Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 847
Kundera's writing career has in large part been determined by the political circumstances of Czechoslovakia under which he wrote. Before becoming a novelist, for which he has won international critical acclaim, Kundera was a poet and playwright His first book of poetry, published in 1953, was denounced by the censors. Nonetheless, he published two more books of poetry, in 1955 and 1957. His first play, written in 1962, was staged both in Czechoslovakia and abroad. His first novel, The Joke, was delayed in publication for several years, due to conflict with the statesponsored censors. As Czechoslovakia was under Communist rule, any literature not conforming to the strict standards of ‘‘socialist realism’’ was suspect. Socialist realism as a literary standard requires that a story or poem support the principles of Marxism within a realistic setting. The Joke questions Communist society, as it centers around a young man who, as a result of a humorous postcard sent to his girlfriend, is denounced as subversive. Nevertheless, during the brief period of democratic reform in Czechoslovakia, from 1962 to 1968, Kundera's novel was finally published in its original form in 1967.
During the period of reform, Kundera was a member of the central committee of the Czechoslovak Writers Union (from 1963 to 1969). In June of 1967, Kundera gave a memorable speech at the Fourth Czechoslovak Writer's Conference, criticizing censorship, and calling for freedom of expression for writers. Many writers followed Kundera's example, echoing similar speeches at this same conference. As a direct result, repressive measures against these outspoken writers, and censorship of their work, became harsher. However, by the winter of 1968, increased efforts at reform were in part attributed to the influence of these same writers. During the ‘‘Prague Spring’’ of 1968, which culminated the height of the reform era, The Joke enjoyed enormous popularity.
In 1968, however, after Soviet troupes invaded and occupied the country, the period of reform was followed by a crackdown on writers considered to be dissident. Kundera was among those whose books were banned from publication and removed from bookstores and libraries. In addition, Kundera was fired from his teaching position at the Prague Academy and forbidden to publish any of his work in Czechoslovakia. Similar censure and censorship were imposed upon other prominent writers of his generation, such as Miroslav Holub and Vaclav Havel.
As a consequence of his censure, Kundera was also forbidden to travel in the West, until, in 1975, he was given permission to move to France in order to accept a post as Invited Professor of Comparative Literature at the Universite des Rennes II. When his novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, was published in 1979, his Czechoslovakian citizenship was revoked. Although a novel, it focuses on a variety of characters whose stories intersect thematically, but not literally. It is set in the context of Communist Czechoslovakia, and the real historical circumstances under which Communist propaganda operated by "forgetting" historical occurrences inimical to its ideology.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being was published in 1984, garnering international praise. Set around the time of the Russian invasion, this novel focuses on two couples and concerns relationship issues such as sex and fidelity in the context of a repressive society. In 1988, The Unbearable Lightness of Being was made into a movie directed by Phil Kaufman and starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Lena Olan and Juliette Binoche. The film includes a dramatic reenactment of the citizen protests surrounding the invasion of Prague by Soviet forces.
Immortality, Kundera's first novel set in France, is characterized by an authorial voice which breaks from the narrative to comment upon the writing process itself. The central characters of the story form a love triangle. Slowness, his first novel originally written in the French language, focuses on three different stories, all of which take place on a single night at a French Chateau (although set in different time periods). The three stories include the narrator (Kundera himself) and his wife on the way to the Chateau; a liason between an eighteenth century couple; and three characters attending a conference at the chateau. His 1997 novel, Identity, was also originally written in French. Of his two works of literary criticism, The Art of the Novel (1986) outlines his theory of the development of the European novel, and Testaments Betrayed (1993) discusses humor in the novelistic tradition, with particular focus on the great Czech writer Franz Kafka.
Kundera has won many writing awards, and his novels and stories have been internationally lauded. Critics have noted his style of combining fictional characters and storytelling with historical fact. He has been particularly critical of the social and political climate of Czechoslovakia under Communist rule. The structure of his novels tends to be non-linear, often structured episodically, whereby the stories of different characters are more thematically than narratively linked. Kundera's narrative style is often characterized by authorial intrusions, in which the narrator comments on the process of storytelling. His recurrent themes include a playful eroticism in the context of repressive societal and political circumstances. Humor, games and play, however, have a dangerous edge in his stories, through which his characters act out power struggles in a world in which they feel fundamentally powerless.