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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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March 2017

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