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 extraliterary 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." He strictly controls public information about his life; in the latest French editions of his works, his "official biography" consists of one sentence: "Milan Kundera was born in Czechoslovakia in 1929 and since 1975 has been living in France."
Kundera also asserts his right as an author to exclude from his oeuvre "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 multitudinous ways of interpreting the incidents he depicts. As Kvetoslav Chvatík 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.
Kundera was born on 1 April 1929 in Brno to Ludvík Kundera, a prominent musicologist and pianist who had been a pupil of the composer Leos Janácek, and Milada Kunderová, née Jánosíková. Kundera's father taught him to play the piano; later, he studied musicology, and musical influences can be found throughout his work. In 1945 he published translations of work by the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky in the journal Gong; in 1946 a surrealist poem by Kundera, written under the influence of his cousin Ludvík Kundera, a well-known Czech writer and poet, was printed in the journal Mladé archy (The Young Notebooks).
Kundera completed his secondary-school studies in Brno in 1948 and began to study literature and aesthetics in the Faculty of Arts at Charles University; that year he also joined the Communist Party. After two terms he transferred to the Film Academy, where he attended lectures in movie direction and scriptwriting. In 1950 he and another Czech writer, Jan Trefulka, were expelled from the Communist Party for "anti-party activities." Trefulka described the incident in his novella Prselo jim stestí (Happiness Rained on Them, 1962), and Kundera used it as the main theme of his novel Zert (1967; translated as The Joke, abridged edition, 1969; complete edition, 1982). After graduating in 1952, Kundera was appointed lecturer in world literature at the Film Academy.
Kundera's first book, a collection of lyrical poems titled Clovek, zahrada sirá (Man, a Wide Garden, 1953), came out five years after the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia, during the period of rampant Stalinism. Attempting to bring about the rehabilitation of the pre-war Czechoslovak avant-garde, the work was an unorthodox departure from the poetics of socialist realism imposed by Communist cultural authorities, which prescribed that poems and novels were to deal with the "mass proletarian movement," the "class struggle," and the "successful progression of society toward communism." In his collection Kundera assumes a critical attitude toward this kind of "literature," but he does so from a strictly Marxist point of view as he tries to illustrate and enliven the official dogma by introducing personal experience. Thus, the poet feels encouraged when he hears a young boy, playing near a railroad track in Brno, singing the hymn of the left-wing movement, the Internationale. Kundera uses the familiar Czech surroundings as a symbol of comfort and peace, and the Communist regime is shown as the guarantor of all the values associated with home. In another poem an old woman does not understand the political jargon of the new era, but at the end she is happy when her grandson, a Communist Young Pioneer with his red scarf around his neck, embraces her and takes her by the hand. Misogyny surfaces in a poem in which a party activist complains that his wife is not interested in listening to his account of his daily political "struggle"; she is concerned only with preparing supper. The hero of another poem criticizes himself for being too detached from his party companions; he realizes that it is treason to be alone and promises his comrades that he will never again act on his own. This poem clearly foreshadows one of the main themes of Kundera's perhaps most profound novel, Zert.
In 1955 Kundera published a blatant piece of Communist propaganda. The long poem Poslední máj (The Last May) is an homage to Julius Fucík, the hero of Communist resistance to the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. Full of bathos, the work conforms to the tenets of socialist realism and to the official Communist version of history. Some commentators have speculated that Kundera was commissioned by the party to write the piece; others have said that Kundera wrote this work as an act of cool calculation-to enable him to become a member of the Communist Party again. In a parallel to Christ's temptation by the devil, Commissar Boehm, Fucík's interrogator in a Nazi prison in Prague, takes the Communist activist for an evening out in a restaurant in a hillside park overlooking the city. The Nazi policeman hopes that the magic of Prague on a June evening, symbolizing the beauty of life, will make Fucík try to save himself from death by collaborating with his interrogator. One typical Kunderaesque theme, used later in a quite different context, appears here: ethnicity is used as a reaffirmation of the authenticity and value of national life as three young men in the restaurant boisterously sing Moravian folk songs; this performance gives Fucík the strength to resist Boehm.
Kundera was readmitted into the Communist Party in 1956. In 1957 he published Monology (Monologues), a collection of love poems. Many of the poems are based on paradoxes ("I cannot live with you, you are too beautiful"); some highlight the irrationality of love, which often conquers those who would be guided by the intellect alone. These themes are also typical of Kundera's later work. In some of the poems the speaker is physically repulsed by women, while at the same time being attracted to them. Erotic passion can be a burden; the sexual impulse is disconcerting. Lovemaking serves as an escape from unpleasant realities. The theme of the pettiness of everyday female concerns, which makes women unaware of what is really going on in life, reappears in this collection. Women are shown as obedient, while men are depicted as warriors who are trying to understand the meaning of existence; in the attempt they invariably break their heads against impenetrable walls. Some of the poems deal with infidelity; others are preoccupied with fear of aging and death. The 1965 edition of Monology includes a poem in which a man is unjustly accused and condemned by his party colleagues at a political meeting; a woman's love is offered as a healing instrument for all the ills that the man has experienced.
Kundera was a celebrity in Communist Czechoslovakia from the mid 1950s. He wrote for several literary magazines, and his articles were followed with considerable interest. His 1955 article "O sporech dedickych" ("Arguing about Our Inheritance" ) stood up for Czech and European avant-garde poetry, which had been condemned as decadent by official Communist literary scholars. Kundera defends avant-garde poetry, however, from a strictly communist point of view. He argues that even his politically orthodox poem about Fucík could not have been written without the legacy of Czech and international avant-garde poets. The art of the "decadent," "receding" capitalist era may be pernicious, but a poet, composer, or artist can avoid the unacceptable content and use the formal innovations even of "idealist" avant-garde poetry to produce authentic socialist art. Those poets who cut themselves off from the glorious tradition of the Czech interwar poetic avant-garde produce worthless doggerel instead of poetry. To give credence to his arguments, Kundera quotes Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, who said that only vulgar materialists rejected philosophical idealism. "O sporech dedickych" even speaks rather boldly of those poets who have been "buried alive in the cells of incomprehensible abstraction"-maybe a reference to the many writers who were languishing in communist prisons.
