Milan Kundera Essay - Kundera, Milan

Kundera, Milan

Introduction

Kundera, Milan 1929-

Czechoslovakian novelist, short story writer, essayist, playwright, and poet.

Kundera is considered one of Europe's outstanding contemporary writers. He is frequently labeled an Eastern European "dissident" writer despite his insistence that his works are not inherently political or propagandistic. Rather than serving as ideological puppets, Kundera's characters are usually vulnerable individuals whose views and lifestyles are challenged through events and dilemmas in their personal lives and in society. His single collection of translated stories, Laughable Loves, contains several recurring themes: the ambiguousness and mutability of individual identity; the consequences of the games that individuals play in the name of love and lust; the prevalence of the social masks that people wear to disguise their true motives and to gain approval from others; and the ironic backfiring of human plans. Kundera discovered his approach to writing while working on these short stories. As he stated in an interview with Jordan Elgrably, "My writing took flight with the first story for Laughable Loves. This was my Opus 1. Everything I'd written prior to it can be considered prehistory."

Biographical Information

Kundera was born and raised in Brno, Czechoslovakia. His father was a well-known pianist who collaborated with the celebrated Czechoslovakian composer Leos Jǎnaček. Although he once studied piano and stated that "Jǎnaček'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 scriptwriting 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 book, the poetry collection Člověk, zahrada širâ, a year later. He published two other collections of poetry while working at the academy but later renounced all of these early works as adolescent and insignificant. During the early 1960s Kundera earned recognition as an important literary figure in his homeland for his 1961 critical study of the Czechoslovakian novelist Vladislava Vančury entitled Unemí románu, his 1962 play Majitelé klíců (The Owners of the Keys), and the 1963 short story collection Směšé lásky (Laughable Loves). He served on the Central Committee of the Writer's Union and the editorial boards of the journals Literarni noviny and Listy.

Despite his reputation as one of Czechoslovakia's most notable writers, Kundera encountered resistance after submitting the manuscript of his first novel, Žert (The Joke), to a Prague publisher in 1965. 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. During the Prague Spring of 1968, when the push for cultural freedom reached its zenith and writers and intellectuals enjoyed fewer restrictions, Kundera's novel was enormously popular. Prior to the Prague Spring many writers and artists were attempting to speed reform and liberalize cultural policy by creating ideologically challenging works. In his opening address to the Fourth Czechoslovak Writers Congress in 1967, Kundera candidly admonished censorship and other repressive tactics used against Czechoslovakian writers. While his speech had been approved in advance by the Czechoslovak Party Central Committee, it was considered very controversial by government bureaucrats and some writers. Kundera's status as a writer and citizen changed radically when Czechoslovakia was invaded by Russian forces in 1968. He was expelled from the Communist Party, released from his teaching position at the Prague Academy, and his works were removed from libraries and bookstores. Kundera eventually lost the right to publish in Czechoslovakia. He finally fled his native country in 1975 after being offered a teaching position at the University of Rennes in France. In 1979 the Czechoslovakian government, in order to ensure that Kundera could never repatriate, revoked his Czechoslovakian citizenship. With the 1984 publication of L'insourenable l'égèreté de l'être (The Unbearable Lightness of Being), which garnered considerable praise and later was adapted to film, he achieved international renown. Kundera lives in Paris.

Major Works of Short Fiction

The stories in Laughable Loves were drawn from the trilogy Směšné lásky, Druhy sešsit směsných lásek, and Třetí sešit směšných lásek, collections that address the illusory nature of love and the consequences of using sexuality to gain power and influence. In "The Hitchhiking Game," one of the best known stories, a young couple engage in role-playing while on vacation. The woman, usually very inhibited and conservative, pretends she is a prostitute and at the man's urging performs a striptease on a table in a disreputable hotel. While the game begins innocently, this behavior leads to identity crises for the participants, as the woman painfully reveals when she pleads at the end of the story, "I am me, I am me, I am me. . . ." The story "Edward and God" is informed by the theme of duplicity and by Kundera's encounters with Communism. Here, a young atheistic man pretends to be godly in order to win a desirable woman's affection, but his show of religiosity lands him in trouble with his supervisor, an unattractive woman who is a fervent Communist. In order to ensure his continued employment, the young man finds himself seducing his boss—who disgusts him—with little idea of how to end this entanglement in the future.

