August 2015

Noted

‘The Festival of Insignificance’ by Milan Kundera

By Stephanie Bishop
‘The Festival of Insignificance’ by Milan Kundera
Trans. Linda Asher; Faber & Faber; $24.99

In Milan Kundera’s novel Immortality (1991), the narrator sets out a key challenge facing any novelist. A character, he argues, must be “a unique, inimitable being”, but this is difficult, given that there are more individuals than gestures, and so characters, like people, are bound to repeat the gestures of one another. In Immortality, the writer-narrator is charmed by the way a woman waves farewell. In his mind, he names this woman Agnes and she takes up residence as a character in a novel he is writing. He bequeaths Agnes this gesture of farewell, but worries that the reproduction of this gesture reduces its force as a marker of individuality. Long may live the mannerism, but at Kundera’s peril, with characters potentially reduced to mimics.

The Festival of Insignificance, the 86-year-old Czech-born author’s first novel since Ignorance (2000), perhaps justifies these fears. We find four ageing male friends – Alain, Charles, Ramon and Caliban – in various scenarios: walking through Paris, meeting at one another’s houses, planning a marionette play and enjoying a cocktail party.

The book opens with Alain as he wanders the streets, ogling young women whose navels are exposed by the fashion for cropped T-shirts. Elsewhere in Paris, Ramon is on his way to see a Chagall exhibition and bumps into a former colleague, who lies about having cancer and then waves farewell in the charming manner that originally belonged to Agnes in Immortality.

There is much in this book that seems to weakly imitate the great elements of Kundera’s earlier novels. His signature aesthetic remains: the playfulness, the recourse to dreamscapes, the philosophical flights of mind and the meditations on time. In Kundera’s best works these elements magically come together to provide moving and robust critiques of contemporary existence. But the characters in The Festival of Insignificance are, on the whole, too distracted by lust and disappointment to sustain the meaningful inquiry so celebrated in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1979) and The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984). Broken down into a series of episodes, the book doesn’t tell a story so much as jump in and out of conversations. Key among the topics are women, the men’s hunger for women and how best to score.

Kundera has long walked a tightrope when it comes to objectifying women. Here he goes further. Women’s bodies are reduced to four “golden sites”: the breasts, the buttocks, the thighs and the navel. These sites are said to express “a woman’s individuality”, although in this book female individuals rarely appear. When trying to seduce a woman, Ramon advises, it is best not to be brilliant, lest the woman feel pressured to seem intelligent too. Play dumb, he claims, then the woman “requires no presence of mind”. Perhaps a better title would have been ‘The Festival of Insignificants’.

Stephanie Bishop

Stephanie Bishop is a professor of creative writing at the University of East Anglia. Her latest novel is The Anniversary.

There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.

That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.

The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

In This Issue

Politics and power

Why we keep watching ‘The Americans’, ‘Veep’ and ‘House of Cards’

Method in the madness

Tony Abbott’s surprises keep coming

Department of disgrace

IBAC investigates Victoria’s rotten education bureaucracy

‘Appetites for Thought’ by Michel Onfray

Trans. Donald Barry and Stephen Muecke; Reaktion Books; $40


Online latest

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

International Film Festival Rotterdam highlights

Films from Iran, Ukraine and Bundaberg were deserving winners at this year’s festival

Two women on a train smile and shake hands

‘Expats’ drills down on Hong Kong’s class divide

Plus, Netflix swallows Trent Dalton, Deborah Mailman remains in ‘Total Control’ and ‘Vanderpump Rules’ returns for another season

Image of a man playing music using electronics and the kora (West African harp)

Three overlooked albums of spiritual jazz from 2023

Recent releases by kora player John Haycock, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and 14-piece jazz ensemble Ancient Infinity Orchestra feel like a refuge from reality