The unbecoming lightness of navel-gazing in Paris
The Festival of Insignificance By Milan Kundera Faber & Faber, 128pp, $24.99 (HB) A younger Australian poet I know once said something interesting about Les Murray. He reckoned the most powerful and urgent period in Murray’s career was when the Bard from Bunyah still lived in the city.
It was the tension between conservative agrarian outlook and cosmopolitan urban fabric that generated those rich, fissile works for which he is chiefly celebrated. Once ensconced in the country, there was less resistance for Murray’s mind to meet: fruitful combat became drawn-out peace. Having ‘‘built Versailles’’, in Clive James’s memorable if unfair formulation, Murray pottered about the grounds building
June 27-28, 2015 perfectly proportioned garden sheds. Think of Nabokov after the success of Lolita allowed him to swap the massed vulgarity of the US for Switzerland’s hygienic sunsets — those late works lack red meat. Or consider Milan Kundera, whose initial fame and ethical impetus as a writer emerged from his grappling with the experience of his home country, Czechoslovakia, under communism, but who has now spent decades in Paris: an author so accommodated to his host culture that for some years now he has written in French.
The Festival of Insignificance, Kundera’s first novel since Ignorance in 2008, might helpfully be viewed through the same prism — call it a decline into mere elegance, or the slackness that attends long success — though, like those other old masters, there is no sketch so slight that it does not possess some frisson.
Whatever the case, this short piece belongs more firmly in the Gallic literary tradition than the Mitteleuropean. The crisp, cynical series of tableaux from which it is constructed bring to mind the farces of Moliere, the aphoristic glitter of Radiguet, the contemporary nihilism of Michel Houellebecq. Only at its conclusion does the work recall us to the essayistic temper and native fabulism of Kundera at his best.
The time is the near present; the place, Paris in all its marmoreal glory. The narrative shifts restlessly between four middle-aged men (ever since his first novel, The Joke, and including his best known, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kundera has always been fond of quartets) — friends who, though they register a measure of wit and sophistication, are all somewhat adrift.
There is Alain, who was abandoned by his mother as a child and feels an interloper in the world; he is one of nature’s apologisers. His friend Ramon, appalled by the vapid art-awe exhibited by Parisian gallery-goers, is a serial nonattender of a blockbuster show devoted to Chagall. Meanwhile, Charles and Caliban (a failed actor who acquired the nickname on account of his final part) work as waiters at upmarket drinks parties while planning a neverto-be realised marionette play.
Unlike Tereza in The Unbearable Lightness of Being or Jaromil in Life is Elsewhere from 1969, these characters do not balance distinctive human claims against the universalising tendencies of the author. Kundera is only interested in exploiting his latest cast for essayistic gain: indeed, they are little more than the puppets imagined by Charles and Caliban.
And yet, even the substance of the philosophical essays they inspire is both intellectually slight and generally dubious. Ramon, for example, relays a scene in which D’Ardelo, a raconteur and would-be seducer, fails to win the heart of some beauty at a party. Instead she goes off with a quiet and ostensibly insignificant man named Quaquelique. The lesson?