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 Lost Honour of Katharina Blum – Heinrich Boll (Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century #64)

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 Lost Honour of Katharina Blum or, how violence develops and where it can lead by Heinrich Boll (1974, tr. Leila Vennewitz 1975) is a satire on anti-communist paranoia written in a reportage style. If that summary and the cumbersome title of the novel makes you feel like this:

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Stick with me. Boll manages to convey the story with a fast pace and a light touch which means that the narrative carries you along and you don’t feel bludgeoned with polemic. He also undercuts the objectivity that his narrator is proclaiming, questioning the facts that are presented, even when we know what has happened – that Katarina Blum has shot and killed Totges, a journalist for a (fictional) newspaper Die Zeitung.

“Let there not be too much talk about blood here, since only necessary differences in level are to regarded as inevitable; we would therefore direct the reader to television and movies and the appropriate musicals and gruesicals; if there is to be something fluid here, let it not be blood […] Totges was wearing  an improvised sheikh costume concocted from a rather worn sheet, and the effect of a lot of blood on a lot of white is well known; a pistol is then sure to act almost like  spray gun, and since in this instance the costume was made out of a large square of white cotton, modern painting or stage effects would seem to be more appropriate here than drainage. So be it. Those are the facts.”

How Katharina came to do such a thing is told from a variety of viewpoints, capturing the events of four days from when she meets Gotten, a bank robber and suspected radical at a party, to the time when she commits the murder. Die Zeitung spins its own story around events, outraged that one of their own has been killed. The newspaper reporting is comical:

“The pastor of Gemmelsbroich had the following to say: ‘I wouldn’t put anything past her. Her father was a Communist in disguise, and her mother, whom on compassionate grounds I employed for a time as a charwoman, stole the sacramental wine and carried on orgies in the sacristy with her lovers.’”

Yet at the same time this is the crux of satire. The newspaper is able to spin such tales, eagerly gobbled up by its readers, without censure. The print media both perpetuates and exacerbates the tragedy, as the lies spun around the ‘Red’ Gotten and Scarlet Woman Katharina cause the hard-working, honest Katharina to become so desperate as to take a life.

Of course, The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum was written over 40 years ago so the reality it portrays is barely recognisable now. An irresponsible sensationalist press, whipping up public feeling, vilifying marginalised groups, passing judgement on female sexuality…nope, can’t think of a single contemporary parallel.

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“Everything will be done to avoid further blockages and unnecessary buildups of tension. It will probably not be possible to avoid them entirely.”

Much as I enjoyed the novel and fancy admire the brilliant mind of Kris Kristofferson, I think I’ll be skipping this made-for-TV adaptation (cue 80s-tastic trailer):

The Tendrils of the Vine – Colette (Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century #59)

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.

When I first started this challenge, I thought it would never be complete as I have commitment issues Wikipedia told me that Tendrils of the Vine had never been translated.  Yesterday in my favourite charity bookshop (handily located across the road from my flat, so I don’t have to stagger far with my heavy loads/nightmarishly located across the road from my flat – if you had a problem with drug addiction you wouldn’t live opposite a crack den) I picked up a huge volume of The Collected Stories of Colette for £3.50, and was very excited to see Tendrils of the Vine translated within it (by Herma Briffault – and I see Wiki no longer makes its fallacious claim).

In fact , Tendrils of the Vine, proclaimed A Fable in the title, is only 1000 words long and I may have been able to struggle through with my appalling French.  The difficulty is, being only 1000 words long, I really can’t say too much about it without spoilers, so this will be an uncharacteristically short post from me 🙂

The story begins in typical fable fashion, describing how the nightingale got his song:

“While he slept, the vine’s gimlet feelers – those imperious and clinging tendrils whose sharp taste, like that of fresh sorrel, acts a stimulant and slakes the thirst, began to grow  so thickly during the night that the bird woke up to find himself bound fast, his feet hobbled in strong withes, his wings powerless…”

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The nightingale escapes, and sings relentlessly to keep himself awake through the Spring,  thereby avoiding the terrors of the vine.  I can’t say much more, except Colette then expands this into a truly creepy and oppressive tale. The fact that she does this in 1000 words within a pastoral fabulistic setting makes it like a short, sharp punch to the sternum. What a writer – I’m looking forward to reading the rest of my newly-acquired tome.

