Milan Kundera is now eighty-six and may well have intended his latest novel, The Festival of Insignificance, his first in fifteen years, to be an expression of “vesperal freedom,” a striking phrase he (or perhaps his longtime translator Linda Asher) coined a few years earlier to describe the liberation some artists feel in their declining years. Picasso, Kundera wrote in the mid-2000s, “abandoned by his crowd, and abandoned as well by the history of painting…settles into the house of his art” with “hedonistic delight.” Fellini, in his final films, “savored the ‘joyful irresponsibility’ (his words) of a freedom he had never known before.” And Beethoven, “at the peak of his art…has gone off in a direction where no one has followed; without disciples, without successors, the work from his vesperal freedom is a miracle, an island.” As always when Kundera writes about other artists, he is also writing with himself in mind, and behind these poignant insights one senses a man longing for a state of grace that seems to have eluded him for most of his life: complete indifference to how others judge his work.
Despite the lightness promised in the title, The Festival of Insignificance is one of the strangest and most forlorn compositions Kundera has ever written. At little more than one hundred pages, it’s too slight to work as a novel yet it still tries to behave as though it were: it abounds in characters who are, of necessity, barely developed; in potential plots casually set in motion and then just as casually abandoned; and in promising themes raised and then discarded.
The Festival of Insignificance defies neat summary. It is loosely built around a series of conversations between four friends in present-day Paris, identified in the opening section as “the Heroes” but who are clearly the creations and thus aspects of “the master,” that is, the author himself who, Prospero-like, controls everything that happens in the novel. Alain, in his late thirties, is obsessed with the significance of the navel, which he sees as a new locus of female attraction, and with his mother, who abandoned him at birth. Ramon, a retiree in his early sixties, is the novel’s chief spokesman for the idea that “insignificance…is the essence of existence” and “the key to wisdom,” as well as the key to the successful seduction of women. Charles is a caterer in his early forties with artistic ambitions and an odd obsession with Stalin, whose death in 1953 he sees as a generational watershed. Finally Caliban, Charles’s sometime catering assistant, is an out-of-work actor whose nickname comes from his last professional appearance, in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
For all that, the novel has elements that are unmistakably Kunderian: meditations on the erotic charms of the female body and the art of seduction; a lingering preoccupation with communism, or its Stalinist mutation; dark fantasies that casually break through the novel’s realistic veneer; a godlike narrator stage-managing the action; and a brooding melancholy that lurks just below the surface. There is an attempted suicide that turns into a murder; maniacal encounters with Stalin and his inner circle; a birthday party in which the main attraction is a floating feather; and a bizarre ending in which Stalin and the former Soviet head of state, Mikhail Kalinin—or actors impersonating them—deface and defile statues of the queens of France in the Luxembourg Gardens.
Despite the book’s disarming title, it all seems to have some significance, but it’s a significance that remains resolutely cryptic and private and thus open to interpretation. For instance, does the mocking presence of Stalin—as if, in the era of Putin, he remains a potent influence—suggest Kundera believes that the grand intellectual battles of the cold war era amounted to nothing and that Russia continues to thumb its nose at values we no longer care or know enough about to defend?
But here, these clearly Kunderian elements lack Kundera’s old urgency, as though he’s grown weary of the style and the themes he so carefully cultivated over half a lifetime but can’t quite let go of. In fact, if Kundera were not so relentlessly serious a writer, it would be tempting to see The Festival of Insignificance as self-parody, a deliberately farcical farewell to everything that he has been or has ever tried to be as a novelist.
As it is, the novel’s tone undercuts its theme, making it difficult to know quite how to read it. What, for instance, are we to make of the running “joke” in which two of Kundera’s “heroes” engage in a harmless deception: communicating with each other on the job in Paris in a jibberish Kundera calls “Pakistani”—a language that literally does not exist? Another of Kundera’s heroes, Ramon, tries to explain it as a pleasurable joke meant to shield Charles and Caliban from their lowly status as “lackeys” to the “snobs” they cater for. Then, out of the blue, Ramon says:
In fact, that’s always been our strategy. We’ve known for a long time that it was no longer possible to overturn this world, nor reshape it, nor head off its dangerous headlong rush. There’s been only one possible resistance: not to take it seriously. But I think our jokes have lost their power.
It feels as though Kundera—the erstwhile revolutionary, reformer, and social critic—had suddenly stepped out from behind the mask of his character and were speaking directly to us, all the more so because jokes—deception and dissimulation—are central to so much of his fiction. Is he saying, as Prospero does in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, that his revels are now ended?
