Milan Kundera

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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

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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...

(This entire section contains 1819 words.)

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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 interpretation. It presents narrated events on two parallel and disjointed levels, that of folkloristic myth and that of 'everyday life'. Jaroslav's archaic myth interprets the motifs of his narrative in the terms, symbolism and phraseology of folk poetry. At the same time, however, the narrator himself is aware of the inadequacy of such an interpretation; Jaroslav comes to regard his myth as 'dreaming' and 'fantasy'. Nevertheless, he still is not ready to give up trying 'to live in two worlds at the same time'. For others, however, Jaroslav's folkloristic interpretations are almost ridiculous; they create shadows of the narrated events which the participants of these events refuse to accept as authentic.

Jaroslav's narrative monologue is very special in that it gives a systematic, one might almost say, scientific account of his myth and its transformations. This component of the interpretative function (interpretation of the interpretation) explains the density of professional language drawn from history and musical theory in Jaroslav's narrative style…. (p. 118)

Jaroslav's expert treatise on Moravian folklore represents one extreme pole of the stylistic variety of The Joke, the other one being represented by the loose and spontaneous style of Helena's monologue….

It is Ludvík who offers the most important contribution to the narrative symposium of The Joke. His monologue dominates the narrative structure of the novel not only because it introduces the most important episodes of the action, but also because it presents the most profound and most conscious destruction of a myth. Mythological interpretation is replaced by critical analysis; a perfect harmony between the narrator's representational 'responsibility' and his interpretative function is thus achieved. This state of harmony is facilitated by two essential features of Ludvík's story. First, in no other story is the destruction of myth so closely connected with personal tragedy. Second, Ludvík's character shows from the very beginning both a Lust zum Fabulieren and an inclination to self-analysis, to critical evaluation of one's own deeds and words. Ludvík excels in the merciless 'tearing away of veils'.

It is, therefore, not surprising that Ludvík is assigned the role of destroying not only his own myth but also of contributing substantially to the destruction of other characters' myths. (p. 119)

In this connection, I would like to mention specifically Ludvík's depiction of the ceremony of 'the welcoming of new citizens into life' (chapter v). Here we find a meticulous application of the device of 'making strange', an applicaton which in its consistency and sophistication is unique in Czech literature. 'Tearing away of veils' is accomplished here solely by a literary device, by the depiction of the scene from a special angle, from the viewpoint of a stranger who does not understand what is going on. This angle renders all actions, words and emotions void, meaningless and disconnected. Only after this absurd depiction is the 'meaning' of the ceremony revealed (in Ludvík's conversation with the official who performed the ceremony).

Ludvík's passion for the 'tearing away of veils' is reflected in his narrative style through relentless enumeration of dreary or ugly details which, appearing sometimes in parentheses, distort every picture….

It would be a great mistake, however, to call Ludvík's narrative style 'naturalistic'. A more detailed investigation of his monologue would reveal a complex, multilayered texture, where detailed descriptiveness with a bias for ugly details represents only one extreme pole; it is balanced by uninhibited poetic language expressed in rhythmical syntax and in symbolic imagery…. (p. 120)

Up to now we have concentrated on the study of correlations between the narrative and the ideological structure of The Joke. The study of these correlations revealed that the form of narrative symposium used in the novel is not mere fashionable whimsy; rather it is a device by which is realized multiple destruction and self-destruction of myths which are, one might say, the real protagonists of this ideological novel. However, the correlations just described represent only one of the functions of the narrative symposium of The Joke; other functions can be revealed when studying correlations between the narrative structure and the structure of fictional time….

The basis feature of fictional time in The Joke is quite typical for modern fiction: the proper chronology of events is done away with and replaced by achronological confrontations and clashes of narrated events occuring on different time-planes, in different time-periods. (p. 121)

All narratives begin in the narrated present … and then return, using the device of flashback or reminiscence, to various periods of the narrated past….

There is no need here to follow in detail the time-pattern of the particular narratives and to describe the shifts from one time-period to another. Let us just note that, with a few exceptions, the narratives do not overlap….

Therefore, I do not hesitate to call the overall pattern of The Joke a linear structure. Moreover, the occasional overlapping and intersections possess, in my opinion, a different function in The Joke, a function which can be described on the level of the narrative structure: they show the limits of credibility, the 'reliability' of particular narrators. (p. 123)

Our analysis of the time-structure of The Joke would be incomplete, however, if we did not deal with the special status of the last, the seventh, chapter. (p. 124)

Various interpretations of … [the] special time and narrative structure of the last chapter of The Joke will certainly be offered. In my opinion, the function of this structure is purely rhythmical: an irregular, but generally rapid pattern of alternating narrative monologues is played off against the slow progress and the monotonous repetition of the leitmotif of the chapter—the ancient folkloristic ritual of the 'Ride of the Kings'. These contrasting progressions create a complex rhythmic pattern which provides an appropriate background for the grotesque culmination of Ludvík's story.

Our investigation into the problems of the narrator in Kundera's novel The Joke has led us to the core of the novel's artistic structure. It has revealed the ingenious network which mutually links all the principal structural components: the idea, the characters, the action, the time, the narrative form. Study of the narrator cuts across the traditional categories of form and content and gives us a rare opportunity to view the literary structure in its entirety. At the same time, we can observe how the structural network leans in a specific direction by the impact of the dominant structural component, the plane of ideas. In a period governed by collective ideologies, Kundera uses the type of the ideological novel and the form of a collective narrative symposium to ensure the best balance between the aesthetic message and the immanent structure of his novel. Following the narrative symposium of The Joke, we travel the peripatetic road leading from the dehumanized mythological past through the tumultuous present of myth-destruction toward a distant, but well-defined ideal of humanity. (p. 125)

Lubomír Doležel, "'Narrative Symposium' in Milan Kundera's 'The Joke'," in his Narrative Modes in Czech Literature, University of Toronto Press, 1973, pp. 112-25.

Philip Roth

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[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 weapon (in this case, the weapon of he who is otherwise wholly assailable) is to the point of The Joke as well: to revenge himself upon the political friend who had turned upon him back in his remote student days, Ludvík Jahn, released from the coal mines at last, coldly conceives a plan to seduce the man's wife. In this decision by Kundera's hero to put his virility in the service of his rage, he displays a kinship to characters in the fiction of Mailer and Mishima…. However, what distinguishes Kundera's cocksman from Mailer's or Mishima's is the ease with which his erotic power play is thwarted, and turns into yet another joke at his expense. He is so much more vulnerable in good part because he has been so crippled by ostracism from the Party and imprisonment in the penal corps …, but also because Kundera, unlike Mailer or Mishima, seems even in a book as bleak and cheerless as The Joke to be fundamentally amused by the uses to which a man will think to put his sexual member, or the uses to which his member will put him. This amusement, mixed though it is with sympathy and sorrow, leads Kundera away from anything even faintly resembling a mystical belief or ideological investment in the power of potency or orgasm.

In Laughable Loves, what I've called Kundera's "amusement" with erotic enterprises and lustful strategies emerges as the mild satire of a story like "The Golden Apple of Eternal Desire," wherein Don Juanism is viewed as a sport played by a man against a team of women, oftentimes without body contact—or, in the wry, rather worldly irony of the Dr. Havel stories, "Symposium" and "Dr. Havel After Ten Years," where Don Juanism is depicted as a way of life in which women of all social stations eagerly and willingly participate as "sexual objects," particularly so with Havel, eminent physician and aging Casanova, who in his prime is matter-of-factly told by a professional colleague: "… you're like death, you take everything." Or Kundera's amusement emerges as a kind of detached Chekhovian tenderness in the story about a balding, thirtyish, would-have-been eroticist, who sets about to seduce an aging woman whose body he expects to find repellent, a seduction undertaken to revenge himself upon his own stubborn phallic daydreams…. [This story], "Let the Old Dead Make Room for the Young Dead," seems to me "Chekhovian" not merely because of its tone, or its concern with the painful and touching consequences of time passing and old selves dying, but because it is so very good.

In "The Hitchhiking Game," "Nobody Will Laugh," and "Edward and God," Kundera turns to those jokes he is so fond on contemplating, the ones that begin in whimsical perversity, and end in trouble…. What is so often laughable, in the stories of Kundera's Czechoslovakia, is how grimly serious just about everything turns out to be, jokes, games, and pleasure included; what's laughable is how terribly little there is to laugh at with any joy.

My own favorite story is "Edward and God." Like The Joke, it deals with a young Czech whose playfulness (with women, of course) and highly developed taste for cynicism and blasphemy expose him to the harsh judgments of a dogmatic society or, rather, expose him to those authorities who righteously promulgate and protect the dogmas, but do so stupidly and without even genuine conviction or understanding…. [Where] there is something of an aggrieved tone and polemical intent in The Joke—a sense communicated, at least to a Westerner, that the novel is also a statement made in behalf of an abused nation, and in defiance of a heartless regime—"Edward and God" is more like a rumination, in anecdotal form, upon a social predicament that rouses the author to comic analysis and philosophical speculation, even to farce, rather than to angry exposé. (pp. 205-09)

"Edward and God" does not derive from manifesto or protest literature, but connects in spirit as well as form to those humorous stories one hears by the hundreds in Prague these days, stories such as a powerless or oppressed people are often adept at telling about themselves, and in which they seem to take an aesthetic pleasure—what pleasure is there otherwise?—from the very absurdities and paradoxes that characterize their hardship and cause them pain. (p. 209)

Philip Roth, "Imagining the Erotic, Three Introductions: Milan Kundera," in his Reading Myself and Others, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975, pp. 200-09.