Colette, who when she wasn't writing, sat around being awesome

Colette, who when she wasn’t writing, sat around being awesome

“True friends stab you in the front.” (Oscar Wilde)

This week’s post is about friendship, as  I’ve returned home from uni and had a great time catching up with friends I haven’t seen for a while.  When I was thinking of title quotes for this theme, the phrase that immediately sprang to mind was too long.  However, it’s lovely, so here it is:

“Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind. “Pooh?” he whispered.
“Yes, Piglet?”
“Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s hand. “I just wanted to be sure of you.”
 (A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh)

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(Image from http://www.artistsnetwork.com/art-blogs/the-artists-magazine-blog/pooh-and-piglet-illustration-auctioned-for-194000)

If that doesn’t make you go “aww..” you are a cold, cold person.

Firstly, Embers by Sandor Marai (1942, my copy Penguin 2001 trans. Carol Brown Janeway).  Embers is a deceptively simple novel, set over one evening, running to only 250 pages in my edition.   An elderly general lives in a castle, in melancholy stasis:

“The castle was a closed world…it also enclosed memories as if they were the dead, memories that lurked in damp corners the way mushrooms, bats, rats and beetles lurk in the mildewed cellars of old houses”

He prepares for a supper with his childhood friend, Konrad, who he hasn’t seen in 41 years.  Over the course of the evening, the betrayal that tore them apart will be voiced and answers sought.  Within this simple framework Marai explores the complexity of human relationships, with great delicacy:

“Their friendship was deep and wordless, as are all emotions that will last a lifetime”

“Their friendship, fragile and complex in the way of all significant relationships between people”

With a lesser writer the novel would be heavy-handed, clichéd, sentimental.  But Marai avoids these pitfalls by refusing to make things – feelings, events, motivations – simple or captured in reductive explanations.

 “The magical time of childhood was over, and two grown men stood there in their place, enmeshed in a complicated and enigmatic relationship commonly covered by the word ‘friendship’”

I can’t really say much more without giving away spoilers, but Embers is a beautifully written, intelligent book about the complications of the loves we have in our lives.  Marai never wastes a single word. I highly recommend it.

Secondly, Utterly Monkey by Nick Laird (4th Estate, 2005). Danny is living in London, doing a job he hates to pay for a flat he’s ambivalent about.  He has physically moved away from Northern Ireland, but his childhood follows him in the form of his oldest friend:

“Geordie Wilson was standing on the step.  His small frame was silhouetted against the London evening sky.  He looked charred, a little cinder of a man […] He could have been Death’s apprentice.”

Geordie’s in trouble, and seeks refuge with Danny. Their lives easily become as intertwined as when they were kids, despite the years apart, and as they infuriate each other they never really consider leaving the other one to cope alone. The notion of loyalty as a choice, and yet one that is rarely questioned, is given a further resonance by the fact that Danny and Geordie grew up through the Troubles.  Now both have left Belfast, but Utterly Monkey queries how much we ever leave our childhoods behind, and how feelings can remain inexplicable but powerful motivators for the action we take.

It’s a touching story, and I actually felt the over-arching plot was unnecessary, the carefully drawn characters would be enough to carry the story along.  However, this isn’t to suggest the plot is clumsy, and Laird uses his considerable skill as a poet to write effective prose, finding surprising and evocative images in the everyday:

“Outside the pub a tattered newspaper was lying against the kerb and the wind was freeing it sheet by sheet.  Some pages blew about restlessly further up the pavement.  One had managed to wrap itself around a lamppost and was flapping gently like a drunkard trying to hail a taxi.”

