The un­be­com­ing light­ness of navel-gaz­ing in Paris

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ge­ordie Wil­liamson

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?

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