Culture

The Festival of Insignificance – an escape from Central Europe. On the new novel by Milan Kundera

Piotr Kieżun · 22 July 2015

Something has gone wrong with the creative force that once was Milan Kundera, something all too plain to see in his latest novel The Festival of Insignificance (2014). This is the fourth book he has written in French, though in producing it he has not only abandoned his native tongue, but also his Central European sensibility. A change which is, sadly, not for the better.

Hard is the life of a translator who has to work with a living author, especially one who is both permanently discontented and perfectly versed in the language you are translating him into. Conversely, a bad translation can wreck the nerves of even the most imperturbable writer.

It is this second scenario which convinced Milan Kundera, back in the 1980s, to take a rather rare step in the world of literature – namely, to go back through and make subtle revisions to all the translations of his novels in French. This mammoth task is not surprisingly, however, when one recalls the circumstances in which Kundera decided to engage in this whirl of comparative analyses. In a note to the 1985 French edition of his The Joke, he wrote (both with good humour and tangible irritation):

“One day, in 1979, while interviewing me for an extensive feature in Corriere della serra, Alain Finkielkraut asked: ‘Your style, so flowery and baroque in The Joke, became clear and stripped of adornments in your subsequent books. Where did the change come from?’ What? My writing style – flowery and barque? In this way, I came to read, for the first time ever, the French edition of my book. (Up until then, I wasn’t in the habit of reading and controlling my own translations; today, unfortunately, I devote more time to this Sisyphean task than I do to writing itself.) I was surprised. Above all, for whole sections of the book, the translator had stopped translating and was writing it anew. […] He had introduced hundreds (yes!) prettifying metaphors (my version: the sky was blue; his version: under a violet sky, October spread out its grand pennants; my version: the trees were in colour; his version; the trees blossomed with a polyphony of tones […]). Indeed, even today I am unhappy about this. To think, that for a dozen years, in many print runs, The Joke was read all over France in this warped format” [1].

And yet, Kundera went even further. Why bother correcting new translations into French, if one can just write the thing in French from word go? This is the language Slowness (1995) and his subsequent novels Identity (1998) and Ignorance (2003) were penned in – all of these rather slim in volume and, let’s be honest, far from previous literary accomplishments by the Czech author.

Along with the choice of a language other than his mother tongue, something began to corrupt in Kundera’s novel-making machine. First of all – the style. Sentences, even simpler and even more stripped of fineries than in his early works, instead of giving his prose an unforced lightness, caused it to become mannered. As if his clarté did not arise out of the writer’s conscious decision making processes, but was a consequence of insufficient linguistic competencies. Secondly, something started to go wrong with his essayistic digressions, something we had become accustomed to in his previous novels. They had started to “come unstuck” from the narrative itself. It was still possible to engage with deliberations about the figure of Ulysses, such as in Ignorance, but with a sense of regret that the author of this sort of short interruption didn’t simply convert it into a separate, self-standing essay.

Stalin, a belly button and pathetic marionettes

The above criticisms can unfortunately again be levelled at Kundera’s latest novel The Festival of Insignificance (2014). The book, long awaited and widely lauded by French critics, was received rather fondly. “Friends meet and tell stories about each other [se rencontrent et se racontent]. And that’s about it” [2], as Pierre Assouline, a writer and author of one of France’s most famous literary blogs, dryly remarked. He has a point. It is hard for us to applaud a writer of Kundera’s caliber for producing a work which we would rather expect to come from a debut novelist, rather than from one of the icons of world literature, a now permanent fixture in our bookish firmaments.

Everything seems to grate in his recent fictional outpourings, starting with the protagonists themselves. In The Festival of Insignificance we have four central characters, all of them men, united through friendship in spite of differences in age and educational background. Ramon, the eldest, born before Stalin’s death, is a retired employee of an unnamed institution. Alain, the youngest of the four, well-read and travelled, works in a place which allows him to be able to afford a small studio in Paris. Raised as an only child by his father, he still cannot come to terms with having been abandoned by his mother, who left her son and husband and decamped for America. Forty-something Charles organises cocktail parties for private clients. At the point at which we meet him, his mother is dying in slow agony. In his work, he is helped by the last of our protagonists, Kaliban – an unemployed actor, slightly older than Alain.

Overall, we learn little more about the four men in the course of the novel. We are not helped by the way in which the Parisian setting is presented. The narrative takes place in only a handful of locations: the heroes’ homes, The Jardin du Luxembourg and a party staged by Charles and Kaliban, to which they invite Ramon. In truth, the novel could have been set anywhere. The main narrative is formed from endless intellectual dialogues and monologues expounded by the four men. If Ramon, Alain, Charles and Kaliban had suddenly become Rajmund, Adam, Karol and Kajetan, and had identical exchanges in Warsaw’s suburbs and parks, the structure and sense of the novel would in no way suffer or change. What’s more, the four friends could be melted into one person, seeing as their utterances remain uniform in terms of tone and level of erudition. But why would one write a novel, then?