Laird is also funny (“He was an East Londoner, and appeared to suffer from the East London disorder of considering accidental eye contact an act of overt aggression.”) and this stops a tale that could be full of bitterness and regret from ever becoming recriminatory.  In fact, it makes it more realistic – there are friends who drive you mad, who make you wonder why the friendship continues, but the ties that bind somehow endure and stop life becoming too predictable.

To end, the trailer for one of my favourite films, The Station Agent (2003), which charts the beginnings of friendship between 3 people.  Peter Dinklage is now uber-famous as Tyrion Lannister, but here he is many years before, giving a very different, equally wonderful performance:

Waiting for Godot – Samuel Beckett (Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century #12)

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.

I have to start a post about a work by Samuel Beckett with a picture of the author, as he has the most incredible face:

Samuel Beckett 1976

(Image from: http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2014/jun/09/samuel-beckett-manuscript-first-novel-on-display )

Who wouldn’t want to read a work written by that face?  Well, as it turns out, a lot of people.  I remember years ago listening to radio phone in programme that was nothing to do with Waiting for Godot, yet somehow it came into the conversation, and it seemed that every listener, and the DJ,  had been tortured with the text by their English teachers.  They all hated it.  And yet Le Monde’s readers have voted it the 12th greatest book of the century. It’s also remained a perennial favourite on the stage, a recent production with real-life friends Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart was an enormous success on both sides of the Atlantic:

I think Godot is just one of those plays that divides people.  It is baffling, incomprehensible, hugely funny and relentlessly serious, tragic, absurd and profound.  It features two rough sleepers, Vladimir and Estragon.  The stage is almost bare, the only set being a tree and a mound.  This is the only scene in both acts.  As the characters wait for Godot, they have conversations that are oblique, filled with non-sequiturs, verge on nonsense, and yet address issues about existence, human nature, the meaning of it all.  Famously, very little happens, Godot never arrives. Vivian Mercier, theatre critic for the Irish Times in the 1950s, summed it up: “a play in which nothing happens, twice.” This is theatre at its most basic and its most complex, its most theatrical and its determinedly least dramatic.

Estragon, sitting on a low mound, is trying to take off his boot. He pulls at it with both hands, panting.

He gives up, exhausted, rests, tries again.

As before.

Enter Vladimir.

ESTRAGON: (giving up again). Nothing to be done.

VLADIMIR: (advancing with short, stiff strides, legs wide apart). I’m beginning to come round to that opinion. All my life I’ve tried to put it from me, saying Vladimir, be reasonable, you haven’t yet tried everything. And I resumed the struggle. (He broods, musing on the struggle. Turning to Estragon.) So there you are again.

ESTRAGON: Am I?

VLADIMIR: I’m glad to see you back. I thought you were gone forever.

ESTRAGON: Me too.

I think this is why it’s so beloved of English teachers and potentially so despised by students.  It can simultaneously seem to contain everything, and nothing.  Try to pin it down and it will slip away from you.  This is why there are so many interpretations as to its meaning.  When I discussed Six Characters in Search of an Author by Luigi Pirandello (#53) I suggested that if you liked it, you might like Godot.  There are many similarities, mainly the absurdist quality, but whereas Six Characters was theatre about theatre, Godot is how theatre as a visual medium can represent the internal, the rarely articulated:

ESTRAGON: Let’s hang ourselves immediately!

VLADIMIR: From a bough? (They go towards the tree.) I wouldn’t trust it.

ESTRAGON: We can always try.

VLADIMIR: Go ahead.

ESTRAGON: After you.

VLADIMIR: No no, you first.

ESTRAGON: Why me?

VLADIMIR: You’re lighter than I am.

ESTRAGON: Just so!

VLADIMIR: I don’t understand.

ESTRAGON: Use your intelligence, can’t you?

