At a Glance
Milan Kundera, a Czechoslovakian and one of Europe’s greatest contemporary writers, had a love-hate relationship with communism. He joined the Communist Party in 1948 but was expelled in 1950 for anti-party activities. He wrote about the experience in his novel Zert (translated into English as The Joke). He was readmitted in 1956 and expelled again in 1970. He was in good company that time, joining other Czech writers such as Vaclav Havel. Despite his political involvement, Kundera wants to be thought of as a literary novelist, not a political novelist. Starting in 1979, he stopped writing political commentary in his works and focused more on philosophical ideas.
Facts and Trivia
- Kundera's father was a musicologist and pianist. Not only did Kundera's father teach him to play piano, but Kundera studied musicology and musical composition himself.
- Milan Kundera loves films—just not film adaptations of his books. His most famous work, 1984’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, was adapted by American director Philip Kaufman. Kundera was very unhappy with the movie and has not allowed any of his other novels to be adapted into movies.
- Kundera originally wrote in Czech, but in 1933, he began writing his novels in French. From 1985 to 1987, he translated all of his existing work into French.
- Kundera has won many awards—the Jerusalem Prize in 1985, the Herder Prize in 2000, and the Czech National Literature Prize in 2007. He is rumored to be a perennial contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature as well.
- In an interview with The Village Voice, Kundera said, “Intimate life [is] understood as one’s personal secret, as something valuable, inviolable, the basis of one’s identity.”
- Kundera’s characters are often described as figments of his own imagination. He writes very little about their appearance, choosing instead to let the reader complete his vision.
A talented and prolific writer, master of the novel, short story, and drama, Milan Kundera (koon-DEHR-uh) is considered one of the major innovators in twentieth century European literature. He was the son of Ludvík and Milada (Janosikova) Kundera; his father, a student of the Czech composer Leo Janáek, was a talented pianist. Intending to become a musician, Kundera studied piano with his father, but he put aside music in 1948 to study scriptwriting and directing at the Film Faculty of the Prague Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts, where he later taught. In reaction against Nazism he joined the Communist Party in 1947 but was purged twice for his outspoken views. In a speech before the Congress of Czechoslovak Writers in 1967 Kundera called for writers to lead the campaign for artistic and cultural freedom that became the Prague Spring of 1968. After the Soviet suppression of Alexander Dubek’s reforms, Kundera was not permitted to publish his works; in 1975 he and his wife were allowed to immigrate to Paris, and he became a French citizen in 1981. He spent much of 1990 in Martinique and Haiti.
Kundera began his literary career as a poet in the 1950’s, publishing three collections of poems before turning to drama and, finally, to fiction, finding greater exactness and precision of expression in prose. In his three collections of short stories, condensed as Laughable Loves, Kundera uses sexual comedy as a way of poking fun at a world of grim ideological constraints and artistic repression. In a totalitarian state, Kundera has observed, one’s private life represents the last bastion of freedom against government control. Sexual expression becomes either a metaphor for or a sublimation of political expression. If the state promotes a rigid morality, then promiscuity becomes a form of rebellion, though a self-destructive one for many of Kundera’s characters.
His first novel, The Joke, shows Kundera to be a master of ironic sexual comedy with deeper cultural and political implications. The Joke , whose plot is built around a practical joke that backfires, reveals the dangers...
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