In Paris, even in a completely cultivated milieu, during dinner parties people discuss television programs, not reviews. For culture has already bowed out. Its disappearance, which we experienced in Prague as a catastrophe, a shock, a tragedy, is perceived in Paris as something banal and insignificant, scarcely visible, a non-event.
At the center of the West’s cultural history is its literature, which the West has turned its back on. The same grievance reappears in Kundera’s later nonfiction, especially in his three book-length essays on the state of literature—The Art of the Novel (1986), Testaments Betrayed (1993), and The Curtain (2005)—which situate themselves in the twilight of the novel’s cultural centrality. “Has not the novel for some time already been living on death row?” Kundera posits in Testaments Betrayed. In the same piece, written in response to the Fatwa against Salman Rushdie in 1989, he writes of “Europe’s incapacity to defend and explain” the novel from its enemies: “Europe, the ‘society of the novel,’ has abandoned its own self.”
Accepting the Jerusalem Prize in 1985, Kundera described the novelist as “one who, according to Flaubert, seeks to disappear behind his work … that is, to renounce the role of public figure.” In a later interview (included in The Art of the Novel), Kundera wrote: “In July 1985, I made a firm decision: no more interviews. Except for dialogues co-edited by me, accompanied by my copyright, all my reported remarks since then are to be considered forgeries.” In the Novak biography, we’re told that in the 1990s Kundera underwent a “liquidation” of all his old work—shredding letters, notebooks, correspondences, as well as any unfinished or unpublished manuscripts. While Novak concedes that Kundera was “fully entitled” to do what he wished with his own work, his decision to destroy any imperfections from his past couldn’t more neatly exemplify his approach to his own biography. “The least an author can do for his works,” he affirms in The Art of the Novel, is “sweep around them.”
The Novak biography attempts to piece together the scraps that remain, and naturally this means recounting a few scandals. The most sizable occurred in 2008, when Adam Hradilek, a historian and columnist for the Czech magazine Respekt, discovered a file in declassified police archives which revealed that in 1950, when Kundera was still a student at FAMU, he informed on a young man named Miroslav Dvořáček, whom he believed to be a “diverzant” (divergent, or enemy agent). Dvořáček served as a pilot in the air force and was expelled for “untrustworthiness” after the communist coup in 1948. He defected to Germany and later returned to Czechoslovakia as an agent of American counterintelligence. On the evening of March 14, 1950, Dvořáček was staying in the dormitory of a young woman who was dating a mutual friend of Kundera’s. The friend told Kundera, shortly after which, according to the police report: “A student, Milan Kundera, born 1.4.1929 in Brno” presented himself at the local station and informed the authorities. Dvořáček was imprisoned for over a decade and sentenced to years of hard labor.