Second paper, final draft due.
Milan Kundera (born 1929), Czechoslovakia and France
Kundera is probably the best-known Czech writer in the world today, although he now evidently writes in French rather than in Czech. After
studying first art and then film he taught World Literature in Prague for several years but was “banned” after the Soviet occupation in 1969
(a topic raised in The Unbearable Lightness of Being). He left Czechoslovakia for France, eventually taking up residence in
Paris; his Czechoslovak citizenship was revoked in 1979. He has published a great deal of lyric and long poetry and several plays, but he is
best known in the West for his novels, beginning with Žert (The Joke) in 1967. His prose is marked by an interest
in humiliation, eroticism, and always potentially ironic narrative philosophizing and (professorial!) pontification.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being was a big literary hit in the West and was made into a successful film (1988). Please note
that Kundera’s last name (like all Czech words) should be pronounced with the stress on the first syllable.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being was translated by Michael Henry Heim.
Questions for reading:
- Can you tell whether this novel was written “at home” or “abroad,” and what are the implications (if any) for the reader in judging
or absorbing information conveyed about life in Czechoslovakia in and after 1968?
- How do you as a reader react to the narrator’s personality and digressions, as distinct from those of the characters?
- How much does Kundera lead or allow us to sympathize with his characters? Does his narrator’s repeated mention of this or that
character’s origin in a rumbling stomach, or something similarly prosaic, tempt the reader to acscribe the characters’ qualities or
behaviors to the author, or does he succeed in making us like and care for the them?
- In general, how does Kundera’s “baring of devices,” to use a term from the Russian Formalists, impact the reader? How does the
narrative structure of the book influence our perception of its plot as well as our emotional reactions?
- If you have seen the movie version, how does it influence your reading? If you haven’t seen the movie, what do you expect, as
you begin to read, from the book’s cover image and title?
- How do Kundera’s presentations of sex, eroticism, and gender relations compare to those in the other books we have read so far?
- In a course where we have aleady read plenty of references to the Holocaust, how do the tragedies and threats that these characters face
measure up? (Do the ghosts of the Nazi massacre in Lidice, or the information you know about repression in the Soviet Union, haunt this work?)
- How does art function in the story? How does medicine?
Other books by Kundera:
- The Art of the Novel, translated by Linda Asher (from French), 1988, in Tripod.
- Kniha smíchu a zapomnění, 1979. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, translated by Michael Henry Heim, 1980,
- Valčík na rozloučenou, 1976. The Farewell Party, translated by Peter Kussl, 1976, in Tripod.
- l’Identité, 1998. Identity, translated by Linda Asher (from French), 1998, in Tripod.
- l’Ignorance, 2000. Ignorance, translated by Linda Asher (from French), 2002, in Tripod.
- Nesmrtelnost, 1990. Immortality, translated by Peter Kussl, 1991, in Tripod.
- Jacques et son maître, 1975. Jacques and His Master: An Hommage to Diderot in Three Acts, translated by
Michael Henry Heim, 1985, in Tripod.
- Žert, 1967. The Joke, translated by Michael Henry Heim, 1982, in Tripod.
- Život je jinde, 1973. Life is Elsewhere, translated by Aaron Asher (from French), 1976.
- La Lenteur, 1993. Slowness, translated by Linda Asher (from French), 1996, in Tripod.
- Les testaments trahis, 1993. Testaments Betrayed: An Essay in Nine Parts, translated by Linda Asher (from
French), 1995, available in Tripod.
Works about Kundera:
- Maria Němcová Banerjee. Terminal Paradox: The Novels of Milan Kundera, in Tripod.
- Hana Píchová. The Art of Memory in Exile: Vladimir Nabokov and Milan Kundera, in Tripod.
- François Ricard. Agnès’s Final Afternoon: An Essay on the Work of Milan Kundera, in Tripod.
- Tomislav Z. Longinović, a chapter in Borderline Culture: The Politics of Identity in Four Twentieth-Century Slavic Novels,
You might want to compare Kundera’s novel to Josef Škvorecký's The Engineer of Human Souls: An Entertainment on the Old Themes of
Life, Women, Fate, Dreams, the Working Class, Secret Agents, Love, and Death (fetchingly titled!) or any of Škvorecký’s many other
books in Tripod, or works by the famous dissident and later politician Vacláv Havel. A different but also interesting comparison would be
Bohumil Hrabal's I Served the King of England. Safe Conduct: Photographs by Paul Ickovic might make for
interesting compariso with the imaginary photographic opus of Tereza.