Milan Kundera Kundera, Milan (Vol. 9) - Essay

Kundera, Milan (Vol. 9)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Kundera, Milan 1929?–

Kundera is a Czech poet, playwright, novelist, short story writer, musician, and filmmaker. Although his work has been banned in Czechoslovakia since 1967, his satiric fiction is more personal than political. (See also CLC, Vol. 4.)

Kundera's fiction is outspoken, but never polemic. His basic concern is with the tricks people play on themselves rather than on the state, and a man may make a fool of himself under any political system; for Kundera, the central arena for the absurdity of humankind is the relations of men and women. Even though the short stories of Laughable Loves were published in Czechoslovakia in 1968 at the height of liberalization, they are almost entirely apolitical.

Life Is Elsewhere, completed in June 1969 after the reform movement had crumpled, either took more chances or simply led in more dangerous directions. It makes some pointed remarks about imprisonment and torture during the years after the war, and pokes bitter fun at the childishness of revolutionary fervor. Its misguided hero's act of Party loyalty leads to his girl friend's imprisonment and probably to her brother's death. Whether or not Kundera realized that his novel would be refused publication, he has not recanted; thrust into official darkness, now he is bled of all his standing by each relentless little tick of an apparatchik of the gross new hardline bureaucracy.

Still, Life Is Elsewhere is not a political novel, but the fictional biography of a lyric poet. Indeed, Kundera intends to be general as well as specific: he gives us the biography of all lyric poets, and the comedy lies in the specific application of the general rule….

Kundera always finds his comedy in the gap between a man's postures and his real relation to the world. And since the lyric poet eternally poses and is always out of touch with reality, he is the perfect comic character…. Lyric poetry has the fleeting genius of immaturity, and the poet dramatizes situations he fails to understand, nevertheless transforming them into rich verse. The one girl with whom Jaromil goes to bed is a mousy clerk he accidentally acquired while pursuing her attractive friend. It scarcely matters. He becomes a Communist revolutionary, since "the more I make love, the more I want to make revolution—the more I make revolution the more I want to make love"—a slogan from the student uprising at the Sorbonne, cited by Kundera. Any girl will do, any revolution. Within and behind the comedy lies the implication that Communism is a homely girl indeed.

Since Kundera's short stories are studies in motivation, their characters are as fully and carefully drawn as those in his novels. His world is made up of people, and he wastes no time on scene painting. Trapped in their own poses, his characters are forced to learn more about themselves in order to break free, and sometimes these dives into the dark waters of the psyche go beyond comedy altogether. (p. 1248)

Most of the stories have a lighter tone…. If "The Hitchhiking Game" had the taut lines of Roman Polanski's Knife in the Water, "A Symposium" is an internalized bedroom farce like Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night. (pp. 1248-49)

Charles Nicol, "Writing Well in the Wrong Places," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1974; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), October 25, 1974, pp. 1248-49.

Kundera's new novel, ["The Farewell Party,"] like much of his previous work, reverses our expectations in unsettling ways, and once we have accepted conditions we did not expect in the first place, reverses them again and again, until we see that the prevailing terms of the understanding were contained all along in the fine print while our attention was slyly deflected elsewhere. Who would expect of a contemporary Czech novel the atmosphere of sexual farce more suited to the French or Viennese turn-of-the-century stage?

"The Farewell Party" seems washed in that light. The health spa and fertility clinic that is the setting is only a four-hour drive from the unnamed "capital," but it might as well be in another, timeless, world….

Sexual comedy,… burlesque; or so it seems. Throughout, the tone holds icily to that of high comedy, elegant, worldly, just as the narrative gracefully weaves its patterns until the inevitable design is wholly achieved. But in Kundera's work, comedy and farce, although they are persistent elements in his sense of life and practice of art, are always subverted and transformed by darker, more ambiguous tones. (p. 4)

Kundera … has fashioned the kind of novel still possible for an Eastern European writer who declines to submit in the face of crushing penalties. As if oblivious, he remains faithful to his subtle, wily, devious talent for a fiction of "erotic possibilities … and enterprises" (Philip Roth's phrase in introducing the American edition of Kundera's stories) in a setting "beyond justice."… "The Farewell Party" is the kind of "political novel" a cunning, resourceful, gifted writer writes when it is no longer possible to write political novels. (p. 18)

Saul Maloff, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 6, 1976.

At the outset this new novel by [Kundera] sounds much like a bedroom farce. A famous jazz trumpeter, Klima, is a confirmed womanizer deeply in love with his wife…. Ruzena, a nurse at a spa celebrated for its gynecological miracles, calls Klima to say that as a result of a one-night stand … she is pregnant by him. Pregnancy is in a different category from philandering …, so Klima hares off to persuade her to have an abortion. The next few days see a fair amount of bed-hopping.

The Farewell Party plainly doesn't aim, as much current European fiction does, to be a self-justifying aesthetic or lyric event, whatever that may be. But, to begin with, it is at least informative. So, even beyond the iron curtain people tell lies to avoid marrying people to whom they have told lies to get into bed…. One touch of shabbiness makes the whole world kin….

The whole world is kin. But—we are casually told—Jakub, the political dissident soured by his misfortunes, is unofficial ward to a girl whose father, his friend, was executed. This is the sort of passing remark one doesn't too often meet with in Anglo-American writing…. The turns and counterturns of Czech communism since 1948 form the other strand in Kundera's work…. This strand is counterpointed with the "private life," the hopes and needs, exploitations, and treacheries, of sexuality. The counterpointing is so complicated (perhaps the Czech has too much to tell) that it is hard to grasp the final significance of this tangled music.

The similarities between The Farewell Party and The Joke, Kundera's celebrated first novel, are striking. And not confined to similarities of generalized irritation, distaste, and at times disgust. According to Jakub, the saddest discovery of his life is that the victims of history are no better than their oppressors, for the roles are always reversible: and so it is advisable simply to blame everything on the Creator for making man the way he is. Otherwise, "to come to the conclusion that there is no difference between the guilty and their victims is to reach a state where you abandon all hope. And that, my dear, is a definition of hell." In The Joke Kostka meditates on Ludvik, the hero and victim of the "joke," a figure much like Jakub, another political unfortunate, another soured survivor: "You have never forgiven mankind … such general bitterness toward people is evil and sinful. It has become your curse. Because to live in a world in which no one is forgiven, where all are irredeemable, is the same as living in Hell." Both Jakub and Ludvik know that this is so: the knowledge doesn't help them very much.

As for humor, the true and harsh joke of The Joke is not so much the joke of the title—the facetious postcard, "Optimism is the opium of the people!" which Ludvik as a student sent to his girlfriend and which led to his expulsion from the Party—as the joke arising out of Ludvik's attempt to avenge himself on his opportunist persecutor, fifteen years later, by seducing the man's wife…. Ludvik brings off the seduction, only to find that the couple have lived separately for the past three years and that his erstwhile enemy now has a young and much more attractive girlfriend—much more attractive to Ludvik, too….

The humor in The Farewell Party, which even has what resembles a happy if somewhat farcical ending, is considerably lighter and less abrasive, and derives chiefly from the activities of Dr. Skreta, whose specialty is curing barrenness in wives. This he does by means of injections from his private sperm bank. It is truly an agreeable relief to see the melancholy Jakub, about to say farewell to his native land, noting how many little Skretas there seem to be around. (p. 49)

Dr. Skreta and the clinic are likely to remind us of Hofrat Behrens, Dr. Krokowski, and the International Sanatorium Berghof of Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain. People at the Berghof, Herr Settembrini remarked, were possessed of two ideas, and only two: "temperature—and then again temperature"—by the second temperature meaning a fervid preoccupation with local amatory activities…. But where The Magic Mountain has Goethe and German music behind it, The Farewell Party has only tawdry destructive ideologies and a jazz trumpeter. (pp. 49-50)

While The Farewell Party commands one's intellectual respect and admiration, to read it is not wholly a pleasure. The sourness, the glum cynicism consequent upon disenchantment and alienation, come through too strongly, or too repetitively; there is an excess of soul-searching, whether self-accusatory or self-justificatory; it has the air of a cold-hearted metaphysical puzzle whose terms are either incomplete or not clearly enough set out. How far these impressions are due to inadequacies and injustices in translation I cannot say. But, for instance, Bartleff hardly seems much of a saint, or mysterious, or special, when he says of the dead Ruzena, "You have no notion what a fine person was locked inside of her." Novels may be very different from lyric poetry, but style tells with them too.

The richness of The Magic Mountain, its "meticulous" solidity and its diversity of viewpoints, in a sense leave the reader where he was—though they leave him much better informed…. Not so in The Farewell Party, which, whatever its truthfulness, is finally lowering in both its explicitness and its clever irony. The world of The Magic Mountain could go somewhere, anywhere—the world of The Farewell Party and The Joke doesn't look to be going anywhere at all. Many readers will be ready to accept this as inevitable and commiserate with its truthful author. I am not sure about this response. Perhaps literature needs to be something more than simply and solely true to the facts. (p. 50)

D. J. Enright, "The Disenchanted," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1976 NYREV, Inc.), September 16, 1976, pp. 49-50.