Milan Kundera: Novelist of European nostalgia

The great Czech writer, who migrated from his native language to French, cast a cold eye on the slow erosion of Europe's illusions. 

French editions of Milan Kundera's work.
French editions of Milan Kundera's work. Credit: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

‘France has become the country of my novels; I have simply followed them there.’ So spoke Milan Kundera, the man who wanted to be known as a novelist, and nothing but a novelist. In fact, he wished he could have disappeared behind his novels. He liked quoting Flaubert: ‘The artist must make believe that he never existed.’ He also wholeheartedly agreed with Maupassant when he declared: ‘The life of a man doesn’t belong to the public.’ In L’Art du roman (The Art of the Novel), which he wrote in 1986, there is this dialogue: ‘Are you a Communist?’ ‘No, I’m a novelist,’ ‘Are you a dissident?’ ‘No, I’m a novelist’, ‘Are you on the Left or are you on the Right?’ ‘Neither. I’m a novelist.’

The inexorable illness that plagued the last years of his life hopefully spared him the rise of identity politics he so despised, and the cult of indiscretion he so hated. Kundera was against having an identity and viewed indiscretion as a capital sin. He found the idea of auto-fiction abhorrent, an imposition of the self on others. He loathed ‘the biographical’, so much so that after the global success of his 1985 novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, he retreated once and for all from the public eye, turning down every interview request. France, more than any other Western country, must have appealed to him for its lack of tabloids and voyeuristic culture. He could live anonymously in Paris, roam its streets like Samuel Beckett a decade earlier, and receive his friends while continuing to write without being constantly pestered. The French valued the notion of privacy, and he was grateful.

Milan Kundera was born Czech and died French, wrote the daily newspaper Libération on the day of his death, 11 July 2023. As often with Kundera, the reality was more ambiguous. To begin with, Kundera was never comfortable with the concept of ‘Czechoslovakia’ which he thought too immature, having been born only 11 years before him. Although most of his novels were set in his birth country, he never used the word. He preferred speaking of Bohemia, which might not have been geographically accurate but was, for him, always poetically exact.

Why did he choose France? I would say rather that France chose him. His early short stories having been published both by Sartre in Les Temps Modernes and Aragon in Les Lettres Françaises, France was among the first to champion his work. When he thought of leaving his country in which he and his wife Vera were under stricter and stricter surveillance, his French friends made it possible by offering him a university teaching position, first in Rennes, then in Paris. That way, Kundera, who never saw himself as a dissident, could leave Czechoslovakia legally, by invitation. Four years later, in 1979, it appeared clear he could not return. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, which he wrote during one summer in Belle-Île-En-Mer, enraged the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia. They punished him by making him stateless. As soon as François Mitterrand was elected in spring 1981, the French President gave Kundera a nationality. A French citizen was born, one who would pay tribute to his adopted country by embracing its language.

It started by a conversation with a French friend, who said he was struck by the contrast between the lyrical language of The Joke and the sparer tone of his later novels. Intrigued, Kundera started looking at the French translation of his novels. He uncovered what he considered awful semantic betrayals. He revised all his French translations himself and became obsessed with it to the point of neglecting his own writing. Until he decided to leave Czech behind and embrace French. La lenteur (Slowness) published in 1995 is his first book written in French. At 66, a new life in another language was beginning. Many critics were startled at first, not recognising his voice, nor his tone, suddenly unsure whether to keep laughing with Kundera or to take him seriously. Changing your language is also changing your persona. The times had changed, too. The Berlin Wall had fallen and ‘kitsch’, as he called it, started invading the West. Kundera, who had lived through the Cold War, became as Ariane Chemin wrote in Le Monde : ‘A companion to the slow erosion of European illusions.’

However, whether in Czech or in French, Kundera will forever remain a European of the twentieth century, which, in his own words, meant ‘someone with the nostalgia of Europe’.


Agnès Poirier