Milan Kundera 1929–
Czech-born French novelist, short story writer, dramatist, poet, critic, and essayist.
The following entry provides an overview of Kundera's career through 1996. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 4, 9, 19, 32, and 68.
Celebrated internationally as one of Europe's most outstanding contemporary novelists, Kundera has lived in exile in France since 1975, and much of his work was banned until recently in his native country, the former Czechoslovakia. He began his writing career as a poet and dramatist before he wrote the fiction that brought him international critical attention, most notably the novels Le livre du rire et de l'oubli (1979; The Book of Laugher and Forgetting) and L'lnsoutenable l'égèreté de l'être (1984; The Unbearable Lightness of Being). Kundera's novels represent the psychological motivations, emotional complexes, and erotic impulses of vulnerable characters who question their various aspects of their identities when faced with political events and social values beyond their control. Kundera often infuses authorial commentary into his narratives, presents events in disjointed time frames and from multiple perspectives, and patterns his novels in a manner similar to musical compositions. Dismissing traditional novelistic structures, Kundera uses these narrative devices to illustrate his own aesthetic of the novel, which emphasizes parallel explorations of related themes, active philosophical contemplation, and the integration of dreams and fantasy with realistic analysis. Although some reviewers have considered his work in the context of exile literature or have labeled him a "dissident" writer despite his protests to the contrary, most critics have noted the complex structure of his novels, identifying that component as one of the integral aspects of his art.
Born and raised in Brno, Czechoslovakia, Kundera is the son of Ludvik Kundera, a well-known pianist who collaborated with the famous Czech composer Leos Janácek. Although he once studied piano, Kundera decided at age nineteen that music was not his true vocation. In 1948 he left Brno 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 witnessed the atrocities of World War 11, joined the Communist Party. In 1952 he began teaching cinematography at the Prague Academy, and the next year he published his first poetry collection, Clovek, zahrada širá, which was immediately condemned by the Communists for using surrealistic techniques and lacking universality. Kundera wrote two other volumes of poetry. Poslední máj (1955) and Monology (1957), while teaching at the academy, but he later renounced these works as adolescent and insignificant. During the early 1960s Kundera attained literary prominence in his homeland by serving on the Central Committee of the Czechoslovak Writers Union from 1963 to 1969 and on the editorial boards of the journals Literarni noviny and Listy. Meanwhile, he published a critical work about Czechoslo-vakian novelist Vladislava Vancury, Unemi románu (1961), and his first play, Majitelé klícu (1962; The Owners of the Keys) was staged in Czechoslovakia and abroad. Kundera then turned his attention to writing fiction. Despite his esteemed reputation, Kundera spent two years battling the censorship board before his first novel, Zert (1967; The Joke), was deemed acceptable for publication in its original form. In a 1967 speech opening the Fourth Czechoslovak Writers Congress, Kundera candidly admonished censorship and other repressive tactics used against writers. During the so-called "Prague Spring" of 1968, when the push for cultural freedom had reached its zenith. Kundera's novel enjoyed enormous popular success. However, when Russian military forces invaded Czechoslovakia later that year, Kundera was expelled from the Communist Party and released from his teaching position at the Prague Academy, and his works were removed from libraries and bookstores. He eventually fled his native country in 1975 after he was invited to teach comparative literature at the University of Rennes in France. In 1979, after the publication of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, the Czechoslovak government revoked his citizenship. In 1980, Kundera accepted a professorship at the Ecole des hautes études en sciénces sociales in Paris. Since garnering international praise for The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which was later adapted for film and produced in 1988, Kundera has written two additional books of literary criticism. L'art du roman (1986; The Art of the Novel) and Les Testaments trahis (1993; Testaments Betrayed), and three novels, L'Immortalité (1990; Immortality). La Lenteur (1995; Slowness), and L'identité (1997; Identity.
