Consider this thought experiment. What if Milan Kundera, fleeing his Communist homeland of Czechoslovakia in 1975, had bypassed France to land in Hollywood or New York? What kind of fiction would he have created over the last 40 years?
It’s tempting to think that the disorientation of the United States would have forced out of Kundera a more populist and cinematic stream of fiction. Instead, plunked down in the philosophical safe haven of Paris, he cleaved to the high-minded, attenuated, and remote. At least that’s the charge — a charge that Kundera, now 86, seems happy to confirm in his latest novel, “The Festival of Insignificance,” a bracing shot of a kind of literature rarely produced on this side of the Atlantic: slender but weighty, thoroughly cerebral, astringently Continental. It comes as a welcome corrective to so much American-style realist fiction, which in heavy doses can blur into a kind of sameness.
The novel ambles after a group of friends as they stroll through perhaps the most manicured location on earth: the Luxembourg Gardens. As they walk and palaver, the conversation of Kundera’s men (yes, they’re all men) concerns not the latest quiz on Buzzfeed but extinction, Stalin, maternal love, absurdist theater, the nature of human existence, and as ever, sex, a subject that lights all of Kundera’s work. Yet this is hardly sex of the carnal or graphic kind seen in “Fifty Shades of Grey.” No, this is ideational sex, no longer an experience but a pure concept.
Insofar as the novel is about something beyond their ruminations, it is about aging: The plot, one might say, is nothing less than the labyrinthine process of growing old. Kundera’s men are past their prime, forced into roles as waiters, retirees, or bystanders, looking at life from the outside and wondering what it all amounts to.
One of these men, Alain, observes to his friend how most of the young women in Paris wear T-shirts or blouses that expose their midriffs, displaying their navels for all to see. The navel has become, in effect, the new locus of desire. Alain elaborates: “The thighs, the breasts, the buttocks have a different shape on each woman. So those three golden sites are not only arousing, they also express a woman’s individuality. You could never mistake the buttocks of the woman you love. The beloved buttocks, you’d recognize them among a hundred others. But you could not identify the woman you love by her navel. All navels are alike.”
Turning this notion over and back again, like an erotic Rubik’s cube, Alain concludes that our millennium will be lived “under the sign of the navel. Under that sign we are all, every one of us, the soldiers of sex: all of us setting our sights not on the beloved woman but on the same small hole in the middle of the belly, the hole that represents the sole meaning, the sole goal, the sole future of all erotic desire.” This is a meta-moment for Kundera: It recognizes, lampoons, and makes literal the navel-gazing tenor of his work, even as it takes up this quality again in earnest.
Such moments invite us to read and to think simultaneously; Kundera is a master of this hybrid art, and one of its signature innovators. We find ourselves at the intersection of the contemporary moment — all those exposed midriffs — and something older, pared down, closer to the tenacious existential spirit of Camus and Sartre and those cerebral Europeans who brought to life the flâneur, that perennial urban wanderer. Throughout “The Festival of Insignificance,” Kundera juxtaposes ideas and shards of history in a sort of “referential mania,” which Nabokov identified as the hallmark of fiction that hits its mark.
Those fashionably, innocently exposed navels point, perhaps, to a central truth of life. “Insignificance, my friend, is the essence of existence,” another friend proposes. “It is all around us, and everywhere and always. It is present even when no one wants to see it: in horror, in bloody battles, in the worst disasters. It often takes courage to acknowledge it in such dramatic situations, and to call it by name. But it is not only a matter of acknowledging it, we must love insignificance, we must learn to love it.”
In the end what is moving about this novel is its embrace of what has always driven Kundera, the delicate state of living between being and nothingness. Far from rehashing this theme, it presses it into new form: shorter, tighter, fired by aging rather than by coming of age. It would be a poor fit for Hollywood, but it’s a perfect one for Kundera, and for anyone who has looked at life in hindsight.
The Festival of Insignificance
By Milan Kundera
Translated from the French
by Linda Asher
Harper, 124 pp., $23.99
Ted Weesner teaches at Tufts University and The School of the Museum of Fine Arts.