Reviewed by Katherine Matthews
Milan Kundera is a man of ideas, using the form of novels with abandon, deliberately breaking rules and creating his own conventions in order to express and explore those ideas. His latest book, The Festival of Insignificance, a novella, continues his way of working and as such, if you’re disinclined towards books that talk about ideas more than characters, or that use meandering or contemplative prose, this will not be enjoyable. If, on the other hand, you’re a Kundera fan, the book is an interesting continuation of his thought process not only about life but also about writing.
Immediately from the start, a table of contents announces the book’s form: seven parts, exactly the structure described in detail in Kundera’s book The Art of the Novel. He describes there the flow and structure of writing a novel this way (most of his other novels share the form of seven parts) using classical music as a metaphor. So, this has to be understood as a critical part of the music, or the dance, of his words: he’s a classicist, and form matters. The Festival of Insignificance also seems to be referencing the ‘theater of life’, the opening chapter even called ‘Introducing the Heroes’. Kundera never makes a mystery of the role of his own hand in writing the novels – he makes asides of “I” that break the fourth wall of fiction on a regular basis, constantly asking his reader to think not just about what’s happening, but the fact that it’s happening within the context of a novel.
With such great focus placed on form, he’s something of a writer’s writer. The Festival of Insignificance aims to celebrate the meaning behind the mundane, illustrating that all the supposedly grand ideas of life, the grand moments of life, are essentially lost in the deluge of daily life, where all the ‘real’ things happen. It is a beautiful thought, but is in actuality not something all that profound – it feels profound in this context because Kundera has otherwise, in all his previous works, put his mind to work specifically on all those profundities of grandness. This book then ultimately has the feeling not exactly of capitulation, but of acceptance of his own limitations and mortality. He’s using all the weight of his grandness to point out the pointlessness of grandness. It would be nihilistic if the book weren’t taking everything so lightly.
Taken in and of itself, this book is not his finest – it carries the result of some heavy thinking with it, but not so much as his previous works. Taken as a continuation of dialogue, or another chapter in the autobiography of Kundera, it feels like an autumnal contemplation, as he releases the pressure of his foot on the gas pedal and finally enjoys the ride.
You Review: The latest releases, reviewed by ABC customers.