Critical Reception

The artistic conception of Laughable Loves is a topic common to several critical studies of the collection. Commentators have insisted that the stories, while self-sufficient, assume much more meaning when examined in relation to each other and the volume as a whole. Furthermore, some critics have asserted that Laughable Loves anticipated the novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, which employs related but largely independent narratives to illustrate several prevailing themes. Another subject of discussion is the perception of male chauvinism in Kundera's narratives. A few reviewers have found his depictions of women to be misogynistic, though John O'Brien has responded that the intention of the author was, in fact, to expose damaging attitudes toward women. Many readers have remarked on the prominence of sexuality in Kundera's stories. Mark Sturdivant has commented that "sexuality becomes a vehicle for expressing a variety of interwoven threads of commentary upon human characteristics, and for ultimately casting a pall of hopelessness and meaninglessness over mankind's fundamental existence." Agreeing, Maria Banerjee has stated that "the laughter resounding in these tales of erotic debacle is never quite free of the admixture of sadness that turns it into a grimace." Summing perhaps the unifying motif of the collection, Elizabeth Pochoda has observed: "There is in Laughable Loves this persistent and illusory connection between love and certainty. The would-be seducers attempt to circumvent the habitual oppression of their daily lives through love because love is voluntary, or so they think. . . . The characters who push hardest for certainty in love are the most laughable and the most disappointed. They take a holiday from one form of tyranny and unwittingly uncover another, their own."

Principal Works

Short Fiction

*Směšné lásky [Laughable Loves] 1963

*Druhy sešit směšných lásek 1965

*Třetí sešit směšných lásek 1968

Other Major Works

Člověk, zahrada širá (poems) 1953

Poslední máj (poems) 1955

Monology (poems) 1957

Unemi románu: cesta Vladislava Vancury za velkou epikou (criticism) 1961

Majitele klicu [The Owners of the Keys] (drama) 1962

Žert [The Joke] (novel) 1967

Dvě uši dvě svatby (drama) 1968

The Joke [with Jaromil Jires] (screenplay) 1968

Ptákovina (drama) 1968

La vie est ailleurs [Life Is Elsewhere] (novel) 1973

La valse aux adieux [The Farewell Party] (novel) 1976

Le livre du rire et de l'oubli [The Book of Laughter and Forgetting] (novel) 1979

Jacques et som maitre: Hommage a Denis Diderot [Jacques and His Master] (drama) 1981

L'insourenable l'égèreté de l'être [The Unbearable Lightness of Being] (novel) 1984

L'art du roman [The Art of the Novel] (criticism) 1986

L'immortalité [Immortality] (novel) 1990

Testaments Betrayed: An Essay in Nine Parts (criticism) 1995

*Seven of the ten stories contained in these collections were translated into English and published as a single volume, Laughable Loves, in 1974.

†These novels were published under the following titles in Czech (the language in which they were originally written) after the publication of the French and English translations: Zivot je jinde (1979), Valdík na rozloucenou (1979), Kniha smíchu a zapomnení (1981), and Nesnesitelná lehkost byti (1985).

Criticism

Philip Roth (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: "Milan Kundera, the Joker," in Esquire, Vol. LXXXI, No. 4, April, 1974, pp. 85, 178, 182, 184.

