Milan Kundera for the Nobel Prize

I was reading one of the chapters towards the end of Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting yesterday.

It’s a dream-type sequence, or an imagination of a kind of afterlife, maybe a limbo, where you go before you really die.

Tamina, this woman, just ups and leaves her job in a café, hightails it with an angel in a sports car. He leaves her at a shore. She’s rowed to an island by a child, and then stranded there. She’s shown to her bed in a dorm, where all the other kids sleep. She’s the only adult. She searches for an escape. There is none and she settles down to living there.

The kids are fascinated by her.

There are teams of children, named after animals. The Squirrels sit shitting and pissing on toilets in the bathroom, while across from them, the Cats wash themselves at wash basins. Then they change over.

After a while, the kids want to wash her. She lets them, and it becomes sensual, sexual. They basically rape her. It’s written beautifully, strangely. You wonder if someone could write this today. You read the lines half-visualizing what’s going on, half trying not to visualize it, because it’s like one of those dreams that you’re not supposed to have.

He just says she’s rocked in a sensual way and gives in to it.

In between these scenes there are musings on music – his Dad’s love of it – Beethoven’s concentration on Variations at the end of his life – the inane music of today (“the monotonous rhythm of the soulless cry” which we all need, from time to time)…the usual Milan stuff:

  • “Sex is not love but merely a territory love takes over.”
  • “Children have no past, and that is the whole secret of the magical innocence of their smiles.”
  • “Humans do not revolt against the killing of calves in slaughterhouses.”

Milan will be 86 this April Fool’s Day. Why hasn’t he won the Nobel Prize?

Can we start a petition?

What we like determines what we are

I was reading this essay by John Ruskin last week. It’s called Traffic. It’s 1864. He’s invited to this place in Yorkshire to talk about an Exchange they’re going to build. Well, he rocks up and says: this Exchange of yours is the last fucking thing I’m going to talk about.

That’s John Ruskin for you.

He says: As far as architecture is concerned, there’s no point asking my advice once in a while. All good architecture is the expression of national life and character.

And then he whips out this phrase of his: “Taste is essentially a moral quality.”

He says: Let me tell you what I mean by that, because people have been picking me up all wrong.

Good taste, he says, is the perpetual contemplation of a good and perfect thing. “It is the kind of shit that the angels, if they were sitting around looking at art, would be looking at. Titian, Turner, Greek statutes, any of that kind of thing.”

He whips this one out, which I like: “What we like determines what we are.”

He says this – and I’m thinking of Ireland – that if a nation has any vices or weaknesses it’s inevitable that they come out either in their art, or their lack of art. That’s what he says. “In all time…every nation’s vice, or virtue, was written in its art.”

That’s John Ruskin for you.

Smoke and mist

After Kenko I was on a Japanese buzz – but I couldn’t find any other Japanese texts so I bought a Chinese one. Typical. A guy called Shen Fu. Nineteenth century. Teed up as an account of his love for his wife. Okay, I said.

But you can’t repeat the book you just read. I’m forever reliving that lesson.

This guy was nothing like Kenko. He’s writing about his wife, telling you he loved her, but at times he just comes across as a dick. He can say some lovely things, like when they’re reunited at one point and he says “our souls became smoke and mist”. That’s top class.

But then he reveals what he really likes about her: she takes out these unfinished poems of hers and says she never finished them because she didn’t have a decent teacher: she asks him to be her teacher and he basically gets a hard-on.

Another time he asks her about ancient literature and she gives him the perfect answer: “I fear a woman’s learning isn’t enough to master it.” Again, he gets a major wang.

After that, he asks her whether she thinks Li Pai or Tu Fu is a better poet. When she chooses Li Pai he badgers her about it, can’t get over it, until he can find a way of slyly belittling her choice.

On certain days she doesn’t eat meat; it’s a Buddhist practice. So he asks her to give up the practice because it’s not convenient to him. Being a submissive woman, she does.

Another time, he finds out that she loves pickled cucumbers, and loves a kind of beancurd, both of which he hates, so – he asks her never to eat them and she goes: “shut up and fucking try them, will you”, and she lashes a pickled cucumber into his gob. From then on, all of a sudden he’s fine with them. I think that’s the one moment in their 23 years together when she comes out on top.

