Authors: Milan Kundera

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Czech novelist, short-story writer, and playwright


A talented and prolific writer, master of the novel, short story, and drama, Milan Kundera (koon-DEHR-uh) is considered one of the major innovators in twentieth century European literature. He was the son of Ludvík and Milada (Janosikova) Kundera; his father, a student of the Czech composer Leoš Janáček, was a talented pianist. Intending to become a musician, Kundera studied piano with his father, but he put aside music in 1948 to study scriptwriting and directing at the Film Faculty of the Prague Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts, where he later taught. In reaction against Nazism he joined the Communist Party in 1947 but was purged twice for his outspoken views. In a speech before the Congress of Czechoslovak Writers in 1967 Kundera called for writers to lead the campaign for artistic and cultural freedom that became the Prague Spring of 1968. After the Soviet suppression of Alexander Dubček’s reforms, Kundera was not permitted to publish his works; in 1975 he and his wife were allowed to immigrate to Paris, and he became a French citizen in 1981. He spent much of 1990 in Martinique and Haiti.{$I[AN]9810001086}{$I[A]Kundera, Milan}{$I[geo]CZECH REPUBLIC;Kundera, Milan}{$I[geo]FRANCE;Kundera, Milan}{$I[tim]1929;Kundera, Milan}

Milan Kundera

(©Vera Kundera)

Kundera began his literary career as a poet in the 1950’s, publishing three collections of poems before turning to drama and, finally, to fiction, finding greater exactness and precision of expression in prose. In his three collections of short stories, condensed as Laughable Loves, Kundera uses sexual comedy as a way of poking fun at a world of grim ideological constraints and artistic repression. In a totalitarian state, Kundera has observed, one’s private life represents the last bastion of freedom against government control. Sexual expression becomes either a metaphor for or a sublimation of political expression. If the state promotes a rigid morality, then promiscuity becomes a form of rebellion, though a self-destructive one for many of Kundera’s characters.

His first novel, The Joke, shows Kundera to be a master of ironic sexual comedy with deeper cultural and political implications. The Joke, whose plot is built around a practical joke that backfires, reveals the dangers of a world lacking a sense of humor. Ludvík Jahn, a young student, sends a humorous postcard to his grim Stalinist girlfriend, Marketa, with three parodies of Marxist slogans: “Optimism is the opiate of the people! A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky!” For this prank he is called before his local student committee, stripped of his party membership, expelled from college, and sent to prison. Years later, after being released from prison, Jahn tries to seduce the wife of the man who betrayed him, only to have his attempt at revenge fail as well. Interwoven in the novel are reflections on Czech history and folklore. Kundera views the novel as a means of preserving cultural memory in the face of ideological forces determined to obliterate the past. Kundera’s ironic, self-deprecating humor is reminiscent of Franz Kafka, as well as of Jaroslav Hašek, whose novel The Good Soldier Švejk (1921-1923) mocks the Czech temperament. Kundera has remarked that he could always tell whether a person was a Stalinist by his sense of humor.

Kundera’s second novel, Life Is Elsewhere, is a fictional biography of Jaromil, a Communist poet of mediocre talents, through whom Kundera analyzes the pretensions and self-deceptions of the lyric sensibility, particularly when it serves revolutionary movements. The novel takes its title from Arthur Rimbaud, who was quoted by André Breton in his Surrealist manifesto and later appropriated by Parisian students in 1968. Kundera commented that he wanted to write a novel that would be a critique of poetry yet also convey the essence of the lyrical sensibility.

The Farewell Party is a lighter novel, in which Kundera returns to sexual farce. The characters use sex to manipulate one another. Ruzena, a nurse at an infertility spa, claims that she is pregnant by the jazz trumpeter Klima, who wants her to have an abortion. By the end of the novel, victim and victimizer merge in comic ambiguity.

