Life,  Reading

Milan Kundera: A Literary Giant Who Disappeared from Public View

On July 12, in the local time, the renowned wordsmith Milan Kundera departed from this mortal realm at the ripe age of 94.

At the venerable age of 92, Kundera harbored a desire for resources to dissipate, and now he has, in a different essence, fulfilled this yearning. Nonetheless, he remains one of the most widely read authors across the globe. His illustrious literary oeuvre encompasses masterpieces such as “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” “Living Elsewhere,” “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting,” and other works, which have served as his spiraling path leading to the culmination of the Tower of Babel.

The esteemed “Seven Stars Library” of Gallimard introduced the comprehensive compilation of Kundera’s opus in 2011. This distinguished honor is a unique testament to his eminence within the literary realm while still breathing the air of existence. As a globally acclaimed literary colossus, Kundera has also garnered numerous international accolades. Although the Nobel Prize eluded him throughout his lifetime, he no longer requires the validation of a medal.

Kundera, a triumphant author, withdrew from public view for 37 years, deliberately evading the media’s gaze. Agnes’ poolside gesture, Karenin’s enigmatic smile… The characters within his narratives leave an indelible imprint upon the readers’ minds, while he himself metamorphosed into a “phantom” scribe.

The allure of invisibility began to beckon in 1984, subsequent to the publication of “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” He accepted an invitation to the “Dunhu” studio but resorted to concealing his visage by shielding it with his hands, maintaining a deliberate distance from the camera. Thereafter, during an interview with The Paris Review, he resolved to embark upon a path of self-imposed silence.

“I relish the prospect of eluding sight. My aspiration is to inscribe under a pseudonym, yet such mystique proves arduous to sustain.” Kundera candidly proclaimed that post-1985, any utterances made in interviews should be regarded as contrived.

Until November 2018, when Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis visited his abode, Kundera persisted in his quest for invisibility: politicians were prohibited from sharing photographs on Facebook.

This resonates profoundly with the lifestyle chosen by the still-living wordsmith Elena Ferrante (author of the “Naples Quartet”), who espoused, “The artist must strive to convince future generations that they never dwelled within this world.” This sage sentiment, akin to a Flaubertian maxim, encapsulates Kundera’s predilection for citation.

“He resembles an aged Indian, apprehensive of others pilfering his essence.” Kundera’s wife and long-standing agent, Vera, often uttered these words.

He sealed his life and the centuries-old history intertwined with his experiences. For budding readers, Milan Kundera evokes the persona of an archaic appellation.

Kundera perennially occupied a prominent position on the Nobel Prize for Literature shortlist during his earthly sojourn. Born in Czechoslovakia in 1929, he relocated to France in 1975, only reclaiming Czech citizenship in 2019.

“To them, you are now naught but a wisp of existence.”

On April 1, 1929, Kundera was birthed in Brno, the capital of South Moravia, Czechoslovakia. Following the completion of his secondary education therein, he pursued higher learning at Charles University in Prague.

In 1948, a nineteen-year-old Kundera aligned himself with the Czech Communist Party, only to be expelled two years later for “anti-party conduct.” He sought readmittance in 1956 but was once again expelled in 1970. For those acquainted with the annals of contemporary Eastern European history, it becomes evident that these years align with a series of momentous events: the February Incident of 1948 and Gottwald’s ascension to power, Khrushchev’s secret report in 1956 and the thawing of relations within the Soviet-Eastern states, the Prague Spring of 1968, the subsequent Soviet invasion and occupation, Dubcek’s subsequent ousting, and the advent of the Husak era of “normalization.”

After 1968, Kundera’s aspirations for gradual reforms within the system were irrevocably shattered. Willing to recede from the struggle, he embraced the mantle of a novelist, devoting himself wholeheartedly to literary creation. However, the loss of his party membership presented him with formidable challenges. The Film Academy stripped him of his teaching position, his literary works and articles were barred from publication, libraries purged his entire corpus, and his wife Vera resorted to clandestinely working as an English tutor to sustain their family.

In 1975,I apologize for the abrupt ending in my previous response. Here’s the continuation:

In 1975, Milan Kundera and his wife Vera fled Czechoslovakia and settled in France. There, Kundera could finally write and publish his works freely without the constraints imposed by the communist regime. His first novel written in exile, “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting” (1978), gained international acclaim and solidified his position as a prominent writer.

