Milan Kundera Kundera, Milan (Vol. 32) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Milan Kundera 1929–

Czechoslovakian novelist, dramatist, and poet.

Kundera is one of Czechoslovakia's most important authors, even though much of his work has been banned in his own country and he has lived in Paris since 1975. Rejecting the tenets of socialist realism promoted by the Communist regime under Joseph Stalin, Kundera has instead explored the psychology and emotions of his characters as individuals. His fiction is very complex, often presenting events in a disjointed time frame and from the viewpoint of several characters whose sexual machinations are usually central to the stories.

Although many critics focus on the political disillusionment evident in his work, Kundera claims that there has been too much emphasis on this aspect and he especially dislikes being classified as a dissident writer. In an interview, Kundera commented: "If I write a love story, and there are three lines about Stalin in that story, people will talk about the three lines and forget the rest…." It is probable that critics examine the political implications of his work because of Kundera's involvement in the political and cultural turmoils of Czechoslovakia. As a young man he witnessed the Nazi occupation of his country during the Second World War. Kundera became a member of the Communist party that gained power after the war. Although he was expelled for a time, he was reinstated and became an influential member of the group of intellectuals who were demanding greater artistic freedom, a movement that led to a brief period of liberalization known as the Prague Spring. But after the Soviet invasion in 1969, Kundera was labeled a counterrevolutionary, his books were banned, and he lost his position teaching film studies at the Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts in Prague. Kundera left Czechoslovakia in 1975 to accept a teaching position at the University of Rennes in France.

Kundera gained international attention when two of his early works were translated and published in the West. His first novel Žert (1967; The Joke) is an ironic view of a young intellectual in a Communist country who falls out of favor with the authorities. The French version was introduced by Louis Aragon and helped establish Kundera's reputation in France, where all of his books have been especially well received. Směšné lásky (1963, 1965, 1968; Laughable Loves), which contains a preface by Philip Roth, is a collection of short stories dealing with desire and seduction.

Kundera began his writing career as a poet, and then turned to drama before writing the fiction which brought him world renown. Although he has stated that he has little regard for either his poetry or his drama, his first play was produced both in Czechoslovakia and in more than a dozen other countries. Entitled Majitelé Klíčů (1962; The Owners of the Keys), it offers a satiric look at heroism during the Nazi occupation. Kundera's later novels include Valčík na rozloučenou (1979; The Farewell Party), Život je jinde (1979; Life Is Elsewhere), and Kniha smíchu a zapomnění (The Book of Laughter and Forgetting). His recent novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984) is set in Czechoslovakia after the 1969 Russian invasion and follows two couples as they redefine their relationships. It has been interpreted as an existential examination of the pain which can result from commitment and the meaninglessness of a life without responsibility. The novel is divided into seven sections and interweaves various themes in patterns reminiscent of musical composition.

(See also CLC, Vols. 4, 9, 19 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88.)

LubomíR DoležEl

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


A follower of the tradition of the multiperspective novel in modern Czech fiction, Kundera made a substantial contribution to the development of its devices and functions.

The story of The Joke is conveyed by four Ich-narrators. The chief narrator, Ludvík Jahn, is the main protagonist of the novel. Three secondary narrators, Helena, Jaroslav, and Kostka, all have (or had) a close relationship to Ludvík: Helena as his 'victim', Jaroslav as his old classmate, Kostka as his friend and ideological antagonist. (pp. 114-15)

The fundamental problem of the narrative structure of The Joke consists in the selection of the narrators. Why were these characters and not any of the others entrusted with the function of narrating? The selection of narrators was not fortuitous but determined, I believe, by the structure and type of Kundera's novel. Typologically, The Joke can be designated an ideological novel (novel of ideas), i.e. a novel dominated in its structure by the plane of ideas. The narrators of The Joke are representatives of various systems of 'false' ideologies-myths; their narrative monologues are authentic accounts of the social conditions and of the individual directions of the destruction of myths.

The typological character of Kundera's novel determines the selection of narrators not only in a positive but also in a negative sense, i.e. by eliminating certain potential candidates. Two important agents in Ludvík's story—his 'enemy' Zemánek and his love Lucie—are not assigned the function of narrator. Their contributions to the narrative symposium are not required because they have nothing to say about the destruction of myths. (pp. 115-16)

Lucie's absence from the narrative symposium can be related also to a factor of the plot structure of the novel. In the plot construction of The Joke, Lucie assumes the role of 'mystery'. She is the 'goddess of escape' (Ludvík), both by her name, and by her role in Ludvík's personal tragedy. She is a romantic character with a mysterious past and ambiguous motivations. It is obvious that Lucie's own narration, her self-revelation, would destroy the atmosphere of romantic mystery surrounding her personality and actions. (p. 116)

It seems to me that the specific features of the particular narrative monologues reflect various stages of the myth-destroying process which the narrators have reached. Specifically, the structure and texture of the narrative monologue depends on the balance of two functions of narrator, namely the representational and the interpretative function. We assume that the balance of representation and interpretation, different in the particular narrative monologues of The Joke, reflects the narrator's stage in the myth-destroying process.

