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Milan Kundera’s last joke His genius has become a victim of history

(Micheline PELLETIER/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

(Micheline PELLETIER/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)


July 13, 2023   6 mins

Milan Kundera had the questionable good fortune to live through what seemed like the historic victory of his defence of the individual against the state ‚ÄĒ only to see his life‚Äôs work become shockingly relevant again before his death on Tuesday aged 94. That Kundera, the most widely read of the second generation of Soviet bloc dissident writers, never won the Nobel Prize for Literature is a stain on an award that has dwindled into irrelevance. It also hints at why Kundera‚Äôs work will continue to be read.

The reasons for the Nobel Committee’s snub, which occurred at the height of the award’s geopolitical if not literary significance, are not hard to fathom. Most obviously, Kundera was never particularly interested in or engaged by politics. Instead, his work was a passionate defence of the right to pursue one’s own individual desires and lusts against bureaucratic maniacs of whatever stripe who wished to colonise individual experience on behalf of the state. To his critics on both the Right and the Left, Kundera’s stance was borderline immoral, not to mention hopelessly bourgeois. While the Left preferred Che and the Right preferred Solzhenitsyn, Kundera insisted on the human right to be left alone.

As alienating as Cold War ideologues found Kundera‚Äôs bourgeois anti-politics, there were also plenty of writers and critics who objected to the qualities of his prose. The intense musicality of his sentences could seem like an artefact of a romantic moment that had passed. His world-class talent for aphorisms could seem similarly dated, a parlour trick that impressed college students on their junior year abroad: “there is no perfection only life” (The Unbearable Lightness of Being); “to laugh is to live profoundly” (The Book of Laughter and Forgetting). He objectified women, in a way that grew increasingly detached from dominant Anglo-Saxon sensibilities. Surely the world had better things to do with its time than to vicariously wallow in the lusts of yet another ageing male writer.

Kundera never saw himself as a political man, as a moralist, a liberal, a conservative, or as an author of texts whose highest destiny was to become movie scripts. He was, quite simply, a novelist. For him, the novel was the highest form of aesthetic endeavour, a kind of anti-scripture representing the sensibility of the individual, containing “an outlook, a wisdom, a position; a position that would rule out identification with any politics, any religion, any ideology, any moral doctrine, any group”. The faith he placed in the novel as a compass that can be used to negotiate life‚Äôs big questions can seem hopelessly antiquated. Yet if you don‚Äôt believe that, why bother to write one?

In choosing to write his later books in French, Kundera pulled off the near-miraculous feat of being expressive in a second or third language at a world-class level, putting him in the company of Vladimir Nabokov. The French returned the favour, honouring Kundera, protecting his privacy, and appreciating his uncompromising defence of the individual aesthetic at a point in history when other Western literary cultures had ceased to take novels quite so seriously. ‚ÄúWe already had novels with a thesis,‚ÄĚ wrote his friend and admirer, the French philosopher Bernard-Henri L√©vy. ‚ÄúWe had so-called ‚Äėcommitted‚Äô novels in which at least one character served as spokesman for the convictions of the author. Kundera‚Äôs response was that a conviction is not novelistic, that it cannot shed the awkwardness (or worse, the vulgarity) of concepts rendered in images unless it is immediately relativized, broken, put on hold.‚ÄĚ

It is both fitting and also a bit frightening that Kundera‚Äôs breakthrough novel, The Joke, published in 1967 in Czech, may be his most accessible ‚ÄĒ and might have a hard time getting published today in London or New York. The novel tells the story of a Prague university student named Ludvik, whose life is destroyed by a single, ill-timed joke poking fun at the progressive politics of a pretty female classmate who ignored him. When Ludvik returns to school after vacation, he is summoned before the school‚Äôs humourless ideological commissars who insist that his words were offensive. When none of his fellow students dares to speak up on his behalf, he is expelled from school.

Sound familiar? Of course it does. And with decades of communist cancel culture under his belt, Kundera can tell us what happens next. Injured and embittered, Ludvik is exiled from the class of successful young urbanites and spends the subsequent decades of his life nursing a furious grudge against those who wronged him, and plotting his revenge.

Harbouring a special contempt for a state official named Zemanek, who actively pushed for Ludvik’s expulsion from university, he returns to Prague and strikes up an affair with Zemanek’s wife. But their tryst fails to yield the compensation that Ludvik hoped for. Instead, it ends with an affable encounter with Zemanek, who appears to have no recollection of their shared history. Ludvik concludes that holding on to bitterness towards the past is futile, and that he must reconcile himself to the idea that he will never right the wrongs he has suffered.

The idea that the act of forgetting binds together both perpetrators and victims in the common pursuit of survival is at once deeply humanistic and at the same time deeply unsatisfying to moralists who prefer heroes who win out and villains who receive a timely come-uppance. But such endings made little sense to people in places such as Czechoslovakia, for whom learning to live with injustice and defeat was a geographical requirement. Kundera followed The Joke with Life is Elsewhere, a brilliant though largely overlooked satirical novel that posited a different type of forgetting through the story of a poet named Jaromil, who escapes his surroundings by devoting himself to poetry.

