Milan Kundera

Milan Kundera
Milan Kundera
Born April 1, 1929 (1929-04-01) (age 82)
Brno, Czechoslovakia
Residence Paris
Nationality French
Ethnicity Czech
Citizenship French
Alma mater Charles University, Prague; Academy of Performing Arts in Prague
Occupation Novelist[1]
Notable works The Joke (Žert) (1967), The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1979), The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984)
Influenced by Giovanni Boccaccio, Rabelais, Cervantes, Laurence Sterne, Fielding, Denis Diderot, Robert Musil, Witold Gombrowicz, Hermann Broch, Friedrich Nietzsche, Franz Kafka, Martin Heidegger, Ludwig van Beethoven, Johann Sebastian Bach, Emil Cioran
Parents Ludvík Kundera (1891–1971), father
Relatives Ludvík Kundera (cousin)
Awards Jerusalem Prize (1985), The Austrian State Prize for European Literature (1987), Vilenica International Literary Festival (1992), Herder Prize (2000), Czech State Literature Prize (2007)

Milan Kundera (Czech pronunciation: [ˈmɪlan ˈkundɛra]), born 1 April 1929, is a writer of Czech origin who has lived in exile in France since 1975, where he became a naturalized citizen in 1981. He is best known as the author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, and The Joke. Kundera has written in both Czech and French. He revises the French translations of all his books; these therefore are not considered translations but original works. His books were banned by the Communist regimes of Czechoslovakia until the downfall of the regime in the Velvet Revolution of 1989.



Kundera was born in 1929 at Purkyňova ulice, 6 (6 Purkyňova Street) in Brno, Czechoslovakia, to a middle-class family. His father, Ludvík Kundera (1891–1971), once a pupil of the composer Leoš Janáček, was an important Czech musicologist and pianist who served as the head of the Janáček Music Academy in Brno from 1948 to 1961. Milan learned to play the piano from his father; he later studied musicology and musical composition. Musicological influences and references can be found throughout his work; he has even gone so far as to include musical notation in the text to make a point. Kundera is a cousin of Czech writer and translator Ludvík Kundera. He belonged to the generation of young Czechs who had had little or no experience of the pre-war democratic Czechoslovak Republic. Their ideology was greatly influenced by the experiences of World War II and the German occupation. Still in his teens, he joined the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia which seized power in 1948. He completed his secondary school studies in Brno at Gymnázium třída Kapitána Jaroše in 1948. He studied literature and aesthetics at the Faculty of Arts at Charles University in Prague. After two terms, he transferred to the Film Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, where he first attended lectures in film direction and script writing.

In 1950, his studies were briefly interrupted by political interferences. He and writer Jan Trefulka were expelled from the party for "anti-party activities." Trefulka described the incident in his novella Pršelo jim štěstí (Happiness Rained On Them, 1962). Kundera also used the incident as an inspiration for the main theme of his novel Žert (The Joke, 1967). After Kundera graduated in 1952, the Film Faculty appointed him a lecturer in world literature. In 1956 Milan Kundera was readmitted into the Party. He was expelled for the second time in 1970. Kundera, along with other reform communist writers such as Pavel Kohout, were partly involved in the 1968 Prague Spring. This brief period of reformist activities was crushed by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968. Kundera remained committed to reforming Czech communism, and argued vehemently in print with fellow Czech writer Václav Havel, saying, essentially, that everyone should remain calm and that "nobody is being locked up for his opinions yet," and "the significance of the Prague Autumn may ultimately be greater than that of the Prague Spring." Finally, however, Kundera relinquished his reformist dreams and moved to France in 1975. He taught for a few years in the University of Rennes.[2][3] He was stripped of Czechoslovak citizenship in 1979; he has been a French citizen since 1981.[4]

He maintains contacts with Czech and Slovak friends in his homeland,[5] but rarely returns and always does so incognito.[6]


The Unbearable Lightness of Being cover

Although his early poetic works are staunchly pro-communist,[7] his novels escape ideological classification. Kundera has repeatedly insisted on being considered a novelist, rather than a political or dissident writer. Political commentary has all but disappeared from his novels (starting specifically after The Unbearable Lightness of Being) except in relation to broader philosophical themes. Kundera's style of fiction, interlaced with philosophical digression, greatly inspired by the novels of Robert Musil and the philosophy of Nietzsche,[1] is also used by authors Alain de Botton and Adam Thirlwell. Kundera takes his inspiration, as he notes often enough, not only from the Renaissance authors Giovanni Boccaccio and Rabelais, but also from Laurence Sterne, Henry Fielding, Denis Diderot, Robert Musil, Witold Gombrowicz, Hermann Broch, Franz Kafka, Martin Heidegger, and perhaps most importantly, Miguel de Cervantes, to whose legacy he considers himself most committed.