Vladimir uses his intelligence.

VLADIMIR: (finally). I remain in the dark.

And this is where the audience remains, literally and figuratively.  If you like your plays plot-driven and tied up neatly at the end, avoid this play at all costs. But if you want to be made to think about questions to which there are no easy answers, and entertained along the way, you might find Waiting for Godot not as torturous as generations of schoolkids have come to believe.

Sadly, Rik Mayall died this week, at the age of 56.  In 1991 he and comedy partner Ade Edmonson took on the roles of Vladimir and Estragon:

Bonjour Tristesse – Francoise Sagan (Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century #41)

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.

Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan is a short novel (108 pages in my edition, the Penguin translation by Irene Ash), published in 1954 when the author was 18.  Yes, 18.  Apparently she failed to pass her exams for the Sorbonne and so decided to write a novel instead. As you do. And it’s a modern classic. I’m pretty sure I hate this woman.  Rest assured it’s jealousy plain and simple, not xenophobia – there’s a lot of nonsense talked about British attitudes to our neighbours across Le Manche, but despite the fact that I would be at least 5kg lighter if France wasn’t there (je t’aime fromage bleu)I for one am a true Francophile.  They are a great nation that has provided the world with at least two things guaranteed to cause uncontrollable dribbling in this blogger:

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Almond croissants (or croissants aux amandes if you will) (Image from www.belleepooque.co.uk)

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Vincent Cassel (Image from: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/277745501994347016/)

To those of you concerned that I am objectifying Mr Cassel, I would just like to reassure you that I’m objectifying the croissant so much more, believe me.

Now, where was I?  Oh yes, the extraordinary talent of Francoise Sagan.  While the protagonist is a precocious 17 year old, Cecile, (so far, so thinly disguised autobiography) the psychological insights into the characters are sophisticated and you don’t feel like you’re reading someone’s juvenilia.  Cecile is holidaying in the south of France with her father, an entirely vacuous widower whose temperament she shares:

“I soon noticed that he lived with a woman.  It took me rather longer to realise that it was a different one every six months.  But gradually his charm, my new easy life, and my own disposition led me to accept it.  He was a frivolous man, clever at business, always curious, quickly bored, and attractive to women.  It was easy to love him, for he was kind, generous, gay, and full of affection for me.  I cannot imagine a better or more amusing friend.”

And that is just the problem – he is a friend, not a parent.  He treats Cecile as a co-conspirator in life, buying her inappropriate dresses and taking her to casinos, talking to her as an equal:

 “He refused categorically all notions of fidelity and serious commitments.  He explained that they were arbitrary and sterile…I knew in his case they did not exclude either tenderness or devotion; feelings which came all the more easily to him since he was determined they should be transient…I was not at the age where fidelity was attractive.  I knew very little about love.”

Into this self-serving world comes Anne, a friend of Cecile’s dead mother.  She is cool and controlled:

“I think she rather despised us for our love of diversion and frivolity, as she despised all extremes.”

Yet, despite their differences, Cecile admires Anne and her father decides to marry this woman so different from himself.   The decision does not sit well with Cecile:

 “I thought of the lunch I had endured with clenched teeth, tortured by a feeling of resentment for which I despised and ridiculed myself.  Yes, it was for this I reproached Anne: she prevented me from liking myself.  I, who was so naturally meant for happiness and gaiety, had been forced into a world of self-criticism and guilty conscience, where, unaccustomed to introspection, I was completely lost.”

I don’t want to seem ageist, but clearly I am, as this self-ironising tone was not what I expected from such a young author.  Cecile is spoilt and self-focused, and decides to split up her father and Anne so that her life can continue how she wants it to.  She constantly vacillates, changing her mind and feelings with each moment, but her machinations regarding Anne move inexorably forward. The consequences are dramatic and will force Cecile to leave her childhood behind forever:

“Then gradually I begin to think of something else. But I do not like to take refuge in forgetfulness and frivolity instead of facing my memories and fighting them.”