So that’s Shen Fu.


I read a selection of writing by Kenko. He’s this fourteenth century Japanese monk. Never heard of him before but they’ve included him in the Penguin €1 books series. Beautiful stuff.

Reading him, you feel the lack of smells in the city. He talks of the “famously evocative” scented flowering orange and the plum blossom. Christ, I’d like to linger beneath the moon on a plum-scented evening.

  1. “If our life did not fade and vanish…but lingered on forever, how little the world would move us. It is the ephemeral nature of things that make them wonderful.”
  1. “In all things, the beginning and end are the most engaging.”
  1. And what about this: “In general, I find that reasonably sensitive and intelligent people will pass their whole life without taking the step they know they should.” He has in mind people who could become poets, painters, Buddhas, but who instead are “forever pondering pros and cons.” On the other hand, he says that unfinished things are “very appealing” because they are “a gesture towards the future.”

Mozart’s Letters to his Dad

I read a few of Mozart’s letters to his Dad. I had no idea he was so religious. He’s in Paris for this concert. He’s not sure how it’s going to go. “I was really very afraid,” he says. “I would have liked to rehearse it again.” But there wasn’t time, so he goes to bed pissed off about it and fantasizing that if it starts to go badly he’ll dive into the orchestra, rip the fiddle from the hands of the first violin and conduct it himself.

It goes great. The audience laps it up, “especially the final allegro”. So what does he do afterwards? He heads down to the Palais Royal and buys himself a big ice-cream and says the rosary. He doesn’t even wait till he gets home to say the rosary. He lashes it out there and then, having his ice-cream.

When he hears of Voltaire’s death he says to his Dad – “You probably know that that godless arch-rogue Voltaire has died like a dog, like a beast – that’s his reward!”

I don’t know about you, I found it pretty funny.

But come here to me – one other thing – he’s talking about this great piano he’s been playing and he says there’s no “reverberation” off it. Does that mean he played his pieces choppily, without a sustain pedal? Could that be true? Did Mozart play his own adagios in a way that we would find – jerky?

He had the look of a man trying to seduce the cook


Over the last week I read Friedrich Reck’s Diary of a Man in Despair. I had to read it alone, because if I ever read it when my wife was in the room I had to keep stopping to tell her something he’d just said.

You feel, during it, that you could have been friends. You feel, after it, that a kindred spirit has been snuffed out.

I’d never heard of him before. I just picked the book up last week. It doesn’t even have a promising cover. But this is the story. This guy, Reck, wrote diary entries from May 1936 to October 1944 which describe life in Nazi Germany. You’ll never read anything like them.

There are 39 entries. Nothing like a normal diary. He’ll just write four pages from time to time about events around him, things he’s heard, gossip, impressions of Munich (“Prussian-occupied Munich”, he calls it in 1936), and so on. He said that these notes he was writing were his “contribution to the cultural history of the Nazi period. Night after night, I hide this record deep in the woods on my land.”

I just want to give you an idea of the way he writes, and what he writes about.

He sees Hitler passing in a car, “a jellylike, slag-gray face, a moonface into which two melancholy jet-black eyes had been set like raisins”. He recalls, years before, seeing Hitler ranting in a café, “with his oily hair falling into his face…he had the look of a man trying to seduce the cook.” He calls him “a raw vegetable Genghis Khan, a teetotalling Alexander, a womanless Napoleon, an effigy of Bismarck who would certainly have had to go to bed for four weeks if he had ever tried to eat just one of Bismarck’s breakfasts.” (11 August 1936).

He sees Berlin in 1937, “like an immense machine, all sound and fury and producing nothing…I do not believe there is any substance to the idea that people in Berlin work harder than elsewhere. They have a hysterical drive to keep moving, probably an indication of a flight from the knowledge of their own inner emptiness.” (May 1937).

When Austria is invaded he says: “The bordering countries watched this miserable rape of a little nation, and shrugged their shoulders. Nobody is moving to stop this before it is too late. It almost seems that they prefer to stand back and wait until the cobra breaks out.” (20 March 1938).

