Study Guide

Milan Kundera

Milan Kundera Essay - Kundera, Milan (Vol. 115)

Kundera, Milan (Vol. 115)

Introduction

Milan Kundera 1929–

Czech-born French novelist, short story writer, dramatist, poet, critic, and essayist.

The following entry provides an overview of Kundera's career through 1996. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 4, 9, 19, 32, and 68.

Celebrated internationally as one of Europe's most outstanding contemporary novelists, Kundera has lived in exile in France since 1975, and much of his work was banned until recently in his native country, the former Czechoslovakia. He began his writing career as a poet and dramatist before he wrote the fiction that brought him international critical attention, most notably the novels Le livre du rire et de l'oubli (1979; The Book of Laugher and Forgetting) and L'lnsoutenable l'égèreté de l'être (1984; The Unbearable Lightness of Being). Kundera's novels represent the psychological motivations, emotional complexes, and erotic impulses of vulnerable characters who question their various aspects of their identities when faced with political events and social values beyond their control. Kundera often infuses authorial commentary into his narratives, presents events in disjointed time frames and from multiple perspectives, and patterns his novels in a manner similar to musical compositions. Dismissing traditional novelistic structures, Kundera uses these narrative devices to illustrate his own aesthetic of the novel, which emphasizes parallel explorations of related themes, active philosophical contemplation, and the integration of dreams and fantasy with realistic analysis. Although some reviewers have considered his work in the context of exile literature or have labeled him a "dissident" writer despite his protests to the contrary, most critics have noted the complex structure of his novels, identifying that component as one of the integral aspects of his art.

Biographical Information

Born and raised in Brno, Czechoslovakia, Kundera is the son of Ludvik Kundera, a well-known pianist who collaborated with the famous Czech composer Leos Janácek. Although he once studied piano, Kundera decided at age nineteen that music was not his true vocation. In 1948 he left Brno 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 witnessed the atrocities of World War 11, joined the Communist Party. In 1952 he began teaching cinematography at the Prague Academy, and the next year he published his first poetry collection, Clovek, zahrada širá, which was immediately condemned by the Communists for using surrealistic techniques and lacking universality. Kundera wrote two other volumes of poetry. Poslední máj (1955) and Monology (1957), while teaching at the academy, but he later renounced these works as adolescent and insignificant. During the early 1960s Kundera attained literary prominence in his homeland by serving on the Central Committee of the Czechoslovak Writers Union from 1963 to 1969 and on the editorial boards of the journals Literarni noviny and Listy. Meanwhile, he published a critical work about Czechoslo-vakian novelist Vladislava Vancury, Unemi románu (1961), and his first play, Majitelé klícu (1962; The Owners of the Keys) was staged in Czechoslovakia and abroad. Kundera then turned his attention to writing fiction. Despite his esteemed reputation, Kundera spent two years battling the censorship board before his first novel, Zert (1967; The Joke), was deemed acceptable for publication in its original form. In a 1967 speech opening the Fourth Czechoslovak Writers Congress, Kundera candidly admonished censorship and other repressive tactics used against writers. During the so-called "Prague Spring" of 1968, when the push for cultural freedom had reached its zenith. Kundera's novel enjoyed enormous popular success. However, when Russian military forces invaded Czechoslovakia later that year, Kundera was expelled from the Communist Party and released from his teaching position at the Prague Academy, and his works were removed from libraries and bookstores. He eventually fled his native country in 1975 after he was invited to teach comparative literature at the University of Rennes in France. In 1979, after the publication of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, the Czechoslovak government revoked his citizenship. In 1980, Kundera accepted a professorship at the Ecole des hautes études en sciénces sociales in Paris. Since garnering international praise for The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which was later adapted for film and produced in 1988, Kundera has written two additional books of literary criticism. L'art du roman (1986; The Art of the Novel) and Les Testaments trahis (1993; Testaments Betrayed), and three novels, L'Immortalité (1990; Immortality). La Lenteur (1995; Slowness), and L'identité (1997; Identity.

