Born April 1, 1929, in Brno, Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic); emigrated to France, 1975, naturalized French citizen, 1981; son of Ludvik (a pianist and musicologist) and Milada (Janosikova) Kundera; married Vera Hrabankova, September 30, 1967. Education: Studied music under Paul Haas and Vaclav Kapral; attended Charles University (Prague); studied film at Prague Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts, 1956.
Office—c/o École des Hautes Etudes, 54 Boulevard Raspail, 75006, Paris, France.
Writer. Worked as a laborer and jazz pianist in provincial Czechoslovakia; Film Faculty, Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts, Prague, Czechoslovakia, assistant professor, 1958-69; Universite de Rennes II, Rennes, France, invited professor of comparative literature, 1975-79; École des Hautes Etudes, Paris, France, professor, 1980—.
Czechoslovak Writers Union (member of central committee, 1963-69), American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Klement Lukes prize, 1963, for Majitele klicu; Czechoslovak Writers Union prize, 1968, for Zert; Czechoslovak Writers' Publishing House prize, 1969, for Smesne lasky; Prix Medicis, 1973, for La vie est ailleurs; Premio Letterario Mondello, 1978, for The Farewell Party; Common Wealth Award for distinguished service in literature, 1981; Prix Europa for literature, 1982; honorary doctorate, University of Michigan, 1983; Los Angeles Times Book Prize for fiction, 1984, for The Unbearable Lightness of Being; Jerusalem Prize for Literature on the Freedom of Man in Society, 1985; finalist for Ritz Paris Hemingway Award, 1985; Academie Française critics prize, 1987; Nelly Sachs Prize, 1987; Osterichischeve state prize, 1987; Independent Award for foreign fiction, 1991.
Zert, Ceskoslovensky Spisovatel (Prague, Czechoslovakia), 1967, translation by David Hamblyn and Oliver Stallybrass published as The Joke, Coward (New York, NY), 1969, new translation by Michael Henry Heim, with author's preface, Harper (New York, NY), 1982, definitive English edition, revised by Kundera, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1992.
La vie est ailleurs (French translation of Zivot je jinde), Gallimard (Paris, France), 1973, translation from the Czech by Peter Kussi published as Life Is Elsewhere, Knopf (New York, NY), 1974, Czech edition published by Sixty-Eight Publishers (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1979, definitive English edition, revised by Kundera, Penguin (New York, NY), 1986.
La valse aux adieux (French translation of Valcik na rozloucenou), Gallimard (Paris, France), 1976, translation by Peter Kussi published as The Farewell Party, Knopf (New York, NY), 1976, Czech edition published by Sixty-Eight Publishers (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1979, Atlantis (Brno, Czech Republic), 1997, translation by Aaron Asher, based on Kundera's revised French translation, published as Farewell Waltz: A Novel, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1998.
Le livre du rire et de l'oubli (French translation of Kniha smichu a zapomneni), Gallimard (Paris, France), 1979, translation from the Czech by Michael Henry Heim published as The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Knopf (New York, NY), 1980, published with an interview with Kundera by Philip Roth, Penguin (New York, NY), 1981, translation by Aaron Asher, HarperPerennial (New York, NY), 1996.
L'insoutenable l'egerete de l'etre (French translation of Nesnesitelna lehkost byti), Gallimard (Paris, France), 1984, translation from the Czech by Michael Henry Heim published as The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Harper (New York, NY), 1984, Czech edition published by Sixty-Eight Publishers (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1985.
L'immortalite (French translation of Nesmrtelnost), Gallimard (Paris, France), 1990, translation from the Czech by Peter Kussi published as Immortality, Grove & Weidenfeld (New York, NY), 1991, Czech edition published by Atlantis (Brno, Czech Republic), 1993.
La Lenteur: roman, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1995, translation from the French by Linda Asher published as Slowness: A Novel, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1996.
L'identite: roman, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1997, translation from the French by Linda Asher published as Identity: A Novel, HarperFlamingo (New York, NY), 1998.
Ignorance, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2002.
Clovek zahrada sira (poetry; title means "Man: A Broad Garden"), Ceskoslovensky Spisovatel (Prague, Czechoslovakia), 1953.
Posledni maj (poetry; title means "The Last May"), Ceskoslovensky Spisovatel (Prague, Czechoslovakia), 1955, revised edition, 1963.
Monology (poetry; title means "Monologues"), Ceskoslovensky Spisovatel (Prague, Czechoslovakia), 1957, revised edition, 1964.
Umeni romanu: cesta Vladislava Vancury za velkou epikou (title means "The Art of the Novel: Vladislav Vancura's Road in Search of the Great Epic"), Ceskoslovensky Spisovatel (Prague, Czechoslovakia), 1961.
Majitele klicu (play; title means "The Owners of the Keys"; first produced in Prague at National Theatre, 1962), Orbis, 1962.
Smesne lasky: tri melancholicke anekdoty (short stories; title means "Laughable Loves: Three Melancholy Anecdotes"; also see below), Ceskoslovensky Spisovatel (Prague, Czechoslovakia), 1963.
Druhy sesit smesnych lasek (short stories; title means "The Second Notebook of Laughable Loves"; also see below), Ceskoslovensky Spisovatel (Prague, Czechoslovakia), 1965.
Dve usi dve svatby (play; title means "Two Ears and Two Weddings"), Dilia (Prague, Czechoslovakia), 1968.
Treti sesit smesnych lasek (short stories; title means "The Third Notebook of Laughable Loves"; also see below), Ceskoslovensky Spisovatel (Prague, Czechoslovakia), 1968.
(With Jaromil Jires) The Joke (screenplay; based on Kundera's novel Zert), Smida-Fikar—Studio de Cinema de Barrandov, 1968.
Ptakovina (two-act play; title means "Cock-a-Doodle-Do"), first produced in Liberec, Czechoslovakia, 1968.
Smesne lasky (short stories), Ceskoslovensky Spisovatel (Prague, Czechoslovakia), 1970, portions translated as Risibles amours, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1970, English translation by Suzanne Rappaport, with introduction by Philip Roth, published as Laughable Loves, Knopf (New York, NY), 1974, definitive English edition, revised by Kundera, Penguin (New York, NY), 1987.
Jacques et son maitre: Hommage a Denis Diderot (three-act play; French translation of Jakub a jeho pan: pocta Denisi Diderotovi; produced in Paris, France, 1981), published with an introduction by the author, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1981, translation from the Czech by Michael Henry Heim published as Jacques and His Master: An Homage to Diderot in Three Acts (produced in Cambridge, MA, at American Repertory Theatre, 1985), Harper (New York, NY), 1985, translation by Simon Callow produced as Jacques and His Master in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, at Free Theatre, 1987, Czech edition published by Atlantis (Brno, Czechoslovakia), 1992.
