the Sociological Record series (1978-1990) by Zofia Rydet. Courtesy the Zofia Rydet Foundation and Museum of Modern Art Warsaw

Rydet broke the Sociological Record down into various sub-categories: TV Sets, Women on Doorsteps, Windows and Disappearing Professions. As you might expect, a key theme is The Family, and Rydet systematically photographed the family in all its possible permutations: men, women, children, married couples, teenagers, grandparents, babies, multiple generations simultaneously, the elderly and the infirm.

Children and Young People from the Sociological Record series (1978-1990) by Zofia Rydet. Courtesy The Zofia Rydet Foundation and Museum of Modern Art Warsaw

Children and Young People from the Sociological Record series (1978-1990) by Zofia Rydet. Courtesy the Zofia Rydet Foundation and Museum of Modern Art Warsaw

The exhibition features 35 photos – just 35 from 20,000! – which take you across or through at least three barriers –

  1. into a communist country, with all that implies in terms of low standard of living and shoddy consumer goods
  2. into an East European country, specifically conservative Catholic Poland, with its distinctive culture
  3. back to the 1970s and 80s where TV had only just arrived, and plenty of people still lived in cabins with very traditional furnishings
Women from the Sociological Record series (1978 - 1990) by Zofia Rydet. Courtesy The Zofia Rydet Foundation and Museum of Modern Art Warsaw

Women from the Sociological Record series (1978 – 1990) by Zofia Rydet. Courtesy the Zofia Rydet Foundation and Museum of Modern Art Warsaw

Note in this photos the peculiar combination of what looks like an embroidered image of the Polish Pope,  John Paul II, hanging on the wall above tacky, blow-up plastic balloons of Hello Kitty and an inflatable telephone. Are these jokes? Or prized possessions of the relatively poor and unsophisticated?

Rydet presents you with loads of deadpan images which invite you, the viewer, to try and puzzle them out. They raise all kinds of questions and thoughts.

Here’s a YouTube video, entirely in Polish which I can’t understand, but which gives a generous sample of stills from Sociological Record.

Józef Robakowski (b.1939)

Józef Robakowski is a leading Polish artist not least because he was one of the first Poles to work with video. In 1981, the year that martial law was imposed in Poland, he was removed from his post as professor at the Film, Television and Theatre State Academy at Łódź.

Forced back on his own resources, Robakowski developed the idea of film-making called ‘personal cinema’. One of the key works in this genre is From My Window which does what it says on the tin. For over 20 years, from 1978 to 2000, Robakowski filmed what he could see out the kitchen window of his apartment.

Film still from From My Window (1978-1999) by Józef Robakowski. Courtesy AK/BRANICKA

Film still from From My Window (1978-1999) by Józef Robakowski. Courtesy AK/BRANICKA

Looking down into the square below, Robakowski’s camera records the daily activities of neighbours or passersby, as well as stray cats and dogs. His retreat into the world of the everyday represents a resistance to the conformist values imposed on Polish citizens by the communist regime.

But the film is also, fairly obviously, a kind of ‘alternative surveillance’, carried out not by the state but by a citizen with an acute eye for incident and composition. A different kind of surveillance. One which claims to be non-political and innocent but… can the human eye ever be innocent of intention and control?

Presumably Robakowski shot a lot of footage. It is represented in the exhibition by a 20 minute-long video which is both humdrum and strangely absorbing at the same time. If you slow yourself right down to Robakowski Time, it becomes beguilingly enjoyable.

Aneta Grzeszykowska (b.1974)

Aneta Grzeszykowska has been responsible for a varied and interesting body of photographic work. In Album (2005) she took over 200 photographs from her private family archive and used Photoshop to remove her own figure from each picture. In Untitled Portraits she used Photoshop to create detailed colour photos of people who don’t exist but are creations using Photoshop.

Untitled Film Stills (2006) was a homage to Cindy Sherman’s work of the same title, in which Grzeszykowska took 70 self-portraits, in each one made up and dressed to appear as a female ‘type’, from housewife to ballerina.

Black is a 15-minute video which starts with her naked body, in black and white, against a jet black backdrop, and slowly bits of it are painted or become black, so that bit by bit her whole body is blacked out, leaving last of all her face, and mouth and then – pop! – all gone.

Black. 2007, videostills

Black (2007) videostill

As a heterosexual man, it would be hypocritical not to mention the pleasure that the sight of a svelte naked young women gives me. It’s noticeable the way that the women artists who make a habit of stripping off generally are young, trim and svelte. ‘Isn’t this kind of counter to everything feminism stands for?’ I asked my woman friend. ‘No, you idiot,’ she replied. ‘The whole point is that the artist is choosing to do this, on her own terms, and thus is empowered by being naked in her own time and space, at her own volition, for her own purposes.’ Still looks a lot like a pinup to me, I grumbled as I walked on.

Grzeszykowska is represented in this exhibition by works from a series titled Negative Book. This is a further working of the ideas of presence and absence obvious in Album, along with the black and white palette from Black.

In Negative Book, Grzeszykowska has taken photos of scenes from family life – from an apparently random selection of ‘ordinary’ families – and printed the negative – a simple strategy which is, nonetheless, quite haunting. But she’s gone a long step further by including herself in each of the photos, as an interloper.

Negative Book #23 by Aneta Grzeszykowska (2012-2013) Courtesy of Raster Gallery, Warsaw

Negative Book #23 by Aneta Grzeszykowska (2012-2013) Courtesy of Raster Gallery, Warsaw

But here’s the real distinctive thing about these photos – whereas the ‘families’ and all their surroundings appear in negative, she herself appears in a strange kind of spectral ‘normality’. Her figure has a kind of spectral glow, but isn’t the same kind of ‘negative’ as the other figures. Takes a while to really register this.

Negative Book #46 (2012-2013) by Aneta Grzeszykowska. Courtesy of Raster Gallery, Warsaw

Negative Book #46 (2012-2013) by Aneta Grzeszykowska. Courtesy of Raster Gallery, Warsaw

It was only by reading the wall label that I learned that Grzeszykowska achieves the affect by painting herself black and white – so there’s a direct link with the film Black – but painting the white bits of herself black and the black bits of herself white.

Just in case we don’t grasp the verbal explanation there is a handy film showing her doing just that, once again, starting from complete nudity. ‘But…’ I turned to my friend. ‘God, men,’ she rolled her eyes and walked away.

Thus she paints her white body black, her black pubes and nipples and eyebrows white, wears a white wig as a negative of her own black hair, and so on. If there’s anything to notice about it stylistically it’s that the painting is done deliberately roughly, slapdash – not to create a scientifically precise effect.

Image result for Aneta Grzeszykowska negative process

And the final effect? For me, with an imagination saturated in the conflicts of 20th century history, I saw her negative photos as weirdly glowing, as if from the after effects of some great radioactive disaster. The first of the two from Negative Book, with the man holding a child, seemed to me like shots from a weird alien landscape, the first humans on an alien planet.

There’s a slideshow of images from Negative Book on YouTube.

Adam Palenta (b.1976)

Cinematographer and director Adam Palenta is a graduate of the Faculty of Radio and Television at the University of Silesia, the Academy of Fine Arts, now the University of Arts in Poznań and the Dok Pro documentary film programme run by the Wajda School.

He was awarded a Ministry of Culture and National Heritage Młoda Polska (Young Poland) scholarship in 2010 and has received numerous commendations and awards for his work, including the cinematography for the short feature, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark Room (2009).

He’s represented here by House on its Head. The film shows the family life of Wojciech Zamecznik (1923–1967), an architect, set designer and eminent poster artist, who made an immense archive of black and white home movies of his family life, meetings and trips with friends.

Palenta was given access to this huge archive and edited it together, incorporating graphic works and experimental materials, to complement the documentary material. The film provides not only an interesting perspective on the artist’s everyday life, but also a rare opportunity to watch simple family life in the communist Poland of the 1950s.

You can watch the entire film on YouTube.

Weronika Gęsicka (b.1984)

Gęsicka is a well-established contemporary Polish photographer. She is represented here by a series titled Traces. In her own words:

The project is based on vintage photographs purchased from an image bank. Most of these photos came from American archives from the 1950s and 1960s.

The photos include family scenes, vacation souvenirs, everyday life, all lit, styled and with a slightly washed-out colour palette reminiscent of those ‘Hey honey, I’m home’ 1950s postcards and adverts. Epitomes, in other words, of an idyllic, utopian vision of American suburban life.

Gęsicka has set out to undermine each of them using Photoshop-style technical manipulation, in highly imaginative and often humorous ways. Here is the archetypal American family at prayer before a Thanksgiving (?) Dinner except that… they are fading away.

Untitled #18 from the Traces series by Weronika Gęsicka. Courtesy the artist and Jednostka Gallery

Untitled #18 from the Traces series by Weronika Gęsicka. Courtesy the artist and Jednostka Gallery

In other photos the people, but only the people, have turned into jigsaws, or have wooden structures instead of heads. My friend liked this one best, but all of them are very good, very imaginative, done with perfect style and taste.

Untitled #1 from the Traces series by Weronika Gęsicka. Courtesy the artist and Jednostka Gallery

Untitled #1 from the Traces series by Weronika Gęsicka. Courtesy the artist and Jednostka Gallery

Gęsicka says:

We know nothing of the actual ties between the individuals in the photographs; we can only guess at the truthfulness of their gestures and gazes. Are they actors playing happy families, or real persons whose photos were put up for sale by the image bank?

This question of identity and purpose may well trouble Gęsicka. ‘Identity’ is one of the buzzwords and buzz ideas of contemporary art.

And if you think for a minute, there is also an obvious influence from Surrealist art – the idea of jarring collages reminding me of no end of works by Max Ernst. Or, at least, Gęsicka’s works are highly reminiscent of Surrealist strategies.

But for the casual visitor and viewer, these ideas and connotations can be set aside. Her images work in themselves, refreshingly quirky, odd, and entertaining. It’s tempting to try and make up captions for some of them.

Gęsicka’s website has a gallery of images from the Traces series, and there’s also a YouTube slideshow.

Which one is your favourite?

Aneta Bartos

Nudes

If you do a Google Images search for Aneta Bartos you immediately discover that she’s taken a lot of soft porn or erotic photos. There’s her standing naked over another naked woman, there’s a suite of shots of a naked man holding his (impressively large) erect penis, two naked women on a bed, two naked women in the corner of a dilapidated room, one lying back against the other while the one behind has one arm across the other’s boobs, the other reaching down to cover her crotch, and so on.

Aneta Bartos online is a festival of nudity.

Self portrait by Aneta Bartos

Self-portrait by Aneta Bartos

As with so many women artists who decide to depict themselves naked, as with Aneta Grzeszykowska above, the woman in question is a) young b) thin c) unblemished, unmarked, perfect. Maybe she is asking questions about the border between art and porn but I’d have thought the answer is pretty simple: these photos are horny.

If we try to put sex out of our minds, the most obvious formal aspect of all these photos is their colour palette and setting. They are very brown and yellow, or sepia. There is little or no white light or black shadow. All the light is yellow, all the shadows are brown. And the locations have a consistent style and feel – dingy. Her nude figures are shot on bare beds, in rooms where the plaster or wallpaper is peeling, the opposite of pristine studio sets.

Naked young men and women, shot in pornographic attitudes, in a soft focus, heavily sepia filter.

Bartos’s dad

So much for Bartos’s internet presence. In this exhibition she is represented by half a dozen or so large prints from her project Family Portrait.

I happened to visit at the same time as a gallery official (a press officer?) was showing a journalist round and explaining each of the photographers’ works. She explained that Bartos’s father was a famous body-builder in Poland, who took part in competitions and publicity and tours.

As Bartos pursued her photographic studies, it dawned on both of them that he himself would make a good subject for study. Hence a series apparently titled Dad on her website which depict Papa Bartos in his jock strap, flexing his muscles in locations around the – presumably – family home, which appears to be in the countryside – here he is posing in fields, opening windows, by a railway track, kissing a sheep.

They have distinctive Bartos characteristics i.e. the isolated human subject is not wearing much, the whole palette is a washed out yellowy colour, and – as far as I can tell from the internet – almost all the photos are out of focus, presumably deliberately. The effect is to make the photos seem old and weathered, antiques, as if hazy memories of distant childhood.

Family Portrait

So, finally, to the dozen or so photos on display here: Family Portrait shows another selection of photos of her father (the solo subject of Dad), but this time with Bartos herself in the shots. It is a series of father and daughter photos. Double portraits.

As usual they are done with that very yellow tone, and all just out of focus. But what gives nearly all of them a rather unsettling tone is the way that Bartos is often as scantily clad as her father.

Mr Bartos the body-builder is just continuing to walk around in his jockstrap, as per normal, this we are used to – and in some shots Aneta is only wearing a bikini because, after all, it looks like summer wherever the photos were shot. Is the problem in your head if you find this a slightly salacious photo?

Lody, from the Family Portrait series (2017) by Aneta Bartos

Lody, from the Family Portrait series (2017) by Aneta Bartos

But it wasn’t me, it was the gallery official who pointed out to the journalist that many of the photos do seem to carry an unmistakable sexual or sensual overtone. In this one, a self-portrait with muscley Dad, Bartos doesn’t need to be wearing a bra and panties. The choice of clothes is sending a strong visual message.

