Without borders

<strong>The Curtain: an essay in seven parts</strong>

Milan Kundera <em>Faber & Faber, 256pp, £12.

An alternative subtitle for this book could be "An Apology for Prose". If there is still a residual negativity in the word "prose", a featherlight condescension to what is merely prosaic, then Milan Kundera will correct us. "'Prose': the word signifies not only a nonversified language; it also signifies the concrete, everyday, corporeal nature of life," he writes. "So to say that the novel is the art of prose is not to state the obvious; the word defines the deep sense of that art. Homer never wondered whether, after their many hand-to-hand struggles, Achilles or Ajax still had all their teeth. But for Don Quixote and Sancho teeth are a perpetual concern - hurting teeth, missing teeth."

For Kundera to wonder about the teeth of Achilles or Ajax is itself an exercise in novelistic imagination. This faculty, he argues evocatively, rises from the ashes of the poetical outlook, born "from the ruins of [the novelist's] lyrical world". Surveying the wreckage of his illusions, the novelist sees life cast under "the soft gleam of the comical", and can begin to write about it with sympathy and irony.

The "soft gleam of the comical". Kundera's prose is full of such lovely constructions. Only the novel, he says, can reveal the "immense, mysterious power of the pointless"; or combat the "grammatical trickery of the plural". (The ease of saying "we" and "they" can convince us that homogeneous groups exist where none does: enter Faulkner, narrating As I Lay Dying with a multitude of distinct individuals.) The art of description, in an astonishing, almost throwaway parenthesis, is called "compassion for the ephemeral". And of Flaubert, Kundera writes admiringly: "In the soul of things, in the soul of all things human, everywhere, he sees it dancing, the sweet fairy of stupidity."

But for Kundera, the fairy of stupidity is not always so sweet. Literature, he insists, must be read without borders, and he despairs of the continuing practice of reading novels only in the "small context" of their national traditions. For "it was to Rabelais that Laurence Sterne was reacting, it was Sterne who set off Diderot, it was from Cervantes that Fielding drew constant inspiration, it was against Fielding that Stendhal measured himself, it was Flaubert's tradition living on in Joyce . . ." And yet, Kundera observes, it is in the foreign-literature departments of universities that the novel is most "intractably mired in its home province". Nor does Kundera entertain the idea that the novel should be a social documentary. It would be absurd to write a Comédie Humaine for our times because, he argues tartly, "Art is not a village band marching dutifully along at History's heels. It is there to create its own history."

Of two critical preface-writers in a 1972 edition of Madame Bovary, Kundera is splendidly rude: "These men saw nothing wrong with positioning themselves at a distance from the book in whose vestibule they are squatters." And, without naming names, he damns all unserious writers with marvellous spleen: "A mediocre plumber may be useful to people, but a mediocre novelist who consciously produces books that are ephemeral, commonplace, conventional - thus not useful, thus burdensome, thus noxious - is contemptible." The ringing, threefold "thus", amplifying the criticism at each stage so that what began as "conventional" has become "noxious", and then, the final hammer-blow, outdoing even "noxious" with the pitiless judgement of "contemptible": it's a really invigorating crescendo of bile.

The energy of such denunciations is, of course, proof of Kundera's passion for the novel and for great novels. (You say you love music? Well then, tell me which composers you hate.) His essay is not a systematic survey of the novel, but an idiosyncratic history of his favourites - Rabelais, Cervantes, Sterne, Flaubert, Dostoyevsky, Musil, Gombrowicz - studded with the dicta of a great practitioner, guiding us to surprising, fragmentary perspectives. Kundera reads Sterne, dazzlingly, as a sort of Buddhist: "That absence of action (or miniaturisation of action) is treated with an idyllic smile . . . I think I detect a radical melancholy in that smile: to act is to seek to conquer; to conquer brings suffering to others: renouncing action is the only path to happiness and peace." Just as easily, Kundera will discuss technical matters of narrative strategy, or turn scholar of editions to make a brilliant point about Flaubert's revisions of his paragraphing.