For most of his career, Kundera has embraced the idea of the novel, and the practice of novel writing, with a self-conscious vigor and tenacity that has no precedent in modern literature. It’s not just that he has written more about the novel than almost any other living novelist (four books of essays—five counting one written decades ago and long since out of print—not to mention the many authorial comments on novel-writing that occur throughout his fiction); he also sees the novel as a way of exploring, “by means of experimental selves (characters), some great themes of existence,” and by extension an instrument of his own struggle to escape his youthful career in Czechoslovakia in the early 1950s, when he was a much-lauded lyrical poet singing the praises of a grand historical revolution—Stalinism—that went horribly wrong.
In a telling passage in Testaments Betrayed: An Essay in Nine Parts, published in 1993, Kundera talks about how, when the Communists were imposing their arbitrary rule on Czechoslovakia by terror, he came to see that poetry supporting the so-called revolution was just as “indispensable” an instrument of tyranny as the torture chambers of the secret police. “Lyricism, lyricization, lyrical talk, lyrical enthusiasm” had become, he wrote, “an integrating part of what is called the totalitarian world,” a world that “is not the gulag as such; it’s a gulag that has poems plastering its outside walls and people dancing before them.” Kundera’s insight is not original—the romantic attraction that nascent totalitarian ideologies exert, especially on the young, is a well-known and, unfortunately, a recurring phenomenon—but at the time it seems to have struck him like a thunderbolt:
More than the Terror, the lyricization of the Terror was a trauma for me. It immunized me for good against all lyrical temptations. The only thing I deeply, avidly, wanted was a lucid, unillusioned eye. I finally found it in the art of the novel. This is why for me being a novelist was more than just working in one “literary genre” rather than another; it was an outlook, a wisdom, a position; a position that would rule out identification with any politics, any religion, any ideology, any moral doctrine, any group; a considered, stubborn, furious nonidentification [Kundera’s emphasis], conceived not as evasion or passivity but as resistance, defiance, rebellion. I wound up having some odd conversations: “Are you a Communist, Mr. Kundera?” “No, I’m a novelist.” “Are you a dissident?” “No, I’m a novelist.” Are you on the left or the right?” “Neither. I’m a novelist.”
Kundera was certainly not the only Central European writer to want to put his former support for communism behind him, nor was he the only one to have turned his back on poetry. His resolutely apolitical countryman Bohumil Hrabal took a similar step in the early 1950s when he began to rework some of his early poems as short stories. But whereas Hrabal saw his decision as an aesthetic discovery—that the raw poetry of everyday life under Stalinism could better be conveyed in fiction—Kundera saw his transformation as something verging on a religious conversion. The only thing missing is a recognition that he had been part of the problem he sought to rectify, and that absolution might demand more of him than a mere switch of genres.
In fact, Kundera’s break with Communist orthodoxy was anything but sudden, and far less absolute than his dramatic description of it suggests. In his earliest collection of poems, Man: A Wide Garden, published in 1953, there are already hints that the twenty-four-year-old Kundera was feeling uneasy within the confining chrysalis of ideology, though he would bring out two more volumes of verse (in 1955 and 1959) before abandoning poetry altogether. By the mid-1950s—around the time Stalin was being posthumously denounced by Khrushchev—Kundera, as he later wrote, began thinking about “an aesthetic problem: how to write a novel which would be a ‘critique of poetry’ and yet at the same time would itself be poetry.”
In 1960, with the post-Stalin thaw slowly gathering momentum in Czechoslovakia, he published a Marxist-tinged study of the novels of Vladislav Vančura, called The Art of the Novel (not to be confused with a later book with the same title published in exile). Two years later, the Prague National Theater’s production of his first play, The Owners of the Keys, caused a sensation for its implied criticism of the regime. (Kundera has since vigorously disowned all of these works and refuses to consider them part of his “oeuvre.”)
The “new” Kundera finally emerged in 1963 with the first of three small volumes of short stories, seven or eight of which were later published in various editions under the title Laughable Loves. Kundera once told Philip Roth that the first of these stories, “I, a Mournful God,” written in the late 1950s, often revised, but never published in English, marks the moment when “my life as a writer began.” In these stories Kundera began pushing the boundaries of sexual and political explicitness and introducing themes, and even hints of postmodernist techniques, that would crop up in his later work.
He completed his first novel, The Joke, in 1965, but almost two years of struggles with the censors would go by before it was finally allowed to appear in Prague in 1967, “exactly as I had written it,” he would later claim. By this time, Kundera was one of the stars of the remarkable cultural revival underway in Czechoslovakia, though he had also acquired a reputation, even among sympathetic colleagues, for being “a difficult customer.” Once more a member in good standing of the Communist Party—he’d been expelled in the early 1950s, then reinstated in 1956—he felt confident enough to defy the censors, often refusing to meet with them, or withdrawing his articles altogether rather than submitting to even minor changes. His defiance made life difficult for his editors, but it also had a positive side effect: it made the censors increasingly loath to challenge him, which allowed more creative freedom not only for himself, but quite possibly for others as well.