From the Family Portrait series (2017) by Aneta Bartos

From the Family Portrait series (2017) by Aneta Bartos

Admittedly, in seven of the 23 photos from the series on her website, Bartos is wearing a traditional Victorian-style dress which completely covers most of her body, and even what is presumably a traditional head scarf, a restrained and ‘folk’ look which creates a completely different vibe. Is she playing the dutiful daughter of traditional Catholic Polish culture?

Scythe, from the Family Portrait series, 2016 by Aneta Bartos

Scythe, from the Family Portrait series, 2016 by Aneta Bartos

In which case, are all the other poses similarly play acting, role playing – in this one a sort of gangster’s moll or drunk hooker to Dad’s looming strong man?

From the Family Portrait series, 2016 by Aneta Bartos

From the Family Portrait series, 2016 by Aneta Bartos

The more you look, the more disconcerted you become. For me, once I’d become completely inured to the sexual element in the photos, I found myself thinking of them as explorations into the power of the photographic image itself.

Bartos is working with constrained subject matter – self-portrait with father – but creates an astonishing range of images with it. All the commentary I’ve read about them focuses – with lumpen inevitability – on the role of the female, on the way she’s playing with ‘gender roles’ within the ‘traditional family’, with ‘society’s tendency to infantilise women’ and so on.

On this reading the overt sexuality of the photographs is a deliberate challenge to patriarchal ideas of fixed roles, of what a father and daughter should be, of traditional boundaries of behaviour or perception. Fine. I get it.

But I thought there was also something deeper going on. It is not just the question, ‘What does this nearly naked man looming out of the shadow towards the bikini babe swigging from a bottle mean?’, or the way that the image undermines ‘traditional’ ideas of decorum between a father and grown-up daughter.

It is the corrosive way that the series of photos cumulatively undermines your faith in your ability to read any photograph – to ever really know what is going on in a photographic image. It was this increasing sense of uncertainty-of-interpretation, this undermining our confidence that we can interpret anything, which I found the really disturbing thing about Aneta Bartos’s work.

From the Family Portrait series, 2016 by Aneta Bartos

From the Family Portrait series, 2016 by Aneta Bartos

Curator

Family Values is curated by Kate Bush.


Related links

The photographers’ websites

Related blog posts (about Polish history)

Reviews of other photography exhibitions

(more…)

George Grosz: The Berlin Years by Ralph Jentsch (1997)

This big heavy paperback is the glossy catalogue to a comprehensive exhibition of Grosz’s work which was held in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection back in 1997. The long and detailed text was written by Ralph Jentsch, who is ‘managing director of the Grosz Estate, author of a number of catalogues and books on George Grosz, and a well-known expert in German Expressionism.’

It is a massive compendium of works by Grosz in all media – cartoons, caricatures, book illustrations, oil paintings, watercolours, sketches, drawings, collages and so on, not just from his mature years but starting with his earliest surviving sketches of cowboys and Indians and the heroes of boys’ own adventure stories which he loved as a lad.

There’s also plenty of evocative black-and-white photos of Grosz during the first 40 years of his life (1893 to 1933), featuring lots of semi-private shots of him messing about in his studio or playing the banjo – and also photos which give context to the story, from a typical German pub interior of the 1890s of the sort his father ran, to street scenes in Berlin, where he made the first half of his career.

In total there are 410 numbered works and photos in the main text, plus an additional 67 b&w photos in the 16-page potted biography at the end. It’s a visual feast, as they say, giving you a real sense of the visual universe he inhabited and the one he created.

(This book is the first volume of a two-volume and two-exhibition project – this one covers the Berlin years, the second one covers his time in exile in America, 1933-1959. Later, they were combined into one portmanteau book, link below.)

I’ve summarised Grosz’s life story in my review of his autobiography, A Small Yes and a Big No, no need to do it again. Instead, I’ll just mention half a dozen or so themes, issues or ideas which arise from a careful reading of this big book.

Transition from soft to hard lines

The first thirty or so pages include still life sketches Grosz did in conventional pencil or charcoal using multiple lines and hatching to create light and shade. These go alongside a consciously different style he developed for commercial caricatures, still very formal and multi-lined with an Art Nouveau feel. He had a different style again for the pictures he was hoping to use to start a career as a book designer.

Among the multitude of early sketches there are pub scenes, brawls in the street, and some gruesome (imaginary) murders. The point is – they’re all done in a much scribbled over, blurry, multi-line style.

What’s fascinating is to see how, during the war, he quickly and decisively changed his style to one of spare, scratchy single lines. Stylistically, it’s the decisive move: before – smudgy, obscure, feverishly drawn and overdrawn figures; after – scratchy, one-line figures, buildings, objects.

Evening in Motzstraße (1918)

Evening in Motzstraße (1918)

It’s fascinating to read his own account of how and why the change came about.

In order to attain a style that reproduced the hardness and insensitivity of my subjects, I studied the most direct expressions of art: I copied the folkloristic drawings in the urinals; they seemed to me the expression and most immediate rendering of strong emotions. I was also stimulated by the unequivocalness of children’s drawings. So I gradually reached my knife-hard style that I needed to draw what I saw. (Art in Danger, 1925)

I wonder if any other major artists, anywhere, ever, has credited their style as being derived from the drawings in public lavatories?

This is just one revealing quote from the many which Jentsch gives us from Grosz’s own autobiography, from the prefaces to the books, to the justificatory notes he prepared for each of his court cases, and to the countless letters he wrote to all his friends. We learn that Grosz wrote a vast correspondence to all his friends and acquaintances, kept copies of it all (which survive) and expected long and detailed replies in return – or else the friends were liable to get a none-too-polite reminder.

Grosz is a really fluent and enjoyable prose writer – his descriptions of holidays on the Baltic or the threatening atmosphere of Depression Berlin are a joy to read in their own right.

America

Jentsch’s quotes very liberally from Grosz’s autobiography (it is, after all, extremely jocular and readable) in bringing out Grosz’s obsession with America and its pop culture. As a boy he devoured James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking novels, as well as the pulp westerns of Karl May, the detective hero Nick Carter, and loved everything American.

Having just read John Willett’s two books about Weimar art and culture, I can see that Grosz’s enthusiasm was part of a much broader cultural trend: the Germans loved American culture. Not only was there jazz which took everyone by storm, but the radio and gramophone were American inventions and everyone round the world fell in love with Charlie Chaplin’s silent comedies.

Later, for the avant-garde designers and architects which Willett’s book describes, America remained the beacon of all things modern, particularly the staggering efficiency of its industry and design. Henry Ford’s many books were bestsellers in Germany, as were the innovations of Frederick Winslow Taylor’s time and motion and efficiency studies.

I always think the most incongruous fan of America in this milieu was the Marxist playwright Brecht, who wrote loads of poems about a fantasy America, devoted a play to Chicago gangsters, as well as setting a number of plays and oratorios there, such as his oratorio about Lindbergh’s famous solo flight across the Atlantic. American jazz, cars, fashions and technology all stood for the exciting and new, liberated from the dead hand of Old Europe and its defunct empires.

Towards the end of his Weimar career (and in the depths of the Great Depression) Grosz’s attitude towards America (like Brecht’s) had become a good deal more satirical and critical. Now he sees all mankind as blindly greedily chasing after the consumer capitalism which America has perfected and exported to the world. But although the attitude has hardened – it’s still America which is at the centre of his thoughts.

Dreams, romantically dispensed and advertised a thousand times over: comfortable living, bath-tub, sports, utility car, and at best a weekend with cocktails and beauty queen. America has shown the way, we’re following after – due to war somewhat behind – in our naturally slow way. Even in Marxist Russia, America is the model and ardently desired goal. The goal is: rational exploitation of all raw material sources so as to procure comfort for the little man on the basis of mass machine production. (quoted page 135)

Just one year later – 1933 – Grosz was himself in America, beginning the long struggle to make a new career, which is described in his autobiography and in the second of these two volumes.

Alas, several of Grosz’s biggest most colourful fantasias on American themes (from the end of the Great War and featuring cowboys with six-shooters, wizened old trappers, gold miners and saloon whores) were confiscated by the Nazis and have never been found, so we only know them from old photos.

Misanthropy

Boy, Grosz hated people, he always hated people, he really hated people. Jentsch’s book clarifies that Grosz never saw action during the Great War, he had a nervous breakdown before he reached the front and ended up back in Berlin making sketches, caricatures and paintings which expressed his virulent hatred for people, for men, and for Germany in particular, for the state which had committed its young men to this suicidal folly and which had wanted to force him into the meat grinder.

It was a combination of loathing Germany and obsessing about America which made him change his name from the original Georg Groβ to the Anglicised George Grosz (just as his close friend and collaborator Helmut Herzfeld changed his name to the Anglicised John Heartfield).

Grosz’s misanthropy makes a mockery of his so-called communist beliefs. He joined the German communist party the day it was set up in November 1918 and played a role in the 1918 Berlin revolution, signing a revolutionary declaration published by a collective of revolutionary artists. But after his trip to the USSR in 1922 (where he actually met Lenin), Grosz quickly lost any political faith and lapsed into a universal contempt for mankind.

Hatred for humanity drips from the hundreds and hundreds of drawings from this era, and from the watercolours in particular, which show a relentless parade of corrupt and ugly old men, apparently surrounded by grim, half-naked prostitutes.

Before sunrise (1922)

Before sunrise (1922)

As Grosz wrote to his friend J. B. Neuman:

My drawings will naturally stay true – they are fireproof. They will later be seen as Goya’s work [is]. They are not documents of the class struggle, but eternally living documents of human stupidity and brutality.

Red

In 1916 to 1918 Grosz went through a red phase, lots of paintings done almost entirely in shades of blazing red. The house is on fire, the city is going up in flames. It didn’t last too long, but while it did it was very, very red.

Metropolis (1917)

Metropolis (1917)

A painting like this displays a raft of his characteristics. The knife-hard outline styling of all the figures is well established. Humans are caricatures with hardly any attempt at naturalistic shading or modelling. Perspective has been thrown away in preference for a crazy vortex of planes which gives the sense of a crashing chaos of urban architecture. Women are more often than not half or completely naked, with a little pubic bush in sight just to ram home the point. Corruption, sex, seediness. Everywhere.

Nudes

Grosz did a surprising number of nude studies, almost all of them unflattering or verging on the grotesque.

More surprisingly, he did a large amount of pornographic sketches and drawings, pornographic in the sense that they show men and women very explicitly and enthusiastically engaging in sexual practices, his misanthropy coming over loud and clear in the fat ugliness of everyone involved.

But there’s also something haunted about portraying men and women again and again at the feverish, pleasure-filled but somehow empty, tragic and futile copulations which obsess humanity, and to what end.

The obsessive reworking of the same theme (he liked women bending over and displaying their big wobbly buttocks) give the sense of a man questing, searching, trying to find the answer to the reason – why? Why are we animals? Why do we behave like farmyard beasts? What is behind this absurd farce?

The sex drawings cross over with a set of disturbing sketches and paintings of a cartoon character called ‘John the slayer of women’, who was much in his thoughts in 1917 and 1918. He claimed the set was inspired by a notorious murder of the time – or was it just a misogynist way to let off steam and vent the huge amount of anger he had permanently burning inside?

John, The Lady Killer (1918)

John, The Lady Killer (1918)

Dada and collage

Grosz was a central figure in the Berlin branch of Dada which got going about 1918. He formed a close working partnership with the Herzfeld brothers who set up a publishing house for avant-garde work – the Malik-Verlag – where Grosz was able to publish a series of ‘albums’ of lithographs throughout the 1920s (nearly all of which were confiscated and banned by the authorities).

He collaborated with Helmut Herzfeld aka John Heartfield in the invention and development of photo-montage i.e. cutting out objective pictorial elements like photos or text or headlines from newspapers or magazines and pasting them into grotesque and satirical combinations.

Grosz considered the painting below as one of his most important, and it had pride of place at the Dada exhibition in June 1920.

You can see the way any idea of perspective has been completely abandoned in the name of a potentially endless collage of objects, images and planes. The collage element of newspaper cuttings and magazine images is made particularly obvious on the table. There is the characteristically bitter satire of the so-called ‘pillars’ of the establishment at the bottom. And there is a naked woman with boobs and the characteristic hint of pubic hair to the left of the main figure.

Apart from anything else, there’s a ‘Where’s Wally’ pleasure to be had in deciphering all the visual elements in these, the most cluttered works of his career.

Germany: A Winter's Tale (1918)

Germany: A Winter’s Tale (1918)

Watercolours

Grosz had a number of styles – or a number of ways of deploying his basic vision. Thus the book juxtaposes the intense oil paintings (above) with the just as savage watercolours, but the latter have a very different feel. Watercolour makes the images lighter and Grosz has a very stylish way of letting the colour leach and bleed around the central subjects, something not possible in oils.

Waltz dream (1918)

Waltz dream (1918)

The nipples and bush of a scantily-clad woman/prostitute are probably the most prominent visual element, but what I like is the variety and inventiveness of the colours and the way they are arranged in patches or facets. Surprisingly decorative, isn’t it?

De Chirico vistas and mannequins

In 1919 and 1920 Grosz experimented with a series of works which combined receding vistas of perfect multi-story buildings, as developed by the Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico, with the photo-montage technique he’d been developing with Heartfield.

The result is uncanny, weird and grotesque objects made out of material cut from newspapers and magazines. The final, unsettling element is the omission of faces from the human figures, their heads instead the blank ovals of the shop-window mannequins of the day.

Republican Automatons (1920)

Republican Automatons (1920)

In a completely different style from the raging, red fractured cityscapes, here Grosz presents man as a faceless robot, a characterless shop-window dummy in a soulless landscape of factories and houses, a heartless automaton made up of interchangeable parts (as Jentsch puts it, on page 122).

