Milan Kundera, Czech Literary Star, Dies at 94

Milan Kundera, a Communist Party outcast who became a global literary star with mordant, sexually charged novels that captured the suffocating absurdity of life in the workers’ paradise of his native Czechoslovakia, died on Tuesday in Paris at age 94.

A spokeswoman for Gallimard, Mr. Kundera’s publisher in France, said on Wednesday that Mr. Kundera had died “after a prolonged illness.”

Mr. Kundera’s run of popular books began with “The Joke,” which was published to acclaim in 1967, around the time of the Prague Spring, then banned with a vengeance after Soviet-led troops crushed that experiment in “Socialism with a human face” a few months later. He completed his final novel, “The Festival of Insignificance” (2015), when he was in his mid-80s and living comfortably in Paris.

The novel was his first new fiction since 2000, but its reception, tepid at best, was a far cry from the reaction to his most enduringly popular novel, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.”

An instant success when it was published in 1984, “Unbearable Lightness” was reprinted over the years in at least two dozen languages. The novel drew even wider attention when it was adapted into a 1988 film starring Daniel Day Lewis as one of its central characters, Tomas, a Czech surgeon who criticizes the Communist leadership and is consequently forced to wash windows for a living.

As punishments go, washing windows is a pretty good deal for Tomas: A relentless philanderer, he’s always open to meeting new women, including bored housewives. But the sex, as well as Tomas himself and the three other main characters — his wife, a seductive painter and the painter’s lover — are there for a larger purpose. In putting the novel on its list of best books of 1984, The New York Times Book Review observed that “this writer’s real business is to find images for the disastrous history of his country in his lifetime.”

“He uses the four pitilessly, setting each pair against the other as opposites in every way, to describe a world in which choice is exhausted and people simply cannot find a way to express their humanity.”

He could be especially pitiless in his use of female characters; so much so that the British feminist Joan Smith, in her 1989 book “Misogynies,” declared that “hostility is the common factor in all Kundera’s writing about women.”

Other critics reckoned that exposing men’s horrible behavior was at least part of his intent. Still, even the stronger women in Kundera’s books tended to be objectified, and the less fortunate were sometimes victimized in disturbing detail. (The narrator of his first novel, “The Joke,” vengefully seduces the wife of an old enemy, slaps her around during sex, then says he doesn’t want her. The woman’s husband doesn’t care; he’s in love with a very cool graduate student. In a final indignity, the distraught woman tries to kill herself with a fistful of pills, which turn out to be laxatives.)

Mr. Kundera’s fear that Czech culture could be erased by Stalinism — much as disgraced leaders were airbrushed out of official photos — was at the heart of “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting,” which became available in English in 1979.

It was not exactly what most Western readers would have expected of a “novel”: a sequence of seven stories, told as fiction, autobiography, philosophical speculation and much else. But Mr. Kundera called it a novel nonetheless, and likened it to a set of Beethoven variations.

Writing in The Times Book Review in 1980, John Updike said the book “is brilliant and original, written with a purity and wit that invite us directly in; it is also strange, with a strangeness that locks us out.”

Mr. Kundera had a deep affinity for Central European thinkers and artists — Nietzsche, Kafka, the Viennese novelists Robert Musil and Hermann Broch, the Czech composer Jaroslav Janacek. Like Broch, he said, he strove to discover “that which the novel alone can discover,” including what he called “the truth of uncertainty.”

His books were largely saved from the weight of this heritage by a playfulness that often meant using his own voice to comment on the work in progress. Here is how he begins to invent Tamina, a tragic figure in “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting,” who starts out as a forlorn Czech widow in France and somehow ends up dying at the hands of cruel children in a fairy tale:

“I calculate that two or three new fictional characters are baptized here on earth every second. That is why I am always hesitant about joining that vast crowd of John the Baptists. But what can I do? After all, my characters need to have names.”

Mr. Kundera told The Paris Review in 1983: “My lifetime ambition has been to unite the utmost seriousness of question with the utmost lightness of form. The combination of a frivolous form and a serious subject immediately unmasks the truth about our dramas (those that occur in our beds as well as those that we play out on the great stage of History) and their awful insignificance. We experience the unbearable lightness of being.”