Kundera's collection of short stories, Laughable Loves, addresses the illusory nature of love and the consequences of using sexuality to gain power and influence. In these stories, some characters use sexual encounters to exercise their personal power; others see them as a gauge of self-worth. One of his best-known stories, "The Hitchhiking Game," involves a young couple who engage in role-playing while on vacation, but the game ultimately reveals the painful implications of their relationship. In "Symposium" a doctor refuses a sexual encounter with a nurse as an assertion of independence. Many of Kundera's works are dominated by a form based on the number seven. The Joke focuses on Ludvik, a university student who firmly embraces Communist ideology. After Ludvik sends a postcard in which he playfully parodies Marxist slogans to his zealously political girlfriend, she shows it to Zamenek, a fervent, humorless Communist student-leader, who has Ludvik expelled from both the university and the party. Years later, after Ludvik has been drafted into the army and forced to work in a coal mine, he seeks revenge by seducing Zamenek's wife, who, unknown to Ludvik, has been separated from her husband for two years. La vie est ailleurs (1973; Life Is Elsewhere) is a satirical portrait of Jaromil, a young poet, who was bullied by his doting mother to develop an artistic temperament and runs away to write; this novel exposes the way poetry can contribute to the hysteria of revolution and presents Kundera's belief that youth is a "lyrical age" laced with neuroses, romantic illusions, and endless self-contemplation. La valse aux adieux (1976; The Farewell Party) concerns the destructive nature of sexual politics and self-deception. Set in a Czechoslovakian resort town famous for infertility treatments, this novel chronicles the aftermath of a one-night stand that results in pregnancy and addresses such ethical issues as abortion, sperm-banking, and suicide. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting portrays numerous characters who are linked thematically yet never interact. Focusing on the repercussions of forgetting personal and cultural histories, the metaphysical implications of laughter, and how ideological doctrines often lead to deluded notions of good and evil. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting suggests that memory is a form of self-preservation in a world where history is usually distorted by cultural forces. The Unbearable Lightness of Being treats similar themes and centers on the connected lives of two couples—Tomas and Tereza, and Franz and Sabina. Set in Czechoslovakia around the time of the Russian invasion, this novel examines the hardships and limitations that can result from commitment yet also reveals the lack of meaning for life without such responsibility. In addition, each character represents a particular motif that is explored throughout the novel in various contexts, reminiscent of the variations in a musical composition. Immortality is spiked throughout by authorial intrusions commenting on the writing process of the narrative and is the first of Kundera's novels to be set in France. The book considers the way media manipulation, popular culture, and capitalist technocracy distort the perception of reality. Besides presenting a love triangle among its principal characters, Immortality also contains dialogues between such notable literary figures as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Ernest Hemingway. Slowness, Kundera's first novel originally written in French, is a fictional triptych that features the simultaneous stories of the narrator and his wife (Milan and Vera Kundera) en route to a French chateau; an eighteenth-century chevalier and his mistress engaged in a highly stylized sexual encounter at the same chateau; and a entomologist, an exiled woman ex-scientist, and her groupie who are attending a conference at the chateau on the day of the narrator's arrival. The action of the entire novel apparently takes place in a single location over the course of a single night through a telescoping of time, a device sometimes read as a parody of the classical rules of unity of action. Both The Art of the Novel and Testaments Betrayed discuss Kundera's ideas about the aesthetics of the novel, the former outlining in seven sections the formal development of the European novel and the latter suggesting in nine parts that critics of the novel form have betrayed the profound sense of humor that informs the novelistic tradition, particularly with respect to Russian novelist Franz Kafka.
Throughout his career Kundera has received numerous literary awards, and his novels have earned him worldwide critical acclaim. Kundera has been consistently admired for juxtaposing fictitious and biographical elements in his novels and for simultaneously exploring recurrent themes. Many critics have focused on the political disillusionment that is perceived in Kundera's work, usually in consideration of his close involvement in Czechoslovakian political and cultural turmoils of the twentieth century. But Kundera has claimed that there has been too much emphasis on the politics of his novels, and that he especially dislikes being classified as a dissident writer. While some critics have castigated his narrative techniques as disorienting, usually citing his disjointed plotting, episodic characterizations, and authorial intrusions as principal distractions, a number of critics have appreciated Kundera's style, focusing on his use of humor and his sense of "play" in narration, particularly in terms of the vitality of his erotic themes. Richard Gaughan has observed that comedy and laughter "bring to the surface and make explicit the often hidden and always painful struggle between the equally necessary but mutually exclusive demands of freedom and belief—a struggle that Kundera sees as the characteristic condition of the modern European mind." Although he was recognized as an important literary figure in his homeland early in his career, critical attacks on his writings from Czech quarters "have been unceasing" since he left, according to Karen von Kunes, particularly for what has been perceived as his abandonment of his Czech heritage for the adulation of Western European and American readers and critics.