To ram the message home Grosz stopped signing these automaton paintings and had a stamp made which said GEORGE GROSZ CONSTRUIERT, emphasising their machine-like quality.

Portfolios and collections

Drawing can be an effective weapon against the brutal Middle Ages and stupidity of man of our time, provided that the hand is trained and the will is clear.

As early as 1916 Grosz had a plan for a vast three-volume collection of drawings to be titled The Ugliness of the Germans. In the event he managed to get published the First George Grosz Portfolio and The Little George Grosz Portfolio in small editions. As you can imagine, original copies of these are worth a fortune today.

One of the great virtues of Jentsch’s book is that it includes nearly all the drawings from all his major collections, including the later ones which caused such a scandal – Gott mit uns (1920), In the shade (1921), The Brigands (1922), Ecce Homo (1923), The Mirror of the Bourgeoisie (1925) The New Face of the Ruling Class (1930).

This allows you to see what all the fuss was about and judge for yourself. It also lets you see each of the series in the context of the others, building up a cumulative effect.

Jentsch goes into detail about each of the trials, giving dates and places where Grosz and his publishers were arraigned and their punishments on each occasion (fines and confiscations). He devotes quite a few pages to a chronology of one of the longest court cases in the history of the Weimar Republic, the prosecution of Grosz and his publisher Herzfeld for some of the illustrations created for a stage adaptation of the classic novel, The Good Soldier Svejk, which started in 1928 and went through four separate trials on into 1932.

Grosz really was a thorn in the side of respectable society and it’s worth buying the book for the portfolios alone, which in their spare directness brutally convey seething his seething anger at man’s inhumanity to man.

Lions and leopards feed their young from The Brigands (1922)

‘Lions and leopards feed their young’ from The Brigands (1922)

Grosz was lucky, very lucky to happen to be offered a job in New York in 1932, and to persuade his wife and children to join him early in 1933, just two weeks before Hitler came to power.

He’d been taking the mickey out of Hitler for over ten years. On the day of Hitler’s accession SA troops broke into both Grosz’s flat and Berlin studio. If he’d been there he would have been taken off for interrogation, torture, prison and probable death. Lucky man.

Siegfried Hitler by George Grosz (1922)

Siegfried Hitler by George Grosz (1922)

And he was right when he compared himself to Goya. To later ages, to our age, his drawings and paintings are comparable with Goya’s, as ‘eternally living documents of human stupidity and brutality’.


Related link

Related reviews

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Not Everyone Will be Taken Into the Future @ Tate Modern

This is a great exhibition, genuinely original, imaginative and thought-provoking. It is a major retrospective of these two pioneering Russian artists which ranges from enormous installations, through large oil paintings, big wooden models and fanciful book illustrations, down to small and beautiful drawings.

Ilya Kabakov was born in 1933, just as Socialist Realism secured its grip on Russian artistic life. Twenty years later, he began his working career just as Stalin’s influence was at its height, society was completely stifled and the gulag labour camps were full to overflowing (N.B. Stalin died in 1953 but his baleful influence lived on for some years.)

Wisely, Kabakov chose to go into the harmless field of children’s illustration and spent thirty years making a living illustrating a range of books. In 1959, Kabakov became a ‘candidate member’ of the Union of Soviet Artists (he later became a full member in 1965). This status secured him a studio, steady work as an illustrator and a relatively healthy income by Soviet standards. In secret, he created more subversive and experimental works to be seen only by a close circle of friends.

The first thirty years or so of work are effectively solo pieces by Ilya. In 1989, as the USSR collapsed and Ilya for the first time travelled abroad, he was reunited with his distant cousin Emilia who had emigrated in 1975. They began working together and were soon married. So the second half of the show – and the title – reflects the fact that the works for which he is most famous – the large-scale installations – are collaborations devised and made by both of them.

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

The smallest works on display here include a room of charming drawings and small abstract paintings from the 1960s, mildly in the style of Kandinsky, maybe. Later on Ilya developed the idea of creating portfolios of prints each dedicated to a fictional character – the Ten Characters series of albums. One whole room of the exhibition contains about twenty school desks, each with one of the portfolios on it.

Thirty years later the situation in Russia had significantly changed. It was still rundown, dirty, backward, grey and depressing. But Stalin was long dead, to be replaced first by Nikita Khrushchev, and then the long years of decline under Brezhnev (1964-82).

Conceptual works

During the 1960s and 1970s Ilya rented an attic studio on Sretensky Boulevard in Moscow where he created experimental works which were to make his reputation: conceptual installations.

This is Ilya’s first whole-room or total installation, which he created in his Moscow studio in 1985. It expands on the idea of the fictional narratives mentioned in the portfolios. Here he has imagined that a man has built a home-made space travel device from springs and rubber straps and has used it to propel himself free from life in his cramped filthy communal flat, through the roof, and up into space and freedom.

Man who flew into space From His Apartment by Ilya Kabakov (1985) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

Man who flew into space From His Apartment by Ilya Kabakov (1985) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

As you can see there’s more than a little of children’s humour in this idea. It can be read as a po-faced comment on the permanent housing shortage in the USSR; or it could be seen as a light-hearted Heath Robinson device designed to make us smile.

Next to it is a similar room-sized space in which Ilya has suspended from thin cords about forty household objects of the most boring kind, as found in all such shabby communal blocks of flats – a lot of metal pots and pans and mugs.

Incident in the corridor near the kitchen by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov (1989) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

Incident in the corridor near the kitchen by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov (1989) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

You get the idea. The clutter of pots and pans represents the endless confusion and bickering caused by cramped communal living in blocks of flats with permanently broken fixtures and inadequate living space. The large oil paintings on the wall are of natural scenery and presumably represent windows, either real or imaginary windows which some of the block’s inhabitants look through into a dream landscape.

A key element not quite visible in this photo is the music stand to one side which holds a written account of the scene. Text is important in all the Kabakovs’ works. Many of the early paintings contain big chunks of text, for example, By December 25 in Our District…

By December 25 in Our District... by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov (1983) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

By December 25 in Our District… by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov (1983) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

This hyper-realistic painting of a half-built tower block, adrift in a sea of mud and building works, has Cyrillic text all down the left-hand side. The text is a list of all the buildings which the authorities promised would be completed by 25 December 1979. Since the artwork was made in 1983, four years later, it comes across as yet another example of the shabby, failing reality and broken promises underlying so much Soviet propaganda.

That said, I loved the two dirty shovels attached to the canvas. I love text in paintings and objects attached to paintings so I also really liked the four big paintings in an earlier room, which were realistic depictions of life in some Soviet new town but which had scrunched-up sweet wrappers glued on to them in regular grids like graph paper. Why? Why not?

Beyond the flying pots and pans is a big room devoted to an installation titled Three Nights (1989). Three massive paintings, each taking up an entire wall, refer to the theme of night – there’s a starry sky, a night scene and (a little disconcertingly) a huge nocturnal insect.

What makes the room striking, though, is the way that three massive plywood walls have been erected in front of each of the paintings almost completely blocking your view of them. For each there is only one gap in the plywood wall which visitors can see the paintings through.

In front of each of these gaps is a monocular ( a single-lensed binocular) on a tripod. If you bend down and squint through these monoculars you see…  that each of the paintings has a minute set of little white men made out of white paper, cut out and stuck on the surface of the paintings. Little white men?

Aha, we had seen some of these in the previous room, room 4, which included the piece Trousers in the corner (1989).

Trousers in the corner by Ilya and Emilai Kabakov (1989) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

Trousers in the corner by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov (1989) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

Little white men? According to Ilya the little white men are inhabitants of a parallel world who can occasionally be glimpsed by human eyes. Now they’ve been pointed out to me I go back to some of the earlier works and, yes, sure enough, inside the rims of some of the flying pots and pans are twos or threes of tiny, white, cutout silhouettes. Maybe they’re everywhere? From now on you can’t be certain.

The commentary claims the mysterious presence of the little white men is part of the artists’ strategy to create ‘subversions of perspective and scale’, and gives other examples. Yes, no doubt. But it’s also funny. It bespeaks Ilya’s long career as an illustrator of children’s books. It makes you smile.

Not Everyone Will Be Taken into The Future

Following the night room is one of the biggest installations I’ve ever seen: a big long room has two rails through the middle, a mocked-up railway platform along the opposite wall from you and, at the far end of the room, the rear section of a train which seems to be leaving the station. Above the back door of the train is a tickertape digital sign reading ‘Not everyone will be taken into the future’.

Not Everyone Will Be Taken into The Future by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov (2001) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

Not Everyone Will Be Taken into The Future by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov (2001) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

This has a slightly complicated back story. The title derives from an essay Ilya contributed to a journal of Russian art published in Paris. It was an essay about the noted Russian avant-garde painter Kazimir Malevich, the man who reduced painting to one black square and so, in his own opinion, brought Western painting to a full stop.

This huge installation imagines Malevich as a charismatic visionary selecting some artists to be taken into the bright shiny Future, while others will be discarded and forgotten – as symbolised by a number of canvases abandoned across the rail lines. Who will be taken and why? Who will be left behind and who will mourn?

This work is big, but I didn’t really get it as a work of art: it didn’t seem to be saying anything important or interesting; some artists and many many works of art will be forgotten and lost. Didn’t we know this already?

Labyrinth (My Mother’s Album)

The train work is quickly eclipsed by possibly the most powerful work in the show, the beguiling and entrancing Labyrinth from 1990. Labyrinth (My Mother’s Album) consists of a maze of narrow corridors with an apparently endless series of abrupt turns. Like some of the earlier works, this is designed to evoke the shabby badly-lit corridors of Soviet communal housing.

Labyrinth (My Mother’s Album) by Ilya Kabakov (1990) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

Labyrinth (My Mother’s Album) by Ilya Kabakov (1990) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

Each stretch of corridor has hung on the wall a series of large-ish prints which comprise photos of life in mid-century Soviet Russia, set on a patterned background with a fragment of typewritten text in Cyrillic attached. Propped up above each print is a translation into English of the Cyrillic text.

It turns out that the black and white photographs were taken by Ilya’s uncle and the texts are excerpts from a memoir by his mother, Bertha Urievna Solodukhina, describing the difficulties of bringing up her son in poverty. As you progress slowly through the maze of corridors, the sound slowly gets louder of Ilya Kabakov himself singing Russian romances in a low, depressed Russian voice… until you arrive at the heart of the labyrinth, to discover it is a derelict cupboard, the kind you keep brooms and dustpans in, with wooden planks across it, the floor covered in plaster crumbled from the roof. More symbols of Soviet dilapidation and… the failure of the utopian dreams.

In fact there are no fewer than 76 of these excerpts from his mother’s memoir, too many to read unless you want to spend several hours in here… and also a little difficult to read because they are propped on the picture frames about 6 foot from the ground. The gallery does offer a booklet which includes every single excerpt but other people had it when I went round. The fragments I read were evocative and moving. It would be interesting to read the entire memoir.

Contemporary oil paintings

The final few rooms are full of the enormous oil paintings the Kabakovs have been doing in recent years. These are completely figurative i.e. realistic portrayals of people and places with the catch that they all feature the same gag or idea – in that they are paintings of collages, portraying scenes from Soviet life as if torn up from magazines and pasted together, sometimes on backdrops of ‘classic’ European painting, to make the visual ironies all the sharper. So they are integral painted surfaces but made t olook as if they’ve been cut up and pasted together.

The Appearance of the Collage #10 by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov (2012) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov. Photograph by Kerry Ryan McFate, courtesy Pace Gallery

The Appearance of the Collage #10 by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov (2012) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov. Photograph by Kerry Ryan McFate, courtesy Pace Gallery

According to the commentary in these modern works ‘the artists layer scenes from different art historical moments to explore ideas of collective memory and cultural heritage’. Maybe. But after the scale and imaginativeness of the apartment spaceman, the floating pots and pans, the huge train station or the spooky labyrinth – ordinary oil paintings, no matter how inventive, feel less imaginative and impactful.

How to meet an angel

The final room changes the tone yet again, with a suite of works devoted to angels. Angels? It includes a harness of feathers which you could strap on to turn into an angel, some delightful pictures which have the feel of children’s illustrations of angels, a lovely little model of a common or garden stool positioned over a tiny model landscape with a tiny, tiny model angel suspended over it by a slender thread.

But dominating the room is a huge wooden construction, a tilting scaffold built up into the sky at the end of which a little wooden man is reaching out his arms and, not far away a much bigger wooden angel is stretching out his arms to meet him. Will they ever meet? Can we ever achieve our dreams? Can we ever escape from the grubby human condition?

How to meet an Angel by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov (2009) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

How to meet an Angel by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov (2009) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

Who knows, but this huge exhibition, showcasing over 300 objects and works by these big confident conceptual artists, the first in the UK, curated and laid out with the advice of the artists themselves – suggests you can have a lot of fun trying.

The video

Tate made an extended interview with the Kabakovs at their studio.


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

From Weimar to Wall Street 1918-1929 (1993)

This book is volume three in Hamlyn’s History of the Twentieth Century. It’s a fun, Sunday afternoon coffee-table book, nice and big – 28 cm tall by 22 cm wide – with plenty of space for full-page reproductions of photos, posters, film stills, art works and so on. It also includes timelines for each sector or topic, useful maps and ‘datafiles’, giving facts and figures about populations, industrial production, election results and so on.