Equally well received was Umení románu: Cesta Vladislava Vancury za velkou epikou (The Art of the Novel: Vladislav Vancura 's Journey to the Great Epic, 1960), which analyzes the writings of an outstanding Czech interwar avant-garde prose writer who was also a member of the Communist Party. A strictly Marxist defense of experimentation in narrative fiction, the work was significantly influenced by the Hungarian Marxist theoretician György Lukács 's concept of the development of the epic- but writers were not allowed to quote Lukács in Czechoslovakia at that time, so his name is not mentioned. According to Kundera, Vancura was trying to create convincing and yet topical fiction in an era of "stagnant, alienated, dehumanizing, and decomposing capitalism, a time when dramatic conflict between proud, independently acting individuals was no longer possible." Kundera shows the stylistic and thematic devices Vancura used to try to overcome this problem and how he learned from the history of the European novel as he was doing so. His study of Vancura's fiction influenced Kundera's own writing by showing him the importance of an ever-present, subjective narrator, a philosopher who comments on the story as it develops. He rid himself of lyricism, descriptiveness, and psychological analysis and became aware that good fiction must be based on dramatic conflict. In these respects he drew close to the poetics of the eighteenth-century novel of enlightenment.
Umení románu was regarded as an important landmark in Czechoslovak Marxist literary scholarship; it was given a special award "to mark the fifteenth anniversary of the birth of Popular Democratic Czechoslovakia," as well as the 1961 annual prize of the Ceskoslovensky spisovatel (Czechoslovak Writer) publishing house. Kundera disowns the work today; he has tried to negate its existence by publishing a new volume of literary essays, which first appeared in French as L'art du roman (1986; translated as The Art of the Novel, 1988).
During this period Kundera wrote plays in addition to poetry and literary analysis. In Majitelé klícu (The Owners of the Keys, 1962), which was successfully staged in April 1962 at the National Theater in Prague by the experimental director Otomar Krejca, Kundera again attempts gently to humanize totalitarian communism from within the framework of its own referential system. The ideology of the play is orthodox, but Kundera gives it a mildly reformist slant. In a small Moravian town during the Nazi occupation Jirí Necas and his wife, Alena, live in one room of a small apartment; Alena's parents live in another room. Vera, a woman Jirí met when he was involved with the Communist resistance movement, turns up at the apartment; she is on the run from the Gestapo and needs Jirí's help. When she raises the suspicions of a Nazi concierge, Jirí is forced to kill the man and hide his body in the apartment. Jirí cannot tell his naive wife and her narrow-minded parents what has happened: they would create a scene, attract the attention of the Gestapo, and get everyone killed. Jirí tries to lure Alena away from the apartment, but she refuses to leave. Finally, Jirí and Vera escape, abandoning Alena and her parents to certain death.
Majitelé klícu is still written from a Communist point of view; the members of the Communist resistance are given the expected heroic qualities. The play, however, includes lyrical interludes- "visions"-in which Jirí emotionally probes his situation; Kundera later came to reject such lyricism. His afterword to the 1964 edition of Majitelé klícu shows that his propensity to explain and interpret his work to the reader dates back to this early stage of his career.
Kundera's works of the 1950s and early 1960s, while avowedly Marxist, were slightly in advance of their time; they provoked much debate and made an important contribution to the gradual freeing of Czech literature from the yoke of Stalinism. In Majitelé klícu Kundera for the first time openly voiced his revulsion for "the desire for order, which equals the desire for death." Alena's father's view that it is necessary to "line-up, to adapt one's life to the momentarily prevailing conditions and not to waste time by futile philosophizing" is an open reference to the beginning of a conflict between the relatively independent Czech intellectuals who were trying to moderate the excesses of Stalinism and the authoritarian Communist Party leadership.
Czech writers clashed openly with the Communist leadership for the first time at the Fourth Congress of Czechoslovak Writers in June 1967. Kundera gave a speech at the congress that is regarded a landmark in the history of independent, self-critical Czech thought. In the speech Kundera looked back to the legacy of the nineteenth-century Czech National Revival, at the inception of which a handful of Czech intellectuals resurrected the Czech language as an instrument of educated discourse and brought the Czech nation back from the threshold of extinction. In 1886 the journalist Hubert Gordon Schauer asked whether the effort of re-creating modern Czech national culture had been worthwhile. Would it not have been simpler and wiser for the Czechs to merge with the larger and more sophisticated German community, rather than having to start from scratch in all the fields of human activity in their own language? Applying Schauer's question to the contemporary situation, Kundera replied that there is no point in preserving a separate Czech identity if this community is incapable of making its own innovative and unique contribution in the arts. To do so, Czech literature and culture must develop in conditions of total freedom. Truth can only be reached in a dialogue conducted by individuals who are equal and free. Having experienced democracy, Nazi subjugation, Stalinism, and socialism, the Czechs are favorably placed to produce a unique testimony about the human predicament. The question remains, concluded Kundera, whether the Czech national community is aware of this opportunity and whether it will use it.
Kundera has claimed that his mature period started in 1958 or 1959 (he has given both years), when he "found himself as a writer" while working on his first short story, "Já, truchlivy Buh" (translated as "I, the Mournful God" , 1974), which was included in the first of the three slim volumes of Smesné lásky (published in 1963, 1965, and 1968; translated as Laughable Loves, 1974) but was left out of the definitive edition of the book in 1981 because it was superfluous to the seven-part structure that Kundera imposed on the collection. Kundera wrote "Já, truchlivy Buh" as relaxation during his work on the play Majitelé klícu. Like most of the texts in Smesné lásky , it is a brilliant miniature drama of intimate human relationships.
