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The Two Milan Kunderas – DRB

The Two Milan Kunderas – DRB

2023-12-08 13:29:04

There have for some time now been two Milan Kunderas, characters so completely different as to recommend Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. There’s Kundera the nice European, celebrated as an eminent author, a defender of freedom of speech, a voice of remembering in opposition to the politics of forgetting, and a spokesman for a legendary entity referred to as Central Europe which may but save the West from decline – if solely the Westerners would heed its name to return to their values. If the nice Kundera has any blemish, it is likely to be his representations of girls – however for each repulsive Helena, Irena or Laura, his defenders will say, you get a captivating Sabina, Tamina or Agnes, so the person may certainly not be a whole misogynist. Then there’s the opposite, darker Kundera, a libertine and philanderer for whom misogyny has not been a lot of a difficulty as a result of he has better sins to cover – on the very least he’s considered with suspicion ‘again house’ as the good mythmaker who made his identify on the again of chic however lower than truthful simplifications of the fact of communism, in addition to fibs about his personal previous.

The nice Kundera – the best-known twentieth century Czech author – has been ubiquitous, his work obtainable in lots of languages. In the meantime, the darker Kundera – a continuing presence on the Czech scene, the Kundera of Laughable Loves and The Joke who later bought out – has principally skulked within the background, among the many individuals of whom we all know nothing, muttering of their incomprehensible Czech. This Kundera-in-hiding may make an occasional look within the writing of Western critics, however principally tonly o be dismissed as a spectre with out substance, the creation of these left behind (typically additionally referred to as dissidents) who, full of envy, can’t however think about the prepared and profitable emigrant as a traitor to the mom nation. Think about, he even dared to change his writing language from Czech to French! And he selected to not return house after 1989! The dangerous religion of those Czech begrudgers could be inferred from their makes an attempt to smear Kundera’s good identify with baseless accusations, for instance that he was a police informer. (For a dismissal very similar to this, see Jean-Dominique Brierre’s 2019 biography Milan Kundera, Une vie d’écrivain.)

There was some restricted rapprochement between the 2 figures because of the elevated circulate of individuals and data between the West and the previous East after 1989. Within the West, there have been writers and students prepared to probe Kundera’s pronouncements and never simply settle for them uncritically, corresponding to Joan Smith in Misogynies (1993), Michelle Woods in Translating Milan Kundera (2006) or Charles Sabatos in an article concerning the shifting contents of Kundera’s ‘Central Europe’ (2011). However it’s only just lately, and on the Czech facet, following the publication in 2020 of Jan Novák’s controversial biography (in Czech) of the primary half of Kundera’s life (1929-1975), that the 2 Kunderas have been confronted one with the opposite. The polemic that ensued made one factor clear: the nice Kundera is an idol with ft of clay whose demolition is lengthy overdue.

Novák’s biography needs to be required studying for everybody eager about Kundera or his work. He has managed to keep away from the Stockholm syndrome that so usually turns critics and biographers into Kundera’s prepared captives, lowered to quoting or paraphrasing the grasp’s phrases. No matter reservations one might need about a few of his details and interpretations, he has assembled an unbelievable quantity of related materials – from extant secret police recordsdata to invaluable testimonies by pals, lovers, colleagues and extra informal acquaintances – and skilfully used it to provide you with the primary even remotely convincing portrait of Kundera, unrivalled intimately and informativeness. Crucially, Novák has succeeded in putting Kundera’s routine responses to occasions and matters within the applicable context, in a means that illuminates the tough occasions in addition to the creator’s decisions. There’s now a greater likelihood than ever {that a} new Kundera may emerge: one who’s much less of an idol, extra of a fallible human being; a author whose phrases are to be examined (quite than rehearsed) to get a greater measure of his concepts and pictures of humanity.