In Helena's narrative, interpretation dominates over representation. The destruction of Helena's myth occurs solely under external pressures; she herself is incapable of a critical rejection of her myth and its phraseology. Helena's myth remains naive from the beginning to the end. Her faked 'suicide' is a grotesque symbol of the perserverance of a naive myth. Helena's naiveté is also reflected in the style of her narrative. This style is very close to what is called 'stream-of-consciousness style', an uncontrolled, unorganized, spontaneous flow of freely associated motifs, trite phrases and expressions….

Kostka's evangelical myth is just the opposite of Helena's naive ideology. In his narrative performance, however, Kostka is very close to Helena. Interpretation clearly dominates over representation in his narrative. Destruction of Kostka's refractory myth is not completed; it is carried only to the stage of unsolvable dilemmas. Kostka continues to use the terms and phraseology of his impaired myth to interpret his own story as well as the stories of the other protagonists. Because of the dominance of interpretation over representation in Kostka's narrative, Kostka seems to be the least reliable narrator of the symposium. This unreliability is especially revealed in his rendering of Lucie's story. (p. 117)

Whereas in Kostka's narrative the subjective interpretation adjusts the introduced motifs to its own ends, Jaroslav's monologue is built on a parallelism of representation and...

(The entire section is 1819 words.)

Philip Roth

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Philip Roth is credited with bringing Kundera's works to the attention of the English-speaking public. The essay from which this excerpt is taken was originally published as the introduction to Kundera's Laughable Loves, 1974.]

I would think that … [Milan Kundera] would prefer to find a readership in the West that was not drawn to his fiction because he is a writer who is oppressed by a Communist regime, especially since Kundera's political novel. The Joke, happens to represent only an aspect of his wide-ranging intelligence and talent. (pp. 203-04)

But having written The Joke, Kundera, for all his wide-ranging interests, now finds himself an enemy of the state and nothing more—ironically enough, in a position very much like the protagonist of The Joke, whose error it is as a young Communist student to send a teasing postcard to his girl friend, making fun of her naïve political earnestness. (p. 204)

Well, in Eastern Europe a man should be more careful of the letters he writes, even to his girl friend. For his three joking sentences, Jahn is found guilty by a student tribunal of being an enemy of the state, is expelled from the university and the Party, and is consigned to an army penal corps where for seven years he works in the coal mines. "But, Comrades," says Jahn, "it was only a joke." Nonetheless, he is swallowed up by a state somewhat lacking a sense of humor about itself, and subsequently, having misplaced his own sense of humor somewhere in the mines, he is swallowed up and further humiliated by his plans for revenge.

The Joke is, of course, not so benign in intent as Jahn's postcard. I would suppose that Kundera must himself have known, somewhere along the line, that one day the authorities might confirm the imaginative truthfulness of his book by bringing their own dogmatic seriousness down upon him for writing as he did about the plight of Ludvík Jahn. "Socialist realism," after all, is the approved artistic mode in his country, and as one Prague critic informed me when I asked for a definition, "Socialist realism consists of writing in praise of the government and the party so that even they understand it." Oddly (just another joke, really) Kundera's book conforms more to Stalin's own prescription for art: "socialist content in national form." Since two of the most esteemed books written in the nation in question happen to be The Trial by Franz Kafka and The Good Soldier Schweik by Jaroslav Hašek, Kundera's own novel about a loyal citizen upon whom a terrible joke is played by the powers that be would seem to be entirely in keeping with the spirit of Stalin's injunction. If only Stalin were alive so that Kundera could point out to him this continuity in "national form" and historical preoccupation. (pp. 204-05)

Erotic play and power are the subjects frequently at the center of the stories that Kundera calls, collectively, Laughable Loves. Sexuality as a...

(The entire section is 1247 words.)

Peter Kussi

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Milan Kundera writes fiction in order to ask questions. Could that have actually happened? Why was he so ashamed of her anyway? Then why did he make it all up? Why did he lie? Why is she so nervous? Has Mirek ever understood her? These questions, part of a dialogue between narrator and reader, or perhaps between narrator and author, are taken from the first pages of Kundera's latest novel [The Book of Laughter and Forgetting]…. (p. 206)

Kundera interrogates his characters, poses questions to his various narrator-personae, engages his readers and puzzles them into questioning themselves. He is after clarity, definition, with a French faith in lucidity and a Czech mistrust of absolutes. The...

(The entire section is 1994 words.)