Kundera returns to that theme of ideological betrayal in his fourth novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, which alludes to the betrayal of the Czech surrealist Záviš Kalandra (who was hanged in 1950) by the French poet Paul Éluard. The novel is about cultural amnesia, about the conveniences and dangers of forgetting. It illustrates Kundera’s convictions about the dangers of lyrical self-intoxication and demonstrates why he moved from poetry to fiction: He believed that the novel provided the best opportunities for dispassionately studying the human condition. “The struggle of man against power,” Kundera writes, “is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”

The Unbearable Lightness of Being, perhaps Kundera’s most important novel, combines political, erotic, comic, musical, historical, and philosophical motifs in its examination of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and its aftermath. Tomas, a Czech surgeon and incorrigible womanizer, is torn between his infatuation with his mistress, Sabina, and his love for his wife, Teresa. After the Soviet occupation, when they flee to Switzerland, Teresa becomes homesick and returns to Prague. When Tomas also returns, he is barred from his profession and forced to wash windows, until they finally settle on a farming commune. Lightness and heaviness become alternating musical and philosophical motifs, as well as metaphors of choice and caprice, selfishness and responsibility.

Before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Kundera profited from his position as once-persecuted artist, for his writing confirmed what the West wanted to read about the Communist system. The works that followed–among them Immortality, Slowness, Identity, and Ignorance, as well as the collections of critical essays, The Art of the Novel and Testaments Betrayed–emphasize the rights of artists in their struggle not against the villains of his early books, political censors, but against treacherous translators, invasive biographers, and inattentive, hurried, narcissistic readers–figures who appear under many guises in his fictions. These works also display his usual skill at irony and, in complex contexts, develop insights into such aesthetic questions as the affinities between music and literature.