It’s tempting to suppose {that a} profession as lengthy and productive as Kundera’s would lastly assume a particular unity. However wanting carefully on the life and work has the alternative impact: what stands out are numerous ruptures and intimations of underlying incongruence, from Kundera’s disavowal of most of his early work in poetry and drama to his vacillation over the wording of his later texts, in addition to his preliminary refusal to permit his late, French texts – from La lenteur (1995) to La fête de l’insignifiance (2013) – to be translated into Czech. (The Pageant of Insignificance wasn’t revealed in Czech till 2020, after which in a translation intentionally imitative of Kundera’s by now considerably dated diction.) The matter is made much more difficult by the truth that a lot of the works written in Czech – from Life Is Elsewhere (1973) to Immortality (1990) – first turned well-known in translation earlier than they have been broadly obtainable in Czech. How may there not be a significant discrepancy between Kundera’s reception within the West and ‘again house’? Not solely did the Czech readership discover itself repeatedly out of sync with the remainder of the world, however as well as re-reading Kundera within the new revised Czech editions usually appears like being gaslighted by the creator. One could search for a passage or a brief story remembered from the previous however not discover it within the newer, ‘definitive’ version (in Laughable Loves, The Joke, The E book of Laugher and Forgetting). When one reads Kundera each in Czech and in French or English, one could uncover that the Czech textual content is truncated compared with the overseas model (this considerations complete chapters in Testaments Betrayed, The Curtain and The Encounter) or {that a} quick story revealed in Czech by no means made it into any translation (initially, there have been ten tales in Laughable Loves; solely the magic seven are included within the ‘definitive’ editions). When speaking of Kundera’s improvement and significance as a author, what language, what timeline, what ‘last’ model ought to one keep on with?

Following Novák’s biography, it’s simpler to see the peculiarities of Kundera’s writing as the results of the creator’s makes an attempt to cope with threatening discontinuities. First, there’s his tendency to show to mystification in the case of self-presentation within the West, on which extra later. Second, there’s his obsessive want to take care of absolute management over his life in addition to work to stop the discontinuities from erupting. The necessity for management is palpable not simply in Kundera’s defence of his privateness and his behavior of issuing directions to critics on how (not) to learn his work but additionally in his decided ‘erasures’ of previous writing, be it non-public letters, early poetry or inconvenient passages in reissued essays and novels. (This facet of Kundera’s observe – together with his conviction that the principles that apply to others mustn’t apply to him – has been captured effectively by Václav Bělohradský in his 2006 Czech article ‘Kundera’s dream of absolute authorship’.) The jury is out on whether or not Kundera was guided in all this by a real seek for unity – be it the proper kind or the underlying logic of occasions – or quite steered by a extra questionable urge to make the dividing faults disappear.

It’s a straightforward mistake to make to learn the narrator’s critique of imagology in Kundera’s Immortality as an expression of the non-public creator’s principled angle to unscrupulous prying by journalists and the distortions of actuality created by media taking advantage of movie star tradition. However for a very good a part of his writing life (till the mid-Nineteen Eighties, when he was approaching sixty), Kundera was a clean operator when it got here to presenting himself within the media. He was his personal finest imagologist, by no means loth to deftly (mis)lead his interviewers, to fudge the fact of his previous in communist Czechoslovakia, to advertise himself in his new function because the Central European herald of reality to the West. To get a extra correct sense of each the author and the person, a brand new consciousness of his usually cavalier angle to details is required – along with the realisation that the repeated defences of mystification and even outright mendacity written into his fictions present a greater information than the rest to his personal observe.

So we come to the ‘good Kundera’, nonetheless circulating in numerous media at the moment, from Brierre’s biography to numerous biographical notices on the web, and even lots of the current obituaries. This determine consists of fairly just a few fibs and outright fictions seeded by Kundera in numerous essays (corresponding to ‘Le piano de Chopin’, revealed in Le Monde on January 27th,1984; or Testaments Betrayed) in addition to in interviews carried out by others (particularly by AJ Liehm within the Sixties, Stewart McBride in 1981, Philip Roth in 1984 and Jason Weiss in 1986). The record is simply too lengthy to provide right here, however Novák does a superb job in pointing them out, from the mystification that Kundera boxed in his youth to the lie that when he was left penniless after shedding his job he was pressured to do guide labour or play in jazz golf equipment for cash.

Some may declare that these have been mere reminiscence lapses or infelicities reflecting the issue of translating the communist Czechoslovak actuality into Western phrases. However Kundera’s obfuscations are usually not random: there’s a discernible drift to them. He presents his communist previous as a youthful aberration, principally within the vaguest of phrases, in metaphors and figurative shortcuts corresponding to his favorite picture of a dancing ring, or ‘the lyrical delirium’ of Stalinist youth. These metaphors fail to seize what long-term communist loyalties entailed in observe – from sitting in conferences the place insurance policies have been adopted and other people denounced and sacked, to skilful negotiation with censors; from having fun with privileges solely granted to distinguished communists, corresponding to journey overseas and stays in subsidised writers’ resorts, to receiving exorbitant charges for poetry serving communist propaganda. These loyalties offered the indispensable, materials base for Kundera’s writing profession and success within the 20 years from the late Nineteen Forties to the late Sixties – within the Nineteen Fifties, furthermore, on the expense of prohibited (and even imprisoned) poets better than Kundera. When he declared himself to be a reformist communist in 1967, Kundera was nonetheless a completely paid-up member of the communist social gathering and, in his late thirties, hardly an inexperienced youth. Excepting a slip-up in 1950 (a joke a few high-ranking communist functionary made in a letter by a buddy of Kundera’s, not Kundera himself), he proved greater than able to negotiating the facility buildings of the communist system to his benefit for twenty years (and was nonetheless attempting to do that within the early Seventies till his luck ran out).

It’s no marvel that after within the West Kundera tried to minimise his long-term political collaboration, whereas on the similar time inflating the hardships he supposedly suffered below communism to bolster his credibility as a witness. It’s even much less shocking that his assumption of the function of an influential spokesperson for ‘the East’ should have irked a number of his Czechoslovak contemporaries, each communist and non-communist – not solely as a result of they discovered his gildings apparent however as a result of fairly just a few of them got here out of the identical scrapes with communist energy going through a lot harsher penalties than him. It’s this consciousness of Kundera’s opportunistic relationship to reality that explains why so many Czechs (of assorted generations) didn’t discover it arduous to consider in a key affair: that in 1950 Kundera could have gone to the police as an informer.


In 2008 Kundera was accused within the Respekt weekly of getting knowledgeable on a person referred to as Miroslav Dvořáček (1928-2012). As a direct consequence, Dvořáček was arrested, tried for desertion, treason and spying and sentenced to twenty-two years in jail (of which he served greater than half). The entire story was advanced however the common drift of the 2008 article by the historian Adam Hradilek and the journalist Petr Třešňák was clear: Kundera was mentioned to be protecting of his privateness as a result of he had this ignominious affair to cover.

In response Kundera claimed to not have acquired the 2 fax messages that Hradilek despatched him previous to the publication of his article; he additionally claimed to not have recognized or to recollect any Dvořáček, and to be clueless as to how his identify ended up within the police report. Actually, he reacted to the accusation as if it have been the product of a devious plot hatched by his long-term enemies to destroy his fame, presumably to stop him from being awarded the Nobel Prize. It’s a measure of Kundera’s worldwide stature, and a proof of the burden accorded his phrases within the West, that such luminaries as Márquez, Rushdie, Coetzee, Pamuk, Gordimer and Roth (amongst others) didn’t hesitate to publish an open letter in his assist. Hradilek, nonetheless, stood his floor and later (along with others) revealed a sequence of extra detailed and scholarly articles on the Dvořáček case.

Having learn the related articles (Hradilek and Třešňák 2008, Koutská and Žáček 2008, Hradilek and Tichý 2009, Kalous 2009), in addition to the current assortment of responses by numerous Czech writers and intellectuals referred to as The Czech Polemic over Milan Kundera (Český spor o Milana Kunderu, ed Jiří P Kříž, Galén 2021) – half of them agreeing with Hradilek, half defending Kundera – I nonetheless discover probably the most believable rationalization of accessible proof to be that Kundera did what the unique police report says: he went to the police and informed them about Dvořáček. One can solely speculate the way it happened and what Kundera’s motivation might need been; there are actually extra and fewer charitable methods of deciphering his actions. If Kundera got here out of the affair quite badly (which I believe he did), it’s not a lot for having as soon as knowledgeable on Dvořáček –as as a result of, at the same time as late as 2008, with nothing to worry or lose anymore and conscious that Dvořáček was nonetheless alive, Kundera caught to his most popular course of fibbing and fudging, unable to carry himself to inform the reality, even simply to Dvořáček.


The work asks to be accorded a better significance than its creator. What of Kundera’s writing goes to outlive? The impressiveness of his fictions and essays lies within the readability and circulate of his language, within the obvious ease and inventiveness with which he sketches a scene or a personality, launches into an anecdote, throws off an statement, simplifies an advanced thought and, whereas doing all of this, manages to provide the impression of being in good management of his materials, each kind and content material. However this manner of writing has its risks. The fashion could turn into an finish in itself – superficially dazzling however missing in depth, density, substance. Kundera’s writing, particularly from the Nineteen Eighties onward, appears to undergo from more and more sacrificing depth and density of imaginative and prescient to the mere look of virtuosity, mental brilliance and management. A lot in order that his last Pageant of Insignificance slides into self-parody.

