Kundera, Milan (Writer)

(1929- ) novelist

Milan Kundera was born on April 1 in Brno, Moravia. The son of a concert pianist and musicologist, Kundera studied music and was a jazz musician in his youth. He soon turned to writing, publishing his first volume of poetry, Clovek Zahrada Sira (Man: A Broad Garden) in 1953. This work, as well as two later poetry collections— Posledm Maj (The Last May, 1955) and Monology (Monologues, 1957)—were condemned by Czechoslovakian officials because of their ironic tone and erotic imagery. Kundera has repeatedly denied any political motivation behind his works.

Kundera was a Communist Party member twice, from 1948 to 1950 and from 1956 to 1968. Both times, he was expelled from the party for his supposedly unorthodox or anticommunist opinions. During this time, he also studied and taught in the Film Faculty of Prague’s Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts. His political entanglements and disagreements with the Communist Party, however, ultimately led to the threat of a loss of his employment. Kundera was involved in the liberalization of Czechoslovakia in 1967 to 1968. After the Soviet occupation, he was attacked by the authorities for his liberal beliefs and ousted once again. In 1969, he was fired from his job, and his works were banned from legal publication in Czechoslovakia.

Kundera is best known internationally for his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), which was made into a film of the same name in 1988 by American film director Philip Kauffman. The novel tells the story of four relationships. It primarily focuses on the character of Thomas, a man torn between loving his wife and sustaining his erotic adventures and extramarital affairs. At the beginning of the novel, Kundera asks, “What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?” The lives of these characters are shaped not only by the choices they make but also by the desires and demands of society and history; thus, Kundera looks at the ways in which history and choice shape life and identity.

Kundera is a prolific writer. In his early career, several volumes of short stories, as well as a successful one-act play, The Owners of the Keys (1962), were followed by the publication of his first novel, The Joke (1967; translated 1982). This comedic work takes an ironic look at the private lives of various people in Czechoslovakia during the years of Stalinism. It has been translated into numerous languages and has achieved international acclaim. This was followed by a second novel, Life Is Elsewhere (1969; translated 1974), about a hopeless romantic who embraces the 1948 Communist takeover. This novel was banned immediately from Czech publication. Kundera’s subsequent novels, including The Farewell Party (1976), The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1979; translated 1980), and The Unbearable Lightness ofBeingwere banned in Czechoslovakia but were published in France and other countries. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting was among his most successful novels, perhaps because it pointed to one of the harsher truths of Kundera’s homeland: humankind’s propensity to deny or erase historical truths.

In a collection of essays titled The Art of the Novel (1988), Kundera writes that a novel must be “autonomous,” that it should be created independently of any political belief system. In 1975, in response to the suppression of his work, Kundera was allowed to emigrate to France. He took a teaching post at the University of Rennes, where he remained on the faculty until 1978. In 1979, the Czech government revoked his citizenship. Kun-dera continues to write works that are humorous yet skeptical and pessimistic in their depictions of humanity, whether under Communist rule or elsewhere.

Other Works by Milan Kundera

Identity. Translated by Linda Asher. New York: Harper Flamingo, 1998.

Slowness. Translated by Linda Asher. Boston: Faber and Faber, 1996.

Testaments Betrayed. Translated by Linda Asher. Boston: Faber and Faber, 1996.

Works about Milan Kundera

Misurella, Fred. Understanding Milan Kundera: Public Events, Private Affairs. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993.

Petro, Peter, ed. Critical Essays on Milan Kundera. New York: G. K. Hall, 1999.

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