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The Joke

In response to:

Live Attraction from the May 21, 1970 issue

To the Editors:

Mr. D. A. N. Jones’s review of The Joke by Milan Kundera reopens what for me has become a deeply painful subject. It is a perceptive and generous review, marred only, in my opinion, by an attitude toward the translators and more particularly the publishers which is a shade less than generous, and which emerges both from what he says and from what he omits to say. A number of misleading impressions could easily be corrected by reading all the relevant letters in the Times Literary Supplement; since few of your readers will wish to pursue this discussion beyond your own columns, may I repeat one or two points which have been made in the TLS, as well as making, or answering, some new ones?

  1. Responsibility for the translation. Since “we cannot be certain that the translators are trustworthy” it is only fair to Mr. David Hamblyn to clarify the nature of his and my respective contributions. Mr. Hamblyn provided a faithful, literal, and complete version which I, as a freelance translator (mainly from Norwegian and Danish) and editor, was asked to revise, making it freer and more idiomatic wherever this seemed appropriate. At no point did I wittingly alter the sense; and wherever I was in the slightest doubt about the exact nuance or tone of the original I consulted one or other of two virtually bilingual friends (one Czech, one English), who between them thus had occasion to compare closely the text and translation in nearly two hundred passages. I do not recall a single inaccuracy coming to light in the process. “Mycenas” is of course a lapsus calami for “Maecenas” (“Mecenas” in the original), which I unaccountably failed to correct, and which a puzzled American editor or printer has mistakenly changed to “Midas.”

  2. The extent of the editing. Mr. Jones cites Mr. Kundera as protesting that the British publisher (Macdonald & Co.) had ” ‘broken up’ the novel, cutting at will and forming a mosaic of selected episodes.” This account suggests, surely, something more drastic than the sober reality: the omission of one chapter (the famous essay on Moravian folk music), a total shortening by no more than three per cent, and two transpositions of any significance. Mr. Kundera’s exaggeration was, in the circumstances set out in the next paragraph, entirely understandable; there is less justification for repeating it, uncorrected, at this stage.

  3. The circumstances of the editing. Nothing in Mr. Jones’s account would suggest that the British publisher twice wrote to Kundera seeking his permission to make the changes I had proposed. Neither letter, tragically, was received; and silence was, wrongly as it proved, taken for assent. Mr. Kundera’s distress was fully equalled by Mr. MacGibbon’s and my own—though ours has since been mitigated by Mr. Kundera’s extremely generous response to the regret expressed by myself and by Mr. MacGibbon in person, after flying to Prague for this sole purpose. I am glad also to have had the chance of preparing for Penguin Books, on the basis of Mr. Hamblyn’s typescript, a complete edition of The Joke which has been seen and approved by Mr. Kundera. Those sufficiently curious will soon be able to make their own comparisons and reach their own conclusions.

  4. The motives behind the editing. Mr. Jones appears to endorse Mr. Kundera’s initial angry charge of sordid commercialism coupled with an “unfathomable contempt for art,” and adds a more sinister charge of his own:

Yet the American publisher presents this dialectical novel merely as a “parable for student disillusionment with the brutal regime in Czechoslovakia today.” That is what the Western world wants to see in a Czech novel. The British publisher removed Helena’s revealing narrative from its prominent introductory position and tucked it further back in the book: it is only because of Kundera’s protest that the American edition has Helena back where she belongs. The British publisher wanted to get on with the (to Western eyes) important part of the story—Ludvik’s reminiscences of his past sufferings under the old “Stalinist” regime.

Apart from the fact that my copy of the American jacket says something very different from the words quoted here, and the fact that the different placement of Helena’s narrative in the two editions occurred for reasons unconnected with Mr. Kundera’s protest, does Mr. Jones really mean that last sentence to be taken seriously? If so, he seems not to have noticed that the postponement in the British edition, of Helena’s nine-page narrative is more than balanced by the bringing forward of twenty-three Jaroslav pages. On the curious Jonesian principle that later means less important, it appears to follow that the (Stalinist?) British publisher is trying to play down Ludvik’s “sufferings under the old ‘Stalinist’ regime.”

In all seriousness: Mr. Kundera, I understand, now regards his earlier charge as unjustified, and I can only ask Mr. Jones and your readers to believe that my sole motive in suggesting a number of cuts and transpositions was the belief, only slightly qualifying my enormous admiration for The Joke, that it would benefit artistically from these changes—even from the omission of the essay on Moravian folk music, which I personally (having recently sung in Janácek’s Glagolitic Mass; surprise, Mr. Jones!) happened to find enthralling in its own right rather than as part of the novel.

