There have for a while now been two Milan Kunderas, characters so different as to suggest Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. There is Kundera the good European, celebrated as an eminent writer, a defender of freedom of speech, a voice of remembering against the politics of forgetting, and a spokesman for a mythical entity called Central Europe which could yet save the West from decline – if only the Westerners would heed its call to return to their values. If the good Kundera has any blemish, it might be his representations of women – but for every repulsive Helena, Irena or Laura, his defenders will say, you get a fascinating Sabina, Tamina or Agnes, so the man could surely not be a complete misogynist. Then there is the other, darker Kundera, a libertine and philanderer for whom misogyny has not been much of an issue because he has greater sins to hide – at the very least he is viewed with suspicion ‘back home’ as the great mythmaker who made his name on the back of elegant but less than truthful simplifications of the reality of communism, as well as fibs about his own past.
The good Kundera – the best-known twentieth century Czech writer – has been ubiquitous, his work available in many languages. Meanwhile, the darker Kundera – a constant presence on the Czech scene, the Kundera of Laughable Loves and The Joke who later sold out – has mostly skulked in the background, among the people of whom we know nothing, muttering in their incomprehensible Czech. This Kundera-in-hiding might make an occasional appearance in the writing of Western critics, but mostly tonly o be dismissed as a spectre without substance, the creation of those left behind (sometimes also called dissidents) who, filled with envy, cannot but consider the willing and successful emigrant as a traitor to the mother country. Imagine, he even dared to switch his writing language from Czech to French! And he chose not to return home after 1989! The bad faith of these Czech begrudgers would be inferred from their attempts to smear Kundera’s good name with baseless accusations, for example that he was a police informer. (For a dismissal much like this, see Jean-Dominique Brierre’s 2019 biography Milan Kundera, Une vie d’écrivain.)
There has been some limited rapprochement between the two figures thanks to the increased flow of people and information between the West and the former East after 1989. In the West, there have been writers and scholars willing to probe Kundera’s pronouncements and not just accept them uncritically, such as Joan Smith in Misogynies (1993), Michelle Woods in Translating Milan Kundera (2006) or Charles Sabatos in an article about the shifting contents of Kundera’s ‘Central Europe’ (2011). But it is only recently, and on the Czech side, following the publication in 2020 of Jan Novák’s controversial biography (in Czech) of the first half of Kundera’s life (1929-1975), that the two Kunderas have been confronted one with the other. The polemic that ensued made one thing clear: the good Kundera is an idol with feet of clay whose demolition is long overdue.
Novák’s biography should be required reading for everyone interested in Kundera or his work. He has managed to avoid the Stockholm syndrome that so often turns critics and biographers into Kundera’s willing captives, reduced to quoting or paraphrasing the master’s words. Whatever reservations one might have about some of his facts and interpretations, he has assembled an incredible amount of relevant material – from extant secret police files to invaluable testimonies by friends, lovers, colleagues and more casual acquaintances – and skilfully used it to come up with the first even remotely convincing portrait of Kundera, unrivalled in detail and informativeness. Crucially, Novák has succeeded in placing Kundera’s habitual responses to events and topics in the appropriate context, in a way that illuminates the difficult times as well as the author’s choices. There is now a better chance than ever that a new Kundera might emerge: one who is less of an idol, more of a fallible human being; a writer whose words are to be examined (rather than rehearsed) to get a better measure of his ideas and images of humanity.
It is tempting to think that a career as long and productive as Kundera’s would finally assume a distinctive unity. But looking closely at the life and work has the opposite effect: what stands out are various ruptures and intimations of underlying incongruence, from Kundera’s disavowal of most of his early work in poetry and drama to his vacillation over the wording of his later texts, as well as his initial refusal to allow his late, French texts – from La lenteur (1995) to La fête de l’insignifiance (2013) – to be translated into Czech. (The Festival of Insignificance wasn’t published in Czech until 2020, and then in a translation deliberately imitative of Kundera’s by now somewhat dated diction.) The matter is made even more complicated by the fact that most of the works written in Czech – from Life Is Elsewhere (1973) to Immortality (1990) – first became famous in translation before they were widely available in Czech. How could there not be a major discrepancy between Kundera’s reception in the West and ‘back home’? Not only did the Czech readership find itself repeatedly out of sync with the rest of the world, but in addition re-reading Kundera in the new revised Czech editions often feels like being gaslighted by the author. One may look for a passage or a short story remembered from the past but not find it in the more recent, ‘definitive’ edition (in Laughable Loves, The Joke, The Book of Laugher and Forgetting). When one reads Kundera both in Czech and in French or English, one may discover that the Czech text is truncated in comparison with the foreign version (this concerns entire chapters in Testaments Betrayed, The Curtain and The Encounter) or that a short story published in Czech never made it into any translation (originally, there were ten stories in Laughable Loves; only the magic seven are included in the ‘definitive’ editions). When talking of Kundera’s development and significance as a writer, what language, what timeline, what ‘final’ version should one stick to?
