A talented and prolific writer, master of the novel, short story, and drama, Milan Kundera (koon-DEHR-uh) is considered one of the major innovators in twentieth century European literature. He was the son of Ludvík and Milada (Janosikova) Kundera; his father, a student of the Czech composer Leo Janáek, was a talented pianist. Intending to become a musician, Kundera studied piano with his father, but he put aside music in 1948 to study scriptwriting and directing at the Film Faculty of the Prague Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts, where he later taught. In reaction against Nazism he joined the Communist Party in 1947 but was purged twice for his outspoken views. In a speech before the Congress of Czechoslovak Writers in 1967 Kundera called for writers to lead the campaign for artistic and cultural freedom that became the Prague Spring of 1968. After the Soviet suppression of Alexander Dubek’s reforms, Kundera was not permitted to publish his works; in 1975 he and his wife were allowed to immigrate to Paris, and he became a French citizen in 1981. He spent much of 1990 in Martinique and Haiti.
Kundera began his literary career as a poet in the 1950’s, publishing three collections of poems before turning to drama and, finally, to fiction, finding greater exactness and precision of expression in prose. In his three collections of short stories, condensed as Laughable Loves, Kundera uses sexual comedy as a way of poking fun at a world of grim ideological constraints and artistic repression. In a totalitarian state, Kundera has observed, one’s private life represents the last bastion of freedom against government control. Sexual expression becomes either a metaphor for or a sublimation of political expression. If the state promotes a rigid morality, then promiscuity becomes a form of rebellion, though a self-destructive one for many of Kundera’s characters.
His first novel, The Joke, shows Kundera to be a master of ironic sexual comedy with deeper cultural and political implications. The Joke, whose plot is built around a practical joke that backfires, reveals the dangers of a world lacking a sense of humor. Ludvík Jahn, a young student, sends a humorous postcard to his grim Stalinist girlfriend, Marketa, with three parodies of Marxist slogans: “Optimism is the opiate of the people! A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky!” For this prank he is called before his local...
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Milan Kundera’s life has followed as curious and circuitous a course as the plots of his polyphonic novels. He worked as a laborer and jazz musician. Influenced by his father, Ludvík, a noted pianist and musicologist, Kundera attended Charles University and the Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts in Prague, where he studied piano, composing, film directing, and screenwriting. He joined the Communist Party in 1948, was expelled in 1950, and was reinstated in 1956. He published three volumes of poetry during the 1950’s, joined the academy’s film faculty in 1958, and began writing plays and stories in the early 1960’s.
The year 1967 proved to be an especially momentous one in Kundera’s life. That year saw his marriage to Vera Hrabankova; the publication and immediate success of his first novel, The Joke; and his provocative speech at the fourth Writers Union meeting. Warning against the threat political repression posed to Czech literature, he spearheaded efforts to speed reform and extend freedom. The reformers carried the day. Antonín Novotny fell from power; Alexander Dubek rose, and with him the Prague Spring of 1968, which ended when the Soviet army, “legitimized” by the token participation of its Warsaw Pact allies, invaded Czechoslovakia on August 20. Kundera was soon branded a counterrevolutionary; he was dismissed from his faculty position, was expelled from the party for a second time, and found his plays banned and his...
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