His "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" brought the Prague Spring to life for international readers. But the writer who went into exile in Paris in 1975 wants to be remembered as a French writer.
Milan Kundera's novels delve deeply into the thoughts, feelings and beliefs of the individual. But his books also often portray relationships, and not only between two people. In his masterpiece, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kundera tells the story of a love triangle against the backdrop of the Prague Spring. The epic turned Kundera into an international literary star when it was published in 1984.
By then, the dissident Czech novelist had been living in exile in Paris for almost a decade. His books had been banned in Czechoslovakia, and since the Soviet-backed government deprived him of citizenship in 1978, he has remained the country's most famous exiled writer. Even after the Velvet Revolution, the fall of the Iron Curtain and the creation of the Czech Republic, the writer has not returned to live in his homeland.
He apparently has never complained about his fate. "There is no such dream of a return," he once said in an interview with German weekly Die Zeit. "I took my Prague; the smell, the taste, the language, the landscape, the culture."
Kundera's novels started to be published in the Czech language from the 1990s, but The Unbearable Lightness of Being was not released in his native land until 2006. Meanwhile, the reclusive Kundera has shunned the literary limelight and only gives written interviews, of which there have been very few.
Milan Kundera was not only influenced by Czech culture, but even more by coming into his own as a writer during socialism. As a high school graduate, he enthusiastically joined the Communist Party in 1948; two years later, he was expelled because of "hostile thinking and individualistic tendencies." This had consequences: Kundera had to break off his studies at the Film Academy, where he studied music and literature and had only just begun.
He made his debut as a writer in 1953 with the poetry collection Man: A Wide Garden. In it, he dealt with socialist realism, albeit from a Communist perspective. He later re-joined the Communist Party — and was once again expelled. It was a difficult relationship.
The "individualistic tendencies" that the CP accused him of when he was expelled for the first time became a sticking point in the 1960s. Kundera wrote humorous stories and in 1967 his first novel, The Joke, was published.
Following the violent suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968, which he spoke out against, the author became a persona non grata. As an advocate of reform communism, he was expelled from the Association of Writers in 1969 and again from the party in 1970; his teaching activities at the Film Academy were suspended, his plays were removed from the repertoire, his publications banned and his books were removed from book stores for sale.
Kundera continued to write in spite of the censors. He reckoned with his communist past in Life is Elsewhere (1973) and in The Farewell Waltz (1972 original title, The Farewell Party). The author knew that these works would not be published in Czechoslovakia. Instead, they debuted in France, the country which offered him refuge in 1975 and a teaching assignment in Rennes and later in Paris.
From his life in exile, Kundera continued to push his literary themes, further using a Czechoslovak backdrop for his works. As he had already been expelled from the country when The Book of Laughter and Forgetting appeared in 1978, the socialist leadership in his homeland was left only with the possibility of revoking the writer's citizenship.
In 1984, Kundera published The Unbearable Lightness of Being; the book landed on best-seller lists worldwide and made Kundera a star. The novel was later adapted into a successful movie, with Juliette Binoche and Daniel Day Lewis in the leading roles.
It was the right book at the right time. Although his later works like Immortality (1990) also found attention, their success was not as great. Some literary critics considered these novels too philosophical and essayistic; others praised the author as a pioneering moralist, a critic of Western European civilization and postmodernism.
Once again, socialism caught up with the writer in 2008 when the accusation was lobbed that Kundera had betrayed an opposition member in 1950, who then disappeared for several years in a labor camp. A Czech secret police protocol allegedly provided proof.
But was it really Kundera who made this statement? Or had someone else impersonated Milan Kundera? "I'm completely surprised by something I didn't expect, something I didn't even know about yesterday, something that didn't happen," the writer told a Czech news agency. In fact, his signature is missing under the document.
Kundera no longer comments on his past. He travels to the Czech Republic incognito — something he had already done before he was accused of treason. As an act of reconciliation, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis recently offered him Czech citizenship again. So far Kundera has not provided comment on the offer.
The novelist's late work
Finally, in 2014, after a decade-long break, Kundera published a new novel, The Festival of Insignificance. In it, four men stroll through Paris, telling — in the well-known humorous and tragic Kundera style — about personal obstacles. The long-awaited book was a hit throughout Europe, although critics were divided. Some praised the novel as a "masterpiece," while others spoke of a "cramped work of old age." The novel could prove the author's last work, as he celebrates his 90th birthday on April 1, 2019.