He acknowledged that the names of his books could easily be swapped around. “Every one of my novels could be entitled ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ or ‘The Joke’ or ‘Laughable Loves,’” he said. “They reflect the small number of themes that obsess me, define me and, unfortunately, restrict me. Beyond these themes, I have nothing else to say or to write.”

Though written in the Czech language, both “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting” and “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” were composed in the clear light of France, where Mr. Kundera resettled in 1975 after giving up hope of political and creative freedom at home.

His decision to emigrate underlined the choices available to the Czech intelligentsia at the time. Thousands left. Among those who stayed and resisted was the playwright Vaclav Havel, who served several prison terms, including one of nearly three years. He survived to help lead the successful Velvet Revolution in 1989, and then served as president, first of Czechoslovakia, and then of the Czech Republic after the Slovaks decided to go their own way.

With that great turnabout, Mr. Kundera’s books were legal in his homeland for the first time in 20 years. But there was scant demand for them or sympathy for him there: By one estimate only 10,000 copies of “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” sold.

Many Czechs saw him as someone who had abandoned his compatriots and taken the easy way out. And they tended to believe a Czech magazine’s allegation in 2008 that he had been an informer in his student days and had betrayed a Western spy. The agent, Miroslav Dvoracek, served 14 years in prison. Kundera denied turning him in.

The rocky history of Mr. Kundera’s first novel, “The Joke,” is a good illustration of the trouble he faced while still trying to promote reform from within.

When the Prague Spring ended, the book was condemned as cynical, erotic and anti-Socialist; and if you could somehow adopt the censors’ mind-set, you would see their point.

Ludvik, the main narrator of “The Joke,” is a Prague university student in the 1950s who is under suspicion by party members for his perceived individualism. “You smile as though you were thinking to yourself,” he is told. Then he gets a letter from a credulous female friend praising the “healthy atmosphere” at the summer training camp she’s been sent to. Resentful that she should be happy when he is missing her, young Ludvik makes a horrible mistake:

“So I bought a postcard,” he says, “and (to hurt, shock and confuse her) wrote: ‘Optimism is the opium of the people! A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky!’”

There is a trial. For his little joke, Ludvik is thrown out of the party and sentenced to work as a coal miner in a military penal unit.

Mr. Kundera didn’t suffer quite that fate, but he was twice expelled from the party he had supported from age 18, when the Communists seized power in 1948.

His first expulsion, for what he called a trivial remark, was imposed in 1950 and inspired the central plot of “The Joke.” He was nevertheless allowed to continue his studies; he graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague in 1952 and was then appointed to the faculty there as an instructor in world literature, counting among his students the film director Milos Forman.

Mr. Kundera was reinstated to the party in 1956 but kicked out again, in 1970, for advocating reform. This time it was forever, effectively erasing him as a person. He was driven from his job and, as he said, “No one had the right to offer me another.”

Over the next several years he picked up money as a jazz musician (he played the piano) and day laborer. And friends sometimes arranged for him to write things under their names or pseudonyms. Which was how he became an astrology columnist.

Yes. He had actually had experience casting horoscopes. So when a magazine editor he identified as R. proposed a weekly astrology feature, he agreed, advising her to “tell the editorial board that the writer would be a brilliant nuclear physicist who did not want his name revealed for fear of being made fun of by his colleagues.”

He even cast a horoscope for R.’s editor in chief, a party hack who would have been disgraced if anyone had known of his superstitious beliefs. R. later reported that the boss “had begun to guard against the harshness the horoscope warned him about, was setting great store by the bit of kindness he was capable of, and in his often vacant gaze you could recognize the sadness of a man who realizes that the stars merely promise him suffering.”

The two of them had a good laugh. Inevitably, though, the authorities would learn the true identity of the brilliant nuclear physicist-astrologer, and Mr. Kundera realized with certainty there was no way to protect friends who wanted to help him.

