Book Review: Milan Kundera–the new and the old: The Festival of Insignificance and The Unbearable Lightness of Being

The Festival of Insignificance illustration 2015 by jpbohannon (recreation of book cover art)

The Festival of Insignificance
illustration 2015 by jpbohannon
(recreation of book cover art)

A few weeks back I read a review of Milan Kundera’s newest novel, The Festival of Insignificance.  The review was warm, discussing the narrative quirks and the philosophic resonances.  In the review, however, the critic spent much time on Kundera’s earlier work, particularly The Unbearable Lightness of Being.  It was the second time that week that that novel had come to my attention.

A friend on mine was in semi-seclusion and had begun reading the novel aloud to her cat. (Although, out of compassion, she did not read him the passages where Karenin the dog is in his final stages of cancer and must be euthanized.) The cat stayed attentive through all of it.

Kundera himself would love this story.

Having no immediate access to Kurenda’s latest, I pulled down from the shelf my worn copy of The Unbearable Lightness of Being and began reading it myself. It was the sixth or seventh time I had read it.

What draws the reader into the novel are the characters’ personalities, both heroic and damaged; the politics, both sexual and global; and the self-knowledge with which each of the three characters, Tomas, Teresa, and Sabina, work at achieving and which causes readers to reflect inward themselves. At least, that’s what happened to me.

And of course, there is the quirky, sometimes humorous interruptions by the narrator and the self-aware, redoubling rhythms of the narration.

During the course of my reading, I also had to attend a funeral. And at the luncheon that followed, I sat next to a woman who has always reminded me of the actress, Juliette Binoche, which of course reminded me of Binoche’s role in the film version of The Unbearable Lightness of Being.  That my friend was from East Germany underscored the connection with this Eastern European novel.

Here is the trailer from the 1988 film:

And so, I finally got the newest, The Festival of Insignificance, out of the public library, and began reading it the moment I finished the earlier work. It is a slim volume, a mere 115 pages in the American edition, and it features much of what is admirable in Kundera:  Characters who “live examined lives” and are notable for their philosophic wonderings and reflective attitudes, a narrator who periodically pops into the story to discuss the workings of the novel itself, and a level of global political awareness that is not often present in American novels.

And there is Kundera’s wry humor.

The flap of the book jacket cites a passage from an earlier novel, Slowness, in which the wife of the main character tells her husband:

“You’ve often told me you meant to write a book one day that would have not a single serious word in it. … I warn you: watch out. Your enemies are lying in wait.”

The Festival of Insignificance purportedly is that book, and it begins with a discussion of the navel.  Or at least what one character, Alain, feels is the eroticization of the navel in the 21st century. This thought comes about as Alain walks down a street in Paris and notices the many cropped tops and low-hung jeans — and thus the navels — of so many young women. And, it is this immediate preoccupation with the navel that is the cord that binds the various stories of the novel together.

Through his musings about the navel’s surge in fashionable exposure, the middle-aged Alain remembers the last time he saw his mother, who had wanted him aborted and abandoned him when he was two and whom he last saw when he was six. This is paired with another friend whose mother is dying, which is then linked to Joseph Stalin who gave birth to an era of madness and horror in twentieth-century Europe.

In fact, Stalin appears throughout the novel, finally making an appearance in modern day Paris, at a children’s show in the Luxembourg Gardens, riding in a tiny children’s carriage.

As with all of Kundera, there are serious musings on European and human history, on disease and finality, on love and on sex. These are thoughtful and thought-provoking discussions which nest comfortably in the interior lives of his main characters.

Kundera’s thesis is that in the vastness of the universe, human life AND human history is relatively insignificant–that human history is merely a “festival of insignificance.” And while there is much that seems “insignificant” in Kundera’s novel, the reality is quite different.

Human significance might not have cosmic ramifications in the universe, at large. It is, however, greatly personal, and often has repercussions through the larger community. So in this novel, the spilled Armagnac, the little lie about one’s health, the lines of people at a Chagall exhibit, all play a “significant” role in the lives of a limited circle of acquaintances. Our lives, our acquaintances, our histories are all rather parochial, to be sure, but they are ours, and they are all that we have.

The Festival of Insignificance is at first look a slight and whimsical book. But it is much more than that. It is enjoyable and funny and thoughtful and wise.

And despite the cited desire of the writer in Kundera’s Slowness, there are more than a few serious words in it.

