In Milan Kundera’s Work, the Erotic Meets the Subversive

It’s hard to overstate how central Milan Kundera was, in the mid-1980s, to literary culture in America and elsewhere. He was the best-known Czech writer since Kafka, and his fiction brought news of sophisticated Eastern European societies trembling under the threat of Soviet repression.

Reviews of his erotic, heavy-hearted and metaphysical novels commanded the front pages of books sections, as did his occasional interviews. His work cast a spell, and few did not submit. In every college town, people were buying, reading and crushing on Kundera. His status has fallen somewhat. In retrospect, the moment feels slightly like a mass delusion, if an agreeable and largely worthwhile one.

Kundera’s best and most representative novel, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” was published in 1984. Set during the Prague Spring of 1968, it’s about a successful surgeon who quits to become a window washer after refusing to pledge allegiance to the Soviet Union. He’s a young, intelligent dissident who finds solace in bed-hopping, and who surprises himself by falling in love. The novel’s influence was cemented by Philip Kaufman’s urbane 1988 film adaptation, which starred Daniel Day-Lewis, Lena Olin (and her bowler hat) and Juliette Binoche.

Kundera’s reputation in the West had been growing for more than a decade thanks to the publication in English of novels that included “The Joke” (1967), “Life Is Elsewhere” (1973), “The Farewell Party” (1972) and “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting” (1979).

He had a great gift for subversive humor. In “The Joke,” for example, a woman tries to kill herself by ingesting painkillers, only to find they were laxatives. Kundera’s humor had a deeper purpose. It was often irreverent and mocking; it had an underground quality, and it sprang from his innate distrust of authority.

“I learned the value of humor during the time of Stalinist terror,” he told Philip Roth in a 1980 interview that ran in The New York Times Book Review. “I was 20 then. I could always recognize a person who was not a Stalinist, a person whom I needn’t fear, by the way he smiled. A sense of humor was a trustworthy sign of recognition.”

The Communist government in Czechoslovakia, until the Velvet Revolution in 1989, banned Kundera’s books. He went into exile in France in 1975, and exile of various sorts was among his abiding themes. He ultimately saw himself as a French writer.

Kundera’s novels often felt essayistic; they were about whatever was on his mind: nostalgia, the absurdity of absolutes, music. Often enough though, what was on his mind was sex. Jonathan Rosen, in a 2015 piece for The Atlantic, recalled reading “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting” in high school, writing that the novel “featured orgies the way ‘Pride and Prejudice’ featured dinner parties.”

In that same novel, however, Kundera displayed his tactile and philosophical interest in memory, in what remains. Of Tamina, who cannot recall her dead husband’s face, he writes:

Kundera saw sex as an act of redemption and of liberation under repressive regimes, but his obsession came back to haunt him. Critics increasingly came to see his men as creepy womanizers. Geoff Dyer compared Kundera’s novels to the slapstick burlesque of “The Benny Hill Show,” with “the nurse in her bra and panties getting chased around by these horny doctors.”

In her essay collection “In Praise of Messy Lives,” Katie Roiphe noted Kundera’s libertine influence on a generation. She recalled an unhappy sexual episode from her youth and chalked it up in part to “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” which she called “that sublime adolescent ode to emotional carelessness, that ubiquitous paperback expounding an obscure Eastern European profundity in moral lapses.” What do we want? that book asked. Weight or lightness?

About the sex in his fiction, Kundera told Roth, “I have the feeling that a scene of physical love generates an extremely sharp light which suddenly reveals the essence of characters and sums up their life situation.” He added: “The erotic scene is the focus where all the themes of the story converge and where the deepest secrets are located.”

Kundera’s novels, especially his later ones, could be abstract and heavy-handed. His characters, at times, were little more than chess pieces. Their author could be pretentious. His work is filled with observations such as: “In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine.” But his best fiction retains its moments of sweep and power.

Great novels, Kundera remarked, are always a little more intelligent than their authors. His best work, like Gabriel García Márquez’s writing about Latin America in the 1960s and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s about Russia in the 1970s, didn’t just bring a neglected region of the world to light, but gave it complex life.

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