Milan Kundera

The great Czech writer has been living in France since the 1970s, and now writes in French. But his emigre's anxiety still haunts him. He will never go back, but his latest book is his saddest ever
November 20, 2002

Browsing on the internet in search of news about Milan Kundera, I came across this exchange between a Prague secondhand book dealer and a customer: "Customer: I recently bought a small book at your shop, Laughable Loves by Milan Kundera, the jacket was pretty worn and it didn't look at all appealing. I paid a lot for it, 90 crowns. When I got home I noticed that the book's original price was 6.50 crowns. I understand that you sell these books for a profit, but this is theft. You're not just doubling or tripling the price, you're getting 14 times as much. You're simply robbers. Your pissed-off customer, J.

Book dealer: Dear customer J, we understand you're upset about the price but we have to point out that you are the owner of the first edition of the most famous book by the world-renowned author Milan Kundera, for just 90 crowns, a ridiculously low amount. When you're visiting New York, try to offer it to one of the major antiquarian book stores and you will get at least $30 for it, which is 111 times more than the original price. If you're not planning on travelling, stop by here and we will give you at least the 90 crowns you paid. With understanding, MB."

This exchange suggests that a (presumably fairly young) Czech reader of today can be largely unaware of Kundera's importance as a writer. Such ignorance seems to reinforce the idea that history, far from being a slow, barely visible process, has become a dizzyingly fast factor in our lives-an idea Kundera has frequently written about.

Until the Czechoslovakian velvet revolution of 1989, Kundera's books were banned in his native country; he was stripped of his citizenship following his novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting in 1979, by which time he was already living in France. This state of affairs seemed as unchangeable as the Soviet-backed regime. But then the unthinkable happened and various freedoms returned to the east, including the freedom to read, buy and sell books that had been considered subversive. In the 1970s and 1980s, most Czech readers would have given anything for a small, dirty copy of Laughable Loves, because it meant so much to them. In 2002, it seems the book has become too expensive, too used, its meaning obscure.

Kundera was born in 1929 in Brno in Moravia. Along with many other Czech artists and intellectuals, he was a hero of the 1968 Prague spring, which he helped hurry along by writing the anti-Stalinist novel, The Joke (1967). But he has lived in France for over 25 years, and now writes in French (English translations of his novels Slowness and Identity, written in French, appeared in 1996 and 1998 respectively).

His latest novel, Ignorance, is a meditation on the meaning of emigration-a condition he was unfamiliar with when he wrote the first story in Laughable Loves in 1959 (published in 1963). In the west, he became widely known with the publication of The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), made into a film by Philip Kaufman. Kundera didn't like it, he told the Nouvel Observateur: "Perhaps it wasn't bad, but it felt alien to me; for example, its eroticism: that pitiful monotony of film orgasms." He praised, by contrast, the film version of The Joke, made by Czech director Jaromil Jires: "It contains only one erotic scene, Ludvik and Helena's lovemaking. It's a small miracle of compactness, the cross section of all the conflicts of the story, the point of concentration of the history of the country. This sex scene also ends in an orgasm, but we don't see two naked bodies laboriously making ridiculous noises; we see the betrayed husband, singing and enthusiastically raising his hand."

The appeal of his fiction to western readers has been based on Kundera's talent in using explicit eroticism as a way of expressing deeply philosophical, even political issues; it is a way of keeping ideology out of the human condition. Yet sexual knowledge is meaningless when divorced from the wider conditions of life. Kundera's bedrooms appear only semi-private: the reader is invited in as an official voyeur. It is no accident that Philip Roth dedicated his novel The Ghost Writer (1979) to Milan Kundera.

Kundera's novels are often built on philosophical themes, which he believes are at least as important as dialogue or character. In a rare interview he gave in 1989, Kundera explained that "there are problems of human existence that philosophy has never known how to grasp in all their concreteness-these only the novel can seize." Kundera reserves the right to slow down in his books, to weave unhurried reflections on philosophy, poetry, literature or music into his narratives, while never losing a sense of symmetry and balance in the composition as a whole. I enjoy his essays on such topics, but I often feel like skipping the philosophical passages in the novels because the stories and characters seem to freeze up, like tableaux, while their creator stops to deliver a lecture on the thoughts that helped bring them to life.

Conceptually at least, Ignorance appears to derive from an essay on emigration Kundera wrote in 1993. In "Emigration Arithmetic" (from Testaments Betrayed), he counts the years various writers and composers spent living in exile-Nabokov, Conrad, Martinu, Gombrowicz-and what this meant in terms of their artistic output. An ?migr? artist is at a disadvantage: his or her powers may be at their peak, but what informs them-"the subconscious, memory, language, all the understructure of creativity"-were formed at a much younger age and in a different creative soil. "People think of the pain of nostalgia," he has said, "but what is worse is the pain of estrangement: the process whereby what was intimate becomes foreign. We experience that estrangement not vis-? -vis the new country; there, the process is the inverse, what was foreign becomes, little by little, familiar and beloved. The shocking, stupefying form of strangeness occurs not with an unknown woman we are trying to pick up but with a woman who used to belong to us. Only returning to the native land after a long absence can reveal the strangeness of existence."