L'art du roman: essai, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1986, translation from the French by Linda Asher published as The Art of the Novel, Grove (New York, NY), 1988.
Les testaments trahis, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1993, translation from the French by Linda Asher published as Testaments Betrayed: An Essay in Nine Parts, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1995.
Contributor of essays to the New York Times Book Review. Member of editorial board of Literarni noviny, 1963-67 and 1968, and of Literarni listy, 1968-69.
Kundera's works have been translated into numerous languages, including German, Dutch, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, Serbian, Slovene, Greek, Turkish, Hebrew, and Japanese.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being was adapted for film, written by Philip Kaufman and Jean-Claude Carriere, directed by Kaufman, Orion, 1988.
Milan Kundera is considered by many to be among Europe's most outstanding contemporary novelists. Forced to leave his native Czechoslovakia in 1975 after his books were deemed counterrevolutionary and banned by that country's Communist government, Kundera is frequently labeled an Eastern European "dissident" writer despite his insistence that his works are neither political or propagandistic. Rather than serving as ideological representatives, Kundera's characters are usually vulnerable individuals whose views and lifestyles are challenged through events and dilemmas in their personal lives and in society. These conflicts gain broader implications through the author's use of various narrative devices. For example, he often infuses authorial commentary into his texts, presents events in disjointed time frames and from multiple viewpoints, and patterns his novels in a manner similar to musical compositions. These narrative techniques, while sometimes criticized as being disorienting, are integral to what Kundera terms his aesthetic of the novel. Highly influenced by the works of such writers as Miguel de Cervantes, Denis Diderot, and Franz Kafka, Kundera dismisses traditional novelistic structures, emphasizing instead parallel explorations of related themes, active philosophical contemplation, and the integration of dreams and fantasy with realistic analysis. As Kundera once explained: "A novel does not assert anything; a novel searches and poses questions. I don't know which of my characters is right. I invent stories, confront one with the other, and by this means I ask questions."
Kundera was born and raised in Brno, Czechoslovakia. His father, Ludvik, was a well-known pianist who collaborated with the celebrated Czechoslovakian composer Leos Janacek. Although he once studied piano and stated that "Janacek's music [was] for me the first revelation of art," Kundera decided at age nineteen that music was not his true vocation. He left Brno in 1948 to study script-writing and directing at the Film Faculty of the Prague Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts. At this time Kundera, like many other idealistic and progressive students who had experienced the horrors of World War II, joined the Czechoslovakian Communist party. He began teaching cinematography at the Prague Academy in 1952 and published his first poetry collection, Clovek, zahrada sira, a year later. While Kundera's communist convictions are reflected in this volume, his use of surrealistic elements caused the Czech Communist Party to condemn the book for lacking "universality." Kundera published two other volumes of poetry, Posledni maj and Monology, while teaching at the academy. The first collection recounts the life of Julius Fucik, a Communist hero who resisted the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia; the second is a collection of "confessions" by romantically frustrated women. Kundera later renounced these works as adolescent and insignificant, writing that "my earliest writings were several collections of poetry. I don't have very high regard for them."
Becomes Influential Czech Writer
During the early 1960s Kundera was recognized as an important literary figure in his homeland. He served on the Central Committee of the Writer's Union and the editorial boards of the journals Literarni noviny and Listy. He also wrote a play, Majitele klicu—"The Owners of the Keys"—in which he first exhibited a growing disenchantment with the Communist party's increasing use of force and what he perceived as the corruption of high-ranking officials. Set during World War II, the play concerns an idealistic student who attempts to dissociate himself from the violence of the Czech resistance to Nazism. Despite his good intentions, he is ultimately forced to give up pacifism and join the bloody struggle against the Nazi invaders.
In June of 1967, Kundera appeared before the Fourth Czechoslovak Writers Congress to introduce the policy statement of the Writers Union, a document prepared in advance, cleared by the Czechoslovak Communist Party Central Committee, and traditionally approved without significant discussion by the writers. It was a critical time for the Czechoslovak nation. A campaign by some of the writers to speed reform and liberalization of cultural policy together with their criticism of Czechoslovakia's role in the Arab-Israeli conflict had prompted the Party to increase censorship and other repressive tactics. The Union and the Party were heading for a confrontation, and the Congress provided an occasion. Rejecting convention, Kundera opened discussion of the draft statement with "a defence of open criticism and an attack on the repression of it," noted A. French in Czech Writers and Politics, 1945-1969. Many who followed spoke freely; immediately following the Congress, the government stepped up repressive measures against the outspoken writers.
By January of 1968, the reform movement, which had spread into the political arena, emerged into the open. Alexander Dubcek replaced dictatorial Antonin Novotny as first secretary of the Party and steps were taken to humanize Czechoslovakia's socialism. Many credited the writers—especially visible were Ludvik Vaculik, Ivan Klima, Kundera, and the Slovak Ladislav Mnacko—with initiating this progress, and as French pointed out, "political realists at the center of power recognised their influence and the moral authority they had acquired in the eyes of the public."
Kundera had begun writing his first novel, Zert—The Joke—in 1962 and submitted it to a Prague publisher in December of 1965. "Though they promised to do their best to bring it out," he writes in the preface to the 1982 translation of the book, "they never really believed they would succeed. The spirit of the work was diametrically opposed to the official ideology." The novel focuses on Ludvik, a university student who firmly embraces the Communist ideology. Ludvik sends a postcard in which he playfully parodies Marxist slogans to his zealously political girlfriend. Alarmed, the girlfriend shows the postcard to Zamenek, a fervent and humorless Communist student-leader, who gets Ludvik expelled from both the Communist party and the university. Ludvik is soon drafted into the army and forced to work in a coal mine. Years later, he seeks revenge by seducing Zamenek's wife who, unknown to Ludvik, has been separated from her husband for two years. Due to the perceived negative political implications of the book, Kundera spent two years battling the censorship board before The Joke was published in its original form in 1967. "Three editions of The Joke appeared in quick succession and incredibly large printings, and each sold out in a matter of days," the author explained. During the enlightened Prague Spring of 1968, a time when Czechoslovakia was rediscovering its cultural freedom and writers were held in high esteem, Kundera was one of the major literary figures of the day.
