(Richard Lea’s and Sian Cain’s article appeared in the Guardian, 7/12 Photo: Questions, not answers … Milan Kundera in 2002. Photograph: -/AFP.)
The Czech novelist found himself silenced by the communist regime at home, but achieved international fame with playfully philosophical fiction
Czech writer Milan Kundera, who explored being and betrayal over half a century in poems, plays, essays and novels including The Unbearable Lightness of Being, has died aged 94 after a prolonged illness, Anna Mrazova, spokeswoman for the Milan Kundera Library, has confirmed.
Famously leaving his homeland for France in 1975 after earlier being expelled from the Czechoslovakian Communist party for “anti-communist activities”, Kundera spent 40 years living in exile in Paris after his Czech citizenship was revoked in 1979. There he wrote his most famous works, including Nesnesitelná lehkost bytí (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) and later left behind his mother tongue to write novels in French, beginning with 1995’s La Lenteur (Slowness) and his final novel, 2014’s The Festival of Insignificance. He was often cited as a contender for the Nobel prize in literature.
“Like all great writers, Milan Kundera leaves indelible marks on his readers’ imaginations,” Salman Rushdie told the Guardian. “‘The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.’ Ever since I read this sentence in his The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, it has remained with me, and illuminated my understanding of events all over the world.
“Later, a second idea of his, that the novel descended from two parents, Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa and Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, gave me a valuable way to think about my own literary parentage – definitely on the Shandean side of the family tree,” the novelist added. “A third concept, that of the ‘lightness of being’, warned us that life allows us no revisions or second drafts, and this could be ‘unbearable’, but it could also be liberating.”
Born on 1 April 1929 in Brno, Kundera studied music with his father, a noted pianist and musicologist, before turning to writing, becoming a lecturer in world literature at Prague’s film academy in 1952. Despite rejecting the socialist realism required of writers in 50s Czechoslovakia, his literary reputation grew with the publication of a series of poems and plays, including an ode to the communist hero Julius Fučík, Poslední máj (The Last May), published in 1955. He later rejected these early works, saying that he was “working in many different directions – looking for my voice, my style and myself.”
An enthusiastic member of the Communist party in his youth, Kundera was expelled from the party twice, once after “anti-communist activities” in 1950, and again in 1970 during the clampdown that followed the 1968 Prague Spring, of which he was one of the leading voices, publicly calling for freedom of speech and equal rights for all. His first novel, 1967’s Žert (The Joke), was inspired by the period and became a great success. A polyphonic examination of fate and rationality set around a joke about Trotsky that a student writes to impress a girl, the novel vanished from bookshops and libraries after Russian tanks arrived in Wenceslas Square. Kundera found himself blacklisted and fired from his teaching job. Working in small-town cabarets as a jazz trumpeter, he found artistic freedom at last – the impossibility of publication had, in a way, lifted the burden of censorship from his shoulders.