Peter Kussi

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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 devil laughs at God because of His inscrutability; angels laugh with God at the simplicity of creation. Kundera, with an ironic smile, constructs fictional worlds in which patient investigation by narrator, characters and readers is rewarded by glimpses into the rules of the game.

Kundera is an astonishingly inventive author who uses a variety of structural ways to question his themes…. [In The Joke] he used the technique of multiple narration. By cross-examining the accounts of the story furnished by four narrators, Kundera exposed their "overlapping delusions," to use the memorable phrase of critic Elizabeth Pochoda [see CLC, Vol. 19]. In prewar Czech literature this technique was favored by Karel Čapek. But whereas Čapek the relativist showed that each man has his own truth, Kundera the skeptic shows that each man has his own falsehood.

A related technique employed by Kundera is the multiple point of view on the author's part, resulting in shifts of perspective and of the relative scale of importance. Kundera's metaphor for this purpose is the movable observation tower. The author discusses it with his readers in [Life Is Elsewhere]…. The observatory is mentioned again in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, along with several closely related images…. In this novel about memory and awareness, background and foreground, past and present, the recollected trivia and forgotten loves are ever shifting and sliding past each other. Russian tanks invade the country, and Mother is thinking about some pears the pharmacist promised her. Shocking. Or is it? In a beautiful image Kundera describes Mother's perspective: "A big pear in the foreground and somewhere off in the distance a tank, tiny as a ladybug, ready at any moment to take wing and disappear from sight. So Mother was right after all: tanks are mortal, pears eternal."… (pp. 206-07)

Are tanks more important than pears? Questions, and still more questions. The very structure of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is a question, for, as Kundera explains, the book is not so much a novel as a book of variations—and what are variations if not a spiral of questions about a single theme? In a broader sense, Kundera's prose writings as a whole can be seen as variations on a few related themes: awareness and self-deception, the power of human lucidity and its limits, the games of history and love.

Kundera's fiction is a game of wits in which deception is one of the main strategies. Ludvík, the hero of The Joke, feigns love for Helena as part of his scheme of revenge. The Farewell Party is a comedy of deception, while The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, and many of Kundera's short stories are ironic dissertations on the arts of erotic trickery. The distinctive feature of Kundera's fiction, however, is not merely that his characters resort to guile in order to outwit fate and each other; his heroes and heroines also frequently deceive themselves. In fact, self-deception is such a striking element in Kundera's stories and novels that his protagonists could really be divided into two moral types: those who are satisfied to remain self-deluded and those struggling for a measure of self-awareness.

Self-deception is often unmasked when a character is called upon to take action. In Kundera's world a crucial step is frequently taken without clear motivation or deliberation, impulsively, catching the psyche exposed like a sudden, involuntary glimpse of one's face in a mirror. In The Farewell Party—a book about death and birth, yet Kundera's most playful novel—a pivotal point occurs when the pregnant Růžena reaches for a pill held in the palm of her adversary Jakub. Růžena believes the pill to be a tranquilizer, but as Jakub knows perfectly well, it actually contains poison: "Jakub stared into her eyes, then slowly, ceremoniously, he opened his hand." For a moment he is vouchsafed a searing flash of insight into the meaning of his behavior.

Raskolnikov experienced his act of murder as a tragedy, and staggered under the weight of his deed. Jakub was amazed to find that his deed was weightless, easy to bear, light as air. And he wondered whether there was not more horror in this lightness than in all the dark agonies and contortions of the Russian hero….

In a masterpiece of concise irony, the narrator describes Jakub's meditation on guilt: "The One testing him (the nonexistent God) wished to learn what Jakub was really like and not what he pretended to be like. And Jakub decided to be honest in the face of his examiner, to be the person he really was."… Who, then, is Jakub? The one pretending to be Jakub, or the one who decided to be Jakub? Can someone deciding to be honest at the same time be honest?

One form of self-deception to which Kundera's protagonists are prone may be called "bad faith," a moral syndrome reminiscent of the mauvaise foi first diagnosed in the modern consciousness by Jean-Paul Sartre. This bad faith is consciously induced self-deception whereby people pretend to themselves to be unaware of certain realities in order to postpone the need for making decisions. (p. 207)

Mauvaise foi is a philosophical concept, and its applicability to literary characters is only implicit. Yet there are remarkable parallels between Sartre's paradigm and several situations in Kundera's novels. In Life Is Elsewhere the artist kisses Maman, and "subsequent reflection could not change what had happened but only establish the fact that something wrong had taken place. But Maman could not be sure even of that, and so she postponed solving the problem until some future time."… (pp. 207-08)

Similarly, in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Tamina—perhaps the most attractive and intriguing of Kundera's heroines—tries to suppress her awareness of sexual intimacy with Hugo by concentrating on vacations spent with her late husband, a mental effort Kundera compares to an exercise in irregular verbs. "But why did Tamina refuse to defend herself?" asks the narrator. He (not she—Czech grammar is clear about the gender of anonymous narrators) is puzzled, for it is not only the protagonists or readers who struggle for awareness; the narrator too begins in a state of partial ignorance and gains knowledge slowly, painfully, as the story progresses….

Why is self-awareness so difficult to achieve? Kundera does not look to Freud for the answer. People fool themselves because truth is elusive and fragmented, and because they are losing touch with memory and history….

The hero of The Joke still had a name and a tradition, was rooted in a specific time and place. Memory, in The Joke, has an ambiguous significance: the loss of tradition, as exemplified by the banalization of the ancient Ride of the Kings, is to be deplored, but forgetfulness is also a necessary means of healing and reconciliation. Nothing will be forgiven, writes Kundera, but everything will be forgotten.

However, by the time the cycle of novels has culminated in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, (and the 1968 invasion of his land has faded from the world's conscience), amnesia has become for Kundera a clear-cut metaphor for individual and national destruction. After The Joke Kundera's novels grow more ahistorical and parodic, with characters designated by first names or occupational categories. The Farewell Party takes place in a spa, far from Prague and close to the border of national and geographic anonymity. In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting Kundera shifts back and forth from a very real Prague to a painfully recollected homeland and finally to an Atlantis of blissful amnesia, an innocent island suggestive of a miniature America as well as the land of Lilliput.

The discontinuity with the past, the generational amnesia, is reflected in several of Kundera's novels by the search for a missing parent—more specifically a missing father, the pater absconditus. (p. 208)

From his high-rise tower in Brittany, from his Paris window, Milan Kundera is still looking east toward Prague, toward his Moravian birthplace, toward the Central Europe he considers his spiritual home. What is there in his work that is descended from Czech literary traditions? The novel of ideas has never taken root in Czech culture, nor has the kind of intellectual game Kundera plays with Eros and politics, fiction and reality. Czech readers are more used to laughing than to exploring the sources of laughter, and pure jeu d'esprit has appeared in modern Czech literature only rarely and belatedly.

Kundera's real literary roots are in the eighteenth century, in the digressive storytellers, in Sterne and especially in the French ironists and Encyclopedists. In his recent works, particularly The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, as Kundera leaves the land of Bohemia and views the little figures of the world panorama from an ever higher observatory, his irony often changes to Swiftian satire, and to Swiftian pessimism. Among modern writers, he has expressed an affinity for Thomas Mann, for Anatole France, for the existentialists, for the Central European writers with a philosophical bent. As he put it in a 1963 interview: "Precision of thought moves me more than precision of observation…."

The bulk of Kundera's work has never been published in his homeland, but he does not bewail the necessity of writing for foreigners. He thinks the era of parochial national literatures is over, and he believes in the Goethean concept of a world community of letters. The knowledge that he is dependent on translators has affected Kundera's style, inducing him to make his expression clearer, more decisive, less subject to misinterpretation….

Kundera's purely literary paternity may be European rather than specifically Czech, but he has many qualities which have come to be associated with Czech culture: skepticism, dislike of hubris and gigantism, insistence on a human scale as the ideal measure of values, the use of humor as a means of demystification. Very much in the Czech tradition too is the writer as teacher and moralist…. It is hard to say just what effects Kundera's strong political engagement has on his fiction. There is no doubt that his fervor and the associated lyrical emotions he is at such pains to suppress have added power to his highenergy writing and have given his fiction its unusual interplay of polis, Eros and Thanatos. Of course, there is a price to be paid when ironic detachment and inquisitive attitude are replaced by assertions, particularly when those assertions are questionable. Is the cultural impact of the East really so one-sidedly detrimental? What are the origins of the triviality, amnesia, infantility of the modern world? Or its genocidal propensities? As the genially insane physician of The Farewell Party so hilariously—and chillingly—shows, superrationality is never very far from irrationality.