The twinned necessities and dangers of memory and forgetting would occupy Kundera for the rest of his life. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, published in 1977, was a recognisable masterwork of dissident literature, addressing the forced forgetting of the communist state through seven interlocking stories that brought together historical-political and personal narratives of forgetting in a modernist style with touches of magical realism. What made the book really sing, however, was the combination of these hallmarks of serious world lit with hot, entirely un-Soviet sex scenes, including a long-term ménage à trois and a concluding orgy, which announced the primacy of individual desire over politics in a way that shocked Puritans of both the Right and the Left.

Kundera deepened his exploration of forgetting to Tolstoyan depths in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Published in 1984 in French and set during the 1968 Prague Spring, a philandering surgeon named Tomas is stuck in a love triangle with his wife, Tereza, a dissident photojournalist, and his favourite mistress, a painter named Sabina. Tereza is heavy; Sabina is light, finding release in sex and in the act of betrayal. Sickened by the tightening political noose, the dangers facing Tereza, and the meaningless of his existence, Tomas escapes with her and their dog Karenin to Zurich. When the homesick Tereza leaves Tomas and returns to Prague with Karenin, Tomas is heartbroken, and follows them back home, where they are blacklisted. Moving to the countryside, Tomas abandons both his work and his womanising, and finds love with Tereza. In a touching scene that prefigures the novel’s end, Karenin develops cancer and dies on the operating table, while smiling at her owners’ attempts to save her life.

What was perhaps most shocking to sophisticated readers after the postmodernist playfulness of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting was Kundera’s determination in The Unbearable Lightness of Being to tell a Tolstoyan-existentialist love story without reference to either God or politics. In fact, our lives do have meaning, Kundera insisted, if we choose to make it so. For some, Kundera’s erotic philosophy was compelling. For others, it was a retrograde abandonment of both art and life. Clearly, Kundera himself was compelled by both Tereza and Sabina, which is what gave the novel its force.

There are readers and critics who acclaimed Kundera’s Nineties novels, beginning with Immortality, ostensibly the conclusion of a trilogy composed of his prior two novels, and Slowness, as masterworks. I am not among them. I find them bloated, pompous and self-indulgent. In some sense, I understand Kundera’s genius to have itself become a victim of history. Once the Eastern Bloc crumbled, the author unavoidably lost touch with the driving necessity of making human sense out of the cruel illogic of totalitarian systems of control, which had been replaced by an everlasting peace made out of bourgeois liberal individualism and oodles of Nutella.

Alas. The paradise that staunched Kundera‚Äôs art has proved to be as illusory as the acts of remembering and forgetting can be in his fiction. Luckily, we have Kundera‚Äôs masterworks as guides to the new-old world in which the people of the West increasingly find themselves embracing the unfreedoms of the East, in what is surely one of history‚Äôs greatest jokes ‚ÄĒ a joke that Kundera the novelist would have greeted with liberating irony.


David Samuels is a writer who lives in upstate New York.


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Steve Murray
Steve Murray
10 months ago

Following yesterday’s republishing of an article on Kundera by Howard Jacobson, in which he posited (among other things) that history had left Kundera behind, i commented that perhaps – as can happen with writers/artists – history would swing back. This article seems to suggest something similar.

What this further indicates is that Kundera, if he didn’t have that status before, can now (and it often happens posthumously) be seen as having a universality in his work: by that, i mean an insight into the human condition that stands in any age, amongst any company.

Kundera’s ‘genius’ was to investigate living just beyond the boundaries of the political and belief systems that are pushed at us in order to categorise and to control. The result is often to be misunderstood, perhaps wilfully, since the challenge of living one’s life without being ‘captured’ provides an uncomfortable challenge to others who’ve sought the security of such systems.

Last edited 10 months ago by Steve Murray
Maricruz Gonz√°lez
Maricruz Gonz√°lez
10 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

THE KING IS DEAD, LONG LIVE THE KING! Kundera could never have imagined that after a lifetime of struggle against communism, he would live to feel it back! He surely is in a better place now….

Maricruz Gonz√°lez
Maricruz Gonz√°lez
10 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

THE KING IS DEAD, LONG LIVE THE KING! Kundera could never have imagined that after a lifetime of struggle against communism, he would live to feel it back! He surely is in a better place now….

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
10 months ago

Following yesterday’s republishing of an article on Kundera by Howard Jacobson, in which he posited (among other things) that history had left Kundera behind, i commented that perhaps – as can happen with writers/artists – history would swing back. This article seems to suggest something similar.

What this further indicates is that Kundera, if he didn’t have that status before, can now (and it often happens posthumously) be seen as having a universality in his work: by that, i mean an insight into the human condition that stands in any age, amongst any company.

Kundera’s ‘genius’ was to investigate living just beyond the boundaries of the political and belief systems that are pushed at us in order to categorise and to control. The result is often to be misunderstood, perhaps wilfully, since the challenge of living one’s life without being ‘captured’ provides an uncomfortable challenge to others who’ve sought the security of such systems.

