Friday, July 17, 2015

To Forget History. Johannes Lichtman on Milan Kundera

IT WAS MY LOVE of Milan Kundera, and my desire to defend him against Harold Bloom, that brought me to Prague. As part of a growing critical dismissal of Kundera that began in the early ’90s, Bloom had categorized Kundera as an increasingly irrelevant author of period pieces. “‘The Prague Moment’ has gone by,” Bloom wrote in a short essay on Kundera. “Young people no longer go off to the Czech capital with Kundera in their back-packs.”

But here I was, still youngish, standing outside Kinský Palace with Kundera in my backpack. Ha! Unfortunately, I wasn’t clear on how I hoped to defend Kundera, beyond just being somewhere with a backpack. I knew that I thought Kundera’s declining status unfair. I knew that he’d suffered backlash since he switched from writing in Czech to writing in French and shifted his focus from Czech culture to French culture. I knew that after the fall of the Iron Curtain, a swell of Czech anti-Kundera criticism had made its way west — some of it justified, some of it sheer character assassination. And I knew that many of the issues that muddied Kundera’s critical reception could be summed up in one short section from his fiction — a scene that took place where I now stood.
Kundera was born in 1929 in Brno, Czechoslovakia. Beyond that, summarizing his biography is a little tricky. Even when he was giving interviews (he pretty much swore them off in the mid-1980s), his public comments, like his writing, were a tightly braided knot of fact and fiction. His past is shrouded and much of what is known is contested, and there is, as yet, no published biography of Kundera to settle several pressing questions. Unsurprisingly, he has antipathy for the biographer’s art. As Kundera put it in The Art of the Novel (1986): 

The novelist demolishes the house of his life and uses its bricks to construct another house: that of his novel. From which it follows that a novelist’s biographers unmake what the novelist made, and remake what he unmade. Their labor, from the standpoint of art utterly negative, can illuminate neither the value nor the meaning of a novel. 

Kundera has criticized scholars for elevating private writing to the level of novels — “I refuse to put the Letters to Felice on the same level as The Castle” — and declared that none of his letters or journals will be published after his death. The value with which he endows privacy is not strange given the time he spent hounded by a regime that aimed to collapse the private into the public.

In 1949, shortly after moving to Prague, a young Kundera sent a letter to a friend in which he made a joke about a government official. The letter was intercepted by the secret police and resulted in Kundera’s expulsion from the Party. The incident became the inspiration for his first novel The Joke (1967), in which a young man sends a playfully pro-Trotsky postcard to his girlfriend, who forwards it to the police and brings about the young man’s expulsion from the Party. Kundera was eventually readmitted to the Party, but after the Soviet invasion of ’68, he was expelled for a second time, this time for good, and removed from his position teaching film and literature. He emigrated from Czechoslovakia to France in 1975 and has lived there since. 

Kundera’s muted delivery juxtaposes the heavy with the light in a conversational style that’s often wonderfully at odds with the bigness of his ideas. His chapters are short, his movement discursive, and his philosophy occasionally pompous, but mostly playful. By examining the same theme with different stories (as in, for example, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, 1979) or telling the same story from different perspectives (as in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, 1984), Kundera bases the architecture of his books on musical concepts of variation (in which the composer repeatedly returns to the same bars, with a slightly different approach each time) and polyphony (in which several melodies play off each other simultaneously). 

Yet early translations of his works tended to lose what made them most interesting. Foreign publishers wanted to market Kundera’s biography rather than his style, and he has never quite been able to shed the early portrayal of himself as a dissident writer of protest novels..