Movie Review: Words and Pictures dir. by Fred Schepisi

Poster for Words and Pictures

Poster for Words and Pictures

It wasn’t what I was expecting, so I should not hold that against it, but I found Words and Pictures just a tad disappointing. It is a very nice movie, not a great movie, but nice, and its heart is in the right place.

Clive Owen as Jack Marcus in Words and Pictures

Clive Owen as Jack Marcus in Words and Pictures

The film deals with an English teacher Jack Marcus (Clive Owen) who teaches at a very privileged prep school in Maine. Marcus–who once had a promising start as a writer– is brilliant, witty, energetic, and charming. The students love him; his colleagues tolerate him; his bosses are beginning to tire of him.  We immediately see him chastised for being late–an occurrence that is more and more frequent because at night he is drinking more and more. (I found this part a bit unbelievable because after his nightly excesses there is no way he could perform so elegantly in the classroom each day.  Add to that the thermos full of vodka he drinks with his lunch each day and his engaging classroom demeanor seems unreal.)

Because of cuts at another school, the school is able to hire a new art teacher, Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche). A successful gallery artist, Delsanto has left New York City due to crippling rheumatoid arthritis which forces her to walk with a cane, strap brushes to her wrists, and suffer intense pain, and she has come to rural Maine where she gets the necessary help from her sister.

Juliette Binoche as Dina Delsanto

Juliette Binoche as Dina Delsanto in Words and Pictures

She immediately clashes with Marcus, but not without hidden a smile of pleasure.

And this is where I got it wrong. As Hollywood usually goes, the film begins as a typical romantic comedy. Two strong-willed, feisty characters are thrown together–ala Tracy and Hepburn– battle and show their disdain for each other, and finally fall in love.  Yet, Words and Pictures takes another tack.

In her first class of Honors Art, Delsanto tells her class that “Words are lies, traps.” Since Marcus teaches the same students, her comments get back to him, and he initiates a war.  Words vs picture:  What is more powerful?  What is more true?  What is more dangerous?

And while the battle began between the two adults, the students get very much involved, and actually experience a truly great learning experience. (Educators now call this kind of thing “Project Based Learning.”) The “words” that the students use and the artwork they create as different sides in this battle of philosophies are impressive at the least.

As the battle goes on, Marcus learns that the school board is considering his dismissal, his relationship with his son is becoming more and more estranged, and his muse has completely dried up. And, he begins drinking even more heavily.

Delsanto’s condition worsens–she cannot undress herself or hold a brush without help–but her artistic output is becoming more and more robust.

Ultimately, these two flawed adults get together, but their lovely day together is sabotaged by Marcus’ destructive, drunken night.

It takes the final school assembly, where the contest between “words and pictures” is judged to bring some resolution to the film.  Here, Marcus gives a speech stating that there is no greater approach–that together words and pictures are often more powerful than apart. (I’m not sure I agree.)  Afterwards, we are left hanging–does Delsanto merely forgive Marcus or does she let him back into her life.

Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche as Jack MArcus and Dina Delsanto in Words and Pictures

Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche in Words and Pictures

To see a romantic film about two adults, seriously flawed in their own ways, is a rarity in film these days (at least in American movies). And to have this romance played out by the like of such actors as Juliette Binoche and Clive Owen is special. And this is where Words and Pictures promised a delight.

But somewhere along the line, the relationship between Marcus and Delsanto gets hijacked.  The philosophical arguments of “words vs. pictures” take center stage, and–by the very nature of film– can only be superficial at best, and ultimately unfulfilling.  And we are further distracted by the subplots of Marcus and his son’s disintegrating relationship and an annoying story of a predatory student who continually harasses a shy student in his class. (Granted both of these subplots can be tied into the overall argument of “words vs. pictures,” but again, it is weak.) And so, the “romance”–even the relationship–between Marcus and Delsanto too often gets pushed aside and loses its cinematic momentum,

In the end, I enjoyed Words and Pictures, but I wanted to like the film more than I did.  It had the makings of  a  sweet romance, but the un-fleshed-out philosophical argument got in the way.

What I found most interesting was that all of Dina Delsanto’s artwork was painted by Binoche herself.  That bit of info, coming late in the credits, is amazing, for the paintings are powerful expressionist and abstract works that to my untutored eye were dazzling. Binoche has always been one of my favorite actresses…now even more so.