Originally, he wrote in Czech. From 1993 onwards, he has written his novels in French. Between 1985 and 1987 he undertook the revision of the French translations of his earlier works. As a result, all of his books exist in French with the authority of the original. His books have been translated into many languages.

The Joke

In his first novel, The Joke (1967), he gave a satirical account of the nature of totalitarianism in the Communist era. Kundera was quick to criticize the Soviet invasion in 1968. This led to his blacklisting in Czechoslavakia and his works being banned there.

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

In 1975, Kundera moved to France. There he published The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1979) which told of Czech citizens opposing the communist regime in various ways. An unusual mixture of novel, short story collection and author's musings, the book set the tone for his works in exile. Critics have noted the irony that the country that Kundera seemed to be writing about when he talked about Czechoslovakia in the book, "is, thanks to the latest political redefinitions, no longer precisely there" which is The "kind of disappearance and reappearance" Kundera explores in the book.[8]

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

In 1984, he published The Unbearable Lightness of Being, his most famous work. The book chronicled the fragile nature of the fate of the individual and theorized that a single lifetime is insignificant in the scope of Nietzsche's concept of eternal return, because in an infinite universe, everything is guaranteed to recur infinitely. In 1988, American director Philip Kaufman released a film version of the novel.


In 1990, Kundera published Immortality. The novel, his last in Czech, was more cosmopolitan than its predecessors. Its content was more explicitly philosophical, as well as less political. It would set the tone for his later novels.

Writing style and philosophy

Kundera's characters are often explicitly identified as figments of his own imagination, commenting in the first-person on the characters in entirely third-person stories. Kundera is more concerned with the words that shape or mould his characters than with the characters' physical appearance. In his non-fiction work, The Art of the Novel, he says that the reader's imagination automatically completes the writer's vision. He, as the writer, wishes to focus on the essential insofar as the physical is not critical to an understanding of the character. For him the essential may not include the physical appearance or even the interior world (the psychological world) of his characters. Other times, a specific feature or trait may become the character's idiosyncratic focus.

François Ricard suggested that Kundera conceives with regard to an overall oeuvre, rather than limiting his ideas to the scope of just one novel at a time. His themes and meta-themes exist across the entire oeuvre. Each new book manifests the latest stage of his personal philosophy. Some of these meta-themes include exile, identity, life beyond the border (beyond love, beyond art, beyond seriousness), history as continual return, and the pleasure of a less "important" life. (François Ricard, 2003) Many of Kundera's characters are intended as expositions of one of these themes at the expense of their fully developed humanity. Specifics in regard to the characters tend to be rather vague. Often, more than one main character is used in a novel, even to the extent of completely discontinuing a character and resuming the plot with a brand new character. As he told Philip Roth in an interview in The Village Voice: "Intimate life [is] understood as one's personal secret, as something valuable, inviolable, the basis of one's originality.[9]

Kundera's early novels explore the dual tragic and comic aspects of totalitarianism. He does not view his works, however, as political commentary. "The condemnation of totalitarianism doesn't deserve a novel," says Kundera. According to the Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes, "What he finds interesting is the similarity between totalitarianism and "the immemorial and fascinating dream of a harmonious society where private life and public life form but one unity and all are united around one will and one faith..." In exploring the dark humor of this topic, Kundera seems deeply influenced by Franz Kafka.

Kundera considers himself to be a writer without a message. For example, in the Sixty-three Words, a chapter in The Art of the Novel, Kundera recounts an episode when a Scandinavian publisher hesitated about going ahead with the publication of The Farewell Party because of the apparent anti-abortion message contained in the novel. Kundera explains that not only was the publisher wrong about the existence of such a message in the work, but, "...I was delighted with the misunderstanding. I had succeeded as a novelist. I succeeded in maintaining the moral ambiguity of the situation. I had kept faith with the essence of the novel as an art: irony. And irony doesn't give a damn about messages!"[10]

He also digresses into musical matters, analyzing Czech folk music, quoting from Leoš Janáček and Bartók. Further in this vein, he interpolates musical excerpts into the text (for example, in The Joke), or discusses Schoenberg and atonality.