  1. Finally (I can’t think of a suitable rubric), Mr. Jones writes that “when a first-rate novel comes to us from Communist Europe, we do not want it sterilized and packaged: we want it raw.” Setting aside such questions as why novels from Communist Europe should be treated differently from others, and whether even the Prague edition of The Joke was in fact (as seems likely) totally “raw,” I can’t help wondering whether one or two of the books which have struck Mr. Jones as “first-rate” may have done so, in some small measure, because they were, in his terms, “sterilized and packaged” rather than “raw.” Conversely, some of the faults that he and other reviewers have been known to find—“a certain repetitiveness” and “occasional longueurs” are phrases that spring to mind—might have been avoided if the books in question had not been published “raw.” What I am venturing to suggest is, of course, that the publisher’s editor is not always the superfluous or mischievous person that Mr. Jones’s distinction implies. To attempt to justify that claim, however, would require another letter.

Oliver Stallybrass

London

D.A.N Jones replies:

I am most grateful for Professor Kohák’s comments. I was not certain at what exact point of time, in the post-1956 period, the novel was set, nor to what degree the author had arranged the facts to fit his fiction. Therefore I referred to this whole era of dissidence and reformation as “the ‘liberalization’ process associated with Dubcek’s premiership.” Associated with, not represented by. (We must be careful here, since Dubcek’s case is sub judice.) And “liberalization” in quotes—because it is an ambiguous word.

Remember that the novel is presented by four narrators with different, conflicting points of view. Helena, the faithful Party worker, would not talk of “liberalization.” To her mind, the rot set in during 1956—“when almost everyone wanted to desert, when it all came out about Stalin, and people went crazy and dropped everything and said our papers told lies, our culture was in decline, the collective farms should never have been set up, the Soviet Union was a slave state. And the worst thing was that even the Communists used to say these things at their own meetings….” Kostka, the Christian-Communist true believer, mourns for “the time of the great collective faith,” the “heroic” period from 1948 to 1956, before the novel begins—introducing the “petty age” of the “ironic intellectual” and the “mob of youth,” with the ex-Stalinist trimmer, Zemanek, winning success and gaining more authority by encouraging dissidence among his students. All this I saw as a reflection of what we, in the capitalist world, would call a “liberalization” process, culminating in Dubcek’s hegemony (sorry about “premiership”) and removal from office. But Professor Kohák’s thesis, dividing the post-1956 period into two ages—one of negative cynicism, the other of positive reform—seems to me most convincing and certainly helpful in the understanding of Kundera’s rich novel.

Professor Kohák seems to imply that Dubcek’s kind of reforms, in a society like Czechoslovakia, must inevitably lead to the entry of Russian tanks. If so, I hope he is wrong. We are not entitled to reduce the details and characters of this book to an abstract formula, and I certainly had no intention of using it as “evidence for the decadence of liberalization.” But we are, perhaps, entitled to conjecture that particular people, like Helena and Kostka, might be (by our standards) perverse enough to welcome the Russian tanks. Or is that too farfetched?

Whether Ludvik’s jokes are destructive or not is a matter of opinion, and again the opinions of Helena and Kostka must be considered. Satirizing “the great collective faith,” he published the message: “Optimism is the opium of the people! The healthy atmosphere stinks! Long live Trotsky!” Professor Kohák comments that, as a result of this innocuous joke, Ludvik’s life is ruined beyond repair. In fact, he is merely expelled from a selective university and made to lead an ordinary life for a while—as a conscript soldier and a manual worker. Worse things than this have happened to “campus bums.”

Of course, my implicit analogy is grotesque. I might as well compare the near-bloodless repression of Prague, 1968, with the bloody 20-years-long repression of Vietnam. But before we get too supercilious about the humorless philistines who expelled Ludvik, we might remember that Englishmen and Americans too are sometimes expelled from universities for using language which seems to blaspheme against the accepted decencies. We can all give examples. Of course, Ludvik’s joke was petty, and only time-serving prigs like Zemanek—who flourish in every society—would make an issue of it. Nevertheless, the characters in this novel (including Ludvik himself) think this joke indicative of his character and symptomatic of the post-1956 period—for better or worse.

We are only beginning the argument about this novel—and Mr. Stallybrass has not been altogether helpful. I don’t want to rebuke him any more. He loves the novel, has put it into good English, and must be respected for his candid self-exposure. But he must not suppose that a publisher’s editor is entitled to cut an artist’s work about, even for “artistic” reasons. We want the right words in the right order, determined by the author. An editor should be particularly circumspect in dealing with a “first-rate novel from Communist Europe” (as opposed to a second-rate thriller from, say, Belgium) for two reasons. 1: Because it is first-rate. 2: Because in those countries fiction is taken with deadly seriousness, and if we in the capitalist world praise and present a communist artist’s work in the wrong way, we may be giving ammunition to his philistine enemies. Remember what happened to Pasternak.

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