Tuesday, July 07, 2015

The Festival of Insignificance, Kundera's new novel

Milan Kundera, the Czech author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being and perennial candidate for the Nobel prize in literature, will publish his first novel in 13 years this summer.

“No, dear cynics, the novel is not dead,” ran a review in L’Express last year. “We have in France one of the greatest contemporary writers. He is called Milan Kundera, and you must read his new book as soon as possible – it could be his last, and it is magnificent, sunny, profound and funny.”

Faber described the new book as a “wryly comic yet deeply serious glance at the ultimate insignificance of life and politics, told through the daily lives of four friends in modern-day Paris”. Said chief executive Stephen Page: “It feels incredibly relevant to the world we live in now. It’s very funny, and also quite surreal … It’s hard with an author of Kundera’s stature to talk about his best work, but this is a significant novel, an important work.”

“We’ve known for a long time that it was no longer possible to overturn this world, nor reshape it, nor head off its dangerous headlong rush. There’s been only one possible resistance: to not take it seriously.”
- The Festival of Insignificance

When its publisher announced in early 2015 that The Festival of Insignificance, Milan Kundera’s first novel in 13 years, would be a “summation of his life’s work,” fans were giddy with anticipation.

And yet this slight but wonderful novel offers its own distinct brand of pleasure. At 115 pages, with the large font for which Kundera has long agitated, “Insignificance” is his shortest novel and can be read in a single sitting.

Never in a Kundera novel has plot mattered less. Instead, the party merely serves as a platform on which Kundera can examine themes that will be familiar to his readers—for example, the absurdity of history.

Another theme that Kundera revisits in Insignificance is the futility of interpersonal communication. Kundera has long portrayed us humans as incompetent communicators; most of his characters are uninterested in others or incapable of truly connecting. With "Insignificance", Kundera playfully takes his skepticism about conversation to an absurd extreme.

After he left Communist Czechoslovakia, Kundera found himself in an extraordinary predicament for a writer—except for a tiny minority, all of his readers would be reading him in translation. From that point forward, he constructed every sentence so as to minimize the risk that a translator could screw it up. As he explained in The Art of the Novel, “For me, because practically speaking I no longer have the Czech audience, translations are everything.” (The Festival of Insignificance, like all his French-language novels, was translated by Linda Asher.)

Kundera has always celebrated the liberation that comes with old age. He once speculated that Goethe felt “a sense of inexpressible joy and a sudden surge of vitality” during his last days, released from considerations about his legacy. In his criticism, he has singled out for praise the work that Beethoven, Janacek, and Fellini created toward the end of their lives.

With this magic trick of a novel, it’s clear that Kundera, now 86, is living the geriatric dream. Insignificance is the work not of a grumpy old man but of a grinning old man. Kundera still believes that life is a trap—as Alain’s mother puts it, “Of all the people you see, no one is here by his own wish”—but, as if intoxicated by the nearness of his release from that trap, his reaction to that core existential truth has bloomed from despair into laughter.
source: The Unexpected Lightness of Milan Kundera’s New Novel

Accepting the Jerusalem Prize in 1985, he praised Israel for giving one of its highest awards to an international novel and paying tribute, despite betrayal, to “a Europe conceived not as territory but as culture.” This, he made clear, is more than Europe deserves:

“If the Jews, even after Europe so tragically failed them, nonetheless kept faith with that European cosmopolitanism, Israel, their little homeland finally regained, strikes me as the true heart of Europe—a peculiar heart located outside the body.
Here is a paradox worthy of Kafka. It takes a little homeland regained to house a large transnational dream. Europe, meanwhile, has become a shrunken wanderer.”

Kundera reprints his Jerusalem Prize speech as the final stand-alone section of The Art of the Novel, giving it the last word in his formulation of a tradition that elevates irony, ambiguity, and detachment to the pinnacle of artistic achievement. Though his speech honors his familiar heroes—Cervantes and other free-range literary chickens who have all of European culture to play in—it also challenges the very idea of Western Europe. If the heart of Europe is no longer in its body, it doesn’t matter whether you live in Prague or Paris, not because you are always at home but because you cannot be at home in a world forever exiled from itself. Irony, ambiguity, and detachment will not save you.

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