REVIEW: Milan Kundera's 'The Festival of Insignificance'

In all of his books, Milan Kundera manages to exasperatingly combine immense readability with the sense that what is being read is of great worth. Even if you have no bloody clue what that worth is.

But Kundera is an author you must allow to wash over you. Then you’ve got to start thinking. Hard. The Festival of Insignificance is no different in this respect, and despite – or in spite of – its title, Kundera seems keen to play games with that reader who sets out on a quest for ‘deeper meaning’, ‘methodical method’ and ‘hidden significance’.

Critics have approached this book, written after a fourteen-year hiatus, as a kind of ‘summation’ or ‘epilogue’ to his career as a novelist. This is, I think, a fair evaluation of this particular publication, although I would rather describe it as his ‘encore’ or musical joke, like that which you find at the end of a celebrated musician’s 80th birthday concert.

This is in part because of its length: it is much shorter than Kundera’s earlier works, coming out at barely one hundred pages long. It also, as any good encore does, embodies so much of the artist’s history: his philosophies, his mannerisms, his recurrent idiosyncrasies. Kundera is undoubtedly as much a literary critic as he is an author, and his treatise The Art of the Novel lays down a framework of fiction by which he abides. The Festival of Insignificance follows the schema of seven sections; it’s got a fundamental sense of city-space; it finds cohesion not just internally but externally within the author’s long oeuvre.

So, to the bricks and mortar. Kundera embodies a style of writing that reconfigures the relationships between readers and writers. He gives us characters, situations and dialogue. We do the rest. Yet in this work, characterisation and narrative really are pared down to their bare minimums.

Thankfully, we are helped along structurally: Kundera’s first chapter is entitled, ‘Introducing the Heroes.’ Alain, D’Ardelo, Ramon, Charles, Caliban. From then on, the author offers words, dreams, speeches and musings. With these we do what we want. The same approach is applied to setting: very few spaces are inhabited, by my count, just a park, a reception room, and several domestic spaces. Thus bereft of visual stimuli, we are encouraged to turn our attention to the conversations and to the few, symbolic objects that flesh out these hollow, insignificant fictive spaces.

Despite the fierce locality of its setting, however, The Festival of Insignificance paradoxically tends towards the macrocosmic. Here we have a writer with a world-view encased between the two hard boards of his book.

Thematically, this is a book about love, Cold War Russia, dreams, Paris, piss, cancer, navels and – his timeless theme – laughter. There is no female protagonist or even the sexual encounters we’ve come to expect from our writer; but the characters here, older like Kundera himself, are more concerned with the internal workings of the mind. This is manifest in a profusion of interior monologue and unexpected dreams: these episodes we awake from, like the characters themselves, shuffling back the pages in our earnest haste to check where we went under, where fiction’s reality and fiction’s fictionality diverged.

Like Shakespeare’s late plays, there is a rich generic mix at work here. It is comedy and tragedy, satire and history. A theatricality is exuded by the characters who all, in their own way, write drama, watch drama or perform drama. Meanwhile, a hiding 1st person voice (perhaps Kundera?) breaks into the narrative at random as a reminder that there is someone else pulling the strings, and that the marionette theatre, for which Charles writes, is but a token of autonomy for characters that are really mouthpieces for an increasingly satirical and darkly humorous author.

There is something of Mrs Dalloway in this work. It is a version of Paris that fits on top of 1920’s London well: a superficiality of parties, social games, and insincere conversation abounds. From the first pages, we are promised a birthday party at the same time that we come to expect death. Even that death, when it comes, is a bizarre mirroring of Septimus Warren Smith’s suicide, modified through the lens of Michael Cunningham’s The Hours. Here, though, suicide, infanticide and water combine with none of the elegiac sentimentality of its resonances; we are learning that even death is somewhat insignificant.

Perhaps the masterstroke in this novel is the portrayal of Stalin. That unexpected character who dominates perhaps a third of the book. Kundera masterfully weaves in a Russian sub-plot that is both temporally and geographically displaced from the main narrative. Whilst Cold War themes are expected from this author, Kundera drops his customary dark tone and indulges in playful invention. In a series of cameo-like appearances, an affable – even lovable – Stalin enters the text; he is a story-teller, a joker, a hunter and a lover of Schopenhauer who releases all the exasperation becoming of an intelligent and moderate leader surrounded by buffoons in one way: through utterly contagious laughter.

What is The Festival of Insignificance? It is a manifesto for the good life, and the key to this life is to ‘inhale this insignificance that’s all around us.’ It is a treatise for laughter in an era Kundera sees as ‘The twilight of joking! The post-joke age!’

This religion of insignificance posits itself as ‘the essence of existence’, and the novel sets out to prove this true. It is a feast of quotidian occurrences rendered into the most lucid language. It is quite simply a celebration of everything from human urine, dental chewing, lying, flirting, ageing, philosophising and dying.

The Festival of Insignificance was originally published in French before being published in an English translation by Linda Asher in June, 2015

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