Milan Kundera

From New World Encyclopedia

Milan Kundera
Milan Kundera redux.jpg
Born April 1 1929(1929-04-01)
Brno, Czechoslovakia
Died July 11 2023 (aged 94)
Paris, France
Occupation Novelist
Nationality Flag of Czech Republic Czech
Citizenship Flag of France French
Influences Giovanni Boccaccio, Rabelais, Laurence Sterne, Fielding, Denis Diderot, Robert Musil, Witold Gombrowicz, Hermann Broch, Franz Kafka, Martin Heidegger, Ludwig van Beethoven, Johann Sebastian Bach

Milan Kundera (IPA: [ˈmɪlan ˈkundɛra]) (April 1, 1929 - July 1, 2023) was a Czech and French writer of Czech origin who 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. He is best known for his combination of erotic comedy and his criticism of the Czech communist regime. In Kundera's work, the erotic, an act of individual intimacy, is a means of opposition to the repressive nature of the regime.

Kundera took part in the Prague Spring of 1968, a period of "socialism with a human face," but after it was crushed by the Soviet invasion, he was fired from his teaching post and removed from the Party. Due to censorship by the Communist government of Czechoslovakia, his books were banned from his native country, and that remained the case until the downfall of this government in the Velvet Revolution in 1989.

Kundera wrote in both Czech and French. He revised the French translations of all his books; these therefore are not considered translations, but original works.


Kundera was born in 1929, into 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, later going on to study musicology and musical composition. Musicological influences and references can be found throughout his work; he even went so far as including notes in the text to make a point.

Kundera belonged to the generation of young Czechs who 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, Kundera joined the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia which seized power in 1948.

Kundera completed his secondary school studies in Brno 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 interference.

In 1950, he and another 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 graduating 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, was 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 Vaclav Havel, counseling everyone to remain calm and claiming 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.

Stripped of Czechoslovak citizenship in 1979, Kundera became a French citizen in 1981. He maintained contact with Czech and Slovak friends in his homeland, but rarely returned and never with any fanfare. He was regranted Czech citizenship in 2019. He saw himself as a French writer and insisted his work should be studied as French literature and classified as such in bookstores.

Kundera died after a prolonged illness, in Paris on July 11, 2023, at the age of 94. He was cremated in Paris on July 19, 2023.


Although his early poetic works are staunchly pro-communist, the denunciation controversy seems to resonate in Kundera's works, which feature informants, angst, moral relativism. It could also help explain his publicity-shy reclusiveness, though other modern authors such as J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon are as (or even more) reclusive.

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

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 how a life lived once may as well have never been lived at all, as there is no possibility for repetition, experiment, and trial and error. In 1988, American director Philip Kaufman released a film version of the novel.

Although the film was considered moderately successful, Kundera was upset about it. He has since forbidden any adaptations of his novels. 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.

Kundera repeatedly insisted on being considered a novelist rather than a political or dissident writer. Political commentary all but disappeared from his novels (starting specifically from The Book of Laughter and Forgetting) 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, is also used by authors Alain de Botton and Adam Thirlwell. Kundera took his inspiration, as he noted often enough, not only from the Renaissance authors Giovanni Boccaccio and Rabelais, but also from Laurence Sterne, Fielding, Denis Diderot, Musil, Witold Gombrowicz, Hermann Broch, Franz Kafka, and Martin Heidegger.

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

Originally, he wrote in Czech. From 1993 onwards, he wrote 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.

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 was more concerned with the words that shape or mold his characters than with the characters' physical appearance. In his non-fiction work, The Art of the Novel, he said that the reader's imagination automatically completes the writer's vision. He, as the writer, wishes to focus on the essential. For him the essential does not include the physical appearance or even the interior world (the psychological world) of his characters.

François Ricard suggested that Kundera's writes with an overall oeuvre in mind, 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 are exile, identity, life beyond the border (beyond love, beyond art, beyond seriousness), history as continual return, and the pleasure of a less "important" life.[1]

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."[2]


On October 13, 2008, the Czech weekly Respekt prominently publicized an investigation carried out by the Czech Institute for Studies of Totalitarian Regimes, which alleged Kundera denounced to the police a young Czech pilot, Miroslav Dvořáček. The accusation was based on a police station report from 1950 which gave "Milan Kundera, student, born 1.4.1929" as the informant.[3] 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. 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. The police report states that Militká told Dlask who told Kundera who told the police of Dvořáček's presence in town. 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) and ended up serving 14 years in communist labor camp, with some of that time spent in a uranium mine, before being released.[4]

After Respekt's report (which itself makes the point that Kundera did not know Dvořáček), Kundera denied turning Dvořáček in to the police,[4] 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. 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.[5] 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.[5]

Dvořáček had a stroke and believed he was betrayed by Iva Militká; his wife said she doubted the "so-called evidence" against Kundera.[6] 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. Two days after the incident became widely publicized, 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."[7] 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 a agent-provocateur.[7] 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.

