World Literature

Milan Kundera

 

BORN: 1929, Brno, Czechoslovakia

NATIONALITY: Czech, French

GENRE: Fiction, nonfiction, poetry, drama

MAJOR WORKS:

The Joke (1967)

Life Is Elsewhere (1974)

The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984)

The Art of the Novel (1988)

 

 

Milan Kundera. © epa / Corbis

 

Overview

Milan Kundera is one of the few Czech writers who has achieved wide international recognition. In his native Czechoslovakia and the present-day Czech Republic and Slovakia, Kundera has been regarded as an important author and intellectual since his early twenties. Each of his creative works and contributions to the public political and cultural discourse has provoked a lively debate in the context of its time.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Musical Influence. Born on April 1, 1929, in Brno, Czechoslovakia (in what is now the Czech Republic), Kundera was the son of a pianist and musicologist named Ludvik and his wife, Milada (Janiskova). Kundera was educated in music under the direction of Paul Haas and Vaclav Kapral. Later he attended Charles University and, in 1956, studied at the Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts, both of which are in Prague. Kundera decided at age nineteen that music was not his true vocation, yet his love of music would influence the structure of his novels, which he patterned after musical compositions.

Emerging as a Reformer. Kundera began his writing career with three volumes of poetry published between 1953 and 1964. Also during this time, he began writing in the form in which he was the most successful: the novel. Kundera’s first book, The Joke, published in 1967, was inspired by an incident in 1950; he and another Czech writer, Jan Trefulka, had been expelled from the Communist Party for ‘‘anti-party activities.’’ The novel exposes the dangers of living in a humorless world and is the work most responsible for Kundera’s emergence as a leader in the reform movement that led to the Czech Republic’s 1968 ‘‘Prague Spring,’’ a period of attempted reforms and relaxation of authority.

Censored and Informally Exiled. From the end of World War II until the late 1980s, Eastern Europe was under the firm control of the Soviet Union. Any attempts by Eastern European countries to reject Soviet control were violently squashed. During the so-called Prague Spring, the Czechoslovakian government allowed writers and other artists a level of freedom of expression that the communist country had previously not permitted. However, the reprieve from oppression was short-lived. Soviet tanks rolled into the city and the old ‘‘order’’ was restored. Kundera found himself in the same position as many of the other leaders of the reform movement. His books disappeared from libraries and bookstores; he lost his job at the academy and his right to continue writing and publishing in his native country. His first two novels were published in translation abroad for a foreign audience. Although not initially allowed to travel to the West, Kundera finally was allowed to accept a teaching position in France.

At the Universite de Rennes he served as an invited professor of comparative literature from 1975 through 1979. In 1980, he took a professorship at the Ecole des hautes etudes en sciences sociales in Paris. The following year, he became a naturalized citizen of France.

Making an Impact in the United States. Life Is Elsewhere (1974), his first major work after his exile, was published in the United States. It deals with revolutionary romanticism and with lyrical poetry as a whole, exploring, among other things, the volatility of the marriage of the two. His next book, The Earewell Party, was also published in the United States. This 1976 release satirizes a government-run health spa for women with fertility problems while simultaneously addressing serious ethical questions. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1980) was republished a year later with an interview the author gave to American novelist Philip Roth. This book illustrates the need for memory to overcome forgetting in order for an individual to achieve self-preservation.

Success of Unbearable Lightness. In 1984, Milan Kundera’s most famous novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, was published. Kundera touched upon his experiences after the Prague Spring in the novel, although some Czech critics complained that certain elements of the story do not ring true: For example, although many professionals were forced to abandon their work and support themselves in menial jobs in the post-1968 clampdown, as happens in the book, the main character of the book, a doctor, would not have been forced to abandon his profession.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being delves into the greatest existential problems that people are faced with: love, death, transcendence, the sense of continuity or ‘‘heaviness’’ that is provided by memory, and the contrasting sense of ‘‘lightness’’ that is brought about by forgetting. The book was adapted as a movie in 1988. Kundera’s successful works of the 1970s and 1980s are marked by his own feelings of estrangement and exile, and his homesickness for Prague. In 1989, however, the Soviet Union collapsed and soon thereafter the Eastern European countries that had been its satellites were free to pursue democratic reforms and reopen their societies to the West. Kundera, a French citizen since 1981, remained in Paris.

