Bluebeard by Max Frisch; The Joke by Milan Kundera - review by Ronald Hayman

Ronald Hayman

Inexpressibly Important



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The Joke


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‘With each new piece of work,’ said Max Frisch in a 1961 interview, ‘I have the naive feeling that now, thank heavens, I am getting to grips with a fundamentally new theme – only to discover sooner or later that everything which does not end in fundamental failure possesses fundamentally the same theme.’ The central theme in his fiction is the difficulty first of locating the self and then of keeping faith with it. Or rather, this is not just a theme. His fiction is his attempt to find himself and keep faith with himself.

He believes that what is most important is what can never be formulated: experience always eludes the statements we make about it. Not that experience, anyway, is identical with external events:

A single external event can serve a thousand experiences. Perhaps there is no other way to express experience than by narrating events, ie stories, as if our experience sprang from stories … Experience wants to make itself intelligible and so it invents a reason for itself, preferably a past. Once upon a time … Stories are sketches projected into the past, games of the imagination which we pass off as reality.

In his 1964 novel Meine Name sei Gantenbein, which made its first appearance in this country under the title A Wilderness of Mirrors (1965) and now reappears under the title Gantenbein (though with the translation by Michael Bullock otherwise unchanged) Frisch invented a highly unusual imaginative game to play with the reader. The anonymous narrator defines himself through the stories he improvises. The implication is that this is what the novelist always does; but no previous novelist had hit on this way of articulating the relationship between his experience, and the parts he invents for his fictional personae.

I wanted to show the reality of a man by having him appear as a white patch outlined by the sum of fictional identities congruent with his personality … The story is not told as if an individual could be identified by his factual behaviour; he betrays himself in his fictions.

Gantenbein, like Frisch’s two previous novels, Stiller (1954), translated as I’m Not Stiller (1958) and Homo Faber (1957, translated 1959) has been seriously underrated in Britain. In fact we have altogether done rather badly by Frisch. In the theatre Lindsay Anderson championed him in the early Sixties, staging The Fire Raisers at the Royal Court in 1961 and Andorra at the National in 1964. Some of his plays have been heard on Radio 3, and a dramatisation of his new novel Bluebeard is to be broadcast. But it is a pity that there have been no major productions of Philip Hotz’s Fury or Biography: a Game, and it is an even greater pity that his three major novels are still unknown to so many readers who would respond to them enthusiastically.

It could be said of Frisch, as it could be said of Kafka, that no clear line can be drawn between the fiction and the diaries. The notebooks that Stiller writes in prison are sometimes almost indistinguishable from the diaries Frisch has published, and the 1975 ‘novel’ Montauk is not a novel at all but a direct excursion into autobiography, with diary-like reflections ironically woven into a frank account of a weekend spent on Long Island with a girl no older than his daughter. The ‘story’ Man in the Holocene is a fiction written in the third person about a character called Geiser, but it consists of diary-like notes, centres unmistakably on the Alpine village, Berzona, where Frisch lives, and incorporates extensive quotations from the Brockhaus encyclopaedia.

Bluebeard is more purely fictional than anything Frisch has published for nearly twenty years, but he probably did not have the naive feeling that he was getting to grips with a fundamentally new theme. In his first novel Jürg Reinhart, Jürg mercifully kills the woman he loves when she is dying, painfully, of cancer. ‘You will stand by your deed,’ she tells him. ‘You will not deny that you have at last found the way to act, and you will be proud that you have become a man.’ Doktor Schaad, the Bluebeard of the new fiction, is older and more sophisticated. He has been married seven times. But at the end of his life he arrives at a new maturity. Having been acquitted from the charge of murdering his sixth wife, he confesses to the crime.

Most of the text consists of dialogue: it is as if a recording of the trial is playing endlessly inside the doctor’s head. Sometimes other witnesses are being cross-examined, sometimes he is. He cannot adjust himself to his acquittal. To silence the voices he resorts to various strategems, but we learn less about him from what he does and what he thinks than we do from the questions and answers.

At the same time, Frisch can play skilfully with discontinuities between question and answer. In Bluebeard witnesses characterise themselves by answering questions they have not been asked and evading those they have. The narrative is ingenious, generating the suspense of a thriller while focusing on different issues, but is more of a story than a novel.

In comparison, The Joke looks unsophisticated, but it was Milan Kundera’s first novel, begun when he was thirty-three, and published in 1967, a year before the Prague Spring. After the Russian invasion, the book was banned in Czechoslovakia. Louis Aragon, who was on the Central Committee of the French Communist Party, wrote a preface to the Paris edition, calling the book ‘one of the greatest novels of the century’, but the judgment was probably motivated largely by indignation at what the Russians had done. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting was not published until 1980, five years after Kundera had settled in France.

The Joke starts off well enough. One of the dreariest features of Communist orthodoxy is its intolerance of humour, and Stalinist Czechoslovakia is convincingly evoked in this story of a twenty-year-old student, Ludvik, who is irked by the indifference of an attractive girl into sending her a postcard with the message: ‘Optimism is the opium of the people! A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky!’ If the ensuing narrative thrusts relentlessly into the consequences, it only emphasises the relentlessness of Party Nemesis. He is expelled not only from the Party but also from the University. Consigned to an army penal battalion, he has to work, shaven-headed, for five years in the mines. The privation, the humiliations, the convict-like camaraderie are vividly recreated.

At first the shifting from one first-person narrative to another is quite acceptable, though there is little attempt at stylistic differentiation. Kundera has no difficulty in emphasising with a hard-liner like Helena:

May melancholy never taint my name, as Fucik said, his words are my motto, even when they tortured him, even in the shadow of the gallows Fucik never lost heart, and what do I care if he’s out of fashion nowadays, maybe I’m just an idiot, but they’re idiots too with their fashionable scepticism…

Ludvik is the pivotal character, and the central joke is his seduction of Helena, which he intends as a revenge against her husband, Zemanek, who is blond, handsome, popular. As Chairman of the Party Organisation in the Division of Natural Sciences, he had been the chief instigator of the brutally disproportionate punishment Ludvik received, and the viciousness of his desire for revenge is understandable. The build-up to the seduction scene is unnecessarily elaborate, but the episode itself is effective enough. The trouble is that Kundera had no feeling for when a joke was going on too long, and here we have a whole troupe of jokes, like acrobats standing on each other’s shoulders. Zemanek, who has a young and beautiful girlfriend, gladly agrees to divorce Helene, and she has become so enamoured of the sadistic Ludvik that she tries to kill herself when she discovers his attitude to her. But the pills she steals from a young technician turn out to be laxatives, and it is hard to see how Aragon could have admired the climax in which Ludvik bursts in on the lavatory where he expected to find her dying. She tries to run away, but she is wearing high heels and her Lastex panties are around her knees.

In the final section three characters are taking it in turns to narrate, which produces some stridency as the action veers between comedy and melodrama. It has all become too much like a bad play with the dialogue written in nothing but asides.

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