Placing her narrative in Germany, Alison Smithson creates German characters who evolve during the First World War and in its aftermath. Thus, the English author steppes aside the expected point of view and, dispelling all biased attitudes, she pictures the events from the other side of the Front line. From this perspective, she creates the premises to react not only against this particular conflict, but against all conflicts.

Another unexpected shift of perception operated by Alison Smithson is to describe at length the experience of flying and of observing the Earth from the air. It is surprising for a woman who spent her life working as an architect to develop such an acute awareness of the aircraft weight in relation to a pilot’s point of view. Her factual descriptions of the modern living environment also suggest an increasing lightness and openness of buildings and artifacts that goes hand in hand with the human desire of becoming lighter. As the perspective became broader, the inner self could have grown wiser, sharing the values of Modern Europe.

Unfortunately, History has demonstrated the contrary – while the aircraft power allowed the heavier-than-air flight, the inner self advanced towards nothingness. It also showed that the main cause for the interior of the self becoming lighter was not the “size of the population on the planet” but its behavior. Gombrowicz’s intuition could simply be translated as becoming smaller or, as Milan Kundera suggested recently, insignificant.

His latest novel La fête de l’insignifiance * (The Celebration of Insignificance which may well be translated as irrelevance, worthlessness or triviality) develops around a birthday party. In the middle of the feast, one character points to a white feather hovering under the ceiling. Then all the eyes of the congregation follow its virtual trajectory, hanging from the feather with an inexplicable anxiety. The presence of the white feather becomes soon as oppressive and threatening as Stalin’s shadow patronizing his group of obedient favorites. This ghostly presence creates an oppressive feeling that, by contrast, singles out the decreasing weight of the inner self.

Creating a psychological dimension of weight, such books build up an awareness of global constraints. They finally suggest that despite the overwhelming development of our material environment, the individual can be left out and the inner self can be flattened by endless conflicts, diminishing and finally falling into perfect insignificance.

[*] Milan Kundera, La fête de l’insignifiance, Paris, Eds Gallimard, 2014, p. 92-93


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