The Joke – Milan Kundera (Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century #47)

This is part of a series of occasional posts where I look at works from Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century.  Please see the separate page (link at the top) for the full list of books and an explanation of why I would do such a thing.

The Joke (1967; trans. Michael Henry Heim 1982*)  is the first Milan Kundera I’ve read, as I found his massive intellectual-philosopher reputation intimidating to my tiny brain.  However, I found this, his first novel, very readable so who knows, maybe I will tackle the cumbersomely-titled The Unbearable Lightness of Being at some point?

Ludvik lives in 1950s communist Czechoslovakia (as it then was) and is sulking when he sends his girlfriend, Marketa a facetious postcard:

“Optimism is the opium of the people! A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky!”

Unfortunately, as we who live in the age of twitter know, irony is not always apparent in the written word and the authorities do not appreciate his sentiments. He is thrown out of the Party and sent to a labour camp with other political dissidents.  The story is told from the viewpoint of Ludvik, his friend Jaroslav who is interested in Moravian culture, lecturer Kostka who is Christian in the face of Ludvik’s atheism, and journalist Helena who is used cruelly to facilitate a revenge act.

As Ludvik looks back on his interrupted career and the injustice he has suffered, Kundera offers an incisive commentary on the effect of repressive regimes, but also questions how far all of us can lose sight of ourselves in the face of societal pressures:

“When the Comrades branded my conduct and my smile as intellectual (another notorious pejorative of the times) I actually believed them. I couldn’t imagine (I wasn’t bold enough to imagine) that everyone else might be wrong, and that the Revolution itself, the spirit of the times, might be wrong, and I, an individual, might be right. I began keeping tabs on my smiles, and soon I felt a tiny crack opening up between the person I’d been and the person I should be (according to the spirit of the times) and tried to be.”

Ludvik attempts to enact a revenge for his treatment, but it does not go as planned. He realises that the man who has become the focus of his anger is only a man, and that the issues are larger than a single person.

“How would I explain I used my hatred to balance out the weight of evil I bore as a youth? How would I explain I considered him the embodiment of all the evil I had ever known? How would I explain I needed to hate him?”

Overall, the sense is of an almost Beckettian absurdity. There isn’t the surrealism of Beckett, but certainly the sense of futility and powerlessness of the individual in the face of an indifferent world. Kundera evokes this lightly, so The Joke is not a heavy read, although it considers huge themes. While the politics are particularly relevant to Europe in the last century, the story moves beyond the specific to challenge the role of the individual within structures in which we live, how much agency we have, and what responsibility that brings with it.

“what if history plays jokes? And all at once I realise how powerless I was to revoke my own joke: I myself and my life as a whole had been involved in a joke much more vast (all-embracing) and absolutely irrevocable.”

Kundera has been exiled in France since 1975 after criticising the repressive nature of the then Czech government. The Joke is not self-righteous or overly polemical: it portrays, Kundera writes in the introduction, a man “condemned to triviality”.  While this ironical awareness distanced me from Ludvik somewhat and stopped me totally loving this novel, it also prevents The Joke being pompous, and instead funny, sad, tragic and wise.

To end, an apt song which I hope a book blogger who likes singers called Barry will enjoy even though it’snot Barry singing, and a video that is most definitely of a certain era (it wasn’t all repressive politics in the 1960s kids, there were psychotropic drugs too!):

*It’s worth seeking out a later translation of the novel, as Kundera was unhappy with the first English translations but has authorised the later ones

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“The pollen count, now that’s a difficult job. Especially if you’ve got hay fever.” (Milton Jones)

Normally I celebrate the end of June thusly:

Unfortunately due to the weird summer we’re having (unseasonably hot/unseasonably cold on repeat) the scourge of my life, the devil’s seed, aka grass pollen, is still in abundance and I am refusing to go anywhere that isn’t made of concrete/steel/brick, or some combination thereof.