Novel Ideas About Fiction. Kundera’s most important work outside of his novels is his nonfiction work, The Art of the Novel. Published in 1988, the book outlines his theories of the novel, both personal and European. True to the nature of his own novels, this book does not consist of one long essay but of three short essays, two interviews, a list of sixty-three words and their definitions, and the text of a speech.

In The Art of the Novel Kundera explains how the history of the novel and the history of European culture are inextricably bound together. Starting with Miguel de Cervantes and passing through the works of authors such as Samuel Richardson, Honore de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, Leo Tolstoy, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Thomas Mann, and Franz Kafka, he traces the route of the experience of existence. This route starts from a world of unlimited potential, moves to the beginning of history, the shrinking of possibilities in the outside world, the search for infinity in the human soul, the futility of this search, and into the realm where history is seen as a monster that can offer nothing helpful.

Lit-Crit and Writers’ Rights. In 1995, Kundera published a book-length essay of literary criticism, Testaments Betrayed, which is organized after Friedrich Nietzsche’s books, with each of its nine parts divided into small sections. Its main, recurring theme focuses on Kundera’s firm belief that writers and other artists’ prerogatives should be defended and their intentions respected by editors, publicists, and executors.

Books in French. Kundera began writing novels in French, beginning with 1993’s Slowness. Identity and Ignorance followed in 1998 and 2000, respectively. Kundera continues to live and work in Paris.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Kundera's famous contemporaries include:

Vaclav Havel (1936—): Czech writer and playwright. Havel was both the last president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of the new Czech Republic, a capacity he served in for ten years. Starting in the late 1960s, Havel used his writing as a weapon to speak out against his government's authoritarian rule, resulting in multiple arrests and a prison term.

Miroslav Holub (1923-1998): Czech poet who worked in unrhymed free verse, almost prose-like. His subjects frequently included doctors and medical researchers, as Holub was himself a practicing immunologist.

Alexander DubCek (1921-1992): Czechoslovakian politician who, in the spring of 1968, attempted to reform his country's Communist government, allowing more freedom of expression and open political discourse— ''socialism with a human face.'' The attempt was doomed to be short-lived, and ended in August of that year when Czechoslovakia was occupied by forces from the Soviet Union and its allies in the Warsaw Pact.

Leonid Brezhnev (1906-1982): Political leader of the Soviet Union from 1964 to 1982, the second-longest term after Joseph Stalin's. His regime saw an era of severe economic stagnation and further tightening and deterioration of the Soviet authoritarian regime.

 

Works in Literary Context

Musical Form. Novelistic unity for Kundera does not exist in a predetermined set of rules. He uses a common theme and a structure based on musical polyphony—the use of many notes playing at the same time, usually in harmony—to tie the sections of his novels together. The lengths and arrangements of chapters, subchapters, and sections are used to create mood and a sense of time, much like in a musical composition. Instead of following the linear story of a character or set of characters, Kundera connects sometimes seemingly unconnectable stories through their related themes and existential situations.

Structuralism and Self-Suppression. Kundera is an extremely private person who considers the details of his personal life ‘‘nobody’s business.’’ This attitude is consistent with the teachings of Czech structuralism, which argues that literary texts should be considered as self- contained structures of signs, without regard to outside reality. In a 1984 interview with the British writer Ian McEwan, Kundera said: ‘‘We constantly rewrite our own biographies and continually give matters new meanings. To rewrite history in this sense—indeed, in an Orwellian sense—is not at all inhuman. On the contrary, it is very human.’’

Kundera also asserts his right as an author to exclude from his body of work ‘‘immature’’ and ‘‘unsuccessful’’ works, as composers do, and he now rejects and suppresses most of his literary output of the 1950s and the 1960s. In his mature fiction, he creates a self-contained world that he constantly analyzes and questions, opening up a multitude of ways of interpreting the incidents he depicts. As Kvetoslav Chvatik points out, Kundera treats the novel as an ambiguous structure of signs; playing with these signs enables him to show human existence as open to countless possibilities, thus freeing human beings from the limitedness of a single unrepeatable life.

Lightness and Kitsch. Kundera’s theme in The Unbearable Lightness of Being is that life is unrepeatable; thus, one cannot go back and correct one’s mistakes. This realization leads to a feeling of vertiginous lightness, a total lack of responsibility. The idea of lightness, which Kundera takes from the Greek philosopher Parmenides, and which originally meant playfulness, here turns into lack of seriousness, or meaningless emptiness. Kundera also takes over the concept of kitsch from the German writer Hermann Broch: Kitsch is a beautiful lie that hides all the negative aspects of life and deliberately ignores the existence of death.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Kundera was an active participant in political causes, and his political thoughts have often been featured in his novels. Other novels notable for their political themes include:

Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), a novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Published during a time of increasingly sectional disagreements over the issue of slavery, this novel spread the antislavery message through its dramatic, politicized narrative.