Within four months, however, Czechoslovakia was invaded by Communist troops from the USSR, Poland, East Germany, Hungary, and Bulgaria, and this occupation brought the reform movement to an end. During the next few years, Kundera's books were removed from libraries and bookstores, his plays were banned; he lost his job and his right to work and publish in Czechoslovakia. At first, he was also forbidden to travel in the West, but finally in 1975 he was permitted to accept a teaching position in Rennes, France. Four years later, after the publication of Le livre du rire et de l'oubli—The Book of Laughter and Forgetting—the Czechoslovak government revoked his citizenship.
Seeks Publication in France
Although Kundera's second novel, La vie est ailleurs—Life Is Elsewhere—was written in Czechoslovakia, the book was first published in translation in France in 1974. Life Is Elsewhere is a satirical portrait of Jaromil, a young poet. After being bullied by his doting mother to develop an artistic temperament, Jaromil runs off to become a writer. Paralleling the life of the young French poet Arthur Rimbaud, who passionately declared he would alter the course of modern poetry and then, at age twenty, ceased to write, Life Is Elsewhere is an exposé on how poetry can contribute to the hysteria of revolution. In this work, Kundera presents his belief that youth is a "lyrical age" laced with neurosis, romantic illusions, and endless self-contemplation.
In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Kundera constructs an inquiry into the meaning of laughter. He writes in this novel: "There are two kinds of laughter, and we lack the words to distinguish them." The first, the laughter of the devil, is not associated with evil, but rather with the belief that God's world is meaningless; the second, the laughter of angels, is not associated with good, but the belief that in God's world, everything has meaning. "Both kinds of laughter belong among life's pleasures, but when it is carried to extremes it also denotes a dual apocalypse," he observed in a New York Times Book Review interview. In the extreme, the devil's laughter is absolute skepticism; the angel's laughter is fanaticism.
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting focuses on numerous characters who are thematically linked, although they never interact. Mirek is a Czechoslovakian writer who was removed from his job and surrounded by undercover agents after the Russian invasion; Tamina is a woman in exile who remains obsessed with her husband after he dies while fleeing Prague. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting also contains references to the French poet Paul Eluard, who, after becoming transfixed with the revolutionary zeal of communism, refuses to save his friend, surrealist writer Zalvis Kalandra, from being wrongfully executed by the Czech Communist government. Focusing on the repercussions of forgetting personal and cultural histories, the metaphysical implications of laughter, and how ideological doctrines often lead to deluded notions of good and evil, Kundera presents memory as a form of self-preservation in a world where history is often distorted by cultural forces.
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting "calls itself a novel," wrote John Leonard in the New York Times, "although it is part fairy tale, part literary criticism, part political tract, part musicology and part autobiography. It can call itself whatever it wants to, because the whole is genius." Norman Podhoretz related his response to the book in an open letter to Kundera that was printed in Commentary: "What compelled me most when I first opened [the book] was not its form or its aesthetic character but its intellectual force, the astonishing intelligence controlling and suffusing every line." New York Review of Books contributor Robert M. Adams spotlighted Kundera's control when he noted, "Again and again, in this artfully artless book an act or gesture turns imperceptibly into its exact opposite—a circle of unity into a circle of exclusion, playful children into cruel monsters, a funeral into a farce, freedom into lockstep, nudity into a disguise, laughter into sadism, poetry into political machinery, artificial innocence into cynical exploitation. These subtle transformations and unemphasized points of distant correspondence are the special privileges of a meticulously crafted fiction." Concluded Adams, "That a book which combines so delicately dry wit and a deep sense of humanity should cause the author to be deprived of his citizenship is one more of the acute ironies of our time."
Examines Individual Determination
In L'insourenable l'egerete de l'etre—The Unbearable Lightness of Being—Kundera addresses similar themes by centering on the connected lives of two couples—Tomas and Tereza, and Franz and Sabina. The novel is set in Czechoslovakia before, during, and after, the 1968 Soviet invasion and follows the two couples as they define and redefine their romantic relationships and personal ideologies. Tomas, a successful surgeon and inveterate womanizer meets Tereza, a waitress. Following their marriage, Tomas continues his compulsive pursuit of women. Although hurt by Tomas's infidelities, Tereza accepts them as a burden she must bear. Sabina, Tomas's regular mistress, befriends Tereza and helps launch her in a photography career. Tereza finds purpose, beyond her sacrificial love for Tomas, in her documentation of the invasion. When Tomas receives an offer to direct a hospital in Zurich, the couple relocate to preserve their liberty, as does Sabina, who meets Franz, a Swiss professor, and becomes his illicit lover. When Tereza discovers she is incapable of abandoning her language, culture, and friends, she returns to Prague, leaving an explanatory note for her husband. Tomas cannot bear life without Tereza; he returns to his shattered homeland, knowing that in a police state he can no longer control the course of his career. He and Tereza eventually manage a small dairy cooperative and later die together in a preventable auto accident. Franz dies in Bangkok, away from Sabina, participating in a peace march. Sabina, meanwhile, has become a famous artist; she resides in America and has exchanged responsibility for superficiality.
In his review of The Unbearable Lightness of Being in the Times Literary Supplement, David Lodge found that "although the characters' lives are shaped by political events, they are not determined by them. Tereza and Tomas return to Czechoslovakia for emotional, not ideological reasons." As Richard Eder observed in the Los Angeles Times, "For the most part, The Unbearable Lightness of Being succeeds remarkably in joining a series of provocative and troubling speculations about human existence to characters that charm and move us." Eder added that "Kundera leads us captivatingly into the bleakness of our days." Thomas DePietro offered a similar view: "For all its burning compassion, extraordinary intelligence, and dazzling artistry, [this novel] leaves us with many questions, questions about love and death, about love and transcendence. These are our burdens, the existential questions that never change but need to be asked anew."
Kundera's novel L'immortalite—Immortality—was his first book to be set in France. In this work, Kundera examines how media manipulation, popular culture, and capitalist technocracy have developed into instruments of propaganda that distort humankind's perception of reality. Throughout Immortality, Kundera pervades his fictitious text with information about how he came to create the various characters. The protagonist, Agnes, for example, "sprang from the gesture of [a] sixty-year-old woman at the pool who waved at the lifeguard," and Bernard from the voice of a radio broadcaster. In addition to discussing the love triangle between Agnes, her husband, Paul, and Agnes's sister, Laura, Immortality contains episodes from the lives of such literary figures as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Ernest Hemingway. While Kundera has consistently won praise throughout his career for juxtaposing fictitious and biographical elements and simultaneously exploring recurring themes, many critics faulted Immortality for its disjointed plot and episodic characterizations. Frequently entering his texts to explain his characters and motivations, Kundera addresses the reader directly to present his theory of the novel: "I regret that almost all novels ever written are much too obedient to the rules of unity of action. What I mean to say is that at their core is one single chain of causally related act and events. These novels are like a narrow street along which someone drives his characters with a whip. Dramatic tension is the real curse of the novel, because it transforms everything, even the most beautiful pages, even the most surprising scenes and observations merely into steps leading to the final resolution.… A novel shouldn't be a bicycle race but a feast of many courses."