Frances Taliaferro

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Milan Kundera's dazzling novel "The Book of Laughter and Forgetting," published here in 1980, was a revelation to xenophobic readers. All preconceived notions of what a "Czech novel" might be were confounded by this extraordinary work, at once political and philosophical, erotic and spiritual, funny and profound. As for the author's intentions, Milan Kundera has commented (in a conversation with Philip Roth) on the peculiar hospitality of the novel form: "Ironic essay, novelistic narrative, autobiographical fragment, historic fact, flight of fantasy: The synthetic power of the novel is capable of combining everything into a unified whole like the voices of polyphonic music."

Now we see that...

(The entire section is 605 words.)

Janet Malcolm

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Kitsch is the enemy of every artist, of course, but it has special menace for the artist who has made his way out of the abyss of "totalitarian kitsch" (as Kundera calls it), only to find himself peering into the chasm of Western anticommunist kitsch. Kundera, who left Czechoslovakia in 1975, after he was expelled from the Communist party for the second time and could no longer publish or teach there, now lives in Paris and works in an increasingly—what to call it?—abstract, surreal, "poetic" idiom.

His need to experiment with form is surely connected to his personal vendetta against the puerilities of "socialist realism" and its "free world" counterparts….

His novels have all...

(The entire section is 1060 words.)

Tom Lippi

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Set in his native Czechoslovakia, in the aftermath of the "Prague Spring" of 1968, Milan Kundera's latest novel recounts the experiences of two couples and a dog entangled in the emotional and political intrigues accompanying the August arrival of Russian troops and Soviet order. The Unbearable Lightness of Being is the story of Tomas, a respected physician who abandons comfortable exile to return to his native land and falls victim to political oppression; of his wife Tereza, at once tormented by and inextricably drawn to her vision of home; of his mistress Sabina, who escapes to a pointless freedom devoid of all commitments; and of her gentle lover Franz, good, true, brilliant and hopeless. The characters are...

(The entire section is 621 words.)

Betty Falkenberg

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Milan Kundera] has turned interrogation into a literary method…. [In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, he] holds up to scrutiny four characters whose lives cross in a kind of cat's-cradle, but more broadly this is "an investigation of human life in the trap it has become."…

Lightness-weight and fidelity-betrayal are only two of the many questions Kundera dissects…. But ultimately, the only questions worth asking are those that have no answers. These "set the limits of human possibilities, describe the boundaries of human existence."

Unfortunately, Kundera also lapses into fuzzy metaphysical musings…. [The] ponderous excursis on the musicological-metaphysical...

(The entire section is 304 words.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

From the beginning of Milan Kundera's writing career—and even in his early short stories—he has been addressing the problem of how, in [Virginia] Woolf's formulation, the 'granite' of ideas can sit comfortably beside the 'rainbow' of poetic truth, and in ['The Unbearable Lightness of Being'] he has triumphed, though at some cost; a metaphysical inquiry into the nature of fate and two love stories, related with Kundera's usual blend of scepticism and compassion, are united in a lucid novel whose exhilarating pessimism is subtly, and perhaps confusedly, challenged by the warmth of the telling.

It is partly the very nature of Kundera's ideas that prevents them from smothering the vitality of this...

(The entire section is 772 words.)

David Lodge

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Twenty years ago, when the Critical Quarterly and I were young, and Milan Kundera was writing The Joke and wondering, no doubt, whether he would be allowed to publish it, it's very unlikely that I would have been asked, or, if asked, agreed, to write a critical article about a Czech novelist. The defiant, I-Like-It-Here provincialism of the Movement, the jealous guarding of the English Great Tradition by Leavis and his disciples, and the New Criticism's focus on stylistic nuance in literary texts, all militated against taking a professional interest in foreign writing. I was never under the spell of Leavis, but I was a literary child of the 1950s, and, as a critic, I was committed to the kind of close...

(The entire section is 2853 words.)

Steven G. Kellman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Is it appropriate to begin a review of Milan Kundera with a rhetorical question? Are all questions rhetorical? In a 1980 interview with Philip Roth published as an afterward to The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Kundera said: "The stupidity of people comes from having an answer for everything. The wisdom of the novel comes from having a question for everything." The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kundera's fifth novel, is an unquestionable triumph, a Socratic monologue bearing abundant wisdom….

Why does Milan Kundera write like no one else in the world?

Kundera's father was a prominent pianist, and he himself worked for a time as a jazz musician. Two of the...

(The entire section is 868 words.)

Norman Podhoretz

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Dear Milan Kundera:

About four years ago, a copy of the bound galleys of your novel. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, came into my office for review. As a magazine editor I get so many books every week in that form that unless I have a special reason I rarely do more than glance at their titles. In the case of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting I had no such special reason. By 1980 your name should have been more familiar to me, but in fact I had only a vague impression of you as an East European dissident—so vague that, I am now ashamed to confess, I could not have said for certain which country you came from: Hungary? Yugoslavia? Czechoslovakia? Perhaps even Poland? [In a...

(The entire section is 5384 words.)