Kundera was the author of many internationally acclaimed books, such as The Joke, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, the first two of which were made into films. Tomáš Kubíček, head of the Moravian Library in Brno which houses Kundera’s library and archive, talks about what made his writing special.
“Kundera was able to write novels which include not only narrative elements, but also elements of the essay. And that is his distinctive stamp, Kundera’s unique writing style, thanks to which reading his work becomes an adventure of getting to know, rather than knowing. It is a process. His novels stimulate thought.”
The library and archive of Milan Kundera was transported from Paris to his home city of Brno in the autumn of 2022 after years of delays due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It opened within the spaces of the Moravian Library in April this year on the occasion of the author’s 94th birthday. Tomáš Kubíček says that his death may encourage readers to rediscover his work.
“People will remember him first and foremost by starting to read his books again, because he should be remembered as one of the great European authors, who exemplified the development of the European novel. And not only by recreating the past, but by showing that the novel still has many creative possibilities in front of it.”
Kundera had a somewhat complicated relationship with his home country. After he tried to reform Czechoslovak socialism during the Prague Spring and the subsequent Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 crushed those dreams, he moved to France in 1975 and had his Czech citizenship revoked four years later. He was blacklisted in Czechoslovakia and his books were banned.
He became a French citizen in 1981, but rarely returned to his homeland or spoke to the media. According to some sources, he saw himself as a French author and insisted that his work should be studied as French literature and classified as such in bookstores. However, Kubíček says this image of Kundera as someone who eschewed all ties with his homeland has been exaggerated.
“It’s a question how much of it is reality and how much is myth. Kundera never stopped caring about his Czech readers, and the fact that the Czech publisher Atlantis started publishing his books from the early 1990s is proof of that. During the 90s and early 2000s he still published his essays in the Czech magazine Host. He was present in the ways he wanted to be present – as an author, as a writer. The fact that he didn’t participate in Czech public life doesn’t mean that he didn’t have any interest in the country and its people. And his decision to donate his archive to his native Brno, to the Moravian Library, to make it available to Czech readers, testifies to the fact that he cannot easily be classified as either a French or a Czech author – we should think of him as an international author, because it is world literature that has suffered a loss with his passing.”