Bonjour Tristesse is a melancholic novel (the title means Hello Sadness) about the prices we pay for the things we think we want.  Francoise Sagan creates a memorable protagonist in Cecile and an affecting story within remarkably few words.

To end, the poster of the film adaptation made just four years after publication:

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(Image from: http://docublogger.typepad.com/seberg/page/2/ )

Six Characters in Search of an Author – Luigi Pirandello (Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century #53)

This is the first in a series of occasional posts where I’ll be looking 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. I set myself the challenge in January and I’m only beginning to blog about it now; this does not bode well for my completing this challenge before I see in a century of my own…

(c) Glasgow Museums; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

(Image from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/paintings/old-lady-reading-83754)

Six Characters in Search of an Author is a play by Luigi Pirandello, originally written in Italian and performed in 1921 (my copy translated by Frederick May, 1954).  It’s a play about itself, about the theatre, and although philosophical and reflective, it’s also very silly.

“Life is full of things that are infinitely absurd, things that, for all their impudent absurdity, have no need to masquerade as truth, because they are true”

“What the devil are you talking about?”

A producer is putting on a play with a group of actors, who are only identified by their roles: Leading Lady/Leading Man/Ingénue and so on.  As we are presented with what appears to be a rehearsal, there is a sense of the play being simultaneously constructed and deconstructed in front of us.  The ideas are complex and it’s definitely not a play to approach when you’re tired and/or in need of escapism, but Pirandello undercuts the potentially pretentious self-reflexive philosophising with a good dose of humour, having the Producer complain early on:

“We’re reduced to putting on plays by Pirandello? And if you understand his plays…you’re a better man than I am! He deliberately goes out of his way to annoy people, so that by the time the play’s through everybody’s fed up…actors, critics, audience, everybody!”

Well, you can’t say he didn’t warn us.  The rehearsal of the play by Pirandello is interrupted by the arrival of six characters – Father, Mother, Step-daughter, Son, Boy and Little Girl.  They want the Producer to help them, as “the author who created us as living beings, either couldn’t or wouldn’t put us materially into the world of art.” They start to tell their story while the actors look on, and the stage directions tell us: “The CHARACTERS should not, in fact, appear as phantasms, but as created realities, unchangeable creations of the imagination and, therefore, more real and more consistent than the ever-changing naturalness of the ACTORS.” As the actors and characters interact (and bitch at each other and argue about representation) the play presents complex philosophical questions about truth, reality and identity, and whether any of us really has any idea what on earth is going on:

“Each one of us has a whole world of things inside him… and each one of us has his own particular world. How can we understand each other if into the words I speak I put the sense and value of things as I understand them within myself… while at the same time whoever is listening to them inevitably assumes them to have  the sense and value that they have for him…. We think we understand each other… but we never really do understand!”

In this way, Pirandello admirably manages to interrogate the relationship of theatre to representation, reality to illusion, art to life.  There are lots of meta-moments (the whole play is really one big metatheatrical experience); my favourites were where he drew attention to the play’s own limitations, studiously ignoring the Producer’s directive that “When you’re here you have to respect the conventions of the theatre!” and a great moment where the Son walks off, refusing to act because “I’m a dramatically unrealised character”.

Six Characters in Search of an Author is a hugely complex work and at the same time a short, humorous play.  I really enjoyed it, but I also think I could re-read it and each time think that I understood nothing from my previous readings.  I also wouldn’t be surprised if someone entirely hated it, and they would not be alone: apparently the playwright had to leave the premiere performance through a side-exit to avoid the throng of haters.  If you’re a writer, actor, theatre-lover or philosophy enthusiast, you’ll find a lot to interest you in Six Characters in Search of an Author.  If you like Waiting for Godot or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, then this play could be for you.

Phew!  After all that deep reflection on the nature of theatre and our existence, I think it must be time for shark cat on a Roomba: