“… likewise 86 year old Czech-French novelist Milan Kundera’s new work of fiction, The Festival of Insignificance, which was published last week by New York based publisher Harper in Linda Asher’s fine English translation from the Kundera’s French, is a 128 pp. novella that revisits its author’s recurring themes but in a shorter format.” — from my examiner article (see below). Also see my New York Journal of Books review.
My review appears in New York Journal of Books. Read that review first. Additional excerpts and remarks that appeared in a different and now defunct publication begin with the next paragraph.
Books: Milan Kundera’s new novella The Festival of Insignificance
Elderly writers tend to write shorter books than they wrote earlier in their careers. Why start a project you might not live to complete? In the decade prior to his announced retirement Philip Roth wrote several short novels; Norman Rush’s most recent novel Subtle Bodies is a fraction of the length of his earlier novels; Amos Oz returned to the short story in his two most recent adult fiction books after decades of writing novels; Lore Segal’s most recent novel Half the Kingdom is under 200 pp.; and likewise 86 year old Czech-French novelist Milan Kundera’s new work of fiction, The Festival of Insignificance, which was published last week by New York based publisher Harper in Linda Asher’s fine English translation from the Kundera’s French, is a 128 pp. novella that revisits its author’s recurring themes but in a shorter format.
One of those themes, Communist politics, is handled with humor based on anecdotes concerning Soviet dictator Josef Stalin as recalled by Nikita Krushchev in his memoir. In one such anecdote Stalin tells his politburo underlings a hunting story in which he found 24 partridges in a tree but had brought only 12 bullets, so he shot 12 partridges, brought them home, got 12 more bullets, returned to the tree and shot the remaining 12 who had not moved from the spot. But Krushchev and his colleagues assumed Stalin’s story was a tall tale and failed to laugh not realizing that Stalin meant it as a (dark allegorical) joke (the partridges representing the politburo members).
Later the politburo members adjourn to the lavatory down the hall except for Stalin who has his own private bathroom. There in supposed privacy they express their revulsion at the callousness of Stalin’s story. But again the joke is on them since the room is bugged, and Stalin is listening to their every word. Readers may wonder where was their indignation when millions of Ukrainians starved to death in the early 1930s or during the purges and show trials of the late 1930s.
Kundera was a member of the Czech Communist party from late adolescence until his expulsion in 1970 when he was in his early forties. His preoccupation with Cold War themes may seem like an anachronism, or perhaps not in view of Russia’s current antagonism towards Europe and the West. Other themes in the book include the virtue of simple living, philosophy, and sex.
In my New York Journal of Books review of the novella I write, “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.” For a fuller discussion of the novella read that review.