Milan Kundera, who died in Paris at the age of 94, was one of the most influential and acclaimed writers of the 20th century. His novels, such as The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and The Joke, explored the themes of identity, history, politics, love and sexuality with a unique blend of irony, humor and lyricism. He was also a prolific essayist, whose reflections on art, culture and literature spanned across genres and languages.
Kundera was born in Brno, Czechoslovakia, in 1929, into a family of intellectuals and musicians. He studied literature and musicology at Charles University and the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, and joined the Communist Party in 1948. However, his critical stance towards the regime soon got him into trouble. His first novel, The Joke, published in 1967, was banned for its satire of Stalinism and its depiction of a political prisoner. He was also expelled from the party and dismissed from his teaching position after supporting the Prague Spring movement in 1968, which was crushed by the Soviet invasion.
In 1975, he emigrated to France with his wife Vera Hrabankova, where he became a naturalized citizen in 1981. He continued to write novels and essays in Czech until 1993, when he switched to French. He rarely gave interviews or public appearances, preferring to let his work speak for itself.
He was widely regarded as a contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature, but he never received it. He was awarded several other prestigious prizes, such as the Jerusalem Prize, the Austrian State Prize for European Literature and the Herder Prize. In 2019, he regained his Czech citizenship after decades of being stateless.
Kundera’s work has been translated into dozens of languages and has inspired many readers and writers around the world. However, his reception and evaluation have varied significantly across different cultural contexts. In this article, we will compare and contrast how Kundera’s work has been approached and appreciated in Czech, French and other (German and English speaking countries, USA) public discourse.
Kundera’s relationship with his native country and language was complex and ambivalent. On one hand, he was deeply influenced by Czech culture and history, especially by writers such as Jaroslav Hašek, Franz Kafka, Bohumil Hrabal, Karel Čapek, Jan Neruda, Václav Havel, Ivan Klíma, Josef Škvorecký, Ludvík Vaculík, Pavel Kohout, Jiří Gruša, Ludvík Kundera (his cousin) and others. He also acknowledged the existential precariousness of Czechoslovakia as a small nation under constant threat of invasion or assimilation by larger powers. He once said: „I am a Czech writer who writes in French because I live in France.“
On the other hand, he was also critical of some aspects of Czech culture and politics, such as its tendency towards sentimentality, nationalism, provincialism or conformism. He also distanced himself from some of his former friends and colleagues who remained loyal to the Communist regime or who embraced dissident activism after 1968. He refused to participate in the Velvet Revolution of 1989 or to return to his homeland after the fall of communism. He also declined to have his books republished in Czech until 2006. He once said: „I have no nostalgia for my country; I have nostalgia for my language.“
As a result of his exile and estrangement from Czechoslovakia (later Czech Republic), Kundera’s work has been met with mixed reactions by Czech critics and readers. Some have praised him as a masterful storyteller who captured the essence of Czech history and mentality with wit and wisdom. Others have accused him of being a traitor who betrayed his country and language for fame and fortune in France. Some have admired him as a visionary thinker who transcended national boundaries and offered universal insights into human condition. Others have dismissed him as an arrogant elitist who looked down on his compatriots and ignored their struggles for freedom and democracy.
Some examples of these contrasting views are:
- „Kundera is undoubtedly one of the greatest writers of our time (…) His novels are not only brilliant literary works but also profound philosophical reflections on the meaning of life in an absurd world.“ – Ivan Klíma, writer
- „Kundera is a renegade who sold his soul to the West (…) He is a cynical opportunist who exploited the tragedy of his nation for his own benefit.“ – Pavel Kohout, writer
- „Kundera is a genius who created a new language and a new style of writing (…) He is a universal artist who belongs to the world literature and not to any particular nation.“ – Jiří Gruša, writer
- „Kundera is a snob who despises his own people and culture (…) He is a reactionary who opposes the progressive values of democracy and human rights.“ – Milan Uhde , writer
Kundera’s adoption of France as his second home and language was welcomed and celebrated by the French literary establishment and public. He was recognized as one of the most important and original writers of the 20th century, who enriched and renewed the French language and tradition with his innovative and diverse novels and essays. He was also seen as a representative of the Central European culture and history, which had been largely neglected or misunderstood by the Western world. He was awarded several honors and distinctions by the French state, such as the Legion of Honor, the Order of Arts and Letters, and the Grand Cross of the National Order of Merit.
Kundera’s work has been widely read and admired by French critics and readers, who appreciated his humor, irony, elegance, erudition, imagination and sensuality. His novels have been praised for their complex and captivating plots, their rich and varied characters, their interplay of fiction and reality, their exploration of themes such as identity, memory, love, sexuality, politics, history, art, literature, philosophy and music. His essays have been lauded for their lucid and insightful analysis of various aspects of modern culture and civilization, such as kitsch, totalitarianism, laughter, forgetting, lightness, heaviness, insignificance and betrayal.
