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When the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, Milan Kundera was blacklisted from publishing and lost the ability to make a living. A theatre director friend of his suggested that he write a theatrical adaptation of Dostoevsky's The Idiot, which would come out under the director's name, and then Kundera would live off some of the profits. Kundera did not want to adapt The Idiot. Instead, he wrote a version of Denis Diderot's Jacques the Fatalist and His Master.

I say a version and not an adaptation because Kundera is adamant that it's simply homage, not to be taken as a complete and total presentation of the novel. His preface waxes lyrical about the reasons he thinks Jacques the Fatalist is intrinsically unadaptable, and honestly, he's probably right. The confusion of voices in the novel, the way that the author and the characters talk over, through, and around one another in ways that strain the limits of intelligibility-- not exactly possible in a theatrical setting, where an actor, who has a body and is standing there physically present, must say the words. (For that matter, there is the question of whether to have someone personating the narrator, the authorial voice, Diderot. Kundera chooses not to.) The way the book repeats itself almost interminably and delays the conclusion of stories almost interminably is kind of Beckettian, but not attainable in a play in which you wish anything else to happen, and the short length of the play in comparison to the novel robs the delays of some of their punch.

So Kundera has chosen to shift the metafictional focus of the action into the interplay between Jacques and his master and the playwright and the audience. When he concentrates on that, the play is absolutely brilliant.

Excerpt. )

However, when Kundera stops the meta tricks (which is his problem, as Diderot never stops them: they are not trick, but the book itself) he attempts to build interest through the mingling and paralleling of the actual stories that Jacques and the other characters tell and the movement of the characters back and forth in time, which is much more problematic because it means that all the characters manage to tell their stories in a fairly linear fashion (though somewhat intermingled). They have to so we can see the parallels. This still reads like Diderot, but like the Diderot of the short stories, the comedies and dramas of manners, the Diderot who is prefiguring Les Liaisons Dangereuses. It may be good theatre but it is far less this novel.

Still, he did say he wasn't trying for an adaptation. I think it's a pretty good play and would enjoy seeing it, if it is ever revived. I also find the preface very interesting, in which Kundera talks about the circumstances of writing the play, of why in the face of an invasion he turned to the intellectual tools of the French Enlightenment. (He saw the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia as a sign of the decline of the influence of the Enlightenment and of the end of humane civilization; he chose to side with what he believed doomed.) And he makes a good point that Jacques and his master in some ways belong on a stage, that there is an entire tradition culminating in Beckett that makes much more sense with them there: so there they are.
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New work by an old friend for a late and tired night. My household has had the frustrating experience of trying to find Diderot's grave in St.-Roch; they lost him during the Revolution, it turns out, when the whole floor was dug up and commingled into one large pit. And the rector didn't know who he was.

He was, of course, the man who introduced lesbian porn to European philosophy (no, really, it's right there in The Nun) and a writer with something of Voltaire's blaze and something of Sterne's tricks. His most direct literary descendant is Italo Calvino, and I defy anyone not to find Jacques the Fatalist and his Master an incredibly frustrating experience (but good, I suspect, for the character).

Oh, I don't know, I can't talk about Diderot. There's a bust of him six feet in front of me and to the right, in the nook that contains all the really old books. It is very difficult to write a review about work by someone one has a part-share in a statue of.

At any rate, this is the collection of his shorter work, his five short stories, of which three are a linked trilogy that come to slightly more than novella length. None were intended for publication. Indeed, one was intended as a practical joke the same way The Nun was, letters describing a situation that was supposed to have really happened, an amusement for a friend who lived at a fair distance. All partake in his fragmented nature, the narrative through interjections by imaginary listeners, snatches of pseudonymous speeches; one of these stories is an entire fictional appendix written for a very real and non-fictional memoir by a famous explorer. His themes are love, stupidity, public opinion, the pointlessness of sexual fidelity and the unlikeliness of God. He is funny, charming, confusing, sly, maundering, ridiculously intelligent, subtle in his depiction of character, and second to none in his ability to be in one sentence both two hundred years ahead of himself in the sheer flow of his genius and three words later blazingly, spectacularly, amazingly wrong.

Also you will find him kinder than Voltaire, a little. But with something more of grief.

The short work is probably not the place to start with Diderot-- I'd make that either Jacques the Fatalist or Rameau's Nephew. But it is very fine, if you like its genre (contes philosophiques), and will certainly give anybody a good argument, and an entertaining time spent arguing.

If I were writing a postmodernist review, or one in the style of the subject author, this is where I would have the audience interject, but I shan't, as I already know what the listener ought to be saying to me: go to bed, it's three in the morning. Who needs to go off into rhetorical tricks for that kind of advice? I shall go to bed at once.


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