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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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

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

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism