IT WAS MY LOVE of Milan Kundera, and my desire to defend him against Harold Bloom, that brought me to Prague. As part of a growing critical dismissal of Kundera that began in the early ’90s, Bloom had categorized Kundera as an increasingly irrelevant author of period pieces. “‘The Prague Moment’ has gone by,” Bloom wrote in a short essay on Kundera. “Young people no longer go off to the Czech capital with Kundera in their back-packs.”
But here I was, still youngish, standing outside Kinský Palace with Kundera in my backpack. Ha!
Unfortunately, I wasn’t clear on how I hoped to defend Kundera, beyond just being somewhere with a backpack. I knew that I thought Kundera’s declining status unfair. I knew that he’d suffered backlash since he switched from writing in Czech to writing in French and shifted his focus from Czech culture to French culture. I knew that after the fall of the Iron Curtain, a swell of Czech anti-Kundera criticism had made its way west — some of it justified, some of it sheer character assassination. And I knew that many of the issues that muddied Kundera’s critical reception could be summed up in one short section from his fiction — a scene that took place where I now stood.
Kundera was born in 1929 in Brno, Czechoslovakia. Beyond that, summarizing his biography is a little tricky. Even when he was giving interviews (he pretty much swore them off in the mid-1980s), his public comments, like his writing, were a tightly braided knot of fact and fiction. His past is shrouded and much of what is known is contested, and there is, as yet, no published biography of Kundera to settle several pressing questions. Unsurprisingly, he has antipathy for the biographer’s art. As Kundera put it in The Art of the Novel (1986):
The novelist demolishes the house of his life and uses its bricks to construct another house: that of his novel. From which it follows that a novelist’s biographers unmake what the novelist made, and remake what he unmade. Their labor, from the standpoint of art utterly negative, can illuminate neither the value nor the meaning of a novel.
Kundera has criticized scholars for elevating private writing to the level of novels — “I refuse to put the Letters to Felice on the same level as The Castle” — and declared that none of his letters or journals will be published after his death. The value with which he endows privacy is not strange given the time he spent hounded by a regime that aimed to collapse the private into the public.
In 1949, shortly after moving to Prague, a young Kundera sent a letter to a friend in which he made a joke about a government official. The letter was intercepted by the secret police and resulted in Kundera’s expulsion from the Party. The incident became the inspiration for his first novel The Joke (1967), in which a young man sends a playfully pro-Trotsky postcard to his girlfriend, who forwards it to the police and brings about the young man’s expulsion from the Party. Kundera was eventually readmitted to the Party, but after the Soviet invasion of ’68, he was expelled for a second time, this time for good, and removed from his position teaching film and literature. He emigrated from Czechoslovakia to France in 1975 and has lived there since.
Kundera’s muted delivery juxtaposes the heavy with the light in a conversational style that’s often wonderfully at odds with the bigness of his ideas. His chapters are short, his movement discursive, and his philosophy occasionally pompous, but mostly playful. By examining the same theme with different stories (as in, for example, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, 1979) or telling the same story from different perspectives (as in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, 1984), Kundera bases the architecture of his books on musical concepts of variation (in which the composer repeatedly returns to the same bars, with a slightly different approach each time) and polyphony (in which several melodies play off each other simultaneously).
Yet early translations of his works tended to lose what made them most interesting. Foreign publishers wanted to market Kundera’s biography rather than his style, and he has never quite been able to shed the early portrayal of himself as a dissident writer of protest novels. As the translation scholar and astute Kundera reader Michelle Woods pointed out, in the first British edition of The Joke, “many of the experimental devices included by Kundera, such as the non-linear narrative and Jaroslav’s discourse on polyphony, were seen as clouding the real message.” This resulted in “a complete rearrangement of the novel into a semi-linear chronology and the removal of 300 sentences.” When he learned of this unauthorized editing, Kundera sent an angry letter to The Times Literary Supplement, in which he compared his editors and translators to communist censors, and said that he’d rather not publish at all than have his work rewritten without his consent. It was the first of many times he would assert his right to absolute control over his words — often to the detriment of his career.