Kundera’s keynote address at the famous writers’ congress in Prague in June 1967—the event that most clearly foreshadowed the Prague Spring of 1968—was an attack on censorship, but he also called on writers to turn “the bitter experience of Stalinism into a paradoxical, indispensable asset.”
No one left this episode of history the same man as he entered it…. This enables us, perhaps, to put more searching questions and create more significant myths than people who have not undergone such an anabasis…. So far these are only prospects, possibilities—but perfectly realistic ones, as many a work created during the past few years has shown.
Kundera was being diplomatic, because by this time, the cultural renaissance drawing explicitly on the country’s “bitter experience” was already in full bloom, particularly in cinema and literature. And Kundera was in the thick of it.
Like almost every writer of his generation, Kundera had to struggle to find a form in which to convey the experience that left no one unchanged. Each writer found his or her own way to do it: Václav Havel came up with his special brand of absurd drama; Ivan Klíma brought the technique of first-person reportage—a genre almost entirely absent in the land of socialist realism—to his fiction; Josef Škvorecký discovered ways to play with time and memory that encompassed his experience of fascism, communism, and exile. Despite some similarities to experimental fiction in the West, this common effort—call it Ost-modernism—was not a self-conscious literary movement. Although many claimed Kafka as their godfather, Ost-modernism arose necessarily out of the unreal world of totalitarianism, where standard forms of storytelling could no longer make sense of life, where a character who prevailed over the existing social order was literally inconceivable.
Only in the realm of sexual relations could freedom of action still exist and produce the kind of unpredictable consequences fiction thrives on. With his strongly traditional narrative instincts, Kundera was quick to recognize this and put it to good use. The deceptions that drive his stories were mostly centered around sex and seduction, but the way he told them also revealed much about the iron-clad society in which his characters were trapped. The use of sex distinguished his early fiction, and it’s hardly surprising that he quickly became one of the most popular exponents of the literary renaissance he was calling for.
Kundera’s debut as a fiction writer was full of promise. Both Laughable Loves and The Joke revealed a storyteller of prodigious talent able to create complex and memorable, though not always savory, characters involved in intriguing plots. The protagonist in The Joke, Ludvik Jahn, is kicked out of university and the Communist Party and sent to work in the mines for making an “inappropriate” political joke. Many years later, rehabilitated but still bitter and bent on vengeance, he returns to his hometown in southern Moravia with a scheme to seduce the wife of the man who had him expelled, in the hopes of destroying the marriage. The seduction succeeds but the revenge backfires when the woman, Helena, falls in love with Ludvik and he discovers that her husband, now a prominent reform Communist, is thrilled to be rid of her.
It’s not the story, however, but the way Kundera tells it that makes The Joke memorable. The novel is a series of intertwining monologues that show us the minds and experiences not just of Ludvik, but of two of his friends and of Helena, the woman he is about to seduce. One friend, Jaroslav, a musicologist and folklorist, watches in dismay as the regime turns his beloved folk rituals and songs into commercialized propaganda and sentimental kitsch. Kostka, a devout Christian who lends Ludvik his flat for the seduction, had naively supported the Communist takeover because he believed that Marxism and Christianity were compatible, only to be sent to work on a collective farm because he refused to renounce his faith. Helena is still a true believer, but her faith in communism makes her seem ridiculous. The novel reveals in rich detail how the system, with the well-meaning collusion of its supporters, ends up destroying the very values it was allegedly meant to promote.
The Joke also features one of the most moving female characters Kundera has ever created. Lucie is a quiet young woman whom Ludvik falls deeply in love with while working in the coal mines. He courts her, reciting poetry to her and buying her clothes, and twice they make elaborate arrangements to be intimate together, but each time she fends him off in great distress. Frustrated, he drives her away, but he is left feeling bereft and obsessed by her memory. Toward the end of the novel, Ludvik learns for the first time that before meeting him, Lucie had been brutally gang-raped and then, astonishingly, sentenced to reform school along with her attackers. She is eventually rescued by Kostka and is now living in Ludvik’s hometown, but Ludvik never bothers to seek her out and she simply vanishes from the novel. It’s as though Kundera did not quite know how to deal with real, as opposed to merely intellectual, trauma, and it’s the single greatest disappointment in an otherwise powerful book.