1984 (1949), a novel by George Orwell. Written as a criticism of totalitarian governments, Orwell's novel has continued to serve as a watchword against infringement on personal freedoms—the image of Big Brother is perhaps one of the most recognizable political boogeymen.

Fahrenheit 451 (1953), a novel by Ray Bradbury. Written as a critique of the hysteria in American society during the early years of the Cold War, Bradbury's short novel has since taken on other political overtones, particularly in the debate over banning books.

 

Works in Critical Context

Overall, many critics home in on the political disillusionment of Kundera’s work, particularly in the context of his fight against Czechoslovakian social and cultural repression. But some critics go beyond the thematic, focusing on his disorienting style and marking his fragmented plotting, episodic structure, and authorial intrusions as distracting. Still other critics laud Kundera’s approach, appreciating his use of humor, his erotic themes, and his sense of narrative play.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being. When The Unbearable Lightness of Being appeared in 1984, it immediately became an international best seller, garnering awards throughout the world, including a Los Angeles Times Book Award. Contemporary reviews of the novel were largely positive. Paul Gray, in a Time review, calls The Unbearable Lightness of Being ‘‘a triumph of wisdom over bitterness, hope over despair.’’ Thomas DePietro in Commonweal focuses attention on the heart of the book. He observes that it is a work of ‘‘burning compassion, extraordinary intelligence, and dazzling artistry.’’ DePietro also notes the book ‘‘leaves us with many questions, questions about love and death, about love and transcendence. These are our burdens, the existential questions that never change but need to be asked anew.’’

Not all reviewers were enchanted with the book, however. Christopher Hawtree, for example, in the Spectator, faults Kundera for a ‘‘most off-putting’’ title and finds irksome the ‘‘elliptical structure’’ of the work. With faint praise, however, he acknowledges the novel is ‘‘a selfreferential whole that manages not to alienate the reader.’’ Scholarly interest in The Unbearable Lightness of Being continues unabated. Literary critics have found a variety of ways to read the novel. John O’Brien in his book Milan Kundera and Feminism focuses on Kundera’s representation of women. In Terminal Paradox, scholar Maria Nemcova Banerjee takes another tack, reading the novel as if it were a piece of music. Just as Tereza introduces Tomas to Beethoven’s quartets, and thus to the seminal phrase ‘‘Es muss sein,’’ Kundera introduces the reader to a quartet of characters: ‘‘The four leading characters perform their parts in concert, like instruments in a musical quartet, each playing his or her existential code in strict relation to those of the others, often spatially separated but never imaginatively isolated in the reader’s mind.’’

 

Responses to Literature

1. Many of Kundera’s stories are set in Czechoslovakia in the second half of the twentieth century. Learn more about the political history of Czechoslovakia (part of which is now the Czech Republic) since World War II. What major political and social upheavals has the country experienced? How has the country’s political climate affected the life and work of Kundera? Report back to the class with your findings.

2. The government-sanctioned style of literature during much of Kundera’s lifetime was ‘‘socialist realism.’’ Write a report explaining the basic aesthetic and political principles of the ‘‘socialist realist’’ style in writing and in other art forms. What is the history of the ‘‘socialist realist’’ style?

3. In part six of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kundera writes at length about the notion of ‘‘kitsch.’’ Define kitsch. Find examples in magazines of kitsch from modern American culture. Create a collage using these images that gives the viewer insight as to the role of kitsch in the United States.

4. Reread the sections of The Unbearable Lightness of Being that describe Tereza’s dreams. Read several entries on dreams from psychology textbooks or reference works. Write an informal essay about what these books reveal about Tereza’s dreams. What do the dreams say about her?

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Aji, Aron, ed. Milan Kundera and the Art of Fiction: Critical Essays. New York: Garland Publishing, 1992.

Banerjee, Maria Nemcove. Terminal Paradox: The Novels of Milan Kundera. New York: Grove, 1990.

Misurella, Fred. Understanding Milan Kundera: Public Events, Private Affairs. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993.

Petro, Peter, ed. Critical Essays on Milan Kundera. Boston: Twayne, 1999.

Zeman, Z. A. B. Prague Spring. New York: Hill & Wang, 1969.