One of its appeals is that it doesn’t restrict itself just to Europe and America, but ranges right around the world, describing social and political history in Turkey, the Middle East, Africa, Russia, Asia, China. It’s divided into four big topic areas – Politics, Economics, Society and Culture – and these main chapter headings are interspersed with special features about, for example, Bolshevism, Hollywood, modern medicine, jazz, air travel and so on.

It looks rather like one of my daughter’s school textbooks, with its busy layout of pages, text, Fact Boxes, maps, graphs and graphics – all designed to retain the interest of the hyperactive teenager.

A Peace Conference at the Quai d'Orsay by William Orpen (1919)

A Peace Conference at the Quai d’Orsay by William Orpen (1919)

It includes this striking painting by William Orpen, an Anglo-Irish painter who fought during the Great War and did some paintings of the Front, before moving on to portraits of key political players of the day. Here you can seee the leaders of the victorious allies – thin Woodrow Wilson at centre front, sitting in the red chair; to his right, with the big white moustache, Clemenceau, Premier of France; and to his right David Lloyd-George, Prime Minister of Great Britain, with the mane of white hair.

In the full-page reproduction of this painting what really stands out is the way Orpen handles the immense amount of gold decoration, shaping and moulding it in thick impastos of gold paint, alive with catchlights.

A flavour of the 1920s

  • 11 November 1918 end of World War One. Collapse of the Wilhelmine Empire and creation of the Weimar Republic. Germany’s colonies in Africa handed over to Britain (Tanganyika), France (Cameroon) and Belgium (Rwanda). Britain maintains its blockade on German seaports leading to thousands of civilian deaths from starvation over winter 1918, until Germany signs the Versailles Treaty in June 1919.
  • The Versailles Treaty imposes punishing reparations on Germany. Successive treaties see the creation of new countries from the collapsed European empires e.g. Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia. Establishment of the League of Nations which, however, the U.S. Senate refuses to ratify in 1919.
  • The Ottoman Empire is dismembered by the Treaty of Sèvres (August 1920). Mustafa Kemal, who has led the Turkish nationalist revolution, becomes Turkish president in 1920. the Allies encourage Greece to invade mainland Turkey which leads to the bitter Greco-Turkish War (1919-22). France and Britain take over ‘mandates’, controlling newly created countries across the Middle East in what had been the Ottoman Empire.
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1918)

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1918)

  • Economic boom in America. Political confrontations between Left and Right in Italy climax with Mussolini’s seizure of power for the Fascist Party in 1922. In 1923 Germany experiences hyper-inflation, economic collapse and the occupation of the Ruhr by France for failing to keep up with war reparations.
  • By 1920 Japan’s population has doubled since 1868 and it seeks new markets for its economy. This quest will lead to the creation of the Far East Economic Sphere i.e. the Japanese Empire, in the 1930s, to the invasion of Manchuria in 1937 and, eventually, war with America.
  • The Bolsheviks win their civil war against the Whites (1922) but catastrophic economic collapse forces Lenin to introduce the New Economic Policy, reintroducing limited business and trade. Lenin dies in 1924 giving way to a joint leadership which includes Josef Stalin. Only in 1928, with the exile of Leon Trotsky, does Joseph Stalin take full control of the USSR and impose the first Five Year Plan for full industrialisation and the collectivisation of agriculture.
  • In 1921 the Chinese communist party is created, in 1925 the Vietnamese Nationalist Party is established by Ho Chi Minh (among others). Both of which will have massive long term repercussions in the 1940s and 50s.
Young Ho Chi Minh

Young Ho Chi Minh at the Communist Congress in Marseilles, 1921

  • A succession of British government reports fail to satisfy calls for independence from Indian politicians and the 1920s see the rise to prominence of Mahatma Gandhi with his strategy of peaceful non-cooperation.
  • Cinema evolves in leaps and bounds with Hollywood stars led by Charlie Chaplin becoming world famous. 1927 sees the first part-talking movie (the Jazz Singer). Jazz evolves rapidly with Louis Armstrong emerging as one among many star performers. Jazz becomes more sophisticated in the hands of arrangers like Duke Ellington and gives its name to the entire era in America. It spawns dance crazes not only across America but in Europe too (the Charleston, the Black Bottom etc).
  • America imposes Prohibition in 1919. This swiftly leads to the creation of organised crime across the country, running bootleg booze production and a network of illegal nightclubs. Gangsters like Al Capone become notorious and a world-wide symbol of American’s ‘criminal capitalism’.
  • Radio becomes global. In 1920, in a radio first, Nelly Melba broadcasts from London to listeners all across Europe. In the US radio explodes into commercial chaos; in the USSR radio is strictly controlled, like all the arts, by the Communist Party. Britain invents the BBC in 1922, funded by a compulsory licence fee paid by every owner of a radio.
  • The spread of affordable birth control (not least via the educational books of Marie Stopes) liberates women, many of whom had for the first time worked during the Great War. Many take jobs in the new light industries which are springing up around major cities – the spread of the phenomenon called ‘suburbia’, all facilitated by the enormous growth in car ownership. Women around the world get the right to vote: in the UK women over 30 got the vote in 1918, over 21 in 1928 – with some countries (the Nordics) ahead of this, some (France) lagging behind.
Constructing the Empire State Building

Constructing the Empire State Building

Some thoughts

I liked the way the book restricts itself to the period 1918 to 1929. It scrupulously avoids the Wall Street Crash because that economic catastrophe in fact rumbled on into 1930 and, of course, its economic consequences were chiefly felt in the following decade.

By limiting itself to just the 1920s, the book conveys the chaos and excitement of the Jazz Decade in itself, of itself, without the shadow of the Depression looming over it, let alone the Nazis. All too often histories of the period skip through the 1920s to get to the Crash and then to Hitler, who then completely overshadows everything that came before, whereas the 20s are quite fascinating in their own right.

Stepping back, the two Big Political Themes which resonate through the decade are:

  1. The Repercussions of the First World War, namely:
    • The collapse of the four empires, Germany, Russia, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian, which gave rise to a host of new independent countries, generally with very fragile new political systems and unhappy ethnic minorities,
    • The economic consequences of the peace – the tough reparations on Germany lead to hyper-inflation, but Britain ended the war deeply in debt and never regained the worldwide power she enjoyed in the 1900s. By contrast, America clearly emerged as the world’s most advanced industrial, technological and financial centre.
  2. The Repercussions of the Russian Revolution. New communist parties were set up in virtually every country in the world, promising freedom, justice, equality and so on, especially appealing to developing countries and colonies seeking their freedom.

Consumer culture

All these political changes were obviously important but the bigger message is that the 1920s were also a major step down the path towards a consumer capitalist society, as the practical notions of convenience and home comforts took precedence over older ideas of nationhood, morality and so on.

The populations of Western societies wanted to benefit from the invention and widespread distribution of gas, electricity, lamps and lights, hoovers, sewing machines, telephones, radio and gramophones, and so on, not to mention the huge growth in car use.

And accompanying all this were the posters, adverts, hoardings, design and branding, huge developments in the layout of magazines and ads, of fonts and styles. All these had existed in the 1890s, 1900s and 1910s and each of these decades had seen the steady growth in number and sophistication of all the media of consumer culture. But the 1920s saw the arrival of major new technologies – led by gramophones and sound movies, which promoted whole new forms of music (jazz) and new types of personality (the movie star) as never before.

Even if they didn’t all personally enjoy it, more people than ever before in the industrialised nations could see what a good standard of living – with a car, a home of your own and foreign holidays – looked like, bombarded through newspapers, magazine and billboard hoardings with compelling images of astonishing luxury.

Just flicking through the book shows that the imagery of consumer capitalism was more vivid, stylish, ‘liberated’ and ubiquitous than ever before. It’s lots of fun!


Related links

Related reviews

The Last Chance by Jean-Paul Sartre (2)

Never again, never, will I think about what I am – but only about what I do.
(Mathieu in his diary – p.134)

The Last Chance brings together all the fragments published during his lifetime, and then found among his papers after his death, of what was intended to be the fourth volume of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Roads To Freedom trilogy (1945-49).

I read the first three books (The Age of Reason, The Reprieve, Iron in The Soul) when I was at school in the 1970s and they made a profound impression on me.

This scholarly edition – which brings together all the known fragments for the intended fourth book in the series, along with a number of essays about it and about the tetralogy as a whole – was published in France in 1981, but only translated into English in 2009.

The ideas and issues raised in the introductory material and essays are so numerous that I discuss them in a separate blog post, The Last Chance (1).

In this blog post I am commenting solely on the two large fragments of the uncompleted novel itself. These were given by Sartre the titles of: A Strange Friendship and The Last Chance.


1. A Strange Friendship (68 pages)

In 1939 Sartre was drafted into the French army, where he served as a meteorologist. He was captured by German troops in 1940 in the village of Padoux, and spent nine months as a prisoner of war, first in Nancy and finally in Stalag XII-D. (Wikipedia)

Mathieu and Brunet at the end of Iron in the Soul

In the third novel of the published trilogy, Iron In the Soul, we followed the activities of Mathieu Delarue, the ineffectual philosophy teacher – a sort of self-portrait by the author – and Brunet, the tough-minded Communist organiser, as they both, separately, retreated in June 1940 before the German advance in France and ended up in a small French village.

Here Mathieu finds himself deciding to quit the squad of demoralised men he’d arrived with, and instead throw in his lot with a still-pugnacious lieutenant and his platoon, who have arrived in the village after carrying out a fighting retreat.

Almost before he knows it, Mathieu has accompanied some of the soldiers to the top of the village church tower where they wait anxiously for the first German scouts to arrive. When the first Germans enter the village, Mathieu and comrades begin shooting at them, sparking a fierce firefight, which is only ended when the Germans bring up a field gun and blow the tower to pieces. The reader assumes that Mathieu, until the last minute firing from this church tower, was killed.

Meanwhile, by a large coincidence, without realising the closeness of his boyhood friend, Mathieu, the tough-minded communist, Brunet, has also ended up in the same village, but here he makes a very different decision. He decides to surrender to the Germans in the hope of recruiting and organising what is obviously going to be a larege number of French prisoners of war into a communist cell.

The final part of Iron in the Soul had followed Brunet’s journey, along with thousands of other POWs, to a holding camp in France, where there is no food and his condition deteriorates along with all the others, Decent feeding arrangements are finally made and, after a long period of lassitude, the prisoners are marched to a train station, loaded into cattle trucks and shipped off to a prison camp in the Fatherland.

In other words, both Mathieu and Brunet’s stories rely very heavily on Sartre’s own experiences of capture and imprisonment in 1940.

Throughout the long second section of Iron in the Soul, Brunet had found himself in conflict with a fellow prisoner, Schneider, who declares himself broadly sympathetic to Brunet’s communist intentions, but is much more a genuine man of the people – in contrast with Brunet’s well-educated background. At key moments Schneider points out the flaws in Brunet’s approach, in the way he’s handling the men and so on.

A Strange Friendship

A Strange Friendship opens with Brunet, Schneider and thousands of other French POWs imprisoned in a German prison camp in freezing winter conditions in January 1941. Because it’s based so closely on Sartre’s own identical experiences, we can be confident that the descriptions of the camp and of the horrible conditions are accurate.

What gets the action of A Strange Friendship going is the arrival of new prisoners at the camp, one of them being Chalais, a former Communist Party deputy. He turns Brunet’s world upside down by announcing:

a) that Schneider is none other than ‘Vicarios’, a French Communist Party official who had denounced the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 and was therefore expelled from the Party
b) that Brunet’s entire strategy within the camp, namely organising the prisoners, recruiting the willing ones to a communist cell, with the long term plan of undermining the Germans, is wrong

Chalais is a representative of the French Communist Party (which was, of course, a mouthpiece for Soviet Foreign policy).

He tells Brunet that the views he’s been putting about – that the war isn’t over yet, that the USSR will crush Germany, that the workers should reject the armistice, that the defeat of the Axis will be a victory for the proletariat, that the French prisoners should still consider themselves as soldiers (p.55) – are wrong.

Chalais ridicules de Gaulle’s recent radio broadcast saying the USSR and USA will enter the war, that the Vichy government is illegitimate, that the armistice the new french government signed with the Nazis was treason. With typical bullying insults, in his ‘loudspeaker voice’, Chalais says that Brunet has been dead wrong. He has, ‘objectively’, i.e. in the eyes of the inflexible Party, been merely a propagandist for Churchill and British imperialism.

Chalais tells him that he and his men must not oppose the Germans; the Germans are allies of our heroic Soviet Union. The Soviet Union will never enter the war. (Indeed, at this point and until it was invaded in June 1941, the Soviet Union for nearly two years supported the Nazi regime with food, oil and raw materials). The Soviet Union will wait until Europe has fought itself to a standstill and then dictate the peace in the interests of the proletariat.

So, instead of subverting the Germans, the communist party ought to cosy up to the Nazis in a bid to become officially recognised and to get a foot into the French National Assembly again.

To Brunet’s astonishment Chalais says they must work to attack the imperialism of the bourgeois ‘democracies’ (i.e. Britain), attack de Gaulle – who is merely a mouthpiece for British imperialism – and direct the workers towards pacifism, not towards enmity to the Germans (p.63).

Brunet listens with astonishment to this interpretation of the situation which is completely opposite to everything he has been telling the men he’s recruited to the communist cause. Chalais has the impeccable authority of being a senior party member, and of having been free – and so in touch with the communist hierarchy – more recently than Brunet himself.

