Milan Kundera

Milan Kundera (1929-Present) is a Czech writer who has published novels, poems, plays, and nonfiction works. Best known for his book, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), Kundera's works blend deep philosophical concepts with musical and accessible prose.

Milan Kundera Milan Kundera

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Table of contents

    Milan Kundera: Biography

    Here is a look at the life and times of the Czech writer Milan Kundera.

    Early life and education

    Milan Kundera was born on April 1st, 1929, in Brno, Czechoslovakia's second city. He grew up in a middle-class family of performing artists and musicologists. His father was a pianist and head of the illustrious Janáček Academy of Music and Performing Arts. Kundera studied music and learned to play piano at an early age. This exposure would have a formative impact on his writing style.

    Kunder is famously private; to avoid being misquoted, he has only given written interviews since 1985.

    In high school, Kundera made early attempts at poetry and showed an interest in film and acting. Kundera reached adolescence during WWII and the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. The tumultuous period was followed by a postwar boom in Communism. Many young artists and intellectuals in Eastern Europe became attracted to the movement, including Kundera, who joined the party in 1948.

    Milan Kundera, Prague, StudySmarterPrague, the Czech capital, had a formative impact on Kundera. Pixabay

    After working briefly as a jazz musician, Kundera enrolled at Charles University in Prague to study literature and aesthetics. He soon switched his focus to film studies and began to work on scripts and screenplays. In 1950 Kundera was expelled from the Communist party for displaying individualistic proclivities. He graduated in 1952 and became a lecturer in literature at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague.

    Teaching and early works

    Throughout the 1950s, Kundera used his spare time to write poetry, plays, and film scripts. He was an editorial staff member at the literary magazines Listy and Literarni Noviny. Kundera also worked as a translator and published several collections of poetry during the period. The Communist party allowed Kundera to rejoin in 1956, but the writer had grown suspicious of the movement's totalitarian leanings.

    Kundera wants his work to be considered part of the French literary canon. Until 2021, he refused to have his later books translated into Czech.

    In 1958 he began to publish a series of short stories about tragic romances and later published the series as Laughable Loves (1969). The collection displayed Kundera's ability to mix serious issues with humor. As the political situation in Czechoslovakia grew increasingly tense, Kundera published his first novel, The Joke (1967). Drawing on his expulsion from the Communist party, Kundera uses the story to criticize the tyranny of Stalinism.

    Milan Kundera, Soviet Invasion, StudySmarterThe Soviet Invasion in 1968 introduced a brutal and harsh Communist regime. Pixabay

    In 1968, the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia and installed a Communist government. Kundera joined a group of intellectuals and artists known as the "Prague Spring" movement, which attempted to secure some democratic elements of government. The campaign failed, and Kundera was stripped of his teaching position. In 1970 the Communist regime banned Kundera's books and expelled him from the party.

    Exile and success

    Kundera continued to write, and several of his works were published in France during the early 1970s. In 1975 he was invited to teach at the University of Rennes. Free from repression or censorship, Kundera worked on a collection of narratives that became The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1979). The novel considers the concept of forgetting concerning history and politics.

    Milan Kundera, Censorship, StudySmarterThe Communist regime limited Kundera's intellectual and artistic freedoms. Pixabay

    The Communist regime viewed the novel as an attack on party values and revoked Kundera's Czech citizenship in 1979. Unable to return to his home country, Kundera became a permanent resident in France and gained citizenship in 1981.

    The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984) established Kundera as an essential literary voice on the global stage. Set during the Soviet invasion of Prague in 1968, the novel tells the story of four people who struggle to find meaning in life.

    The Unbearable Lightness of Being was an international hit for Kundera, generating both critical and commercial success for the writer.

    Later career

    In 1988 Kundera published The Art of the Novel, a nonfiction book exploring the creative process and authors' approach to writing. He continued to use his works to tackle critical social issues. In his 1990 novel, Immortality, the writer critiques modernity and society's fascination with individualism. This would be the author's last work to be written in his native Czech language; he now writes exclusively in French.

