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Milan Kundera (b. 1929)


Czech-French novelist, essayist, dramatist and poet, one of the major writers of the late 20th century. Milan Kundera's most famous work is The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), which was also made into a successful movie. Kundera has brought the novel toward philosophy and incorporated essayistic elements into his writing, creating his own concept of the novel as "a feast of many courses."

"Conversely, the absolute absence of a burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into the heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant." (from The Unbearable Lightness of Being)

Milan Kundera was born in Brno, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic) into a cultured family. His father, Ludvik Kundera, was a pianist and musicologist. Kundera was educated at Charles University and at the Film Faculty of the Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts in Prague. Before becoming ïn 1958 an assistant professor of literature at the Institute for Advanced Cinematographic Studies in Prague, he worked as a manual laborer and as a jazz pianist. His students included Milos Forman and other creators of the Czech New Wave film movement.

Kundera joined the Communist Party for the first time in 1948, the year of the communist takeover. He was dispelled in 1950 after criticizing its totalitarian nature, but in the same year, according to a document found in 2008, he informed on Miroslav Dvoracek, a former pilot and purported Western spy, who was later imprisoned for 14 years. Kundera has rejected the charge. "Communism enthralled me in much the way Stravinsky, Picasso and Surrealism had," Kundera once said. In 1956, his membership was reinstated, continuing until 1970.

Until the age of 25, Kundera was more drawn to music than to literature. His first volume of poetry, Člověk zahrada širá, came out in 1953. Posledni máj (1955) had a positive hero, the Communist militant and writer Julius Fucik, who was executed by the Nazis. These works were praised by the official cultural establishment. Although Kundera's plays were less known in the West, they were highly regarded in his homeland. The Keepers of the Keys (1962), set in a provincial town during the German occupation, has been called one of the most important plays of the post-Stalinist period.

In the 1960s, Kundera grew increasingly uneasy with the policy concerning censorship. His three series of short stories, Laughable Loves (1963-69), which dealt with the themes of love, sex, and self-deception, focused on individual characteristics without attacking directly the system itself. In his review of the book Paul Theroux noted, that a "writer who keeps his sanity long enough to ridicule his oppressors, who has enough hope left to make this ridicule into satire, must be congratulated." (The New York Times, July 28, 1974)

Kundera was a member of the editorial board of Literární noviny (1956-59, 1963-68) and Literání listy (1968-69), a mouthpiece of the Prague Spring. The Joke (1967) was about how reality takes its revenge on those who play with it. Published on the eve of Prague Spring, when the grip of Stalinism weakened for a period, the novel was his first and most overtly political.

From The Joke onwards, Kundera's writing became more experimental. After the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, he was one of the authors, whose books were removed from libraries and banned from legal publication. In 1969, Kundera was fired from his teaching post. Valčík na rozloučenou was first circulated in a samizdat edition in 1970 under the title Epilog. With some changes it was first published in France as La valse aux adieux. A Czech edition, published by Sixty-Eight Publishers, came out in 1979 with further changes. The publishing house, based in Canada, was owned by fellow Czech writer and émigre Josef Škvorecký. The novel was first translated into English by Peter Kussi as Farewell Party and retranslated in 1998 from French by Aaron Asher as  Farewell  Waltz.

"The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting." (from The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, 1979)

Since 1975, Kundera has lived in France with his wife, Vera Hrabánková, a musician and composer. Kundera's first post-exile novel was The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1979), written in Czech between 1976-78. It has no linear narrative; its structure resembles variations upon a musical theme. Kundera juxtaposes the laughter of angels with the laughter of the devil; the angels express their joy of being, whereas the laughter of the devil is destructive, it proclaimes meaningless. In his afterword Kundera argued that "evil is already present in the beautiful, hell is already contained in the dream of paradise and if we wish to understand the essence of hell we must examine the essence of the paradise from which it originated." 

In 1981, two years after the Czech government deprived him of his citizenship, Kundera became a French citizen. From 1975 to 1980 Kundera worked as a professor of comparative literature at the University of Rennes. In 1980 he was appointed professor at École des Hautes Études, Paris. Kundera's many awards include the Writers House prize (1961, 1969), Klement Lukes prize (1963), Czechoslovak Writers' Union prize (1968), Médicis Prize (1973), Mondello prize (1978), Commonwealth award (1984), Europa prize (1982), Los Angeles Times award (1984), Jerusalem prize (1984), Académie Française Critics prize (1987), Nelly Sachs prize (1987), Osterrichischeve state prize (1987), Independent award for foreign fiction (1991).

Kundera made his international breakthrough with The Unbearable Lightness of Being, set in 1968 Czechoslovakia, just prior to the Soviet occupation. The protagonist in the story of four relationships is a Prague surgeon Thomas, who is trapped between love and freedom, politics and eroticism. At the beginning of the novel Kundera refers to the myth of eternal return - a "life which disappears once and for all, which does not return, is like a shadow, without weight, dead in advance". But if everything recurs in the same manner ad indefinitum "the weight of unbearable responsibility lies heavy on every move we make." Kundera asks, which one is more preferable of the opposing poles, weight or lightness? Milan Jungmann stated in his essay Kunderian Paradoxes (1988) that the work was written with the intention of becoming a Western bestseller novel because of the erotic content and the simplification of Czech history. Feminist critics have noted that Kundera's female characters are either Madonnas or whores, though the character of the licentious woman is pervasive.

Life is Elsewhere (1973), Kundera's second novel which was immediately banned in Czechoslovakia, won the prestigious Médicis Prize. The original Czech text was published in 1979 by the émigré press run by Josef Škvorecký, Kundera's friend, who had settled in Canada in 1969. Again, the central theme is misunderstanding of reality. In the story a young Communist poet, Jaromir, who is dominated by his mother, becomes the elated servant of a Stalinist regime, and dies a meaningless death. Despite political readings of his work, Kundera has refused the label of "dissident writer" and emphasized the autonomy of art from all political ideologies. "If you cannot view the art that comes to you from Prague, Budapest, or Warsaw in any other way than by means of this wretched political code," Kundera once said, "you murder it, no less brutally that the worst of the Stalinist dogmatists."

Kundera has defined the novel as a "poetic meditation on existence." Like Robert Musil (1880-1942), Kundera uses the genre as a vehicle for reflections on the essence of the European culture. Kundera has considered Immortality (1990), which portrays such figures as Goethe and Hemingway, his most accomplished version of the "novel as a debate". Noteworthy, the architecture - or "polyphonic composition" in which the coherence of the work is achieved through thematic unity - of his early novels is mostly based on the number seven. Also Kundera's widely translated collection of essays, L'Art du roman (1987, The Art of the Novel), was divided into seven parts, as well as the essay novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. L'Art du roman was his first book written entirely in French.

Dissatisfied with the work of translators, Kundera revised between 1985 and 1987 the French translations of all his Czech novels and declared them to be the authentic version of his boy of work. "Translation is my nightmare," he  once said, "I've lived horrors because of it." Kundera has been criticized for rewriting the translations and deliberately altering them. Ignorance, about memory and forgetting, was first published in Spanish in 2000. The homecoming of two Czech émigrés, Josef and Irena, parallels to the story of Odysseus, but with a melancholic aftertaste.

For further reading: Milan Kundera: A Voice from Central Europe by Robert Porter (1981); Terminal Paradox: The Novels of Milan Kundera by Maria Nencová Banerjee (1991); Understanding Milan Kundera: Public Events, Private Affairs by Fred Misurella (1993); Milan Kundera and Feminism: Dangerous Intersections by John O'Brien (1995); Critical Essays on Milan Kundera, ed. by Peter Petro (1999); The Art of Memory in Exile: Vladimir Nabokov & Milan Kundera by Hana Pichova (2001); Milan Kundera, edited by Harold Bloom (2003); Translating Milan Kundera by Michelle Woods (2006); The Book of Imitation and Desire: Reading Milan Kundera with René Girard by Trevor Cribben Merrill (2013) 

Selected works:

