Category Archives: Kundera, Milan

The Reviews That Escaped Me – July ’17

A little while ago I had the idea of reading the four most recent novels/novellas by Milan Kundera one after the other and reviewing them. Although I had read at least one of them before I wasn’t sure whether I had read the others or not. After the publication of Immortality in 1990, which is possibly my favourite of his novels, Kundera’s output dwindled significantly; his output in this period consisted of Slowness (La Lenteur) (1995), Identity (L’Identité) (1998), Ignorance (L’Ignorance) (2000), The Festival of Insignificance (La fête de l’insignifiance) (2014). Kundera was born in Czechoslovakia in 1929 but moved to France in 1975 and these post-Immortality books were all written in French rather than Czech. Of course as I read them in English translation it doesn’t really make much difference but it was interesting to notice that the style was still recognisably Kundera, the only difference with his older books was that they were shorter and his style was a bit more sparse.

So, I had intended to review each book separately but it’s now been over a month since I read them and I have to accept that I’m not going to do it, mainly because they’re starting to blur together in my mind and I usually find that I have to write a review soon after finishing the book or I lose the impetus to do so. Although shorter than his early works I still enjoyed reading them. As always Kundera analyses his characters’ motivations, thought processes, their conversations and interactions with other characters as well as highlighting any misunderstandings between them. All his characters analyse and philosophise about their lives and the world generally, which may annoy some readers, but I find that Kundera is not doing this for effect or as a gimmick but out of genuine inquisitiveness and playfulness as he places his characters in certain situations and wonders what will happen to them.

Instead of any reviews I thought I would share a few of my favourite quotes from the books.

There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting. Consider this utterly commonplace situation: a man is walking down the street. At a certain moment, he tries to recall something, but the recollection escapes him. Automatically, he slows down. Meanwhile, a person who wants to forget a disagreeable incident he has just lived through starts unconsciously to speed up his pace, as if he were trying to distance himself from a thing still too close to him in time.
—From Slowness

For love is by definition an unmerited gift; being loved without meriting it is the very proof of real love. If a woman tells me: I love you because you’re intelligent, because you’re decent, because you buy me gifts, because you don’t chase women, because you do the dishes, then I’m disappointed; such love seems a rather self-interested business. How much finer it is to hear: I’m crazy about you even though you’re neither intelligent nor decent, even though you’re a liar, an egotist, a bastard.
—From Slowness

Remembering our past, carrying it around with us always, may be the necessary requirement for maintaining, as they say, the wholeness of the self. To ensure that the self doesn’t shrink, to see that it holds on to its volume, memories have to be watered like potted flowers, and the watering calls for regular contact with the witnesses of the past, that is to say, with friends. They are our mirror; our memory; we ask nothing of them but that they polish the mirror from time to time so we can look at ourselves in it.
—From Identity

To die; to decide to die; that’s much easier for an adolescent than for an adult. What? Doesn’t death strip an adolescent of a far larger portion of future? Certainly it does, but for a young person, the future is a remote, abstract, unreal thing he doesn’t really believe in.
—From Ignorance

Overall, Slowness was my favourite of the four and is comparable to his other works. There was a scenario near the end of the book where all the characters were brought together into a scene by the side of a pool in a hotel; we know a little bit about each character but the characters themselves know nothing of each other and their actions are quite confusing for each to comprehend. Kundera even brings together two characters from different time periods, the eighteenth and twentieth century, to highlight how modern life forces us to experience pleasures differently than in the past.

The other novellas were enjoyable to read but were not quite as good as Slowness. My enjoyment of Identity was spoiled for me as Kundera relies on an ‘it was all a dream’ ending. In Ignorance Kundera concentrates on the experience of being in exile, returning to your homeland and how our memory can play tricks on us. I didn’t quite get the ending but I think that was my fault. The most recent, and shortest, of the four is The Festival of Insignificance and it shows that Kundera can still produce an entertaining and intelligent work; here Kundera considers navels, apologisers and Kalinin’s bladder; there’s a superb scene describing a woman’s unsuccessful suicide attempt.

Image source: scan of personal copy

I also read another volume of short stories by Arthur Schnitzler called Selected Short Fiction which was published in 1999 and translated by J.M.Q. Davies. It includes two of Schnitzler’s early stream-of-consciousness works, Lieutenant Gustl and Fräulein Else, the first of which is rather funny, whereas the second is more dramatic, even melodramatic, but seen from a single viewpoint. The stories span Schnitzler’s whole literary career from 1888 to 1931 and are in a variety of styles. I found Success quite amusing; a policeman is ridiculed by other officers as well as his fiancée for not being able to make an arrest. When his fiancée flaunts the fact that she is spending the day with another man and doesn’t much care for him she calls him ‘a surly ape’. The policeman ends up dragging her and her friend in to the station as his first arrest. From then on he has no trouble making more arrests. Schnitzler has quite a wicked sense of humour; in The Duellist’s Second he recounts the problems of a second who ends up sleeping with the wife of the dead duellist when he visits her to tell her of her husband’s death. It’s worth tracking down a copy as some of the translations are unavailable elsewhere.

I don’t often go on a book-buying spree as my reluctance to part with money usually takes over but I couldn’t resist buying these three books by H.E. Bates on the British countryside. They are Through the Woods (1936), In the Heart of the Country (1942) and The Happy Countryman (1943); all three books contain loads of illustrations.

