Milan Kundera Biography
Milan Kundera, a Czechoslovakian and one of Europe’s greatest contemporary writers, had a love-hate relationship with communism. He joined the Communist Party in 1948 but was expelled in 1950 for anti-party activities. He wrote about the experience in his novel Zert (translated into English as The Joke). He was readmitted in 1956 and expelled again in 1970. He was in good company that time, joining other Czech writers such as Vaclav Havel. Despite his political involvement, Kundera wants to be thought of as a literary novelist, not a political novelist. Starting in 1979, he stopped writing political commentary in his works and focused more on philosophical ideas.
Facts and Trivia
- Kundera's father was a musicologist and pianist. Not only did Kundera's father teach him to play piano, but Kundera studied musicology and musical composition himself.
- Milan Kundera loves films—just not film adaptations of his books. His most famous work, 1984’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, was adapted by American director Philip Kaufman. Kundera was very unhappy with the movie and has not allowed any of his other novels to be adapted into movies.
- Kundera originally wrote in Czech, but in 1933, he began writing his novels in French. From 1985 to 1987, he translated all of his existing work into French.
- Kundera has won many awards—the Jerusalem Prize in 1985, the Herder Prize in 2000, and the Czech National Literature Prize in 2007. He is rumored to be a perennial contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature as well.
- In an interview with The Village Voice, Kundera said, “Intimate life [is] understood as one’s personal secret, as something valuable, inviolable, the basis of one’s identity.”
- Kundera’s characters are often described as figments of his own imagination. He writes very little about their appearance, choosing instead to let the reader complete his vision.
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 student committee, stripped of his party membership, expelled from college, and sent to prison. Years later, after being released from prison, Jahn tries to seduce the wife of the man who betrayed him, only to have his attempt at revenge fail as well. Interwoven in the novel are reflections on Czech history and folklore. Kundera views the novel as a means of preserving cultural memory in the face of ideological forces determined to obliterate the past. Kundera’s ironic, self-deprecating humor is reminiscent of Franz Kafka, as well as of Jaroslav Haek, whose novel The Good Soldier vejk (1921-1923) mocks the Czech temperament. Kundera has remarked that he could always tell whether a person was a Stalinist by his sense of humor.
Kundera’s second novel, Life Is Elsewhere , is a fictional biography of Jaromil, a Communist poet of mediocre talents, through whom Kundera analyzes the pretensions and self-deceptions of the lyric sensibility, particularly when it serves revolutionary movements. The novel takes its title from Arthur Rimbaud, who was quoted by André Breton in his Surrealist manifesto and later appropriated by Parisian students in 1968. Kundera commented that he wanted to write a novel that would be a critique of poetry yet...
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also convey the essence of the lyrical sensibility.
The Farewell Party is a lighter novel, in which Kundera returns to sexual farce. The characters use sex to manipulate one another. Ruzena, a nurse at an infertility spa, claims that she is pregnant by the jazz trumpeter Klima, who wants her to have an abortion. By the end of the novel, victim and victimizer merge in comic ambiguity.
Kundera returns to that theme of ideological betrayal in his fourth novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, which alludes to the betrayal of the Czech surrealist Závi Kalandra (who was hanged in 1950) by the French poet Paul Éluard. The novel is about cultural amnesia, about the conveniences and dangers of forgetting. It illustrates Kundera’s convictions about the dangers of lyrical self-intoxication and demonstrates why he moved from poetry to fiction: He believed that the novel provided the best opportunities for dispassionately studying the human condition. “The struggle of man against power,” Kundera writes, “is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”
The Unbearable Lightness of Being, perhaps Kundera’s most important novel, combines political, erotic, comic, musical, historical, and philosophical motifs in its examination of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and its aftermath. Tomas, a Czech surgeon and incorrigible womanizer, is torn between his infatuation with his mistress, Sabina, and his love for his wife, Teresa. After the Soviet occupation, when they flee to Switzerland, Teresa becomes homesick and returns to Prague. When Tomas also returns, he is barred from his profession and forced to wash windows, until they finally settle on a farming commune. Lightness and heaviness become alternating musical and philosophical motifs, as well as metaphors of choice and caprice, selfishness and responsibility.
Before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Kundera profited from his position as once-persecuted artist, for his writing confirmed what the West wanted to read about the Communist system. The works that followed—among them Immortality, Slowness, Identity, and Ignorance, as well as the collections of critical essays, The Art of the Novel and Testaments Betrayed—emphasize the rights of artists in their struggle not against the villains of his early books, political censors, but against treacherous translators, invasive biographers, and inattentive, hurried, narcissistic readers—figures who appear under many guises in his fictions. These works also display his usual skill at irony and, in complex contexts, develop insights into such aesthetic questions as the affinities between music and literature.