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Catherine Woodward
The Trouble with Kundera


In Testaments Betrayed, Milan Kundera’s essay in nine parts, he relates this story about a misunderstanding between himself and a famous professor of medicine.

Kundera was to meet with the professor who was a great admirer of his novel The Farwell Party. The professor considered this work a prophetic one; in the character of Dr Skreta, who inseminates supposedly sterile women with his own sperm so that they conceive, the professor saw a ‘great issue of the future’. The professor had written a presentation for a conference on artificial insemination - ‘The gift of sperm must be anonymous…’ he read ‘impelled by a three fold love: love for an unknown ovum…the donor’s love for his own individuality…love for a couple that is suffering, unfulfilled’. The professor’s one criticism however, was that Kundera ‘did not manage to express powerfully enough the moral beauty of the gift of semen’.

Kundera retorted ‘This is a comic novel! My Dr Skreta is an oddball! You shouldn’t be taking it all so seriously!’

Kundera’s work, despite continuous acclaim from European critics, has always been an unfortunate hotbed for misunderstandings. Kundera, fighting for the rights of the novel as an art, weaves his work out of the complications of moral ambiguity, individuals walk an earth that responds to their own musings and moral compasses, crossing paths with other individuals all doing the same thing. This amounts to some painful cosmic ironies, pessimistic, insufferable jokes and a strange delight in the comedy of the tragic. All this, of course, is a sweeping overview, but should go some way at least to explain the confusion between the famous professor and Mr Kundera. What the occurrence highlights is an alarming culture of seriousness, morality and anti-humour which has cropped up in the sphere of the novel, a culture with which Kundera’s unique and liberal style is resolutely incompatible. If Kundera’s success is anything to go off however, such a style ought to have no trouble fighting such seriousness and demand on moral form. For now at least.

The trouble with Kundera began in 1969 with the publication of his first novel, The Joke. A young Czech in 1948, Kundera joined The Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, but was quickly disillusioned by the brutality of the party’s totalitarian regime. He became engaged in a revolutionary effort to reinvent communism as socialism with a human face, which flourished in the Prague Spring of 1968. However, following the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia which crushed the reformation of communism and reinstated communism’s hold on the country, came the persecution which would eventually drive Kundera from his home country and into exile.

The Joke recounts the suffering of Ludvik, a young student and loyal communist who, after sending a jokingly anti-communist postcard to his girlfriend ‘Optimism is the opium of the people!...Long live Trotsky!’ is stripped of his rights and sent to a labour camp as part of the ‘black division’, Czechoslovakia’s political criminals. What follows is the dissolution of Ludvik’s destiny and his hopeless embarkation on the trail of bitterness and revenge.

By this time Kundera was a lecturer in world literature at the Charles University in Prague. Already resented by the Communist government the political backlash that The Joke excited was enough to remove Kundera from his position, ban his books from publication in Czechoslovakia and to eventually hound him out of his home country and into exile in France. The drastic repercussions have, in The Czech Republic, sealed him as a national hero of dissent, and for the years during the tyranny of communism, threatened to align him with the world’s idea of ‘poor Czechs’, writers judged by the degree to which they exposed the cruelties of the regime, pitiable resistance writers and little more.

Kundera’s work never did align with socialist realism, that ideal which crushed modern art and its development, but the finesse and detail of Kundera’s non-conformity had at that time been swamped in the politics which was secondary to his writing, and the political furore that accompanied The Joke threatened to fix the novel and Kundera himself in the political context of the age.

Writer Philip Roth, in an introduction to Kundera’s Laughable Loves points out that ‘Kundera’s book [The Joke] actually conforms more to Stalin’s own prescriptions for art: “socialist content in national form.” Since the two most esteemed books ever written in the nation in question happen to be The Trial by Franz Kafka and The Good Soldier by Jaroslav Hašek, Kundera’s own novel about a loyal citizen upon whom a terrible joke is played by the powers that be, would seem to be entirely in keeping with the spirit of Stalin’s injunction’.

The fact of the matter is that though the imposition of communism upon the ordinary lives of characters is a typical theme of Kundera’s books and particularly his most famous ones, their true quality and artistic value doesn’t lie in their degree of dissent, but rather in their intricate form which is rooted in the evolutionary process of the novel’s art. It is their politics however, which has, and occasionally still does, confirm Kundera as a political writer.