Brunet tries to quell his misgivings, to make himself a servant of the Party and to obey.

This is an example of Sartre depicting how a man – Brunet – denies his absolute freedom, represses his own thoughts and feelings, in the name of Obedience to External Law.

(There is also a massive authorly irony at work here, because the reader knows that Chalais is dead wrong – when Hitler invades the Soviet Union in June 1941, Stalin immediately declares Germany the enemy and reverses every one of the policies which Chalais had been championing. Brunet was to be proved right. But not yet.)

The second section of A Strange Friendship jumps to a month later. The result of Brunet following Chalais’s instructions is that the camaraderie Brunet had carefully built up over the previous 6 months in the camp has evaporated, and Brunet is now regarded shiftily by the men he has so suddenly deserted. They no longer trust him.

In another one-on-one scene Chalais confronts Brunet with this problem – the men don’t trust Chalais and now think Brunet was lying to them. Chalais floats the possibility emerges that Brunet should co-host a Party meeting and stand up, validate Chalais and the Party line, and then humiliate and implicate himself – just as so many old Bolsheviks did in the Stalin Show Trials of the late 1930s (as depicted in the classic novel, Darkness At Noon by Arthur Koestler).

Brunet refuses. His unwavering faith in the Party is for the first time broken. For the first time he sees that the Party might be wrong, that the USSR might be wrong. If it loses the war, if the Party is abolished, Man will continue i.e. History is bigger than the Communist Party.

1. Here is Brunet explaining (to himself) his previous attitude to his own free thought i.e. that it was merely a bourgeois self-indulgence which he needed to repress.

So much for ideas. He’d always had them, like everyone, they’re just mildew, leftovers from brain activity; but he never used to pay them any mind, just let them sprout like mushrooms in the basement. So let’s just put them back in their place and everything will be alright: he’ll toe the line, follow orders, and carry his ideas around inside him without saying a word, like a shameful disease. This will go no further, this can go no further: we do not think in opposition to the Party, thoughts are words, words belong to the Party, the Party defines them, the Party controls them; Truth and the Party are one and the same. (p78)

(It’s worth remembering that Sartre was writing these passages just as George Orwell’s terrifying vision of totalitarian thought control, Nineteen Eighty-Four was published [June 1949]. Orwell’s book now stands alone as a classic of dystopian fiction, like an isolated mesa in the desert; but once it was part of the vast ocean of discourse about communism, for and against, which washed over European culture all through and for long after the war.)

2. And here is Brunet, moments later, for the first time in his life considering what it would mean if the USSR did lose the war, and if the communist cause was defeated.

He blows through the roof, flying in the dark, explodes, the Party is below him, a living jelly covering the globe, I never saw it, I was inside it: he turns above this imperishable jelly: the Party can die. He’s cold, he turns: if the Party is right, then I am more alone than a madman [to oppose it]; if it’s wrong, we’re all on our own, and the world is fucked. (p.79)

It seems to me he is undergoing the classic Sartrean awakening to the fact of his abandonment, to his complete aloneness, to the shocking reality of his freedom.

Back in the plot, Brunet realises some men have been despatched from a Party meeting chaired by Chalais to go and beat up Schneider – a traitor to the Party because he criticised Stalin’s Nazi-Soviet Pact with Hitler.

Recalling all their talks and all the help he’s given him, Brunet comes to Schneider’s rescue and interrupts the pair of thugs beating Schneider. But the two men – who Brunet himself recruited to the communist cause – don’t understand why he’s protecting Schneider. Chalais has explained that Schneider is a traitor, why is Brunet defending him? Is Brunet a traitor too?

In the childlike simple-mindedness of the Communist Party, well, yes, Brunet is a traitor. Sticking up for a bad guy makes you a bad guy. Brunet smashes one of the thugs in the face and the pair of thugs slope off, at which point Brunet realises that he has burned all his bridges. Now ‘his’ men belong to Chalais and everything he and Schneider achieved is destroyed, in fact his entire life to date has been negated. He has fought all his adult life for the Communist Party. Now the Party has decreed that he is a traitor and so he is a traitor. He must get away.

Brunet makes plans for him and Schneider to escape. In the face of a blasting howling January gale, they lay planks over the barbed wire fence surrounding the POW camp and escape – only for the floodlights to come on and them to be shot at from all sides. Brunet realises they’ve been betrayed, probably by ‘the comrades’, who want them more dead than the Germans.

As they run for the woodline Schneider is hit. Brunet helps him on and they fall down a wooded slope, coming to rest against a tree which is where Schneider dies in Brunet’s arms, not at all romantically, but vomiting and blaming Brunet for his death.

Brunet stands up and walks back towards the guards. His death is only just starting.

Commentary

1. You can immediately see why Sartre ran into problems trying to finish this story. The more it plunges into the minutiae of the argument between communists loyal to the Soviet-Comintern party line, and every other non-communist brand of leftist, as it stood in the winter of 1940-41, the more obscure this story becomes. Not least because, as the notes in this edition point out, the official Party line was itself continually changing and would, of course, undergo a complete volte-face when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941.

In addition, a vast amount had happened between spring 1941 and the post-war, Cold War era of the early 1950s when Sartre was writing. The Korean War broke out in June 1950, increasing general hysteria that the Cold War might escalate into a nuclear apocalypse.

Why write about the arcane disputes of this increasingly remote period of time, when your own times are so pressing and urgent? As you read the fragment it becomes increasingly obvious why Sartre gave up struggling with The Last Chance and switched to writing political commentary on the very fraught times he found himself in in the early 1950s.

2. Looked at from this distance of time, nearly 80 years later, all the characters seem like idiots – Brunet and Schneider and Chalais, all blindly defending the Soviet Union which a) they should already have realised was one of the most repressive regimes in human history b) went on to prove it in the brutal repression of Eastern Europe in the 1950s and 60s c) collapsed in 1990 and is now remote, dusty, ancient history.

3. The entire plot exemplifies the way that the communists’ main talent appears to have been carrying out witch hunts against all other leftists, and then among themselves. This is the central theme of George Orwell’s terrifying memoir of the Spanish Civil war, Homage to Catalonia, which shows how the Communist Party systematically suppressed, arrested, tortured and executed all its opponents on the same side in the civil war – in the opinion of historian Antony Beevor, a major contributory factor to why the Republican side lost The Battle for Spain.

And the war of the Communist Party against itself is the subject of Arthur Koestler’s fictional recreation of the interrogation and show trial of an old Bolshevik in his classic novel, Darkness At Noon.

4. Looked at in its broader historical context, the entire sequence is more evidence to add to the 680-page analysis by historian Alistair Horne in his classic account, To Lose a Battle, that France’s defeat by Germany was entirely her own fault and overwhelmingly due to the ruinous divisions in her political culture. The french hated each other much more than they hated the Germans.

At one point Chalais, the hard-line Communist Deputy, actually says out loud that he prefers the Nazis to so-called ‘radicals’ i.e. to left-wingers operating outside the Communist Party (p.64) who he despises and calls ‘dogs’.

(It is important to remember that the French Communist Party called on workers to sabotage the war effort against Germany – to sabotage their own country’s war effort.)

Chalais prefers the Nazis to non-communist left-wingers. This is an amazing thing to really process and let sink in. And Chalais exactly mirrors the attitude of many right-wingers in pre-war France who declared ‘Better Hitler than the reds’.

Taken together it is a picture of a country in which nearly all sides wanted Hitler to beat them. I can see how this section was intended as an ‘analysis’ of the Communist Party line at a particular historical moment, and as a portrait of how it undermines and preys on a man (Brunet) who wants to be a loyal Party servant but finds himself torn between ideology and loyalty to the men he’s recruited.

I can see how it carries out Sartre’s mission to show his ‘heroes’ emerging from various types of ‘bad faith’ into the desolate realisation of their inescapable freedom: as, for example, Brunet realises that his ongoing presence is undermining Chalais’ Communist Party mission, that his own elimination is called for by strict Party logic – but refuses, in the end, to give up and insists on living.

But at this distance of time, the entire sequence seems like just a further example of the complete moral and political bankruptcy of mid-twentieth century French culture.

5. From a literary point of view, more interesting for me is the almost complete absence of any of the prose poetry which characterised the earlier books (and which I quote liberally in my reviews of them). The text is almost completely functional. It often reads like directions for a play: ‘X looks at Y. Y Says Z. X Gets up, leaves through the door.’  This suggests that a lot of the impressionistic poetry, the floods of feeling, the great waves of death and night and futility and emptiness which wash over the characters in the earlier books, that all this was put in later, during the revising, once the narrative scaffold was in place.

This text as we have it consists almost entirely of this very basic scaffold, bare present tense prose used to convey the dry-as-dust theological squabbles of a discredited belief-system and the toxic power struggles it led to.

Only at the end, in the final few pages, when the scales fall from Brunet’s eyes, does his mind then entertain some of the delirious hallucinations so common to the other characters in the series; and only in the escape over the wire and through the howling gale does Sartre let rip with some impressionistic prose.

I’m guessing this is deliberate. Maybe the grindingly boring, factual prose of most of the section is intended to enact the grindingly boring nature of revolutionary politics and its squalid betrayals.

Whereas the moments of high delirium which Brunet experiences in the last few pages, and then the intensely impressionistic description of the escape in the snow storm, represent the return of Freedom, the flooding into Brunet’s consciousness of the confusions, the overwhelming and bewildering sense of finally throwing off his disciplined devotion to The Party, and his arrival in the bewildering abandonment of his human Freedom.

To be free, in Sartre’s fiction, is to be overwhelmed with sensations and thoughts.

6. The whole thing is written as a tragedy but, to an Anglo-Saxon eye it has a certain grim humour. It is notable the way no Germans feature at all anywhere in the story: sure, they’re referred to a lot as the people who run the camp, but:

a) there’s no analysis of Nazi strategy, no mention of Hitler’s likely plans and intentions for Europe (which, though interesting, I can see would be extraneous to the core subject, which is the drama of Brunet’s disillusionment with the Party)
b) no individual Germans appear, even right at the end when they’re pursuing Schneider and Brunet in their escape. The Germans always remain disembodied shouts and bullets.

Again, to the sceptical outsider this is partly because – comically enough – the Germans don’t need to do anything. They know they can leave the French to carry on fighting among themselves, the right-wingers against the radicals, the communists against the Catholics. The French can be relied on to display not a shred of solidarity or patriotism.

Sartre is inside the French political world and so he takes endless internecine fighting for granted. I come from the Anglo-Saxon countries which had a bit more backbone and where patriotism really did unite the country against the potential invader: from a place where Canadians, Australians, Poles and other European exiles came together to fight the Nazis; not, as the French did, to betray each other to the Nazis.

For Sartre this squalid little squabble among communists can be represented as a kind of noble tragedy – but for the reader outside the snake pit of French culture, it’s just another example of the Communist talent for eliminating each other, and the French talent for ruinous infighting.

Vive la France! Vive la Revolution! are essentially comic declarations.


2.The Last Chance (76 pages)

All the readers of the original trilogy of novels thought that Mathieu Delarue – the most obviously autobiographical character in the series, an ineffectual philosophy teacher much like Sartre – had been blown to smithereens at the end of part one of Iron in the Soul. But no, folks, he’s back and more plagued by philosophical doubts than ever!

Nothing is explained. The other sizeable fragment of the unfinished novel – titled The Last Chance – just starts with Mathieu in a German prisoner of war hospital, from which he’s soon transferred out into the wider camp.

The section opens with him helping a young man who has lost both his legs, amputated after being hit by a shell, put on his ‘pants’ (all the way through the text are reminders that this is a translation into American prose). Apparently, Mathieu was shot through the lungs and still feels weak, but survived otherwise unscathed. Huh.

As usual, two things happen immediately with Mathieu: he is nervous around other human beings, over-sensitively noticing all aspects about them, and his reactions to them, and their reactions to his reactions to them, and so on.

And his consciousness is, as usual, susceptible to being flooded with overwhelming, uncontrollable perceptions and sensations. His perceptions flood his mind. This is the Sartre of his first novel, Nausea, and a feature of almost all the characters in the first two novels in the sequence.

He opened his eyes, and saw nothing. He was nowhere. Between two wooden frames with rectangular holes, there were a table and benches, but it was nothing, not even furniture, not even utensils, not even things; the inert underside of a few simple gestures; suspended in emptiness. The emptiness enveloped Mathieu with a glassy dissolving look, penetrating his eyes, gnawing at his flesh, all there was was a skeleton: ‘I’ll be living in emptiness.’ The skeleton took a seated position. (p.110)

This is just the latest in a long line of occasions when Sartrean characters cease to perceive the world normally, cease even perceive themselves as human, instead become perceiving objects, lose all their personality, are suffused with grand abstractions like death, night, freedom and so on.

I like them. I like this way of thinking and writing. The world, very obviously, is far far weirder than official discourse permits, and Sartre is a great poet of this weirdness, the weirdness of being a walking, sentient nervous system adrift in a sea of things.

Just as characteristically, Mathieu then hallucinates that the dour defeated inhabitants of the wider POW camp are sub-human, insects, crustaceans.

Even though they filled him with a slight repulsion, and even fear, like the crazies he had seen in Rouen in 1936, he knew perfectly well that he was not in an insane asylum: rather, he was in a breeding ground of crabs and lobsters. He was fascinated by these prehistoric crustaceans who crawled around on the tormented ground of an unknown planet, suddenly his heart sank and he thought: in a few days, I’ll be one of them. He would have these same eyes, airs and gestures, he would understand these incomprehensible creatures from inside, he would be a crab. (p.113)

Weird, huh? And reminds me of the notion I developed in reading The Reprieve that there is something distinctly science fiction-y about much of the altered states Sartre describes.