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Filed under Bates, H.E., Fiction, Kundera, Milan, Schnitzler, Arthur

‘The Joke’ by Milan Kundera

Kundera_The-Joke-fcX-700pxThe Joke was Milan Kundera’s first novel. He began writing it in 1962, it was completed in 1965, first published in 1967 as Žert and first translated into English in 1969. Kundera didn’t like the English translation as the translators completely changed the structure of the book. The irony that the book was published in Communist Czechoslovakia uncensored but completely altered and re-arranged when published in the West was not lost on Kundera. The translation that I read is by Michael Henry Heim and was approved by Kundera and published in 1982. Looking at the Author’s Note in a more recent translation it appears that Kundera had second thoughts about aspects of this translation and personally altered it and republished it in 1992.

For me this is a re-read and re-reading books is something I’ve been doing and enjoying just lately and which I plan to continue doing. Although I’ve read and re-read most of Kundera’s books, at least up to Immortality, The Joke was one that I kept meaning to re-read but never quite got round to it. My reluctance was in part because I didn’t enjoy my first reading that much; I remember it being a bit bland, but this was after reading his later books. However, I’ve really enjoyed re-reading it and my (relatively) lower opinion of it was a bit unfair. I think now I would say it stands up there with his other works – no problem.

What spurred me on to read it now was to include this review in Stu’s Eastern-European Lit Month. When deciding to read this book I did wonder if Kundera would object to us including Czechoslovakia in Eastern Europe rather than Central Europe and whether modern-day Czechs and Slovaks would have any objections as well. Maybe it’s not an issue but it’s similar to the point that Kundera made in the preface to my edition; that the West quickly thought of Czechoslovakia and the other Soviet Bloc countries as being part of the U.S.S.R. whereas the inhabitants of those countries thought of themselves as belonging to a distinct country.

The book is split into seven parts with the first six parts focusing on one of the characters where we see events through their eyes. Ludvik Jahn is the main character and he has three parts to himself whilst Jaroslav, Helena and Kostka all have a part each. The last part is a mixture of viewpoints as all the characters are brought together. Now, I always love this type of approach to a novel as the multiple viewpoints makes it more three-dimensional and realistic than a third-person narrative or one from a single first-person narrative and it works well here with the type of story that Kundera is telling.

The book opens with Ludvik returning to his hometown. He hasn’t been back there for years and he meets up with an old acquaintance called Kostka, and arranges to use his flat for a meeting with his lover when she arrives. The narrative switches to Helena, who is preparing for her trip to meet Ludvik, then switches back to Ludvik in 1948. At this time he was a young optimistic member of the Communist Party although he’s a bit of a joker and worst of all, he’s often accused of being an individualist. Ludvik has a very serious girlfriend called Marketa who is often made fun of as she never understands any jokes. Just as their relationship is forming Marketa has to leave for a short training session so they have to rely on sending each other letters. Marketa is enjoying the training session and her letters are full of her enthusiasm and optimism of the socialist order. Although Ludvik agrees with her, he’s jealous of her happiness away from him:

So I bought a postcard and (to hurt, shock, and confuse her) wrote: Optimism is the opium of the people! A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky! Ludvik.

Their correspondence soon dries up and when she returns to Prague she is reluctant to renew their relationship. It’s not long before Ludvik is called before a Party University Committee which confronts him about his relationship with Marketa and the postcard that he sent. Although it was only meant as a joke, under the scrutiny of the committee the words on the postcard look like anti-Communist sentiments and can not be tolerated. Ludvik is thrown out of the university and the Party and soon finds himself ostracised. Even his friend Zemanek refuses to help him so he returns to his hometown. He has few options now and so he gets drafted to a Work Brigade and ends up working in a mine for years.

Ludvik finds it difficult adjusting to his new lowly status but slowly gets used to the militaristic lifestyle. The only positive side is that they get paid reasonably well and when they get leave they can let their hair down a bit. Ludvik then meets Lucie:

She was coming in my direction, in the direction of the courtyard. Why didn’t I simply walk past her? Was it because I was merely drifting aimlessly or because the unusual late-afternoon lighting in the courtyard held me back? Or was it something in the way she looked? But her appearance was utterly ordinary. True, later that ordinary quality about her was what touched and attracted me, but how was it she caught my eye and stopped me in my tracks the first time I saw her?

They form a relationship though it is often difficult arranging to meet each other as Lucie lives in a dormitory and Ludvik’s leave was erratic. Their relationship is initially Platonic but Ludvik becomes obsessed with having sex with her; he tries to organise trysts with her but is frustrated with Lucie’s reluctance together with the petty life back at the camp. This culminates in Ludvik’s attempted rape of her. When he tries to get in touch with her days later he discovers that Lucie has disappeared.

The narrative returns to the present day and we learn about Jaroslav, an old friend of Ludvik, who belongs to a folk music group. Jaroslav is interested in folk traditions of all sorts as was Ludvik when he was younger. Jaroslav and the whole town are preparing for a procession called The Ride of the Kings, an event that means a lot to Jaroslav. We now find out more about Jaroslav and Ludvik as well as Ludvik’s reason for returning to his hometown – his rendezvous with Helena. We even find out what’s happened to Lucie as well and it’s at this point that the parts of the novel start to slot together and the connections between the characters are made clearer. So I won’t reveal any more of the plot in order not to spoil it for others.

At the beginning of the book it would appear that ‘the joke’ refers solely to the joke on the postcard. However, by the end of the book it’s clear that it refers to other ‘jokes’ in the lives of the characters. In the author’s preface to my edition Kundera states:

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, seen from without, is ludicrous. His tragedy lies in the fact that the joke has deprived him of the right to tragedy. He is condemned to triviality.

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