While the English translators of The Joke took a hatchet to the text, the French translator puffed up the style. The translator, Marcel Aymonin, had a very different aesthetic from Kundera, who has always written in language that’s easy on the metaphors. As Caleb Crain noted, “Where Kundera had written ‘The sky was blue,’ Aymonin had translated ‘Under a sky of periwinkle, October hoisted its showy shield.’” Aymonin did not translate the book, but rather rewrote it: “He found my style too simple!” Kundera told Jordan Elgrably. “Into my manuscript he inserted hundreds (yes!) of embellishing metaphors; he used synonyms where I repeat the same word; he wanted to create a ‘beautiful style’!” The nightmare of the French translation only worsened when Kundera had a revealing conversation with one of his translators, who didn’t speak Czech.
In The Art of the Novel, Kundera wrote that he’d asked this translator, “Then how did you translate it?”
“With my heart,” the translator answered.
As Kundera explained, “Of course, it turned out to be much simpler: he had worked from the French rewrite.”
As social theorist Johan Heilbron has pointed out, there is a hierarchy in the international translation system, in which French occupies a central role while Czech is relegated to semi-peripheral status. It wasn’t unusual that Kundera’s Argentinian translator of The Joke worked from Aymonin’s French rewrite, since “communication between peripheral groups often passes through the center.”
It was in part the horror of these experiences that led Kundera to embark on a linguistic emigration from Czech to French. Starting in the mid-1980s, he began writing first his essays, then his novels, in French, and he also rewrote his Czech novels into “definitive” French versions from which his translators were to work. Notably, he did not feel the need to translate his new French texts into Czech, nor did he allow anyone else to do so. This perceived shunning of his Czech roots made him a target both in the Czech Republic and in France. Since the fall of communism, the Czech media has fostered an atmosphere where, as Crain put it, “Any downturn in Kundera’s post-Czech career is headline worthy.” While he is still a major figure in French literature, it’s safe to say that he was more interesting to the French as a Czech exile than as a Parisian intellectual. After the release of Immortality (1990), Kundera’s first novel more concerned with French characters than Czech characters, a French paper implored Kundera to return to Czech themes. The article ran under the headline: “Kundera, Go Home!”
Kinský Palace stands in Old Town Square, right next to the massive tourist attraction that is Old Town Hall — an imposing edifice whose burnt black towers are distinctly representative of the Prague architectural aesthetic (“Gothic Terror”). Kinský Palace, on the other hand, is salmon-colored, wide and short, elegant and frilly. It reminded me of a very fancy cake that one could buy in Europe but not in the US.
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, maybe Kundera’s finest novel, begins on the balcony of the palace, where, in 1948, the Czech communist leader Gottwald stood before a massive crowd next to his comrade Clementis: “It was snowing and cold, and Gottwald was bareheaded. Bursting with solicitude, Clementis took off his fur hat and set it on Gottwald’s head.” The photograph of the two men became famous, but a few years later, the Party executed Clementis and airbrushed him out of the photo. “Ever since, Gottwald has been alone on the balcony. Where Clementis stood, there is only the bare palace wall. Nothing remains of Clementis but the fur hat on Gottwald’s head.”
The first time I read The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, I thought it was a political book. I read it as a novel dedicated to the idea that “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting,” as one character states. But what hadn’t occurred to me was that Mirek, the character who utters that proclamation, in fact spends most of his time not fighting the State, but trying to retrieve love letters from a former lover of whom he is ashamed. The former lover is a hardline communist, which embarrasses Mirek — but not as much as her physical ugliness. His political repulsion is a cover for aesthetic disgust. As Kundera wrote in The Art of the Novel, “Before it becomes a political issue, the will to forget is an existential one: man has always harbored the desire to rewrite his own biography, to change the past, to wipe out tracks, both his own and others’.” While the struggle of man against power is still the struggle of memory against forgetting, this struggle is not nearly as compelling, to Kundera, as man’s struggle to reshape his own past into a livable present.