Well, I’ll tell you, Leo. You live through books of course, same as always. So this week I’m visiting my favourite London park, Regent’s, via two wonderful novels.

Firstly, The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen (1948), where protagonist Stella lives near Regent’s Park and where the opening scene sees counterspy Harrison flirting with Louie, an ordinary young woman who is open to affairs while her husband is away fighting the war.

“The very soil of the city at this time seemed to generate more strength: in parks outsize dahlias, velvet and wine, and the trees on which each vein in each yellow leaf stretched out perfect against the sun blazoned out the idea of the finest hour. Parks suddenly closed because of time-bombs – drifts of leaves in the empty deckchairs, birds afloat on the dazzlingly silent lakes – presented, between the railings which still girt them, mirages of repose.”

This eerie quality pervades the whole novel. While there is a plot – Harrison wants Stella to spy on her lover Robert, who is spying for the Germans – I felt this was not the driving force of what Bowen is writing about. Instead I think what she is considering is a very specific generation of people at an extraordinary moment in time.

 “Younger by a year or two than the century, [Stella] had grown up just after the First World War with the generation which, as a generation, was come to be made to feel it had muffed the catch. The times, she had in her youth been told on all sides, were without precedent – but then so was her own experience: she had not lived before.”

There is a sense throughout the book of things left unsaid, sentences unfinished, and yet a deep understanding that exists between everyone living through the war.

“So among the crowds still eating, drinking, working, travelling, halting, there began to be an instinctive movement to break down indifference while there was still time. The wall between the living and the living became as solid as the wall between the living and the dead thinned. In that September transparency people became transparent, only to be located by the just dark flicker of their hearts.”

People behave in ways that they wouldn’t normally, but they can barely remember what normal is, or why they would behave that way in the first place. Bowen tends to overwrite, but as with the other novels of hers that I’ve read, this quality didn’t bother me as much as it does usually, and I felt it particularly apt here. I just let the writing and the atmosphere wash over me. Thankfully, I’ve not lived through that type of war, but to me Bowen seemed to have done an incredible job at capturing the heightened yet oddly detached experiences that would have occurred:

“But they were not alone, nor had they been from the start, from the start of love. Their time sat in the third place at their table. They were the creatures of history, whose coming together was of a nature possible in no other day”

The Heat of the Day is about the tragedy of war in the widest sense, where no guns go off and people carry on whilst feeling torn apart. Sad, desperate, quiet, and beautifully evoked.

Regent's_Park_bandstand

Next, Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925) and my shortest review ever. Here it is: Virginia Woolf is a genius and Mrs Dalloway is pretty much a perfect novel. That is all.

I really don’t think I can review Mrs Dalloway. I find Woolf’s writing so rich, multi-layered and complex I feel I can’t possibly do it any kind of justice. Woolf’s treatment of a day in the life of society hostess Clarissa Dalloway and shell-shocked Septimus Smith is so sensitive and sophisticated, I feel like a gibbering idiot.  Instead here are some passages:

Clarissa: “She could see what she lacked. It was not beauty; it was not mind. It was something central which permeated; something warm which broke up surfaces and rippled the cold contact of man and woman, or of women together.”

Septimus in the park with his wife: “Happily Rezia put her hand with a tremendous weight on his knee so that he was weighted down, transfixed, or the excitement of the elm trees rising and falling, rising and falling with all their leaves alight and the colour thinning and thickening from blue to the green of a hollow wave, like plumes on horses’ heads, feathers on ladies’, so proudly they rose and fell, so superbly, would have sent him mad. But he would not go mad. He would shut his eyes; he would see no more.”

The recurring motif of the chiming of Big Ben: “The leaden circles dissolved in the air.”

Finally: “It was a splendid morning too. Like the pulse of a perfect heart, life struck straight through the streets.”

*Sigh* Even if you’ve already done so, please read Mrs Dalloway. And then read it again.

To end, the most wonderful cinematic ending: Withnail and I, and the wolves of London Zoo viewed from Regent’s Park.