In interviews and statements Kundera may engage in polemics, but in his novels, stories and plays this great author's most personal voice sounds a dialogue with the truth. After publication of The Joke, Czech novelist and playwright Ivan Klíma wrote: "In his passionate desire to reach the truth, no matter how bitter; to resist every illusion, no matter how modestly formulated; to eradicate all myths, no matter how innocentlooking, Milan Kundera has gone further than anyone in the history of Czech prose." This is still true today. (p. 209)

Peter Kussi, "Milan Kundera: Dialogues with Fiction," in World Literature Today, Vol. 57, No. 2, Spring, 1983, pp. 206-09.

Frances Taliaferro

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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 "synthetic power" splendidly at work in Milan Kundera's new novel, "The Unbearable Lightness of Being."… It centers on the connected lives of two couples. Tomas is the most promising young surgeon at his hospital in Prague. He is also an "epic womanizer" and collector of women. Among the dozens he has slept with, his wife, Tereza, and his mistress, Sabina, represent fidelity and betrayal, the opposite poles of erotic possibility….

In the binary universe of this novel, it is not only lovers who are paired and repaired with old and new partners. Being itself is divided into pairs of opposites. Fidelity and betrayal, soul and body, political oppression and personal feeling balance and modify…. Most of all, however, life is both "light" and "heavy." Sometimes we make the "heaviest" life choices in the lightest and most accidental way. Sometimes, recognizing the transitory quality of even the gravest burdens, we experience "the unbearable lightness of being."

"The Book of Laughter and Forgetting" was a series of episodic variations on a theme. "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," a work of larger scale and complexity, is symphonically arranged, so that thematic events are constantly enriched by smaller phrases and motifs. The theme of political "necessity"—centering on the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968—is echoed in many small allusions. The "necessity" of Tomas's love for his wife Tereza is signaled by the fact that at the beginning of their acquaintance she is clutching a copy of "Anna Karenina."

The symmetrical composition of that novel is not merely "novelistic." The author explains that we all compose our lives like music, turning chance occurrences into permanent motifs. In the polyphonic music of this novel, Mr. Kundera points out that each voice is singing its own version of two motifs Beethoven named "the difficult resolution": "Muss es sein? Es muss sein!" ("Must it be? It must be!")

Necessity is a less memorable theme in Mr. Kundera's work than sexuality. He has observed elsewhere that "a scene of physical love generates an extremely sharp light which suddenly reveals the essence of characters and sums up their life situation." Certainly there is no wiser observer now writing of the multifarious relations of men and women….

Mr. Kundera is not alone in possessing a philosophical sense of humor, a liking for human crankiness, and a political sensibility. What distinguishes him from, say, Kurt Vonnegut? Perhaps one judges Mr. Kundera the better novelist in homage to his country's gallant sufferings—a form of romanticism, incidentally, that the author regards with some amusement. I think, however, that Milan Kundera is the more durable because his world view is the more open. However schematic his "double exposures"—laughter forgetting, heaviness lightness, soul body—his novels do not move according to formula, but acquaint the reader with the complex variations of an intelligence both speculative and playful. "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" is his best novel yet.

Frances Taliaferro, "Love As Fugue: A Master's Best Novel," in The Wall Street Journal, April 27, 1984, p. 26.

Janet Malcolm

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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 unpredictability and changeability of mountain weather, and are marked by an almost compulsive disregard for the laws of genre. Like a driver who signals right and promptly turns left, Kundera repeatedly betrays the reader's trust in the conventions that give him his bearings in a novel….

Near the end of his novel Life Is Elsewhere (1969) [for example], Kundera steps out from behind the curtain of his narrative—the sardonically told story of a mamma's boy, a young poet who develops into a monstrosity of totalitarian kitsch—and speaks of his restiveness under the constraints of the novel form. "Just as your life is determined by the kind of profession and marriage you have chosen, so our novel is limited by our observatory perspective…. We have chosen this approach as you have chosen your fate, and our choice is equally unalterable," Kundera says ruefully, and then goes on to wonder whether maybe the novelist cannot welsh on his commitment after all: "Man cannot jump out of his life, but perhaps a novel has more freedom. Suppose we hurriedly and secretly dismantled our observatory and transported it elsewhere, at least for a little while?"

Kundera then proposes to write a chapter that will be to the main narrative what a small guest house is to a country manor, and suddenly, without warning, the reader is thrust into one of the most lyrical and heart-rending scenes in contemporary fiction—a scene between a red-haired girl and a middle-aged man (who appears in the novel for the first time) that is of almost unbearable sadness and tenderness…. Kundera describes the scene as "a quiet interlude in which an anonymous man unexpectedly lights a lamp of kindness," and it fades out of the book (which is interesting and sometimes very funny but otherwise never very affecting) like one of those mysterious distinct sounds one hears at dawn and supposes one has dreamed.

In his next two novels—The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and [The Unbearable Lightness of Being] Kundera attempts to recapture this emotional tone while simultaneously experimenting with surrealist techniques. It stubbornly eludes him in the first book, whose surrealism seems somewhat pathetic and outdated, and whose pathos has an "as if" quality: instead of being moved, one is aware of being cued to be moved. But in The Unbearable Lightness of Being Kundera succeeds in actually creating the work of high modernist playfulness and deep pathos that he had merely projected in the earlier book.

Like Ulysses, it is a book entwined with another book—in this case Anna Karenina, a copy of which Kundera, with his characteristic directness, puts under the arm of his heroine, Tereza, as she enters the novel. He draws on Anna Karenina not in a literal sense—his Tereza and Tomas and Sabina and Franz in no way "equal" Anna and Vronsky and Levin and Kitty. It is the existential dilemma at the core of Anna Karenina that he plucks from the Russian novel and restates in terms of the opposition between heaviness and lightness. When Tolstoy wrote of the vacuous and senseless life of Vronsky and Anna in the country after their forced retreat from society (a life that he had the inspiration of showing through the eyes of the careworn, child-burdened, "excessivement terre-à-terre" Dolly, as Vronsky dismissively calls her), he was writing about the unbearable lightness of being. We keep this state at bay with our marriages, friendships, commitments, responsibilities, loyalties and ties to family, culture, and nation; and we float up toward it every time we commit adultery, betray a friend, break ranks, defy authority, sever a family bond, leave a homeland, or (as Kundera goes beyond Tolstoy in suggesting) attempt to create a work of art. "What then shall we choose?" Kundera writes. "Weight or lightness?" (p. 3)

The Unbearable Lightness of Being has a kind of charmed life. It is like a performance that has gotten off on the right foot. Every door Kundera tries opens for him. In the earlier books, one felt like a passenger in a small plane, swooping and dropping precipitately and heading straight for a mountain; in the present book, one travels by steady jumbo jet. The heavy/light polarity acts as a kind of fixative for Kundera's special sensitivity to the ambiguities and ironies of the position of the Janus-faced political émigré, and to its potentialities as a universal metaphor. (p. 4)

The distinction of Michael Henry Heim's translation lies in the clean precision and elegant leanness of diction through which the novel's taut modernist tone is rendered. In her new novel, Pitch Dark, Renata Adler asks (in the voice of the book's narrator), "Do I need to stylize it, or can I tell it as it was?" To point out that "telling it as it was" is itself another stylization is only to restate the question that has haunted fiction throughout this century. In Life Is Elsewhere, Kundera used Rimbaud's line "Il faut être absolument moderne" as an epigraph. But the modern novelist, unlike the modern painter, sculptor, or poet, cannot absolutely divest himself of realism: the modernist novel is inevitably a hybrid form. Only through the illusion that he is in some sense "telling it as it was" can the novelist sustain the reader's attention and touch his heart. The self-reflexiveness of modern art, its aggressive avowal of materials … can extend only partially to narrative literature. Kundera's work deepens our sense of modernism as a force powerfully pulling at the novelist but never quite taking him over the border. (p. 6)

Janet Malcolm, "The Game of Lights," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXI, No. 8, May 10, 1984, pp. 3-4, 6.

Tom Lippi

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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 real enough, and the stage upon which they are displayed broad and imposing. But a fifth character in this novel is the author himself.

Kundera … is master here, directing the action from on high, an accomplished puppeteer. But frequently the puppeteer's hands appear as he re-directs our attention to the ideas that inspire the performance, indeed away from the mere objects that impersonate them.

These first-person intrusions by the author—occasionally bits like "I have been thinking about Tomas for many years" or "But let us return to the bowler hat"—are slightly puzzling, more so when quoted out of context. But then out-of-context is really all they are. There is no context, no real world, in this novel. We are never asked to suspend our disbelief, but rather reminded to cling jealously to it. In its effort to fly in the face of traditional novel form, the book issues a challenge, a quite self-conscious one, to the validity of form. And here style mirrors content.