“The Unbearable Lightness of Being” (1984) became one of Kundera’s most celebrated works. This philosophical novel explores the themes of love, politics, and personal freedom against the backdrop of the Prague Spring. It garnered widespread attention and was adapted into a successful film in 1988.

Kundera’s subsequent novels, including “Immortality” (1990) and “Ignorance” (2000), continued to captivate readers with their introspective and thought-provoking narratives. He skillfully intertwined personal stories with broader historical and philosophical reflections, creating a distinctive literary style that resonated with audiences worldwide.

Despite his decision to withdraw from public view and avoid interviews, Kundera’s works continued to be highly regarded. His contributions to literature earned him numerous awards and honors, although the Nobel Prize remained elusive.

Milan Kundera’s legacy as a literary figure endures even after his passing. His profound insights into the human condition, his exploration of the complexities of love and identity, and his ability to capture the spirit of historical moments have secured him a place among the most influential writers of the 20th century. His books remain widely read and cherished by readers around the world, serving as a testament to his enduring literary significance.

  Since this year, Kundera has become a person with nationality again. He is a French citizen.
“I never want to go back”

  After coming to France, Kundera first went to the University of Rennes in the northwest as a teaching assistant and gradually settled down. The famous translator and scholar Gao Gao wrote in his book “The Biography of Milan Kundera”: “At the beginning of his exile, Kundera became an out-and-out public figure for quite some time. He appeared on TV and gave interviews. , gave speeches, wrote articles, and used various occasions to tell people about the situation in Czechoslovakia after the Soviet invasion. When he later explained this behavior, he said that it was completely forced by the situation, because at that time, he ‘perhaps was the only one facing Czechs in newspapers all over the world, it is possible to explain everything about what happened to the country called Czechoslovakia that was occupied by the Russians’. In 1978, they settled in Paris, and Kundera began teaching at the Ecole Supérieure des Sciences Sociales. At this time, he has gradually integrated into French culture and life.”
  Kundera was 46 years old when he left France in 1975, and he was half a century old when he lost his original nationality. It took him about ten years to basically master French. During this period, he went through a bilingual period – while writing “Immortality” in Czech, he also wrote essays and essays in French, and also rewrote his script “Jacques and His Master” in French. Moreover, starting in 1985, he spent two or three years revising the French translation of his original Czech work, and then announced that the French translation of his work was equally reliable as the original work, “even more faithful to the original work than the original work.” Eventually, after eighteen years in France, he switched to writing entirely in French. The later published works of “Slow”, “Identity”, “Ignorance”, “The Art of the Novel”, “The Testament Betrayed”, “Curtain”, “Encounter” and “Pointless Celebration” are all in French. From then on, he preferred to use blunt foreign languages ​​to build a high wall between his youth and his motherland. Political metaphors were more often replaced by philosophical thinking. He no longer wrote about living compatriots, no longer wrote for his compatriots, and no longer wrote about his compatriots. Compatriots as readers.
  Among the novels he wrote in Czech in his early years, only “Joke” and the short story collection “Funny Love” could be published in Czechoslovakia, but they were banned soon after publication. The five subsequent novels, “Living Elsewhere”, “Farewell Waltz”, “The Record of Laughter and Forgetting”, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” and “Immortality”, had never existed in the public eye in Czechoslovakia before 1989. François Ricard, a professor at McGill University in Canada, a friend of Kundera for more than 30 years, a famous quinologist and a three-time winner of the Governor General’s Award, pointed out that these books are like ghosts, which can only travel around the world if they possess the translation. Therefore, a very special contradictory phenomenon occurs: the original work of the work is unknown; and the author already knew in advance when writing that the language he used was not the same language in which the work would be published in the future.
  Kundera’s musician father Ludvik died in 1971. In 1984, his mother Mirada also died in Brno. He has nothing to worry about in his hometown. Three years later, he told Elgrabli: “Ninety percent of my contacts are French. I came to this country at the age of 46. At this age you no longer have time to waste; your time and Your energy is limited, and you have to make a choice: either you spend your days looking back at the past, your old country, your old friends, where you are no longer there, or you try to turn bad things into good things, start from scratch, Start a new life where you are now. I chose the latter without hesitation. That’s why I don’t feel like an exile. I am here, living in France, and I am happy, very happy here. You I was asked just now if I had ever thought about the possibility of returning to Czechoslovakia one day, and I replied no, that circumstances would never allow me to go back. But that was only half true, because even if I could go back, I would never want to go back! All my life. It was enough to emigrate once. I came to Paris as an immigrant from Prague. I will never have the energy to emigrate from Paris to Prague again.”
  But upheaval came unexpectedly. In 1990, Kundera returned to the Czech Republic without any fanfare, visited several relatives and friends, watched a few performances, and returned to France quietly, but such a journey may not be easy either. The protagonist in the novel “Ignorance” also returned to Prague from the West in the 1990s. Kundera wrote a long section on the textual research on the word “homecoming”. He first went back to Greek, from which he derived “nostalgia”, and then searched for “nostalgia” in various European languages ​​from Icelandic to Portuguese. The meaning of “pain” contained in the word refers specifically to Odysseus’ difficult journey home, and the confusion of the word “motherland” by the Jewish composer Schoenberg, who was forced to leave Austria on the eve of World War II. , not to mention the ubiquitous secret police and informants left by the hero’s painful memories.
“He who tears the curtain is guilty”

