A week has passed since the passing of the Czech-born author of the novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being Milan Kundera in his Paris apartment. Having emigrated to France in 1975 after being ostracized for criticizing the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, his relationship with his homeland would remain complicated for decades.
PRAGUE — Milan Kundera's lifelong dream has finally been fulfilled. He disappeared behind his literary work, became invisible, and left in his wake only a shelf of beautifully crafted books that serve as the ideal portrait of the author — a portrait reflecting his journey, with Laughable Loves on one side and The Festival of Insignificance on the other.
Through novels like The Joke, Life is Elsewhere, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and Immortality, through essays titled The Art of the Novel, Testaments Betrayed, The Curtain, and Encounter, Milan Kundera left behind half a century's worth of authorial work and a legacy unparalleled in modern Czech literature.
He left behind an extensive library, translated in some 50 languages. Perhaps only Jaroslav Hašek's The Good Soldier Švejk — the most translated novel of Czech literature — tops this remarkable feat.
Born on April 1, 1929, in the Czech city of Brno, Milan Kundera, a resident of France since the age of 46 and a globally renowned author by the 1980s, possessed a remarkable ability beyond his evident literary talent: the ability to provoke.
This talent extended to both his literary works and his personal life. In recent decades, any topic related to Kundera has often stirred up emotions in the Czech Republic, which would sometimes boil over to a heated debate.
Abundance of inspiration
Kundera took a swipe from Czech literary critic Milan Jungmann in 1987, who reproached the author for trying "to be successful at all costs" and pointed out "artistic and philosophical contradictions" in his novels. Then, three years ago, Jan Novák went after Kundera in a 900-page biography with a clear goal in mind: to knock the idol off his pedestal.
On the other hand, the author has always had a good standing with literary scholars and theorists such as Helena Kosková, Květoslav Chvatík, Aleš Haman, Tomáš Kubíček, and Jakub Češka.
They discovered an abundance of inspiration in Kundera's literary works, which then served as a rich source for their tributes to the scribe. They would delve into how Kundera grounded himself in the tradition of the European novel, explored his interplay of modern and postmodern elements, the musical underpinnings of the prose, and carefully analyzed his wordplay, puns, and fondness for intellectually fueled humor, especially irony.
He was a solitary figure.
Moreover, the critics examined Kundera’s exploration of the relationship between home and abroad, youth and adulthood, between identity and its dissolution.
Czech-language copies of Milan Kundera's novel, The Festival of Insignificance in a bookstore in Brno, Czech Republic.
Simply put, Kundera was a solitary figure, an individualist who always stuck to his guns. This ultimately propelled him to become a writer of global stature, transcending linguistic, cultural, and generational boundaries.
In the 1960s, the young writer was on a roll. And not necessarily a literary one, as other authors, such as Ladislav Fuks, Bohumil Hrabal, or Ludvík Vaculík, wrote more expressively; but rather, Kundera's roll was on the cultural and social front.
He was active, he was vocal, he was heard, and he was seen. He gradually became a popular "café intellectual" and a household name thanks to his profession at the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts (FAMU) in Prague, and the successful film adaptations of his prose.
His global renown also grew. In the 1960s, the French edition of The Joke was accompanied by a foreword by Louis Aragon, who assessed the book as "one of the greatest novels of the century". Still, it wouldn’t be until 1975 that the writer would set off for the promised land of France.
Until then, repercussions ensued for Kundera and his wife Vera following the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. In 1969, Vera was dismissed from her position at Czechoslovak Television. Kundera would experience the same fate a year later when he was fired from FAMU, and deprived of any opportunity to publish his work freely.
In France, Kundera adapted to the new reality, quickly climbing to the top rung of the literary ladder. There, he eventually exchanged the tighter confines for a new, grander expanse — his novel Immortality, completed in 1988, and probably his best book ever, is the last title he wrote in Czech.
A Czech psychosis that "Kundera is not talking to us" emerged
During that period, which incidentally coincided with the proliferation of new media such as video and CDs, he stopped speaking to journalists. He didn't want to fuel their imagined worlds, for he had his own.
He could afford such a gesture as he had already established himself as a world-famous writer by the second half of the 1980s. Yet at that time, the Czech psychosis that "Kundera is not talking to us" emerged. Even after the fall of the Iron Curtain, he never permanently returned to his native country, and for a long time, he did not allow his new works to be translated from French into Czech.
The tables began to turn a few years ago, with Kundera's 90th birthday. The writer regained his Czech citizenship, which had been taken away from him by the Communist regime as punishment for his departure to France. his previously untranslated books, the novels The Festival of Insignificance and Ignorance, and more recently the essay The Kidnapped West, would finally appear in Kundera’s native language.
So, it is a happy ending for both parties: The author has successfully disappeared, and the work is left in his place.