Slowness ostensibly concerns "the failure of our speed-obsessed age to appreciate the delights of slowness (in lovemaking, in travel, in the rituals of daily life)," commented Kakutani, reviewing Kundera's 1996 novel in the New York Times. But, the critic continued, Slowness "is really concerned with the storytelling process itself, with the means by which the facts of real life are turned into fiction, the means by which people sell one version of themselves to the world, to friends, to lovers and to political rivals." Like other Kundera novels, Slowness does not employ a traditional narrative structure, juxtaposing different stories and characters connected by a central theme. Fredric Koeppel, writing in the Detroit News, commented: "Kundera carries his tangled tales off with wisdom, sweetness and wit that permeate each word and sentence." Kakutani claimed that, in Kundera's earlier works, humor and sex were "wonderfully anarchic," but in Slowness his "humor has turned sour: it's no longer a gesture of liberation; it's become a symptom of weariness and cynicism." Koeppel however, argued that "Kundera handles his material with a lightness which, far from being unbearable, sparkles with the deftness of a magician shuffling cards for our delectation and mystification."
In Ignorance, Kundera explores the lives of several Czech exiles living in France. Two of them, Josef and Irena, return to Czechoslovakia after the fall of communism after living in Paris for many years. But returning home, even to a free country, is disappointing. Their nostalgic memories of the Czechoslovakia of their youth—memories that exclude all the pain and suffering—can never match the reality they find. "Kundera's characters come to recognise that their memories have been hopelessly distorted by time, and that they will never again be able to belong in their homelands," reported Alain de Botton in the Europe Intelligence Wire. "The great danger of going home is the realisation that home is not worthy of this beautiful nostalgia-laden word." Andrew Nagorski, writing in Newsweek, found that Kundera's "language in this slim but elegant volume is nothing short of masterful," while Hugo Barnacle in the New Statesman called Ignorance an "elegantly disillusioned book."
Comfortable in Adopted Country
Since losing his Czech home, audience, and citizenship, Kundera has reestablished each in France. He told Roth in the Village Voice that "the years in France have been the best years of my life." Moreover, as Edmund White commented in the Nation, "Kundera—despite his irony, his abiding suspicion of any cant, any uniformity of opinion and especially of kitsch—is currently the favored spokesman for the uneasy conscience of the French intellectual." Kundera understands the laughable nature of fame, however. As he stated in the Village Voice interview: "When I was a little boy in short pants I dreamed about a miraculous ointment that would make me invisible. Then I became an adult, began to write, and wanted to be successful. Now I'm successful and would like to have the ointment that would make me invisible."
One of the few Czech authors to gain international prominence, Kundera "has been regarded as an important author and intellectual since his early twenties," according to Jan Culik in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. "Each of his creative works and contributions to the public political and cultural discourse has provoked a lively debate in the context of its time.… His story is that of many Czech intellectuals of his generation: it is the story of freeing oneself of Marxist dogma and of gaining and communicating important insights based on the traumatic experience of life under totalitarianism in Eastern and Central Europe."
If you enjoy the works of Milan Kundera
you may also want to check out the following books:
Ivan Klima, Lovers for a Day, 1999.
Michael Ondaatje, Anil's Ghost, 2000.
Gao Xingjian, One Man's Bible, 2002.
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Kundera, Milan, The Joke, translation by Michael Henry Heim, Harper (New York, NY), 1982.
Kundera, Milan, Laughable Loves, translation by Suzanne Rappaport with introduction by Philip Roth, Knopf (New York, NY), 1974.
Liehm, Antonin J., The Politics of Culture, translation from the Czech by Peter Kussi, Grove (New York, NY), 1972.
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Times (London, England), February 17, 1983; May 24, 1984.
Times Literary Supplement, October 30, 1969; March 3, 1978; July 21, 1978; February 5, 1982; May 25, 1984; January 16, 1987, p. 55; May 17, 1991, p. 17.
Village Voice, December 24, 1980; November 23, 1982; June 26, 1984; March 29, 1988, p. 70.
Voice Literary Supplement, November, 1983.
Washington Post, November 22, 1980.
Washington Post Book World, December 19, 1982; April 22, 1984; May 5, 1991, p. 3.
World Literature Today, spring, 1983, Peter Kussi, "Milan Kundera: Dialogues with Fiction."*
BORN: 1929, Brno, Czechoslovakia
NATIONALITY: Czech, French
GENRE: Fiction, nonfiction, poetry, drama
The Joke (1967)
Life Is Elsewhere (1974)
The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984)
The Art of the Novel (1988)
Milan Kundera is one of the few Czech writers who has achieved wide international recognition. In his native Czechoslovakia and the present-day Czech Republic and Slovakia, Kundera has been regarded as an important author and intellectual since his early twenties. Each of his creative works and contributions to the public political and cultural discourse has provoked a lively debate in the context of its time.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Musical Influence Born on April 1, 1929, in Brno, Czechoslovakia (in what is now the Czech Republic), Kundera was the son of a pianist and musicologist named Ludvik and his wife, Milada (Janiskova). Kundera was educated in music under the direction of Paul Haas and Vaclav Kapral. Later he attended Charles University and, in 1956, studied at the Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts, both of which are in Prague. Kundera decided at age nineteen that music was not his true vocation, yet his love of music would influence the structure of his novels, which he patterned after musical compositions.
Emerging as a Reformer Kundera began his writing career with three volumes of poetry published between 1953 and 1964. Also during this time, he began writing in the form in which he was the most successful: the novel. Kundera's first book, The Joke, published in 1967, was inspired by an incident in 1950; he and another Czech writer, Jan Trefulka, had been expelled from the Communist Party for “anti-party activities.” The novel exposes the dangers of living in a humorless world and is the work most responsible for Kundera's emergence as a leader in the reform movement that led to the Czech Republic's 1968 “Prague Spring,” a period of attempted reforms and relaxation of authority.
