Meditate wildly: a drawing by Kundera from the 1970s.
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In Milan Kundera’s first new novel in 15 years, the novelty begins to wear thin

Over the past 30 years, virtually all of Kundera’s innovations have been either imitated or overtaken. Kundera's challenge is to outlive his own novelty.

The Festival of Insignificance
Milan Kundera. Translated by Linda Asher
Faber & Faber, 115pp, £14.99

When a writer loses his subject, there are things that can be done. John le Carré, robbed of the Iron Curtain, discovered Africa and Islam. But how about when a writer loses his method – when his method is overtaken by events elsewhere and thereby loses its novelty, piquancy, bite? This is the problem encountered by the Czech writer Milan Kundera in the 21st century.

Kundera’s kind of “essayistic novel”, in which a philosophical narrator expands on his characters’ various chance meetings and erotic adventures, was produced by a particular clash of temperament and circumstances. Not long after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, when Kundera’s early work was banned by the authorities, a theatre director eager to help asked him to write, under the director’s name, a stage version of Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot. “So I reread The Idiot,” Kundera recalled, “and realised that even if I were starving, I could not do the job.” Dostoevsky’s work repelled him, not because of any new loathing on his part for Russians (“I never stopped loving Chekhov”), but because Dostoevsky’s “universe”, “the climate of his novels”, turns everything “into feeling”.

Though Kundera later grew sick of being treated as a dissident writer, his elevation of a sort of novel that was rational without being cold was prompted by a distaste for passion that, if not political, could reasonably be called ideological. Because Russia had never had a Renaissance, he argued, it lacked a period dominated by “reason and doubt”, detachment and scepticism, by an emphasis on “play” and an acceptance of “the relativity of human affairs”, with which to counterbalance its Christian inheritance. Soviet Russia was a belated result of this non-Renaissance and showed what happens when feelings, which Christianity had made “the criterion for truth”, supplant “rational thought” and become “values in themselves”. Invited to engage with Dostoevsky, Kundera felt instead “an instinctive need to breathe deeply of the spirit of the post-Renaissance west”, and in particular of Diderot’s comic novel Jacques le fataliste, which takes pride of place on  his 18th-century bookshelf alongside Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy.

The example of Diderot and Sterne, and before them Rabelais and Cervantes, gave Kundera the courage to write a novel “without fabricating suspense, without constructing a plot and working up its plausibility . . . without describing a period, a milieu, a city”. Instead, he would do the things that weren’t being done. He would “base a novel on a sustained meditation”, going against “the spirit of the 20th century, which no longer likes to think at all”. But this meditation would avoid identifying with “any politics, any ideology, any moral doctrine”, not out of “evasion or passivity” (in other words, indifference), but as an act of “resistance” and “rebellion” against the novelist’s supposed obligations.

Kundera was convinced that, far from exhausting all possibilities, the modern novel had never explored this sceptical path. True in 1968, perhaps, when the Russian invasion soured his relationship with Dostoevsky. Still true, just about, in the 1980s, when Kundera, by then a French citizen but not yet a French-language writer, published his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, his introduction to the American edition of his play Jacques and His Master, and his ­treatise The Art of the Novel.

But today those freedoms are no longer overlooked. The meditative novel-essay is as common as the apolitical novel-game. Kundera stands alongside Sebald, Pynchon and Sterne himself as one of the presiding spirits of a form as promiscuous as it has ever been. And so Kundera’s new novel, the first he has written this century, is born into a world where most readers, by now weary of abstraction and irreverence, meditations and games, would be quite happy for a novelist to revisit most, even all of the things – suspense, plot, plausibility, a setting – that in his formative years he consciously elected to avoid.

The Festival of Significance, which unfolds over 115 sparsely printed, generous-margined pages, cleaves to the old Kundera formula, one that he has refined and reduced when it was in need of enrichment or overhaul. Any question you care to throw will yield the answer “yes”: is it divided into seven sections and further subdivided into titled subsections? Does everything hinge on an abstract noun? Is Woman a marvellous enigma?

