Like Seinfeld, 'Festival' Is About Nothing... And Everything

 (Courtesy of HarperCollins)
(Courtesy of HarperCollins)

Milan Kundera has made a career of writing about insignificance.

I mean, he's written about a lot of other things, too. Heavy stuff like love and identity and Totalitarianism. Featherweight stuff like girls and Nietzsche. But often he writes about smallness and the pleasures of quiet and inconsequential lives. As a writer, he lives in exile, doesn't do interviews, travels incognito, vanishes (as best he can) into the background hum of life in France, his adopted home. Though his writing can certainly have a political bent (particularly his early stuff), his focus tends to fall on characters who, for the most part, do nothing more heroic than get up in the morning, find their socks, have a little breakfast, pay the rent and maybe have a glass of wine with friends. His books (not all of them or, I suppose, the entirety of any of them, but still) are like Seinfeld episodes for the intellectual set: stories about nothing which, in their nothingness, still manage to say sometimes stunningly profound things about the lives of small people alive in a big, generally uncaring, often beautiful world.

And if that's your thing — if you reach for Kundera for the jokes (he's a lot funnier, in a long and looping sort of way, than I ever expect him to be) or for the peace there is to be found in inconsequentiality — then his newest, The Festival Of Insignificance, is made for you. A short, pretty little jewel box of a thing, it serves almost like a crowning essay on one of his favorite themes, named right there in the title.

On the one hand, nothing happens in it. And on the other hand, nothing happens, too. Which isn't to say that it's a dull book. It's not. There are conversations and parties, jokes about Stalin and Kaliningrad (inspired by the omniscient narrator who, in a literary trick I so identify with Kundera now that I think it should be named for him, gets to stand just outside the stories of the protagonists and comment on them, directly to the reader), discussions of erotic obsessions with breasts and belly buttons and a surprising amount of death (real and imagined). It's just that the stakes involved are so low that it all feels so wonderfully...soft, I guess.

It is the story of four friends — Alain, Charles, Ramon and Caliban — living in modern-day Paris. While walking through the Luxembourg Gardens one day, Ramon meets D'Ardelo, a casual acquaintance who tells Ramon that he has been diagnosed with cancer (even though he has just come from a doctor who has told him that he hasn't) and invites Ramon to his birthday party. Ramon says yes, enlists his friend Charles, a party planner, to help, and Charles turns to another friend, Caliban, an out-of-work actor who needs the money, to serve drinks. And I swear to you, by the time all of this has been established, the party thrown, and a few detours made to discuss bladder problems, sex, one person's dying mother and another person's recently dead husband, the book is already two-thirds over.

The Festival Of Insignificance is, in the best possible way, like perusing the operating instructions for a civil society. Like peeking at the script that motivates the extras who populate our daily lives. In terms of technical skill, this is kind of like Zombie Rachmaninoff dragging himself up out of the dirt to write a block-rocking summer pop song — a late-career confection which, in its compact slimness, re-proves Kundera's chops when it comes to overlapping narratives and beautifully expressing the junk and clutter of the modern world. The voice (aided greatly by his longtime translator Linda Asher) gets into your head and lives there for far longer than it will likely take you to read the actual book. The smoothness and sharp, clipped chapters make it snap. Frankly, if it'd been one page longer — one unimportant word longer — the whole artifice of it might've collapsed. The joke of it, this meditation on insignificance, falling flat.

But then, this is Kundera and, it being Kundera, The Festival Of Insignificance is deceptively disciplined. There's a sense of exquisite control lurking behind the words that makes me think he would've just known if it'd run on a page too long. Or one word too long. And he would've fixed it — trimming everything until no looseness showed through this exercise in looseness. Until it felt like it'd just fallen out of his head, whole and clean and complete.

Jason Sheehan is an ex-chef, a former restaurant critic and the current food editor ofPhiladelphia magazine. But when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about spaceships, aliens, giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his newest book.

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