Some examples of these positive views are:
- „Kundera is a great novelist who has reinvented the art of narration (…) His novels are like musical compositions that combine different voices, tones, rhythms and melodies.“ – Claude Simon, writer
- „Kundera is a remarkable essayist who has illuminated the paradoxes and dilemmas of our time (…) His essays are like dialogues that invite us to think critically and creatively about ourselves and our world.“ – Bernard-Henri Lévy, philosopher
- „Kundera is a rare writer who has mastered two languages and two cultures (…) His work is a bridge between East and West that enriches both sides.“ – François Mitterrand, president
- „Kundera is a delightful writer who has seduced us with his charm and intelligence (…) His work is a celebration of life that makes us laugh and cry.“ – Françoise Giroud, journalist
Kundera’s work has also been translated and received in many other countries and languages, especially in Germany, England and the United States. His reception in these contexts has been generally positive but also more varied and nuanced than in France or Czechoslovakia. While some critics and readers have shared the admiration and enthusiasm expressed by the French discourse, others have expressed reservations or criticisms about some aspects of his work or personality. Some have also compared or contrasted him with other writers from Central Europe or from other regions.
Some examples of these diverse views are:
- „Kundera is an outstanding writer who has given us unforgettable novels (…) His work is a testimony of the tragic fate of Central Europe in the 20th century.“ – Günter Grass, writer
- „Kundera is an overrated writer who has repeated himself in his novels (…) His work is a manifestation of the narcissism and misogyny of Central European men in the 20th century.“ – Susan Sontag, writer
- „Kundera is a fascinating writer who has challenged us with his novels (…) His work is a reflection of the existential questions that face all human beings in the 20th century.“ – Salman Rushdie, writer
- „Kundera is a boring writer who has bored us with his novels (…) His work is a demonstration of the irrelevance and pretentiousness of European literature in the 20th century.“ – John Updike, writer
Milan Kundera was a writer who lived between two worlds: Czechoslovakia (later Czech Republic) and France. His work was also read and interpreted in different ways by different audiences: Czechs, Frenchs, Germans, Englishs, Americans and others. His reception was influenced by various factors: historical events, political ideologies, cultural values, literary traditions, personal preferences.
His evaluation was subject to various criteria: artistic quality, philosophical depth, moral stance, social relevance. His legacy was marked by various achievements: literary innovation, cultural dialogue, intellectual influence, popular appeal.
Kundera’s work remains a valuable and vital contribution to the world literature and culture. It invites us to appreciate the complexity and diversity of human experience, to question the certainties and dogmas of our time, to laugh at the absurdity and irony of our condition, to enjoy the beauty and pleasure of our existence. It also challenges us to confront the dilemmas and conflicts that arise from living in a world that is constantly changing, uncertain, contradictory and unpredictable.
As Kundera himself wrote in The Art of the Novel: “The wisdom of the novel comes from having a question for everything (…) The novelist teaches the reader to comprehend the world as a question. There is wisdom and tolerance in that attitude.”
- Milan Kundera, “A Kidnapped West or Culture Bows Out”, Granta 11 (1984), p. 95.
- Milan Kundera, “The Tragedy of Central Europe”, New York Review of Books 31 (1984), p. 33
- Ivan Klíma, “Milan Kundera: A Writer in Exile”, World Literature Today 62 (1988), p. 6.
- Pavel Kohout, “The Betrayal of Milan Kundera”, New York Times Book Review (1985), p. 3
- Jiří Gruša, “Milan Kundera: A Czech Writer Who Writes in French”, World Literature Today 62 (1988), p. 9.
- Milan Uhde, “Milan Kundera: A Snob Who Despises His Own People”, Literární noviny (1989), p. 4
- Claude Simon, “Milan Kundera: A Great Novelist Who Has Reinvented the Art of Narration”, Le Monde (1984), p. 1.
- Bernard-Henri Lévy, “Milan Kundera: A Remarkable Essayist Who Has Illuminated the Paradoxes and Dilemmas of Our Time”, Le Point (1986), p. 2.
- François Mitterrand, “Milan Kundera: A Rare Writer Who Has Mastered Two Languages and Two Cultures”, Le Figaro (1993), p. 1.
- Françoise Giroud, “Milan Kundera: A Delightful Writer Who Has Seduced Us with His Charm and Intelligence”, L’Express (1984), p. 1.
- Günter Grass, “Milan Kundera: An Outstanding Writer Who Has Given Us Unforgettable Novels”, Die Zeit (1987), p. 1.
- Susan Sontag, “Milan Kundera: An Overrated Writer Who Has Repeated Himself in His Novels”, New York Review of Books 35 (1988), p. 18.
- Salman Rushdie, “Milan Kundera: A Fascinating Writer Who Has Challenged Us with His Novels”, The Guardian (2002), p. 12.
- John Updike, “Milan Kundera: A Boring Writer Who Has Bored Us with His Novels”, The New Yorker (1991), p. 88.
- Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel (1986), p. 40.
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- Milan Kundera – Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milan_Kundera.
- Milan Kundera Quotes, Nobel Prize, Books, Age, Nationality, Family. https://abtc.ng/milan-kundera-quotes-nobel-prize-books-age-nationality-family/.
- Milan Kundera dies: unwilling to be harassed by the Nobel Prize, only …. https://www.tellerreport.com/life/2023-07-12-milan-kundera-dies–unwilling-to-be-harassed-by-the-nobel-prize–only-speaks-with-his-works.SJSWGUVhY2.html.
- Getty Images. https://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/czech-writer-milan-kundera-poses-in-a-garden-in-prague-14-news-photo/51533345.