Milan Kundera at 80

Milan Kundera
is an author I could stand to read more of (I've only read The Unbearable Lightness of Being, although I did like it a lot). Now that he's 80, they're beginning to mark the occasion.

Geordie Williamson at The Australian has a nice, if occasionally inconsistent, tribute to Kundera:

But these fictions were always more than Iron Curtain exotica.
Kundera's talent, though unevenly applied throughout his career, has
always been impressive in essence and deeply original. His method has
been to graft abstract philosophical ideas with fictional invention to
create narrative cyborgs: intellectually speculative, formally
experimental, intermittently essayistic, yet warm-blooded, grounded in
human experience. His characters are not mere automatons, programmed
with pure theory and set to shuffling: they are sophisticated neural
networks that grow through those dilemmas of love, history, nation and
politics the author obliges them to confront.

Few, for example, have read and fewer understand German philosopher
Martin Heidegger when he writes about truth and untruth, and their
relation to human freedom (me included). But everyone can appreciate
Sabina, the embodiment of his ideas in The Unbearable Lightness of

One wonders how Williamson knows that Sabina embodies Heidegger's ideas if he doesn't understand them . . .

Later on, Williamson marks the turn in Kundera's fiction post-Iron Curtain:

It is difficult to know how consciously Kundera incorporated this
new political and cultural dispensation into his writing. But with his
turn to French in the 1990s came an increased interest in philosophy at
the expense of politics. Although these later novels were
well-received, re-reading the reviews it is hard toavoid the sense that
while his aphoristic intelligence remained undimmed, Kundera's
characters, now often Gallic, no longer at the pointy end of
20th-century history, had grown insubstantial. As Geoff Dyer, one of
Kundera's strongest English advocates, admitted of 1990's Immortality:

I find I don't much care about Kundera's characters in their (chic,
bourgeois) environment. I love Kundera speculating about his
characters, but when the characters are on their own, when he is not
around, in other words, when he is not looking, Iskip.

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I have little time for critics who think – as Williamson seems to suggest – that fiction is only ever pressing when read against a background of historical events.
Kundera did not increase “his interest in philosophy at the expense of politics” – it’s only critics in their “chic, bourgeois environment” who think they can be separated into commodious entities.

Coincidentally I watched the film of The Unbearable Lightness of Being tonight. It has been several years since I read the book but it is a reasonably good adaptation.

Still can’t get enough of Kundera. In fact, I added him to my top 100 books on totalitarianism list.

What a nice Kundera essay! (BTW, have I told you am a massively major fan of MK?).
The best thing about Kundera is his philosophic humor and light reading style. I’d recommend Book of Laughter and Forgetting, or for something earlier The Joke.
Conventional wisdom says that Kundera lost his magic touch in the 90s. But I found his last work Ignorance to be first rate.
Also, his most recent essay collection The Curtain is a masterpiece. It talks about the history of the European novel among other things. I savored every page.
I made a few more remarks about Kundera a year ago.
The key test is whether Kundera remains relevant post-Iron Curtain. I think he does. When I read ULOB, I find the historical facts described ironically. Communism was a backdrop and an oppositional ideology, but Kundera was more focused on art and humor than politics.
That said, I still believe Kundera’s characters are a bit flat.

I just stumbled upon this 5 years late, but I appreciate the heads up on the Geordie Williamson article, of which I was quite unaware.

I am not sure I buy into the Czech/French binary discussed above–I’ll have to re-read the later novels and see! If anyone is interested, I wrote an extended appreciation of his first book on the aesthetics of the European novel, The Art of the Novel on my blog at


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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