Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Reading The Festival of Insignificance

Ramon wants to see a Chagall exhibit but the line is too long and he doesn't want to deal with all the people so instead he decides to take a walk in the park.  Simultaneously, Ramon's friend, D'Ardelo, has just come from a doctor visit where he learned the results of tests as to whether he has cancer, but D'Ardelo received good news.  No cancer.  He is walking happily along, thinking about his upcoming birthday, when he encounters Ramon in the park.

So begins Milan Kundera's 2013 novelette, The Festival Of Insignificance.  This is his first novel-like work since Ignorance (2000).  Long-time readers know that Kundera is a special writer to me.  I was excited a couple of years ago to learn that he had written a new "short work."  When the English translation from the French became available in late June I bought it immediately.  I read it very quickly over the course of two nights.

It is only 115 pages.  I savored the overall feel of the prose.  It certainly felt like Kundera.  He might be saying something deeper than all his absurdity and light-hearted sadness would suggest.  So it turned out to be the perfect thing to reread at a leisurely pace while in Destin (see previous post).  It gave me a nostalgia for Kundera's greatest works that wrought him world renown in literature.  But here there is no weighty insight.  Here the casual and the bizarre intermingle to a delightful effect.  This is perhaps a farewell candy from Kundera to his readers.

D'Ardelo and Ramon strike up a conversation. D'Ardelo, relieved that he doesn't have cancer, wants to have a party to celebrate his birthday. But, for seemingly no rational reason other than to evoke "the secret charm of illness" he tells Ramon that he, in fact, is dying of cancer. This places special significance on the party in the minds of some characters, a significance based upon nothing but an irrational lie.

Typical Kundera.  The novelette is a wonderful representation of Kundera's serious yet zany, humorous style told in erudite prose with interesting, quirky characters muddling through the absurdity of life.

The primary focal point of the narrative is D'Ardelo's cocktail party as told from the perspective of a few major characters and a small cast of  supporting roles.  The climax comes afterwards back at the park where the friends first met in the classic style of having the beginning and end of the narrative take place in precisely the same location.  In this case it is the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris.

Caliban, another major character, is introduced about halfway through.  He is an unemployed actor who now assists with catering.  To make use of his true talents he adopts the habit of presenting himself at parties as a Pakistani even though he is French.  Caliban does not actually speak Pakistani so he has invented a language that resembles that tongue. He pretends not to understand French at all. When he encounters D'Ardelo's wife, who is Portuguese, the woman feels a strange liberation by talking to someone without understanding a word they are saying (even though in this case what she is listening to is not a language at all!).

So the wife, who detests the French language she has to speak every day (the novel takes place in present-day Paris), decides to talk back to Caliban in her native Portuguese.  The two characters have a fun time talking to each other during the party in words that neither of them understand, but they manage to communicate enough through smiles and gestures to have meaning to one another.  The wife is exhilarated by the silly experience.

The main characters, for various reasons too complex to get into here, all arrive that the party in a foul mood.  The party manages to temporarily lift their spirits.  What it means of possess a "good mood" is an existential issue addressed in the story. Along the way, Joseph Stalin makes several appearances in the narrative. He does not interact with any of the characters but he is relevant because they tend to think of their respective ages and the passage of time in terms of whether Stalin was dead or alive when each of them were born. Little retrospective antidotes of Stalin haunt the novel.

Here is a detailed example of Kundera's humorous style of prose.  D'Ardelo's daughter sees a famous Parisian socialite, Madame Franck, at the party. She cannot restrain herself from meeting the lady but, unfortunately, she chooses to introduce herself just as Madame Franck has taken a large bite from a plate of food she is consuming.

"She tried to embrace La Franck, but the woman was holding a plate at stomach level that thwarted her.  'Darling!' The girl repeated as La Franck's mouth worked over a great mass of bread and salami.  Unable to swallow the whole thing, she deployed her tongue to push the mouthful into the space between molars and cheek; then, with some effort, she tried to say a few words to the girl, who could not make them out.

"Ramon took a couple of steps forward to observe them from close up.  The D'Ardelo girl swallowed what she had in her own mouth, and declared in ringing tones: 'I know everything, oh, I know everything! But we will never allow you to be alone! Never!'"

"La Franck, her gaze set emptily ahead (Ramon could see that she had no idea who this person was), moved a segment of the mass into the middle of her mouth, chewed it, swallowed half of it, and said: 'Human existence is nothing but solitude.'

"'Oh, how true that is!' cried the D'Ardelo girl.

"'A solitude surrounded by other solitudes," La Franck added, then she swallowed down the rest, turned, and moved away.

"Ramon was unaware that a light smile of amusement was forming on his face."

The profound within the mundane pervades the narrative and, indeed, it serves as the main theme of this intentionally small work.  At the end, Ramon summarizes "the value of insignificance" for D'Ardelo.  "Insignificance, my friend, is the essence of existence.  It is all around us, and everywhere and always.  It is present even when no one wants to see it: in horror, in bloody battles, in the worst disasters.  It often takes courage to acknowledge it in such dramatic situations, and to call it by name. But it is not only a matter of acknowledging it, we must love insignificance, we must learn to love it. Right here, in this park, before us - look, my friend, it is present here in all its obviousness, all its innocence, in all its beauty.  Yes, it's beauty. Breathe, D'Ardelo, my friend, inhale this insignificance that's all around us, it is the key to wisdom, it is the key to a good mood..."

Even Stalin, probably the greatest mass murderer of the twentieth century, who was all-powerful and could make anyone believe anything he said or else face the gulag or death, is humbled by the power of insignificance.  "Recalling the partridge story, he looks mischievously at his associates, especially at Khrushchev, short and round; whose cheeks are at the moment flush red and who dares, once again, to be courageous: 'Still, comrade Stalin, even though people have always believed anything you say, these days they no longer believe you at all.'"

Kundera's intermingling of two narratives, the party in Paris with a (fictional) conversation Stalin and Khrushchev had in Moscow over 60 years earlier, shows his juxtaposition of timelessness as a narrative technique.  This affects the reader, the experience of reading Kundera's prose, much the way William Faulkner's melancholy streams of prose can affect, but in a different style, of course. He did this with great success in his masterwork, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), and he briefly touches that achievement in specific moments here in this much lighter, simpler, tragically smiling book.  As a whole, the work is not that brilliant, like I said, a candy for his readers.

Of course I haven't told you everything.  There is a delightful cornucopia of insignificance in this novel. There is a thread on the sexual aspect of the navel as displayed by young women in contemporary fashion and how that leads to a revelation about angels.  There is a suicide attempt unexpectedly transformed into an act of murder when someone the reader does not know (just a bystander) tries to save the character from death. 

It wouldn't be a work by Kundera if it did not include some impressive philosophical undertones in spite of all the meticulously created absurd mediocrity. There are interesting passages about Immanuel Kant and his birthplace, now known as Kaliningrad and how that city got its name. Stalin delivers a short lecture on the "great idea" of Arthur Schopenhauer.  I have not discussed the happenings of several major characters at all.  You will have to read it for yourself.

Kundera is always economical with words.  All but one of his novels are less than 400 pages, three (counting this one) are under 200 pages. Yet, each work is deeply secular and philosophical and emotional and human. Though he expresses these qualities with a minimum of verbiage, his characters, their experiences, and the narrative concept are not diminished when compared with the lengthy missives of a Tolstoy or a Joyce. Rather, Kundera's works are just as rich even if all those words are not there.  So it is with what is likely his last work in the novel form.  And it is a delight to read even if it isn't something brilliant with its blatant silliness and subtle, brief complexity.

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