In London, the first English translation of “The Joke” had been so botched it was hard to know what to make of it. Chapters were rearranged or simply omitted. Irony became satire. Isolated in Prague, there was little he could do about it. (Not until 1992 was there an edition that satisfied him. He wrote an author’s note for it that began, “If it didn’t concern me, it would certainly make me laugh: this is the fifth English-language version of ‘The Joke.’”)

In his 1980 Times review, Updike commented that Mr. Kundera’s struggle “makes the life histories of most American writers look as stolid as the progress of a tomato plant, and it is small wonder that Kundera is able to merge personal and political significances with the ease of a Camus.”

Milan Kundera was born in Brno on April 1, 1929, the son of Milada Janosikova and Ludvik Kundera, a noted concert pianist and musicologist. His father taught him piano, and he considered a career in music, but gradually his interests shifted more toward literature, particularly French.

“From an early age,” he told an interviewer for the literary journal Salmagundi in 1987, “I read Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Apollinaire, Breton, Cocteau, Bataille, Ionesco and admired French surrealism.”

Having grown up in a country occupied by the Germans from 1939 to 1945, the young Kundera was one of many millions who embraced Communism after the war. It was a heady time, with new lists of winners and losers.

“Old injustices were redressed, new injustices were perpetrated,” he wrote in “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.” “Factories were nationalized, thousands of people went to prison, medical care was free, tobacconists saw their shops confiscated, aged workers vacationed for the first time in expropriated villas, and on our faces we had the smile of happiness.”

Too late, he said, he realized that the evil done in the name of Socialism was not a betrayal of the revolution, but rather a poison inherent in it from the beginning.

When Communism ended in 1989, Mr. Kundera had been living in France 14 years with his wife, Vera Hrabankova, first as a university teacher in Rennes and then in Paris. Czechoslovakia revoked his citizenship in 1979, and he became a French citizen two years later.

The last book he wrote in Czech before switching to French was “Immortality,” in 1990. Beginning there, the novels were notably less political and more overtly philosophical: “Slowness” (1995), “Identity” (1998) and “Ignorance” (2000).

Of that group, “Immortality,” with bright inventions like the friendship of Hemingway and Goethe when they meet in heaven, was the most favorably received. It enjoyed a few weeks on the Times best-seller list.

With “Slowness,” Mr. Kundera dismayed more than a few readers by supplying no ending and by exceeding the safe limit of first-person discourse: “And I ask myself: who was dreaming? Who dreamed this story? Who imagined it? She? He? Both of them?” and so on.

Besides the long works of fiction, he had written short stories and a play, “Jacques and His Master.” He was also the author of essays, including several that illuminated his work and that of other writers, collected under the title “The Art of the Novel.”

He was often nominated but not selected for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Enigmatic and private, and more than a little grumpy about the clatter and clutter of modern Western society, Mr. Kundera was largely out of the public eye from 2000 until the announcement in 2014 that he had created yet another novel, “The Festival of Insignificance,” originally written in French.

Set in Paris and barely exceeding 100 pages — the critic Michiko Kakutani dismissed it in The Times as “flimsy” — it follows the perambulations of five friends through whom Mr. Kundera considers familiar themes of laughter, practical jokes, despair, sex and death.

The novelist Diane Johnson, writing in The Times Book Review, speculated on the central importance of laughter to Mr. Kundera.

“It may be that when Kundera writes about laughter,” she wrote, “he conceives of it not as a subjective expression of appreciation or surprise, the way we usually understand it, but as a material form of aggression, an actual act of self-defense, even a duty.”

As Mr. Kundera himself wrote in “Insignificance,” “We’ve known for a long time that it was no longer possible to overturn this world, nor reshape it, nor head off its dangerous headlong rush. There’s been only one possible resistance: to not take it seriously.”

He had struck a similar note in 1985, on accepting the Jerusalem Prize, one of several honors he received.

“There is a fine Jewish proverb,” he said in his acceptance speech: “Man thinks, God laughs.” And then a fine Kunderian flourish:

“But why does God laugh? Because man thinks and the truth escapes him. Because the more men think, the more one man’s thought diverges from another’s. And finally, because man is never what he thinks he is.”

Constant Méheut contributed reporting.

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