The Festival of Insignificance: A Novel
The Festival of Insignificance, 86 year old Czech-French writer Milan Kundera’s new and possibly last work of fiction after a 13-year hiatus, presents many of the features—a thin plot and small cast of characters who discuss and illustrate philosophical ideas and psychological insights via fictional parables, historical digressions, humor, and sex—readers have come to expect from him but on a smaller scale. After nine novels, The Festival of Insignificance is a 128-page novella, and like his previous three fiction books it is written in French.
As a young man Kundera was an earnest and idealistic Communist. Even after the Soviet Union invaded his country in 1968 and restored a Stalinist police state ending the brief experiment of a more open form of Communism known as the Prague Spring, Kundera continued to believe Communism could be reformed from within until he was expelled from the party in 1970, in contrast to playwright and future Czech President Vaclav Havel who insisted that Communism is irredeemable.
Kundera moved to France in 1975 where he initially continued to write in Czech including his best known novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984) and Immortality (1990, his first book set in France with French characters), before switching to French and declaring himself a French writer at which time he retranslated his Czech books into French and withdrew the previous French translations so that French readers could read all his books without an intermediary.
Since at least The Unbearable Lightness of Being Kundera has advocated appreciation of life’s simple pleasures, and The Festival of Insignificance continues that theme. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being Tomas, a Prague surgeon and womanizer who had published a literary essay during the Prague Spring that included one ideologically unorthodox sentence, years later refuses to edit the offending sentence out of the essay when asked to do so by the authorities and is punished by being demoted first to being a primary care physician in a small rural town and later to being a window washer.
But it turns out that Tomas and his wife Teresa are happiest when living in the small rural town without the stress that accompanied his more prestigious position. In Immortality Kundera turns his advocacy for simplicity into literary theory in such quotes as “The age of tragedy can only be ended by the revolt of frivolity” and “Humor can only exist when people are capable of recognizing the border between the important and the unimportant, and nowadays this border has become unrecognizable.”
Insignificant is another word for unimportant, and in The Festival of Insignificance Kundera turns the above theory into practice, or in the words of one of its characters, “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. There’s been only one possible resistance: to not take it seriously.”
The novella’s characters include four middle aged male friends, Ramon who “liked being admired but fled admirers” preferring solitude; Alaine who became a chronic apologizer after being abandoned by his mother at a tender age; Charles, a raconteur; and Caliban, an unemployed actor whose nickname comes from his most acclaimed role in Shakespeare’s The Tempest; their friend Quaquelique, a womanizer; D’Ardelo, an acquaintance of Ramon and a wealthy boor; and D’Ardelo’s friend Madame Franck, an attractive woman in her fifties whose joie de vivre is undiminished despite the recent death of her beloved partner.
The title of the book is first mentioned when Kundera contrasts the tedious discourse of D’Ardelo, who is in love with the sound of his own voice and believes every word he speaks is meaningful, with that of Quaquelique whose success as a womanizer comes from his mastery of small talk, a festival of insignificance.
Early in the novella during a stroll in the Luxembourg Gardens Ramon runs into D’Ardelo who has just been told by his doctor that he doesn’t have cancer but tells Ramon that in fact he does have cancer but wants to throw a party anyway and needs to hire someone to serve drinks and hors d’oeuvres. Ramon recommends his friend Caliban who convinces D’Ardelo to also hire Charles for the party Ramon now has to attend where Caliban and Charles pretend to be Pakistanis who don’t speak French to avoid conversing with the guests. When Ramon tries to chat with Caliban and Charles he has to pretend to speak their improvised nonsense language.
Kundera is fond of historical, philosophical, and ruminative digressions, and has Charles tell Ramon, Alaine, and Caliban several historical anecdotes about Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin culled from the memoirs of Nikita Krushchev.
One anecdote concerns Mikhail Kalinin, the USSR’s figurehead titular president when Stalin ruled the country as party boss. Kalinin had an enlarged prostate gland which caused urinary incontinence, and Stalin would give long talks during which he forbade Kalinin and fellow politburo members to leave the room knowing that would cause Kalinin to soil himself. Yet in 1946 when the USSR annexed the Prussian city Königsberg, the home of 18th Century philosopher Emanuel Kant, Stalin renamed it Kaliningrad after his loyal long suffering friend.
Later on Stalin explains his preference for Schopenhauer over Kant to the same politburo cronies. Ramon, the novella’s most philosophically inclined character, cites Hegel’s essay on the comical: “Only from the heights of an infinite good mood can you observe below you the eternal stupidity of men, and laugh over it.”
Kundera also ruminates on how the fashion for bare midriffs renders the navel an erotic body part comparable to breasts, buttocks, and thighs (a perhaps anachronistic observation since in America—though perhaps not in France—the bare midriff fad peaked in 2002 and has since been replaced by plunging necklines and form fitting tights).
The Festival of Insignificance is being marketed by its publisher as a novel, but this invites unflattering comparisons with Kudera’s previous longer, richer, and more complex novels. On its own terms it is a very good novella, one that extracts and summarizes many on the themes of Kundera’s previous work and offers readers intimidated by philosophical fiction or novels of ideas an appetizer after which they can decide whether to order a main course.