I was 20 when I first read The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1979), too young to grasp the expanse of Milan Kundera’s intent, but impressionable enough to be wowed by his turn of phrase. Two decades later, I find neatly underlined in my yellowing copy of the novel sentences I had loved—“By writing books, a man turns into a universe”—but I am looking for a passage more specific.
In Part Four of this seven-part book, Kundera ends one section with the following passage: “That night Tamina had a dream about the ostriches. There they were, standing by the fence, jabbering away at her. She was terrified of them. She could not move. All she could do was watch their mute beaks, hypnotized. She kept her lips tightly pressed together. She had a golden ring in her mouth, and she feared for its safety.” I remember I was astonished the first time I read these lines. “Who allowed him to write like that?” was one of the many questions I asked. Kundera, it turned out, was curious as well.
The next section of the book started with him asking, “Why do I imagine her with a golden ring in her mouth?” The question interrupts the narrative and makes the narrator conspicuous but having read 142 pages of the book by then, I felt somewhat used to these Kunderean tricks. For Kundera, thought mattered more than action. The philosophical musings that punctuate his novels are never boring. They are never lectures. By weaving into the present of his stories epiphanies that hindsight affords, Kundera made us focus on ideas more than the plot. In order to equate that “golden ring” with silence, he alluded to Thomas Mann and asked us to imagine the sound a golden ring makes when falling into a silver basin. These segues felt entertaining. They each told us something about life, death and Tamina.
Milan Kundera died in Paris on Tuesday, July 11. He was 94. The news would have, of course, made his fans melancholic, but even for those who had never read him, the headlines announcing his death must have surely rung a bell. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kundera’s 1984 novel, has come to enjoy a kind of “modern classic” status which makes it an essential read for those who claim to have literary predilections. Ever the provocateur, Kundera begins his book by challenging Nietzsche’s theory of “eternal return”. For Kundera, the thought that all events repeat themselves eternally was too pat. We live only once, he felt. Life cannot be revised, and this makes our being unbearable but, also, light.
Some of the novel’s sentences can still make you gasp. Tomas, Kundera’s protagonist, is a surgeon. Recounting the time he first operated on someone, Kundera writes, “When Tomas first positioned his scalpel on the skin of a man asleep under an anaesthetic, then breached the skin with a decisive incision, and finally cut it open with a precise and even stroke (as if it were a piece of fabric—a coat, a skirt, a curtain), he experienced a brief but immense feeling of blasphemy.” Medical dramas show us that surgery can be riveting, but it takes a Kundera to make surgical procedure meaningful and literary. His prose ironed the creases of everyday life in a manner that made it easier to consider our existence.
In the country of last things
In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Tamina thinks of privacy when faced with her husband’s dead body: “Being a corpse struck her an unbearable disgrace. One minute you are a human being protected by modesty—the sanctity of nudity and privacy—and the next you die, and your body is suddenly up for grabs. Anyone can tear your clothes off, rip you open, inspect your insides, and—holding his nose to keep the stink away—stick you into the deep freeze or the flames.” Privacy, as Kundera admitted, was for him an “obsession”. Though he always seems to want to drive his characters to corners where no one is looking, Kundera felt we should look for revelation in novels, not novelists.
Kundera rarely gave interviews. He was allergic to journalists. He once said, “An author, once quoted by a journalist, is no longer master of his word [...] And this, of course, is unacceptable.” Kundera scrupulously edited drafts of the few interviews he did give in the 1980s. They mostly survive in literary journals. In 1987, Salmagundi published a conversation Kundera had with Jordan Elgrably. Here, he said, “I feel it is essential to maintain a certain anonymity, which is why I am averse to an author exhibiting himself on television. There is a certain danger in talking about oneself. Public curiosity is never limited to the novel in question. An actor can court the public’s voyeurism, but not a writer.” Despite his protestations, one cannot altogether ignore Kundera’s biography. It holds keys to his fiction.
