In Our Battle Against Forgetting, Let’s Remember Milan Kundera

Milan Kundera

In our Biographies We Need series, Signature writers look at the lives of some extraordinary individuals and ask the nagging question: Where's their definitive biography? 

In his 1978 novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera writes that "the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting." Kundera, whose next novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being became an international sensation, is not currently in danger of being forgotten. Long considered a likely candidate for the Nobel Prize, he has amassed, over his career, a body of novels, essays, and dramas that explore the central questions of what he terms "the complexity of human existence in the modern world." They are also darkly funny, sexy, consummately readable, and have won him a devoted following around the globe.

Yet paradoxically, the writer is loath to talk about his personal life, and has shunned in-person interviews for years. It would seem, almost, that he seeks to be forgotten, or at least to have the memory of him as a person be subsumed by the impact of his work. But this would be a shame. In his lifetime, the writer has seen his homeland reborn not once but twice under different names; has adopted a new nationality; and has been involved in a controversy so convoluted and absurd it reads like something from a Kafka story, or, of course, one of Kundera’s own novels. For all these reasons, he deserves a thoroughly researched biography that doesn't neglect the personal for the literary.

Although Kundera wrestles with the deepest problems of human experience in his work, there is a playfulness to his writing that makes it seem utterly appropriate that the writer was born on April Fool’s Day. In 1929, the year of his birth, his native country was still known as Bohemia, later to become Czechoslovakia. Kundera was born in the town of Brno, where his father was a musicologist at the university. After an early foray into poetry in high school, he studied music, film, and literature in Prague, eventually becoming a professor of world literature. Like many of his artistically-minded peers, Kundera joined the Communist Party as a young man, but was expelled two years later for anti-party activities. Over the next few decades he published poetry, a story collection, and a novel, The Joke, which dealt with the rise of Stalinism and totalitarianism in Czechoslovakia. The next year he participated in the Communist reform demonstrations of 1968’s Prague Spring. When the Soviets invaded Prague the following August, they banned Kundera’s books, fired him from his teaching job, and eventually expelled him from the Communist Party and prohibited the publication of his books. Kundera began publishing his works in France, and emigrated to the country in 1975, where he lives and writes (in French) today.

Following the publication of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which intertwines the tender, bittersweet story of two lovers with larger meditations on music, philosophy, politics, and the meaning of life, (and which was made into a movie starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Juliette Binoche), Kundera has enjoyed both popular and critical fame, despite his increasing shunning of the spotlight. Set partially during the Prague Spring, The Unbearable Lightness was his last novel to deal overtly with political themes, and in the ensuing years he has published many essays and books on literature and the art and purpose of the novel. He was forced back on to the public stage in 2008, when a Czech magazine published a report claiming that in 1950 the writer informed on a young Czech defector, resulting in the defector’s arrest and incarceration. An international group of literary heavyweights, including Salman Rushdie, Nadine Gordimer, and JM Coetzee, defended Kundera, and many critics asserted that the accusations were part of a plot to discredit Kundera (and increase circulation for the magazine.) The following year the writer, who was stripped of Czech citizenship in 1979 after the publication of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, had the last laugh when he was made an honorary citizen of his hometown, Brno.

This outline of his life, brief though it is, certainly contains the ironies, heartbreaks, and political and philosophical dilemmas that have been central to his work over the years. It seems a shame that Kundera is reluctant to talk about how his personal experiences have shaped his work (and vice versa), but that doesn’t mean that others, recognizing the importance of the man as well as the books, won’t share what they know of his story. Now is the time to get them to talk, before memory loses the struggle against forgetting, and the story is lost.