translated by Linda Asher
arc copy -- thank you!
"Insignificance...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 atrocities, in bloody battles, in the worst disasters...it is the key to wisdom, it is the key to a good mood."
I'm probably among the few people reading this book who have never read another book by Milan Kundera. I have some of them on my shelves -- The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Slowness, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting -- but just haven't quite got to them. So I'm in no condition to judge whether or not this book is, as the cover blurb states, "a summation of his whole work."
The book is structured in seven short parts consisting of small little chapters, rather loosely connected to each other, all light in tone. All of the main characters in this book are friends living in Paris, all are getting older, and we watch them not only in each other's company but among others in various situations as they contemplate how to achieve a "good mood." Why? Because, as Ramon notes, following Hegel's essay on the comical,
"True humor is inconceivable without an infinite good mood...Not teasing, not satire, not sarcasm. Only from the heights of an infinite good mood can you observe below you the eternal stupidity of men, and laugh over it."So right up my alley.
Ramon also understands futility:
"We've known for a long time that it was no longer possible to overturn this world, nor reshape it, nor head off its dangerous headlong rush."The way out ("one possible resistance"): "to not take it seriously," a very liberating concept.
To me it seems that even while focusing on and contemplating the value of insignificance, the author is actually making significant points about human beings and human nature in our modern world. For example, even as the novel opens, the focus is on how our era finds beauty in sameness rather than in individuality, as seen through Alain's contemplation of the navel. It's not his own -- he watches young women as he waxes about "how to define the eroticism of a man (or an era) that sees female seductive power as centered in the middle of the body, in the navel." After all, in different eras, it's been the uniqueness of "thighs, buttocks and breasts" among women that's been sexy; now men seem to be much more focused on the navel that is generally the same among all women. Then we meet Ramon, who really wants to go and see a Chagall exhibit at a museum in the Luxembourg Gardens, but has passed it by several times just knowing he couldn't stand the "people in line, their faces paralyzed by boredom," who once inside would ruin his experience with "their chatter." He'd much prefer to visit the statues of queens, "poets, painters, scientists," in the park, "the garden of geniuses," where "no one stopped to examine their faces or read the inscriptions on the pedestals." There he can inhale the "indifference, like a soothing calm." Charles and Caliban, once actors and now catering cocktail parties, round out the group. Caliban speaks French, but dons wigs, colors his skin and pretends to speak only Pakistani. One thing they all share is a "joke" about Stalin and twenty-four partridges that runs throughout the book, which is looked at, analyzed and in the end, recreated in a sort of artistic fashion. But they're all friends, and friendship is "sacred," according to what I call a meta pop-in by the author; it's clearly the one thing that he sees as rising above and beyond all of the trivial, insignificant things in life.
This is a book that definitely needs a reread, which sadly, I did not do; I imagine if I went through it a second time I'd probably get way more out of it. I loved the writing in this book, although some readers may find Kundera's few meta pop-ins a little distracting. Here, his characters are aware that they are governed by a "master" (the author), who "invented us" and made his characters study Hegel. What I enjoyed about this book are all of the philosophical ruminations, for example, about how people come to be divided into apologizers and their opposites, or about how conversational brilliance can be offputting and actually harmful, and the difference between generations and its relationship to communication:
"People meet in the course of life, they talk together, they discuss, they quarrel, without realizing that they're talking to one another across a distance, each from an observatory standing in a different place in time."To offer two varying literary critiques: first, from Michael Dirda at the Washington Post who thought it was "very French," and an opposing view from The Guardian, whose author calls it a "stinker." What most readers will probably miss is the lack of a cohesive story holding this book together, but for me, I was so taken with the philosophical observations and the writing that it worked, and worked well.
I read this book for TLC book tours (thanks!), and you can find the rest of the readers and their thoughts here.