BibliographyAji, Aron. Milan Kundera and the Art of Fiction: Critical Essays. New York: Garland, 1992. Critical essays by Ilan Stavans, John O’Brien, Octavio Paz, Charles Molesworth, Nina Pelikan Straus, and many others. Well-established essayists discuss “Kundera and the Eighteenth Century English Novel,” “The Cyclic Form of Laughable Loves,” and Kundera’s contribution to the novel form. There is also an essay by Carlos Fuentes, “The Other K.” This collection is a powerful tribute to the writer.Banerjee, Maria Nemcová. Terminal Paradox: The Novels of Milan Kundera. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990. A critical study of Kundera’s long fiction. Includes a bibliography.Bloom, Harold, ed. Milan Kundera. New York: Chelsea House, 2003. A collection of essays representing the range of critical responses to Kundera, including an introductory overview by Bloom.Boyers, Robert. “Between East and West: A Letter to Milan Kundera.” In Atrocity and Amnesia, The Political Novel Since 1945. New York: Oxford University Press. 1985.Boyers, Robert. “Milan Kundera: Meaning, Play, and the Role of the Author.” Critique 34 (Fall, 1992): 3-18. Argues that Kundera’s role as intrusive author is not as diametrically opposed to Roland Barthes’s announcement of the death of the author as one might suppose. Uses Barthes’s ideas as a theoretical tool to examine Kundera’s authorial stance and the kind of play that characterizes his fiction.Brand, Glen. Milan Kundera: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1988. The starting point for any serious student of Kundera’s work. Includes an excellent introduction, an exhaustive primary bibliography, and a well-annotated bibliography of reviews and criticism.Gaughan, Richard T. “‘Man Thinks; God Laughs’: Kundera’s ‘Nobody Will Laugh.’” Studies in Short Fiction 29 (Winter, 1992): 1-10. An analysis of “Nobody Will Laugh” as one of the best examples in Kundera’s short stories of how comedy and laughter help resist the deadening effects of forced beliefs and reveal a common ground of understanding and solidarity.Gopinathan Pillai, C. The Political Novels of Milan Kundera and O. V. Vijayan: A Comparative Study. New Delhi: Prestige, 1996. Includes a bibliography and an index.Kundera, Milan. Testaments Betrayed: An Essay in Nine Parts. New York: HarperCollins, 1995. Kundera’s discussion of the novel as a genre throws much light on his own fiction, both long and short. Kundera argues for a fiction of moral judgment, discusses the importance of humor in fiction, and examines the ways he thinks that critics have misunderstood great works of fiction.Misurella, Fred. Milan Kundera: Public Events, Private Affairs. Columbia: University of South Carolina, 1993. Notable for its chronology and bibliography, this study mediates between aesthetic and political readings of Kundera.Misurella, Fred. Understanding Milan Kundera: Public Events, Private Affairs. Understanding Modern European and Latin American Literature. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993. In what is clearly a labor of deep admiration for Kundera’s body of work, Misurella lays out an approach to his novelistic forms, examining in each chapter such topics as the human possibilities of Kafka and Diderot, the “Longing for Paradise in The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” among others. He concludes with “The Art of the Novel” and a comprehensive bibliography.Nemcova Banerjee, Maria. Terminal Paradox: The Novels of Milan Kundera. New York: Grove Press. 1992. A critical study of Kundera’s novels.O’Brien, John. Milan Kundera and Feminism: Dangerous Intersections. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. A look female characters in Kundera’s fiction.Petro, Peter, ed. Critical Essays on Milan Kundera. New York: G. K. Hall, 1999. A critical study of Kundera’s fiction. Includes a bibliography and an index.Plimpton, George, ed. Writers at Work: “The Paris Review”: Interviews. New York: Viking Penguin, 1986. An interview with Kundera.Pochoda, Elizabeth. Introduction to The Farewell Party. New York: Viking Penguin, 1977. Pochoda situates Kundera’s fiction and the private lives of his characters within a larger political context. Their lives are marked by helplessness and a sense of missed opportunities. Instead of freeing them from political oppression, love seems to refigure the system of political oppression on a more intimate scale.Porter, R. C. Milan Kundera: A Voice from Central Europe. Århus, Denmark: Arkona Press, 1981. In separate chapters, Porter discusses Laughable Loves, Kundera’s three plays, The Joke, Life Is Elsewhere, and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. The introduction is especially useful for establishing the political context of Kundera’s writings.The Review of Contemporary Fiction 9 (Summer, 1982). This special issue devoted to Kundera and Zulfikar Ghose includes Lois Oppenheim’s interview with Kundera, Glen Brand’s “Selective Bibliography of Kundera Criticism,” and Maria Nemcova Banerjee’s “The Impossible Don Juan” on the Don Juan theme in Laughable Loves. An expanded version of Banerjee’s essay appears in her Terminal Paradox: The Novels of Milan Kundera (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990).Rorty, Richard. “Heidegger, Kundera, and Dickens.” In Essays on Heidegger and Others: Philosophical Papers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Compares the fiction of Kundera to that of Martin Heidegger and Charles Dickens.Roth, Philip. “Milan Kundera.” In Reading Myself and Others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975. First published as “Milan Kundera, The Joker” in Esquire, in April, 1974, and as “Introducing Milan Kundera” in Laughable Loves. Roth provides a capsule biography, a brief history of contemporary Czechoslovakia, discusses the relation between “erotic play and power” (the Don Juan theme), and offers brief but interesting comments on specific stories, “The Hitchhiking Game” and “Edward and God” in particular.Salmagundi, no. 73 (Winter, 1987). This special issue devoted to Kundera is framed by two indispensable interviews and includes seven important essays on his work, chiefly the novels. “Estrangement and Irony,” by Terry Eagleton, and “On Milan Kundera,” by Clavin Bedient, are especially noteworthy.Sturdivant, Mark. “Milan Kundera’s Use of Sexuality.” Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction 26 (Spring, 1985): 131-140. Sturdivant offers a detailed reading of the sexual theme first raised by Elizabeth Pochoda and Philip Roth, examining The Joke, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, “Symposium,” “The Hitchhiking Game,” and “Edward and God.”Updike, John. Hugging the Shore: Essays and Criticism. “Czech Angels” Ecco Press. 1994. This collection was the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism.
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