Born in the Czechoslovakian city of Brno in 1929, Kundera first accessed the world of culture through music. His father, a pianist and musicologist, was an expert on Czech composer Leoš Janáček. Years later, Kundera credited music for his sense of form and rhythm. In 1983, he told The Paris Review that there was much he had learnt from Janáček: “Brutal juxtaposition instead of transitions; repetition instead of variation—and always straight to the heart of things: only the note with something essential to say is entitled to exist. It is nearly the same with the novel.” Kundera’s talent could make novels sing.
Jobless in his early twenties, Kundera played jazz on the piano to make ends meet. By that time, he had moved to Prague. Having joined the Czech Communist Party in 1947, Kundera was in no way immune to the city’s Stalinist vibe. The three collections of poetry he released in the 1950s—Man: A Wide Garden (1953), The Last May (1955), and Monologues (1957)—praised and prized communism, but by 1959, the year he began writing the first of seven stories that would be later be compiled in Laughable Loves (1969), Kundera had turned his back on poetry. When writing that story, Kundera said, “I was certain of having ‘found myself’. I became a prose writer, a novelist, and I am nothing else. Since then, my aesthetic has known no transformations.” Kundera once mused he had “betrayed” poetry.
First expelled from the party in 1950 for “anti-communist activities”, Kundera, one feels, was using poetry to compensate for his lack of stridency, but prose seemed to make such dishonesty difficult. In 1967, years after he had been reinstated, Kundera’s first novel, The Joke, was published. The reception was electric. Czech novelist and playwright Ivan Klima wrote in a review, “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 innocent-looking, Milan Kundera has gone further than anyone in the history of Czech prose.” The literary establishment seldom issues such a welcome.
The Joke was audacious in form and in theme. In a postcard he thinks of as a prank, Ludvik writes, “Optimism is the opium of the people… Long live Trotsky!” Kundera masterfully employs the device of multiple narrators to detail the consequences of Ludvik’s joke, first as tragedy, then as farce. His humour doesn’t just make you laugh, it also sets you free. Released around the time Czechoslovakia wanted its socialism to be more humane, The Joke helped usher in the Prague Spring, a period of protest and liberalisation in the country. Kundera was present at the Czech Writers’ Congress in 1967, a key event where Czech authors joined ranks to oppose censorship. He said in his speech, “Any kind of suppression of opinions, even the violent suppression of false opinions, leads against the truth in its consequences, as it is only possible to attain the truth in a dialogue of opinions that are equal and free.”
The past is tense
After the Soviets crushed Czech dissent by sending tanks to Prague’s Wenceslas Square on August 20, 1968, Kundera’s books were removed from stores and libraries. He was again expelled from the Communist party in 1970, and was fired from Prague’s film academy, where he had been a professor of literature since 1952. Frustrated with the clampdown and surveillance—Kundera’s phone was tapped—he left for France with his wife Vera in 1975. Their Czech citizenship was later revoked in 1979.
Twelve years after emigrating to France, Kundera seemed to have assimilated almost entirely. He told an interviewer in 1987, “I came to this country when I was 46. At that age, you no longer have time to waste, your time and energy are limited, you must choose, either you live looking over your shoulder, there where you are not, in your former country, with your old friends, or you make the effort to profit from the catastrophe, starting over at zero, beginning a new life right where you are. Without hesitation, I chose the second solution.” Living in France gave Kundera the freedom to fictionalise the Prague Spring and Soviet invasion in novels like The Unbearable Lightness of Being and The Book of Laughterand Forgetting, but, surprisingly, his later novels—Slowness (1995), Identity (1998), Ignorance (2000) and The Festival of Insignificance (2014)—were written in French, not Czech.
Unlike other émigré writers, Kundera never romanticised homecoming. In Ignorance, a novel where Josef and Irena are returning to Prague after Czechoslovakia’s 1989 Velvet Revolution, his protagonists feel more estranged than nostalgic. Communism might have fallen in the time they have been away, but Kafka T-shirts and vapidity have taken its place. There is often no grand emotion in Kundera’s work. His characters are left to negotiate the disappointment that hype and anticipation invariably result in.
In the kind of world that Kundera had wanted to fashion, we would only be reading his prose to make sense of him, but a sudden controversy in 2008 threatened to disrupt his reclusiveness. When browsing some declassified police archives, Adam Hradilek, a historian and columnist, found evidence that in 1950, Kundera had informed on Miroslav Dvořáček, a pilot who after being expelled from the Air Force in 1948, had returned to Czechoslovakia as an American spy. Speaking to CTK, a Czech news agency, Kundera denied Hradilek’s charge, claiming that it was tantamount to “the assassination of an author”. Writers like J.M. Coetzee, Philip Roth, and Gabriel Garcia Márquez signed an open letter in his defence.
If it weren’t for Jan Novák’s Kundera: His Czech Life and Times (2020), this rancorous incident might have even been forgotten. In his unauthorised biography, Novák reminds us that the poet Jaromil, Kundera’s protagonist of his second novel Life is Elsewhere (1969), also denounces the brother of his girlfriend. Having done his “duty”, Jaromil leaves the police station feeling joyous: “He breathed the cold air, felt exuberant with the virility that flowed from his every pore.” Novels, Kundera once argued, were not “confessions”. In a 1976 interview he gave to Radio Canada, the author said he wanted Life is Elsewhere to satirise poetry: “My Jaromil denounces the brother of his girlfriend not as a miserable scoundrel but rather with the full authentic enthusiasm of a poet. Every human quality, every human value belongs equally to heaven and hell, to the angels and the devils—and the same goes for poetry.”
Making the private public
Though it haunted him for much of his life, the Czech chapter of Kundera’s life finally had a happy ending. In December 2019, the Czech Republic gave him back his citizenship. By then, of course, Kundera described himself as a French writer and insisted his books be stocked in the French literature sections of bookstores. A nationalistic category, however, seems too limiting a category for an author who had once said, “In spite of the bisection of Europe, we experience the same history, the same problems and fate, on both sides. There is only one Europe.” Kundera’s work made him free of borders.
In Kundera’s novels, sex, like politics, is crucial. When asked what sex means to him as a novelist, he told Philip Roth, “With me, everything ends in great erotic scenes. I have the feeling that a scene of physical love generates an extremely sharp light which suddenly reveals the essence of characters and sums up their life situation.” Understanding, not arousal, was Kundera’s purpose every time he wrote a sex scene. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kundera’s description of lovemaking is unhurried: “Then he pulled off her panties and she was completely naked. When her soul saw her naked body in the arms of a stranger, it was so incredulous that it might as well have been watching the planet Mars at close range.” The question of “body and soul” was fundamental to Kundera’s “metaphysics of love”.
Kundera’s views on gender were more circumscribed than his ideas about sex. Unlike the men of his novel, the women were hardly ever intellectuals. No women featured in Kundera’s canon of masters—Rimbaud, Diderot, Kafka, Laurence Sterne, and so on. When asked why he never mentioned women in his essays and interviews, Kundera’s answer was glib: “It is the sex of the novels and not that of their authors that must interest us. All great novels, all true novels are bisexual. They express both a feminine and masculine vision of the world. The sex of authors as physical people is their private affair.” Kundera’s women didn’t often fight for agency. They fared better as alibis for his several philosophies.
Fed up with questions about feminism and sex, Kundera once ended an interview by saying, “I don’t know how to tell you why the women in my novels are the way they are. Neither would I venture to explain why it is that the act of lovemaking plays such a great role in my work. Here is the realm of the unconscious, of the irrational, a realm quite intimate to me. There is a limit beyond which the novelist can theorise no further on his own novels and whence he must know how to keep his silence. We have reached that limit.”
Kundera, it must be said, never did aspire for “something higher”. Again, in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, he writes, “Anyone whose goal is ‘something higher’ must expect someday to suffer vertigo. What is vertigo? Fear of falling? No, vertigo is something other than fear of falling. It is the voice of the emptiness below us which tempts and lures us, it is the desire to fall, against which, terrified, we defend ourselves.” For fans, Kundera’s novels are both fall and trampoline.