For someone whom the world regards as a serious intellectual, Milan Kundera has a brilliantly twisted sense of humor. His novels depict a world of awkward orgies and disastrous pool parties, mad scientists and self-pitying poets who contract pneumonia out of spite. While Kundera's works tackle profound issues of human identity, they also playfully juggle ambiguities, ironies and paradoxes. "The novelist teaches the reader to comprehend the world as a question," he said in a 1980 interview with Philip Roth. "There is wisdom and tolerance in that attitude. In a world built on sacrosanct certainties the novel is dead."
Kundera was born in Brno, Czechoslovkia in 1929. Like many young Czechs who had come of age during World War II and the German occupation, Kundera was attracted to Marxist philosophy, which seemed to promise a new freedom and peace. The first literary works he produced (three volumes of poetry and a play, The Owners of the Keys) were essentially Communist propaganda, though they didn't always conform to the tenets of socialist realism approved by the state. His resistance to the official restrictions on literature helped lead to his involvement with the "Prague Spring," the brief-lived reform movement toward "socialism with a human face."
During the '60s, Kundera began writing short stories, collected as Laughable Loves, which he would later identify as the beginning of his mature work. In several of them, jokes that start out as innocent pranks evolve into catastrophes for both perpetrator and victim -- they are deeds that, like the Czech version of Communism, have escaped the control of their creators. Kundera's first novel, The Joke, concerns a young man who is brought up on political charges after sending a teasing postcard to his girlfriend ("Optimism is the opium of the people!").
The Joke was published to wide acclaim shortly before the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Following the invasion, Kundera was ousted from his film-studies teaching job, his books were pulled from libraries and bookstores, and he was forbidden to publish new work. He went on writing, however, and his novels Life Is Elsewhere and The Farewell Party were published outside his native country. Farcical and bleak, the novels developed what would become a recurring theme for Kundera, in which commitment to an abstract moral principle paves the way for corruption and evil.
In 1975, Kundera fled Czechoslovakia and settled in France, where he eventually became a citizen. His first book produced in exile, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, remains one of his most celebrated works, weaving together autobiographical reflections with a series of connected fictions. John Updike, writing in the New York Times, called it "brilliant and original, written with a purity and wit that invite us directly in; it is also strange, with a strangeness that locks us out." His next novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, also drew high praise, and the 1988 film version of The Unbearable Lightness of Being starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Juliette Binoche turned Kundera into something of a celebrity.
Despite (or perhaps because of) the political pressures that shaped his early life and works, Kundera has long insisted that the novel should be a work of art, not a political or ideological statement. By the '90s, Kundera had started to write his novels in French; he is now sometimes tagged a "Franco-Czech" author. His works are often described as "novels of ideas," but he resists the term "philosophical novel." As he said in an interview with Lois Oppenheim, "There are metaphysical problems, problems of human existence, that philosophy has never known how to grasp in all their concreteness and that only the novel can seize."
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Kundera joined the Communist party while still in his teens, but was expelled in 1950 (an experience that helped inspire his 1967 novel The Joke). He was readmitted to the party in 1956, then expelled again in 1970.
Kundera's father played the piano, and Kundera himself studied music composition. He has often described his novels in musical terms as "polyphony," in which different voices are juxtaposed to build up a unified whole. As he told Philip Roth, the "various stories mutually explain, illumine, complement each other."
According to Kundera, there are four great European novelists: Franz Kafka, Hermann Broch, Robert Musil and Witold Gombrowicz. He has called the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal "our very best writer today."
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