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Milan Kundera, author of ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being,’ dies at 94

The Czech-born novelist mixed philosophical speculation with political critique and erotic reverie

Novelist Milan Kundera in Prague in 1973. (AFP/Getty Images)
10 min

Milan Kundera, a Czech-born writer who drew attention to the cultural and political oppression of Central Europe under Communist rule, penning darkly comic novels that mixed philosophical speculation about kitsch, critiques of totalitarianism and dreamlike scenes of laughing angels and passionless orgies, died July 11 at his home in Paris. He was 94.

His death was confirmed by Anna Mrazova, a spokeswoman for the Moravian Library in his hometown of Brno, which holds his archive. Information on the cause was not immediately available.

Writing in the former Czechoslovakia and later in France, where he had lived in near-hermetic exile since 1975 and adopted French as his primary language, Mr. Kundera crafted slippery and elliptical stories, plays, essays and novels. The son of a concert pianist, he described his novels as polyphonic symphonies, works that mixed various tones and styles — fable, essay, autobiographical reflection — to explore the nature of identity or mortality.

He was best known for two Czech-language works of fiction, “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting” (1979) and “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” (1984), that investigated themes of exile, memory, love and compassion amid the turbulent politics of 1960s and ’70s Czechoslovakia.

“‘The Book of Laughter and Forgetting’ calls itself a novel, although it is part fairy tale, part literary criticism, part political tract, part musicology and part autobiography,” wrote New York Times book critic John Leonard. “It can call itself whatever it wants to, because the whole is genius.”

An idealistic communist in his youth, when he wrote propagandistic poetry on anti-Nazi resistance leader Julius Fucik, Mr. Kundera said he quickly grew disillusioned by the Stalinist regime that seized power in 1948. He became a leading intellectual dissident with his satirical first novel, “The Joke” (1967), about a Czech student whose poor attempt at humor lands him in a forced-labor camp.

The character’s fate nearly mirrored that of Mr. Kundera himself. After Soviet tanks rolled through Prague in August 1968, putting an end to the short-lived cultural thaw known as the Prague Spring, Mr. Kundera entered a kind of artistic purgatory. His books were pulled from shelves, his plays were banned from the stage, his passport was denied at the border and Mr. Kundera was placed under state surveillance, tracked by the police but reportedly untouched because of his fame in the West.

Novelist Philip Roth championed his work in the United States, helping publish a 1974 English translation of the story collection “Laughable Loves,” and Mr. Kundera and his wife received a travel permit to France soon after receiving that country’s 1973 Prix Médicis honor for best novel in translation, for “Life Is Elsewhere.”

Freed from the censors, he became more openly critical of Czechoslovakia in his novels and in essays for the New York Review of Books, where he lamented Central Europe’s “disappearance” under the yoke of Soviet control and helped place Czechoslovakia “on the map” for readers in the United States, according to Hana Pichova, a retired professor of Czech language and literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“Kundera was able to place Central Europe apart from the Soviet Union and to bring attention to its plight, and to its history and cultural heritage,” she said in a 2018 interview. “He knew how to present the regions and its problems in a way that spoke beyond just the people involved.”

Mr. Kundera focused less on Czech politics in later years, and even in the 1980s expressed disappointment when Western critics likened him to political writers such as Russia’s Alexander Solzhenitsyn or Germany’s Günter Grass. His chief subject, he told the Paris Review, was not politics or social criticism but the “complexity of human existence in the modern world.”

“It is not enough to create a political art to criticize the regime. That is the worst that can happen,” he told the Christian Science Monitor in 1981. “Art and literature lose their value when they become propaganda, either communist or anti-communist.”

While “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting” was centered on the Soviet-backed 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, the novel — really a collection of seven interconnected stories — also dealt with paradoxes such as the cruelty of laughter and the sadness of sex, while suggesting that the world seemed to have lost its ability to remember the past or think seriously about the future.

“The assassination of Allende,” he wrote, referring to former Chilean president Salvador Allende, who died of a gunshot wound during a 1973 coup, “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.”

Mr. Kundera became an international sensation following the publication of his next novel, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” which was adapted into a well-received 1988 movie starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Juliette Binoche and Lena Olin.

The book followed a philandering Czech surgeon, Tomas, and his wife, Tereza, while exploring the implications of a world in which a person, living just one life, “can never know if he was a good man or a bad man, if he loved anyone or if he had only the illusion of love.”