Following Novák’s biography, it is easier to see the peculiarities of Kundera’s writing as the result of the author’s attempts to deal with threatening discontinuities. First, there is his tendency to turn to mystification when it comes to self-presentation in the West, on which more later. Second, there is his obsessive need to maintain absolute control over his life as well as work to prevent the discontinuities from erupting. The need for control is palpable not just in Kundera’s defence of his privacy and his habit of issuing instructions to critics on how (not) to read his work but also in his determined ‘erasures’ of past writing, be it private letters, early poetry or inconvenient passages in reissued essays and novels. (This aspect of Kundera’s practice – including his conviction that the rules that apply to others should not apply to him – has been captured well by Václav Bělohradský in his 2006 Czech article ‘Kundera’s dream of absolute authorship’.) The jury is out on whether Kundera was guided in all this by a genuine search for unity – be it the perfect form or the underlying logic of events – or rather steered by a more questionable urge to make the dividing faults disappear.
It is an easy mistake to make to read the narrator’s critique of imagology in Kundera’s Immortality as an expression of the private author’s principled attitude to unscrupulous prying by journalists and the distortions of reality created by media profiting from celebrity culture. But for a good part of his writing life (until the mid-1980s, when he was approaching sixty), Kundera was a smooth operator when it came to presenting himself in the media. He was his own best imagologist, never loth to deftly (mis)lead his interviewers, to fudge the reality of his past in communist Czechoslovakia, to promote himself in his new role as the Central European herald of truth to the West. To get a more accurate sense of both the writer and the man, a new awareness of his often cavalier attitude to facts is required – together with the realisation that the repeated defences of mystification and even outright lying written into his fictions provide a better guide than anything else to his own practice.
So we come to the ‘good Kundera’, still circulating in various media today, from Brierre’s biography to various biographical notices on the internet, and even many of the recent obituaries. This figure is composed of quite a few fibs and outright fictions seeded by Kundera in various essays (such as ‘Le piano de Chopin’, published in Le Monde on January 27th,1984; or Testaments Betrayed) as well as in interviews conducted by others (especially by AJ Liehm in the 1960s, Stewart McBride in 1981, Philip Roth in 1984 and Jason Weiss in 1986). The list is too long to give here, but Novák does an excellent job in pointing them out, from the mystification that Kundera boxed in his youth to the lie that when he was left penniless after losing his job he was forced to do manual labour or play in jazz clubs for money.
Some might claim that these were mere memory lapses or infelicities reflecting the difficulty of translating the communist Czechoslovak reality into Western terms. But Kundera’s obfuscations are not random: there is a discernible drift to them. He presents his communist past as a youthful aberration, mostly in the vaguest of terms, in metaphors and figurative shortcuts such as his favourite image of a dancing ring, or ‘the lyrical delirium’ of Stalinist youth. These metaphors fail to capture what long-term communist loyalties entailed in practice – from sitting in meetings where policies were adopted and people denounced and sacked, to skilful negotiation with censors; from enjoying privileges only granted to prominent communists, such as travel abroad and stays in subsidised writers’ resorts, to receiving exorbitant fees for poetry serving communist propaganda. These loyalties provided the indispensable, material base for Kundera’s writing career and success in the two decades from the late 1940s to the late 1960s – in the 1950s, moreover, at the expense of prohibited (or even imprisoned) poets greater than Kundera. When he declared himself to be a reformist communist in 1967, Kundera was still a fully paid-up member of the communist party and, in his late thirties, hardly an inexperienced youth. Excepting a slip-up in 1950 (a joke about a high-ranking communist functionary made in a letter by a friend of Kundera’s, not Kundera himself), he proved more than capable of negotiating the power structures of the communist system to his advantage for twenty years (and was still trying to do this in the early 1970s until his luck ran out).