[A prominent and controversial figure in contemporary American letters, Roth draws heavily upon his Jewish upbringing and his life as an author to explore his predominant thematic concernsthe search for self-identity, conflicts between traditional and contemporary moral values, and the relationship between fiction and reality. The scatalogical content of some of his works and his satiric portraits of Jewish life have inspired a considerable amount of critical debate. Roth wrote the introduction to the English-language edition of Kundera's Laughable Loves. In the following excerpt, he comments on the seriousness underlying the eroticism in Kundera's stories.]

Erotic play and power are the subjects frequently at the center of the stories that Kundera calls, collectively, Laughable Loves. To be sure, sexuality as a weapon (in this case, the weapon of him who is otherwise wholly assailable) is to the point of The Joke as well: to revenge himself upon the political friend who had turned on him back in his remote student days, Ludvik Jahn, released from the coal mines at last, coldly conceives a plan to seduce the man's wife. In this decision to put his virility in the service of his rage, there is in Kundera's hero a kinship to characters in the fiction of Mailer and Mishima—the vengeful husband, for example, in Mishima's Forbidden Colors, who engages a beautiful young homosexual to arouse the passion and then break the hearts of the women who have betrayed and rejected him; or the Greenwich Village bullfight instructor in Mailer's "The Time of Her Time" whose furious copulations seem to be aimed at producing pleasure for his partner in the form of punishment. What distinguishes Kundera's cocksman from Mailer's or Mishima's is the ease with which his erotic power play is thwarted and then turned into yet another...

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Paul Theroux (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: "Small Novel, Large Stories," in The New York Times Book Review, July 28, 1974, p. 7.

[An American expatriate living in England, Theroux vividly captures in his fiction and travel books the experiences of displaced individuals and the cultures of exotic lands. An important motif in his work concerns the outsider who can discover his identity only in a foreign land. In the following review, Theroux argues that Kundera's stories were shaped by the political context in which they were written.]

When he wants to annoy the cultural commissars on his occasional visits to the Soviet Union, the superb Turkish novelist Yashar Kemal—southern Anatolia's William...

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Anatole Broyard (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: "Between the Iron Bedsheets," in The New York Times, Vol. CXXIII, No. 42,567, August 10, 1974, p. 27.

[Broyard was an influential American literary critic who, during his career, contributed book reviews to the New York Times, served as editor of the New York Times Book Review, and lectured on sociology and literature at the New School for Social Research. In the following review, he finds Kundera's stories overrated and merely "passable. " ]

It seems to me that dissident writers from Iron Curtain countries are generally overestimated in the United States. We praise them for their moral courage, and overlook their literary lapses. Their fiction...

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Robert C. Porter (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: "'Freedom Is My Love': The Works of Milan Kundera," in Index on Censorship, Vol. 4, No. 4, Winter, 1975, pp. 41-6.

[The author of Milan Kundera: A Voice from Central Europe (1981), Porter is an English educator specializing in Russian literature. In the following excerpt, Porter discerns an overarching pattern in the stories of Laughable Loves.]

Between 1963 and 1968 Kundera produced ten short love stories, which depict the comic as well as the tragic side of human relations. In 1970 eight of them appeared in a collected edition, the author having decided to omit two which he had come to regard as weak. Examining the original ten stories we find in them...

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Roger Rosenblatt (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: "The Only Game in Town," in The New Republic, Vol. 173, No. 10, Issue 3165, September 6, 1975, pp. 29-30.

[An award-winning journalist, Rosenblatt has been a columnist and editor for the New Republic and the Washington Post and has served as a senior writer for two major national news magazines, Time and U.S. News and World Report. In the following review, he maintains that the attempts of characters in Laughable Loves to assert themselves results paradoxically in confusion and unhappiness.]

The downfall of the university lecturer in Milan Kundera's "Nobody Will Laugh" occurs because our young hero is feeling good enough to...

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C. L. Chua (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: A review of Laughable Loves, in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. XII, No. 4, Fall, 1975, pp. 419-21.

[In the following positive review, Chua surveys some of the themes in Laughable Loves.]

