Milan Kundera
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The five masks of Milan Kundera

Refusing to talk about himself was not a moral attitude, nor a posture of proud withdrawal, but a novelistic rejection of the despotism of the media

Milan Kundera, in an photograph from 1978
Milan Kundera, in an photograph from 1978.Ferdinando Scianna / Magnum Photos / ContactoPhoto (Ferdinando Scianna / Magnum Photos / ContactoPhoto)

The success of a writer is often accompanied by increasingly numerous misunderstandings about him. After the worldwide success of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, misunderstandings kept arising. Interview requests came in from all over the world and his words were often misrepresented. The legend of the Prague dissident threatened to overshadow his work, which he had tried to protect from biographers with his constant translation and editing work. His seminar at EHESS, the School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences in Paris, was always full of journalists and intellectuals in need of a master thinker. One of them said to me as he left a seminar: “He could be the new Sartre!”

A decision had to be made, which consisted of a neologism: to “beckettise” himself, alluding to Samuel Beckett’s refusal to appear in public. And that’s what he did starting in 1986. No more interviews. No more photos. His seminar was reserved for about 20 students, whom I was in charge of selecting based on their work. Starting in 1986, my role as an assistant often consisted of driving away annoying people rather than “assisting” Kundera.

Rather than placate the comments, his voluntary withdrawal from the public scene only served to fuel suspicion. One does not disappear for no reason, his detractors insinuated. Might he have something to hide? After much searching, in 2008 they finally found a communist police report from Prague from 1950, in which he was accused of having been an informer when he was 18 years old. A Kafkaesque judgment in the form of an anachronism. Yasmina Reza defended him in Le Monde: “It is difficult to forgive a man for being great and illustrious. But even less so, if he meets these qualities, for keeping silent. In the empire of noise, silence is an offense. Anyone who refuses to reveal themselves, to make some form of public contribution other than their work, becomes a troublesome figure and a priority target.”

For Kundera, refusing to talk about himself was not a moral attitude, nor a posture of proud withdrawal, but a novelistic rejection of the despotism of the media, a strategy designed to highlight the works, the life of literary creations rather than the life of their authors. Refusing to talk about himself was the only possible reaction to the tendency of most literary critics and biographers to study the writer, his personality, his political views and his private life instead of studying his works. “The aversion to having to talk about oneself” was, in his opinion, the fundamental feature of the novelist’s talent.

So much has been said and written about Milan Kundera that, on many occasions, the noise surrounding his life has often taken the place of his novels. Journalists, those great chroniclers of other people’s souls, did not stop hounding him, following in his footsteps from Brno to Prague and from Rennes to Paris, searching for supposed secrets behind the closed door of his privacy, as if his novels were not enough and had to be backed up by a biography, hung on a wall of celebrities.

There are two ways to approach the Kundera phenomenon. The first is biographical and consists of pointing out the different stages of his life, which, through a series of tests, led him from the lyrical illusions of his youth to the disenchanted maturity of adulthood. It is the formative novel of a young writer seduced and then disappointed by the communist revolution of 1948, which culminated in the Prague Spring of the 1960s and the Soviet occupation of 1968.

In the first perspective, three writers follow one another, three Milan Kundera, one inside the other like Russian dolls: the young poet, traveling companion of communism in 1948; the organic intellectual of the Prague Spring in the 1960s; and, after the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968, the opponent of normalization, excluded from public life and forced into exile in the 1970s (he settled in Rennes in 1975 and in Paris four years later). After the Soviet occupation, Kundera wrote three novels: Laughable Loves, Life Is Elsewhere and The Farewell Waltz, which, along with The Joke, make up the group of novels written in Prague. Then came exile and Kundera rediscovered himself as the man from the East and the dissident, the stateless exile, deprived of his citizenship by the communist regime, and the “assimilated” writer to whom President Mitterrand granted nationality and who wrote his first essays and all his subsequent novels in French.

Consequently, if we listen to the biographers, there is not a single Milan Kundera but five, five masks that show his effigy. What else are we to think of this distribution of roles other than what Kundera himself said about one of his characters?: “When he looked back, his life lacked coherence: all he found were fragments, isolated elements, an incoherent succession of pictures... The desire to justify a posteriori a series of scattered events was a falsification that could deceive others, but not him.” And I wonder: isn’t that precisely the definition of biography? An artificial logic that prevails in an “incoherent succession of frames”?

But there is another possible approach, one that is not filled with biographical details and focuses on the essential, beginning in medias res, according to the “art of ellipsis” that Kundera considered essential in novel composition. It is a “phenomenological” approach, although Kundera, who resented philosophical labels, would certainly have rejected the word and would have preferred an approach that he would have described as problematic, that is, bent on describing and making understandable a set of problems concerning the work and not the life of the novelist.

It is impossible to understand the role and place of Kundera in the Paris of the 1980s without taking into account the literary and intellectual context of the time: the crisis of Marxism, the end of the great narratives and the decline of the figure of the committed intellectual, materialized in the death and burial of Sartre on April 15, 1980. That was a crucial moment that helps us understand his strategy as a writer: “50% of a writer’s talent is in his strategy!” he confided to me during my first interview with him, in December 1981. That moment coincided with his arrival in Paris, when his work was gradually emerging from the Czech or Central European literary sphere (what he called the small context) and thus escaping the problems of dissidence, which were to lose their appeal with the fall of the Berlin Wall. The end of history, the end of ideologies and the great stories of emancipation.

We could say that this was the moment of the narrative impasse, the waiting period between two centuries: the 20th century, which came to an end in 1989, and the 21st century, which, according to the media, did not begin until September 11, 2001. It is at this moment that, paradoxically, Kundera’s works, his novels and essays, written mainly in Czech or French, take on the meaning of a return to the novel, of a great recapitulation, a great retrospective, a retro-European instant: as he wrote in The Art of the Novel, “a European is the one who feels nostalgic for Europe.”

Christian Salmon is a French writer, author of Storytelling: Bewitching the Modern Mind, The Cannibal Ceremony and The Age of Confrontation. Between 1982 and 1988 he was an assistant to Milan Kundera at the EHESS in Paris.

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