Major Works

Kundera's collection of short stories, Laughable Loves, addresses the illusory nature of love and the consequences of using sexuality to gain power and influence. In these stories, some characters use sexual encounters to exercise their personal power; others see them as a gauge of self-worth. One of his best-known stories, "The Hitchhiking Game," involves a young couple who engage in role-playing while on vacation, but the game ultimately reveals the painful implications of their relationship. In "Symposium" a doctor refuses a sexual encounter with a nurse as an assertion of independence. Many of Kundera's works are dominated by a form based on the number seven. The Joke focuses on Ludvik, a university student who firmly embraces Communist ideology. After Ludvik sends a postcard in which he playfully parodies Marxist slogans to his zealously political girlfriend, she shows it to Zamenek, a fervent, humorless Communist student-leader, who has Ludvik expelled from both the university and the party. Years later, after Ludvik has been drafted into the army and forced to work in a coal mine, he seeks revenge by seducing Zamenek's wife, who, unknown to Ludvik, has been separated from her husband for two years. La vie est ailleurs (1973; Life Is Elsewhere) is a satirical portrait of Jaromil, a young poet, who was bullied by his doting mother to develop an artistic temperament and runs away to write; this novel exposes the way poetry can contribute to the hysteria of revolution and presents Kundera's belief that youth is a "lyrical age" laced with neuroses, romantic illusions, and endless self-contemplation. La valse aux adieux (1976; The Farewell Party) concerns the destructive nature of sexual politics and self-deception. Set in a Czechoslovakian resort town famous for infertility treatments, this novel chronicles the aftermath of a one-night stand that results in pregnancy and addresses such ethical issues as abortion, sperm-banking, and suicide. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting portrays numerous characters who are linked thematically yet never interact. 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. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting suggests that memory is a form of self-preservation in a world where history is usually distorted by cultural forces. The Unbearable Lightness of Being treats similar themes and centers on the connected lives of two couples—Tomas and Tereza, and Franz and Sabina. Set in Czechoslovakia around the time of the Russian invasion, this novel examines the hardships and limitations that can result from commitment yet also reveals the lack of meaning for life without such responsibility. In addition, each character represents a particular motif that is explored throughout the novel in various contexts, reminiscent of the variations in a musical composition. Immortality is spiked throughout by authorial intrusions commenting on the writing process of the narrative and is the first of Kundera's novels to be set in France. The book considers the way media manipulation, popular culture, and capitalist technocracy distort the perception of reality. Besides presenting a love triangle among its principal characters, Immortality also contains dialogues between such notable literary figures as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Ernest Hemingway. Slowness, Kundera's first novel originally written in French, is a fictional triptych that features the simultaneous stories of the narrator and his wife (Milan and Vera Kundera) en route to a French chateau; an eighteenth-century chevalier and his mistress engaged in a highly stylized sexual encounter at the same chateau; and a entomologist, an exiled woman ex-scientist, and her groupie who are attending a conference at the chateau on the day of the narrator's arrival. The action of the entire novel apparently takes place in a single location over the course of a single night through a telescoping of time, a device sometimes read as a parody of the classical rules of unity of action. Both The Art of the Novel and Testaments Betrayed discuss Kundera's ideas about the aesthetics of the novel, the former outlining in seven sections the formal development of the European novel and the latter suggesting in nine parts that critics of the novel form have betrayed the profound sense of humor that informs the novelistic tradition, particularly with respect to Russian novelist Franz Kafka.

Critical Reception

Throughout his career Kundera has received numerous literary awards, and his novels have earned him worldwide critical acclaim. Kundera has been consistently admired for juxtaposing fictitious and biographical elements in his novels and for simultaneously exploring recurrent themes. Many critics have focused on the political disillusionment that is perceived in Kundera's work, usually in consideration of his close involvement in Czechoslovakian political and cultural turmoils of the twentieth century. But Kundera has claimed that there has been too much emphasis on the politics of his novels, and that he especially dislikes being classified as a dissident writer. While some critics have castigated his narrative techniques as disorienting, usually citing his disjointed plotting, episodic characterizations, and authorial intrusions as principal distractions, a number of critics have appreciated Kundera's style, focusing on his use of humor and his sense of "play" in narration, particularly in terms of the vitality of his erotic themes. Richard Gaughan has observed that comedy and laughter "bring to the surface and make explicit the often hidden and always painful struggle between the equally necessary but mutually exclusive demands of freedom and belief—a struggle that Kundera sees as the characteristic condition of the modern European mind." Although he was recognized as an important literary figure in his homeland early in his career, critical attacks on his writings from Czech quarters "have been unceasing" since he left, according to Karen von Kunes, particularly for what has been perceived as his abandonment of his Czech heritage for the adulation of Western European and American readers and critics.

Principal Works

Zert [The Joke, 1969; definitive English edition, 1992] (novel) 1967
Smesne lasky [Laughable Loves; first English edition, 1974; definitive English edition, 1987] (short stories) 1970
∗∗La vie est ailleurs [Life Is Elsewhere, 1974; definitive English edition, 1986] (novel) 1973
∗∗La valse aux adieux [The Farewell Party; first English edition, 1976; new translation by Aaron Asher, based on Kundera's revised French text, published as Farewell Waltz: A Novel, 1998] (novel) 1976
∗∗Le livre du rire et de l'oubli [The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, 1980; new translation by Aaron Asher, 1996] (novel)...

(The entire section is 231 words.)

Criticism

Ronald de Feo (review date 3 January 1975)

SOURCE: A review of Life Is Elsewhere and Laughable Loves, in Commonweal, Vol. CI, No. 11, January 3, 1975, pp. 307-9.

[In the following review, de Feo explores the role of eroticism in Life Is Elsewhere and Laughable Loves.]

Many of the characters who populate these two volumes [Life Is Elsewhere and Laughable Loves] by the Czech writer Milan Kundera are deeply affected by the erotic element in their natures. Often their strong sexual instincts surprise them. They may play various games and adopt various roles to free themselves from their repressed skins. They find freedom and release, even creative inspiration, in sex. As they make...

(The entire section is 1086 words.)

E. L. Doctorow (review date 29 April 1984)

SOURCE: "Four Characters under Two Tyrannies," in New York Times Book Review, April 29, 1984, p. 1.

[In the review below, Doctorow examines Kundera's narrative style in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, describing the relation between the characters and themes of his book.]

"I am bored by narrative," Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary in 1929, thus suggesting how the novel has been kept alive in our century by novelists' assaults on its conventions. Writers have chosen to write novels without plots or characters or the illusion of time passing. They have disdained to represent real life, as the painters did a half century before them. They have compacted their...

(The entire section is 2381 words.)

John Bayley (review date 7-20 June 1984)

SOURCE: "Kundera and Kitsch," in London Review of Books, Vol. 6, No. 10, June 7-20, 1984, pp. 18-19.

[Below, Bayley explains the meaning and use of "kitsch" in the context of The Unbearable Lightness of Being.]

There is always comedy in the ways in which we are impressed by a novel. It can either impress us (if, that is, it is one of the very good ones) with the sort of truths that Nietzsche, Kafka and Dostoevsky tell us, or with the truths that Tolstoy and Trollope tell us. To the first kind we respond with amazement and delight, awe even. 'Of course that's it! Of course that's it!' The second kind of truths are more sober, more laboriously constructed, more...

(The entire section is 3325 words.)

Italo Calvino (essay date 5 May 1985)

SOURCE: "On Kundera," in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 9, No. 2, Summer, 1989, pp. 53-7.

[In the essay below, originally published in the periodical La Repubblica on May 5, 1985, Calvino discusses the significance of digressive elements of Kundera's narrative style in The Unbearable Lightness of Being.]

When he was twelve, she suddenly found herself alone, abandoned by Franz's father. The boy suspected something serious had happened, but his mother muted the drama with mild, insipid words so as not to upset him. The day his father left, Franz and his mother went into town together, and as they left home Franz noticed that she was...

(The entire section is 2297 words.)

Terry Eagleton (essay date Winter 1987)

SOURCE: "Estrangement and Irony," in Salmagundi, No. 73, Winter, 1987, pp. 25-32.

[In the following essay, Eagleton considers the various ideological conflicts that inform Kundera's fiction.]

Milan Kundera tells the story in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting of a Czech being sick in the middle of Prague, not long after the Soviet invasion of the country. Another Czech wanders up to him, shakes his head and says: "I know-exactly what you mean".

The joke here, of course, is that the second Czech reads as significant what is in fact just a random event. In the post-capitalist bureaucracies, even vomiting is made to assume some kind of...

(The entire section is 3193 words.)

Perry Meisel (review date 10 April 1988)

SOURCE: "Beautifying Lies and Polyphonic Wisdom," in New York Times Book Review, April 10, 1988, p. 13.

[In the following review of The Art of the Novel, Meisel focuses on Kundera's treatment of formal devices of the novel genre.]

Milan Kundera has charmed the world with his sonorous fictions—five novels, a play and a volume of stories-although it is formalist rigor as much as charm that distinguishes his first book of nonfiction, The Art of the Novel. A collection of five essays and two dialogues published over the last decade, The Art of the Novel recommends self-effacement as a precept of writing and dooms purveyors of dogma in either...

(The entire section is 1186 words.)

Richard T. Caughan (essay date Winter 1992)

SOURCE: "'Man Thinks; God Laughs': Kundera's 'Nobody Will Laugh,'" in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 29. No. 1, Winter, 1992, pp. 1-10.

[Below, Gaughan discusses the purpose of laughter and comedy in "Nobody Will Laugh," especially as they relate to the individual and society.]

Comedy and laughter are often important thematic concerns, as well as prominent qualities, of Milan Kundera's novels and stories. At first glance, this seems to be because comedy and laughter are good ways of resisting oppressive codes of conduct and ways of thinking, especially those enforced and imposed by public authorities. But, while comedy and laughter are undoubtedly ways of negating or...

(The entire section is 4064 words.)

James S. Hans (essay date Spring 1992)

SOURCE: "Kundera's Laws of Beauty," in Essays in Literature, Vol. XIX, No. 1, Spring, 1992. pp. 144-58.

[In the following essay, Hans analyzes Kundera's conception of beauty and shame in The Unbearable Lightness of Being.]

Milan Kundera's novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being provides a serious revision of our conceptions of the nature of beauty, and in so doing it forces us to reconsider the relationship between the aesthetic and our daily lives. At the same time, the novel itself reflects the changes Kundera has brought about via his Nietzschean assessment of forms. Part traditional fiction, part essay, part lyrical exclamation, The Unbearable Lightness...

(The entire section is 8152 words.)

Ellen Pifer (essay date Spring 1992)

SOURCE: "The Book of Laughter and Forgetting: Kundera's Narration against Narration," in Journal of Narrative Technique, Vol. 22. No. 2, Spring, 1992, pp. 84-96.

[In the essay below, Pifer examines the way that Kundera's notion of the novel informs his narrative methods and practice, focusing mainly on The Book of Laughter and Forgetting]

In Milan Kundera's novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, the narrator diagnoses the disease of "graphomania." "An obsession with writing books," graphomania has, he says, overtaken contemporary mass society and reached "epidemic" proportions. While graphomaniacs attempt to write their way out of the isolation...

(The entire section is 5984 words.)

John O'Brien (essay date Fall 1992)

SOURCE: "Milan Kundera: Meaning, Play, and the Role of the Author," in Critique, Vol. XXXIV, No. 1, Fall, 1992, pp. 3-18.

[Below, O'Brien analyzes "play," intrusive authorship, and the significance of history in Kundera's fiction, particularly in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and, in a brief postscript, Immortality.]

In the world of books, the author is dead and has been for quite a while—as has the traditionally axiomatic idea that the author has some say in what is being said. Yet outside the discussions of authorship taking place within the academic circle, Milan Kundera has experienced first-hand some very real...

(The entire section is 5637 words.)

Postscript: Kundera's Immortality

This analysis of play, intrusive authorship, and the significance of history in Kundera's fiction has focused considerably on The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but Kundera's novels develop contrapuntal patterns and motifs both within and between his particular texts. For example, one could hardly manage a comprehensive analysis of history without discussing The Joke at length, where, "the joke" is History. Similarly, questions about Kundera's intrusive stance in his fiction would need to look to his latest effort, Immortality. Here, the intrusive author is not only named "Milan Kundera" but compares characters in this book to characters...

(The entire section is 632 words.)

Tom Wilhelmus (review date Spring 1993)

SOURCE: "Time and Distance," in Hudson Review, Vol. XLVI, No. 1, Spring, 1993, pp. 247-55.

[In the following excerpt, Wilhelmus evaluates "the new 'definitive' version" of The Joke in relation to contemporary history.]

In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the animals say to Nietzsche's philosopher-mystic:

"Look, we know what you teach: that all things return forever, and we along with them, and that we have already been here an infinite number of times, and all things along with us."

According to Milan Kundera, this "mad myth" is Nietzsche's means of forcing us to contemplate the horror as...

(The entire section is 905 words.)

Vicki Adams (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "Milan Kundera: The Search for Self in a Post-Modern World," in Imagination, Emblems and Expressions: Essays on Latin American, Caribbean, and Continental Culture and Identity, edited by Helen Ryan-Ranson, Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1993, pp. 233-46.

[In the following essay, Adams highlights the way Kundera's folk heritage informs his concept of identity in both his theoretical writings and his fiction, suggesting reasons for his international appeal.]

Carlos Fuentes has said that the most urgent poles of contemporary narrative are found in Latin America and in Central Europe, and the modern reader automatically thinks of Gabriel García...

(The entire section is 5549 words.)

Karen von Kunes (review date Winter 1995)

SOURCE: A review of Les testaments trahis, in World Literature Today, Vol. 69, No. 1, Winter, 1995, pp. 96-7.

[In the following review of Testaments Betrayed, von Kunes focuses on Kundera's views on the arts of Kafka and Janácek.]

Milan Kundera continues his discussion on the art of the novel in his new collection of essays Les testaments trahis (The Betrayed Testaments), published seven years after L'art du roman (Eng. The Art of the Novel) by the same house, Gallimard. Breaking his traditional structure of seven parts, Kundera examines writers from Rabelais, Hemingway, and Kafka to Kundera himself, and musicians from Stravinsky to...

(The entire section is 572 words.)

Mark Hutchinson (review date 22 October 1995)

SOURCE: "In Defense of Fiction," in New York Times Book Review, October 22, 1995, p. 30.

[In the review below, Hutchinson addresses the main themes of Testaments Betrayed.]

In 1979, while interviewing Milan Kundera for Corriere della Serra, the essayist Alain Finkielkraut remarked on how Mr. Kundera's style—"flowery, baroque"—in his first novel, The Joke, had become spare and limpid in his later books. Flowery? Baroque? On examining the French edition of The Joke, Mr. Kundera discovered that his translator had sown the book with metaphors. "The sky was blue"? No: "A periwinkle October sky hoisted its sumptuous colors on the masthead." This...

(The entire section is 1220 words.)

Robert Tashman (review date 6 May 1996)

SOURCE: A review of Slowness and Testaments Betrayed, in Nation, Vol. 262, No. 18, May 6, 1996, pp. 58-60.

[Below, Tashman faults the structure and characterization of Slowness, then complains about various arguments presented in Testaments Betrayed, finding them "without merit but worth countering."]

In reading Slowness, I did not feel the need, as one does with a strong piece of writing, to establish a distance from it and allow it to work indirectly, and to put it down for a time; and having put it down anyway, I was not eager to pick it up again and resume reading. I disliked the first twenty pages of this novel, which seemed...

(The entire section is 1882 words.)

Angeline Goreau (review date 7 July 1996)

SOURCE: "Speed," in New York Times Book Review, July 7, 1996, p. 5.

[In the following review, Goreau outlines the plot of Slowness, admiring its complexity of themes despite its brevity.]

Metaphysical speculation was once happily married to the novel, practiced to great effect by masters like Voltaire and Diderot. Since the end of the Enlightenment, however, the philosophical novel—as opposed to the novel of ideas or the novel of social protest—has become a rarity. Milan Kundera, who has more or less single-handedly reinvented the form for his own use, is careful to point out that his novels are not engaged in the translation of philosophy into fiction. His...

(The entire section is 1468 words.)