    In 2008 Milan Kundera found himself embroiled in controversy when the Czech magazine Respekt accused the author of having collaborated with the Communist secret police in 1950. The magazine published a police report which claimed that Kundera had informed on a secret agent named Miroslav Dvořáček.

    Dvořáček had fled Czechoslovakia in 1948 after a brief Communist uprising in the country. Dvořáček returned to his home country several years later as part of a US Intelligence operation to monitor Communist forces. During an undercover visit to Prague, the police discovered his whereabouts and arrested him.

    Dvořáček was initially sentenced to death, later reduced to 22 years of hard labor. He served 14 years at a uranium mine and later became a hero of the Czech resistance. Milan Kundera vehemently denied the charges, but many Czech critics, already upset at the writer's decision to stay in France after the fall of the Soviet Union, used the accusations to attack the author publically.

    Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Kundera published mainly nonfiction essays and analytical works. Having shunned the spotlight for most of his career, Kundera lives a quiet life in Pairs with his wife, Vera Hrabankova. In 2020 he returned to his home country to receive the prestigious Franz Kafka Prize for his literary achievements.

    Milan Kundera: Books

    Since publishing his first works in the 1950s, Kundera has continued working in various styles and genres. He has produced a dozen novels, several short story collections, poems, and many nonfiction works. Here is a look at his most important books.

    The Joke (1967)

    Ludvik Jahn is a man who enjoys sarcastic humor. When Ludvik's girlfriend writes to him from a Communist summer camp, he responds with a letter that contains a joke which pokes fun at the powerful regime. The party finds Ludvik's letter and kicks him out of university for disloyalty. The book follows Ludvik's journey into adulthood as he struggles to shake off the shadow of a simple joke.

    Kundera's cutting satire of the repressive Communist regime was critically acclaimed and politically controversial. The Czech literary scene was divided between those who appreciated Kundera's satire and those who thought it dangerously subversive. After the novel was published, the regime forbade Kundera from leaving the country without permission and banned a subsequent film adaptation.

    The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984)

    Set against the Soviet Invasion of Prague in 1968, The Unbearable Lightness of Being follows four characters as they struggle to create meaning in life. Tomas is a successful surgeon and serial womanizer who falls for a waitress named Tereza. When Tomas publishes an anti-Communist article, the couple is forced to flee Prague. Tomas' mistress, Sabrina, enjoys a carefree life as an artist and inspires a stuffy professor named Franz to embrace a new way of living.

    Kundera's most famous novel displays the writer's ability to blend complex philosophical ideas with musical prose. The book contains highly experimental techniques, including a non-linear narrative and an unreliable narrator, yet remains highly accessible. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kundera uses his characters to embody more significant philosophical debates and important questions.

    Milan Kundera: Philosophy

    Milan Kundera's highly distinctive style is marked by the author's ability to explore complex philosophical concepts in his novels. One of the most important concepts is existentialism.

    Existentialism is a philosophical model which posits that humans create meaning through their unique lived experiences. Existentialists reject any sense of purpose proposed by systems like family, religion, or identity. Thinkers like Jean-Paul Sartre argued that the meaning of life comes from a person's choices and free will.

    Kundera's works often deal with characters struggling to create their sense of meaning and purpose in life. His protagonists are often unsatisfied with political and religious narratives and attempt to forge their understanding of what it means to live their lives. This struggle to create meaning reoccurs throughout Kundera's works as the writer argues that the act of creation and writing forms his philosophy.

    In Milan Kundera's most famous work, The Unbearable Lightness Of Being, the author deals with several important philosophical concepts. The novel's title comes from the idea of eternal recurrence, first advanced by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900).

    Eternal recurrence, or eternal return, is a thought experiment that posits that time repeats in an infinite loop rather than a linear straight line. Nietzche ponders the repercussions of eternal recurrence where the individual is forced to relive their every mistake innumerable times, empowering even the most insignificant acts with the weight of massive importance.

    In the novel, Kundera embodies this approach to living through several characters. As these characters try to build a fulfilling life, they are crushed by the idea that they can never be good enough or make a sizeable impact on the world. In contrast, Kundera presents the concept of lightness taken from the 5th century BCE Greek philosopher Parmenides. While Nietzsche fretted about the weight of eternal recurrence, Parmenides argued it was better to view life's events as occurring only once, which frees people from the burden of infinite responsibility.