The odd-numbered stories in Smesné lásky are based on strong dramatic conflicts; the even-numbered stories tend to be light and playful variations on the theme of sexual pursuit, most of which take the form of witty dialogue filled with paradoxes. The even-numbered stories form a background for the odd-numbered ones, which evolve from what always seems to the hero at the inception as an innocent joke. These jokes, however, have catastrophic consequences both for their perpetrators and for their victims. Thus, the arrogance of the perpetrator of the joke, who believes that he can control history and manipulate people, is exposed as a fallacy.
In "Já, truchlivy Buh" a young man fails to win a beautiful girl who is a student at the Brno conservatory. In revenge, he decides to make fun of her snobbery and introduces her to his friend, an illiterate Greek immigrant laborer whom he represents as the director of the Athens Opera on a brief visit to Prague. The Greek and the girl make love, and the Greek supposedly returns to Athens. Nine months later the girl gives birth to a beautiful boy. She proudly shows off her son; but where there was one unhappy young man spurned by the girl at the beginning of the story, now there are two: the Greek laborer has hopelessly fallen in love with the Czech girl, but she does not recognize him in his workman's clothes.
In the highly dramatic "Falesny autostop" (translated as "The Hitchhiking Game" ) a boy and girl are driving in his car at the beginning of their summer vacation. They start to play a manipulative game in which they pretend that they do not know each other and have just met for the first time. The boy pretends to be a womanizer; the girl plays at being a hitchhiker who is looking for a sexual encounter. The game destroys their relationship.
In "Eduard a Buh" (translated as "Eduard and God" ) a young teacher in a Stalinist society, where religion is frowned on, tries to win the favors of a religious-minded girl by pretending that he is extremely devout. This charade gets him into trouble with the school authorities, who set about reeducating him in the spirit of Marxist atheism. The young man is unable to tell them that he was only pretending to be religious to get a girl into bed; such behavior would not be regarded as serious. When you try to explain what you mean to idiots, does not this mean that you are also becoming an idiot? asks Kundera through one of his characters. Another character in Smesné lásky argues:
"When you believe in something literally, you will turn it into an absurdity through your faith. Genuine adherents of a political philosophy never take its arguments seriously, but only its practical aims, which are concealed beneath these arguments. Political arguments do not exist, after all, for people to believe in them, rather they serve as a common, agreed-upon excuse. Foolish people who take them in earnest sooner or later discover inconsistencies in them, begin to protest and finish finally and infamously as heretics."
Truth is usually left by the wayside in these stories of mutual sexual manipulation: once Kundera's characters start perpetrating a joke, they are invariably forced by circumstances to stick to it as though they had always meant it seriously. As Chvatík points out, this situation highlights the crisis of language: a linguistic message-a sign-emancipates itself from reality, then imposes its meaning on reality. This theme reappears in Zert and all of Kundera's other mature novels.
In Smesné lásky Kundera for the first time uses a large number of witticisms based on paradoxes to show how facts imperceptibly change into their opposites. By concentrating on human sexual games he produces a modern version of the Don Juan myth, which he debunks at the same time. Several of the stories are set in the Czech society of late Stalinism and provide authentic testimony about the atmosphere of that era. Kundera regards Smesné lásky as his first truly mature work, and he likes it the best of all his work because it "reflects the happiest time of my life," the liberal 1960s. He completed the last story of the collection three days before the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia on 21 August 1968.
The Soviet-led invasion ended the period of liberalization in Czechoslovakia, which had culminated in several months of total media freedom in the spring and summer of 1968-the period known as the "Prague Spring"-and threw the country into a harsh, neo-Stalinist freeze. This rigid regime continued practically unchanged until the disintegration of communism in Czechoslovakia in November 1989. Four months after the invasion, in the essay "Cesky údel" (The Czech Destiny), published in the journal Listy, Kundera expresses his belief "in the great mission of the small nations which in today's world have been delivered to the tender mercies of the Great Powers. . . . By their incessant search for their own identity and by their fight for survival, the small nations resist the terrifying push toward uniformity on this earth, making it glitter with a wealth of traditions and customs, so that human individualism, marvel, and originality can find a home in this world." Nevertheless, Kundera says that he still sees himself as a "person belonging to the world of socialism (i.e., communism)" and criticizes the writer Václav Havel for using the arguments of a person who has never accepted communist ideals.
Kundera wrote his play Jakub a jeho pán (first published in French translation as Jacques et son maître , 1981; translated as Jacques and His Master , 1985; published in the original Czech, 1992) in 1971, after he, along with some four hundred other writers, had become a nonperson in his native country. As he explains in the 1981 French preface to the piece, the work was the product of a yearning for Western rationality, a spirit of doubt and playfulness, and an awareness of the relativity of human matters. It was a reaction to the imposition on Czechoslovakia of Russian "emotionality, regarded as a value, as a criterion on truth." In 1975 it was staged in the Czech city of Ústí nad Labem under the direction of Ivan Rajmont, but Kundera's authorship was kept secret because he was a banned and exiled writer. Denis Diderot was given as the author of the play, which was said to have been dramatized by Evald Schorm. Between 1975 and the fall of communism in 1989 the play had a successful run of 226 performances.
Jakub a jeho pán is an homage to the French Enlightenment writer Diderot and is a set of variations on his novel Jacques le fataliste et son maître (Jacques the Fatalist and His Master, 1796). Inspired by Diderot and by the English writer Laurence Sterne , whose masterpiece Tristram Shandy (1759-1767) is made up of playful digressions, the play consists of three amorous stories that are intertwined in a continuous dialogue of the protagonists, whose speeches are constantly interrupted by the other characters. Kundera gives up unity of action in favor of the techniques of polyphony and variation: the three amorous stories are variations on the same theme. In the preface to the published version of the play Kundera attacks the notion of "seriousness." In one of his typical challenging but apodictic remarks, which should not be accepted at face value, he states that "to take the world seriously means to believe what the world wants us to believe."
Kundera's mature work is littered with such declarations. They are paradoxes, true and untrue at the same time. By making them Kundera encourages the reader to think independently and draw his or her own conclusions. At first Jakub a jeho pán certainly seems to be a playful, unserious, amusing piece dealing with matters of love. As it goes along, however, one sees that it can be construed as a protest against the bleakness of the world and the human predicament. The playful conversation about lovemaking and the art of spinning a yarn becomes a shield that is supposed to protect the characters from inhospitable reality. Jakub says:
Don't be afraid, sir. I don't like unnecessary truths. An unnecessary truth is the stupidest thing I know. For instance that we will die. Or that this world is rotten. As though we did not know all this. Do you know them, those men who heroically enter the stage to exclaim: This world is rotten! The public applauds but Jakub is not interested. Jakub knew this two hundred, four hundred, eight hundred years before them, so while they are exclaiming that the world is rotten he is trying to invent for his master a few women with very large bottoms, the way his master likes it. . . .
Life is repetition. Everything has been here before: "The one above who has written all this repeated himself an awful lot, and since he has done so, he has probably been making fun of us."
That life is a giant joke perpetrated on the human race is the message of Zert , in which Kundera develops in great depth his most important theme: that it is impossible to understand and control reality. Zert is a challenge to the optimistic proposition, advanced by the communists in Czechoslovakia in the 1950s, that reality can be mastered by the intellect and that human beings can create their own destiny. With typically Kunderaesque irony, the author points out that the Communists' belief in an all-powerful human intellect, the culmination of the rationalist optimism of the Enlightenment, produced nothing but destruction. Zert masterfully conveys the bleak atmosphere of Czechoslovakian Stalinism, whose propaganda was based on officially manipulated lyricism. Kundera is warning against the destructiveness of emotions elevated to the status of truth.
Most Western critics understood Zert as a protest against Stalinist totalitarianism. Kundera, however, objected to such a simplified interpretation. He pointed out that the 1950s in Czechoslovakia attracted him as a scene for the novel "because this was a time when History made as yet unheard of experiments with Man. Thus it deepened my doubts and enriched my understanding of man and his predicament." Czech critics of the 1960s correctly understood Zert as a work that probes the deepest essence of human existence.
To win a girl, Ludvík Jahn, a communist student, plays an innocent joke. The girl is attending a political training course at a summer camp. Frustrated by her absence, Ludvík sends her a provocative postcard. The postcard gives rise to a witch-hunt, and Ludvík is expelled from the party and the university and is placed in a penal army unit that works in the mines. Many years later, in the 1960s, Ludvík sees that an opportunity has arisen to revenge himself on Pavel Zemánek, the former fellow student who was the main perpetrator of his downfall. He seduces Zemánek's wife, Helena, hoping to destroy their marriage. But Zemánek no longer lives with his wife, and by seducing her, Ludvík actually helps him. Moreover, the chameleon-like Zemánek is now a liberal reformer fighting against communist authoritarianism and is extremely popular with the students at the university where he teaches. Thus, Ludvík realizes that one is never in control; there is no point in trying to revenge oneself: "Everything will be forgotten. There will never be any redress for anything."
Ludvík's most traumatic experience is the realization that his closest friends did not hesitate to vote for his expulsion from the party when they were commanded to do so. In a similar incident the soldiers in the penal unit in which Ludvík served ruthlessly subjected an innocent individual to undeserved torment. Whenever Ludvík finds himself in a group, he wonders how many of the others would be willing to send their fellow mortals to their death if the collective demanded it.
The structure of Zert is derived from the principles of musical composition. It is pluralist, polyphonic, and strictly mathematical. Four main characters tell their stories, often recounting the same events from different points of view. By confronting their accounts, the reader comes to the conclusion that each of the characters is the victim of his or her own fallacious interpretation of reality. Ludvík Jahn is proud of his intellectual analytical abilities, but he fools himself by believing that he is in full, rational control of his life. His actions are as much based on impulse as are those of a "lyrical," emotional character such as Helena, who behaves in an embarrassing and destructive way. The characters in Zert make many brief philosophical statements and paradoxical wisecracks about the events transpiring around them; as is always the case with Kundera, these comments are only partially true.
The motif of the native land, always dear to Kundera, appears at the end of the novel. When everything is collapsing around him, Ludvík turns, somewhat unconvincingly, to his heritage, but even it can give him only a partial consolation, since his homeland has been despoiled by the arrogance of rampant official rationalism turned into lyricism.
The theme of lovemaking as an instrument of subjugation reappears in Kundera's play Dve usi, dve svatby (Two Ears, Two Weddings), printed in a mimeographed edition in 1968 and published the following year in a revised version in the journal Divadlo (Theater) under the original title, Ptákovina (Nonsense). One of the works that Kundera now excludes from the canon of his writing as an immature piece, Ptákovina is first and foremost a political satire in the tradition of Eastern European absurdist drama. In this respect, it is closely related to the early absurdist plays of Havel.
The play is set in a school, which serves as a symbol of a society under totalitarian subjugation. Under totalitarianism, truth becomes meaningless; people dissimulate and put on a multiplicity of masks. The headmaster of the school, who terrorizes his teaching staff, draws the female sexual organ on the blackboard in one of the classrooms, labeling the picture, in a child's handwriting, "headmaster." A commission is set up to investigate the matter. An innocent pupil is accused, and he confesses in the hope that his punishment will be less severe. Instead, his ears are cut off. Furthermore, the local Communist Party chairman decrees that the culprit's teacher, Eva, should be punished by whipping, and the chairman carries out the punishment himself as a sexual treat. But Eva is the headmaster's lover, and he is livid with jealousy. Since the headmaster has a reputation as a great womanizer-he has slept with four hundred women-the chairman invites him to test the fidelity of his fiancée, Ruzena. Ruzena succumbs to the headmaster, but he reports to the chairman that she has remained faithful. Encouraged by Eva, the headmaster continues to sleep with Ruzena in revenge for the chairman's whipping of Eva. But Ruzena, who has recorded the headmaster's abusive comments about the chairman, blackmails him into becoming her sexual slave. She particularly relishes the fact that although the headmaster hates her, he must repeatedly make love to her. The Kunderaesque theme of women who are at the same time attractive and repulsive thus appears in this play, as does the theme of lovemaking as punishment or as an instrument of enslavement.
Kundera started writing Zivot je jinde (first published in French as La vie est ailleurs , 1973; translated as Life Is Elsewhere , 1974; published in the original Czech, 1979) during the Prague Spring of 1968 and completed it in 1970, during the first wave of the postinvasion clampdown. In this novel Kundera confronts his past and frees himself from it, viciously stripping away all remnants of his youthful lyrical personality as well as of Communist ideology. The novel is a scathing, rational analysis of an immature, narcissistic lyrical attitude that is destructive in its impotence.
In Jakub a jeho pán Kundera's and Diderot's characters created amusing stories because they wanted to shield themselves from an inhospitable human predicament. Zivot je jinde is a variation on this theme. In Kundera's view, "lyrical" characters cannot cope with reality and therefore create an independent reality, poetry, in which they take shelter. An artificial sign takes over the role of reality. In lyrical poems, words turn into things. Reasoning is not required in lyrical poetry: any statement becomes the truth. The lyrical poet might say, "Life is as futile as crying" or "Life is as cheerful as laughter," and both statements will be "true" because they are beautiful.
Lyricism is often associated with a desire for revolution: lyrical poets always try to find a better world in their poetry than the one in which they actually live. The title of Kundera's novel is a quotation from the French poet Arthur Rimbaud that was used by André Breton as the last sentence of his first surrealist manifesto in 1924; it was also used as a slogan by French students during their demonstrations in Paris in May 1968. Lyricists yearn for a different world and are convinced that a radical revolution can bring it about.
Zivot je jinde is a scathingly analytical account of the life of a fictitious poet, Jaromil, who is of Kundera's generation. His adventures are compared and contrasted with episodes in the lives of the major European lyrical poets Rimbaud, Percy Bysshe Shelley , John Keats , Mikhail Lermontov , Vladimir Mayakovsky, and Jirí Wolker . Kundera condemns the immaturity and destructiveness of the European lyrical avant-garde, as well as their political views, which are based on emotion. In Kundera's view, lyrical poets are controlled by women: Jaromil is subjugated by his neurotic middle-class mother, who systematically reinterprets facts and events so that they fit into an emotional account of reality that is favorable to her.
Like his mother, Jaromil cannot cope with reality; but he escapes into the world of poetry. Yearning to become part of a community of active individuals, he is easily used by the Stalinist regime that comes to power in Czechoslovakia in 1948 as he strives for fame and adapts his poetry to the official demands of the day. Self-centeredness turns Jaromil into a monster: he reports his girlfriend to the police, and she is unjustly condemned to prison for several years. After an altercation at a party Jaromil, acting like a spoiled child, stays out on a balcony in freezing weather, contracts pneumonia, and dies a banal death. By killing Jaromil in this grotesque way, Kundera symbolically does away with the fallacies of his own youth.
In L'art du roman Kundera notes that the number seven is an important element in the mathematical structures of his novels. Zivot je jinde is similar to a seven-part sonata, with the parts of the novel composed in varying tempos. Jaromil's story is told dispassionately by a critical third-person observer. Toward the end of the novel the angle of vision suddenly changes: Jaromil disappears from the center of attention and becomes an insignificant and irrelevant character. Zivot je jinde was the first novel Kundera completed as a banned writer; in it and his subsequent novels he radically simplified his language, knowing that he was writing for translation because his work could no longer be published in his native country.
Kundera had been dismissed from his teaching post at the Prague Film Academy; his books had been withdrawn from bookshops and libraries; along with hundreds of other writers, he was to be erased from Czech cultural history. Paradoxically, however, after he had become a nonperson, he experienced a feeling of total freedom: for the first time in his life, he could write freely. He knew that his works would "never be published in Bohemia and that no censor would be reading them." The first product of this attitude was Valcík na rozloucenou (translated as The Farewell Party , 1976; published in Czech, 1979). Completed in Prague in 1972, it was supposed to be Kundera's last novel; its original title was "Epilog" (The Epilogue).
Formally, Valcík na rozloucenou is a farce, but Kundera has filled the comic French form with a serious, ironic content. The result is an overwhelming feeling of the grotesque. The novel deals with misunderstandings in the relationships of five couples. The main character, Klíma, is a trumpet player who is deeply in love with his beautiful wife, Kamila. He demonstrates his love for her by sleeping with other women and always "returning to Kamila." He has had a brief sexual encounter with a nurse in a West Bohemian spa; the nurse has become pregnant, possibly by another man, but she ascribes the pregnancy to the famous musician Klíma, hoping thus to wield control over him. Much of the novel is devoted to Klíma's efforts to persuade the nurse to have an abortion. A series of misunderstandings culminates in the killing of the pregnant nurse; the perpetrator is never discovered. The novel shows all human "dramas" to be futile, insubstantial, and irrelevant. The atmosphere of the work is influenced by the barren climate in Czechoslovakia after the Soviet-led 1968 invasion. The protagonists are calculating and selfish: they aim to gain advantage at the expense of others. Their own pleasure is the primary motivation of their behavior.
The oppressive atmosphere of the outside world intrudes only occasionally: in the grotesque scene of old-age pensioners chasing and catching stray dogs, in the proceedings of the abortion commission, and in the tendency of the characters to create little hidden cells of nepotism, secret brotherhoods of friends who exchange special favors, ignoring ordinary people and shielding themselves from the inhospitable reality on the outside. From a modern Western point of view, the depiction of women is decidedly "politically incorrect": women exist primarily to be manipulated into bed. Again, male characters are often simultaneously both attracted to and repulsed by women. Men are "chased" into marriage. They are almost pathologically afraid of the "trap of pregnancy" and are horrified by the notion that their sexual adventures could produce "brats." Older women are regarded with hardly concealed disgust.
Another Kunderaesque theme that reappears in Valcík na rozloucenou is that of violence perpetrated on innocent individuals with the active approval of other members of society. Like Ludvík Jahn in Zivot je jinde, Jakub, a skeptical dissident intellectual who is about to leave his native country forever, bitterly comes to the conclusion that anyone in Czechoslovakia would send innocent people to death without hesitation. Paradoxically, Jakub is guilty of the arbitrary killing of the nurse, thus confirming that in spite of his lifelong support of human rights he belongs among his countrymen.
In 1975 Kundera and his wife-he had married Vera Hrabánková on 30 September 1967-left Czechoslovakia for France, where Kundera had been invited to teach at the University of Rennes. In interviews he has said that although the departure from the oppressive atmosphere of occupied Czechoslovakia brought him profound relief, he continued to look at his native country with an attitude of affectionate melancholy. During his first years in the West, Kundera maintained that he had said all that he had to say in fiction and would write no more novels.
Kniha smíchu a zapomnení (first published in French as Le livre du rire et de l'oubli , 1979; translated as The Book of Laughter and Forgetting , 1980; published in the original Czech, 1981), completed in 1978, heralded a new stage in Kundera's career; at the same time, it is a continuation of his onslaught on the left-wing myths of his youth. Kniha smíchu a zapomnení highlights some of the themes in Zert and Zivot je jinde, but this time from a Western vantage point.
Finding that the early Western translations of Zert were inaccurate, Kundera resorts in this work to an extremely rational, intellectual style of expression. But he does not give up the notion of writing as a game. While his language is precise, the meaning of his statements remains ambiguous. An ironic detachment is, again, a pervading characteristic of the novel. The structure of Kniha smíchu a zapomnení is looser than that of his earlier works; it is divided into seven chapters, which consist of stories, memories, anecdotes, and philosophical essays. The chapters are bound together by the musical principles of polyphony and variation: various aspects of the same facts are highlighted, one at a time. The novel is not supposed to impose particular truths on the reader; it examines and asks questions.
Kniha smíchu a zapomnení includes several story lines; the characters in any one story line never meet those in the others. The narratives are related to one another only as variations of the same set of concepts. One of the main themes of the work is forgetting. On the one hand, at the beginning of the novel Mirek is looking for letters he wrote to a lover when he was a young man so that he can destroy them and change-forget-the past. He believes that he is entitled to rewrite his own life. On the other hand, Tamina, a Czech émigré stranded in France, is trying desperately to reclaim letters she had written to her now-dead husband while they were still living in Prague. She wants to be able to re-create the memories of her life with him, which are fading fast. In the East forgetting is forced on people by the authorities; in the West people embrace forgetting on their own initiative. Tamina's story is also a story of misunderstanding: as in other prose works by Kundera, there is never a meeting of minds; everybody interprets what is going on in his or her own way; and the same action changes its meaning depending on circumstances and on the observer's angle of vision. Eventually, Tamina is taken from her isolation in France to an island inhabited by a community of children who play constantly but are, at the same time, subjected to rigid discipline. This image is an obvious parallel to life in a communist state but also to the mindless, consumerist society of the West. In trying to escape from the island, Tamina drowns.
The other main theme of the novel is laughter. Angelic, optimistic, collective laughter, expressing simple joy in being alive, is a sign of the mindless destruction of individuality. Devilish, subversive laughter, on the other hand, blasphemes against the ideal of divine perfection. It pricks pomposity and seriousness, whether of group sex or of attempts to create an ideal communist society. In a soul-searching manner, Kundera again reexamines the communism of his youth. He sees the communist revolution as a "deed which has got out of hand, it has escaped from under the control of its creators." He contrasts the enthusiasm of the early youthful Czech communist revolutionaries with the arid regime of post-1968 Czechoslovakia. For the rest of their lives, he concludes, the young revolutionaries were unsuccessfully trying to recapture their original deed, which had emancipated itself from them.
Mirek, the intellectual from the first chapter who wishes to reclaim and rewrite his past, is being followed by the secret police and is eventually sentenced to a long prison term. Another chapter deals with two American students in Paris and their equally simpleminded teacher, who think that they have understood Eugène Ionesco's absurd humor. The chapter "Lítost" (Pity) is a study of an emotion that Kundera defines as "a state of torment which arises when we look at our own wretchedness." The final chapter, "Frontier," gives examples of how easy it is to overstep the borderline beyond which things lose their meaning.
In 1978 the Kunderas moved to Paris, where Kundera had accepted a position at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes. In 1982 he completed the novel Nesnesitelná lehkost bytí (translated as The Unbearable Lightness of Being , 1984; published in Czech, 1985), his most popular work with Western readers and critics. This novel made Kundera an internationally known author, especially after it was filmed by director Philip Kaufman in 1988. Kundera, however, was unhappy with the movie. Neither it nor Jaromil Jires's movie version of Zert, made in Czechoslovakia in 1969, in any way do justice to the complex, polyphonic structure of the novels. (Kundera, however, likes the Jires movie. Some Czech critics think that the best motion picture ever made of a work by Kundera is Já, truchlivy Buh, a 1969 Czech adaptation of the short story from Smesné lásky directed by Antonín Kachlík.)
Nesnesitelná lehkost bytí returns to a more traditional narrative story line-although even here the narrator continually interrupts, explaining to the reader what he means and examining events from various angles. While many of the narrator's witticisms are insightful, some of them do not ring true. This situation may be intentional on Kundera's part: Alfred Thomas has pointed out that the narrative voice in Kundera's novels must be regarded as one of many in the polyphony of views competing for the reader's attention. The events of the novel often transcend the narrow interpretations offered by the narrator. While the novel was hailed in the West as a masterpiece, it became the subject of fierce controversy among critics in Czechoslovakia: perhaps not realizing that the narrator's emphatic pronouncements are to be taken as only one of many polyphonic voices and as an invitation to critical thinking, Czech commentators contended that the author's vision of reality was too black and white to be convincing.
Kundera's theme in the novel is that life is unrepeatable; hence, 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, into 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. The hero of the novel, the neurosurgeon Tomás, is, like Klíma in Valcík na rozloucenou, a passionate womanizer who loves his wife, Tereza, a beautiful photographer. He is at the same time attracted to and repelled by women. Tereza's mother, a typical "lyrical" character, is an aggressive proponent of the notions of collectivism, optimism, and lack of privacy; Tereza, however, is shy and yearns for privacy. Destructive lyricism is again associated with left-wing political ideology. Tomás and Tereza defect to Switzerland after the Soviet invasion of 1968, but Tereza cannot abide Tomás's infidelities and returns to Czechoslovakia. Tomás follows her, giving up his medical career and becoming a window cleaner. (Czech critics complained that this element does not ring true: although many professionals were forced to abandon their work and support themselves in menial jobs in the post-1968 clampdown, doctors were not persecuted in this way.) To escape the attention of the secret police, the couple move to the Czech countryside, where they live in happiness and humility for a few years before dying in a traffic accident.
A parallel plot, concerning the relationship of the Czech émigré painter Sabina and the Swiss lecturer Franz, is based on the misunderstandings that follow from their different backgrounds. (The novel includes a "Vocabulary of misunderstood expressions" that are used quite differently by Franz and Sabina.) Franz is the victim of several naive myths and dies a nonsensical death in Thailand during a protest march against the genocide in Cambodia.
Kundera always expressed a strong affection for his native country and its culture. After moving to the West he broadened the concept of the culture to which he belonged to one of Central Europeanness. In many writings and interviews he has argued that Eastern and Central Europe gave birth to a unique civilization with great figures such as Janácek, Broch, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Gustav Mahler, Franz Kafka , and Robert Musil . In Kundera's view this culture was destroyed by Russian subjugation. Kundera caused an international controversy with his 1980 interview with Philip Roth in The New York Times Book Review and his 1984 essay "The Tragedy of Central Europe" in The New York Review of Books by directly accusing the "unEuropean, alien" Russians of destroying Eastern and Central European culture and threatening European culture as a whole. The Russian was not "one of us," he contended: "Nothing could be more foreign to Central Europe and its passion for variety than Russia: uniform, standardizing, centralizing . . . determined to transform every nation of its empire into a single Russian people."
Kundera appears to have no use for Russian culture; even Fyodor Dostoyevsky is, for him, a symbol of Russian intolerance and brutality. In his preface to the U.S. edition of Jacques and His Master Kundera says: "What irritated me about Dostoyevsky was the climate of his novels: a universe where feelings are promoted to the rank of value and truth." For Kundera, Dostoyevsky is a non-European who lacks the Western balance between rationality and sentiment. Many people agreed with Kundera; others-especially, of course, the Russians, including the poet Joseph Brodsky- disputed his views. Even a Czech dissident writer, Milan Simecka, pointed out that Eastern and Central European culture was destroyed not by Joseph Stalin's Russia but by Adolf Hitler's Germany. Other Czech writers criticized Kundera for styling himself a dissident writer, as though he had never been a communist. In the interview with Roth, Kundera says:
Then they expelled me from University. I lived among workmen. At that time, I played the trumpet in a jazz band in small-town cabarets. I played the piano and the trumpet. Then I wrote poetry. I painted. It was all nonsense. My first work which is worth while mentioning is a short story, written when I was thirty, the first story in the book Laughable Loves. This is when my life of a writer began. I had spent half of my life as a relatively unknown Czech intellectual.
The leading Czech literary critic Milan Jungmann reacted to these statements: "Those who used to know Milan Kundera in the 1950s and the 1960s, can hardly recognize him in this account. The self-portrait has been retouched in such a way that Kundera's real appearance has vanished. Everything essential that formed Kundera's image as a leading intellectual of the past few decades of Czech history has been suppressed." In the 1950s and the 1960s Kundera was a major liberalizing force in Czech literature. Smesné lásky and Zert are seen by many as heralding the openly antitotalitarian stage in Kundera's writing.
Since the fall of communism, the political culture of the Eastern and Central European countries has often displayed characteristics that seem to be closer to the Soviet Russian or the old Austrian imperial models than to the Western European model. Possibly for this reason, Kundera has cut almost all of his ties with his native land, visiting it rarely. Three of his major novels-Zivot je jinde, Kniha smíchu a zapomnení , and Nesnesitelná lehkost bytí-have so far not been published in the Czech Republic.
The novel Nesmrtelnost (published in French as L'immortalité , 1990; translated as Immortality , 1991; published in the original Czech, 1993) still reflects Kundera's Eastern and Central European experience, but indirectly; it is the most French of his longer novels. None of the protagonists are Czech; all are French. The work is a criticism of Western civilization near the end of the twentieth century, based on Kundera's experiences in France and elucidated through comparisons with relevant events from European cultural history. Thus, Nesmrtelnost is a European novel with French overtones. The work is a "novel as a debate" in which the characters are personifications of ideas and in which the narrator freely interrupts the story and reflects on it for the benefit of the reader. Discursive passages are more frequent in Nesmrtelnost than in Kundera's earlier work; yet, the book retains the character of a polyphonic fictional narrative.
One of the major grievances that Kundera holds against the contemporary world is its tendency to reduce everything to a superficial, easily digestible simplification. For this reason he deliberately writes his novels in such a way that they cannot easily be summarized. He produces a complicated mosaic in which motifs from various parts of the novel are interrelated in an intricate, precarious balance. As in his earlier novels, themes are analyzed from many different angles. The themes in this work are drawn mainly from Kundera's traumatic experiences in Eastern Europe and his adjustment to life in the West.
In Nesmrtelnost a Frenchwoman, Agnes, is born in the mind of the narrator, a writer, when he sees an attractive, flirtatious, feminine gesture made by an old lady to a young swimming teacher at a public bath. The writer interprets the gesture as indicating a desire to enter history, to become famous and thus gain "immortality." Kundera explores this theme by digressing to the story of Bettine von Arnim and her relationship to the great classical German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe . Bettine was attracted to famous men and wanted to enter history with them, and in 1835 she published the love letters she had allegedly exchanged with Goethe. Not until the twentieth century was it discovered that she had considerably rewritten the letters to create an image highly flattering to herself.
The creation of fake images is a major theme in Nesmrtelnost. Ideologies such as communism and Nazism no longer present a threat; the danger now comes from "imagology," that is, from the media and advertising. The "imagologists" create systems of ideals and anti-ideals that people are supposed to follow unthinkingly; thus, reality is destroyed. Agnes unsuccessfully fights these pressures. A character who defies the modern world is the narrator's grotesque friend, Professor Avenarius, who punctures the tires of parked cars during his forays into the night streets of Paris as a gesture of his hatred of the destructiveness of modern civilization. The theme of accidental, unintentional outcomes of events, familiar from Zert, recurs here: Avenarius punctures the tires of the car owned by Agnes's husband, Paul, so that he is delayed in traveling to a country hospital where Agnes has been taken after a car accident. Paul arrives at the hospital fifteen minutes after Agnes's death.
Another topic to which Kundera returns in Nesmrtelnost is the conflict between the maturity of classicism and the immaturity of Romanticism; one section of the novel is an extended critique of sentimental lyrical poets and their attitudes. Romantic love is always an unconsummated, precoital emotion. Ecological themes are also important in Nesmrtelnost, contributing forcefully to the overall impression of a superficial, mechanized, dehumanized, and alienated modern world. Nesmrtelnost poses the question of whether contemporary human beings can escape from the crisis of emptiness and absurdity of existence in a world without God. Kundera's heroes live in an enclosed world of closed systems, which reproduce themselves and have nothing in common with reality.
La lenteur (1995; translated as Slowness , 1996) is the first work of fiction that Kundera has written in French. An accomplished short novel, it is a playful and amusing counterbalance to the seriousness of Nesmrtelnost. It displays all the well-tried and tested characteristics, methods, and approaches of Kundera's mature writing: it is a bravura performance, a mathematical, musiclike structure built up from a collection of abstract basic themes. It includes essayistic, contemplative interludes that interrupt several narrative lines, most of them from the present and one from the past. In the spirit of playfulness, Kundera includes fictional versions of himself and his wife.
The starting point of the novel is a debate about the meaning of hedonism. Pleasure is defined, in the manner of the Greek philosopher Epicurus , as the absence of suffering. In the past the notion of sensuality was associated with slowness. The more slowly one acts, the more intense is one's memory of acting. The present-day obsession with speed is, for Kundera, the epitome of superficiality and emptiness. Kundera here intensifies his criticism of contemporary Western civilization as manipulative, empty, lacking in knowledge and wisdom. His protagonists are spoiled, vainglorious, and pretentious. By contrasting their attitudes and perceptions of reality, he creates a grotesque image of the contemporary world.
The novel is set in a French castle where Kundera and his wife, Vera, spend a midsummer night. The castle becomes a microcosm, a stage where Kundera can closely observe the preposterous behavior of his characters and compare it to an amorous encounter that took place in the same castle two hundred years before and was recorded in a novella published in 1777. The manipulation carried out by the members of the nobility in the eighteenth century was more sophisticated than the clumsy, illiterate, and grotesque behavior of people today. All human encounters in the novel are based on misunderstandings that are so absurd that they become comic.
A congress of entomologists is being held in the castle. One of the scientists is a former dissident, now in the Czech government, who was forced to support himself as a manual worker for twenty years in Czechoslovakia. This background fills him with self-centered pride. When he is called on to give his paper, he is so moved by the occasion that he makes an emotional extemporaneous speech about his past persecution and then leaves the platform, totally forgetting to give his lecture. He becomes a laughingstock among the French scientists, who misspell and mispronounce his name, do not know where his country is, confuse it with other countries, and are uninterested in anything but themselves. Two men and two women pair off, but their relationships are unsuccessful because of misunderstandings that culminate in simulated copulation beside the swimming pool and a histrionic jump into the pool by a woman in an evening dress. These actions are witnessed by the Czech entomologist, who, in total incomprehension, strips to his swimming trunks to display his muscles. Kundera concludes that the contemporary world is crazy.
L'identité (1997; translated as Identity , 1998), another short novel written in French, is a love story; it can perhaps be seen as a sophisticated variation on the stories in Smesné lásky, in particular "Falesny autostop". Here, too, a relationship between two lovers-this time a middle-aged pair- is put to the test by what at the beginning seems to be an innocent, although manipulative, game. The woman, Chantal, complains that "men do not look at me any more," so her lover, Jean-Marc, begins sending her anonymous love letters. The game, which is interpreted differently by the man and the woman, leads to a misunderstanding that almost breaks up their relationship. Toward the end of the playful though serious work, however, the narrator insists that at some imperceptible point the story has become a dream. Thus, instead of a tragedy, the work remains on the level of a warning: love is the only value that protects one from the outside world, even though its basis may be uncertain because one's perception of the world is unreliable.
La ignorancia (Ignorance, 2000) is a novel in which a major theme is a return to one's native land after many years of exile, when that homeland is no longer recognizable. Kundera wanted the novel to be published first in Spanish translation, because of its particular relevance to the many émigrés from Spain during Francisco Franco's era as well as to his own relationship to Czech culture.
When Kundera was young, he, like many of his compatriots, fell into the trap of a destructive ideology. It took him almost twenty years to free himself from its constraints. The trauma he suffered taught him to assume a skeptically critical attitude toward reality. It showed him the importance of pluralism. It made him realize that humanity is infinitely fallible and does not understand its environment. Once Kundera left Czechoslovakia for the West, he was able to use the critical faculties he gained from his encounter with communism to compare and contrast the Western and the Eastern and Central European experience to elucidate important aspects of contemporary human existence. Kundera has highlighted the modern crisis of language, which is a crisis of meaning and a crisis of communication. His novels are about various forms of delusion. In many of his works a text, a sign, or an image comes to life and begins to act in the real world with an unstoppable destructive force.
From: Culík, Jan. "Milan Kundera." Twentieth-Century Eastern European Writers: Third Series, edited by Steven Serafin, Gale, 2001. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 232.