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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Festival of Insignificance

Milan Kundera

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To purchase The Festival of Insignificance

Title: The Festival of Insignificance
Author: Milan Kundera
Genre: Novel
Written: 2014 (Eng. 2015)
Length: 115 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Festival of Insignificance - US
The Festival of Insignificance - UK
The Festival of Insignificance - Canada
La fête de l'insignifiance - Canada
The Festival of Insignificance - India
La fête de l'insignifiance - France
Das Fest der Bedeutungslosigkeit - Deutschland
La festa dell'insignificanza - Italia
La fiesta de la insignificancia - España
  • French title: La fête de l'insignifiance
  • Translated by Linda Asher

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Our Assessment:

B+ : slight but sly

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 13/6/2015 .
Entertainment Weekly B- 26/6/2015 Keith Staskiewicz
Financial Times C 12/6/2015 Simon Schama
FAZ F 2/3/2015 Volker Weidermann
The Independent A- 28/5/2015 James Kidd
Independent on Sunday . 20/6/2015 Leyla Sanai
Literary Review . 6/2015 Roger Scruton
London Rev. of Books . 2/7/2015 Michael Hofmann
Le Monde . 2/4/2014 Raphaëlle Leyris
NZZ D 22/2/2015 Andreas Breitenstein
New Statesman . 18/6/2015 Leo Robson
The NY Times Book Rev. . 21/6/2015 Diane Johnson
The Spectator C 20/6/2015 Daniel Hahn
Sunday Times . 14/6/2015 Theo Tait
The Telegraph . 23/5/2015 Duncan White
The Times . 13/6/2015 John Sutherland
TLS . 19/6/2015 Hal Jensen
Wall St. Journal . 19/6/2015 Sam Sacks
The Washington Post . 17/6/2015 Michael Dirda
Die Zeit A 11/3/2015 Ulrich Greiner

  Review Consensus:

  Typical but not top-form Kundera; (very) slight

  From the Reviews:
  • "Mr Kundera’s writing is most powerful when it is kaleidoscopic, zooming in pointedly on his characters and then panning out to link their emotions to human experience. Death and ephemerality lurk throughout." - The Economist

  • "The title is no play on words. Milan Kundera’s first novel in 13 years is an exercise in inconsequentiality" - Keith Staskiewicz, Entertainment Weekly

  • "What is this book, then ? It presents itself as an intellectual parlour game, a neo-absurdist air-kiss, a sly meditation on the mysteries of human connection and disconnection. For those who care about such things there are unspoken nods of homage to the Usual Suspects: Beckett, Joyce, Kafka, Camus, Calvino. Segments of time overlap and intrude on each other. (...) Within its large-print pages lurk micro-novellas that tantalise the imagination." - Simon Schama, Financial Times

  • "Das könnte alles wahnsinnig sympathisch sein und interessant und lustig und traurig, Abschiedsbuch eines alten Schriftstellers, der nach vielen, vielen Jahren noch einmal einen Roman geschrieben hat über das Verschwinden, die Weisheit und die Sehnsucht nach der Leichtigkeit des Seins. Es ist aber leider langweilig, unlebendig, ausgedacht und leer. Die Herren sind Herren aus Papier, die gute Laune ist aus Büchern abgeschrieben, die Leichtigkeit ist tonnenschwer." - Volker Weidermann, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "The Festival of Insignificance is a curious and fascinating book. Its confirmed outsider status leads to uncomfortable moments. (...) The vivacity of Kundera's prose (translated by Linda Asher), the whirl of his ideas, and his sincere engagement with grand narratives and troubling questions remind you what a rare talent he is. Navel-gazing has never been more provocative." - James Kidd, The Independent

  • "There is the light touch, a ploy that not only makes the novel eminently readable but which, paradoxically, accentuates the horrors of history, here the totalitarian monster Stalin, rendering them more forbidding than grave reverence would. Irony and humour abound. There are no inessential scenarios." - Leyla Sanai, Independent on Sunday

  • "Each episode, understated but nevertheless polished until you can see right through it to the emptiness beyond, is pure and diaphanous, like an angel. But I reached the end of the book without discovering the point of any of the characters. Which I suppose is the point." - Roger Scruton, Literary Review

  • "C'est un livre léger comme les plumes qui y volettent. (...) Un roman qui feint la légèreté pour voler plus haut." - Raphaëlle LeyrisLe Monde

  • "Selten hat man so ein verkrampftes Alterswerk gelesen wie dieses." - Andreas Breitenstein, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "But if Kundera’s brand of idea-laden anti-realist whimsy has lost much of its appeal, it is due partly to a lack of engagement on Kundera’s part, and partly to developments in literary culture." - Leo Robson, New Statesman

