The Book of Laughter and Forgetting Analysis

Milan Kundera

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is Milan Kundera’s fourth novel, following The Joke (English translation, 1969), Life Is Elsewhere (1974) and The Farewell Party (1976). In addition to the novels, a volume of short stories has been translated: Laughable Loves (1974). That is a considerable body of work, but hardly representative of Kundera’s range. He has written three books of poems, two plays, and several volumes of short stories. He has written a study of the Czech novelist Vladislav Vancura (The Art of the Novel) and, more recently, a study of Franz Kafka. Before his expulsion after the Russian invasion in 1968, he was a professor of film and literature at the Prague Film School; he has both written and directed films. The son of a celebrated pianist, he has also published music criticism. Since 1975, he and his wife have lived as émigrés in France: his books are not published in his native country, and his Czech citizenship was revoked when Le livre du rire et de l’oubli appeared in France in 1979.

Kundera is a restless artist who shifts from genre to genre, attracted by the possibilities of various forms yet impatient with any kind of decorum. Indeed, the novel—which has attracted much of his attention in recent years—appeals to him precisely because he sees it as a form which is always violating the decorum of genre. His interests are philosophical, but—possessed by demons of mockery and eroticism—he writes fiction instead of pensées. Extraordinarily productive and energetic, a man of deep culture, conversant as a professional with at least three distinct arts, he specializes in boredom, evoking it as a pervasive atmosphere again and again, in the manner of other writers obsessed with the climate of fear. An unwilling émigré, he is not essentially a political writer. His intelligence is perverse; there is an unpleasant streak which most reviewers of his books have passed over in silence.

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is Kundera’s best and most ambitious novel to date, and accordingly has received far more attention than any of his earlier books. The New York Times Book Review featured only one work of fiction in its gala Christmas Book issue (November 30, 1980): The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. The review—a fine one by John Updike—appeared next to an interview with Kundera conducted by his friend, Philip Roth: review and interview were jointly headed “The Most Original Book of the Season.”

“Original” might arouse suspicion: so often, “originality” is invoked to push an unreadable hodgepodge. Kundera’s novel earns its praise, however, and is worth the effort required of the reader to “translate” it. For the first step of the translation—from Czech to a readable English—American readers owe their gratitude to Michael Henry Heim, but every reader must make a second “translation” on his own: Kundera’s “Czech-ness” and his complex sensibility demand it. John Updike sensed this demand, commenting that Kundera’s book is “brilliant and original, written with a purity and wit that invite us directly in; it is also strange, with a strangeness that locks us out.” Perhaps Updike overstates the case, but the resistant strangeness of Kundera’s novel should be acknowledged at the outset, even as we begin “translating.”

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is an odd, arresting, and nuanced title. There is an immediate biblical resonance—“The Book of Judges,” “The First Book of Chronicles,” “The Book of Job”—reinforced by the Table of Contents, in which two of the novel’s seven sections are titled “The Angels.” The title also suggests a miscellany, like The Book of Comfort and Joy (a collection...

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Prague. Capital of Czechoslovakia, an Eastern European nation that was created after World War I, that was occupied by Nazi Germany through World War II, and that fell under the Soviet orbit in the late 1940’s. Seen through the perspectives of different characters at diverse places and times, the city becomes an emblem of the wrongs endured by the people of Czechoslovakia under communist rule. For example, in 1971, three years after the Russian occupation of his homeland, Mirek—under surveillance by the not-so-secret police—seeks to retrieve his letters from a former lover.

The novel opens in February, 1948, as the communists are taking control of the country. After describing events at the ceremony held in Prague to commemorate the event, the narrator introduces two significant and re-occurring ideas. First, that history may be altered in service to power; second, that human imagination offers escape through an element of magical realism, a communal dance in a ring. In 1950, despite the fact that several artists have been hanged by the communists, Kundera observes that the people of Prague still dance in rings—a fact that further demonstrates the contrast between the restrictive regime and the blind-to-it-all, free-spirited people of Czechoslovakia whom the regime seeks to suffocate. This tension between the controlling forces of governmental censorship and the natural forces of human emotions is reflected in the history of the characters (which some of them seek to alter) and the altered history of Czechoslovakia itself.

*Bartolomejska Street

*Bartolomejska Street. Short but famous Prague street, on which all but two buildings belong to the police. The novel’s narrator, now an excommunicated horoscope writer, takes a one-room apartment there in 1972, after the Soviet occupation of the country makes it impossible for him to work legally. From his apartment, he can see the towers of Prague Castle above,...

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Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The most striking feature about The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is the daring way Kundera blends modes or shifts about from one...

(The entire section is 187 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Perhaps the first consideration with respect to The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is some attention to the unconventionality of the...

(The entire section is 249 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Milan Kundera finds his literary inspiration among some of the novel's earliest practitioners, such as Francois Rabelais, Jonathan Swift,...

(The entire section is 126 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Please see this section in the analysis of The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

(The entire section is 13 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Banerjee, Maria Nemcova. Terminal Paradox: The Novels of Milan Kundera. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990. Thorough summary and discussion of the major themes of the novel.

Bell, Pearl K. “The Real Avant-Garde.” Commentary 70, no. 6 (December, 1980): 66-69. Places Kundera in a tradition of dissident Eastern European writing and praises The Book of Laughter and Forgetting’s originality.

Lodge, David. “Milan Kundera, and the Idea of the Author in Modern Criticism.” Critical Quarterly 26, nos. 1/2 (Spring/Summer, 1984): 105-121. Compares the narrative technique of Kundera’s first novel, The Joke (1967), to that of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, calling the latter “a masterpiece of postmodernist fiction.”

Misurella, Fred. Understanding Milan Kundera: Public Events, Private Affairs. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993. Good discussion of the novel in the wider contexts of Kundera’s thought, life, and career.

Updike, John. “Czech Angels.” In Hugging the Shore: Essays and Criticism. New York: Vintage Books, 1984. An often-cited enthusiastic review/essay that focuses on the themes of forgetting and eroticism in the novel.