Who is Milan Kundera?

Garry Crystal

Milan Kundera was born on 1 April 1929 in Brno, Bohemia, which is now called Czechoslovakia. During his high school years, he first showed literary leanings by writing his first poems. In the aftermath of World War II, he worked as a jazz musician and then enrolled in college. At the Prague Academy of Performing Arts, he studied film, literature and music. He then moved on to become a professor of film at the same academy.

Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, was home to many of the intellectuals who were involved in the Velvet Revolution.
Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, was home to many of the intellectuals who were involved in the Velvet Revolution.

It was around this time that Milan Kundera joined the editorial staff of literature magazines such as, Listy and Literarni Novini. Like many other Czech intellectuals of the time, he also joined the Communist Party in 1948. Two years later, he was expelled from the party for “individualistic tendencies”. He later rejoined the party for fourteen years between 1956 and 1970.

Throughout the 50s, Kundera worked as a translator and essayist. He was also working at the time as an author of stage plays. By this time, Milan Kundera had published several volumes of poems, but in 1953 he published his first prose book. Laughable Loves was a collection of short stories Kundera had written between 1958 and 1960 which centered on the human condition and relationships between men and women. He expressed deep, expansive themes that ran from humor to philosophy.

Kundera's first novel, The Joke, was published in 1967 and dealt with Stalinism. Shortly after the Soviet Invasion in 1968, Milan Kundera, one of the prominent figures of a failed radical movement called The Prague Spring, found himself in a position of persecution. He lost his teaching position, his books were banned from libraries, and in 1970, his books were banned from publication altogether.

Having little choice, Milan Kundera moved to France and became a guest professor at the University in Rennes in Bretagne. His second novel, Life is Elsewhere, was published in 1973 in Paris. In 1979, his Czechoslovakian citizenship was taken away from him as a reaction to his novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. His novels that followed were all banned in the Czechoslovakian Soviet Socialist Republic (CSSR), and he became a citizen of France in 1981.

Milan Kundera has written novels in French, which have been translated into German, Spanish and English and are now read the world over. Kundera has often had arguments with translators, claiming they translate his work inaccurately. In 1994, he wrote Testaments Trahis (Testaments Betrayed), an essay which focused on his mistrust of translators, interpreters and adulterators.

Milan Kundera is regarded as one of the great writers of the 20th century. His philosophies and ideas on the human condition, particularly the relationships between men and women, have made him a giant in the literary world. One of his most famous works, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, was filmed starring Juliette Binoche and Daniel Day-Lewis and is an independent art-house favorite. A very private man, Milan Kundera does not give many interviews and lives quietly in Paris with his wife.

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