On October 13, 2008, the Czech weekly Respekt prominently publicised an investigation carried out by the Czech Institute for Studies of Totalitarian Regimes,[11] which alleged Kundera denounced to the police a young Czech pilot, Miroslav Dvořáček.[12] The accusation was based on a police station report from 1950 which gave "Milan Kundera, student, born 1.4.1929" as the informant. The target of the subsequent arrest, Miroslav Dvořáček, had fled Czechoslovakia after being ordered to join the infantry in the wake of a purge of the flight academy and returned to Czechoslovakia as a Western spy.[12] Dvořáček returned secretly to the student dormitory of a friend's former sweetheart, Iva Militká. Militká was dating (and later married) a fellow student Ivan Dlask, and Dlask knew Kundera.[12] The police report states that Militká told Dlask who told Kundera who told the police of Dvořáček's presence in town.[12] Although the communist prosecutor sought the death penalty, Dvořáček was sentenced to 22 years (as well as being charged 10,000 crowns, forfeiting property, and being stripped of civic rights[12]) and ended up serving 14 years in labor camp, with some of that time spent in a uranium mine, before being released.[13]

After Respekt's report (which states that Kundera did not know Dvořáček), Kundera denied turning Dvořáček in to the police,[13] stating he did not know him at all, and could not even recollect "Militská". This denial was broadcast in Czech, but is available in English transcript only in abbreviated paraphrase.[14] On October 14, 2008, the Czech Security Forces Archive ruled out the possibility that the document could be a fake, but refused to make any interpretation about it.[15] (Vojtech Ripka for the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes said, "There are two pieces of circumstantial evidence [the police report and its sub-file], but we, of course, cannot be one hundred percent sure. Unless we find all survivors, which is unfortunately impossible, it will not be complete", adding both that the signature on the police report matches the name of a man who worked in the corresponding National Security Corps section and, on the other hand, that a police protocol is missing.[15])

Dvořáček still believes he was betrayed by Iva Militká; his wife said she doubted the "so-called evidence" against Kundera.[16] Dlask, who according to the police report told Kundera of Dvořáček's presence, died in the 1990s. He had told his wife Militká that he had mentioned Dvořáček's arrival to Kundera.[17] Two days after the incident became widely publicised, a counterclaim was made by literary historian Zdeněk Pešat. He said that Dlask was the informant in the case, and Dlask had told him that he had "informed the police."[18] Pešat, then a member of a branch of Czechoslovak Communist Party, said he believed that Dlask informed on Dvořáček to protect his girlfriend from sanctions for being in contact with an agent-provocateur.[18] As Kundera's name still appears as the informer on the police report, this still leaves open the possibility that Kundera informed on Dvořáček to the police (and not the Communist Party branch) separately from Dlask, or had been set up by Dlask to do the deed itself.

In the first-person postscript to Life Is Elsewhere, Kundera (writing as himself) defends his protagonist: he is "a monster. But his monstrosity is potentially contained in us all. It is in me."[19] The protagonist had, among other things, denounced to the authorities a young man about to flee Czechoslovakia.[20] Kundera has since expressed that “The characters in my novels are my own unrealized possibilities.... The novel is not the author’s confession.”[21]

The German newspaper Die Welt has compared Kundera to Günter Grass, the Nobel Prize winner, who in 2006 was revealed to have served in the Waffen-SS in the Second World War.[22] Ivan Klima wrote in the daily Lidové noviny: "From a reader’s perspective it may well be true that if we are disappointed in someone we believed in and admired, our feelings are hurt and our trust is shaken. However, none of this should be used to excuse or exculpate our own misdeeds."[23] Václav Havel did not believe the story[24] and, on 3 November 2008, eleven internationally well-known writers came to Kundera's defence, including Salman Rushdie, Fernando Arrabal, Philip Roth, Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel García Márquez, J.M. Coetzee, Orhan Pamuk, Jorge Semprún and Nadine Gordimer.[25]


In 1985, Kundera received the Jerusalem Prize. His acceptance address is printed in his essay collection The Art of the Novel. He has also been mentioned as a contender for the Nobel Prize for literature.[26][27] He won The Austrian State Prize for European Literature in 1987. In 2000, he was awarded the international Herder Prize. In 2007, he was awarded the Czech State Literature Prize.[28] In 2010, he was made an honorary citizen of his hometown, Brno.[29] In 2011, he received the Ovid Prize.[30]


Poetry collections

  • Člověk zahrada širá (Man: A Wide Garden) (1953)
  • Poslední máj (The Last May) (1955) – celebration of Julius Fučík
  • Monology (Monologues) (1957)


  • O sporech dědických (About the Disputes of Inheritance) (1955)
  • Umění románu: Cesta Vladislava Vančury za velkou epikou (The Art of the Novel: Vladislav Vančura's Path to the Great Epic) (1960)
  • Český úděl (The Czech Deal) (1968)
  • Radikalizmus a expozice (Radicalism and Exhibitionism) (1969)
  • The Stolen West or The Tragedy of Central Europe (Únos západu aneb Tragédie střední Evropy) (1983)
  • The Art of the Novel (L'art du Roman) (1986)
  • Testaments Betrayed (Les testaments trahis) (1992)
  • D'en bas tu humeras les roses - rare book in French, illustrated by Ernest Breleur (1993)
  • The Curtain (Le Rideau) (2005)
  • Une rencontre (The Encounter) (2009)


