The Book of Laughter and Forgetting Essay - Critical Essays

Milan Kundera

Critical Context

Although Kundera wrote The Book of Laughter and Forgetting in Czech, it was originally published in French, as were his earlier novels—La Vie est ailleurs (1973; Life Is Elsewhere, 1974) and La Valse aux adieux (1976; The Farewell Party, 1976)—and his subsequent novel, L’Insoutenable legerete de l’etre (1985; The Unbearable Lightness of Being, 1984). Only his first novel, Zert (1967; The Joke, 1969), and a collection of short stories, Smesne lasky (1969; partial translation as Laughable Loves, 1974) were published officially in Czechoslovakia by the Czechoslovak Writers’ Union Publishers.

Kundera was honored in Czechoslovakia with the Klement Gottwald State Prize in 1963 and the Czechoslovak Writers’ Union Prize in 1967. Nevertheless, because of his participation in the Prague Spring liberalization movement, Kundera lost his position teaching film studies at Prague’s Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts. He emigrated to France in 1975 and since then has had his Czech manuscripts translated into French for original publication. After the publication of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Kundera was stripped of his Czech citizenship. The French have honored him with the Prix Medicis and the Prix Mondello; in 1981, Francois Mitterand conferred French citizenship upon him. Kundera was also awarded the Jerusalem Prize, for literature on the freedom of man in society, by the Israelis in 1985.

Although Kundera refuses the label of “dissident writer,” his novels have always been enmeshed with the contemporary life of Prague. To read his novels purely as political statements, however, is to direct his vision into a much too narrow channel. All of his novels provide multiple perspectives that reflect the complexities of contemporary existence. Although The Unbearable Lightness of Being was greeted with near-universal acclaim, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is considered by some critics to be Kundera’s finest work and most sweeping commentary on the dangers of living under totalitarian rule.