Setting apart Kundera’s poems and performs – whose longer-term survival is unlikely, aside maybe from Jacques and His Grasp (1971) – one involves the early quick tales of Laughable Loves (I imply the unique ten). These do principally stand the take a look at of time because of their playful inventiveness and psychological perception, nonetheless a lot one may dislike their characters. (Rereading Kundera means rediscovering how unlikeable, if not repulsive, most of his characters, female and male, are – and the way overbearing his narrators.) The potential exceptions could be the two tales concerning the nature of perception (‘Sister of My Sisters’, ‘Eduard and God’). Kundera’s depictions of believers, particularly believers in God, verge on facile caricatures, expressive of his hostility towards faith and missing in deeper perception.

Kundera’s early and largely real looking novels, The Joke (Czech 1967, English 1969) and Life Is Elsewhere (French 1973, English 1974), do retain their energy to interact – to fascinate and disgust in equal measure. The Joke is far improved within the ‘definitive’ model, by which Kundera has largely adopted modifications first made to the textual content with out his consent within the first British version (and decried by him then as an unacceptable violation of his authorship). Life is Elsewhere struck me as surprisingly good, however solely in Czech. (I discovered the newer Aaron Asher English translation so clunky as to be unreadable. Peter Kussi’s authentic translation from 1974 is likely to be a greater one.) The narrative of Jaromil’s quick, flawed life – Kundera’s ironic tackle the tragic story of a younger poet’s unfulfilled ambitions – is animated by darkish energies that testify to the creator’s deep engagement with the private and political dilemmas confronted by his tragicomic anti-hero.

It’s arduous to know what to make of the supposed peak of Kundera’s novelistic achievement, nonetheless: The E book of Laughter and Forgetting (French 1979, English 1980), The Insufferable Lightness of Being (French and English 1984) and Immortality (French 1990, English 1991). The three novels (for lack of a greater time period) appear to me marred by their puppetry (too many implausible characters and episodes), by the overbearing knowingness of the narrative commentary, and by the truth that they’re so clearly directed at ‘uninitiated’ readers to whom every part have to be defined. And but these are the works of prose by which Kundera perfected his technique of ‘polyphonic’ composition: a short narrative episode or a dialogue is sketched out first, to be carefully adopted by a discursive explication that leaves hardly any area for disagreement or various interpretation. Often, the order is reversed: first we get the disquisition after which the episode prefigured by it, meant as a becoming illustration of the generalisation. The person strands of narrative that unfold on this fragmentary, aphoristic method are in the end supposed to come back collectively, each contrasting and supplementing each other, in a multivocal, multifocal unity.

To me, nonetheless, Kundera’s mature means of writing feels coercive, suggestive primarily of the creator’s overwhelming want to manage the reader’s response. Dilemmas are usually set out as an either-or argument: Schubert or Schumann? Sentiment or motive? Lyrical poetry or the novel? The meek Goethe or the rebellious Beethoven? Lightness or weight? Beer or wine? True, Kundera typically tries to resolve the opposition in a shocking means: first beer, then wine; Goethe and Beethoven on the identical facet in opposition to the politicians and so forth. However mixed together with his predilection for overgeneralising (for what ‘all of us’ know, do or have skilled), one feels pushed to unwarranted conclusions and finds oneself searching for methods out. This fashion of writing additionally belies Kundera’s rivalry to be utilizing the novel primarily as a car of playful, decentred experimentation. Quite one is nearly at all times given the impression that profound truths are being revealed by a single, vastly superior mind; that of a person well-versed in all necessary areas of Western tradition, from music, literature and philosophy to historical past and politics. The nice Kundera is the one who is aware of (every part).

Crucial makes an attempt to save lots of the playful Kundera in his mature works are inclined to misfire. Not less than one critic (Jan Čulík) has ingeniously recommended that the looks of knowingness is a deliberate ploy, a playful phantasm. Kundera is claimed to interact with the reader in a sequence of mystifications in the end revealed in that characters and narrators continuously contradict themselves and each other. It’s true that the thought of Kundera’s writing as a sustained train in mystification grows in plausibility the extra one delves into the element. An in-depth have a look at Kundera’s use of literary and philosophical references usually reveals they don’t bear nearer scrutiny. Setting apart his superficial forays into philosophy, it’s his frequent (mis)use of literary classics that fascinates probably the most. In Ignorance, Homer’s Odyssey is used to underline the central paradox of 1’s ‘nice return’ from exile: no person at house asks about what you skilled whereas away. No one in Ithaca, the narrator tells us, cares to ask Odysseus about his adventures! And but this isn’t true of The Odyssey. Penelope is eager to listen to all about Odysseus’s struggles and Homer is at pains to emphasize that she doesn’t go to sleep till Odysseus has completed his story. Clearly, Kundera wants the good basic to prop up his thought of nice return however isn’t prepared to interact with it when it undermines his thought.

