In 1967, Milan Kundera was the most famous writer in Czechoslovakia. His novel The Joke, probably his best, had run through a printing of 150,000 copies—in a nation of 15 million. Among the century’s masterworks, The Joke exposed the incessant absurdity and routine vindictiveness inherent in a society commanded by Communist apparatchiks, demonstrating how life under such tyranny turns our best impulses, feelings of love and devotion, toward resentment and enmity. Kundera was a national hero.
Yet just one year later, Soviet troops invaded Prague, and Kundera was stripped of his Communist membership and dismissed from his job. His books were removed from all stores and libraries. He became a nonperson. The rebuilding of his life commenced with his flight to France in 1975.
What many Americans interested in his work may not realize is that this was the second time Kundera
had been thrown out of the party; he had been tossed once before when he was a student. They may also not know that Kundera was a literary celebrity in Czechoslovakia prior to becoming a novelist, and that he had, at different times, been publicly in sympathy with the Communist regime and in conflict with Václav Havel and other anti-Communist Czech intellectuals. Most startling, it was recently revealed that Kundera was a police informer in his youth, and had once denounced a man who served 14 years of hard labor because of his betrayal. (Kundera has denied this, but it’s conclusively shown by released Czech police files.)
Nor are these the only abrupt transformations that have taken place in his life. In recent decades, Kundera has assumed a French identity and now writes in his adopted language. This means, among other things, that he is requiring his translators to work from authorized French translations of his earlier novels rather than from the original Czech versions. And in still another way, Kundera’s public image stands at cross-purposes to the actual figure: In his private life, he seems to be nothing like the philandering alter egos found in his novels.
So is Milan Kundera a deserving idol or a scapegrace?
The question arises, yet again, with the publication of his first novel in 15 years. The Festival of Insignificance seems to be meant as a valedictory for its 86-year-old author. But that is not to say that it is anything like Shakespeare’s Tempest, say, a triumphant leave-taking that draws the curtains before an audience of admirers. Festival is akin to other late-career Kundera novels, such as Immortality (1990), tales both dreamlike and absurd. At one point in Festival Joseph Stalin himself appears in a Paris park and begins shooting at a statue of Marie de Medici! But not all these fanciful scenes have the impact that Kundera might wish: The characters are forgettable, and his preoccupation with young women’s exposed midriffs suggests literal navel-gazing.
Still, as with all of of Kundera’s writing, there are poignant moments along with imaginative aperçus. And it’s a quick read. The difficulties arise from the author’s beliefs. Kundera has often said that the novel need not follow the path laid out by the 19th-century realists. A devotee of the philosophes such as Diderot and of the art of the 18th century, he yearns to retrieve its lightness, its mock irony, and view of life as something that ought to be free of a totalizing politics. Kundera’s idealized period is a civilized society free of the universal kitsch of mass media and government propaganda.
Yet there are problems with this. First, Kundera ignores the lessons of his own best work. Always credible, and sometimes rich in detail, novels like The Joke and Life Is Elsewhere (1973) took advantage of the tools of realism to move and involve. And Kundera’s perception of the past is untidy: The period before the French Revolution, after all, was the era of Jean-Baptiste Greuze’s bathetic paintings and Voltaire’s unintentionally campy tragedies. Nearly all its most admired novels, from Richardson’s Pamela to Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther, are drenched in kitsch.
Then there’s the unwelcome fact that Milan Kundera appears to have crafted a portrait of himself, not wholly accurate, as a faithful martyr for freedom, even as he denounces falseness and cheap emotion. Perhaps the right take on a great artist with scars both front and back is found in a view of the institution that the philosophes especially mocked, organized religion: “Judge not that ye be not judged.” That, of course, applies to the man. And for the artist? Let us look back to his best days and tip our hat.
Jonathan Leaf is a playwright in New York.