April 2, 2019
The reports of Milan Kundera’s death are greatly exaggerated
by Michael Barron
Ladies and Gentlemen, the Czech writer and author of the canonical novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being is not dead.
You may have thought Milan Kundera, perennial Nobel contender, had died—certainly the novelist had enemies in the former Soviet Union who would have liked to have seen him dead—but nay, according to many sources on Twitter, Kundera is alive to celebrate his 90th birthday, which was yesterday, April 1, or April Fools Day. (Kundera’s debut novel, a satire of life in Soviet Czechoslovakia, is titled The Joke, no joke. Another: The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. You can’t make this stuff up.)
A bit of background. Kundera was born in Brno, Czechia, in 1929. He was involved in the infamous “Czech Spring,” in which a reformist uprising was brutally quashed by the Soviet army. He had his Czech citizenship stripped in 1979 and became a French citizen in 1981. He rose to international fame with The Unbearable Lightness of Being, published in 1984 and later adapted for film by American director Philip Kaufman and starring Daniel Day-Lewis.
Kundera has remained in France to this day, because if there is one thing that is dead to Kundera it is his Czech heritage. According to an article in CBCNews, published in 2009 for his then 80th birthday, Kundera’s hometown of Brno organized a symposium in his honor and apparently made a mistake by inviting him to attend. In response he sent “a tongue-in-cheek” letter to organizers for holding “a necrophile party,” and which went on to say that Kundera “sees himself as a French writer and insists his work should be studied as French literature and classified as such in book stores.”
Kundera’s last book to be written in Czech was 1990’s Immortality. The article goes on to further state that “since then, Kundera has only published his books in French, and had until recently forbidden Czech editors from publishing his books in their language.”
But that was ten years ago, and in that same article CBCNews stated that Kundera had at the time also refused to receive an award due to health problems.
But look, woah, hey, Kundera is still alive. Could it be that switching from Czech pilsner to a glass of French red wine has prolonged his life? Or is it that Kundera won’t rest until the Nobel is finally his? Isn’t the Nobel committee giving out two awards for literature this year? That’s double your chances, Mr. Kundera.
In the meantime, the Czech, ahem, French writer’s ban on having his books published his native Czech seems to have been lifted, presumably by him since, as a living man, he would otherwise be able to enforce it.
Michael Barron is an editor at Melville House.