[Laughable Loves] is a decidedly provocative and worth-while volume of short stories; they challenge our imagination and exercise our intellect. These stories first appeared in their native Czechoslovakia in 1969, and American readers might have caught glimpses of them in American Poetry Review or Esquire. Here they are in a highly readable translation by Suzanne Rappaport, chaperoned by a substantial and sympathetic introduction from Philip...

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D. J. Enright (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: "Ping-pong," in The Listener, Vol. 99, No. 2563, June 8, 1978, p. 746.

[An English poet, novelist, and critic, Enright is sometimes associated with a group of authorsKingsley Amis, John Wain, Philip Larkin, Robert Conquest, and Elizabeth Jenningswhose concerted dissent from tradition earned them the informal moniker The Movement. Well known as a literary critic, Enright's reviews have appeared in the New Statesman, Encounter, and London Magazine. In the following review, he focuses on Kundera's depiction of deceit and manipulation in relationships.]

Generically, these stories form another set of Games that People Play, better...

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Mark Sturdivant (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "Milan Kundera's Use of Sexuality," in Critique, Vol. XXVI, No. 3, Spring, 1985, pp. 131-40.

[In the following essay, Sturdivant suggests that Kundera uses sexuality as a means of expressing the futility and desperation of life.]

In examining the work of Czechoslavakian author Milan Kundera, critic Philip Roth observes that "almost all [Kundera' s] novels, in fact all the individual parts of his latest book, find their dénouement in great scenes of coitus" (afterword, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.) Indeed, in Kundera's most recent effort, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, the novelist follows a pattern earlier established in his highly...

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Maria Němcová Banerjee (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "Laughable Loves; or, The Impossible Don Juan," in Terminal Paradox: The Novels of Milan Kundera, Grove Weidenfeld, 1990, pp. 52-73.

[In the following essay, Banerjee contrasts Kundera's portrayal of the Don Juan myth with traditional versions.]

Laughable Loves was the first of Milan Kundera's works to reach American readers. It was published in New York in 1974, with an introduction by Philip Roth, while its author was still living in Czechoslovakia. But all seven stories that make up the volume were written much earlier, between 1959 and 1969, during that marvelous decade of Czech culture which was also a time of great artistic ferment...

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Michael Carroll (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "The Cyclic Form of Laughable Loves," in Milan Kundera and the Art of Fiction, edited by Aron Aji, Garland Publishing Inc., 1992, pp. 132-52.

[In the following essay, Carroll considers Laughable Loves as a short story cycle, in which awareness of the interrelationship of the stories is essential for a full understanding of each individual narrative and the collection as a whole.]

The fiction of Milan Kundera has inspired an avalanche of critical attention in recent years; in fact, as we come to realize the importance of his work, Kundera studies are becoming, as this volume evidences, something of a "growth industry." The works that have attracted...

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Fred Misurella (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "Amid Chaos, the Survival of Form: Laughable Loves," in Understanding Milan Kundera: Public Events, Private Affairs, University of South Carolina Press, 1993, pp. 162-90.

[Misurella is an American educator and critic. In the following excerpt, he suggests that Laughable Loves revolves "on the theme of our helplessness before external events and the inadequacy of language as a tool in controlling or understanding them"]

[An] interest in ironic play, polyphony, and thematic variation as the basis of his concept of the novel's form has led Kundera to regard Laughable Loves as a novel in seven parts, although it began as a collection of ten...

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John O'Brien (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "Laughable Loves, " in Milan Kundera & Feminism: Dangerous Intersections, St. Martin's Press, 1995, pp. 79-87.

[In the following essay, O'Brien singles out the stories "Hitchhiking Game" and "Edward and God" as illustrations of Kundera's "ability to expose the misogynistic male psychology. "]

In The Politics of Postmodernism, Linda Hutcheon contends that the characteristic that defines a work as postmodern is not solely whether it can be praised for its critique of representation. Instead, she maintains that it is the combination of both complicity with dominant representational strategies and critique that makes a work postmodern. With this...

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