Passages of straightforward exposition about Tomas, his bowler-hat-clad mistress, Sabina, and her idealistic lover, Franz, were interspersed with surreal visions of colorful park benches floating down a river, dreams of suicide, and digressions into the death of Stalin’s son Yakov and the nature of writing itself.

“Characters are not born, like people, of woman; they are born of a situation, a sentence, a metaphor, containing in a nutshell a basic human possibility,” Mr. Kundera wrote, interrupting the book’s plot to explain his own literary process. “The characters in my novels are my own unrealized possibilities. That is why I am equally fond of them and equally horrified by them.”

Mr. Kundera expressed surprise at the novel’s popularity. Withdrawing from public life, he said he had taken “an overdose of myself” and sought “a miraculous ointment that would make me invisible.” When in 2009 he was invited to an international conference on his work, he declined by letter, describing the event as a “necrophile party.”

Cutting his ties to Czechoslovakia, he gave Gallic settings to French-language novels such as “Slowness” (1995), “Identity” (1998), “Ignorance” (2000) and “The Festival of Insignificance” (2013), a slim, playful volume about a party in Paris and the surreal apparition of Stalin at the Luxembourg Gardens.

Mr. Kundera returned to Prague only rarely and in secret after the peaceful Velvet Revolution ended Communist rule in Czechoslovakia, resulting in an independent Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993. His relationship with Czech readers became increasingly fraught in 2008, when a Czech magazine published a police report from 1950 that identified him as an informant.

According to the documents and subsequent reporting by the magazine, Mr. Kundera helped police officers in Prague locate a pilot who had fled the country and then returned as an undercover Western agent. Mr. Kundera described the magazine article as an attempted “assassination of an author” and denied ever knowing the man, who went on to serve 14 years in captivity, including hard labor at a uranium mine.

He received support from Vaclav Havel, the playwright-statesman who served as the Czech Republic’s first president, as well as from Nobel Prize-winning writers such as J.M. Coetzee and Gabriel García Márquez, who signed a statement describing the allegations as an “orchestrated campaign of calumny.”

Public records indicated that in 1950, around the time the police report said he acted as an informant, Mr. Kundera was expelled from the Communist Party for “anti-party activities.” He later rejoined the party and was expelled again, though Mr. Kundera declined to discuss his early life in detail.

“We live in an age when private life is being destroyed,” he told the Times in 1985. “The police destroy it in Communist countries, journalists threaten it in democratic countries, and little by little the people themselves lose their taste for private life and their sense of it.”

“Without secrecy,” he added, “nothing is possible — not love, not friendship.”

Milan Kundera was born in Brno on April 1, 1929. He was not quite 10 when Nazi Germany invaded and, after World War II, he joined other Czech artists and writers in becoming a member of the Communist Party. His first expulsion from the party coincided with his dismissal from Charles University in Prague, where he was reportedly blacklisted. For several years, he worked as a laborer and musician.

He eventually returned to school, studying and then teaching film theory at Prague’s Academy of Performing Arts. One of his students, Milos Forman, later directed the Oscar-winning Hollywood films “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Amadeus.”

Mr. Kundera wrote a series of plays and novels but came to disavow nearly everything he wrote before “The Joke.”

He married Vera Hrabankova in 1967 and moved with her to France, where she worked as his amanuensis. Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.

Mr. Kundera wrote several acclaimed works of criticism, including “The Art of the Novel” (1986), “Testaments Betrayed” (1993) and “The Curtain” (2005). Reviewing the latter for the Times, novelist Russell Banks wrote, “Not since Henry James, perhaps, has a fiction writer examined the process of writing with such insight, authority, and range of reference and allusion.”

For Mr. Kundera, the novel seemed to offer possibilities that were shut off in other forms of art or writing. Amid the traumas of communist Czechoslovakia, he wrote in “Testaments Betrayed,” he came to see the novel as “an outlook, a wisdom, a position; a position that would rule out identification with any politics, any religion, any ideology, any moral doctrine, any group; a considered, stubborn, furious nonidentification, conceived not as evasion or passivity but as resistance, defiance, rebellion.

“I wound up having some odd conversations,” he continued. “‘Are you a Communist, Mr. Kundera?’ ‘No, I’m a novelist.’ ‘Are you a dissident?’ ‘No, I’m a novelist.’ ‘Are you on the left or the right?’ ‘Neither. I’m a novelist.’”

Ladka Bauerova in Prague contributed to this report.