Kundera, Milan (Vol. 115)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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) 1979
∗∗Jacques et son maitre: Hommage a Denis Diderot [Jacques and His Master: An Homage to Diderot in Three Acts, 1985] (drama) 1981
∗∗L'insoutenable l'égèreté de l'être [The Unbearable Lightness of Being] (novel) 1984
L'art du roman [The Art of the Novel, 1988] (essays) 1986
∗∗L'immortalite [Immortality, 1991] (novel) 1990
Les Testaments trahis [Testaments Betrayed: An Essay in Nine Parts, 1995] (essay) 1993
La Lenteur [Slowness: A Novel, 1996] (novel) 1995
L'identite [Indentity: A Novel, 1998] (novel) 1997
∗Kundera collected the eight stories contained in the original Czech edition of this work from...
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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 an effort to explore erotic possibilities, they discover sides of their personalities that have previously remained hidden. For some the revelations result in confusion and pain—ugliness and desperation have been exposed. For others the revelations are cause for wonder and joy—a form of beauty has entered their lives.
Life Is Elsewhere is a comic novel that traces the life of a poet, Jaromil, from his birth to his death. Jaromil's mother, Maman, on whom the author focuses first, is a typical Kundera character. Ashamed and unsure of her body for years, she has an affair with an engineer and rapidly becomes aware of her sexual potential, learning "to savor the pleasures of physical existence." After recording...
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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 given languages, or invented their own, or revised the idea of composition entirely by assembling their books as collages.
Appearing noticeably in the United States 15 or 20 years ago was the disclaimed fiction in which the author deliberately broke the mimetic spell of his text and insisted that the reader should not take his story to heart or believe in the existence of his characters. Disclaiming had the theoretical advantage of breaking through to some approximation of the chaos and loss of structure in life. The subject of these fictions became the impossibility of maintaining them, and the author by his candor became the only character the reader could believe in. John Barth is one writer who comes to mind as having...
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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 ultimately reassuring. They are the truths necessary for fiction, and therefore necessary for life. The first kind contribute brilliantly not to life itself but to what seems an understanding of it. And that too is necessary for us, or at least desirable, and enjoyable.
Milan Kundera's latest novel is certainly one of the very good ones. It is in fact so amazingly better than anything he has written before that the reader can hardly believe it, is continually being lost in astonishment. In manner and technique it is not much different from his previous books, but the story here at last really compels us, and so do the hero and heroine. Kundera's great strength has always been his wit and intelligence, and his particular way...
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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 wearing a different shoe on each foot. He was in a quandary: he wanted to point out her mistake, but was afraid he would hurt her. So during the two hours they spent walking through the city together he kept his eyes fixed on her feet. It was then that he had his first inkling of what it means to suffer.
This passage from The Unbearable Lightness of Being illustrates well Milan Kundera's art of storytelling—its concreteness, its finesse—and brings us closer to understanding the secret due to which, in his last novel, the pleasure of reading is continuously rekindled. Among so many writers of novels, Kundera is a true novelist in the sense that the characters' stories are his first interest:...
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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 instant symbolic meaning. Nothing in Eastern Europe can happen by accident. The logical extreme of this attitude is paranoia, a condition in which reality becomes so pervasively, oppressively meaningful that its slightest fragments operate as minatory signs in some utterly coherent text. Once the political state extends its empire over the whole of civil society, social reality becomes so densely systematized and rigorously coded that one is always being caught out in a kind of pathological 'overreading', a compulsive semiosis which eradicates all contingency. "No symbol where none intended". Samuel Beckett once remarked: but in 'totalitarian' societies, monolithic structures of meaning, one can never be quite certain what's intended and what...
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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 literature or criticism. Whatever moral arrangements the Czechoslovak subjects of his narratives might suggest to us, Mr. Kundera as critic is little inclined to dwell upon them. Instead, he dispassionately explains—and with singular instructiveness, as he ranges from Cervantes and Richardson to Kafka, Joyce and Hermann Broch—how novels are made and why; how the novel and its history constitute a specific form of knowledge not to be confused with philosophy, politics or psychology; and why novels are and should be written at all. Linda Asher's translation from the French deftly conveys the lucidity of Mr. Kundera's prose.
The emphasis on the formal aspects of fiction in The Art of the Novel is accompanied by an overt...
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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 ameliorating the effects of various kinds of belief, they also do something more. They 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. Comedy and laughter, in other words, are not just corrective responses or antidotes to the imposition of someone else's idea of moral and social order; they are expressions of the mind's attempt to understand itself and its world when the imperatives of beliefs about how life should be are suspended. For this reason, comedy and laughter do not by themselves resolve the dilemmas of Kundera's characters...
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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 of Being is a decidedly impure form, one that celebrates its mixed heritage even as it establishes an essential relationship between shame and beauty. In addressing the linkages between the beautiful and the shameful, the novel also registers the ways in which our attitude toward these most fundamental regions of human existence affect our political disposition as well, for Kundera demonstrates throughout the book that even as all human relationships have something to do with questions of power, so too do the manifestations of power reflect the individual's attitude toward his or her sense of beauty and shame. The ultimate effect of all these revisions of the basic categories of human experience is to raise again the question that...
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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 induced by an advanced state of "social atomization," their obsession with self-expression paradoxically reinforces and perpetuates the sense of "general isolation" that is symptomatic of the disease. Kundera's narrator thus concludes his diagnosis: "The invention of printing originally promoted mutual understanding. In the era of graphomania the writing of books has the opposite effect: everyone surrounds himself with his own writings as with a wall of mirrors cutting off all voices from without."
Diagnosing within his own book the disease of book-writing, Kundera does more than parody the conditions under which his texts are generated and produced. Through his novel approach to novel-writing—most particularly, through the...