This is the fourth novel that Kundera has written in French, after Slowness, Identity and Ignorance, and it displays a sensibility by now almost entirely French, both concerned with modern Paris – a setting of less pressing interest than 1970s Prague – and specialising in the native forms: aperçu, ­causerie, essai, jeu d’esprit. (The novel ends with a “hymn to insignificance” as the “essence of existence”.)

The opening section introduces “the Heroes”: Alain, who is busily reflecting on the navel and its displacement of thigh, buttock and breast as the centre of “female seductive power”; Ramon, who decides against visiting an oversubscribed Chagall show and goes to the park instead; and D’Ardelo, who is told by a doctor that he doesn’t have cancer but then bumps into Ramon and tells him that he does. Ramon goes straight to see his friend Charles and asks him to organise a party for the dying D’Ardelo. While there, he notices a copy of Nikita Khrushchev’s memoir, which, Charles tells him, “our master who invented us” – that is, Kundera – gave him as a present. The rest of the novel alternates between D’Ardelo’s party (and its aftermath) and a series of ruminations on a few lines in the Khrushchev book that Kundera underlined for Charles, involving Stalin’s claim that 12 partridges stayed where they were while he went off to get more shells for his gun. The failure of Khrushchev and various apparatchiks to see that Stalin was joking prompts Charles to identify “the beginning of a whole new period in history”: “The post-joke age!”

It is out of a belief in this age – a belief that we are living in the world of Soviet po-facedness, from which Stalin was somehow exempt – that Kundera has written this book. To the extent that he offers anything coherent it is in celebrating the joyfully meaningless. Quests for order inevitably fail. The world is pure insignificance and will not yield. During one of the novel’s visits to the era of Stalin, Khrushchev says an angel is a sign and Leonid Brezhnev asks: “But a sign of what?” He gets no reply. And there are several pages devoted to a falling feather at D’Ardelo’s party which Kundera imagines appearing in Stalin’s meeting room, where – he speculates – it would have been perceived as an “incomprehensible” and “ungraspable” threat.

When we follow the feather back to D’Ardelo’s party, Ramon explains that Kundera has made him read Hegel’s “essay on the comical”, in which Hegel says that only from the height of an infinite good mood can you observe “the eternal stupidity of men, and laugh over it”. An instance of earthly affairs seen with disinterest is offered soon after that during a debate about human rights, in which Alain’s dead mother says, “Look around you. Of all the people you see, no one is here by his own wish.” It’s the kind of wise/facetious insight that Kundera once sprinkled like fairy dust over the pages of his novels. This time it’s a comparative loner.

But if Kundera’s brand of idea-laden anti-realist whimsy has lost much of its appeal, it is due partly to a lack of engagement on Kundera’s part, and partly to developments in literary culture. When the work of a foreign-language writer is discovered and disseminated, it is usually with the accompanying whisper that he or she is doing something that English and American writers have forgotten to do or never knew about in the first place.

Over the past 30 years, however, virtually all of Kundera’s innovations have been either imitated or overtaken, not just the scepticism, the metafiction and the use of a philosophical narrator, but even his preferred tone and manner of philosophising – the moves from intimate to universal, from profane to sacred – shared with varying intensity by everyone from Julian Barnes and Alain de Botton to Slavoj Žižek and Theodore Zeldin, the anthropologist (and erstwhile chronicler of French passions) whose essay-plus-case-studies An Intimate History of Humanity is as good a Milan Kundera novel as The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

It might not have mattered that Kundera, a writer known for swimming against the current, a pursuer of lost possibilities, has now become part of the mainstream. After all, readers do not only want the things they aren’t currently being offered in abundance. Yet if a novel feels like more of the same, if it cannot justify itself – in the manner of its predecessors – as a bulwark or ­alternative or counterweight, then it needs to flaunt the points of interest that have outlived its author’s novelty, and not prompt the thought that novelty was maybe all he ever had.

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns the future?

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Edinburgh in the time of Harry Potter - growing up in a city that became famous for a book

At first, JK Rowling was considered a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. 