  • Majitelé klíčů (The Owner of the Keys) (1962)
  • Dvě uši, dvě svatby (Two Ears, Two Weddings) (1968)
  • Ptákovina (The Blunder) (1969)
  • Jacques and his Master (Jakub a jeho pán: Pocta Denisu Diderotovi) (1971)

Short stories

From the Collection Laughable Loves (Směšné lásky) (1969)
"Nobody Will Laugh"
"The Golden Apple of Eternal Desire"
"The Hitchhiking Game"
"Let the Old Dead Make Room for the Young Dead"
"Dr. Havel After Twenty Years"
"Eduard and God"



  1. ^ Oppenheim, Lois (1989). "An Interview with Milan Kundera". Archived from the original on 2007-10-14. Retrieved 2008-11-10.  "Until I was thirty I wrote many things: music, above all, but also poetry and even a play. I was working in many different directions—looking for my voice, my style and myself… I became a prose writer, a novelist, and I am nothing else. Since then, my aesthetic has known no transformations; it evolves, to use your word, linearly."
  2. ^ (French)“L'intransigeant amoureux de la France” L'Express, 03/04/2003
  3. ^ (English)«When there is no word for 'home», The New-York Times, 29 April 1984
  4. ^ Bio at
  5. ^ "Milan Kundera skips hometown conference on his work", CBC News, 30 May 2009
  6. ^ “Kundera rejects Czech 'informer' tag”, BBC, 13.10.2008
  7. ^ Man, a wide garden: Milan Kundera as a young Stalinist, Jan Čulík, University of Glasgow, 2007, ISSN 16444302 PDF
  8. ^ Good reads Book Description
  9. ^ Contemporary Authors Online, Thomson Gale, 2007[citation needed]
  10. ^ Kundera, Milan (1988-03-06). "Key Words, Problem Words, Words I love". The New York Times. Retrieved 13 November 2010. 
  11. ^ Institute for Studies of Totalitarian Regimes
  12. ^ a b c d e Milan Kundera's denunciation Petr Třešňák, Adam Hradilek. Respekt. Accessed October 18, 2008.
  13. ^ a b Milan Kundera denies spy tip-off claims Bojan Pancevski in Vienna for The Times Online UK October 14, 2008
  14. ^ audio of Kundera denial, in Czech
  15. ^ a b Czech archive rules out Kundera document might be fake ČTK. Retrieved October 14, 2008.
  16. ^ Spy’s wife doubts claims against Kundera France 24. Accessed October 14, 2008.
  17. ^ Rozhovor: Že v tom měl Kundera prsty, vím už 15 let (Czech). internet portal. Accessed October 15, 2008.
  18. ^ a b Another Czech allegedly informed on agent in Kundera 1950 affair ČTK. Accessed October 15, 2008.
  19. ^ (English)['Life is Elsewhere', Postscript, page 310. ISBN 9-780571-149032.
  20. ^ (English)Life is Elsewhere, pp 260-266, Part Five, Chapter 11. ISBN 9-780571-149032.
  21. ^ (English)[ 'The unbearable lightness of being', Milan Kundera, page 221, Part Five, Chapter 15. ISBN 9-780571-135394.
  22. ^ Kundera's case resembles Grass's - Die Welt ČTK. Retrieved October 14, 2008.
  23. ^ Salon Magazine article 17-10-2008 "informing under terror" by Ivan Klíma
  24. ^ Salon Magazine article 21-10-2008 by Václav Havel "Two messages"
  25. ^ Coetzee, JM (2008-11-04). "Support Milan Kundera". London: Retrieved August 23, 2010. 
  26. ^ Sarah Crown (October 13, 2005). "Nobel prize goes to Pinter". London: Guardian.,14969,1591402,00.html. Retrieved May 12, 2010. 
  27. ^
  28. ^ "Czechs "to honour Kundera", the writer they love to hate". Archived from the original on 2007-12-27. 
  29. ^ "Kundera becomes honorary citizen of native city Brno", České Noviny News 8.12.2009
  30. ^ "Milan Kundera and Ognjen Spahic awarded at Days and Nights of Literature Festival", 6.14.2011

External links


Book reviews; interviews

Open letters

  • "Two Messages". Article by Václav Havel in Salon October 2008. Retrieved 2010-09-25
  • "The Flawed Defence" Article by Milan Kundera in Salon November 2008. Retrieved 2010-09-25
  • "Informing und Terror", by Ivan Klíma, about the Kundera controversy Salon October 2008. Retrieved 2010-09-25
  • Leprosy by Jiří Stránský, about the Kundera controversy, Salon October 2008. Retrieved 2010-09-25

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