Censored and Informally Exiled From the end of World War II until the late 1980s, Eastern Europe was under the firm control of the Soviet Union. Any attempts by Eastern European countries to reject Soviet control were violently squashed. During the so-called Prague Spring, the Czechoslovakian government allowed writers and other artists a level of freedom of expression that the communist country had previously not permitted. However, the reprieve from oppression was short-lived. Soviet tanks rolled into the city and the old “order” was restored. Kundera found himself in the same position as many of the other leaders of the reform movement. His books disappeared from libraries and bookstores; he lost his job at the academy and his right to continue writing and publishing in his native country. His first two novels were published in translation abroad for a foreign audience. Although not initially allowed to travel to the West, Kundera finally was allowed to accept a teaching position in France.
At the Université de Rennes he served as an invited professor of comparative literature from 1975 through 1979. In 1980, he took a professorship at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris. The following year, he became a naturalized citizen of France.
Making an Impact in the United States Life Is Elsewhere (1974), his first major work after his exile, was published in the United States. It deals with revolutionary romanticism and with lyrical poetry as a whole, exploring, among other things, the volatility of the marriage of the two. His next book, The Farewell Party, was also published in the United States. This 1976 release satirizes a government-run health spa for women with fertility problems while simultaneously addressing serious ethical questions. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1980) was republished a year later with an interview the author gave to American novelist Philip Roth. This book illustrates the need for memory to overcome forgetting in order for an individual to achieve self-preservation.
Success of Unbearable Lightness In 1984, Milan Kundera's most famous novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, was published. Kundera touched upon his experiences after the Prague Spring in the novel, although some Czech critics complained that certain elements of the story do not ring true: For example, although many professionals were forced to abandon their work and support themselves in menial jobs in the post-1968 clampdown, as happens in the book, the main character of the book, a doctor, would not have been forced to abandon his profession.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being delves into the greatest existential problems that people are faced with: love, death, transcendence, the sense of continuity or “heaviness” that is provided by memory, and the contrasting sense of “lightness” that is brought about by forgetting. The book was adapted as a movie in 1988. Kundera's successful works of the 1970s and 1980s are marked by his own feelings of estrangement and exile, and his homesickness for Prague. In 1989, however, the Soviet Union collapsed and soon thereafter the Eastern European countries that had been its satellites were free to pursue democratic reforms and reopen their societies to the West. Kundera, a French citizen since 1981, remained in Paris.
Novel Ideas About Fiction Kundera's most important work outside of his novels is his nonfiction work, The Art of the Novel. Published in 1988, the book outlines his theories of the novel, both personal and European. True to the nature of his own novels, this book does not consist of one long essay but of three short essays, two interviews, a list of sixty-three words and their definitions, and the text of a speech.
In The Art of the Novel Kundera explains how the history of the novel and the history of European culture are inextricably bound together. Starting with Miguel de Cervantes and passing through the works of authors such as Samuel Richardson, Honoré de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, Leo Tolstoy, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Thomas Mann, and Franz Kafka, he traces the route of the experience of existence. This route starts from a world of unlimited potential, moves to the beginning of history, the shrinking of possibilities in the outside world, the search for infinity in the human soul, the futility of this search, and into the realm where history is seen as a monster that can offer nothing helpful.
Lit-Crit and Writers' Rights In 1995, Kundera published a book-length essay of literary criticism, Testaments Betrayed, which is organized after Friedrich Nietzsche's books, with each of its nine parts divided into small sections. Its main, recurring theme focuses on Kundera's firm belief that writers and other artists' prerogatives should be defended and their intentions respected by editors, publicists, and executors.
Books in French Kundera began writing novels in French, beginning with 1993's Slowness. Identity and Ignorance followed in 1998 and 2000, respectively. Kundera continues to live and work in Paris.
Works in Literary Context
Musical Form Novelistic unity for Kundera does not exist in a predetermined set of rules. He uses a common theme and a structure based on musical polyphony—the use of many notes playing at the same time, usually in harmony—to tie the sections of his novels together. The lengths and arrangements of chapters, subchapters, and sections are used to create mood and a sense of time, much like in a musical composition. Instead of following the linear story of a character or set of characters, Kundera connects sometimes seemingly unconnectable stories through their related themes and existential situations.
Structuralism and Self-Suppression Kundera is an extremely private person who considers the details of his personal life “nobody's business.” This attitude is consistent with the teachings of Czech structuralism, which argues that literary texts should be considered as self-contained structures of signs, without regard to outside reality. In a 1984 interview with the British writer Ian McEwan, Kundera said: “We constantly rewrite our own biographies and continually give matters new meanings. To rewrite history in this sense—indeed, in an Orwellian sense—is not at all inhuman. On the contrary, it is very human.”
Kundera also asserts his right as an author to exclude from his body of work “immature” and “unsuccessful” works, as composers do, and he now rejects and suppresses most of his literary output of the 1950s and the 1960s. In his mature fiction, he creates a self-contained world that he constantly analyzes and questions, opening up a multitude of ways of interpreting the incidents he depicts. As Kvetoslav Chvatík points out, Kundera treats the novel as an ambiguous structure of signs; playing with these signs enables him to show human existence as open to countless possibilities, thus freeing human beings from the limitedness of a single unrepeatable life.
Lightness and Kitsch Kundera's theme in The Unbearable Lightness of Being is that life is unrepeatable; thus, one cannot go back and correct one's mistakes. This realization leads to a feeling of vertiginous lightness, a total lack of responsibility. The idea of lightness, which Kundera takes from the Greek philosopher Parmenides, and which originally meant playfulness, here turns into lack of seriousness, or meaningless emptiness. Kundera also takes over the concept of kitsch from the German writer Hermann Broch: Kitsch is a beautiful lie that hides all the negative aspects of life and deliberately ignores the existence of death.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Kundera's famous contemporaries include:
Václav Havel (1936–): Czech writer and playwright. Havel was both the last president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of the new Czech Republic, a capacity he served in for ten years. Starting in the late 1960s, Havel used his writing as a weapon to speak out against his government's authoritarian rule, resulting in multiple arrests and a prison term.
Miroslav Holub (1923–1998): Czech poet who worked in unrhymed free verse, almost prose-like. His subjects frequently included doctors and medical researchers, as Holub was himself a practicing immunologist.
Alexander Dubĉek (1921–1992): Czechoslovakian politician who, in the spring of 1968, attempted to reform his country's Communist government, allowing more freedom of expression and open political discourse—“socialism with a human face.” The attempt was doomed to be short-lived, and ended in August of that year when Czechoslovakia was occupied by forces from the Soviet Union and its allies in the Warsaw Pact.