If the novel’s personal elements are more compelling to Kundera, critics tend to focus on the political. Kundera’s line about the struggle of man against power is almost always read as referring to the State, rather than, for example, as a statement about man’s struggle against the passage of time. The line is heavily quoted, but rarely in the context of the characters Kundera writes about; instead, as Woods showed, it is “referenced in discussions on apartheid in South Africa, on Kosovo, […] and on Nicaragua.” There’s a tendency for foreign publishers of writers from marginalized literary cultures to favor the kind of text where, as postcolonial scholar Robert J.C. Young put it, “the criterion is social and informational rather than aesthetic.” In his recent discussion of Kundera’s legacy in The Guardian, Jonathan Coe pointed out that many considered Kundera’s art inexorably tied to “a political context that may one day (sooner than we think) be forgotten.” When the information that the books from marginalized literary cultures are “supposed” to share is no longer relevant to the Western zeitgeist, the Western reading public tends to forget the authors who wrote them.
The problem of reading a Kundera book as informational is that some of his information is, well, wrong. As the Czech literature scholar Hana Píchová pointed out, “After Kundera’s emphasis on the importance of Clementis’ gesture of lending his hat to the cold and hatless Gottwald, it may come as a surprise to discover that, as Jindrich Toman notes, Kundera in fact made up the whole hat episode.” In the real pre-airbrushed photo, both Clementis and Gottwald wear hats: “It does not appear as if anybody is giving away anything at all.”
Why would Kundera alter so important a historical detail on the first pages of his first novel written in exile — the first intended solely for a foreign audience?
Maybe he simply misremembered the hat episode. He was living in exile, pre-internet, and presumably didn’t have in his possession a photograph that the government had censored 25 years earlier. (As Janet Malcolm put it, “The fact that all writers constantly make mistakes of fact and transcription is attested to by the professions of proofreader and fact checker.”)
The gift of the hat adds humanity to Clementis and makes it kind of sad when he is hanged and erased from history — even if he is a Czech communist whom we’ve never heard of until now. And it’s fiction, so if Kundera wants to make him a generous hat-giver, he can. But non-Czech readers have often believed that Kundera’s job is to introduce them to communist Czechoslovakia rather than to an intensely original world of his own creation. Kundera articulated his distaste for this tendency through one of the characters from The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a Czech painter who is so disgusted by the simplistic, politicized characterization of her art abroad — she finds that her biography at a gallery reads “like the life of a saint or martyr” — that she begins to hide the fact that she’s Czech. Maybe by feeding us a history that’s false — but so close to documented history that we take it as real — Kundera is extending the finger to those who try to read his fiction as social, informational, political, or anything other than aesthetic.
Kundera’s already fractured relationship to the Czech Republic turned openly hostile in 2008, when the Czech magazine Respekt published an accusation that Kundera collaborated with the secret police in 1950. Based on a short police report bearing the signature of Milan Kundera, the article stated that Kundera had informed on Miroslav Dvořáček, a Czech working for the Americans. The police arrested Dvořáček based on what the article claimed was Kundera’s information, which resulted in Dvořáček serving nearly 14 years in a hard labor camp. Shortly after the scandal broke, a friend of one of the other involved parties said that it was another man, not Kundera, who had informed on Dvořáček. Kundera gave one interview to Czech radio to deny the allegations, and then retreated from the public eye to write what would likely be his last novel.
The result was The Festival of Insignificance, Kundera’s first novel in 13 years, an apolitical book devoid not only of mention of the collaboration scandal, but of anything Czech. In it, Kundera writes about our individual insignificance and how the only way to really enjoy life is to revel in this insignificance. One of the novel’s characters wants to stage a marionette play about how Khrushchev couldn’t understand Stalin’s jokes. A second ponders the existential ramifications of the erotic allure of the navel. A third pretends not to speak French so he can entertain himself at work by making up a nonsense language. One day, he sees a guest eyeballing him and his made-up language suspiciously. He points the man out to a friend, who worries, “If some servant to truth should discover that you’re French! Then of course you’ll be suspect! He’ll think you must have some shady reason to be hiding your identity! He’ll alert the police! You’ll be interrogated!”