  • "Well translated by Linda Asher, it suggests he has not quite finished with the Soviet era. Slight, almost terse at barely over 100 pages, it resumes his earlier preoccupations and personal history, here set in contemporary Paris." - Diane Johnson, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The title marks out the book’s thematic territory, but it also reveals much about the authorial attitude: it’s risk-taking (just how interesting to a reader do you expect a celebration of the insignificant to be?) but utterly, defiantly selfconscious with it. The question is, is there a pay-off worth that risk ? (...) Naturally, Kundera is a writer with incomparable style — or perhaps, Style. Where pleasures are to be found in this book, they’re in the finely-crafted reminders of what that style of his can do. And as you’d expect, The Festival of Insignificance is clever. But the cleverness is unsatisfying, and style alone is not enough." - Daniel Hahn, The Spectator

  • "(L)ess a novel than the culmination of a fervent pursuit of an aesthetic ideal." - Duncan White, The Telegraph

  • "The Festival of Insignificance distils Kundera’s method to its essence. It simply refuses to be a story. (...) The Festival of Insignificance is a featherlight monument against oblivion, an exemplary assertion of inchoate individuality, a declaration that if insignificance is to be faced down at all it can only be through the permanence of art, albeit in this case a novel that looks like a vanishing act." - Hal Jensen, Times LIterary Supplement

  • "(A) wily, playful, feather-light novella" - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

  • "Sympathetic readers will find The Festival of Insignificance an entertaining divertissement, a lightly comic fiction blending Gallic theorizing and Russian-style absurdity (.....) To the unsympathetic, though, The Festival of Insignificance will come across as simply inconsequential and pretentious. Yet however you judge it, in Linda Asher’s translation, the short novel flows along smoothly and the intertwined stories are involving enough to keep anyone turning the pages." - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

  • "Meisterhaft, wie Kundera literarische Konventionen hinter sich lässt, wie er die Motive miteinander verschränkt! Er komponiert einen Kranz kleiner Erzählungen, er unterbricht sie, nimmt sie wieder auf, und wir genießen dieses Wunderwerk wie ein kammermusikalisches Divertimento." - Ulrich Greiner, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Festival of Insignificance is a slim little novel in seven parts, themselves divided into shorter sections, what little action there is moving back and forth between a handful of characters in Paris, friends whose paths variously cross. Introducing the characters -- 'heroes', Kundera calls them -- they are presented musing and ambling: 'Alain Meditates on the Navel', 'Ramon Strolls in the Luxembourg Gardens'. The action doesn't pick up much, either -- if not entirely a navel-gazing novel (though it literally is, repeatedly), The Festival of Insignificance is certainly as concerned with contemplation as action.
       There's a Chagall show some of them are curious about; a bottle of fine Armagnac goes to pieces; one of their mothers is dying. Action and activity seems almost entirely incidental, yet there's some resonance to it: the ambling is not empty. There's also a variety of more less philosophical discussion -- kept light by Kundera, but woven tightly in the fabric of his loose-seeming, elegant narrative.
       Some of the characters slip into roles: when Caliban, the actor among them, is hired to play waiter at a cocktail party a former colleague of Ramon's, D'Ardelo, is holding, he insists on pretending he speaks only 'Pakistani'. D'Ardelo, meanwhile, lies and lets Ramon believe he has been diagnosed with cancer. Parts of the story itself also move beyond realism -- and among Kundera's gifts is how he slips in absurdist turns in a way that makes them seem almost perfectly natural.
       Stalin is also a significant presence and subject, a volume of the Memoirs of Nikita Khrushchev the ostensible reason to bring him up, but the stories involving him taking on rather a life of their own (and, ultimately, a considerably greater presence). Several anecdotes of sorts are told about the Soviet dictator, and they initially seem an odd counterpoint to the contemporary Parisian scenes. Yet there are deep thematic ties between these parts of the novel (and a s nice concluding overlap of the one reality with the other).
       The Festival of Insignificance is oddly, charmingly, bizarrely spun together, a meditation on weighty subjects sketched with a very light touch. It doesn't seem to meet everyone's expectations of a novel, as Kundera has pared back the form to an even greater extent than in his recent (or not so recent -- this is the first in over a decade) novels, and yet there's a richness to it, a shimmering depth palpable beneath the scant surface. It bears re-reading, to appreciate the many facets and fine detail-work.
       One can understand some of the reviewers' frustrations with it, especially in their desire to read an old author's (possibly final) testament into it, but Kundera defies easy expectations and continues to resolutely go his own way in his fiction. For those willing to let him continue to play his games The Festival of Insignificance is an enjoyable, surprising next chapter.

- M.A.Orthofer, 29 June 2015

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About the Author:

       Milan Kundera lived 1929 to 2023. The author of numerous highly acclaimed and widely translated novels he left Czechoslovakia in 1975, settling in France. He has become a French citizen, and beginning with Slowness (1995) has completely forsaken his native language, writing even his fiction in French.

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© 2015-2023 the complete review

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