The Joke ends inconclusively, with Ludvik imagining himself in a kind of spiritual free-fall, his old certainties shattered, haunted by his own “obscure guilt.” The novel’s very inconclusiveness neatly captured the nervous uncertainty of the time, when no one could imagine where the forces unleashed by the collapse of Stalinism would lead. That uncertainty soon came to an abrupt and brutal end with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968, and Kundera—especially after a blunt public argument with Václav Havel over the historical meaning of the invasion—found himself at odds with many of his former colleagues. Like Tomáš, the main character of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kundera appeared temperamentally unable to join forces with the dissidents and so, like Tomáš, he seems to have retreated into a kind of internal exile.
Kundera wrote two more novels before finally leaving Czechoslovakia in 1975: Life Is Elsewhere and The Farewell Party. Rooted in the morally corrupt reality of the era, both novels display, more clearly than The Joke, Kundera’s strengths and weaknesses as a novelist. In the quasi-autobiographical Life Is Elsewhere, his hero, a young, politically engaged poet desperate to escape the influence of his domineering mother, betrays his girlfriend’s brother, whom he suspects is about to leave the country illegally, to the secret police. The girl is arrested and her brother vanishes without a trace, yet Kundera allows the poet to die prematurely without ever having to confront the full horror of what he has done. There is a similarly arbitrary death in The Farewell Party.
Both novels were first published abroad (the English translations by Peter Kussi came out in 1974 and 1976, respectively), but neither they nor The Joke (which first appeared in a butchered English translation in 1969) did well, a fault Kundera laid partly at the feet of his translators.
When Kundera moved from Prague to France in 1975, he faced an entirely new set of problems. As a prominent émigré from “the other Europe,” he became the object of expectations that were hard to fulfill and misunderstandings that were hard to counter. His insistence that he was neither a hero of the resistance nor a victim of communism was difficult for Westerners to understand, and much in his early fiction written in exile is an attempt to shatter those stereotypes.
His first critical breakthrough in English was Michael Henry Heim’s translation of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1980). Although labeled a novel, it is really a collection of loosely linked stories, some set in Western Europe, some in Czechoslovakia. For the first time, the writer’s persona, “Milan Kundera,” is present as author and explainer. Reviews were mixed: John Updike wrote that the book was “written with a purity and wit that invites us directly in,” but also with “a strangeness that locks us out.” David Lodge, contrasting the book with The Joke, called it “fragmentary, disjunctive, confused and confusing,” and said that the “overt appearance of the author…does not make it easier, but harder to determine what it ‘means.’”
The book also famously contains an odd little essay on the Czech word litost—regret—which Kundera claimed has no exact translation in any language, though he adds, “I find it difficult to imagine how anyone can understand the human soul without it.” In a later version of the book, Kundera toned down his claim, but the impression lingers that, for whatever reason, the meaning contained in the word litost was, for Kundera, too intensely personal to admit ready translation.
Kundera’s best-selling novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), was his most sophisticated attempt to convey, among other things, a nuanced contrasting of his experiences of East and West. (In it, Sabina, a Czech artist in exile, defiantly declares: “My enemy is kitsch, not Communism!”) Nearly a decade would go by before his next novel, Immortality, the last one he wrote in Czech, appeared in 1990. In the interim, Kundera seems to have spent much of his time meticulously overseeing retranslations and revisions of his earlier novels. The Joke, for instance, went through four different editions in English before he finally declared himself satisfied with the fifth edition, in 1992.
After Immortality, Kundera wrote three more novels before the current one, all of them in French: Slowness (1995), Identity (1998), and Ignorance (2000). The first two are strange concoctions of fantasy and reality. Slowness is tinged with oblique traces of a lingering and by now out-of-date resentment against former dissidents. Identity begins with a woman feeling that she is no longer attractive to men, and ends with an orgiastic embrace of a nihilism that appears to come from a failed social vision. Ignorance is perhaps the bleakest of the three: its two main characters, both Czech exiles, return to their country after the collapse of communism only to find that no one is interested in their experiences in exile. So thoroughly have they been uprooted, and so wide is now the gap between their past and their present, that they no longer seem to belong anywhere.
Despite what The Festival of Insignificance’s jacket copy suggests, the novel does not come close to being a “summation” of Kundera’s life’s work. Instead, it seems haunted by the ghosts of multiple traumas, of unfinished business, dilemmas never quite resolved, jokes gone stale, sins unconfessed and thus unforgiven. In the end, there is even something alarming about the novel’s elusiveness: reading it is like staring into an abyss and having the abyss stare back at you, echoing with faint laughter. But is it the laughter of mockery, despair, forgetting, or complete indifference? As always with Kundera, we are never quite sure.