He was most certainly not in Africa, not even anywhere on a human planet. He was walking dry and crisp, between the glass panes of an aquarium. The horror was not in him yet, he could still defend himself against it: it was in things, and in the eyes of those who saw what he didn’t see. But soon, because of the water pressure and the great sea-spiders, these panes would break. (p.121)

The contrast between the histrionic, science fiction prose poetry of the Mathieu section and the spare functional prose of most of the Brunet section clinches the idea that Sartre alters his prose style to match the subject/character. I am genuinely impressed by the range of styles and rhetorical effects Sartre can pull off.

The structure of the complete novel

As to the plot, all we have is fragments. In the notes, the editor Craig Vasey, explains that the plan for the entire book appears to have been something like:

  • Novel opens with Mathieu in the infirmary. He helps the amputee put on his ‘pants’.
  • Mathieu transfers to the camp where he thinks the defeated soldiers look like undersea crabs.
  • Cut to Brunet smoothly running his circle of comrades, until Chalais arrives and turns everything upside down.
  • Back to Mathieu: through his eyes we see fragmentary descriptions of camp life and mentality.
    • Ramard: someone has stolen a fur coat from the German stores, Mathieu helps a fellow inmate hide some stolen champagne.
    • The only first-person narrative anywhere in the series, apparently from Mathieu’s diary, as he meets the disconsolate architect Longin.
    • One of the prisoners gets hold of a newspaper from a new inmate and reads it out to Mathieu’s room-mates, with Mathieu interpolating his usual philosophic ruminations.
    • The Dream of killing: Mathieu has a recurrent waking dream of killing his room-mates. A form of post-traumatic stress triggered by his shooting German soldiers back in the church tower. Interestingly, there are seven fragments on this one theme which are obviously reworkings of the same scene: Mathieu is sitting in a prison office watching his colleague, Chomat, doing paperwork and imagines killing him with a knife slipped into the nape of his neck. Over and over.
  • Cut back to Brunet. It’s 40 days after he was captured trying to escape, the snow-bound escape attempt in which Schneider died. Surprisingly, he wasn’t shot but put in the punishment block. Now, released, Brunet returns to his old barrack with trepidation only to discover that Chalais and the cohort of comrades who had it in for him have all been shipped out. Gone as if they never were. He is no longer under imminent threat of assassination. Then Brunet gets wind of an escape committee, is taken to see it and discovers…
  • That it is run by his childhood friend, Mathieu. The book seems to have been intended to climax with the encounter between Mathieu and Brunet, each assessing the road the other has travelled. They don’t particularly like each other. In fact the main tone is one of boredom and mild dislike.
  • The novel climaxes with a dramatic and philosophical encounter between Brunet and Mathieu.

The encounter between Brunet and Mathieu should have triumphantly completed the circle. They met in the first book, The Age of Reason, where the manly and convinced communist Brunet tried to persuade the ineffectual philosopher Mathieu to join him.

Now Brunet has been disowned by the communist party and discovered how tough life is on the ‘outside’, whereas Mathieu has not only ‘become free’ by shooting German soldiers from that church tower, but also – we now learn – runs the team that organises escapes from the camp. He has become the man of action while Brunet has become the man of uncertainty.

And, in a final rather melodramatic twist, it is revealed that the snitch who betrayed Brunet and Schneider’s escape attempt wasn’t Chalais the Commissar, it was the fat, thieving prole Moûlu. And in fact, while they’ve been chatting, Mathieu now reveals that his fellow escape committee members have just tried and executed Moûlu by strangling him. Brunet is more angry than shocked.

But the reader is shocked.

Mathieu says Brunet will be suspected by the Germans when Moûlu’s body is found, so they’ll arrange for his escape early the next morning. And it’s here that this long, fragmented section ends.


American translation

The translation is by an American, Craig Vasey, Professor of Philosophy at the Mary Washington University, Virginia.

This is a shame because Sartre’s demotic French is translated into demotic American, which jars with the English reader. ‘Mad’ means angry’; ‘pants’ mean ‘trousers’; the Germans become ‘the Krauts’, so that it feels like we’re in a U.S. war movie.

Worst of all, all the men or blokes are referred to as ‘the guys’. Innocuous though this trivial verbal choice may sound, it has major ramifications because the word appears numerous times on every page. For me it dominated the entire reading experience and its continual repetition had the effect of making it seem like we’re in a movie about the mafia.

  • Twenty guys are washing quickly under a shelter.
  • The guys are putting on their coats; they are heading off for work.
  • Brunet looks at his guys with satisfaction.
  • ‘This guy’s name is Schneider.’
  • ‘Our guys in Algiers have the proof.’
  • ‘My guys can’t stand him.’
  • ‘He’s not that kind of guy.’
  • ‘Don’t say anything to the guys.’
  • ‘I’m going to send you up one of my guys.’
  • ‘These Dutch guys don’t speak a word of French.’
  • ‘Hey,’ say the guys, ‘it’s Brunet.’
  • ‘What do you guys want?’
  • All the guys are there, all the guys looking at him…
  • ‘Don’t think about it too much guys…’
  • ‘You guys are assholes…’

Credit

The French edition of The Last Chance by Jean-Paul Sartre was published by Editions Gallimard in 1981. This English translation by Craig Vasey was published by Continuum International Publishing in 2009. All references are to the CIP paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other books by Jean-Paul Sartre

Reviews of related books

Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler (1940)

Koestler biography

Born in Hungary in 1905, of Jewish parents, Arthur Koestler joined the German Communist party in 1931 and worked as a freelance journalist across Europe in the 1930s. Like many Communist Party members, Koestler was shocked and disillusioned by Stalin’s show trials, held in Moscow from 1936 to 1938. He knew personally some of the senior Bolshevik figures who were made to confess a litany of improbable crimes and humiliate themselves at their public trials, before being carted off to be executed. Very obviously Stalin was getting rid of the ‘old guard’ of the Party, eliminating rivals and consolidating his grip on power.

As a result Koestler quit the Communist Party in 1938 and began writing Darkness at Noon. The novel is an imagining of the interrogation of a fictional figure, Rubashov, an old Bolshevik who is arrested, imprisoned, and tried for treason against the Bolshevik government that he had helped to create.

Translated from German

Koestler wrote the novel in German and it was translated into English by his lover, the sculptor Daphne Hardy. The phrasing frequently betrays its German origin. For example, when the two men from the Commissariat of the Interior arrive to arrest Rubashov and bang on the door of his apartment in the middle of the night, a woman downstairs yells at them to shut up, at which Vasily, the building’s porter, shouts back:

‘Be quiet,’ shouted Vasily. ‘Here is authority.’ (p.13)

No English person ever used that wording.

  • He sniffed and noticed that for some time already he had the scent of Arlova in his nostrils.
  • For a whole while No. 402 did not answer.

Maybe it is deliberately cast in unEnglish English in order to emphasise the unEnglish setting and the unEnglish mind-set of the story.

The fear

Darkness at Noon terrified me when I read it as a teenager in the 1970s, when the Soviet dictatorship still dominated Eastern Europe, routinely arresting and imprisoning its dissidents in psychiatric hospitals. The scenes it described still seemed possible and had a horrifying compulsion about them, like the terrifying scenes depicted in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novels a generation later. (Somehow the atmosphere changed when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and very visibly got bogged down in an unwinnable war. Their mystique of omnipotence was punctured.)

Darkness at Noon

Rereading Darkness at Noon now, it seems almost gentle next to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The character Rubashov is depicted as calmly accepting his fate – he has been in many prisons before, he knows the ropes, how to preserve food, how to contact the prisoner in the neighbouring cell by tapping messages out on the pipes and so on. And he is interrogated first by a former friend and colleague, Ivanov, who is unwisely considerate to his prisoner until he himself is arrested and hauled off to be shot. Ivanov is replaced by his more ruthless and hard-headed subordinate, Gletkin, his head shaved to reveal a harsh scar, always impeccably dressed and rigid in his interrogator’s chair – Rubashov calls him a Neanderthal to his face. He is the stony-hearted generation the Revolution has produced.

And yet neither interrogator lays a finger on him. They keep him readily supplied with cigarettes. Gletkin’s interrogation ‘technique’ amounts to carrying out long sessions before a blindingly bright desk-top light and only allowing Rubashov two hours sleep before waking him and bringing him back for more questioning.

Rather than physical violence or even threat, Rubashov is broken down cleverly by the interrogator pointing out a series of encounters and conversations Rubashov had with various figures in the past – during the time he was posted abroad as a trade delegate, or in other episodes, earlier in his career, when he worked undercover in Germany. Also by the treacherous affair he had with his bovine secretary, Arlova.

Under questioning Rubashov admits that he is cynical about ‘the leader’ of the Revolution (universally referred to in the book, not as Stalin, but as ‘Number 1’). As a result he is forced to confess that when, a few years earlier, he had returned from imprisonment in Germany and staunchly declared his support for Number 1, he must have been lying. When he allowed Arlova to be arrested, denounced and executed a year or so later, the interrogator points out that Rubashov could – if he had wanted to – have stood up in her defence. He didn’t. Now though – as Gletka points out in his unrelenting, logical way – Rubashov admits he knew she was innocent of all charges. In other words, he sacrificed his lover to save his own skin. Is he really such a noble hero of conscience? Is he not in reality a weak old man who is putting personal pride above the future of his Nation?

Thus the ‘interrogation’ is entirely psychological, wearing down Rubashov’s sense of himself as someone special, making him feel guilty, making him realise he is a selfish liar, and so on. This is drastically different from the harrowing interrogation scenes in Nineteen Eight-Four, where Winston Smith is injected with drugs and repeatedly electrocuted, causing his body to arch and spasm in unbearable pain.

Slowly a web is spun round Rubashov from casual conversations, comments and actions raked up from throughout his career, which are twisted in such a way as to fully justify the accusation that he is guilty of cynicism and mockery towards Number 1 and the Party, guilty of counter-revolutionary thoughts.

And slowly Rubashov himself comes to realise that he really is guilty, that he really has drifted away from the Party, that he really would join any available opposition and would, if the opportunity presented itself, help to assassinate Number 1. It doesn’t really matter that there is no organised opposition; it doesn’t really matter that there was never a plot to poison Number 1. He would have done all those things. He is guilty as charged.

To give an example: in one scene Rubashov is confronted with the son of a former friend who he met when he was posted abroad, and is reminded of a long-forgotten conversation between all three of them about what they would do if they had the (purely theoretical) opportunity to change the direction of the Revolution, to bring it back in a more humane direction.

Rubashov has frequently seen this young man in the bleak exercise yard where he and other prisoners are taken and had nicknamed ‘Harelip’ from his appearance. Now, confronted with him in the interrogation room, Rubashov realises that Harelip has himself been beaten, starved and demoralised into numbly declaring to his face that Rubashov commissioned him to poison Number 1.

Rubashov knows the accusation that there was ever a concrete assassination plan is nonsense – but he did have dissident conversations with the boy and his father, they did discuss whether the Revolution might be made to take a different turn, they did speculate what would happen if Number 1 could be got rid of. Slowly, through incidents like this, the interrogator brings Rubashov to see that, even if he didn’t plan any of the ridiculous charges pressed against him – he might haveHe could have. Objectively, from the Party’s point of view, he is guilty as charged.

Moreover, Rubashov himself in his revolutionary prime, earlier in the 1930s, had been just as cruel and unflinching as Gletkin. He himself had sacrificed members of a Communist cell in Germany because, after the Nazis came to power and arrested many of them, the survivors said they needed to adopt new tactics. Rubashov, as representative of the Comintern, disagreed, disciplined them, and ultimately denounced them to the Nazi authorities. On another occasion he got to know Little Loewy, a cripple working for the Party in a North European port who had organised fervent Communist Party activism across the docks – and had had to explain to him and his colleagues – who had been carrying out a strict and honourable boycott of foreign goods arriving at the port – that the Soviet Union had now completely changed its approach, and wanted to sell vital raw materials to the Nazi regime. If they didn’t someone else would, and the Nation desperately needs the cash to carry out its own industrialisation, to make itself strong enough to resist attack. Some of the dockers Rubashov explains this to leave the room in disgust. Little Loewy agrees without hesitation, but later hangs himself.

Koestler shows us Rubashov haunted by memories like this, some in dreams, some in daylight remembrance, being forced to review his hard-hearted career, analysing his behaviour, and slowly acknowledging that Ivanov, and then Gletkin, are only being as thorough and logical and dispassionate as he was in his prime. The Revolution cannot afford bourgeois sentimentality. He is brought to see that, yes, his own self-sacrifice is the logical step. He must submit.

Nineteen Eighty-Four describes the events of a few days in Winston Smith’s life. By contrast Darkness at Noon uses Rubashov’s memories and musings, as he lies on his prison bunk, to range far and wide over Communist Party activities and Soviet policy throughout the 1930s, as epitomised by Rubashov’s career.

Darkness at Noon feels on the one hand wider and richer than Orwell’s novel, because it covers a longer period and with more complex relationships with a bigger cast of characters – but at the same time is significantly less intense, because Rubashov meets and interacts with a large number of people out there in the real world, with all its colour and smells and sights and distractions – whereas Winston Smith cannot escape anywhere from the nightmarish gaze of the telescreen, Big Brother and his own terrified claustrophobic thoughts.