It is no wonder that once in the West Kundera tried to minimise his long-term political collaboration, while at the same time inflating the hardships he supposedly suffered under communism to bolster his credibility as a witness. It is even less surprising that his assumption of the role of an influential spokesperson for ‘the East’ must have irked a lot of his Czechoslovak contemporaries, both communist and non-communist – not only because they found his embellishments obvious but because quite a few of them came out of the same scrapes with communist power facing much harsher penalties than him. It is this awareness of Kundera’s opportunistic relationship to truth that explains why so many Czechs (of various generations) did not find it hard to believe in a key affair: that in 1950 Kundera may have gone to the police as an informer.
In 2008 Kundera was accused in the Respekt weekly of having informed on a man called Miroslav Dvořáček (1928-2012). As a direct result, Dvořáček was arrested, tried for desertion, treason and spying and sentenced to twenty-two years in prison (of which he served more than half). The whole story was complex but the general drift of the 2008 article by the historian Adam Hradilek and the journalist Petr Třešňák was clear: Kundera was said to be protective of his privacy because he had this ignominious affair to hide.
In response Kundera claimed not to have received the two fax messages that Hradilek sent him prior to the publication of his article; he also claimed not to have known or to remember any Dvořáček, and to be clueless as to how his name ended up in the police report. In fact, he reacted to the accusation as if it were the product of a devious plot hatched by his long-term enemies to destroy his reputation, possibly to prevent him from being awarded the Nobel Prize. It is a measure of Kundera’s international stature, and a proof of the weight accorded his words in the West, that such luminaries as Márquez, Rushdie, Coetzee, Pamuk, Gordimer and Roth (among others) did not hesitate to publish an open letter in his support. Hradilek, however, stood his ground and later (together with others) published a series of more detailed and scholarly articles on the Dvořáček case.
Having read the relevant articles (Hradilek and Třešňák 2008, Koutská and Žáček 2008, Hradilek and Tichý 2009, Kalous 2009), as well as the recent collection of responses by various Czech writers and intellectuals called The Czech Polemic over Milan Kundera (Český spor o Milana Kunderu, ed Jiří P Kříž, Galén 2021) – half of them agreeing with Hradilek, half defending Kundera – I still find the most plausible explanation of available evidence to be that Kundera did what the original police report says: he went to the police and told them about Dvořáček. One can only speculate how it came about and what Kundera’s motivation might have been; there are certainly more and less charitable ways of interpreting his actions. If Kundera came out of the affair rather badly (which I think he did), it is not so much for having once informed on Dvořáček –as because, even as late as 2008, with nothing to fear or lose anymore and aware that Dvořáček was still alive, Kundera stuck to his preferred course of fibbing and fudging, unable to bring himself to tell the truth, even just to Dvořáček.
The work asks to be accorded a greater importance than its author. What of Kundera’s writing is going to survive? The impressiveness of his fictions and essays lies in the clarity and flow of his language, in the apparent ease and inventiveness with which he sketches a scene or a character, launches into an anecdote, throws off an observation, simplifies a complicated idea and, while doing all of this, manages to give the impression of being in perfect control of his material, both form and content. But this way of writing has its dangers. The style may become an end in itself – superficially dazzling but lacking in depth, density, substance. Kundera’s writing, especially from the 1980s onward, seems to suffer from increasingly sacrificing depth and density of vision to the mere appearance of virtuosity, intellectual brilliance and control. So much so that his final Festival of Insignificance slides into self-parody.
Setting aside Kundera’s poems and plays – whose longer-term survival is unlikely, apart perhaps from Jacques and His Master (1971) – one comes to the early short stories of Laughable Loves (I mean the original ten). These do mostly stand the test of time thanks to their playful inventiveness and psychological insight, however much one might dislike their characters. (Rereading Kundera means rediscovering how unlikeable, if not repulsive, most of his characters, male and female, are – and how overbearing his narrators.) The possible exceptions may be the two stories about the nature of belief (‘Sister of My Sisters’, ‘Eduard and God’). Kundera’s depictions of believers, especially believers in God, verge on facile caricatures, expressive of his hostility toward religion and lacking in deeper insight.