Validity is on the block in the novel: the validity of involvement, passionate or political, the validity of occupation, of experience, of art…. Cast in the pallid light of this perspective, the events and characters portrayed in the novel seem relegated to an existence that seems more ritual than real….

Only the pathetic heroine Tereza seems moved to genuine, unfettered emotion.

Imprisoned by a hopelessly unfailing love for Tomas, Tereza embodies commitment, in Kundera's terms the burden or "heaviness" of being. She is his one "poetic" love, which roughly translates into the one woman in whom he takes more than a merely glandular interest…. [He] cavorts like a satyr and returns at night, reeking of other women, to the bed of his one true love.

Tomas, however, is not completely unsympathetic. Something—love, the desire for a good night's sleep—impels him to follow his wife back to Prague, and this act is his undoing. He will not kick himself free of the world completely, cannot disappear like the meaningless Sabina into that voidish lightness of being…. Tomas opts for some involvement in the world, as grim as it has become; ultimately he chooses, albeit from a drastically reduced list of choices, "significance." In doing so he chooses, as well, its concomitant despair.

That such a choice need be made, and that, given the constraints imposed upon humanity in the novel, the choice amounts to very nearly an affirmation, speaks to the central image of the book; that of the essential ambiguity, the tragic paradox, that modern life poses. Not only are there no easy choices, but there are no choices without deeply painful consequences. Any response a character makes to the grim circumstances of life is undermined by the impossibility of a genuinely human resolution in a world no longer fit for simple humanity. Accordingly, the author's depiction of the struggle is complex and disturbing, a metaphor for the condition it examines.

Tom Lippi, "The Tragic Paradox of Modern Life," in Pacific Sun, Year 22, No. 19, May 11-17, 1984, p. 24.

Betty Falkenberg

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[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 weight of Beethoven's Es muss sein, unlike the lively and fascinating colloquy on Moravian folk music in The Joke, seems labored and yields little in the way of insight or information.

In structure, this novel adheres to the pattern of the earlier novel: seven parts, some of which mark returns to previously handled themes, situations or characters. Kundera worries his material in a nervous, circular manner reminiscent of Mahler; he seems never to have done with it. The repeated agitating can be—as it is with Mahler—highly affecting. The themes stick in one's head, humming themselves away. We do well to listen to them.

By temper, subject and method, Kundera is a modernist. With roots in 19th-century formalism, he embodies those elements of the Central and Western European School that we may call Absurd Reality: post-Kafka and post-Brecht. He steps inside, then outside his characters, questioning their motives and—going beyond Brecht in this—questioning his own motives as well.

If The Unbearable Lightness of Being does not achieve levitation to the dizzying heights attained in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, it is nonetheless an achievement of a very high order.

Betty Falkenberg, "Losing Substance," in The New Leader, Vol. LXVII, No. 9, May 14, 1984, p. 11.


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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 novel, and partly the way he presents his characters. His agnosticism and nihilism allow him a freedom, an absence of commitment, which her passionate feminism denied Virginia Woolf in 'The Pargiters.' The lightness of Kundera's title refers to the insubstantiality, the meaninglessness of an event, or a life, if it cannot be repeated again; transitoriness denies validity to an event, prevents us coming to a verdict. Everything can be 'pardoned in advance and therefore everything cynically permitted.' Lightness in individual lives suggests a freedom from fate, obligation, truth, soaring into the heights—a flight into insignificance. Lightness is associated with vertigo—the desire to fall, to be weak, to yield responsibility.

Weight, on the other hand, is identified with the myth of eternal return which Kundera derives from Nietzsche: 'in the world of eternal return the weight of unbearable responsibility lies on every move we make.' But though heaviness is crushing, 'in the love poetry of every age the woman longs to be weighed down by the man's body.' Weight is therefore an image of 'life's most intense fulfilment'—it brings us closer to the truth, to the inevitability of our fate.

It is between these bleak polarities—unbearable lightness and crushing weight—that Kundera unfolds the lives, and predominantly they are sexual lives, of his four characters. How far does he succeed in guarding the weightless rainbow from the burden of the granite? Like many authors, Kundera is keen to let us know that his characters do not really exist. They are pure artifice…. And yet he introduces one of his principal characters like this: 'I have been thinking about Tomas for many years. But only in the light of these reflections [i.e. of lightness and weight] did I see him clearly.'

It is a clever trick. It is hard not to believe that these characters are not Czech friends of the author. He does not pretend to know everything about them. At times he is protective, at others sceptical. He speculates about them, explores them…. It is precisely because his characterisation is investigative, just like his metaphysical inquiries, that the two modes of writing do not appear to clash; instead they are made to serve the same end—the novel 'is an investigation of human life in the trap the world has become.'

There is, however, a small price to pay. These lovers seem real, but they are also remote. They are more talked about than shown, they are offered as evidence, and we become more involved in the author's relationship with them than in the experiences they undergo….

As in his last novel ['The Book of Laughter and Forgetting'], Kundera shows himself here to be a powerful opponent of totalitarian tyranny, but he is also suspicious of Western liberalism, sceptical of anyone who compromises his individuality by joining a political movement. This is the core of his nihilism: tyranny is foul, protest is delusion, silence is death.

And yet this nihilism exposes an interesting contradiction within the author. Among many other delights, the novel contains a scathing exposition on the nature of kitsch—that 'categorical agreement with being.' He asserts that a politics without kitsch is inconceivable and 'in the realm of kitsch the dictatorship of the heart reigns supreme.' However, the end of the book is dominated by an emotional account of the death of Tereza's dog (with chocolates laid in the grave).

Like Sterne, whom he admires, Kundera is really a man of the heart, and those readers who emphasise Kundera's warmth at the expense of his cold, rigorous eye and therefore 'kitschify' are not entirely to blame. There is an unexamined rift in this author between feeling and intellect. It is left to the reader to work at keeping both in view to understand what a dark and brilliant achievement the novel is.

Ian McEwan, "Granite and Rainbow," in The Observer, May 20, 1984, p. 22.

David Lodge

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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 reading that, it seemed, could only be performed on and in one's mother tongue. In Language of Fiction (1966) I argued that meaning was as inseparable from verbal form in the novel as the New Criticism had shown it to be in lyric poetry; and that although prose fiction was more translatable than verse, since in it sound and rhythm were less important, nevertheless there was bound to be such a degree of alteration and loss of meaning in the translation of a novel that the critic could never 'possess' it with the necessary confidence.

I no longer hold this position with the puritanical rigour expressed in the first part of Language of Fiction. Exposure to the Continental European structuralist tradition of poetics and criticism has shown me that literary narrative operates several codes of communication simultaneously, and in most of them (for instance, enigma, sequence, irony, perspective) effects are readily transferable from one natural language to another (and even from one medium to another). A flashback is a flashback in any language; so is a shift in point of view, a peripeteia, or an 'open' ending.

This does not entail any downgrading of language in the novel. Kundera himself claims that total commitment to the novel as verbal art for which I tried to provide a theoretical justification in Language of Fiction. 'Ever since Madame Bovary', he observes in the preface to the new edition of The Joke, 'the art of the novel has been considered equal to the art of poetry, and the novelist (any novelist worthy of the name) endows every word of his prose with the uniqueness of the word in a poem.' This does not mean that translation is impossible—if it did then a novelist like Kundera, writing in a minority language whose native speakers are forbidden access to his books, might as well shoot himself…. [On the contrary, many] tropes and figures are translatable between most Indo-European languages.

The problem of translation, then, is no longer a disincentive to addressing oneself to the critical consideration of a Czech novelist; and the conscious insularity of British literary culture in the 1950s has long since lost whatever justification it may once have had in encouraging a new wave of writers. But in the meantime, a new critical anxiety has arisen to threaten the project. To write on the fiction of 'Milan Kundera' is almost inevitably to accord that name the unity and substance of an historic individual …: Milan Kundera, the author. But the liveliest and most innovative discourses of contemporary criticism, loosely describable as 'post-structuralist', have thrown the idea of the author very much into question.

Roland Barthes announced the 'Death of the Author' with characteristic Nietzschean relish back in 1968, at about the same time that Russian tanks were rolling into Czechoslovakia…. [His] proclamation, startling in 1968, is now a commonplace of academic criticism in the fashionable 'deconstructionist' mode, but has had little or no effect on the actual practice of writing outside the academy, which remains obstinately authorcentred. Books are still identified and classified according to author. The value attributed to books brings kudos, prizes and royalties to their authors, who are the object of considerable public interest. Poststructuralist theorists, some of whom have been known to collaborate in this process, would no doubt explain it by saying that the institution of literature is still in thrall to bourgeois ideology. (pp. 106-07)

It is, of course, undeniable that the modern 'author' is a comparatively recent phenomenon. The further we peer back into history, the more anonymous and collective the production of stories, lyrics and drama appears. And Foucault is quite right to say that, looking in the opposite direction, 'We can easily imagine a culture where discourse would circulate without any need for an author'. Whether one would wish to live in it is, however, another matter. George Orwell imagined such a culture in 1984.