Nostalgia and estrangement are the two main themes of Ignorance. Two Czech ?migr?s, Josef and Irena, are about to board the same plane to Prague. She has been living in Paris, he in Denmark; and it is the first trip back for him, but not for her-her (Swedish) boyfriend has set up his business there. She recognises him as the man she once met and was attracted to, and he to her. During the flight, they chat and agree to meet in Prague. For Irena, this is a wonderful opportunity finally to be with a man she once liked very much. The two ?migr?s turn out to have more in common with one another than they do with all the other people, family or friends, they spend time with while in Prague. The entire novel is a build-up to a final encounter which is, of course, a sexual one, a love affair, although not in a predictable way. There is some release, especially when they discover the liberating effect of talking dirty in Czech. But the clash of their differing memories of the past is such that each remains imprisoned in his and her own cage of nostalgia and estrangement.

Like Kundera's other French novels, Ignorance is a short and tightly arranged narrative, based on variations on a few basic themes. Kundera, the son of a professor of music and a musician himself, says he is inspired in his writing by musical structures, especially "the Chopin strategy of small-scale composition that has no need of non-thematic passages," and also Beethoven's "variation strategy." Irena's ?migr?'s fate is presented as a version of Odysseus's return to Ithaca: "He saw the harbour he had known since childhood, and the two mountains overlooking it, and he fondled the old olive tree to confirm that it was still the same as it was 20 years earlier." Of course, he (and Irena) finds that it isn't. This is a novel about the distinction between the reality of the past and its reshaping by human memory.

Kundera reminds us that literary myth can draw its inspiration from quite ordinary lives. Homer's Odysseus seems less of an abstraction than Kundera's characters in this book, who move this way or that like the narrator's puppets. When he has used them to perform the drama, not of their own lives but of Kundera's ideas, they collapse in a lifeless heap. Josef Skvorecky, another famous Czech ?migr? writer, has said that when his wife attended Kundera's lectures at Prague University, she heard him declare that while he admires American authors such as Hemingway and Faulkner, he feels much closer to the French literary tradition, preferring ideas to emotion. Skvorecky described Kundera as a "French" novelist even before he wrote in French.

This is still true of Ignorance, in terms of its adherence to a serene structure which suggests emotional detachment. But there is something new in this novel, something I have not encountered in his work before: profound sadness. Of course, there has been some sadness in most of his novels. But never on its own, never in such pure form. This is not an overtly stated theme, but it is the book's underlying truth.

It is possible to regard emigration as a problem one can deal with by learning a new language, establishing a network one can call home, and so on. In 1989, Kundera said: "I lived in Czechoslovakia until I was 45. Given that my real career as a writer began when I was 30, I can say that the larger part of my creative life will take place in France. I am much more tied to France than is thought." Yet sadness is an intrinsic part of emigration, a mourning for one's own small death which will persist no matter how well the ?migr? does in his new surroundings. In Ignorance, Kundera may have wanted coolly to dissect an ?migr?'s existence, and even show that emigration is not as bad as its negation-the great return. Still, no matter how impossible, the idea of return never ceases to tug at the ?migr?'s heartstrings.

Kundera has written an emotional novel, while appearing light and controlled. But he is also oddly partisan. The Czechs who did not leave their country after the Soviet invasion are portrayed without much tenderness, as placid people who claim to have suffered for decades but seem none the worse for it. Their transition from oppressed and depressed characters to busy individuals in full control of their lives seems to have been almost instantaneous. But the ?migr?'s fate is to remain uninvolved in his now liberated country; he has become a foreigner there, and shouldn't fool himself that this gap can ever be bridged. (In Kundera's case, however, some Czech critics have expressed sorrow at his literary absence.)

Kundera has written about the idea of a return home in his earlier novels. The Joke begins: "So here I was, home again after all those years... I felt no emotion whatsoever." And The Unbearable Lightness of Being opens with Kundera's musing about Nietzsche's idea of eternal return. In one of his poems written in the 1950s he wrote about "traitors abroad" whose "loneliness becomes their coffin." He was soon to abandon ideological lyricism-although not before writing a poem, his first published work, celebrating Julius Fuˆc?-k, a Czech communist executed by the Nazis-but I am struck by the irony of these lines, denouncing the ?migr?. It was written by a young Milan Kundera whom the present Milan Kundera may not recognise as himself; the distance between them is echoed in the distance between Josef the ?migr? and Josef the adolescent diary writer, in Ignorance.

A writer whose life and career has spanned such a stretch of European history-Nazi occupation, communism (he joined the party twice and was twice kicked out), Prague spring, Soviet invasion, exile and new life in France-cannot simply erase a period as if it never existed. However, by the same token, his present work cannot be judged as having less urgency because it is no longer written in immediate response to a totalitarian regime. When asked "Are you a communist, Mr Kundera?" his answer was "No, I'm a novelist." When asked "Are you a dissident?" his response was also: "No, I'm a novelist." In Ignorance, Josef's refusal to recognise his young self may be more than a memory lapse: it may be a form of guilt.

Kundera does not give interviews. He allows a glimpse into his private thoughts only in his essays. In one of these ("Works and Spiders"), he says: "When I finished The Farewell Party, at the very start of the 1970s, I considered my career as a writer over. It was under the Russian occupation and my wife and I had other worries. It wasn't until we had been in France a year-and thanks to France-that, after six years of a total interruption, I began to write again. To regain my footing, I decided to tie into something I had already done: to write a kind of second volume of Laughable Loves. What a regression!" (What he ended up writing was the novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.) To forget is to resist regression.

Which brings me back to that angry Prague bookbuyer. I too own a first edition of Kundera's first collection of stories, Laughable Loves. I am glad to know it is worth at least 90 Czech crowns. Reading Ignorance made me nostalgic for re-reading Laughable Loves in Czech. It made me laugh a lot, and it felt like home.