5 Books to Read So You Can Talk About Milan Kundera (1929-2023)
Posted on July 14, 2023
by Eric P
There was a time in the 1980s and ‘90s when you were required to have at least one or two opinions about the Czech novelist Milan Kundera. His novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being was a huge hit; everyone had it on their shelves whether they’d read it or not. And the movie adaptation was just as impactful, cementing Daniel Day-Lewis as the poster boy for art-house intensity and obligating everyone to fall in love with Juliette Binoche.
But basically, you needed to have things to say about Kundera. About his stubborn iconoclasm (he was ousted by both Czechoslovakia and the Communist Party, and this was back before anyone invented cancel culture). About his novels’ treatment of women (was he depicting men’s oppressive objectification of women, or was he oppressively objectifying women?). About his experimentation with form (his fiction shifted fluidly in perspective and in tone and even in genre, toggling from short story to novel to analytical essay from one page to the next).
Then time passed; Kundera’s literary output grew less frequent and less crucial. The popular imagination shifted, as it does; your Unbearable Lightness of Being paperback moved aside to make way for Zadie Smith or George Saunders or Elena Ferrante. You didn’t have to worry about being asked what you thought about The Book of Laughter and Forgetting ever again.
Until now. Kundera died July 11 at the age of 94, so people are talking again about his oeuvre: its philosophical depths, its continental sophistication, its surprising uses of humor, its juxtaposition of the personal and the political. You may want to be able to contribute something to this conversation. So here, in declining order of indispensability, are the five novels you might want to get acquainted with.
Kundera’s next book was maybe even better than Unbearable Lightness: freer and more fluid in its form and experimentations, it presents as a novel but refuses to behave like one. It’s more like a cascade of stories that collide with one another and pick meticulously at a tightly defined concentric arrangement of themes.
As the title suggests, this novel is preoccupied with death. But it’s even more preoccupied with the business of being a novel written by a novelist – who is himself a character in his own novel. Kundera’s storytelling increasingly interrupts itself to fret about the pressures of storytelling and the downsides of narrative conventions. Improbably, it all adds up to what might be one of his breeziest, most readable books – if also one of the easiest to forget about a few hours later.
The Joke is maybe the most pithily Kundera-esque of his novels’ titles. It encapsulates his enduring interest in laughter and the functions of humor; it also, within the context of the narrative, reflects his lifelong exploration of the theme of totalitarianism. The titular joke is an irreverent one told by a student that offends the Communist regime and derails the young man’s entire life. It’s a high-concept premise reminiscent of Gogol or Joseph Heller but – given Kundera’s own experiences with political expulsion – it carries more than a trace of verisimilitude.
Conventional wisdom holds that Kundera’s novels since 1990 are largely disposable. But if you’ve got some momentum going and want to keep forging ahead, Ignorance features an actual dimensional woman protagonist as well as new angles on some old Kunderan concerns like memory and forgetfulness and, of course, a bunch of sex.
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