Kundera, Milan (b. 1921)

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KUNDERA, MILAN (b. 1921)


Czech writer and intellectual.

Milan Kundera is recognized internationally as one of the most eminent and influential of the twentieth-century Czech writers. Kundera rose to prominence both as an intellectual and a prose writer in Czechoslovakia during the harshest years of communism in the 1950s. As a leading intellectual he responded to political events with speeches and articles that initiated a number of important debates. In "Arguing about Our Inheritance" (1955), he defended the influence of avant-garde poetry—censored at that time—on Czech letters. In 1967 a provocative speech delivered to the Fourth Congress of Czechoslovak Writers about the Czech national heritage and its future brought him to the forefront of the Prague Spring liberalization movement. And a year later, Kundera reacted to the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia with the article "Czech Destiny." His discussion of individual responsibility and the survival of a small nation subjugated by a great power provoked a critical response from Václav Havel.

During the 1950s Kundera also wrote poetry and drama, but he came into his own with the short story "I, the Mournful God" (1958). This story reappeared in his first prose collection, Laughable Loves (1963). Kundera kept reworking and republishing Laughable Loves throughout the politically more liberal and partially censorship-free 1960s, searching for themes and means of expression that would later be more fully developed in his novels. The result of this creative process is reflected in The Joke (1967), which became an enormous success both in Czechoslovakia and abroad. The French writer Louis Aragon praised the novel as "one of the greatest novels of the century." Although set in Czechoslovakia during the Stalinist 1950s, The Joke goes far beyond a critical reflection of politically difficult times. Employing a complex polyphonic structure, Kundera explores such timeless dilemmas as humankind's inability to control reality and its search for the meaning of existence. The director Jaromil Jires made a movie based on The Joke in 1968.

After 1970 renewed political oppression and censorship forced Kundera to write "for the desk drawer." Meanwhile, the author's novel Life Is Elsewhere (completed in 1970) marks a deliberate stylistic shift to a "clearer" language, caused by the realization that he would henceforth have to rely on translators. The Farewell Party (completed in 1972) is the last novel Kundera wrote in Czechoslovakia.

The opportunity to leave the oppressive political climate in the country and his status as a persona non grata presented itself in 1975 in the form of an invitation to teach at the University of Rennes in France. Accepting the position meant not only existence in exile but also the possibility of never seeing his homeland again.

Kundera adapted quickly to his new life in France, due to his excellent French and to his immediate participation in cultural events. He wrote for journals and newspapers and for fifteen years organized a seminar on the European novel at the École des Hautes Études in Paris. He also gained enormous popularity with his two novels The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1981) and The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1985), written for both the small Czech émigré audience and Western readers. These novels were important not only for bringing attention to the complexities of exile but also in that they introduced Western readers to the historical plight of a small central European country. In 1988 Philip Kaufman directed the screen version of The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

However, in Czechoslovakia, where this novel was banned, it did not receive such a positive reception from certain dissidents. The Czech émigré journal Svědectví (1985–1988) documented a heated discussion that arose between the dissidents and émigrés over the novel's political and sexual themes. Almost simultaneously an international polemic erupted over Kundera's article "The Central European Tragedy" (1984), in which the writer accuses the Russians of destroying central European culture. The Russian émigrépoet, Joseph Brodsky, ardently refuted Kundera's arguments.

Two highly respected collections of essays, Art of the Novel (1986) and Testaments Betrayed (1993), initiated the author's move into French. In prose this linguistic transition came about with the novel Immortality (1990). Likewise, Slowness (1995) and Identity (1998)—two playful short novels that explore the individual's search for meaning—were written in French.

What is interesting in Kundera's switch to French is his timing, for it occurred only after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, when the author was once again free to go visit his homeland. He explores this new reality in Ignorance (2002), a novel that once again deals with the problems of exile and return, nostalgia and memory.

Paradoxically and sadly, Kundera's works have not "returned" to his homeland. As of 2005 Life Is Elsewehere, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, and The Unbearable Lightness of Being have not been published there, nor have his French novels been translated into Czech.

See alsoCzechoslovakia; Dissidence; Eastern Bloc; Havel, Václav .


Banerjee, Maria Němcová. Terminal Paradox: The Novels of Milan Kundera. New York, 1990.

Chvatík, Květoslav. Svět románů Milana Kundery. Brno, Czech Republic, 1994.

Dokoupil, Blahoslav, and Miroslav Zelinsky, eds . Slovník české prozy 1945–1994. Ostrava, Czech Republic, 1994.

Janoušek, Pavel, ed. Slovník českých spisovatelů od roku 1945. 2 vols. Prague, 1995.

Kosková, Helena. "Francouzské romány Milana Kundery." Tvar 7 (2004): 4–5.

Misurella, Fred. Understanding Milan Kundera: Public Events, Private Affairs. Columbia, S.C., 1993.

Petro, Peter. Critical Essays on Milan Kundera. New York, 1999.

Hana PÍchovÁ