  At least before 2009, all Kundera’s works published in China were marked as Czech writers on the cover and copyright page. Chinese scholars have always studied him as a representative of Czech literature. But Kundera himself has a different view on this.
  Ten years ago, in the year of his eightieth birthday, the Masaryk University in Brno held a three-day international symposium on the theme “Milan Kundera or what literature is”. However, he delivered a letter to the conference and read it on his behalf through a participating scholar, expressing his gratitude for this “corpse lover”. He also said that he already regarded himself as a French writer and insisted that his works should be classified as French literature. Bookstores should also be classified according to French literature.
  But on a personal level, Kundera still maintains an inextricable relationship with his hometown. He returned to Brno several times under the conditions of strict secrecy, visited old friends—such as the playwright Milan Uhed, and watched A game for the local Comets hockey team.
  Another factor affecting Kundera’s relationship with the Czech Republic is his long-term discord with the Czech cultural circles and media. Ambassador Drulak said in Paris: “As you know, this relationship has always been complicated. There have been many attacks on Milan Kundera in certain circles of Czech society. However, he insisted on his views and identity, with In my opinion, he is a deep-rooted Czech. He actually has close ties with our country and is very concerned about the development of our country. But the most important thing is his feeling as a Czech.” The biggest incident occurred in
  2008 A young historian at the Institute of Totalitarianism in Prague wrote an article in the weekly “Respect” based on police files, accusing Kundera of denouncing his classmate Miroslav Dvorachek to the authorities as a Western spy in 1950, leading to The latter was sentenced to 22 years in prison, fined 10,000 kronor and had his property confiscated. The police report clearly shows that the informant’s name is “Milan Kundera, student, born on April 1, 1929.”

  The matter caused an uproar, but Kundera categorically denied the above-mentioned accusations. American writer Michael Weiss once pointed out that Kundera’s strong personality, reclusive life, and his history of quarrels with the Czech media did not help his defense at all.
  Samuel Abraham, editor-in-chief of Criticism and Context in Slovakia, once used “The Testament Betrayed” as an example to emphasize Kundera’s emphasis on privacy to defend his non-argument.
  Kundera writes in the book: “Shame is one of the key definitions of the modern era – the era of individualism that is quietly leaving us today – shame: a superficial reaction to defend one’s private life ; requiring curtains to be hung on the windows; requiring that the letter written to A not be seen by B.” He also cited Max Brod’s unauthorized publication of Kafka’s letter to his father as an example: “The letter found in the drawer A long, difficult letter, one that Kafka never decided to send to his father, and that now, thanks to Brod, can be read by anyone but the person to whom it is addressed. In my opinion, There is no excuse for Broad’s temerity. He betrayed his friends. His actions violated his wishes, the meaning and spirit of his wishes, and what he knew to be his shameful nature.” He also cited the example of writer Jan Prochazka and literary historian Vaclav Cherny, who were maliciously slandered by the authorities with audio tapes in the old days: “Public life and private life are two fundamentally different worlds. Respect This difference is an indispensable condition for people to live freely; the curtain that separates the two worlds is sacrosanct, and those who tear it down are guilty.” “After reading these sentences and this
  book After the rest of the book, the Czech pseudo-intellectual media continues to humiliate Kundera just a few years ago.” Abraham angrily said, “He didn’t hide; he was principled and protected his privacy because he didn’t want to be exposed and publicly displayed. .”
  Kundera lives in seclusion in the 6th arrondissement of Paris. Apart from reading, listening to music, strictly selected friendships, and having lunch with his wife Vera at a small restaurant in front of his home, he is also happy to observe this kitsch city full of stories with cold eyes. A world of sentimentality and self-deception.

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