The idea of the author which Barthes and Foucault seek to discredit is the product of humanism and the Enlightenment as well as of capitalism. Collective, anonymous art belongs historically to eras when slavery and serfdom were deemed ethically acceptable. Copyright is only one of many 'rights'—freedom of speech, freedom of movement, freedom of religious worship—which the bourgeois ideology of liberal humanism has claimed for the individual human being. Only those who take such freedoms for granted in their daily lives could perhaps contemplate with satisfaction the obsolescence of the idea which sustains and justifies them.

Of course the poststructuralist critique of the bourgeois or liberal humanist concept of individual man does not represent itself as totalitarian, but as utopian. (p. 108)

When The Book of Laughter and Forgetting was published, the government of Czechoslovakia deprived Milan Kundera of his citizenship in absentia. That a government should be stung into taking such revenge on an individual author is perhaps a good reason for wanting to defend the idea of authorship. If The Book of Laughter and Forgetting had been an anonymous discourse, like the anti-government jokes that circulate in all totalitarian states, the politicians would have found it easier to ignore.

One reason why the poststructuralist critique of the idea of the author has been so warmly welcomed in some quarters of academe is that it is presented as a liberation, a critical utopia. 'The Death of the Author, the Absolute Subject of literature, means the liberation of the text from the authority of a presence behind it which gives it meaning', says Catherine Belsey, enthusiastically paraphrasing Barthes. 'Released from the constraints of a single and univocal reading, the text becomes available for production, plural, contradictory, capable of change.' Behind this argument is a quite false antithesis between two models of interpretation, one of which we are told we must choose: either (A) the text contains a single meaning which the author intended and which it is the duty of the critic to establish, or (B) the text is a system capable of generating an infinite number of meanings when activated by the reader. (p. 109)

No one who is seriously engaged in the practice of writing fiction and familiar with modern critical theory (I speak personally, but also, I venture to think, for Kundera) could accept either of these positions as starkly stated here. Works of literature—in our era of civilisation, at least—do not come into being by accident. They are intentional acts, produced by individual writers employing shared codes of signification according to a certain design, weighing and measuring the interrelation of part to part and parts to the developing whole, projecting the work against the anticipated response of a hypothetical reader. Without such control and design there would be no reason to write one sentence rather than another, or to arrange one's sentences in any particular order. There would be no ground, either, on which to object to censorship…. But once the child leaves home—the book is published—a different situation obtains. It is of the nature of texts, especially fictional ones, that they have gaps and indeterminacies which may be filled in by different readers in different ways, and it is of the nature of codes that, once brought into play, they may generate patterns of significance which were not consciously intended by the author who activated them, and which do not require his 'authorisation' to be accepted as valid interpretations of the text.

The serious modern writer is, therefore, likely to be just as suspicious of position A, above, as of position B. He (or she) knows that the proponents of A are all too eager to discard the 'implied author' of a text in pursuit of the 'real author', and to ask the latter what he 'meant' by his text instead of taking the trouble to read it attentively. The writer therefore finds ways of evading such questions, or confusing such questioners, by masks, disguises, obliquities and ambiguities, by hiding secret meanings in his text—secret, sometimes, even from himself.

Milan Kundera seems to be a case in point. He was at the very outset of his literary career a victim of the Intentional Fallacy (a fallacy that is committed by imputing and inferring intentions on the basis of extra-textual evidence). Here is a writer with a history of courageous resistance to the dominant ideology of a Communist State, finally forced into exile as the price of his intellectual independence. Must he not be labelled a 'dissident' writer? Since his books refer to the injustices and bad faith of the Communist régime in Czechoslovakia, must this not be what his fiction is about? That is precisely how The Joke has been received in the West. Kundera records, in the preface to the new edition, that, 'When, in 1980, during a television panel discussion devoted to my works, someone called The Joke "a major indictment of Stalinism", I was quick to interject, "Spare me your Stalinism, please. The Joke is a love story".'

This interjection is itself a statement of authorial intention, which we are not bound to accept. It is, indeed, a consciously simplistic description of The Joke, designed to head off a differently reductive reading of the text. But it does point us in the right direction. Kundera's work is ultimately more concerned with love—and death—than with politics; but it has been his fate to live in a country where life is willy-nilly conditioned by politics to an extent that has no equivalent in western democracies, so that these themes present themselves to his imagination inevitably and inextricably entangled with recent political history. But, as Kundera himself put it, repudiating the label of 'dissident writer':

If you cannot view the art that comes to you from Prague, Budapest or Warsaw in any other way than by means of this wretched political code, you murder it, no less brutally than the work of the Stalinist dogmatists. And you are quite unable to hear its true voice. The importance of this art does not lie in the fact that it pillories this or that political regime, but that, on the strength of social and human experience of a kind people here in the West cannot even imagine, it offers new testimony about mankind.

As if to elude being read exclusively in the 'political code', Kundera concentrated subsequently on erotic comedy, often black comedy, in such works as The Farewell Party and Laughable Loves. In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting he returned to the explicit treatment of political material and dealt very directly with the effect of politics on his own life—but in a book so original, idiosyncratic and surprising in form that it offers the strongest possible resistance to a 'single univocal reading'. Whereas in The Joke Kundera displayed, at the first attempt, his mastery of the modernist novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is a masterpiece of postmodernist fiction…. (pp. 109-11)

[A] summary gives some idea of the narrative content of The Joke, and as a bare story has, I dare say, a certain interest. But it conveys very little idea of what it is like to read The Joke, because, there, the information … comes to the reader in an entirely different order and in an entirely different mode of discourse. (p. 114)

As we read The Joke we necessarily 'make sense' of the narrative by restoring the codes of causality and chronology which have been deliberately 'scrambled' in the text. But this is not to say that the meaning of the text is the fabula which we can disinter from the sjuzet. On the contrary, the meaning inheres in the hermeneutic process itself: the reader's activity in interpreting and making sense of the story, responding to the clues and cues provided by the text, constantly readjusting a provisional interpretation in the light of new knowledge, reenacts the efforts of the characters to make sense of their own lives. (p. 115)

The Joke is manifestly a 'modern' novel, but it would be hard to believe that it was composed in the manner Roland Barthes attributes to the 'modern scriptor', who 'is born simultaneously with the text, is in no way equipped with a being preceding or exceeding the writing, is not the subject with the book as predicate'. On the contrary, we have in reading The Joke an overwhelming sense of a creative mind behind the text, its 'implied author', who constructed its labyrinth of meanings with love and dedication and immense skill over a long period of time, during which the design of the whole must have been present to his consciousness. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, however, seems, in part, to fit Barthes' prescription/description of the modern text as 'a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash'. It is 'original', but lacks the rich, 'deep', slowly emerging, satisfying aesthetic and thematic unity of The Joke. It is fragmentary, disjunctive, confused and confusing; it has an improvised air. Instead of telling a single, unified story, it tells several separate stories, only two of which concern the same character…. The kind of 'recognitions' which illuminate The Joke are deliberately frustrated in the later book. (p. 116)

The method used to study the form of The Joke—inferring the fabula and comparing it with the sjuzet—will hardly do in this instance. There are too many discrete fabulas to cope with, and in any case they are narrated in a rather straightforward summary fashion. The 'deformation' of the fabula in the sjuzet consists not so much in the manipulation of chronology and point of view as in the disruption of the temporal-spatial continuity of the narrative by the intrusions and digressions of the authorial narrator. This narrator identifies himself quite unambiguously as 'Milan Kundera', and relates several apparently 'true' stories about his own life. Paradoxically, this overt appearance of the author in the text does not make it easier, but harder, to determine what it 'means'. The real author has, as it were, leapfrogged over the implied author, to appear as a trope in his own text, which makes it all the harder to identify the implied author's attitudes and values. There three versions of the author are, obviously, very closely related, but do not quite coincide with each other.

The only way to deal, critically, with The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is to review its textual strategies in the order in which they are experienced by the reader. (pp. 116-17)

[The following passage appears near the end of Part Three, entitled 'The Angels':]

… And I ran after that voice through the streets in the hope of keeping up with that wonderful wreath of bodies rising above the city, and I realised with anguish in my heart that they were flying like birds and I was falling like a stone, that they had wings and I would never have any….

This passage has the sublime perfection of a Joycean 'epiphany', but in its astonishing shift from the historical to the fantastic it strikes a characteristically 'postmodernist' note—one that has caused Milan Kundera to be linked with such writers as Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Günter Grass and Salman Rushdie, under the umbrella of 'magic realism'. Kundera uses this technique more modestly and sparingly (and perhaps for that reason more effectively) than they do, but with the same implied justification: that the contradictions and outrages of modern history are of such a scale that only the overt 'lie' of the fantastic or grotesque image can adequately represent them. The power and effectiveness of this passage could not, however, be conveyed by quoting it out of context. It brings together, with devastating rhetorical force, bits of information and symbolic motifs that have been previously introduced into the text with deceptive casualness. It is this periodic convergence of diverse and apparently disparate discourses that gives The Book of Laughter and Forgetting its unity. (p. 119)

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting contains many … enigmas, contradictions, ambiguities, which are not resolved. It never allows the reader the luxury of identifying with a secure authorial position that is invulnerable to criticism and irony. But that it is the work of a distinctive, gifted, self-conscious 'author' is never in doubt. (p. 120)

David Lodge, "Milan Kundera, and the Idea of the Author in Modern Criticism," in Critical Quarterly, Vol. 26. Nos. 1 & 2, Spring & Summer, 1984, pp. 105-21.