Kundera’s early and largely realistic novels, The Joke (Czech 1967, English 1969) and Life Is Elsewhere (French 1973, English 1974), do retain their power to engage – to fascinate and disgust in equal measure. The Joke is much improved in the ‘definitive’ version, in which Kundera has largely adopted changes first made to the text without his consent in the first British edition (and decried by him then as an unacceptable violation of his authorship). Life is Elsewhere struck me as surprisingly good, but only in Czech. (I found the more recent Aaron Asher English translation so clunky as to be unreadable. Peter Kussi’s original translation from 1974 might be a better one.) The narrative of Jaromil’s short, flawed life – Kundera’s ironic take on the tragic story of a young poet’s unfulfilled ambitions – is animated by dark energies that testify to the author’s deep engagement with the personal and political dilemmas faced by his tragicomic anti-hero.
It’s hard to know what to make of the supposed peak of Kundera’s novelistic achievement, however: The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (French 1979, English 1980), The Unbearable Lightness of Being (French and English 1984) and Immortality (French 1990, English 1991). The three novels (for lack of a better term) seem to me marred by their puppetry (too many implausible characters and episodes), by the overbearing knowingness of the narrative commentary, and by the fact that they are so obviously directed at ‘uninitiated’ readers to whom everything must be explained. And yet these are the works of prose in which Kundera perfected his method of ‘polyphonic’ composition: a brief narrative episode or a dialogue is sketched out first, to be closely followed by a discursive explication that leaves hardly any space for disagreement or alternative interpretation. Occasionally, the order is reversed: first we get the disquisition and then the episode prefigured by it, meant as a fitting illustration of the generalisation. The individual strands of narrative that unfold in this fragmentary, aphoristic manner are ultimately supposed to come together, both contrasting and supplementing one another, in a multivocal, multifocal unity.
To me, however, Kundera’s mature way of writing feels coercive, suggestive primarily of the author’s overwhelming need to control the reader’s response. Dilemmas are typically set out as an either-or argument: Schubert or Schumann? Sentiment or reason? Lyrical poetry or the novel? The meek Goethe or the rebellious Beethoven? Lightness or weight? Beer or wine? True, Kundera sometimes tries to resolve the opposition in a surprising way: first beer, then wine; Goethe and Beethoven on the same side against the politicians etc. But combined with his predilection for overgeneralising (for what ‘all of us’ know, do or have experienced), one feels pushed to unwarranted conclusions and finds oneself looking for ways out. This way of writing also belies Kundera’s contention to be using the novel primarily as a vehicle of playful, decentred experimentation. Rather one is almost always given the impression that profound truths are being revealed by a single, vastly superior intellect; that of a man well-versed in all important areas of Western culture, from music, literature and philosophy to history and politics. The good Kundera is the one who knows (everything).
Critical attempts to save the playful Kundera in his mature works tend to misfire. At least one critic (Jan Čulík) has ingeniously suggested that the appearance of knowingness is a deliberate ploy, a playful illusion. Kundera is said to engage with the reader in a series of mystifications ultimately revealed in that characters and narrators constantly contradict themselves and one another. It is true that the idea of Kundera’s writing as a sustained exercise in mystification grows in plausibility the more one delves into the detail. An in-depth look at Kundera’s use of literary and philosophical references often reveals they do not bear closer scrutiny. Setting aside his superficial forays into philosophy, it is his frequent (mis)use of literary classics that fascinates the most. In Ignorance, Homer’s Odyssey is used to underline the central paradox of one’s ‘great return’ from exile: nobody at home asks about what you experienced while away. Nobody in Ithaca, the narrator tells us, cares to ask Odysseus about his adventures! And yet this is not true of The Odyssey. Penelope is keen to hear all about Odysseus’s struggles and Homer is at pains to stress that she does not fall asleep until Odysseus has finished his story. Clearly, Kundera needs the great classic to prop up his idea of great return but isn’t willing to engage with it when it undermines his idea.
