Kundera: Looking for the Joke


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.

Milan Kundera
Milan Kundera; drawing by Pancho

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…

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