‘I hate to participate in political life’ Kundera admits ‘although politics fascinates me as a show.’ What concerns Kundera in political issues is something far more intrinsic to humanity ‘Moralism. Oppression creates an all-too-clear boundary between good and evil, and the writer easily gives in to the temptation of preaching. From a human point of view, this may be quite appealing, but for literature it is deadly.’

For Kundera it is more the ongoing problem of morals that is important, not political demonstration. Yes, communism is portrayed negatively in Kundera’s novels (Ludvik is persecuted because of the party’s fundamental lack of humour) but Kundera, whose stories are told through the multiple view points of several main characters, also allows us to see communism positively. That is part of the magic of his books, they neither overtly condemn nor condone, they show, a feat impossible for many artists. Indeed these stories are less about the evils of communism and more about the struggles and difficulties between thinking individuals, communism with its hypocrisy and dichotomies simply gives this issue the perfect ground on which to be explored.

What Kundera’s work gives us is the opportunity to see beyond the human ideals which govern thoughts in impossible blocks, whether they are socialist ideals, the moral laws of a god or even (as we read in The Farewell Party) the ‘propaganda of procreation’. It lets us study their hypocrisies objectively and provides an opportunity to achieve a real moral integrity without instilled poles of right and wrong, without being quite so serious.

But it is not even the moral dimension which is most adored in Milan Kundera’s work; it goes without saying that he is an excellent writer of romance, setting his loves and erotic ventures against the social and philosophical issues of the 20th century. His writings usually track the course of a love that dooms itself with astonishing tenderness and sensitivity: Ludvik, as a result of his persecution pursues and inevitably looses the phantom-like girl who embodies a lost oasis of peace, Kilma, in The Farewell Party is bitter against his wife’s suspected jealousies and finds peace with her just as she feels she no longer needs to be jealous and no longer needs her husband. Love in Kundera’s books tends to glut itself with the hope of itself, it is swallowed in excess, a wonderfully sublime process.

During the 70s, when successful Czech writers like Kundera were subject to ‘sympathetic judgements’ as a result of the Russian invasion, a sympathy which threatened to suffocate the many other merits of their work and fix them bleakly to the context of their age, Miroslav Holub, a contemporary of Kundera’s, poet and immunologist denounced himself on Prague radio. His speech was described as ‘a self-critical confession of the political standpoint he took’. Holub’s confession occurred only a few months after his first meeting with Philip Roth, who concluded that Holub’s action was not compelled by any desire to attain favour, nor out of any change of mind but ‘to discourage once and for all sympathetic judgments about himself or his work that might be thought to arise in response to the conspicuously grave circumstances in which he writes poetry or studies blood.’

Kundera broke away from these sympathies in a far less rash and demonstrative way by the publication of Laughable Loves, his collection of short stories which he considers his ‘opus 1’. ‘Everything I’d written prior to it,’ he said ‘can be considered prehistory’. This book contains in concentrated form, possibly the most important essence of Kundera’s writing.

The collection is a chronicle of erotic misadventure; in the famous Hitchhiking Game a couple pretend to be strangers only to find that the act has ceased to be fun and has become horribly real. Simple jokes quickly turn to serious dilemmas from which Kundera’s characters can no longer extricate themselves; sex and the pursuit of women in The Golden Apple of Eternal Desire constitute a platform on which to display the whole spectrum of human conceits and human follies, and in Edward and God, Edward fakes a belief in God to win the heart of the religious Alice but is caught at it by the atheistic school board which employs him. What follows is a ridiculous and convoluted game of pretend which becomes impossible for Edward to leave and which throws the lives of everyone else involved into a laughable confusion. In these stories we get the philosophical undressing of the world which, though present in the books previous to them, are often buried under the politics of their setting. In Laughable Loves Kundera shows that there is more to his work than polemics; he gives us love and sex stripped of their sacredness and scandal, allowing them to take their places in a world of ironies and misunderstandings, there is nothing sacred in these stories, but every part of life is fair game for a deliciously cruel joke. It is this profaning of sacred concepts and the idea of unstoppable cosmic jokes which have been some of the most important ideas in Kundera’s work. A funny joke though, is often hard to spot in Kundera’s increasingly dark and cruel stories. Their comedy is perhaps explained by Kundera’s idea of the smile of delight – ‘a double delight; it is the delight of contemplating delight (with a smile)’ it has ‘a wonderful tinge of the comical’ and ‘bears the mark of humour’. In the stories of Laughable Loves in particular the reader is lead to anticipate the comical turn that, although it will undo the protagonist, is so recognisably ironic that it makes us smile. We anticipate the comic with a smile, we recognise irony and joy in it even as we acknowledge the protagonist’s downfall.