In his review, Assouline goes even further in criticising the novel: “The characters, quickly transformed into pathetic marionettes, speak with the same voice. Nothing of this stays with the reader. No sound, no definite mark. It is even impossible to quote from the book, seeing as nothing seems worth quoting” [3]. This isn’t quite true. There are many themes the characters talk about, many images and metaphors, which will remain in readers’ memories. Such as the story about Stalin, Khrushchev, Kalinin and some partridges, through which Kundera suggests humour and lightness has lost its battle against History with a big H. Or a woman’s bellybutton, seen during a summer’s day, which inspires Alain to ponder the mysteries of individual existence and repetitiveness. The “insignificance” hinted at in the title also influences the narrative, as it is referred to in the novel as the “essence of being”. The glorification of all that which is useless, meaningless and hidden in the background is not an insignificant (sic!) mystery, as Kundera’s critics would like to believe.

But what of it, if all these narrative threads leave us with a sense of disappointment and light confusion. They are subtle, rather randomly administered prods, meant to inspire us to thinking. A prod is not enough, however. Alain Finkielkraut was able to publish an essay in 2009 on the art of laughing, based on The Joke (ref. A wise man doesn’t laugh without ridicule in the volume An understanding heart), but in the case of La fête de l’insignifiance such a trick would be hard to pull of again.

Kundera kidnapped

What, apart from the language itself and his problems with digressive devices, is the weakness of Kundera’s most recent works? One could develop a hypothesis which would most definitely not be to the author’s liking, seeing as he always takes pains to separate his writer’s lot from that of a migrant from behind the Iron Curtain – a hypothesis that suggests his writing would be improved if in his new works he hadn’t completely abandoned (with the possible exception of Ignorance) his previous Central European motifs. And I don’t just mean the impact essays the likes of The kidnapped West. The tragedy of Central Europe [4] has had on both Western and Eastern thought. Let’s take a look at Kundera’s novels. Though the descriptions of Ludvik’s adventures in The Joke or those of Thomas and Theresa in The Unbearable Lightness of Being always make us mindful of universal problems and are riddled with references to classic works by the likes of Sophocles, Nietzsche or Freud, the same adventures are simultaneously deeply embedded in a specific, Central European reality. It gives them a certain air of validity.

But this isn’t everything. When François Taillandier, in a special edition of Le Magazine Littéraire devoted to Kundera in 2011, stated that the Czech writer “opened the novel to a form of reflection which is not theoretical”, he was talking about something more than simple resistance against what was then, in France, a trend involving formal experiments rooted in social sciences [5]. This also involved a focus on the individual, a character who is not reduced to any sort of grand theoretical narrative. “Kundera’s humans” according to Taillandier, “in reality occupy all dimensions: history and politics for certain, but also metaphysics, eroticism, comedy and tragedy. Their problems stems from the fact that in order to externalise all these, simultaneously breaching them, in order to know that he cannot escape any, yet at the same time their humanity depends on whether they can evade the fate of being imprisoned by them” [6].

Kundera’s stance didn’t come from nowhere. Humour, skepticism, faith in the novel form which allows the writer to show the multitude and at the same time the uniqueness of human lives, refusing to be locked within narrow scientific and ideological frameworks… well, even the Kundera-esque hedonism which is so allied with Western style libertarianism emerges our of his Central European experience. It also makes Kundera mistrust history, as can be seen from his books. Writing in The kidnaped West about small, Central European nations, the author emphasised “It’s this disabused view of history that is the source of their culture, of their wisdom, of the ‘nonserious spirit’ that mocks grandeur and glory” [8]. We could say the same about his finest novels, something we would be hard pressed to find in his most recent work.

In spite of its flaws, I am certain La fête de l’insignifiance will find a Polish publisher soon enough. And rightly so. Polish readers deserve a complete library of Kundera translations. They will then be able to judge his latest output, though after the Polish receptions of Slowness, Identity and Ignorance, we should not be expecting any throes of delight. Kundera fans, who are still waiting for the master to produce a work in his old, great style, can do no more than hang their heads and blame that original, disastrous translation of The Joke.

Footnotes:

[1] Milan Kundera, Note de l’auteur à la traduction définitive de La plaisanterie, Éd. Gallimard, Paris 1985.

[2] larepubliquedeslivres.com/caprice-dechenoz-insignifiance-du-kundera/; access: 20.07.2014.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Milan Kundera, The kidnapped West. The tragedy of Central Europe, The New York Review of Books, 26.04.1984.

[5] François Taillandier, Le Roman comme zone franche, ‘Le Magazine Littéraire’, no. 507, July 2011.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Milan Kundera, The kidnapped West. The tragedy of Central Europe, Op. cit.

 

Translated by Marek Kazmierski.

 

Book:

Milan Kundera, „La fête de l’insignifiance”, Éd. Gallimard, Paris 2014.