Similarly, when in Immortality Kundera calls Don Quixote (first volume, chapter twenty-five) a prime example of Cervantes’s ridicule of the sentimental, self-centred lover uninterested in his beloved, he is being disingenuous. The chapter contains Don Quixote’s revelation of who his Dulcinea really is as well as an ingenious disquisition on the complex relationship between the ideal and the real. Don Quixote seems far from being a sentimental fool in his intimation that it is love itself that raises its object to the level of an ideal, and not the object’s embodiment of the ideal that necessitates love. That Kundera should elide this idea is not an accident. His own depictions of women entail a refusal to accept just the point Don Quixote is making, that it is love itself that makes the world beautiful, not the beauty of the world that must be demanded as a precondition for love. No wonder Kundera’s male characters and narrators are constantly disappointed by the gross failure of women to embody a demanding ideal of beauty. This failure in turn leads to a justified, indeed inevitable male (and sometimes female) ressentiment of the female body with its blemishes, from wrinkles to gaping mouths and vaginas, and even leaking innards. And when the ugly female body proves to be capable of provoking erotic desire even so, the resulting visions tip into misogyny.
The infamous episode in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (Part III Angels, pars 7 and 9) is a case in point. Kundera’s first-person narrator goes to meet the female magazine editor who has published his writing under a cover, and who is now under investigation by the secret police. Fear has loosened the young woman’s bowels. The narrator imagines her body as a cut-up, hung-up bovine carcass and finds her abject trips to the toilet so erotically arousing as to experience ‘a furious desire to rape her’. The animus behind the description shines through even more clearly when one learns from Novák that the episode is a close fictional rewriting of a real event. Novák managed to track down the editor who published Kundera’s horoscopes in the Mladý svět magazine in 1972, and to identify the only significant difference between the meeting that took place and Kundera’s fictional representation of it: the editor was not a woman, but a man called Petr Prouza. In Kundera’s imagination, however, bodily abjection is a fate worse than death reserved solely for women.
The contradictions that Čulík sees as signs of artful mystification are, moreover, not limited to Kundera’s characters and narrators. They include occasions of him ‘contradicting’ himself, as in the repeated targeting of tearful sentimentality by a writer who relies for effect on touching descriptions of (at least two different) fathers dying, not to mention the heart-rending description of the death of a dog in The Unbearable Lightness. Similarly, in one of his published interviews with Kundera, Philip Roth asks the author point blank if the Tamina-on-the-island-with-children episode in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is an allegory. Kundera first vehemently denies this, only to immediately provide an allegorical reading of his own. Sometimes Kundera’s mystifications prove too inconvenient even for Kundera. This can be seen in the disappearance of two well-known passages from the 2017 Czech edition of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. In the original version, Karel Gott (1939-2019), the greatest star of twentieth century Czech pop music, was decried as ‘the idiot of music’ and made the subject of an anecdote presented by the first-person authorial narrator as fact – which it was not. Was Kundera afraid in 2017 that Gott could sue him for libel? Or was he worried that Gott had by then become such an icon that the original insult would misfire, leading him to self-censorship?
The problem with any interpretation of Kundera as a master of mystification is not that it is untrue but that it threatens to undermine his trustworthiness. The positive reception he has been accorded in the West since the 1970s has stemmed mostly from straight readings of his works as hard-earned, unsparing wisdom figuratively reflecting the author’s exceptional experience (if not fate). Kundera’s ‘autobiographical’ style of narration creates the appearance of authenticity, an implied promise that his words are in earnest and to be trusted. This is why he has achieved the status of an influential political writer and commentator on the paradoxes of communism and other weighty matters, notwithstanding his insistence that to read his novels politically (or historically) is to misunderstand them. But if Kundera was always more of a player and consummate mythmaker than a truthteller or even a sage, where does this leave his serious readers?
Alena Dvořáková is a translator and literary critic from Prague, now based in Dublin. She has translated a number of acclaimed works of literary fiction from English into Czech, including Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree, Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane and Beatlebone, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled and Klara and the Sun, and most recently Don DeLillo’s The Silence. She regularly publishes reviews and essays in the Czech literary review Souvislosti (www.souvislosti.cz).