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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 implications of being an author and writing a "dangerous" text. Because of the works he authored before the Russian invasion, Kundera was fired from his teaching post, his books were removed from libraries and universally banned, and he was denied the means to support himself. Until recently, his novels have been read in dozens of languages with the ironic exception of the language in which the novels were written.
The challenge to the common effacement of the author is more appropriately found, however, in Kundera's texts themselves. Kundera's novels give voice to a powerful intrusive author identifying himself bluntly as none other than Milan Kundera. Enriched by the more radical narrative examples of Sterne and Diderot,...
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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 in earlier books and lends a copy of Life Is Elsewhere to another character (who never reads it). Immortality is also Kundera's most extended attempt to discuss directly the significance of the author in interpretation. In particular, the novel strongly argues against the idea that interpretation should be constrained by historical or biographical contexts.
Hemingway laments to Goethe how "instead of reading my books, they're writing books about me," with specific disgust aimed at the "army of university professors all over America … busy classifying, analyzing, and shoveling everything into articles and books." And Goethe answers by retelling his nightmare of theater fans that come to see a puppet show of...
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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 well as the beauty and sublimity of life's events in a way which prevents our overlooking them because they are so fleeting. Without some such concept—that an event may return again and again to haunt us—"We would need take no more note of it than of a war between two African kingdoms in the fourteenth century, a war that altered nothing in the destiny of the world, even if a hundred thousand blacks perished in excruciating torment" (The Unbearable Lightness of Being). Repetition, recurrence, the myth of eternal return show the weight of history and create the awareness that life has significance and depth. In some fashion, this fact is illustrated in each of the works which follow. Each is concerned with time, and each creates...
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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 Márquez and Milan Kundera. This paper will look at one of these well-known authors, Milan Kundera, in terms of the Slavic soul representing its geographic standing between East (the land of orthodoxy or ideology), and West (the land of nihilism). Kundera is interesting in this connection because he resists either camp: what he calls the angelic laughter of certainty, of truth, of ideology, and the demonic laughter of infinite relativism, cynicism, and nihilism we have heard so much about in Western philosophy.
Milan Kundera, the Czech writer who has been living in Paris for more than twenty years, and writing for a foreign audience because his books were banned in his own land, does lean toward the abyss (nihilism), does...
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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 Janácek, this time in nine parts, each independent yet—like a novel—united by the theme of betrayed art. He advances his thesis of "the art of the novel being born from humor, i.e. laughing at God," arguing that humor—dispersed in a novel's ambiguity—is the most difficult aspect of art to understand. As in his previous essays, Kundera treats music as an aggressive, mysterious force that has influenced the history and development of the art of the novel.
The central figure of the author's discussions is Kafka, in particular his two works The Castle and The Trial. Examining word by word a passage on the sexual encounter of K. and Frieda, Kundera proves the translators' betrayals: their liberty in...
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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 outlandish piece of literary embroidery was then used as the source text for the Argentine edition, among others. Nor did the book fare any better with Mr. Kundera's original English publisher, who helpfully edited out all the reflexive passages, along with the chapters on musicology, and then changed the order of the various parts. Few writers can have been quite so unfortunate in their appointed go-betweens. But Mr. Kundera had learned his lesson: as a note tells us at the end of the revised French translation of The Joke, he now devotes almost as much time to overseeing foreign editions of his work as he does to writing.
A writer's work can be betrayed in many ways. The French edition of Nadezhda Mandelstam's memoirs...
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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 random and directionless; then, in a crazed and rushing confluence of unexplained references and abruptly introduced characters, it caught my interest. Unfortunately, my engagement did not continue; my expectations, at first high because the book is by Kundera, then lowered, and then suddenly raised, were in the end excessive. I have admired Kundera for showing, in some of his other books, a vein of the rarest mineral in contemporary fiction: honesty regarding the state of the novel form. He has offered, elsewhere, constructive efforts out of a retrenched and unpromising aesthetic that draws from film, the bad influences of television and commercial culture, and impersonal developments in the history of the novel. He has also tried to avoid a...
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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 modus operandi is to bring ideas into play—floating hypotheses, improvising, interrogating.
In roomy, expansive novels like The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and, most recently, Immortality, he uses an astonishing spectrum of instruments to get at meaning. Cutting rapidly from one story to another, interleaving different historical periods, he shifts from anecdote to satire, biography to autobiography, dramatization to historical narrative, ontological meditation to criticism—given voice by narrators who range from omniscient to personal, including an invented "I" whose name happens to be Milan.
But this richness is anything but disparate: Mr....
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Bayley, John. "Fictive Lightness, Fictive Weight." Salmagundi, Vol. 73 (Winter 1987): 84-92.
Discusses the dialectic organization of The Unbearable Lightness of Being in relation to the development of the modern novel.
Bold, Alan. "Half Love, Half Joke." Times Literary Supplement, No. 4114 (5 February 1982): 131.
Reviews The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, emphasizing its expression of the problem of existential identity.
Caldwell, Ann Stewart. "The Intrusive Narrative Voice of Milan Kundera." Review of Contemporary Fiction 9, No. 2 (Summer 1989): 46-52.
Overview of the function of the narrator's voice in Kundera's fiction.
Cooke, Michael. "Milan Kundera, Cultural Arrogance and Sexual Tyranny." Critical Survey 4, No. 1 (1992): 79-84.
Contests Kundera's conception of the novel genre in several theoretical articles as the embodiment of "the European spirit," identifying its flaws and limitations.
Gray, Paul. "Broken Circles." Time 116, No. 24 (15 December 1980): 89.
Review of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, focusing on the character's...
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