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The Life and Times of Milan Kundera

Milan Kundera, courtesy of Wikimedia

The world of literature has lost an influential figure as reclusive author Milan Kundera died in his Paris apartment after battling a prolonged illness. Kundera was a Czech-born French novelist who had written several works. His novel, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” remains one of his well-known works. Here are some fascinating facts about the author and some of his works.

Who is Milan Kundera?

Milan Kundera was born on April 1, 1929, in Brno, Czechoslovakia, now known as the Czech Republic. As part of the generation of young Czechs with little to no experience of the pre-war democratic Czechoslovak Republic, Kundera, and his peers’ ideology was greatly influenced by experiences during World War II and the German occupation.

In 1947, he joined the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. As a teen, he was committed to the ideology but was expelled from the party in 1950 for his criticisms. Nevertheless, his membership was restored a few years after. He was expelled again in 1970.

During his time as a party critic, Kundera and other reformist communist writers dedicated their time to reshaping the party before it was crushed by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Nevertheless, Kundera remained committed to reformist activities. However, in the 1970s, Kundera’s books were banned and removed from publishing. He even lost his teaching job and was prevented from publishing his works. These instances forced Kundera to emigrate, and he was stripped of his Czechoslovak citizenship, where he eventually regained citizenship in 2019.

Exile in Paris

Since losing his citizenship, Kundera spent the rest of his life in Paris, France, eventually becoming a citizen in 1981.

During his period in France, Kundera’s literary career grew, and some of his most acclaimed works were published, like “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” and “Immortality.” The former even had a film adaptation which starred Daniel Day-Lewis and Juliette Binoche. While the adaptation garnered high praise from critics, Kundera, who served as an active consultant during the film’s making, believed the film had little to do with the book’s spirit. Since then, Kundera has prohibited any adaptations of his work. Nevertheless, the film was preserved in 2019 by the Academy Film Archive.

Some other facts about Kundera:

  • Despite some of Kundera’s works set during political turmoil or specific parts of history he lived through; he never considered his works politically charged. On the contrary, he thought himself a “writer without a message.”
  • Despite being stripped of his Czechoslovak citizenship in 1979, Kundera remained in contact with his Czech and Slovak loved ones. He would do so discreetly during his visits and book hotel rooms under an alias.
  • Another instance of Kundera’s reclusive nature is that he rarely did interviews. However, there was an instance where he spoke in defense due to allegations published by the Czech Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes. Many notable Czech and international writers have defended Kundera from such accusations.
  • He regained his Czech citizenship in 2019, although Kundera considered himself a French writer and believed his works should be labeled and studied as French literature.
  • Despite being a known recluse, he delivered a speech in 2012 at the National Library of France. Kundera said he would not allow digital copies of his writing to be published, criticizing the state of literature in modern society. Nevertheless, many of his works are now available in various formats, including eBooks, audiobooks, and paperback editions.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being: What is it about?

The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a 1984 novel that explores the philosophical themes of lightness and weight. Through a cast of colorful characters- two women, two men, and a dog—the book focuses on their lives during the 1968 Prague Spring period in Czech history.

The book beings with a philosophical discussion about Nietzsche’s concept of eternal return (also known as eternal recurrence). If, as Nietzsche believed, everything in life happens an infinite number of times which causes the heaviest of burdens or the greatest of benefits, then a personal life where everything happens only once eventually loses its weight and significance, hence, the “Unbearable Lightness of Being.”

However, Nietzsche’s concept of eternal recurrence is one of many philosophical discussions included. The book’s narrator also mentions Parmenides’ theory which opposes Nietzsche’s idea.

Parmenides believed that whoever held the light (represented by warmth) is positive, while the opposite—i.e., heaviness is negative. These opposing beliefs serve as the story’s backdrop, where a series of conflicting views often leaves the reader wondering which is correct and incorrect.

Many of the characters in the book personify these integral concepts. Tomas, for instance, is a surgeon and serial adulterer who embraces “lightness” by shunning labels and ideals. He justifies his physical unfaithfulness, i.e., his affairs, based on his emotional faithfulness towards his wife. In short, he loves sex but claims he will only ever love his wife.

However, Sabina, one of Tomas’ mistresses, takes lightness to an extreme by betraying others due to her lack of commitment. She finds satisfaction in betraying others while struggling with the social constraints placed upon her due to the Communist Party and her Puritan heritage.

Tereza, Tomas’ wife, personifies “heaviness,” where she has given her husband her entire being—mind, body, and soul. Unlike Tomas, who has zero political ideals, Tereza has plenty that can be useful but still a burden. Despite Tomas’ infidelities, Tereza doesn’t condemn him for it and, instead, believes herself to be the weaker person.

The lives of these three characters collide, causing friction within their beliefs and how they can uphold each of their responsibilities to themselves and others. As the Soviet tanks roll in to crush the Prague Spring, the three characters flee to Switzerland. However, Tereza decides to return, leaving Tomas to also make a choice. The latter decides to do the same, accepting heaviness and following his wife to Prague. Despite living their last lives in relative peace, they eventually die due to a car accident.

Meanwhile, Sabina abandons her lover, Franz, after the latter has left his wife for her. Sabina moves to the United States, seemingly condemned for her penchant for betrayal. At the same time, Franz dies in Bangkok during a mugging during a march.

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