Berlin in April 1939 “smells of war, and strikes me as looking the way a parvenu never should: shabby, wan, ridiculous. The menus offer little, the wine is even more questionable than usual, the linen is of doubtful cleanliness. The coffee is miserable, there is no petrol for taxis, and since repairman have been drafted for work on fortifications, the hotels are in a sorry state.” I could believe this – six months before the war broke out!

And so on it goes – vignette after vignette – Ludendorff’s phone call to the Balkan front in 1917, when his only question is whether strawberries grow there; the brief re-introduction of dueling under the Nazis; digressions on pastoral versus industrial Germany; the observation that in 1500 there was no nationalism but there was a German nation, while in the 1930s it was the opposite…

I read and read, not knowing what would happen to him, whether they would get him in the end. All I knew, from the brief biography at the start of the book, were his dates, 1884 – 1945. Did they get him in the end? Did he live to see the end of the war, and then die? Compelling, and moving.

Pouring Chocolate over Babette’s Feast

We started watching Babette’s Feast this afternoon. Danish film. Won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1987.

We gave it twenty-five minutes. Couldn’t stick it. It’s adapted from an Isak Dinesen story – transposed might be a better word. A lot of telling, not a lot of showing. That was annoying, but worse was the look of it. I’d love to see if you could stick it for half an hour. It’s a period piece made in the late Eighties and it looks it from head to toe.

[I think John Huston was well aware of this problem and that’s why he shot most of The Dead indoors; it’s more forgiving that way]

So we stopped it before we found out anything about Babette and why she was throwing a feast.

And then I looked at the back of the DVD case – and this is what I wanted to ask you about. Does this ring a bell?

A woman comes into a small, conservative rural community. She’s “mysterious”. Soon she convinces some locals to try something “truly outrageous – a gourmet French meal!”…Her feast “scandalizes the local elders…Just who is this strangely talented Babette, who has terrified this pious town with the prospect of losing their souls for enjoying too much earthly pleasure.”

Is this not the plot of Chocolat (the book was published in 1999, film released in 2000)?

Mysterious French woman – local elders (replace Lutherans with Catholics) – small, conservative rural community (replace Jutland with Gers, France) – reduce the gourmet meal to chocolate…


Exhaustive but not inventive

Karl Ove Beowulf Sheehan PEN American Center

I want to warn you about this guy called Karl Ove Knausgaard, just in case you make the same mistake as me.

I picked up this book of his, A Man in Love (My Struggle: 2). I read the back. It was about a guy in his thirties – he goes to “humiliating” antenatal classes, he has fights with quarrelsome neighbours, he becomes a father. I thought: I can identify with some of this stuff. It promised bits about “the emotional strain of children’s birthday parties and pushing a pram around Stockholm when all you really want to do it write.” I thought: could be good, could even be touches of humour (I mean, the guy has called a book about himself My Struggle – Min Kamp in Norwegian – so he must have a sense of humour? He must at least think he’s being ironic?)

And then there was a quote on the front from my old pal, James Wood. A critic I’ve liked ever since I read The Art of Fiction. The quote said: “Intense and vital…ceaselessly compelling…superb.”

Well, later on I went and read the full Wood review, in which he also says “even when I was bored I was interested.” That would be a fairer quote to put on the cover.

To cut to the chase, the problem with the writing is that it’s exhaustive but not inventive.

Karl Ove has written six volumes about his life (he’s now 46) – and if you write six volumes based on your life and the people you know it’s pretty inevitable that comparisons will be drawn with Proust.

So Karl Ove has been referred to as “the Norwegian Proust”.

But Proust rarely feels exhaustive, and he often feels inventive.

Listen to this, from page 29. He’s at a child’s birthday party with his wife and kids and he’s being directed into the kitchen:

“The others are in the kitchen,” Erik said. “There’s some wine in there, if you fancy a glass.”

Heidi had already entered the room, she was standing in front of a shelf with a wooden snail in her hand. It had wheels and a string you could pull.

I nodded to the two parents down the hall.

“Hi,” they said.

What was his name, now? Johan? Or Jacob? And hers? Was it Mia. Oh hell. Of course. Robin, that was it.

“Hi”, I said.

“You alright?” he said.

“Yes,” I said. “What about you two?”

“Everything’s fine, thank you.”

I smiled at them. They smiled back.

Now, you might say: that’s not so bad. And maybe it’s not, taken in isolation. But the book goes on and on like this. There are nice parts – like when he talks about the distinct feeling each of his children radiates – but these observations are swamped.