Steven G. Kellman

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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 principal figures in his first novel, The Joke …, Ludvik and Jaroslav, are a clarinetist and a violinist, respectively. Music furnishes the metaphors by which many Kundera characters live….

Human lives in Kundera are composed like music, and his novels are constructed like orchestral variations…. [Each] has seven sections. The new novel [The Unbearable Lightness of Being] is less a septych, a sequence of seven consecutive episodes, than a septet, a fugue on several characters, ideas, and incidents that recur throughout. In recounting the intersecting lives of Tomas, Tereza, Franz, and Sabina, in Czechoslovakia, Switzerland, France, Thailand, and the United States, Kundera's technique is circular and polyphonic rather than linear and univocal. He described his last novel as "a polyphony in which various stories mutually explain, illumine, complement each other," and might have done the same for his new one as well. In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, he paid tribute to musical variations: "The variation is the form of maximum concentration. It enables the composer to limit himself to the matter at hand, to go straight to the heart of it."

The Unbearable Lightness of Being exhibits this maximum concentration as a set of variations on the experiences of a few Europeans in the aftermath of the Prague Spring, and on meditations the author improvises about them. There's anecdotal matter lurking here…. Yet the narrative is curiously detached, the author wryly, wistfully intent on ruminating. In one section, rather than narrate the progress of the relationship between Franz and Sabina, Kundera provides us with "A Short Dictionary of Misunderstood Words." An examination of the lovers' divergent approaches to such terms as "woman," "parades," "cemetery," "strength," and "living in truth" defines their estrangement and makes it intelligible.

Einmal ist keinmal—"If we have only one life to live, we might as well not have lived at all." As an American sage once noted, once is not enough. Kundera reiterates this notion at several points in [The Unbearable Lightness of Being] and it is the basis for the lightness he attributes to unilinear human existence, as if weight were a function of simultaneous alternatives. The book's fugal form provides substance through repetition…. An ordinary memoir or political statement would have been unbearably light: "The characters in my novels are my own unrealized possibilities," Kundera says. They are his chance to imagine roads not taken and linger over contradictory thoughts on eros, spirituality, contingency, tyranny.

For Kundera, the adversary isn't simply Socialist Realism or the scoundrels who seized power in 1968; it's what he calls a "categorical agreement with being." This cosmic complacency is as much an occupational hazard of dissidence as of sycophancy. For all his fixation on Czech capitulation to Russian brawn, Kundera is only obliquely and warily a political writer. The cultural manifestation of metaphysical smugness, the sanitized version of reality he detests, is kitsch: "a folding screen set up to curtain off death." Kundera asks pointed questions about the dogmas of cheer, of "a world in which shit is denied and everyone acts as though it did not exist," and these questions levitate The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

Kundera's novel is written under the sign of the interrogation point. Its catechism is a strategy for besmirching the hygienic systems that diminish its characters' lives. In posing questions—about the characters' relations to one another, to their author, and to the universe—Kundera is writing no in lightning to a literary regime that demands a very different kind of prose:

In the realm of totalitarian kitsch, all answers are given in advance and preclude any questions. It follows, then, that the true opponent of totalitarian kitsch is the person who asks questions. A question is like a knife that slices through the stage backdrop and gives us a look at what lies hidden behind it.

Kundera's ambitions are loftier than tossing verbal stones at Soviet tanks back in Prague or immersing us in the singular lives of one cast of dramatis personae. The Unbearable Lightness of Being is not entirely devoid of the concrete quiddities that are the chief pleasure of traditional realism…. But this spare book dares disturb that universe. "A question with no answer is a barrier that cannot be breached. In other words, it is questions with no answers that set the limits of human possibilities, describe the boundaries of human existence." If a book succeeds in embodying that kind of description, there isn't much more a reader can ask.

Steven G. Kellman, "Disturbing the Universe," in The Village Voice, Vol. XXIX, No. 26, June 26, 1984, p. 43.

Norman Podhoretz

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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 footnote, Podhoretz comments: "Since then you have taught me that the term East Europe is wrong because the countries in question belong to the West and that we should speak instead of Central Europe. But in 1980 I did not yet understand this."]

Nor was I particularly curious about you either as an individual or as a member of the class of "East" European dissident writers. This was not because I was or am unsympathetic to dissidents in Communist regimes or those living in exile in the West. On the contrary, as a passionate anti-Communist. I am all too sympathetic—at least for their own good as writers.

"How many books about the horrors of life under Communism am I supposed to read? How many ought I to read?" asks William F. Buckley, Jr., another member of the radically diminished fraternity of unregenerate anti-Communists in the American intellectual world. Like Buckley, I felt that there were a good many people who still needed to learn about "the horrors of life under Communism," but that I was not one of them. Pleased though I was to see books by dissidents from behind the Iron Curtain published and disseminated, I resisted reading any more of them myself.

What then induced me to begin reading The Book of Laughter and Forgetting? I have no idea. Knowing your work as well as I do now, I can almost visualize myself as a character in a Kundera novel, standing in front of the cabinet in my office where review copies of new books are kept, suddenly being seized by one of them while you, the author, break into the picture to search speculatively for the cause. But whatever answer you might come up with, I have none. I simply do not know why I should have been drawn against so much resistance to The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. What I do know is that once I had begun reading it, I was transfixed.

Twenty-five years ago, as a young literary critic, I was sent an advance copy of a book of poems called Life Studies. It was by Robert Lowell, a poet already famous and much honored in America, but whose earlier work had generally left me cold. I therefore opened Life Studies with no great expectation of pleasure, but what I found there was more than pleasure. Reading it, I told Lowell in a note thanking him for the book, made me remember, as no other new volume of verse had for a long time, why I had become interested in poetry in the first place. That is exactly what The Book of Laughter and Forgetting did for my old love of the novel—a love grown cold and stale and dutiful.

During my years as a literary critic, I specialized in contemporary fiction, and one of the reasons I eventually gave up on criticism was that the novels I was reading seemed to me less and less worth writing about. They might be more or less interesting, more or less amusing, but mostly they told me more about their authors, and less about life or the world, than I wanted or needed to know. Once upon a time the novel (as its English name suggests) had been a bringer of news; or (to put it in the terms you yourself use in a recent essay entitled "The Novel and Europe") its mission had been to "uncover a hitherto unknown segment of existence." But novel after novel was now "only confirming what had already been said."

That is how you characterize the "hundreds and thousands of novels published in huge editions and widely read in Communist Russia." But "confirming what had already been said" was precisely what most of the novels written and published in the democratic West, including many honored for boldness and originality, were also doing. This was the situation twenty years ago, and it is perhaps even worse today. I do not, of course, mean that our novelists follow an official "party line," either directly or in some broader sense. What I do mean is that the most esteemed novels of our age in the West often seem to have as their main purpose the reinforcement of the by now endlessly reiterated idea that literary people are superior in every way to the businessmen, the politicians, the workers among whom they live—that they are more intelligent, more sensitive, and morally finer than everyone else.

You write, in the same essay from which I have just quoted, that "Every novel says to the reader: 'Things are not as simple as you think.'" This may be true of the best, the greatest, of novels. But it is not true of most contemporary American novels. Most contemporary American novels invite the reader to join with the author in a luxuriously complacent celebration of themselves and of the stock prejudices and bigotries of the "advanced" literary culture against the middle-class world around them. Flaubert could declare that he was Madame Bovary; the contemporary American novelist, faced with a modern-day equivalent of such a character, announces: How wonderful it is to have nothing whatever in common with this dull and inferior person.

In your essay on the novel you too bring up Flaubert and you credit him with discovering "the terra previously incognita of the everyday." But what "hitherto unknown segment of existence" did you discover in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting? In my opinion, the answer has to be: the distinctive things Communism does to the life—most notably the spiritual or cultural life—of a society. Before reading The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, I thought that a novel set in Communist Czechoslovakia could "only confirm what had already been said" and what I, as a convinced anti-Communist, had already taken in. William Buckley quite reasonably asks: "How is it possible for the thousandth exposé of life under Communism to be original?" But what you proved in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (and, I have since discovered, in some of your earlier novels like The Joke as well) is that it is possible to be original even in going over the most frequently trodden ground. You cite with approval "Hermann Broch's obstinately repeated point that the only raison d'être of a novel is to discover what can only be discovered by a novel," and your own novels are a splendid demonstration of that point.

If I were still a practicing literary critic, I would be obligated at this juncture to show how The Book of Laughter and Forgetting achieves this marvelous result. To tell you the truth, though, even if I were not so rusty, I would have a hard time doing so. This is not an easy book to describe, let alone to analyze. Indeed, if I had not read it before the reviews came out, I would have been put off, and misled, by the terms in which they praised it.