  • Člověk zahrada širá, 1953
  • Poslední máj, 1955
  • Monology, 1957
  • Umění románu; cesta vladislava Vančury za velkou epikou, 1960
  • Majitelé klíčů; hra o jednom dějství se čtyřmi vizemi, 1962 (play)
  • Směšné lásky; tři melancholické anekdoty, 1963-69 (3 vols.)
    - Laughable Loves (translated from the Czech by Suzanne Rappaport, 1974)
    - Naurettavien rakkauksien kirja (suom. Kirsti Siraste, 1988)
  • Žert, 1967
    - The Joke (translated by David Hamblyn and Oliver Stallybrass, 1969; from the Czech by Michael Henry Heim, 1982; fully rev. ed. by the author, 1992)
    - Tšekkiläinen pila (suom. Maire Uusitalo, 1974) / Pila (suom. Maire Uusitalo, 2003)
  • Dvě uši dvě svatby, 1968 (play)
    - film 1969, dir. by Jaromil Jires, starring Josef Somr, Jana Dítetová, Ludek Munzar
  • Třetí sešit směšných lásek, 1968
  • Já Truchlivý Buh, 1969
  • Ptákovina, 1969 (play)
  • La Vie est ailleurs, 1973 (Život je jinde; translated from the Czech by François Kérel)
    - Life is Elsewhere (translated from the Czech by Peter Kussi, 1974; from the French by Aaron Asher, 2000)
    - Elämä on toisaalla (suom. Kirsti Siraste, 1977)
  • La Valse aux adieux, 1976 (Epilog; samizdat edition 1970; Valčík na rozloučenou)
    - The Farewell Party (translated from the Czech by Peter Kussi, 1976) / Farewell Waltz (translated from the French by Aaron Asher, 1998)
    - Jäähyväisvalssi (suom. Kirsti Siraste, 1987)
  • Le Livre du rire et de l'oubli, 1979 (Kniha smíchu a zapomnění; translated from the Czech by François Kérel)
    - The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (translators: Michael Henry Heim, 1980; Aaron Asher, 1996)
    - Naurun ja unohduksen kirja (suom. Kirsti Siraste, 1983)
  • Valčík na rozloučenou, 1979
  • Jakub a jeho pán, 1980 (play; Jacques et son maître)
    - Jacques and His Master (translated from the French by Michael Henry Heim, 1985)
  • L'Insoutenable Légéreté de l'être, 1984 (Nesnesitelná lehkost bytí; translated from the Czech by François Kérel)
    - The Unbearable Lightness of Being (translated from the Czech by Michael Henry Heim, 1984)
    - Olemisen sietämätön keveys (suom. Kirsti Siraste, 1985)
    - film 1988, dir. by Philip Kaufman, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Juliette Binoche, Lena Olin, Derek de Lint, Erland Josephson
  • L'Art du roman, 1987
    - The Art of the Novel (translated from the French by Linda Asher, 1988) / Milan Kundera and the Art of Fiction (edited by Aron Aji, 1992)
    - Romaanin taide (suom. Jan Blomstedt, Riiikka Stewen, 1987)
  • L'Immortalite, 1990 (Nesmrtelnost)
    - Immortality (translated from the Czech by Peter Kussi, 1991)
    - Kuolemattomuus (suom. Kirsti Siraste, 1992)
  • Les testaments trahis, 1995
    - Testaments Betrayed: an Essay in Nine Parts (translated by Linda Asher, 1995)
    - Petetyt testamentit (suom. Jan Blomstedt, 2001)
  • La lenteur, 1995
    - Slowness (translated by Linda Asher, 1996)
    - Kiireettömyys (suom. Annikki Suni, 1995)
  • L'Identite, 1997
    - Identity (translated by Linda Asher)
    - Identiteetti (suom. Annikki Suni, 1998)
  • L'Ignorance, 2000
    - Ignorance (translated from the French by Linda Asher, 2002)
    - Tietämättömyys (suom. Annikki Suni, 2002)
  • Le Rideau. Essai en sept parties, 2005
    - The Curtain: an Essay in Seven Parts (translated from the French by Linda Asher, 2006)
    - Esirippu: tutkielma seitsemässä osassa (suom. Ville Keynäs, 2013)
  • Une rencontre, 2009
    - Encounter (translated from the French by Linda Asher, 2010)
  • Œuvre, 2011 (2 vols., foreword by François Ricard)

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