Last edited 10 months ago by Steve Murray
steven ford
steven ford
10 months ago

He joins Graham Greene in my opinion one of greatest novelists of the 20th century in not winning the Nobel prize for literature.

steven ford
steven ford
10 months ago

He joins Graham Greene in my opinion one of greatest novelists of the 20th century in not winning the Nobel prize for literature.

JP Martin
JP Martin
10 months ago

‚ÄúIn choosing to write his later books in French, Kundera pulled off the near-miraculous feat of being expressive in a second or third language at a world-class level, putting him in the company of Vladimir Nabokov.‚ÄĚ
As someone who writes mostly in a second (and sometimes third) language, I find this especially impressive. And it also puts him in the company of the great Joseph Conrad.

JP Martin
JP Martin
10 months ago

‚ÄúIn choosing to write his later books in French, Kundera pulled off the near-miraculous feat of being expressive in a second or third language at a world-class level, putting him in the company of Vladimir Nabokov.‚ÄĚ
As someone who writes mostly in a second (and sometimes third) language, I find this especially impressive. And it also puts him in the company of the great Joseph Conrad.

Alix Daniel
Alix Daniel
10 months ago

Dear David, Thank you for this excellent tribute to Milan Kundera who left us yesterday. As a French young adult, I read The unbearable lightness of Being in the eighties. I just cannot remember what I made of it and I do not have the book in my library. Your mention about Bernard Henry Levy’s attempt to suck the great writer’s literature is probably the reason why I did not pursue reading Kundera. I have to admit that at that very time, I was secretly willing to throw a tart with a lot of cream to the pretentious philosopher, who was simply kidnapping intellectual thinking and writing for his own pretension, vanity and political objectives.
Your words make me willing to read Milan Kundera literature and carry on writing away from politics. Thank you for your contribution
“A conviction is not novelistic” Milan Kundera, a phrase to meditate and not to debate!

Alix Daniel
Alix Daniel
10 months ago

Dear David, Thank you for this excellent tribute to Milan Kundera who left us yesterday. As a French young adult, I read The unbearable lightness of Being in the eighties. I just cannot remember what I made of it and I do not have the book in my library. Your mention about Bernard Henry Levy’s attempt to suck the great writer’s literature is probably the reason why I did not pursue reading Kundera. I have to admit that at that very time, I was secretly willing to throw a tart with a lot of cream to the pretentious philosopher, who was simply kidnapping intellectual thinking and writing for his own pretension, vanity and political objectives.
Your words make me willing to read Milan Kundera literature and carry on writing away from politics. Thank you for your contribution
“A conviction is not novelistic” Milan Kundera, a phrase to meditate and not to debate!

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
10 months ago

‚ÄúLuckily, we have Kundera‚Äôs masterworks as guides to the new-old world in which the people of the West increasingly find themselves embracing the unfreedoms of the East, in what is surely one of history‚Äôs greatest jokes ‚ÄĒ a joke that Kundera the novelist would have greeted with liberating irony.‚ÄĚ

Of course, the tyranny of enforced speech and thought in Czechoslovakia was ultimately enforced by tanks and rifles as demonstrated by the snuffing out of the Prague spring. In our case it is perhaps that too many of us have adopted the unpolitical detachment of Kundera that has enabled the triumph of the apparatchiks of the unfreedom ideologies.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
10 months ago

‚ÄúLuckily, we have Kundera‚Äôs masterworks as guides to the new-old world in which the people of the West increasingly find themselves embracing the unfreedoms of the East, in what is surely one of history‚Äôs greatest jokes ‚ÄĒ a joke that Kundera the novelist would have greeted with liberating irony.‚ÄĚ

Of course, the tyranny of enforced speech and thought in Czechoslovakia was ultimately enforced by tanks and rifles as demonstrated by the snuffing out of the Prague spring. In our case it is perhaps that too many of us have adopted the unpolitical detachment of Kundera that has enabled the triumph of the apparatchiks of the unfreedom ideologies.

Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
10 months ago

An excellent article. Thank you.

Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
10 months ago

An excellent article. Thank you.

Petra Bueskens
Petra Bueskens
10 months ago

Thank you for this wonderful essay David. I read many of Kundera’s novels in the 90s and found this tribute to his literary talent insightful. The trifecta of individuality, privacy and eros nails it. The comparison with Nabokov and latter day censoriousness is also apt. Thank you and vale Milan Kundera.

Last edited 10 months ago by Petra Bueskens
rick stubbs
rick stubbs
10 months ago

IDK but he had a view into his world in CZ land that I found unique at the time. Maybe he saw the light at the end of the Comintern tunnel in the 60s. He was not an ideologue and got out to Paris early. Did he lose something in leaving? A lot I think.

rick stubbs
rick stubbs
10 months ago

IDK but he had a view into his world in CZ land that I found unique at the time. Maybe he saw the light at the end of the Comintern tunnel in the 60s. He was not an ideologue and got out to Paris early. Did he lose something in leaving? A lot I think.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
10 months ago

No serious person would compare Kundera to Vladimir Nabokov. Where do you find these people?

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
10 months ago

No serious person would compare Kundera to Vladimir Nabokov. Where do you find these people?