Kundera, Milan 1929-
Czechoslovakian novelist, short story writer, essayist, playwright, and poet.
Kundera is considered one of Europe's outstanding contemporary writers. He is frequently labeled an Eastern European "dissident" writer despite his insistence that his works are not inherently political or propagandistic. Rather than serving as ideological puppets, Kundera's characters are usually vulnerable individuals whose views and lifestyles are challenged through events and dilemmas in their personal lives and in society. His single collection of translated stories, Laughable Loves, contains several recurring themes: the ambiguousness and mutability of individual identity; the consequences of the games that individuals play in the name of love and lust; the prevalence of the social masks that people wear to disguise their true motives and to gain approval from others; and the ironic backfiring of human plans. Kundera discovered his approach to writing while working on these short stories. As he stated in an interview with Jordan Elgrably, "My writing took flight with the first story for Laughable Loves. This was my Opus 1. Everything I'd written prior to it can be considered prehistory."
Kundera was born and raised in Brno, Czechoslovakia. His father was a well-known pianist who collaborated with the celebrated Czechoslovakian composer Leos Jǎnaček. Although he once studied piano and stated that "Jǎnaček's music [was] for me the first revelation of art," Kundera decided at age nineteen that music was not his true vocation. He left Brno in 1948 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 experienced the horrors of World War II, joined the Czechoslovakian Communist party. He began teaching cinematography at the Prague Academy in 1952 and published his first book, the poetry collection Člověk, zahrada širâ, a year later. He published two other collections of poetry while working at the academy but later renounced all of these early works as adolescent and insignificant. During the early 1960s Kundera earned recognition as an important literary figure in his homeland for his 1961 critical study of the Czechoslovakian novelist Vladislava Vančury entitled Unemí románu, his 1962 play Majitelé klíců (The Owners of the Keys), and the 1963 short story collection Směšé lásky (Laughable Loves). He served on the Central Committee of the Writer's Union and the editorial boards of the journals Literarni noviny and Listy.
Despite his reputation as one of Czechoslovakia's most notable writers, Kundera encountered resistance after submitting the manuscript of his first novel, Žert (The Joke), to a Prague publisher in 1965. Due to the perceived negative political implications of the book, Kundera spent two years battling the censorship board before The Joke was published in its original form in 1967. During the Prague Spring of 1968, when the push for cultural freedom reached its zenith and writers and intellectuals enjoyed fewer restrictions, Kundera's novel was enormously popular. Prior to the Prague Spring many writers and artists were attempting to speed reform and liberalize cultural policy by creating ideologically challenging works. In his opening address to the Fourth Czechoslovak Writers Congress in 1967, Kundera candidly admonished censorship and other repressive tactics used against Czechoslovakian writers. While his speech had been approved in advance by the Czechoslovak Party Central Committee, it was considered very controversial by government bureaucrats and some writers. Kundera's status as a writer and citizen changed radically when Czechoslovakia was invaded by Russian forces in 1968. He was expelled from the Communist Party, released from his teaching position at the Prague Academy, and his works were removed from libraries and bookstores. Kundera eventually lost the right to publish in Czechoslovakia. He finally fled his native country in 1975 after being offered a teaching position at the University of Rennes in France. In 1979 the Czechoslovakian government, in order to ensure that Kundera could never repatriate, revoked his Czechoslovakian citizenship. With the 1984 publication of L'insourenable l'égèreté de l'être (The Unbearable Lightness of Being), which garnered considerable praise and later was adapted to film, he achieved international renown. Kundera lives in Paris.
Major Works of Short Fiction
The stories in Laughable Loves were drawn from the trilogy Směšné lásky, Druhy sešsit směsných lásek, and Třetí sešit směšných lásek, collections that address the illusory nature of love and the consequences of using sexuality to gain power and influence. In "The Hitchhiking Game," one of the best known stories, a young couple engage in role-playing while on vacation. The woman, usually very inhibited and conservative, pretends she is a prostitute and at the man's urging performs a striptease on a table in a disreputable hotel. While the game begins innocently, this behavior leads to identity crises for the participants, as the woman painfully reveals when she pleads at the end of the story, "I am me, I am me, I am me. . . ." The story "Edward and God" is informed by the theme of duplicity and by Kundera's encounters with Communism. Here, a young atheistic man pretends to be godly in order to win a desirable woman's affection, but his show of religiosity lands him in trouble with his supervisor, an unattractive woman who is a fervent Communist. In order to ensure his continued employment, the young man finds himself seducing his boss—who disgusts him—with little idea of how to end this entanglement in the future.
The artistic conception of Laughable Loves is a topic common to several critical studies of the collection. Commentators have insisted that the stories, while self-sufficient, assume much more meaning when examined in relation to each other and the volume as a whole. Furthermore, some critics have asserted that Laughable Loves anticipated the novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, which employs related but largely independent narratives to illustrate several prevailing themes. Another subject of discussion is the perception of male chauvinism in Kundera's narratives. A few reviewers have found his depictions of women to be misogynistic, though John O'Brien has responded that the intention of the author was, in fact, to expose damaging attitudes toward women. Many readers have remarked on the prominence of sexuality in Kundera's stories. Mark Sturdivant has commented that "sexuality becomes a vehicle for expressing a variety of interwoven threads of commentary upon human characteristics, and for ultimately casting a pall of hopelessness and meaninglessness over mankind's fundamental existence." Agreeing, Maria Banerjee has stated that "the laughter resounding in these tales of erotic debacle is never quite free of the admixture of sadness that turns it into a grimace." Summing perhaps the unifying motif of the collection, Elizabeth Pochoda has observed: "There is in Laughable Loves this persistent and illusory connection between love and certainty. The would-be seducers attempt to circumvent the habitual oppression of their daily lives through love because love is voluntary, or so they think. . . . The characters who push hardest for certainty in love are the most laughable and the most disappointed. They take a holiday from one form of tyranny and unwittingly uncover another, their own."