    Milan Kundera: Writing style and technique

    Kundera is a postmodernist writer who employs many characteristics of the literary genre throughout his works.

    Postmodernism is a literary genre that favors experimental techniques over the standard practices of literature. Postmodern works often feature unreliable narrators and non-linear narrative models or make the reader aware of the book's fictional nature. Writers use the genre and its techniques to challenge the traditional relationship between writer and reader.

    While the narrator traditionally tells the reader the story as if the events happened, Kundera often addresses the reader directly and reminds them that the events and characters of his novels are fictional. He sometimes judges the character's actions and will stop the novel's plot from analyzing their motivations. By repeatedly breaking the fourth wall, Kundera makes a statement about the unreliability of writing and communication.

    Kundera's writing style also significantly impacted his time living under the repressive Communist regime in Czechoslovakia. While some of his early works are explicitly pro-Communist, his view changed as the writer became increasingly critical of the party's censorship and repression of artists. He used many of his later works to point out the problems of totalitarianism and reject all political ideologies.

    The political scene in Kundera's home country often provides a backdrop to his novels, but the writer has stated he is an apolitical artist. As the Soviet Union repressed Kundera's writings, the West greeted them warmly as anti-Communist writings. In his nonfiction works The Art of the Novel (1986) and Testaments Betrayed (1993), the writer argues for the artist's right to free expression.

    Growing up in a musical family influenced Kundera's writing style and technique. The writer has stated that his novels are structured in a musical format; each chapter has a different length, mood, and pacing to build a sense of time. He uses repetition to refer to overarching themes and motifs like a classic performer uses signature melodies. Music is a significant theme in Kundera's novels, especially concerning identity and collective memory.

    Milan Kundera: Quotes

    During a seven-decade career, Milan Kundera has used his works to tackle philosophical theories and the realities of living under Communism. As a writer, he has developed a distinctive style that breaks many traditional writing rules. Here is a look at some of the author's important quotes.

    The chapters are like the measures of a musical score! There are parts where the measures (chapters) are long, others where they are short, still others where they are of irregular length. Each part could have a musical tempo indication: moderato, presto, andante, et cetera." 1

    Growing up in a musical family, Kundera was greatly influenced by the structure and pacing of classical music. His prose reflects his upbringing as his novels often contain repetition and recurring phrases. As a young man, Kundera played piano at a jazz bar in Prague; this free-form, experimental music also influenced his writing style.

    "We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come." - The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Part one, ch.3)

    In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kundera displays his ability to combine complex ideas with simple, accessible prose. Throughout the novel, Kundera is the narrator, reminding the reader that the characters are figments of his imagination. By continually breaking the fourth wall, the author can question the limitations of the traditional reader-writer relationship.

    Milan Kundera - Key takeaways

    • Milan Kundera is a Czech writer who has written books, plays, poems, and nonfiction works.
    • As a young man, he was deeply influenced by Communism but later became an outspoken critic of the Czech Communist government.
    • After publishing several works which satirized Communism, Kundera was stripped of his Czech citizenship in 1979.
    • Kundera's most famous work is The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The novel deals with philosophical concepts and love.
    • Since his expulsion from Czechoslovakia, Kundera has lived in France and writes exclusively in French.

    1 Interview in Paris Review, Issue 92, 1984.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Milan Kundera

    What did Milan Kundera do?

    Milan Kundera is a writer who was openly critical of the Communists regime in Czechoslovakia. His most famous book is The Unbearable Lightness of Being. 

    How old is Milan Kundera?

    Milan Kundera is currently 93 years old. 

    Who is Milan Kundera?

    Milan Kundera is a Czech writer most famous for his philosophical novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

    Where is Milan Kundera from?

    Milan Kundera is from Czechoslovakia. 

    Is Milan Kundera alive?

    Yes, Milan Kundera is still alive. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    The Unbearable Lightness of Being is an example of _________ fiction. 

    The Unbearable Lightness of Being explores the philosophical concept of which German thinker? 

    In which Eastern European country is The Unbearable Lightness of Being set? 


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