Once again we may come back to Kundera and the famous professor of medicine. The Farewell Party was originally published in French in 1976, seven years after Laughable Loves and can be seen as an extension of the erotic, delightful comedy of Kundera’s opus 1. A nurse who works at a fertility spa is pregnant with the child of a famous trumpet player, the trumpet player decides that the nurse must abort the baby and the only way to persuade her is to convince her that he is madly in love with her. So a farcical affair ensues, shadowed by the trumpet player’s jealous wife and by an endless cast of naked women, lounging in hot springs. While apparently serious in subject, deeply romantic, deeply philosophical and deeply sad it seems impossible to ignore the snigger in the background - abortion at a fertility spa, a man’s imaginary unfaithfulness and his wife’s imaginary jealousy and of course Dr Skreta, that oddball, whose sperm doning project incorporates a secret smile at the infertile husbands of hundreds of women and an ongoing mission of personal taste against the insistence of stupid people to procreate. And still the famous professor did not laugh.

Of course now, years later, readers of Kundera concern themselves less with the battle between seriousness and comedy in his work (although that issue has certainly not gone away). Since the publication of Kundera’s second popular success, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, it has been Kundera’s philosophical flights, present in his writing from the beginning but brought dazzlingly to the fore in his later work, which have been the subject of much admiration and critical acclaim. Often now, if you mention Kundera to anyone, it transpires that if a person has read any of his books at all he has read Unbearable Lightness, if not only Unbearable Lightness. So, as The Joke once defined Kundera as a political villain and hero, so The Unbearable Lightness of Being now defines him as an astonishingly stylish philosopher and champion of the modern novel.

Unbearable Lightness is part of an ongoing thematic series of books, beginning with The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and including Immortality and Slowness. It hosts a quartet of main characters (a quintet if we include Karenin, the dog and perhaps the most well rounded of the group) that Kundera constructs metaphysically and before our eyes, as characters and embodiments of philosophical concepts.

Kundera begins with his first concept, the opposition of weight and lightness; spiritually, to be burdened or unburdened, which is better? He plays this out in the relationship between Tomas and Tereza ‘Was it better to be with Tereza or remain alone?’ In this method, which Kundera maintains throughout the book, he famously defies and masters the suspension of disbelief; he makes his readers aware of the art of the novel and the constructed nature of characters, but in attaching his characters and their world so firmly to the inspiration that sparked their construction (the Nietzschen philosophy of the novel’s beginning) he makes them wonderfully whole and part of something larger than their small story, elevating them to the point of the sublime. Even so, the only character Kundera has been said to create in this book is himself.

These books present us with characters who ought to be decidedly ‘flat’, as Kundera works them from thin air or from a fleeting impression, and yet his process of contemplation causes them to spread and expand like ink on blotting paper. Agnes, in Immortality is perhaps the best example, her entire character blooms from a single gesture which the narrator observes in another woman ‘The essence of her charm, independent of time, revealed itself for a second in that gesture and dazzeled me, I was strangely moved. And then the word Agnes entered my mind. Agnes. I had never known a woman by that name.’

In Agnes Kundera presents us with a remarkable exploration of individuality and perhaps more importantly, how the individual functions in the whole of human society. Her growth, as is Kundera’s style of character construction, begins with certain contemplations. For example ‘Without the faith that our face expresses our self, without that basic illusion, that arch illusion, we cannot live…Because only in this way can we regard ourselves not merely as a variant of human prototype but as a being with its own irreplaceable essence.’ And it is this contemplation, among others, which feeds Agnes’ desire for solitude and her rage at the glut of humanity that swallows her peace.

