One day Milan Kundera will be remembered as the one who concluded and gave a definitive form to the grand tradition of European Modernism. Not only because his long life, which began in 1929, embraced a large part of that extraordinary artistic adventure, but because in his novels – which are known for their ability to unite depth of thought, psychological sophistication and a narrative levity that can reveal the abyss of life without ever losing the lucid smile of a disenchantment inherent to an authentic enlightenment writer – all the inventions and experiments of the twentieth century came back to life, and reached something like a final stage of limpid clarity.
From that unique observatory of the miseries and grandeurs of the 20th century that was Czechoslovakia, as a child Kundera saw the decline of the democratic Republic that arose from the end of the Habsburg empire, and experienced Nazi occupation and the war while he learned how to play the piano from his father. He watched Europe divide itself into blocs during the period of his university studies in Prague and soon shared the disillusionment with the revolution that never happened, which had delivered his country to a new oppressive regime.
It was when that regime began to falter that Kundera became, almost suddenly, the great writer he would remain for all his life. In 1967, after having achieved notoriety with the play The Guardians of the Keys and the stories entitled Ridiculous Loves, he published The Joke, an absolute masterpiece and an unrepeatable book, in which a postcard mistaken as a signal of political rebellion ends up overwhelming the life of its author: the most innocent culprit ever to appear on the scene of the European novel.
The story immediately appeared inseparable from the moment that Czechoslovakia was experiencing, from the long-prepared reawakening that led to the “Spring” of 1968 and the tragic finale of that season of pain, of joy and illusions. In a moment Kundera became a point of reference for a society that – as he would never tire of recalling – was profoundly united by his literature.
The Union of Czech Writers’ Prize, which he received for his novel, attracted the hostility of the bureaucrats in the era of “normalization”. Expelled from the party, he could no longer write except under a pseudonym. Persecuted and forced into a semi-clandestine existence, he still managed to publish Life is Elsewhere, his book about the “European revolution” and about its exemplary poet, the egocentric and opportunistic Jaromil. But the farcical and tragic story decisively attracted the authorities’ hatred against him.
In the end he left Czechoslovakia in 1975, with a two-year expatriation visa that was tantamount to exile. He arrived in France and, helped by some French intellectuals, first obtained the chair of comparative literature at Rennes and then at the École des Hautes Études of Paris.
At that time, he already tended to consider his story as a writer to be over. However, although he was still workin, in Czech, on novels in which he transfigured the history of Czechoslovakia and his own past, such as The Farewell Waltz and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, and even though in 1979 he was stripped of his Czech nationality (soon compensated for by the acquisition of French citizenship granted to him by François Mitterrand in 1981), Kundera achieved a different identity as a writer and his definitive artistic dimension: that of the European narrator and conscious heir – more than any of his contemporaries – of a tradition of the novel in which he recognized (and would always recognize) the capacity to give a conscience to the story and to the lives of the individuals that run through it.
It was at this point, in fact, that Kundera’s art assumed its most accomplished form, embracing the format of novel-essay which immediately produced his best-known masterpiece, The Unbearable Lightness of Being: an authentic stroke of genius. Kundera had not abandoned his themes, but had immersed them in a new context. The story moved to an international space and the novel no longer had borders. Its contents touched everyone’s life and declared so openly: being makes no exceptions and this makes it, for everyone, unbearable.
Underneath the always light, ironic, almost discreet flow of the narration, Kundera (he would write this in The Art of the Novel) let ideas of Schopenhauer and Heidegger surface. In the essayistic pauses in the story, references to the authors to whom he felt most strongly indebted emerged: to Proust, Broch, also to Musil and Thomas Mann. The end of the national writer could have generated an imitator. But the characteristic of Kundera’s essay style has always been that of being squared with, or rather aware of following a tradition with which he could not and should not, however, ever completely identify himself.
For this reason, the need to continue without repeating began to generate in Kundera’s writing a quantity of inventions and variations interwoven with extraordinary storytelling ability: the essay, though always completely recognizable, never interrupts the flow of the story, but rather submits its underlying theme to a continuous series of variations, which runs through all the emotional tones. In this way the novel can pass from irony to seriousness, touch on tragedy, represent grotesque scenes without any hesitation and to open up parentheses of pure lyricism: a single theme, through its metamorphoses, ends up embracing the whole world: indeed, being.
What made this continuous shift from one tone to another possible was an absolutely unmistakable style in which the musician that Kundera had been in his youth imposed his ars combinatoria on the narrator of an only apparently chaotic becoming. Not for nothing, one of the most evident characteristics of Kundera’s art has been its incredible constructive ability, this certainly taken from the Broch of The Sleepwalkers.
In novels like The Farewell Waltz or Immortality one even struggles to follow the ups and downs of the narrative. Kundera seems to enjoy taking the reader away from the center of the story, dispersing his attention, to then bring back all the threads of the novel, with an ability that seems almost magical, to one clear, evident logic. The Enlightenment gaze that the lover of eighteenth-century France throws on the always surprising developments of his plots depends totally on this hidden logic, which is always inherent in the digressions of the story, the meaning of which the reader is only able to discern at the end.
In fact, in this aspect Kundera was also the heir of Modernism: his narrative is an art of knowledge, of revelation, in which the story brings to light the unconscious element of the words, the implied being that flows invisibly in them, until the representation brings it out. For this reason, one could say that Kundera was a staunch defender of literature and its value. In an essay from 1983 which has only recently appeared in Italian, A Western Prisoner, he explained in the clearest way possible what was, for him, the necessity of literature and what is the risk that an increasingly distracted society runs in the face of its oblivion: the loss of self-awareness, that awareness which the narration instead wrests, from time to time, from nothingness.
Faced with the danger of a general cultural homogenization, faced with the risk of losing the memory of oneself stratified in the culture, in the language, in the words that we use with sovereign superficiality, literature always brings depth back into play, the painful relationship with the unknown and the irrepressible happiness of its coming to light. For this reason, in recent years, Kundera’s worst fear was that the readers of art novels would in the future become as rare as lovers of late Latin. The legacy of the modern is the memory of the modern: continuing the discourse of Modernism meant for Kundera remaining in contact with that last Enlightenment offshoot that had challenged the menacing spread of nihilism. And that contact had only one weapon at its disposal: the will to know, to reveal and remember.
© 2023 il manifesto
Translated by Paul Rosenberg
Top image: (c) Oldřich Škácha / Knihovna Václava Havla, 1967