Maybe the series is a testament to the age we live in, where so much information can be, and is, recorded, that is it difficult to cut the information down and shape it into a clear narrative.

(I know it sounds lame to say “the age we live in” – and all I mean is the world as it has been altered by the internet and the omnipresence of the laptop and the smart phone).

Maybe Karl Ove recognises this even in the title. A Man in Love is the second instalment in the series, but it’s not the title he gave it himself. It’s just the title Book 2 got in translation. The same decision was taken with Fallada’s Alone in Berlin – I suppose that was a little cuter, a little more inviting, and little more mysterious and maybe romantic, than the title he gave his book, which was Everyone Dies Alone. Karl Ove’s original title is perfect: Min Kamp Andre Bok: My Struggle (Another Book). It’s a more honest declaration: I wrote 400 pages first time around; now here’s another 664.

It’s like what Stanley Kaufmann said about The Godfather Part II: that it wasn’t a sequel, it was just more.

Photo by Beowulf Sheean/American PEN Centre

The Uses of Pessimism

roger scruton

I get nervous about a writer when I think they write too much. I read my first Roger Scruton book a few weeks ago, The Uses of Pessimism and the Danger of False Hope.

What a title, you’re thinking.

I know. One of my brothers came round and saw it sitting out. That’s the last thing you need, he said.

I read the book and then went looking for more, and I’ve come to the conclusion that he’s writing too many, too quickly, so I might as well re-read this one instead of buying How to Be A Conservative.

Anyway, The Uses of Pessimism is a good book. (You know when I say “good book” it just means “the author agrees with me”).

There are a couple of ideas in it I thought you might like, so here they are, in brief.

  • There are destructive forms of optimism; that people who believe that if you can only change the system, then etc, etc are addicted to unreality.
  • The opposite of this type of person is the Biblical prophet, who is a systematic pessimist. Because of this, such people invest their illusions not in this world, but in the next.
  • That man is not born free, and in fact the institutions of society are part of his freedom, not part of his problem, but that utopian thinking is immune to refutation.
  • What lies at the core of utopian ideas about society is a desire to eliminate all that causes tension and conflict.
  • That Paris 1968 – and all that – might have been a political failure, but the thinking behind it triumphed in the universities ever since (in the humanities departments, with new “tools” of analysis: deconstructionism, post-modernism, etc, etc).
  • He says that to be a conservative means to take a measured view, and to practice a more scrupulous optimism (which means injecting a small dose of pessimism); that intellectuals and leaders who think only in terms of the best possible outcome have often led humanity to disastrous results; and that gamblers are not risk takers because, led by unreal expectations, they fully expect to win.

There’s a lot more in the book than that, but I just wanted to see what you make of that much.

Men explain things to me

Nearly ten years ago I was living in an Italian city. It had an old part and a new part. I lived in the new part, which was nothing to shout about, and every day for the first few months I would go up to the old part, which they finished building in 1467 and hadn’t touched since then, to watch the sunset from the city walls. That sounds embarrassing – “to watch the sunset” – but what can I say, I did. I was up there one afternoon when I first saw it happen – you know, where it first registered.

A man and a woman arrived up. Tourists. They’d walked up and this was their first stop to enjoy the view. The man started pointing. Below, the ground is totally flat. Flat all the way to Milan. And he was explaining things to her. She wasn’t explaining anything to him. He was telling her that the city below was very flat, and if you looked over in that direction you could etc, etc.

After that, I saw it happen more often. In an art gallery, a couple would walk around and it would be the man who would have to point things out in a painting. I even found myself doing it. Ever since, I’ve been aware of it.

Last week my wife bought a book called Men Explain Things to Me, by Rebecca Solnit. The book is a collection of essays which Solnit wrote, the first of them being Men Explain Things to Me, in 2008. If you haven’t read it, I’d really recommend it. It’s short, but it has a lot to say and – at the risk of scaring you off – I think a couple of hundred copies should probably be distributed free to every school in the country.

I’d like to see this kind of thing on the news – can you imagine: “today hundreds of Irish women realised they were tired of having things which they already knew explained to them, and they have decided to put a stop to it in a polite, but firm manner…”