The Festival of Insignificance by Milan Kundera
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
As a young man, I discovered Kundera’s novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and since, have read a number of his books. At the time, his writing was like no one else I had read: short compact scenes filled with interesting characters and everyday philosophy, and a balancing act between the weight of history, a burdensome one of repressive Eastern European regimes, with a lightness, an absurdity, both coping mechanisms and life philosophy: to laugh, to forget, to celebrate carnal desire or in this book, The Festival of Insignificance, to recognise and notice the insignificant moments all around us. So many years later, I have a similar feeling reading this book, inherited from a writer, an acquaintance who died suddenly and tragically; his family were looking for someone to find homes for his books. The feeling I get when reading Kundera is of a man with a formidable intellect, cultured and philosophical and yet with a playful side.
And yet, I also remembered the artifice of his novels. It doesn’t get more clear than in this book that these characters do not live outside of their creator, the author. Their dialogue is as literary as can be, whether commenting on ‘A solitude surrounded by other solitudes’ or admitting to ‘an insatiable nostalgia for chastity’. And while the novel is so short, it travels along at a quick pace, and I was amused at much of the description, I found it hard to say what the book is really about, more than a few philosophical ideas dressed up in a larger form.
What struck me, more strongly than before (though I certainly noticed in the past) was how terribly sexist the writing is. All of his characters, the five friends in the book, are men of a certain age. The women are background characters. One of the friends has a young, pretty and not so intelligent partner, an idea more than a person. There is a diva-like figure, a hostess of a party. A lonely Portuguese maid. A woman at a party who, to escape the attentions of one of the men, allows herself to be taken home by another man, whose attractiveness lies in that he is forgettable. It is implied that they share a bed, but she’s not sure whether it really happened or not. Another man, pondering his mother, casts her in the worst possible light, a completely heartless and absent mother, who he envisions, for a time, actually murdering someone in a river. Contrasting with the murderess is another conversation with a mother who is seen as the mother of all humanity (as opposed to men, who are seen as useless in their department). The men are allowed their foibles, and are given character. The women are pretty much nothing but ideas. And the opening and closing of the book, and running through the whole of it, is heterosexual male desire, an intellectualism of the new age of desire moving from breasts, thighs and buttocks to a woman’s navel.
It doesn’t come across as misogynist or blatantly offensive, just a sort of old-school chauvinism, but in the age of #metoo, it’s not that it’s wrong or should be condemned, it’s just … uninteresting. It’s not a point of view I really want to be reading anymore, nor books without women, or women only as symbols instead of real people.