Not that these terms were all inaccurate. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting assuredly is, in the words of one reviewer, "part fairy tale, part literary criticism, part political tract, part musicology, and part autobiography"; and I also agree with the same reviewer when he adds that "the whole is genius." Yet what compelled me most when I first opened The Book of Laughter and Forgetting was not its form or its aesthetic character but its intellectual force, the astonishing intelligence controlling and suffusing every line.

The only other contemporary novelist I could think of with that kind of intellectual force, that degree of intelligence, was Saul Bellow. Like Bellow, you moved with easy freedom and complete authority through the world of ideas, and like him too you were often playful in the way you handled them. But in the end Bellow seemed always to be writing only about himself, composing endless and finally claustrophobic variations on the theme of Saul Bellow's sensibility. You too were a composer of variations; in fact, in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting itself you made so bold as to inform us that "This entire book is a novel in the form of variations." Yet even though you yourself, as Milan Kundera, kept making personal appearances in the course of which you talked about your own life or, again speaking frankly in your own name, delivered yourself of brilliant little essays about the history of Czechoslovakia, or of music, or of literature, you, Milan Kundera, were not the subject of this novel, or the "theme" of these variations. The theme was totalitarianism: what it is, what it does, where it comes from. But this was a novel, however free and easy in its formal syncretism, whose mission was "to discover what can only be discovered by a novel," and consequently all its terms were specified. Totalitarianism thus meant Communism, and more specifically Soviet Communism, and still more specifically Communism as imposed on Czechoslovakia, first in 1948 by a coup and then, twenty years later in 1968, by the power of Soviet tanks.

Nowadays it is generally held that Communism is born out of hunger and oppression, and in conspicuously failing to "confirm" that idea, you were to that extent being original. But to anyone familiar with the literature, what you had to say about Communism was not in itself new: that it arises out of the utopian fantasy of a return to Paradise; that it can brook no challenge to its certainties; that it cannot and will not tolerate pluralism either in the form of the independent individual or in the form of the unique national culture.

All these things had been said before—by Orwell, Koestler, Camus, and most recently Solzhenitsyn. Indeed, according to Solzhenitsyn, Communism has done to Russia itself exactly what you tell us it has done to Czechoslovakia and all the other peoples and nations that have been absorbed into the Soviet empire. From the point of view of those nations it is traditional Russian imperialism that has crushed the life out of them, but in Solzhenitsyn's eyes Russia itself is as much the victim of Communism as the countries of Central Europe.

In another of your essays, "The Tragedy of Central Europe," you lean toward the perspective of the enslaved countries in fixing the blame on Russia rather than Communism, and you also agree with the great Polish dissident Leszek Kolakowski when he criticizes Solzhenitsyn's "tendency to idealize czarism." Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is anti-Communist before it is anti-Russian. It begins not with Stalin but with the Czech Communist leader Klement Gottwald and the coup that brought Communism to power in Czechoslovakia, and you make it clear throughout that the utopian fantasies in whose service Czechoslovakia is gradually murdered as a nation come from within. It is only when the nation begins to awake and tries to save itself from the slow suicide it has been committing that the Soviet tanks are sent in.

Yet even though in one sense The Book of Laughter and Forgetting said nothing new about Communism, in another sense it "discovered" Communism as surely as Flaubert "discovered" everyday life (about which, after all, Madame Bovary said nothing new, either). As I have already indicated, I find it very hard to understand how you were able to make the familiar seem unfamiliar and then to familiarize it anew with such great freshness and immediacy. Perhaps the answer lies in the unfamiliar form you created in which a number of apparently unrelated stories written in different literary genres ranging from the conventionally realistic to the surrealistic are strung together only by the author's direct intervention and a common theme which, however, is not even clearly visible in every case.

What, for example, connects Karel of Part II, who makes love simultaneously to his wife and his mistress as his aged mother sleeps in the next room, with Mirek of Part I, a disillusioned ex-Communist who gets six years in prison for trying to keep a careful record of events after the invasion of Czechoslovakia? Then there is the section about the student who rushes off to spend an evening getting drunk with a group of famous poets while a married woman he has been lusting after waits impatiently for him in his room. Why is the fairly straight comic realism of that section immediately followed by the grim Kafkaesque parable of the young woman who finds herself living in a world populated exclusively by little children ("angels") who at first worship and then finally torment her to death?

Whatever explanations subsequent analysis might yield, the fact is that those "brutal juxtapositions" make so powerful an effect on a first reading that they justify themselves before they are fully understood; and here too (at least so far as I personally was concerned) you prevailed against resistance. Nowadays my taste in fiction runs strongly to the realistic, and the enthusiasm I once felt for the experimental has waned as experimental writing has itself become both conventional and purposeless. But just as you have "discovered" Communism for the novel, so you have resurrected formal experimentation. The point of such experimentation was not originally to drive the novel out of the world it had been exploring for so long through the techniques and devices of realism; the point was to extend those techniques to previously unexplored regions of the inner life. What you say of Bartók, that he "knew how to discover the last original possibility in music based on the tonal principle," could be said of what Joyce, Kafka, and Proust were doing in relation to the fictional principle of verisimilitude. It can also, I believe, be said of you.

But since you yourself compare The Book of Laughter and Forgetting to a piece of music, it seems appropriate to admit that in reading it I was not so much reminded of other modern novelists as of the tonal modernist composers who, no matter how dissonant and difficult they may be (some of Bartók's own string quartets are a good case in point), are still intelligible to the ear in a way that the atonal and serial composers are not, no matter how often one listens to their works. Bartók, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and your beloved Janáček all found new and striking means by which to make the familiar world of sound seem new—to bring it, as we say, back to life. And this, it seemed to me, was what you were doing to a familiar world of experience in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.

A few weeks after I had finished reading it, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting was published in the United States, and to my amazement the reviewers were just as enthusiastic about it as I had been. If you are wondering why this should have amazed me, I will tell you frankly that I would not have expected the American literary world to applaud so outspokenly anti-Communist a book. In France, where you have been living since 1975, anti-Communism may lately have come into fashion among intellectuals, but here in the United States it has for some years been anathema to literary people—and to most other people who think of themselves as liberals or as "sophisticated" or both. Very few of these people are actually sympathetic to Communism, but even fewer of them take it seriously as a threat or even as a reality. They are convinced that no one in the Soviet Union, let alone the satellite countries, believes in Communism any longer, if they ever did; and as for the Third World, the Marxist-Leninists there are not really Communists (even to call them Communists is taken as a sign of political primitivism) but nationalists making use of a convenient rhetoric. Hence to be an anti-Communist is to be guilty of hating and fearing an illusion—or rather, the ghost of something that may once have existed but that has long since passed away.

In the view of most American literary people, however, anti-Communists are not merely suffering from paranoid delusions; they are also dangerous in that they tend to exaggerate the dimensions of the Soviet threat. Here again, just as very few of these people are pro-Communist, hardly a single one can be found who is openly or straightforwardly pro-Soviet. Once there were many defenders of and apologists for the Soviet Union in the American literary world, but that was a long time ago. In recent years it has been almost impossible to find a writer or a critic who will argue that the Soviet Union is building a workers' paradise or who will declare that Soviet domination of the countries of Central Europe is a good thing.

On the other hand, it is now the standard view that in its conflict with the West, or rather the United States, the Soviet Union is more sinned against than sinning. Everything the Soviets do (even the invasion of Afghanistan) is defensive or a reaction to an American provocation; and anything that cannot be explained away in these terms (the attempted assassination of the Pope, the cheating on arms-control agreements, the use of poison gas) is denied. The idea that seems self-evident to you (and to me), namely, that the Soviets are out to dominate the world, is regarded as too patently ridiculous even to be debated; it is dismissed either with a patronizing smile or with a show of incredulous indignation. One is permitted to criticize the Soviet Union as a "tyranny," but to see it as a threat is both to be paranoid and to feed Soviet paranoia, thereby increasing the risk of an all-out nuclear war.

Given this frame of mind, most reviewers might have been expected to bridle at the anti-Communism of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. But none of them did. Why? Possibly some or even all of them were so impressed with your novel as a work of art that they were willing to forgive or overlook its anti-Communism. Perhaps. But in any event—and this is a factor I should have anticipated but did not—as a Czech who has suffered and is now in exile, you have a license to be anti-Soviet and even anti-Communist. All Soviet or Central European dissidents are granted that license. By sympathizing with and celebrating dissident or refugee artists and intellectuals from the Communist world, literary people here can demonstrate (to themselves as much as to others) that their hatred of oppression extends to the Left no less than to the Right and that their love of literature also transcends political and ideological differences.