Some anecdotes and arguments in The Curtain will be familiar to readers of Kundera's previous works of criticism, Testaments Betrayed and The Art of the Novel; some others make one wish for elaboration. But this short work is bursting at the seams with ideas and creative sympathy. At one point, Kundera describes Gombrowicz's writings on the novel, and warns us what to expect: "A novelist talking about the art of the novel is not a professor giving a discourse from his podium. Imagine him rather as a painter welcoming you into his studio, where you are surrounded by his canvases staring at you from where they lean against the walls. He will talk about himself, but even more about other people, about novels of theirs that he loves and that have a secret presence in his own work." He is talking about Gombrowicz, but also, of course, he is talking about himself. Kundera dashes irrepressibly around his own studio, playing the provocateur, the fan, the scholar or the charming old roué, to consistently fascinating effect. To be welcomed in is a rare pleasure.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Trident: Why Brown went to war with Labour

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Cake or Death: why The Great British Bake Off is the best thing on television

Those who are complaining that the show has “caved in to political correctness” have missed the point.

The Cake is a Lie. That’s what viewers of the Great British Bake Off, now in its fifth season, are complaining about in the run-up to this week’s final. Out of thousands of amateur bakers who applied, three have made it through the gruelling rounds of Mary Berry’s disapproving pucker and faced down blue-eyed Cake Fascist Paul Hollywood’s demands without a single underbaked layer or soggy bottom in sight - and two of them aren’t white. The subsequent crypto-racist whining from PC-gone-madattrons in the press - one paper suggested that perhaps poor Flora, who was sent home last week, should have baked a "chocolate mosque" - runs against the whole spirit of Bake Off.

The charge is that the competition is not merit-based, and the entire basis for this complaint seems to be that two out of the finalists are of Asian origin - which makes total sense, because everyone knows that white people are better than everyone else at everything, including baking, so obviously it’s political correctness gone mad. The fact that last week Nadiya Hussain, a homemaker from Luton who happens to wear a hijab, baked an entire fucking peacock out of chocolate biscuits had nothing to do with it.

For those of you who mysteriously have better things to do with your time than watch 12 British people prat about in a tent, let me tell you why all of this matters. The best way to explain what's so great about The Great British Bake Off is to compare it to how they do these things across the pond. In America, they have a show called Cupcake Wars, which I gamely tuned into last year whilst living abroad and missing my fix of Sue Perkins getting overexcited about Tart Week. 

Big mistake. Cupcake Wars is nothing at all like Bake Off. Cupcake Wars is a post-Fordian nightmare of overproduction and backstabbing filmed under pounding lights to a sugary version of the Jaws soundtrack. Contestants mutter and scheme over giant vats of violent orange frosting about how they're going to destroy the competition, and they all need the prize money because without it their small cupcake businesses might fold and their children will probably be fed to Donald Trump. Every week a different celebrity guest picks one winner to produce a thousand cupcakes - a thousand cupcakes! - for some fancy party or other, and it’s all just excessive and cutthroat and cruel. Cupcake Wars is Cake Or Death.

Bake Off is quite different. Bake Off is not about the money, or even really about the winning. Bake Off is a magical world of bunting and scones and dapper lesbian comedians making ridiculous puns about buns and gentle, worried people getting in a flap about pastry. There are very few hysterics. Legend has it that if anybody has a real breakdown in the middle of a signature bake, presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins stand next to them repeating brand names and swear-words so the cameramen can’t use the footage, and don’t you dare disabuse me of that fact, because I want it to be true. The prize money, in a desperately British way, is almost never mentioned, nobody tries to sabotage anyone else’s puff pastry, and at the end whoever has to leave gives a brave little interview about how it’s a shame but they tried their best and they were just happy to be there and they’re definitely going to do some more baking almost as soon as they get home. 