In an Edinburgh playground, circa 1998, I found myself excluded from one of the world’s first Harry Potter cliques. My best friend Sophie had a copy of a book with a title which seemed indecipherable to me, but she insisted it was so good she couldn’t possibly let me read it. Instead, she and the other owner of a book huddled together in corners of our concrete, high-walled playground. I was not invited.

Exclusion worked. Somehow I procured a copy of this book, rather sceptically read the praise on the cover, and spent the next day avoiding all company in order to finish it. After my initiation into the small-but-growing clique, I read the second book, still in hardback.

Edinburgh at that time was something of a backwater. Although it still had the same atmospheric skyline, with the castle dominating the city, the Scottish Parliament was yet to open, and the Scottish banks were still hatching their global domination plans. The most famous author of the moment was Irvine Welsh, whose book Trainspotting chronicled a heroin epidemic.

In this city, JK Rowling was still considered to be a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. She gave talks in the Edinburgh Book Festival, a string of tents in the posh West End Charlotte Square. By the time I saw her (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hardback edition, 1999), she had graduated from the tepee to the big tent reserved for authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. At the end we queued up for the book signing, and she told me she liked my purple dungarees.

At that time, there were no films, and what the characters should look and sound like was a constant playground debate. Another member of the Harry Potter clique I spoke to, Sally*, remembers how excited she was that “she did the same voice for Hagrid that my mum did when she was reading it to me”.

About the same time, a rumour spread around school so incredible it took a while to establish it was true. JK Rowling was moving to the street where some of our Harry Potter clique lived. We started taking detours for the privilege of scurrying past the grand Victorian house on the corner, with its mail box and security keypad. The mail box in particular became a focus of our imagination. Sophie and I laboured away on a Harry Potter board game which – we fervently believed – would one day be ready to post.

Gradually, though, it was not just ten-year-olds peeping through the gate. The adults had read Harry Potter by now. Journalists were caught raking through the bins.

Sally recalls the change. “It was exciting [after she first moved in], but as it was just after the first book it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it soon became,” she recalls. “Then it just felt a little bizarre that people would go on tours to try and get a glimpse of her house.

“It just felt like an ordinary area of town with ordinary people and it made me realise the price that comes with fame.”

Edinburgh, too, began to change. As teenagers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003) we liked to gather at the Elephant House cafe, on the bohemian George IV Bridge. We knew it was one of the cafes JK Rowling had written in, but we also liked its round wooden tables, and its bagels, and the fact you got one of the hundreds of miniature elephants that decorated the café if your bagel was late. It became harder and harder to get a seat.

We scoffed at the tourists. Still, we were proud that Harry Potter had put our city on the map. “As I grew older, it was fun to think of her writing the books in local cafes and just being an ordinary person living in Edinburgh with a great imagination,” Sally says. As for me, it was my trump card during long summers spent with bored Canadian teenagers, who had not heard and did not care about anything else relating to my teenage life in Scotland.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in July 2007, a month after I left high school. Not long after that, I left Edinburgh as well. The financial crash the following year stunned the city, and exiled graduates like me. I fell out the habit of reading fiction for fun. JK Rowling moved to a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, ringed by 50 foot hedges. The Scottish independence referendum divided my friends and family. On Twitter, Rowling, firmly pro-union, was a target for cybernats.

Then, two years ago, I discovered there is another Harry Potter city – Porto. As in Edinburgh, medieval passageways wind past stacked old houses, and the sea is never far away. JK Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, during her short-lived marriage, and drafted the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the university district, students wear black, ragged gowns, and the fantastical wooden carvings of the Livraria Lello bookshop is tipped to be the inspiration for some of the aesthetic Rowling applies to the books.

I don’t know whether it did or not. But it made me realise that no city can possess an author, and not only because she could afford to any part of the globe at whim. Standing in the bookshop and watching the students drift by, I could imagine myself in some corner of the Harry Potter world. And simultaneously, perhaps, some tourists queueing for a table at the Elephant House were doing the same.

*Name has been changed

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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