Leonid Brezhnev (1906–1982): Political leader of the Soviet Union from 1964 to 1982, the second-longest term after Joseph Stalin's. His regime saw an era of severe economic stagnation and further tightening and deterioration of the Soviet authoritarian regime.
Works in Critical Context
Overall, many critics home in on the political disillusionment of Kundera's work, particularly in the context of his fight against Czechoslovakian social and cultural repression. But some critics go beyond the thematic, focusing on his disorienting style and marking his fragmented plotting, episodic structure, and authorial intrusions as distracting. Still other critics laud Kundera's approach, appreciating his use of humor, his erotic themes, and his sense of narrative play.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being When The Unbearable Lightness of Being appeared in 1984, it immediately became an international best seller, garnering awards throughout the world, including a Los Angeles Times Book Award. Contemporary reviews of the novel were largely positive. Paul Gray, in a Time review, calls The Unbearable Lightness of Being “a triumph of wisdom over bitterness, hope over despair.” Thomas DePietro in Commonweal focuses attention on the heart of the book. He observes that it is a work of “burning compassion, extraordinary intelligence, and dazzling artistry.” DePietro also notes the book “leaves us with many questions, questions about love and death, about love and transcendence. These are our burdens, the existential questions that never change but need to be asked anew.”
Not all reviewers were enchanted with the book, however. Christopher Hawtree, for example, in the Spectator, faults Kundera for a “most off-putting” title and finds irksome the “elliptical structure” of the work. With faint praise, however, he acknowledges the novel is “a self-referential whole that manages not to alienate the reader.”
Scholarly interest in The Unbearable Lightness of Being continues unabated. Literary critics have found a variety of ways to read the novel. John O'Brien in his book Milan Kundera and Feminism focuses on Kundera's representation of women. In Terminal Paradox, scholar Maria Nemcová Banerjee takes another tack, reading the novel as if it were a piece of music. Just as Tereza introduces Tomas to Beethoven's quartets, and thus to the seminal phrase “Es muss sein,” Kundera introduces the reader to a quartet of characters: “The four leading characters perform their parts in concert, like instruments in a musical quartet, each playing his or her existential code in strict relation to those of the others, often spatially separated but never imaginatively isolated in the reader's mind.”
Responses to Literature
- Many of Kundera's stories are set in Czechoslovakia in the second half of the twentieth century. Learn more about the political history of Czechoslovakia (part of which is now the Czech Republic) since World War II. What major political and social upheavals has the country experienced? How has the country's political climate affected the life and work of Kundera? Report back to the class with your findings.
- The government-sanctioned style of literature during much of Kundera's lifetime was “socialist realism.” Write a report explaining the basic aesthetic and political principles of the “socialist realist” style in writing and in other art forms. What is the history of the “socialist realist” style?
- In part six of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kundera writes at length about the notion of “kitsch.” Define kitsch. Find examples in magazines of kitsch from modern American culture. Create a collage using these images that gives the viewer insight as to the role of kitsch in the United States.
- Reread the sections of The Unbearable Lightness of Being that describe Tereza's dreams. Read several entries on dreams from psychology textbooks or reference works. Write an informal essay about what these books reveal about Tereza's dreams. What do the dreams say about her?
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Kundera was an active participant in political causes, and his political thoughts have often been featured in his novels. Other novels notable for their political themes include:
Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), a novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Published during a time of increasingly sectional disagreements over the issue of slavery, this novel spread the antislavery message through its dramatic, politicized narrative.
1984 (1949), a novel by George Orwell. Written as a criticism of totalitarian governments, Orwell's novel has continued to serve as a watchword against infringement on personal freedoms—the image of Big Brother is perhaps one of the most recognizable political boogeymen.
Fahrenheit 451 (1953), a novel by Ray Bradbury. Written as a critique of the hysteria in American society during the early years of the Cold War, Bradbury's short novel has since taken on other political overtones, particularly in the debate over banning books.
Aji, Aron, ed. Milan Kundera and the Art of Fiction: Critical Essays. New York: Garland Publishing, 1992.
Banerjee, Maria Nemcove. Terminal Paradox: The Novels of Milan Kundera. New York: Grove, 1990.
Misurella, Fred. Understanding Milan Kundera: Public Events, Private Affairs. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993.
Petro, Peter, ed. Critical Essays on Milan Kundera. Boston: Twayne, 1999.
Zeman, Z. A. B. Prague Spring. New York: Hill & Wang, 1969.
Nationality: Czech and French (immigrated to France, 1975; became French citizen, 1981). Born: Brno, Czechoslovakia, 1 April 1929. Education: Charles University, Prague; Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts Film Faculty, Prague, 1956. Family: Married Věra Hrabánková in 1967. Career: Assistant professor of film, Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts, 1958-69; professor of comparative literature, University of Rennes, France, 1975-80; professor, École des Hautes Études, Paris, since 1980. Member of the editorial board, Literární Noviny, 1963-68, and Literární Listy, 1968-69. Lives in Paris. Awards: Writers' Publishing House prize, 1961, 1969; Klement Lukeš prize, 1963; Union of Czechoslovak Writers' prize, 1968; Médicis prize (France), 1973; Mondello prize (Italy), 1978; Commonwealth award (U.S.), 1981; Europa prize, 1982; Los Angeles Times award, 1984; Jerusalem prize, 1984; Académie Française Critics prize, 1987; Nelly Sachs prize, 1987; Osterichischeve State prize, 1987; Independent award for foreign fiction (U.K.), 1991. Honorary doctorate: University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1983. Member: American Academy.
Směšné lásky [Laughable Loves]; Druhý sešit směšných lásek [A Second Book of Laughable Loves]; Třetí sešit směšných lásek[A Third Book of Laughable Loves]. 3 vols., 1963-69; revised and collected as Směšné lásky, 1970; as Laughable Loves, 1974.
Zert. 1967; as The Joke, 1969; revised translation, by the author, 1992.
La Vie est ailleurs. 1973; as Life Is Elsewhere, 1974; as Zivot de jinde, 1979.
La Valse aux adieux. 1976; as The Farewell Party, 1976; as Valčík na rozloučenou, 1979.
Le Livre du rire et de l'oubli. 1979; as The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, 1980; as Kniha smíchu a zapomnění, 1981.
L'Insoutenable Légéreté de l'être. 1984; as The Unbearable Lightness of Being, 1984; as Nesnesitelná lehkost bytí, 1985.