Dreams and issues

Darkness at Noon also feels softer in the sense that many of Rubashov’s memories are mixed up with dreams: he relives the same events over and over – his meeting with nervous Peter the German cell-leader, his friendship and then betrayal of Little Loewy, his nights in bed with his supine mistress, Arlova – all these are recalled in great physical and sensual detail, and recur again and again as in a dream. Sometimes Rubashov has trouble knowing whether he’s sleeping or waking.

Similarly, many of the exchanges between Rubashov and his two interrogators are rather poetic and philosophical, in a dreamy European kind of way. Where Winston Smith and his interrogator O’Brien discuss the nature of power in a ruthless, logical way, O’Brien’s relentless logic of power bearing down on Smith like a nightmare which the reader shares, by contrast Ivanov is given to poetic flights of fancy.

For example, at one stage Ivanov launches out on a long disquisition about God and Satan, bringing these Christian characters up to date to apply to the present European situation. Ivanov says all this while pouring himself and Rubashov glasses of brandy. It could almost come from a bourgeois 19th century ‘novel of ideas’, the characters sitting in front of a roaring fire in the drawing room of a grand house, swirling brandy round their glasses, puffing on cigars.

‘I would like to write a Passion play in which God and the Devil dispute for the soul of Saint Rubashov. After a life of sin, he has turned to God – to a God with the double chin of industrial liberalism and the charity of the Salvation Army soups. Satan, on the contrary, is thin, ascetic and a fanatical devotee of logic. He reads Machiavelli, Ignatius of Loyola, Marx and Hegel; he is cold and unmerciful to mankind, out of a kind of mathematical mercifulness. He is damned always to do that which is most repugnant to him: to become a slaughterer, in order to abolish slaughtering, to sacrifice lambs so that no more lambs may be slaughtered, to whip people with knouts so that they may learn not to let themselves be whipped, to strip himself of every scruple in the name of a higher scrupulousness, and to challenge the hatred of mankind because of his love for it – an abstract and geometric love. Apage Satanas! Comrade Rubashov prefers to become a martyr. The columnists of the liberal Press, who hated him during his lifetime, will sanctify him after his death. He has discovered a conscience, and a conscience renders one as unfit for the revolution as a double chin. Conscience eats through the brain like a cancer, until the whole of the grey matter is devoured. Satan is beaten and withdraws – but don’t imagine that he grinds his teeth and spits fire in his fury. He shrugs his shoulders; he is thin and ascetic; he has seen many weaken and creep out of his ranks with
pompous pretexts…’
Ivanov paused and poured himself another glass of brandy. Rubashov walked up and down in front of the window.

This is typical of the frequent long, rather wordy and metaphorical debates the characters have. It could come from a George Bernard Shaw play, or maybe a Chekhov story. And it’s what I mean by ‘softer’ or ‘more relaxing’ than the Orwell: many passages feature long-winded chatty discussions which rather inevitably refer to the ‘great’ European classics like Dostoyevsky or Don Quixote.

On the other hand, these passages often snap back out of their amiable doze into the harsh light of the present and snap the reader back to the 1930s, to the era of totalitarianism, to the prison cell and the interrogation room.

In another long passage Ivanov gives the rationale for all the brutality of the Soviet regime during the 1930s. Koestler makes it a handy summary of the Soviet Union’s crimes and this long passage must have scandalised loyal Communist Party members and fellow-travellers in the West.

Ivanov explains that the Party has had only decades, only a few years, to try and catch up with the advances the capitalist West has had 150 years to make – no wonder they have to be ruthless: ‘it is to ensure the Revolution survives; it is to ensure the peace and happiness of a future generation, that we must be brutal, now.’ At which Rubashov finally lets rip a long stream of the crimes of the Soviet regime.

Rubashov rubbed his pince-nez on his sleeve, and looked at him short-sightedly. ‘What a mess,’ he said, ‘what a mess we have made of our golden age.’

Ivanov smiled. ‘Maybe,’ he said happily. ‘Look at the Gracchi and Saint Just and the Commune of Paris. Up to now, all revolutions have been made by moralizing dilettantes. They were always in good faith and perished because of their dilettantism. We for the first time are consequent…’

‘Yes,’ said Rubashov. ‘So consequent; that in the interests of a just distribution of land we deliberately let die of starvation about five million farmers and their families in one year. So consequent were we in the liberation of human beings from the shackles of industrial exploitation that we sent about ten million people to do forced labour in the Arctic regions and the jungles of the East, under conditions similar to those of antique galley slaves. So consequent that, to settle a difference of opinion, we know only one argument: death, whether it is a matter of submarines, manure, or the party line to be followed in Indo-China. Our engineers work with the constant knowledge that an error in calculation may take them to prison or the scaffold; the higher officials in our administration ruin and destroy their subordinates, because they know that they will be held responsible for the slightest slip and be destroyed themselves; our poets settle discussions on questions of style by denunciations to the Secret Police, because the expressionists consider the naturalistic style counter-revolutionary, and vice versa. Acting consequentially in the interests of the coming generations, we have laid such terrible privations on the present one that its average length of life is shortened by a quarter. In order to defend the existence of the country, we have to take exceptional measures and make transition-stage laws, which are in every point contrary to the aims of the Revolution. The people’s standard of life is lower than it was before the Revolution; the labour conditions are harder, the discipline is more inhuman, the piece-work drudgery worse than in colonial countries with native coolies; we have lowered the age limit for capital punishment down
to twelve years; our sexual laws are more narrow-minded than those of England, our leader-worship more Byzantine than that of the reactionary dictatorships. Our Press and our schools cultivate Chauvinism, militarism, dogmatism, conformism and ignorance. The arbitrary power of the Government is unlimited, and unexampled in history; freedom of the Press, of opinion and of movement are as thoroughly exterminated as though the proclamation of the Rights of Man had never been. We have built up the most gigantic police apparatus, with informers made a national Institution, and with the most refined scientific system of physical and mental torture. We whip the groaning masses of the country towards a theoretical future happiness, which only we can see. For the energies of this generation are exhausted; they were spent in the Revolution; for this generation is bled white and there is nothing left of it but a moaning, numbed, apathetic lump of sacrificial flesh. … Those are the consequences of our consequentialness. You called it vivisection morality. To me it sometimes seems as though the experimenters had torn the skin off the victim and left it standing with bared tissues, muscles and nerves. …’

‘Well, and what of it?’ said Ivanov happily. ‘Don’t you find it wonderful? Has anything more wonderful ever happened in history? We are tearing the old skin off mankind and giving it a new one. That is not an occupation for people with weak nerves; but there was once a time when it filled you with enthusiasm. What has so changed you that you are now as pernickety as an old maid?’

This long passage gives a good feel of the book, the way it boils down, ultimately, to a dialogue between two interpretations of Communist history – both coming from within the Party, both using the terminology and worldview of the Party – but fundamentally opposed about the tactics and consequences of 20 years of Bolshevik rule.

Climax

Eventually, Rubashov is worn down by sleeplessness and the relentlessness of the interrogation, to not only confess, but to agree to take part in a show trial at which he will abase himself, grovel and admit to all kinds of crimes. Gletkin has convinced him that the Party needs unity, it needs a strong leader, it needs to nip all opposition in the bud, and it needs to demonstrate the futility of the slightest hint of opposition.

And that all these things must be made screamingly obvious to the most illiterate and stupid peasant. The show trials aren’t for the intelligentsia (though they scare the daylights out of them), they are for the vast majority of Russian’s poorly educated, mostly illiterate, peasant population. That is why they are shows. That is why they have as much in common with traditional village puppet entertainments as with Western notions of ‘justice’. Their message must resonate to, must be heard about and discussed and convey the right message to, the remotest poverty-stricken villages in Siberia or in Central Asia.

Gletkin successfully persuades Rubashov that his last great service to the party he has served all his life will be to repress his egotism, to suppress his own bourgeois sense of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, to sacrifice himself for the good of the Party and for the future of his country.

And so, in the short final chapter of the book, we read excerpts from Rubashov’s show trial where he does just that, admits to all the charges, humiliates himself, praises the Great Leader to the skies – all in the name of the Perfect Future which the Party will deliver.

The perfect future

By the 1970s the Soviet economy was visibly failing, only surviving through the complex network of unofficial deals between managers of the epically mismanaged state industries. The decade-long war in Afghanistan (1979-89) widely discredited the regime in the eyes of the population. When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power he unleashed forces of dissatisfaction he could not control.

In 1989 the Soviet Union collapsed and the entire 70 year-long Communist experiment was revealed for not only the prolonged crime against humanity which it was, but also to have been completely futile. Did 70 years of communism build a better life for Russians? No. They led to Putin and his new Russian nationalism, the obscene wealth of the oligarchs contrasted with the poor quality of life of the majority, a Russia characterised by state control of the media, the assassination of troublesome journalists, a terrifying mafia, epic alcoholism and the lowest life expectancy in the industrialised world (65 years for men).

For some time now the problems Russia faces internally, and the military threat it presents to Europe, have far outweighed this old stuff about the darkest days of its communist regime. Darkness at Noon is a densely imagined, psychologically rich and well-argued portrait of a long-vanished era, an age which is rapidly fading into the mists of history.

Related links

The Cold War by John Lewis Gaddis (2005)

Lenin, following Marx, assumed the incompatibility of class interests: because the rich would always exploit the poor, the poor had no choice but to supplant the rich. [President Woodrow] Wilson, following Adam Smith, assumed the opposite: that the pursuit of individual interests would advance everyone’s interests, thereby eroding class differences while benefiting both the rich and the poor. These were, therefore, radically different solutions to the problem of achieving social justice within modern industrial societies. At the time the Cold War began it would not have been at all clear which was going to prevail.
(The Cold War, page 89)

Gaddis (b.1941) is a renowned academic expert on the Cold War and has been teaching and writing about it since the 1970s. The preface to this book explains that his students and publishers suggested he write a popular, brief overview of the subject, and this book is the result.

The cover of the Penguin paperback edition promises to give you the lowdown on ‘the deals, the spies, the lies, the truth’ but this is quite misleading. Along with Len Deighton’s description of it as ‘gripping’, it gives the impression that the book is a rip-roaring narrative of an action-packed era, full of intrigue and human interest.

Cover of the Penguin edition of The Cold War

Cover of the Penguin edition of The Cold War

Academic and theoretical approach

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact the book feels very much like a textbook to accompany a university course in international studies. It doesn’t give a chronological narrative of the Cold War and certainly has no eyewitness accounts or personal stories of the kind that bring to life, for example, Jim Baggott’s history of the atom bomb, Atomic, or Max Hasting’s history of the Korean War.

Instead, the book is divided into seven themed chapters and an epilogue which deal at a very academic level with the semi-abstract theories of international affairs and geopolitics.

Nuclear weapons and the theory of war

So, for example, the second chapter, about the atom bomb, certainly covers all the key dates and developments, but is at its core an extended meditation on the German theorist of war, Carl von Clausewitz’s, famous dictum that war ‘is a continuation of political activity by other means’ (quoted p.51). The chapter shows how U.S. presidents Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy, and their Russian opposite numbers, Stalin and Khrushchev, worked through the implications of this profound insight.

If war only exists to further the interests of the state (as it had done through all recorded history up till 1945) then a war which threatens, in fact which guarantees, the destruction of the very state whose interests it is meant to be furthering, is literally inconceivable.

Truman showed he had already grasped some of this when he removed the decision to deploy atom bombs from the military – who were inclined to think of it as just another weapon, only bigger and better – and made use of the atom bomb the sole decision of the civilian power i.e. the president.

But as the atom bombs of the 1940s were superseded by the hydrogen bombs of the 1950s, it dawned on both sides that a nuclear war would destroy the very states it was meant to protect, with profound consequences for military strategy.

This insight came very close to being ignored during the darkest days of the Korean War, when the massed Chinese army threatened to push the Allies right out of the Korean peninsula and plans were drawn up to drop atom bombs on numerous Chinese cities. Then again, during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, American generals were advising president Kennedy to authorise a devastating first strike on the Soviet Union with results not wildly exaggerated in Kubrick’s bleak nuclear satire, Dr Stangelove.

And yet both times the civilian authority, in the shape of Presidents Truman and Kennedy, rejected the advice of their military and refused the use of nuclear weapons. Truman signalled to both China and Russia that the Korean War would remain a conventional war limited to Korea only. And Kennedy made significant concessions to the Soviets to defuse the Cuba situation. We aftercomers owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the wisdom and restraint of both these men.

It is by following the ramifications of the new theory of war created by the advent of nuclear weapons, that Gaddis makes sense of a number of Cold War developments. For example, the development of regular meetings to discuss arms limitations which took place between the Cold War antagonists from the Cuban crisis onwards, talks which continued to be fractious opportunities for propaganda but which proved Churchill’s dictum that ‘jaw jaw is better than war war’.

Capitalism versus communism

If chapter two considered the evolution of new military theory during the war, chapter three covers much the same chronological period but looked at in terms of socio-economic theory, starting with a very basic introduction to theories of Marxism and capitalism, and then seeing how these played out after World War One.