For Kundera, a joke is always on the verge of leading to an interrogation. In his Czech-language novels, it often does lead to an interrogation. The most famous instance occurs in The Joke, but in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, the narrator thoroughly enjoys the joke he and his friend play on her boss — tricking him into publishing a column by a blackballed writer — until the friend is caught, interrogated by the police, and fired from her job. In The Festival of Insignificance, the threat of the interrogation is felt but never realized. The tone remains light, and the attacks are reserved for humorlessness itself rather than any political entity.
“Insignificance, my friend, is the essence of existence,” Kundera writes. “It is all around us, and everywhere and always. It is present even when no one wants to see it: in atrocities, in bloody battles, in the worst disasters.” Here he echoes a passage from The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, and an idea that he’s developed in much of his work:
The assassination of Allende quickly covered over the memory of the Russian invasion of Bohemia, the bloody massacre in Bangladesh caused Allende to be forgotten, the din of war in the Sinai Desert drowned out the groans of Bangladesh, the massacres in Cambodia caused the Sinai to be forgotten, and so on, and on and on, until everyone has completely forgotten everything.
In Kundera’s novels, forgetting is often not only unavoidable but also desirable. “How sweet it would be to forget history!” he wrote in Life Is Elsewhere (1973). Indeed, his characters, often emigrants, devote much of their effort to forgetting. When a Czech émigré in Ignorance (2000) tries to describe the pain of leaving home for France to a friend who stayed in Czechoslovakia, the friend says, “Those suffering-contests are over now.” The émigré’s Czech friends don’t want to hear about how difficult it was in France, and her French friends can only understand a simplistic political portrayal of Czechoslovakia. “Being in a foreign country means walking a tightrope high above the ground without the net afforded a person by the country where he has his family, colleagues, and friends, and where he can easily say what he has to say in a language he has known from childhood,” Kundera wrote in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. His characters often find themselves wondering if the tightrope walk would be easier without the memory of the net.
The conundrum of remembering and forgetting, as Kundera formulates it in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, is that “the past is filled with life, and its countenance is irritating, repellent, wounding, to the point that we want to destroy or repaint it.” The future, on the other hand, “is only an indifferent void no one cares about.” In The Art of the Novel, he continues, “There would seem to be nothing more obvious, more tangible and palpable, than the present moment. And yet it eludes us completely. All the sadness of life lies in that fact.” If the future is an indifferent void, and the present eludes us completely, Kundera’s characters often have little choice but to live in the past. But what we remember is not necessarily the past: “The present moment is unlike the memory of it. Remembering is not the negative of forgetting. Remembering is a form of forgetting.” Kundera suggests that the only state of being that we can comprehend is the past, which we experience by remembering — except that remembering is forgetting.
It would be easy to interpret Kundera’s sympathy for those who want to rewrite their pasts as the author’s hidden desire to forget something shameful from his own past. This is probably valid, but not in the sense that Kundera must have collaborated with the secret police or done anything else particularly shameful. It’s a valid, if relatively useless, interpretation simply because we all want to rewrite our personal histories. (I sometimes feel as though my life has been one long attempt to change the past by thinking about it.) Whether it’s Mirek trying to forget his ugly lover, the Czech painter trying to forget that she’s Czech, or the Czech émigré trying to forget a time when she felt at home, the people who populate Kundera’s books revel in the melancholic impossibility, inevitability, and relief of forgetting.
After I visited Kinský Palace, I walked over to the Museum of Communism, which is housed above a McDonald’s near Wenceslas Square. Inside, I saw a picture of a protester about to hurl a blown-up version of the famous Gottwald photograph into a bonfire. The protester holds not the Party version, in which Clementis is airbrushed away, or the Kundera version, in which Clementis is hatless, but rather the unedited version, in which both men are present and hatted. The protester had tracked down the original photograph simply to burn it. She still wanted the image erased from history — but she would be the one to erase it. I can’t think of an image that better embodies Kundera than this: a woman reducing a politician to a prop in a performance of forgetting history.
Johannes Lichtman’s fiction has been published or is forthcoming in The Sun, American Short Fiction, and Carolina Quarterly. He lives in Malmö, Sweden, and can be found online at blingtheory.net.