Likewise, Kundera’s other ‘flat’ characters discover themselves in the wake of certain ideas; Sabina, the artist in Unbearable Lightness reveals her artistic drive through the concept of an ‘intelligible lie’ protecting us from an ‘unintelligible truth’. So on and so on, Kundera’s characters are an ongoing philosophical project to, among other things, disrobe the self of all the ideals and kitsch that cloud it, to keep up the teaching of the individual begun by the modern novel.

Reviews of Kundera’s more contemporary books inevitably focus on the extent to which he develops this philosophical dialogue, and on the furtherance of his post-modern style. Immortality and Slowness seem particularly distanced from the political grounding of their predecessors as they are the first of Kundera’s novels to be set in France and written in French. Kundera is notoriously unmovable in his decision to visit his home country as little as possible and then only as a private visit rather than a public event. With the publication of Immortality Kundera seemed to be once and for all relinquishing his affinity with Czech culture and embracing France instead as his new homeland, although the transition appeared to already be taking place between 1985 and 1987 when he undertook the revision of the French translations of his earlier work

. However, in 2008 a scandal arose in the Czech press which was to threaten Kundera’s slow vanishing act and to remind the world of the almost lost era of communist Czechoslovakia and the Russian invasion. Two years ago the Prague-based magazine Respekt published an article accusing Milan Kundera of denouncing Mirolav Dvoracek, a Western intelligence agent, to the communist authorities fifty eight years ago. The article was accompanied by a 1950 police report which supposedly proved the claim. Kundera vehemently denied it and he was widely supported, notably by fellow Czech writer Ivan Klima and also by Václav Havel, first president of the Czech Republic. One of the oddities of the case was the mystery over why this took so long to surface. The report did not belong to Kundera’s rather large government file and it is surprising that this was not used in the 60s or 70s to ruin Kundera as an emerging dissident. Police stipulate that the file had simply gotten lost but many assume that the accusation based on the report was a terrible mistake. There were however, those that believed Kundera capable of capitulation on such a scale.

The former dissident Jan Urban encouraged Kundera to come clean about denouncing Dvoracek. ‘He’s one of the greatest writers of today - if he could just say ‘yes, I made a mistake when I was a 21-year-old and probably someone paid for that mistake instead of me’ he could even make a great book out of that. Instead, he has pretended that nothing happened, and I think that that is a mistake.’ Dvoracek’s wife, though more understandbaly, also accused the writer ‘We’re not surprised that Kundera’s name has surfaced in Czech media reports as the informant. Kundera is a good writer but I am under no illusions about him as a human being.’

What is perhaps most striking about these accusations is the way in which Kundera’s success as a writer seems to be a point of attack on this moral issue. After the accusation and the uproar among dissidents, it would not be not surprising if the rest of Europe followed suit in making the link between Kundera’s success and his integrity. Urban’s comment insinuates that Kundera’s writing is a shallow in light of his morals, or that there is something illicit in his work now, as if in this light, his success endows him with callous vanity.

As Kundera’s rise to fame began with the inspiration provided by a communist regime, by this accusation Kundera’s work has been turned into a gross misuse of humanity. Perhaps if Kundera was not so famous in the Czech republic as a hero of dissent, then the back lash would not have been so bitter. But now, if Kundera was ever in any danger of being misinterpreted simply as a political writer, it has been sealed by the 2008 accusation. History may well remember him solely in terms of Czech politics and ‘bad’ morals, similar to the way that the moral scandal over The Satanic Verses has done its work to fix the writings of Salman Rushdie in the temporal bubble of its controversy.

This stir however, does not appear to have so disturbed Kundera in the rest of Europe’s estimation, and only time will tell what damage the scandal has incurred. Hopefully the merit and variation of his work will penetrate this new misinterpretation, just as it has done with all others in the past.

It seems to be a cruel but delightfully ironic turn that not only morality (that old devil) is the instrument of Kundera’s potential undoing, but also that Kundera is now facing the dreadful hand of history and its effect upon his work, when the characters of his books are so often doing the same thing. I wonder whether Kundera would get the joke?





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