On November 3, 2008, eleven internationally well-known writers, including four Nobel laureates, came to the defense of Milan Kundera. Among the novelists who supported Kundera, were Salman Rushdie, Philip Roth, Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel García Márquez, J.M. Coetzee, Orhan Pamuk, Jorge Semprun, and Nadine Gordimer.[8]


The asteroid 7390 Kundera, discovered at the Kleť Observatory in 1983, is named in his honor.[9]

In 1985, Kundera received the Jerusalem Prize. His acceptance address is printed in his essay collection The Art of the Novel. It has also been rumored that he was considered for the Nobel Prize for literature.[10] He won the 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.[11]

In 2010, he was made an honorary citizen of his hometown, Brno.[12]

In 2011, he received the Ovid Prize.[13] In 2020, he was awarded the Franz Kafka Prize, a Czech literary award.[14]

Major works


  • Man: A Wide Garden (Člověk zahrada širá) (1953)
  • The Last May (Poslední máj) (1961)—celebration of Julius Fučík
  • Monologues (Monology) (1965)


  • About the Disputes of Inheritance (1955)
  • The Art of the Novel: Vladislav Vancura's Path to the Great Epic (Umění románu: Cesta Vladislava Vančury za velkou epikou) (1960)
  • The Czech Deal (Český úděl) (1968)
  • Radicalism and Exhibitionism (Radikalismus a exhibicionismus) (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 des roses (rare book in French, illustrated by Ernest Breleur) (1993)
  • The Curtain (Le Rideau) (2005)
  • Kastrující stín svatého Garty (Czech translation of part of Les testaments trahis) (2006)


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


  • The Joke (Žert) (1967)
  • Laughable Loves (Směšné lásky) (1969)
  • The Farewell Waltz (Valčík na rozloučenou) (Original translation title: The Farewell Party) (1972)
  • Life Is Elsewhere (Život je jinde) (1973)
  • The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (Kniha smíchu a zapomnění) (1978)
  • The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Nesnesitelná lehkost bytí) (1984)
  • Immortality (Nesmrtelnost) (1990)
  • Slowness (La Lenteur) (1993)
  • Identity (L'Identité) (1998)
  • Ignorance (L'Ignorance) (2000)


  1. Francois Ricard, Agnès's Final Afternoon: An Essay on the Work of Milan Kundera (Harper Collins, 2003, ISBN 9780060005641).
  2. Contemporary Authors Online, Thomson Gale, 2007.
  3. Adam Hradilek, Milan Kundera's denunciation Respekt (October 13, 2008). Retrieved July 25, 2023.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Bojan Pancevski, Milan Kundera denies spy tip-off claims The Times (October 14, 2008). Retrieved July 25, 2023.
  5. 5.0 5.1 "Czech archive rules out Kundera document might be fake." CTK.
  6. Spy’s wife doubts claims against Kundera France 24 (October 14, 2008). Retrieved July 25, 2023.
  7. 7.0 7.1 "Another Czech allegedly informed on agent in Kundera 1950 affair." CTK.
  8. J.M. Coetzee, Support Milan Kundera The Guardian (November 4, 2008). Retrieved July 19, 2023.
  9. Lutz D. Schmadel, Dictionary of Minor Planet Names (Springer, 2016, ISBN 978-3662517352).
  10. Sarah Crown, Nobel prize goes to Pinter The Guardian (October 13, 2005). Retrieved July 25, 2023.
  11. Czechs "to honour Kundera", the writer they love to hate EUX.TV (October 17, 2007). Retrieved July 25, 2023.
  12. Sian Cain, Kundera becomes honorary citizen of native city Brno The Guardian (December 3, 2019). Retrieved July 25, 2023.
  13. Milan Kundera and Ognjen Spahic awarded at Days and Nights of Literature Festival Nine O'Clock (June 14, 2011). Retrieved July 25, 2023.
  14. Alison Flood, Milan Kundera 'joyfully' accepts Czech Republic's Franz Kafka prize The Guardian (September 22, 2020). Retrieved July 25, 2023.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Jackson, W.T.H., George Stade, and Jacques Barzun. European Writers. Scribners, 1983. ISBN 9780684165943
  • Magill, Frank. Cyclopedia of World Authors II. Salem Press, 1989. ISBN 9780893565121
  • Ricard, Francois. Agnès's Final Afternoon: An Essay on the Work of Milan Kundera. Harper Collins, 2003. ISBN 9780060005641
  • Schmadel, Lutz D. Dictionary of Minor Planet Names. Springer, 2016. ISBN 978-3662517352

External links

All links retrieved July 25, 2023.


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