View of Brno from Spilberk Castle

Milan Kundera (koon-DEHR-uh) was born on April Fools’ Day, 1929, in Brno, the second largest city in what was then Czechoslovakia. His father Ludvik Kundera was a talented pianist who studied under the great Czech composer Leoš Janáček (mentioned in Unbearable Lightness, see Bookmark for page 97). Kundera’s father taught him to play piano and the future novelist studied musicology, so musical influences, ideas, and references color much of his writing.

In 1948 he completed secondary school in Brno, began to study literature and aesthetics at Charles University in Prague (though he transferred to the Academy of Performing Arts to study movie direction and scriptwriting after two terms), and joined the Communist Party. An unorthodox thinker who regularly pressured and criticized the political establishment, he and a friend Jan Trefulka were expelled from the party in 1950 for “anti-party activities,” which partly formed the basis for his first novel, The Joke (1967).

Kundera with Kurt Barthel, 1954
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeKundera with Kurt Barthel, 1954 - Credit: Günter Weiß / Deutsches Bundesarchiv

After graduation in 1952, Kundera was appointed lecturer in world literature with the Film Faculty at the Academy, where his students would include future film directors Milos Forman and Ivan Passer. Readmitted to the Communist Party in 1956, for a number of years he published poetry, wrote plays, and even Communist propaganda, and he became a celebrity in Communist Czechoslovakia by the mid 1950s.

In the early 1960s he began to write short stories, which would be collected in Laughable Loves (which he likes best of all his work because it “reflects the happiest time of my life”), then novels. Kundera was married to Vera Hrabánková in 1967.

Czech writers clashed openly with the Communist authorities in 1967. Kundera gave a speech at the Fourth Congress of Czechoslovak Writers in June that became a landmark in the history of independent and self-critical thought. He finished the final story of Laughable Loves three days before the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia that ended the “Prague Spring” (see Bookmarks, pages 25, 26) on August 21, 1968.

That event would change Kundera’s life, along with many others. It became the central historical event in two of his most famous novels, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1979) and The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984).

He was dismissed from the position he had held for 15 years on the Film Faculty of the Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts; his books were censored by the authorities and withdrawn from libraries and bookstores; and his name was erased from official Czech cultural history. “Paradoxically,” writes Jan Čulík (and very much like Tomas’s experience after he loses his surgeon’s position and becomes a window washer), “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.’ ” His novels would not be officially allowed into the country again until after the Velvet Revolution of 1989.

His first novel under these conditions was Life is Elsewhere (a title taken from a poem by French poet Arthur Rimbaud and used by André Breton -- see Bookmark, page 113 -- as the final sentence of his 1924 surrealist manifesto). Kundera and his wife were allowed to leave the country in 1975, when he accepted a teaching job at the University of Rennes. He has remained in France ever since -- moving to Paris in 1979, composing most of his subsequent novels in French, and becoming a French citizen in 1981.

In addition to the titles mentioned above, Kundera’s writings include the novels The Farewell Party, Immortality, Slowness, Identity, and Ignorance; nonfiction titles The Art of the Novel, Testaments Betrayed, and The Curtain; and the play Jacques and His Master: An Homage to Diderot in Three Acts.

Kundera is a favorite of novelists such as Philip Roth, Salman Rushdie, and J.M. Coetzee, many of whom have championed his work. Russell Banks wrote: “he is one of the most erudite novelists on the planet. Not since Henry James, perhaps, has a fiction writer examined the process of writing with such insight, authority and range of reference and allusion.”

In a 1985 issue of The New York Times Magazine, Olga Carlisle wrote that “[Kundera] has done for his native Czechoslovakia what Gabriel García Márquez did for Latin America in the 1960s and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn did for Russia in the 1970s. He has brought Eastern Europe to the attention of the Western reading public, and he has done so with insights that are universal in their appeal. His call for truth and the inner freedom without which truth cannot be recognized, his realization that in seeking truth we must be prepared to come to terms with death -- these are the themes that have earned him critical acclaim.”