L'Immortalité. 1990; as Immortality, 1991.
Slowness, translated by Linda Asher. 1996.
Majitelé kliču [The Owners of the Keys] (produced 1962). 1962.
Dvě uši dvě svatby [Two Ears and Two Weddings]. 1968; as Ptákovina [Cock-a-Doodle-Do] (produced 1969).
Jakub a pán (produced 1980); as Jacques et son maître: Hommage à Denis Diderot (produced 1981), 1981; as Jacques and His Master, (produced 1985), 1985.
Nikdo se nebude smát [No Laughing Matter], 1965;Zert [The Joke], from his own novel, with Jaromil Jires, 1968; Já Truchlivý Bu̇h [I the Sad God], 1969.
Clověk zahrada širá [Man: A Broad Garden]. 1953.
Poslední máj [The Last May]. 1955; revised edition, 1961, 1963.
Monology [Monologues]. 1957; revised edition, 1964, 1965, 1967, 1969.
L'Art du roman (essays). 1986; as The Art of the Novel, 1988.
Testaments Betrayed: An Essay in Nine Parts, translated by Linda Asher. 1995.*
Kundera: An Annotated Bibliography by Glen Brand, 1988.
Kundera: A Voice from Central Europe by Robert Porter, 1981; "Kundera: Dialogues with Fiction" by Peter Kussi, in World Literature Today, Spring 1983; "Czech Angels," in Hugging the Store: Essays and Criticism by John Updike, 1983; "Between East and West: A Letter to Kundera" by Robert Boyers, in Atrocity and Amnesia, The Political Novel Since 1945, 1985; "The Open Letter to Kundera" by Norman Podhoretz, in The Bloody Crossroads, 1986; "Kundera Issue" of Salmagundi 73, 1987; Terminal Paradox: The Novels of Kundera by Maria Němcová Banerjee, 1989; "Kundera Issue" of Review of Contemporary Fiction 9(2), Summer 1989; Kundera and the Art of the Fiction edited by Aron Aji, 1992; "Milan Kundera: The Search for Self in a Post-Modern World" by Vicki Adams, in Imagination, Emblems and Expressions: Essays on Latin American, Caribbean, and Continental Culture and Identity edited by Helen Ryan Ransom, 1993; Milan Kundera and Feminism: Dangerous Intersections by John O'Brien, 1995; The Political Novels of Milan Kundera and O. V. Vijayan: A Comparative Study by C. Gopinathan Pillai, 1996; "Kundera and Lacan: Drive, Desire and Oneiric Narration" by Marie Jaanus, in Lacan, Politics, Aesthetics edited by Willy Apollon and Richard Feldstein, 1996.* * *
Milan Kundera, renowned writer, playwright, and innovator of the novel, is of Czech origin. Born in the Moravian city of Brno in 1929, he published his first literary works in Czechoslovakia in the 1950s and 1960s. His opinions and convictions made him a spokesman for more artistic and political freedom during the Prague Spring of 1968. After the Soviet invasion, when the "normalization" process began, Kundera was banned from publication. His works were blacklisted and removed from libraries and bookstores. Kundera was forbidden to travel to the West. In 1975, when he was invited to France and offered the position of assistant professor at the University of Rennes, he was granted permission to leave Czechoslovakia. In 1979, however, he was stripped of his state citizenship. Thus exiled, Kundera settled permanently in Paris, where he has been writing his fiction in Czech and essays in French. His subsequent novels have been first published by the French publishing house Gallimard in French translation and then in Czech original by the dissident Sixty-Eight Publishers of Toronto. After the political changes of 1989 Kundera visited Czechoslovakia, but his decision to remain in France is definite. He says that there he has found a permanent home.
Like other Czech writers forced into emigration by the political and historical circumstances after 1968, Kundera has found that many critics focus on the political context of his work. Kundera always disliked being labeled a dissident writer; when, during a 1980 television discussion Zert (The Joke) was referred to as "a major indictment of Stalinism," he said: "Spare me your Stalinism, please. The Joke is a love story." More than a description of life under communism, Kundera's works are a statement about the modern world. As a whole they can be seen as variations on what Peter Kussi called the themes of "awareness and self-deception, the power of human lucidity and its limits, the games of history and love," and what David Lodge called "the problematic interrelationship of sex, love, death and the ultimate mystery of being itself."
Kundera's literary reputation rests on his achievement as a novelist. Though at the beginning of his career Kundera did write some poetry, he later renounced this genre completely. Poetry, drama, or the novel are not merely artistic genres for Kundera; he said: "They are existential categories." Inherent in the lyrical mode are the dangers of narcissistic self-contemplation and emotion elevated to the only criterion of truth. Lyricism is a kind of permanent adolescence, a "state of passionate lyrical enthusiasm which, getting drunk on its frenzy, is unable to see the real world through its own grandiose haze." Thus it excludes the features of "mature mentality" like skepticism, irony, wit, or humor. The totalitarian world is like adolescence. It takes itself too seriously because it cannot tolerate humor. Humor is relativist; humor questions and mistrusts.
Kundera's first book of fiction is a collection of three short stories entitled Směšné lásky (Laughable Loves), published in 1963. It was followed by Druhý sešit směšných lásek (The Second Book of Laughable Loves) and Třetí sešit směšných lásek (The Third Book of Laughable Loves). By eliminating several of the original stories and changing their order, Kundera produced in 1970 the version that was subsequently published in France and was taken as the basis for the American translation of Laughable Loves in 1974. (The editors have changed the order of the stories again, and, in Kundera's opinion, their adaptation is not very fortunate.) Laughable Loves is Kundera's only collection of short stories. Le Livre du rire et de l'oubli (The Book of Laughter and Forgetting) may also be read as a collection of short stories, because its seven parts have different plots and characters. Kundera himself, however, insists that this work is a novel and says that "the unity of a book need not stem from the plot, but can be provided by the theme." In this case the theme is the process of forgetting, of personal and collective historical amnesia, and its effects on individuals and whole nations.
In Laughable Loves we have Kundera's writing at its best—with his fine instinct for detail, wry humor, comic situations, witty and ironic dialogue, biting satire, and subtle philosophizing. But amidst the humor there is an underlying melancholy and pessimism.
Most of the stories are built around the theme of seduction or erotic adventure. Erotic passion is a theme that permeates nearly all of Kundera's writing; it is seen as a crisis situation that discloses in human behavior all that is irrational and paradoxical about life.