If you ask me what objection I or anyone else could conceivably have to such a lofty attitude, I will ask you in turn to reflect on the price that you yourself are paying for being treated in this way. In a piece about the reaction in France to your latest novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Edmund White writes: "When faced with a figure such as Kundera, French leftists, eager to atone for former Soviet sympathies, begin to echo the unregenerate anti-Communism of Gaullists." The opposite has been true of the American reaction to your work. Here it has either become yet another occasion for sneering at "unregenerate anti-Communism" or else it has been described in the most disingenuously abstract terms available. You are writing about memory and laughter, about being and non-being, about love and sex, about angels and devils, about home and exile—about anything, in short, but the fate of Czechoslovakia under Communism and what that fate means, or should mean, to those of us living in the free world.

Thus one of your leftist admirers in America assures us that "Kundera refuses to settle into a complacency where answers come easy; no cold-war scold he. He subjects the 'free world's' contradictions to equally fierce scrutiny; the issues he confronts—the bearing of time, choice, and being—transcend time and place." Neither, according to another of your admirers who also puts derisive quotation marks around the phrase free world, do you detect any fundamental difference between the fate of literature under conditions of artistic freedom and what happens to it under Communist totalitarianism: "His need to experiment with form is surely connected to his personal vendetta against the puerilities of 'socialist realism' and its 'free world' counterparts."

What is being done to you here, I have come to see, bears a macabre resemblance to what has been done posthumously to George Orwell. In Orwell's own lifetime, no one had any doubt that the species of totalitarianism he was warning against in Nineteen Eighty-Four was Communism. Yet as we have all discovered from the endless discussions of that book occasioned by the coming of the real 1984, it is now interpreted and taught more as a warning against the United States than the Soviet Union. If the word Orwellian means turning things into their opposites ("war is peace," etc.), then Orwell himself has been Orwellianized—not by an all-powerful state in control of all means of expression and publication but by what Orwell himself called the "new aristocracy" of publicists and professors. This new aristocracy so dominates the centers in which opinion is shaped that it is able to distort the truth, especially about the past, to a degree that Orwell thought could never be reached so long as freedom of speech existed.

Like Orwell before you, you are obsessed with the theme of memory, and you believe with one of your characters "that the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting." The power you have in mind is the political power of the totalitarian state, but what the case of Orwell so ironically and paradoxically and poignantly demonstrates is that in the democratic West the power against which memory must struggle is the cultural power of the "new aristocracy." This power, with no help whatever from the state (and indeed operating in opposition to the state), has taken the real Orwell, to whom nothing was more fundamental than the distinction between the free world and the Communist world, and sent him down the memory hole, while giving us in his place an Orwell who was neutral as between the United States and the Soviet Union and who saw no important differences between life in a Communist society and life in the democratic West.

Now that same power is trying to do the same thing to you. But of course this is an even more brazen operation. Orwell's grave has been robbed; you are being kidnapped.

When I first thought of writing to you about this, I assumed that you would be appalled to learn how in America your work was falling into the hands of people who were using it for political purposes that you would surely consider pernicious. But now I am appalled to learn that you have been cooperating with your own kidnappers. "If I write a love story, and there are three lines about Stalin in that story," you tell the New York Times Book Review, "people will talk about the three lines and forget the rest, or read the rest for its political implications or as a metaphor for politics." But in America, once again, the opposite more nearly obtains: you write a book about Czechoslovakia under Communism containing three lines about love and everyone talks about those three lines and says that Czechoslovakia under Communism is a metaphor for life in the "free world" (in quotation marks of course). Or you write a novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, containing a brief episode in which an anti-Communist Czech émigré in Paris is seen by one of the characters as no different in kind from the Communists back in Prague (both being equally dogmatic), and virtually every reviewer gleefully cites it by way of suggesting that in your eyes Communism and anti-Communism are equivalent evils.

I think I can understand why a writer in exile from a Communist society should wish to turn his back on politics altogether, particularly where his own work is concerned. It is, after all, the essence of totalitarianism to politicize everything, most emphatically including the arts, and what better protest could there be against this distinctive species of tyranny than to insist on the reality and finally the superior importance of the nonpolitical in life? You are, for example, obviously fascinated by erotic experience in its own right and for its own sake, and that is why you write about it so much. Yet it is hard to escape the impression that sex also plays such a large role in your novels because under Communism it became the only area of privacy that remained relatively intact when everything else had become politicized. (Surely too you make fun of orgies and nude beaches because they represent an effort to turn sex into a servant of the utopian fantasies that Communism has failed to satisfy.)

But even greater than your passion for sex is your love of Western civilization, and especially its literature and its music. If I read you correctly, nothing that Communism has done, none of the crimes it has committed, not even the gulags it has created, seems to you worse than the war it has waged against Western culture. To you it is a war that goes beyond the stifling of free expression or the effort by the state to prescribe the very forms in which artists are permitted to work. It is total war. It involves the complete cultural annihilation by the Soviet Union of the countries of Central Europe, and this in turn—so you believe—represents the amputation of a vital part of Western civilization.

You make a powerful case in "The Tragedy of Central Europe" for the proposition that the countries of that area are "the cultural home" of the West. From this it follows that in acquiescing since Yalta in their absorption into the alien civilization of the East (alien because "Russian Communism vigorously reawakened Russia's old anti-Western obsessions and turned it brutally against Europe"), the West has shown that it no longer believes in the worth of its own civilization. The unity of the West was once based on religion; then religion "bowed out, giving way to culture, which became the expression of the supreme values by which European humanity understood itself, defined itself, identified itself as European." The tragedy of Central Europe has revealed that "Just as God long ago gave way to culture, culture in turn is giving way." To what? You do not say because you do not know. "I think I know only that culture has bowed out" in the West.

You do not explicitly add here that you for one are refusing to bow out, but you do tell us elsewhere that your supreme commitment is to the heritage of the European novel. You further give us to understand that as a novelist you mean to keep faith with your Central European heritage in particular—a heritage embodied in a "disabused view of history" and "the 'non-serious spirit' that mocks grandeur and glory." Summing it all up, you once responded to someone who had praised your first book as an indictment of Stalinism with the irritable remark: "Spare me your Stalinism. The Joke is a love story…. [It] is merely a novel."

Your love of culture, then, gives you a double incentive to deny the political dimension of your work. You wish to protect it from the "mindlessness of politicization," and at the same time to be anti-political is a way of not forgetting the murdered spirit of Czechoslovakia and the other countries of Central Europe which have now "disappeared from the map."

Even though I do not share your generally sour attitude toward religion, to all this I say: Yes, yes, and again yes. But I ask you, I implore you, to consider that by cooperating with those who have kidnapped your work, you are "bowing out" yourself. The testimony of the dissidents behind the Iron Curtain, whether they languish in prison or now live in the West, has played an immense role in forcing the intellectuals of Europe and America to think about the political values at stake in the conflict between East and West. Now you have come along and forced us all to begin thinking again (or perhaps for the first time) about the cultural dimension of this struggle. This has been the distinctive contribution, and the glory, of your work. Why then should you wish to encourage the agents of the very cultural abdication you deplore and mourn and lament? Why should you, of all writers, wish to be coopted by people who think there is no moral or political—or cultural—difference between West and East worth talking about, let alone fighting over? Why should you allow yourself to provide cover for people who think that Western civilization should not and cannot be defended?

You will perhaps answer in the words with which your essay on the novel concludes: "I am attached to nothing apart from the European novel," and that the "wisdom of the novel" requires skepticism as opposed to dogmatic certainty, the refusal to take sides, the raising of questions rather than the finding of answers. But let me remind you of what you also know—that the novel is devoted to exploring the concrete and the particular. Those on the American Left who have taken you up have been able to do so only by ignoring the novelistic essence of your work, its concreteness and its particularity: by robbing it (to adapt the guiding metaphor of your latest novel) of weight, by cutting it loose from the earth and letting it float high into a realm of comfortable abstractions in which all moral and political distinctions become invisible, and everything merges into "the unbearable lightness of being."

In the novel to which you give that phrase as a title, you profess uncertainly as to whether one should choose weight or lightness, but that novel itself, like your writing in general, belies the uncertainty. In your work you have chosen weight, which is to say the burdens of memory and the celebration of a "world of concrete living." Even your flirtation with the irresponsibilities of lightness paradoxically adds to that weight, deriving as it does from the heavy burden you have accepted of keeping the mocking and irreverent spirit of your culturally devastated homeland alive: a spirit that darkens the lightness of the laughter you so value and that throws the shadow of the gallows over the jokes you love to make.

You have declared in an interview that you want all of us in the West to understand what happened at Yalta, that it is necessary for "a Frenchman or an American … to know, to reason, to comprehend what is happening to, say, people in Czechoslovakia … so that his naiveté won't become his tragedy." It is for the sake of that necessary understanding that I beg you to stop giving aid and encouragement to the cultural powers who are using some of your own words to prevent your work from helping to alert a demoralized West to the dangers it faces from a self-imposed Yalta of its own. (pp. 34-9)

Norman Podhoretz, "An Open Letter to Milan Kundera," in Commentary, Vol. 78, No. 4, October, 1984, pp. 34-9.


Kundera, Milan (Vol. 19)


Kundera, Milan (Vol. 4)