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Equally, when in Immortality Kundera calls Don Quixote (first quantity, chapter twenty-five) a chief instance of Cervantes’s ridicule of the sentimental, self-centred lover tired of his beloved, he’s being disingenuous. The chapter accommodates Don Quixote’s revelation of who his Dulcinea actually is in addition to an ingenious disquisition on the advanced relationship between the perfect and the actual. Don Quixote appears removed from being a sentimental idiot in his intimation that it’s love itself that raises its object to the extent of an excellent, and never the thing’s embodiment of the perfect that necessitates love. That Kundera ought to elide this concept just isn’t an accident. His personal depictions of girls entail a refusal to simply accept simply the purpose Don Quixote is making, that it’s love itself that makes the world stunning, not the great thing about the world that have to be demanded as a precondition for love. No marvel Kundera’s male characters and narrators are continuously disillusioned by the gross failure of girls to embody a demanding best of magnificence. This failure in flip results in a justified, certainly inevitable male (and typically feminine) ressentiment of the feminine physique with its blemishes, from wrinkles to gaping mouths and vaginas, and even leaking innards. And when the ugly feminine physique proves to be able to scary erotic want even so, the ensuing visions tip into misogyny.

The notorious episode in The E book of Laughter and Forgetting (Half III Angels, pars 7 and 9) is a living proof. Kundera’s first-person narrator goes to satisfy the feminine journal editor who has revealed his writing below a canopy, and who’s now below investigation by the key police. Worry has loosened the younger girl’s bowels. The narrator imagines her physique as a cut-up, hung-up bovine carcass and finds her abject journeys to the bathroom so erotically arousing as to expertise ‘a livid want to rape her’. The animus behind the outline shines by way of much more clearly when one learns from Novák that the episode is a detailed fictional rewriting of an actual occasion. Novák managed to trace down the editor who revealed Kundera’s horoscopes within the Mladý svět journal in 1972, and to establish the one vital distinction between the assembly that passed off and Kundera’s fictional illustration of it: the editor was not a girl, however a person referred to as Petr Prouza. In Kundera’s creativeness, nonetheless, bodily abjection is a destiny worse than demise reserved solely for ladies.

The contradictions that Čulík sees as indicators of clever mystification are, furthermore, not restricted to Kundera’s characters and narrators. They embrace events of him ‘contradicting’ himself, as within the repeated concentrating on of tearful sentimentality by a author who depends for impact on touching descriptions of (a minimum of two completely different) fathers dying, to not point out the heart-rending description of the demise of a canine in The Insufferable Lightness. Equally, in one among his revealed interviews with Kundera, Philip Roth asks the creator level clean if the Tamina-on-the-island-with-children episode in The E book of Laughter and Forgetting is an allegory. Kundera first vehemently denies this, solely to instantly present an allegorical studying of his personal. Generally Kundera’s mystifications show too inconvenient even for Kundera. This may be seen within the disappearance of two well-known passages from the 2017 Czech version of The E book of Laughter and Forgetting. Within the authentic model, Karel Gott (1939-2019), the best star of twentieth century Czech pop music, was decried as ‘the fool of music’ and made the topic of an anecdote offered by the first-person authorial narrator as reality – which it was not. Was Kundera afraid in 2017 that Gott may sue him for libel? Or was he fearful that Gott had by then turn into such an icon that the unique insult would misfire, main him to self-censorship?

The issue with any interpretation of Kundera as a grasp of mystification just isn’t that it’s unfaithful however that it threatens to undermine his trustworthiness. The constructive reception he has been accorded within the West because the Seventies has stemmed principally from straight readings of his works as hard-earned, unsparing knowledge figuratively reflecting the creator’s distinctive expertise (if not destiny). Kundera’s ‘autobiographical’ fashion of narration creates the looks of authenticity, an implied promise that his phrases are in earnest and to be trusted. For this reason he has achieved the standing of an influential political author and commentator on the paradoxes of communism and different weighty issues, however his insistence that to learn his novels politically (or traditionally) is to misconceive them. But when Kundera was at all times extra of a participant and consummate mythmaker than a truthteller or perhaps a sage, the place does this depart his critical readers?


Alena Dvořáková is a translator and literary critic from Prague, now primarily based in Dublin. She has translated plenty of acclaimed works of literary fiction from English into Czech, together with Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree, Kevin Barry’s Metropolis of Bohane and Beatlebone, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled and Klara and the Solar, and most just lately Don DeLillo’s The Silence. She frequently publishes opinions and essays within the Czech literary evaluate Souvislosti (

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