Bake Off is the theatre of the humdrum, where fussy, nervous people get to be heroes, making macarons as the seas rise and the planet boils and the leaders of the world don't care that they've left the oven on. I’m always a little bit frightened by people who can bake, because I can’t even make a muffin out of a packet, although one danger of watching too much Bake Off is that you become convinced you ought to give it another try, and I apologise to my housemates for making them eat my savoury vegan chilli-chocolate cookies (don’t ask). They say that if you can bake a cake, you can make a bomb, and by that logic I should definitely be kept away from the explosives when the zombie revolution comes- but the Bake Off contestants are probably the sort of people who will be Britain’s last line of defence, quietly constructing landmines and apologising that the stitching on the flag of insurrection isn’t quite perfect. People with this specific and terrifying personality type are that are precisely the reason Britain once had an empire, as well as the reason we’re now rather embarrassed about it. 

For now, though, Bake Off is a gentle human drama about all the best bits of Britishness- and diversity is part of that. In fact, this isn’t even the first time that two out of three finalists have not been white - that was two years ago. But something seems to have changed in British society at large, such that the same scenario is now more enraging to the kind of people who get their jollies from spoiling everything lovely and gentle in this world with casual bigotry - they know who they are, and may their Victoria sponges never rise and all their flatbreads turn out disappointingly chewy.

Britain is getting harder and meaner, and even Bake Off is not immune. In the first season, it was more than enough to bake a half decent brioche. This season an affable fireman got sent home because the grass on his miniature edible Victorian tennis court was not the right shade of green, and I’m not even joking. In one of the challenges the bakers had to produce an arcane french dessert that looked like the turds of a robot angel, and most of them actually managed it. The music is getting more dramatic, the close-up shots of flaky chocolate pastry and oozing pie-lids more reminiscent of 1970s pornography. It’s all a bit much.

The human drama, though, is as perfectly baked as ever. Lovely Flora, the baby of the bunch who missed out on a spot in the final because her chocolate carousel centrepiece was slightly wonky, was actually one of my favourites because she's so deliciously millennial, with her pussy-bow collars and obsessive, Type-A attention to detail. Paul the Prison Officer was a delight, mainly because he looked so much like Paul Hollywood- cue six weeks of two enormous men called Paul having bro-offs over bread, nodding and trading gruff, dudely handshakes over the specific crunchiness of biscotti. One week, Prison Officer Paul produced a giant dough sculpture of a lion's head and Judge Paul gave him a special prize and then they probably went off into a gingerbread sweat lodge together and it was the manliest moment ever in Bake Off history.

This is what Bake Off is about, and that’s why the people who are complaining that something other than merit might have been involved in selecting the finalists have missed the point entirely. The point of Bake Off is not to determine the best amateur baker in the land. That's just the excuse for Bake Off. Even the gentlest TV show needs a vague narrative structure, and otherwise there'd be no tension when someone's blancmange collapses in a heap of eggy foam and broken dreams. But in the end, when all's said and done, it's just cake. If your ornamental biscuit windmill has a soggy bottom, well, nobody died, and you can probably still eat the pieces on your way home to have a cup of tea and a little cry. 

That's the point of Bake Off. None of it really matters, and yet it consistently made me smile during a long, weary summer of geopolitical doomwrangling when absolutely everything else on television was unremitting misery. I hope Nadiya wins, because she’s an adorable dork and I love her and she gets so worried about everything and I want nothing remotely distressing to happen to her, ever; I expect Tamal Ray, the gay doctor whose meat pie had me drooling, is the best baker overall, but I can’t be objective there, because I keep getting distracted by his lovely smile. Ian Cumming, the last white person in the tent (apart from both of the presenters and both of the judges) is a little bit dull, which is a problem, because of all the delicious treats produced on the show, Ian's are the ones I would probably eat the most. I want his tarragon cheesecake in my face immediately. I would just rather have a conversation with Nadiya while I'm doing it.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter! And that’s the utter, unremitting joy of Bake Off. It’s possibly the last show on earth where in the end, it doesn’t matter who wins, as long as everyone gave it their best shot and had a laugh over a disastrous scrambled-egg chocolate tart or two, because ultimately, it’s just cake. And that’s marvellous. Now let’s all have a nice fat slice of perspective and calm down.


Now listen to a discussion of the Bake Off on the NS pop culture podcast:

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.