In a world that calls for rigid morality, sex can be seen as a liberating act of rebellion against authority. Eroticism is put in opposition with sterility, just as humor is contrasted with seriousness, memory with forgetting. Trapped by circumstances and forces beyond their control, the characters try to free themselves by irresponsibility. "Womanizing" is for the male characters an expression of their "unseriousness" and a form of escape from their narrow existence. But the comedy is not joyful or, indeed, liberating. The men do not achieve their goals. Laughter and sex cannot bear the weight of being the tools for achieving personal freedom. The sexual adventure turns into a painful experience, and the practical joke turns into a trap that confines the joker instead of liberating him.
In "Nobody Will Laugh" a university professor who decides to play a trick on a pathetic would-be scholar ends by being abandoned by everybody—including his beautiful mistress. She is unable to distinguish between private decency and public deception, and she leaves him "because a man who lies can't be respected by any woman." In the characters Dr. Havel ("Symposium" and "Dr. Havel after Ten Years") and Martin ("The Golden Apple of Eternal Desire"), Kundera has created the continuation of the Don Juan myth by supplanting the image of "The Great Conqueror" with that of "The Great Collector." They are both compulsive womanizers for whom the consummation itself has lost all attraction. It is the erotic chase alone that matters; even the means have become mechanical. Martin uses the depersonalized terms "registrace" (registration) and "kontaktáz" (contact) to describe the two stages of his method. The heroes realize their situation: "What does it matter that it's a futile game? What does it Book of Laughable Loves) and Trmatter that I know it? Will I stop playing the game just because it is futile?" muses the unnamed hero of "The Golden Apple of Eternal Desire." The game, bringing memories of past freedom, must go on.
See the essay on "The Hitchhiking Game."
In his novels, the Czech-born author Milan Kundera (born 1929) sought to discover the answer to the question: What is the nature of existence?
Milan Kundera was one of the most important and talented novelists to emerge from the death throes of the old Communist regimes in Eastern Europe. However, his novels are not merely political tracts but attempts to discover possible meanings for the existential problems facing all human beings.
Born on April 1, 1929, in Brno, Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic), Kundera was the son of a pianist and musicologist named Ludvik and his wife, Milada (Janiskova). On September 30, 1967, he married Vera Hrabankova.
Kundera was educated in music under the direction of Paul Haas and Vaclav Kapral. Later he also attended Charles University and, in 1956, studied at the Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts, both of which are in Prague. In 1958 he joined the Film Faculty of the latter school, a position he held until 1969.
Originally a poet, Kundera published three volumes of his work between 1953 and 1964. It was then that he began writing in the form in which he was the most successful: the novel. His first book, The Joke, was published in 1967. This novel exposes the dangers of living in a humorless world and is the work most responsible for Kundera's emergence as a leader in the reform movement that led to the Czech Republic's 1968 Prague Spring. During this time of cultural reform, a new freedom to writers and other artists was allowed in what was then a communist country. However, the reprieve from oppression was short lived (ended by Soviet tanks occupying the city), and Kundera found himself in the same position as many of the other leaders of the reform movement. His books disappeared from the shelves of libraries and bookstores and he lost his job at the academy and his right to continue writing and publishing in his native country. His first two novels were published in translation abroad, but Kundera was essentially a writer without an audience, or at least one with whom he could be comfortable. Although not initially allowed to travel to the West, Kundera finally was able to accept a teaching position in France.
At the Université de Rennes he served as an invited professor of comparative literature from 1975 through 1979. In 1980 he accepted the position of professor at the école des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris. The following year he became a naturalized citizen of France.
Life Is Elsewhere, his first major work after his exile, was published in the United States in 1974. It deals with revolutionary romanticism and with lyrical poetry as a whole, exploring, among other things, the volatility of the marriage of the two. His next book was also published in the United States and was entitled The Farewell Party. This 1976 release satirizes a government-run health spa for women with fertility problems while simultaneously addressing serious, ethical questions. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting was first published in the United States in 1980 and then was republished with an interview the author gave to American novelist Philip Roth in 1981. This book illustrates the need for memory to overcome forgetting in order for an individual to achieve self-preservation.
In 1984 Milan Kundera's most famous novel was published. The Unbearable Lightness of Being delves into the greatest existential problems that people are faced with: love, death, transcendence, the sense of continuity or "heaviness" that is provided by memory, and the contrasting sense of "lightness" that is brought about by forgetting. The book was turned into a movie in 1988.
A later publication entitled Immortality was released in 1991 in England. In addition to the title subject, the book also treats the subjects of the Romantic era, ideology, the cult of images, and selfish individualism. A recent novel, Slowness, was published in 1994 and concerns many of these same themes.
Kundera's most important work, outside of his novels, is his nonfiction work, The Art of the Novel. Published in 1988, the book outlines his theories of the novel, both personal and European. True to the nature of his own novels, this book does not consist of one long essay but of three short essays, two interviews, a list of 63 words and their definitions, and the text of a speech.
Novelistic unity for Kundera does not exist in a predetermined set of rules. He uses a common theme and a structure based on musical polyphony to tie the sections of his novels together. The lengths and arrangements of chapters, subchapters, and sections are used to create mood and a sense of time, much like in a musical composition. Instead of following the linear story of a character or set of characters, Kundera connects sometimes seemingly unconnectable stories through their related themes and existential situations.
In The Art of the Novel Kundera explains how the history of the novel and the history of European culture are inextricably bound together. Starting with Cervantes and passing through the works of authors such as Richardson, Balzac, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Proust, Joyce, Mann, and Kafka, he traces the route of the experience of existence. This route starts from a world of unlimited potential, moves to the beginning of history, the shrinking of possibilities in the outside world, the search for infinity in the human soul, the futility of this search, and into the realm where history is seen as a monster that can offer nothing helpful.
In 1995, Kundera published a book-length essay of literary criticism, Testaments Betrayed, which is organized after Nietzsche's books, with each of its nine parts divided into small sections. Its main, recurring theme focuses on Kundera's firm belief that writers and other artists' prerogatives should be defended and their intentions respected by editors, publicists, and executors.
Milan Kundera's contributions, both as a novelist exploring the nature of existence and as historian and critic of the novel, point out his importance as a writer, for his wisdom as well as for his creative genius.
There is little published material on Milan Kundera except for that which can be found in periodicals. Two excellent sources would be the interview by Philip Roth in the preface to the 1981 edition of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and Kundera's own book, The Art of the Novel (1988). In addition, Dangerous Intersection: Milan Kundera and Feminism by John O'Brien (St. Martin's Press) was published in 1995. □