Gaddis deploys a sequence of significant dates from succeeding decades, which tell the story of the decline and fall of communism:

  • in 1951 all nations were recovering from the devastation of war, the USSR had established communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe and a newly communist China was challenging the West’s staying power in Korea
  • in 1961 Nikita Khrushchev visited America and gleefully told his audience that the communist countries would surge ahead in economic production and ‘bury’ the West
  • by 1971, as consumerism triumphed in the West, all the communist economies were stagnating and communism in China was accompanied by inconceivable brutality and mass murder
  • by 1981 life expectancy in the Soviet Union was in decline and Russia was mired in a pointless war in Afghanistan
  • by 1991 the Soviet Union and all the communist East European regimes had disappeared, while China was abandoning almost all its communist policies, leaving ‘communism’ to linger on only in the dictatorships of Cuba and North Korea

Capitalism won the Cold War. Marx claimed to have revealed the secrets of history, that the capitalist system was inevitably doomed to collapse because the exploited proletariat would be inevitably grow larger as the ruling capitalist class concentrated all wealth unto itself, making a proletariat revolution inevitable and unstoppable.

  1. In direct contradiction to this, living standards in all capitalist countries for everyone are unrecognisably higher than they were 100 years ago.
  2. Marx predicted that his communist revolution could only happen in advanced industrial countries where the capitalists had accumulated all power and the proletariat forced to rebel. In the event, communist revolutions turned out to be a characteristic of very backward, feudal or peasant countries, namely Russia and China, later Cuba, and then a sorry string of Third World basket cases – Angola, Somalia, Ethiopia, Afghanistan. It only ever existed in Eastern Europe because it was imposed by Russia’s military dictatorship, and here was thrown off the second that Russia’s tyrannical grip was loosened. It was the tragedy of both Russia and China that, in order to make their countries conform to Marx’s theories, their leaders undertook policies of forced collectivisation and industrialisation which led to the deaths by starvation or murder of as many as 50 million people, generally the very poorest. Communism promised to liberate the poor. In fact it ended up murdering the poorest of the poor in unprecedented numbers.

Lenin’s 1916 tract, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, is an interesting analysis of the history of the European empires up to that date and a contribution to the vast debate over the origins of the First World War. But its key practical suggestion was that capitalist states will always be driven by boundless greed and, therefore, inevitably, unstoppably, must always go to war.

Gaddis shows how Stalin and Mao shared this doctrinaire belief and how it led them to bad miscalculations. Because in direct contradiction to the notion of inevitable inter-capitalist war, American presidents Truman and Eisenhower, both with experience of the Second World War, grasped some important and massive ideas, the central one being that America could no longer be isolationist but needed to create (and lead) a union of capitalist countries, to build up economic and military security, to ensure they never again went to war.

This was a big shift. Throughout the 19th century America concentrated on settling its own lands and building up its economy, happily ignoring developments beyond its borders. Despite President Wilson’s achievement in persuading Americans to intervene in the Great War, immediately afterwards they relapsed into isolationism, refusing to join the League of Nations and indifferent to the rise of authoritarian regimes in Russia, Germany and Japan.

After the cataclysm of the Second World War, American policy shifted massively, finding expression in the Truman Doctrine, President Truman’s pledge that America would help and support democracies and free peoples around the world to resist communism. To be precise:

‘It must be the policy of the United States to support free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.’ (Truman’s speech to Congress on 12 March 1947)

The doctrine was prompted by practical intervention ($400 million) to support the anti-communist forces during Greece’s Civil war (1945-49), which the Americans felt also had to be balanced by support ($100 million) for Turkey. In both respects the Americans were taking over from aid formerly provided by Britain, now no longer able to afford it. The doctrine’s implicit strategy of ‘containment’ of the USSR, led on to the creation of NATO in 1949 and the Marshall Plan for massive American aid to help the nations of Western Europe rebuild their economies.

Of course it was in America’s self-interest to stem the tide of communism, but this doesn’t really detract from the scale of the achievement – it was American economic intervention which helped rebuild the economies, and ensured freedom from tyranny, for France, West Germany, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Belgium and Holland (in Europe) and Japan and South Korea in the Far East. Hundreds of millions of people have led lives of freedom and fulfilment because of the decisions of the Truman administration.

The power of weakness

Of course the down side of this vast new expansion of America’s overseas commitment was the way it turned into a long and dishonourable tradition of America supporting repellent dictators and right-wing rulers solely because they were the only available anti-communist force.

This lamentable tradition kicked off with America’s ambivalent support for Chiang Kai-shek, the semi-fascist Nationalist leader who America supported in China, then the repellent Syngman Rhee in South Korea, through Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam, General Pinochet in Chile, the Shah of Iran, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and so on and so on.

This dark side to American post-war foreign policy is well-known, but what’s thought-provoking about Gaddis’s account is the thesis he hangs his fourth chapter on, a teasing paradox which only slowly emerges – that many of these small, ‘dependent’ nations ended up able to bend the Superpowers to their will, by threatening to collapse.

Thus many of the repellent dictators America found itself supporting were able to say: ‘If you don’t support me, my regime will collapse and then the communists will take over.’ The paradox is that it was often the weakest powers which ended up having the the strongest say over Superpower policy – thus Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist regime was able to summon up American support, as was the equally unpleasant Sygman Rhee in South Korea, because America regarded their states as buffers to communist expansion, which meant the dictators could get away with murder – and still be supported, often reluctantly, by the U.S.

But the same could also go for medium-size allies. In 1950 both France and China very much needed their respective sponsors, America and the Soviet Union. But by 1960 both were more confident of their economic and military power and by the late 1960s both were confident enough to throw off their shackles: General de Gaulle in France notoriously withdrew from NATO and proclaimed France’s independence while in fact continuing to benefit from NATO and American protection: France was weak enough to proclaim its independence while, paradoxically, America the superpower had to put up with de Gaulle’s behaviour because they needed France to carry on being an ally in Western Europe.

Mao Zedong was in awe of Stalin and relied on his good opinion and logistical support throughout his rise to power in China in 1949 until Stalin’s death in 1953. This lingering respect for the USSR lingered on through the 1950s, but China came to despise the weakness of Stalin’s successor, Khrushchev, and the feebleness of the USSR’s hold over its East European satellites, especially after they rose up in revolt (East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968).

I didn’t know that border incidents between China and Russia flared up in 1969 and spread: for a while it looked as if the world’s two largest communist powers would go to war – contradicting Lenin’s thesis.

This of course presented the West with a great opportunity to divide the two communist behemoths, and Gaddis is favourable to President Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for the brave decision they took to visit China, to meet Mao in person and try to develop better trade and cultural links.

The Chinese, surrounded by a menacing Russia to the north, neutral India to the West and the traditional enemy, Japan, to the East, realised there was merit in reaching an understanding with distant America. Nixon realised what an enormous coup it would be to prise apart the two largest communist nations, as well as helping sort out some kind of end to the disastrous war in Vietnam.

By this stage, 25 or so years into the Cold War, the relative simplicity of a bipolar world divided between two superpowers had become considerably more complicated, increasing complexity created by the newly independent nations of the developing or Third World, and the growth of a would-be ‘non-aligned’ group of nations seeking to avoid entanglement with either side, but cannily playing both superpowers off against each other in order to extract maximum advantage.

Other themes

These first chapters deal with:

  • the realisation of the nuclear stalemate and its implications i.e. superpower war is self-defeating
  • the failure of both capitalism and communism to deliver what they promised
  • the realisation by ‘weak’ states that they could use the superpower rivalry to their advantage

Further chapters discuss:

Human rights The rise of the notion of human rights and universal justice, which was increasingly used to hold both superpowers to ever-tighter account. Gaddis looks in detail at the slow growth of official lying and ‘deniability’ within American foreign policy (epitomised by the growth in espionage carried out by the CIA) which reached its nadir when the systematic lying of President Nixon unravelled after Watergate.

Gaddis compares the discrediting of American policy with the long-term effects of the Russian suppression of the Prague Spring of 1968. In a kind of mirror of the Watergate experience, the Soviet repression in Czechoslovakia planted seeds of doubt about the legitimacy of communist rule in the minds of much of the Soviet population and especially among its intellectuals. From the 1970s onwards the Soviets had to cope with home-grown ‘dissidents’, most notably Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov.

Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev worked hard to secure the ‘Helsinki Accords’, a contract with the West giving a permanent written guarantee of the security of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe. He allowed the declarations of human rights which made up its latter sections to be inserted by the West as a necessary concession, but was appalled when these began to be used by dissidents within Russia to measure the government by.

When a Czech rock band was arrested in 1977 leading intellectuals protested and signed Charter 77, which politely called on the Czech communist government to respect the human rights which were paid lip service in the Czech communist constitution and the Helsinki Accords. And when the first Polish pope, Pope John Paul II, visited his homeland in 1979, he also called on the Polish government to respect human rights as defined in the Helsinki Accords.

Gaddis identifies this emergence of human rights, a realm of authenticity over and above the laws or actions of any actual government, of either West or East, as a major development in the 1970s.

The power of individuals A chapter is devoted to the importance of individuals in history – contrary to Marxist theory which believes in historical inevitabilities driven by the power of the masses. Thus Gaddis gives pen portraits of key players in the final years of communism, namely Pope John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher, Vaclav Havel and Lech Wałęsa, but above all space is given to the importance of Ronald Reagan.

Gaddis explains that détente, the strategic policy developed by President Nixon and continued by Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, and on the Soviet side agreed by Brezhnev, amounted to an acceptance of the status quo, especially the borders in Europe, and thus solidified Russia’s grasp in the East. With these borders defined and agreed, both sides could:

a) Settle down to a routine of talks about reducing nuclear weapons (which, by this stage, came in all shapes and sizes and hence the complexity of the Strategic Arms Limitations (SALT)) talks.
b) Sublimate their confrontation into the developing world: hence the stream of local conflicts in far away countries like Ethiopia or Nicaragua, although Gaddis quotes Kremlin advisers confessing that the Soviet leadership often had second thoughts about getting involved in some of these remote conflicts, e.g. in Angola or Somalia, but felt trapped by the logic of being seen to support ‘national liberation struggles’ wherever they involved self-proclaimed Marxist parties.

At the time it felt as if Soviet communism was successfully funding revolutions and spreading its tentacles around the world; only in retrospect do we see all this as the last gasps of a flailing giant. According to Gaddis, the great political visionary who brought it to its knees was Ronald Reagan!

As someone alive and politically active during the 1980s I know that the great majority of the British people saw Reagan as a bumbling fool, satirised in the Spitting Image TV show in a recurring sketch called ‘The President’s brain is missing’. To my amazement, in Gaddis’s account (and others I’ve read) he is portrayed as a strategic genius (one of America’s ‘sharpest grand strategists ever’ p.217) who swept aside détente in at least two ways:

a) Reagan thought communism was an aberration, ‘a bizarre chapter’ (p.223) in human history which was destined to fail. So instead of accepting its potentially endless existence (like Nixon, Ford and Carter) his strategy and speeches were based on the idea that it would inevitably collapse (for example, in his famous speech in Berlin when he called on Mr Gorbachev to ‘tear down this wall’).
b) Similarly, Reagan rejected the entire twisted logic of mutually assured destruction which had grown up around nuclear weapons: he was the first genuine nuclear abolitionist to inhabit the White House, hence his outrageous offer to Gorbachev at the Iceland summit for both sides to get rid of all their nuclear weapons. And when Gorbachev refused, Reagan announced the development of his Strategic Defence Initiative (nicknamed Star Wars) i.e. the creation of a satellite shield which would shoot down any incoming nuclear missiles attacking the United States, thus rendering Russia’s nuclear arsenal obsolete, but also dangerously disturbing the delicate balance of power.

At the time these destabilising words and actions seemed reckless and dangerous, and what Gaddis portrays as the entrenched détente establishment on both sides strongly criticised Reagan. It is only with the enormous benefit of hindsight – the knowledge that the Soviet Union and communism collapsed like a pack of cards in 1989 – that Reagan’s approach and all his speeches take on the light not of a mad old man (he was 74 when Gorbachev came to power in 1985) but of a bold visionary.

The steady growth in Reagan’s stature is a salutary lesson in how history works, how what we think about a period we’ve actually lived through can be completely transformed and reinterpreted in the light of later events. How our beginnings have no inkling of our ends. An object lesson in the severe limitations of human understanding.

Conclusion

To summarise: The Cold War is not a straightforward historical account of the era 1945 to 1991 – it is really a series of thought-provoking and stimulating essays on key aspects and themes from the era. Each chapter could easily form the basis of a fascinating discussion or seminar (of the kind that Gaddis has no doubt supervised by the hundred). Thus coverage of specific incidents and events is always secondary to the ideas and theories of geopolitics and international strategic ideas which the period threw up in such abundance, and which are the real focus of the text.

It’s a fascinating book full of unexpected insights and new ways of thinking about the recent past.

I was politically active during the 1970s and 1980s, so I remember the later stages of the Cold War vividly. Maybe the biggest single takeaway from this book is that this entire era is now a ‘period’ with a beginning, a middle and an end, which can be studied as a whole. As it recedes in time it is becoming a simplified artefact, a subject for study by GCSE, A-level and undergraduate students who have no idea what it felt like to live under the ever-present threat of nuclear war and when communism still seemed a viable alternative to consumer capitalism.

Although many of its effects and implications linger on, with every year that passes the Cold War becomes a distant historical epoch, as dry and theoretical as the Fall of the Roman Empire or the Thirty Years War. I try to explain how it felt to be alive in the 1980s to my children and they look at me with blank incomprehension. So this is what it feels like to become history.


Credit

The Cold War by John Lewis Gaddis was published by Allen Lane in 2005. All quotes and references are to the 2007 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Related reviews

%d bloggers like this: