In his novels, the Czech-born author Milan Kundera (born 1929) sought to discover the answer to the question: What is the nature of existence?
Milan Kundera was one of the most important and talented novelists to emerge from the death throes of the old Communist regimes in Eastern Europe. However, his novels are not merely political tracts but attempts to discover possible meanings for the existential problems facing all human beings.
Born on April 1, 1929, in Brno, Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic), Kundera was the son of a pianist and musicologist named Ludvik and his wife, Milada (Janiskova). On September 30, 1967, he married Vera Hrabankova.
Kundera was educated in music under the direction of Paul Haas and Vaclav Kapral. Later he also attended Charles University and, in 1956, studied at the Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts, both of which are in Prague. In 1958 he joined the Film Faculty of the latter school, a position he held until 1969.
Originally a poet, Kundera published three volumes of his work between 1953 and 1964. It was then that he began writing in the form in which he was the most successful: the novel. His first book, The Joke, was published in 1967. This 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. During this time of cultural reform, a new freedom to writers and other artists was allowed in what was then a communist country. However, the reprieve from oppression was short lived (ended by Soviet tanks occupying the city), and Kundera found himself in the same position as many of the other leaders of the reform movement. His books disappeared from the shelves of libraries and bookstores and 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, but Kundera was essentially a writer without an audience, or at least one with whom he could be comfortable. Although not initially allowed to travel to the West, Kundera finally was able to accept a teaching position in France.
At the Université de Rennes he served as an invited professor of comparative literature from 1975 through 1979. In 1980 he accepted the position of professor at the école des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris. The following year he became a naturalized citizen of France.
Life Is Elsewhere, his first major work after his exile, was published in the United States in 1974. 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 was also published in the United States and was entitled The Farewell Party. 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 was first published in the United States in 1980 and then was republished with an interview the author gave to American novelist Philip Roth in 1981. This book illustrates the need for memory to overcome forgetting in order for an individual to achieve self-preservation.
In 1984 Milan Kundera's most famous novel was published. 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 turned into a movie in 1988.
A later publication entitled Immortality was released in 1991 in England. In addition to the title subject, the book also treats the subjects of the Romantic era, ideology, the cult of images, and selfish individualism. A recent novel, Slowness, was published in 1994 and concerns many of these same themes.
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 63 words and their definitions, and the text of a speech.
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 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.
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 Cervantes and passing through the works of authors such as Richardson, Balzac, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Proust, Joyce, Mann, and 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.
In 1995, Kundera published a book-length essay of literary criticism, Testaments Betrayed, which is organized after 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.
Milan Kundera's contributions, both as a novelist exploring the nature of existence and as historian and critic of the novel, point out his importance as a writer, for his wisdom as well as for his creative genius.
Further Reading on Milan Kundera
There is little published material on Milan Kundera except for that which can be found in periodicals. Two excellent sources would be the interview by Philip Roth in the preface to the 1981 edition of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and Kundera's own book, The Art of the Novel (1988). In addition, Dangerous Intersection: Milan Kundera and Feminism by John O'Brien (St. Martin's Press) was published in 1995.