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?

PHOTO: URSZULA SOLTYS
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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist