Get all your news in one place.
100’s of premium titles.
One app.
Start reading
The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK

‘He reflected the laughable complexity of the world’: Milan Kundera remembered by Florence Noiville

Milan Kundera.
‘Being discreet was his brand of elegance’: Milan Kundera. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Milan Kundera would often repeat to me that life is “a conspiracy of coincidences”. In his case, fate had seen him born on 1 April, and he was convinced that this had had “a profound metaphysical influence” on him. Indeed, one only has to look at his oeuvre: from his first novel, The Joke, to his last, The Festival of Insignificance, all of his books feature the jocular, the lighthearted. Which doesn’t stop them from combining mischievousness with great depth and great lucidity – not to mention melancholy, the renowned Czech lítost!

He must have thought it was a joke, that day I invited him to appear in a TV programme I was presenting, alongside my work at Le Monde. He’d laughed in my face. Television? No way. After the global success of The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), he had stopped appearing in public. He used to say that he’d “had an overdose of himself”. In Encounter, a collection of his essays, he describes a ghastly media spectacle in which self-satisfied celebrities laugh very loudly for no reason. Stupidity, vulgarity: Milan couldn’t bear them. Being discreet was his brand of elegance.

So, no TV. “But I could give you some pieces, now and then, for Le Monde des Livres,” he’d told me. And that’s what he did. We would often drink vodka at the Lutetia hotel, close to his home in Paris. That’s how we became friends – first Milan, then Vera, his wife (formerly a well-known journalist in Czechoslovakia: it was she who, in 1968, announced, live, the arrival of Russian tanks in Prague).

Kundera didn’t like talking about his life. “It’s all in my books,” he would say. He was born in 1929, in Brno, the traditional capital of Moravia. His father was a pianist, the pupil and friend of the composer Leoš Janáček, whom Milan adored, as he did all the great avant garde artists. Milan received a solid musical education, and could have become a pianist himself, but he also wrote (poems, plays), and, in the end, he chose to pursue writing. But music still irrigated all that he wrote, from fugues to sonatas: “When I think of a book, my first idea is always rhythmical,” he said. Most of his novels are variations on his favourite themes: relations between men and women, memory, forgetting, and history, of course… He often told me that communism had captivated him “as much as Picasso and surrealism”. In the 60s, he had believed in the Prague Spring. He remained forever wounded by its crushing by the USSR, convinced that a “socialism with a human face”, based on culture as the social glue of the Czech people, could have been, should have been possible.

Kundera in Paris, 1975.
Kundera in Paris, 1975. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

In his essays The Art of the Novel and Testaments Betrayed, Kundera reflected on the art of the novel since Cervantes. To add his own contribution, he invented what he called the “archiroman”, a malleable form of the novel that embraced fragments of all other genres (nonfiction, philosophy, musical scores…) In this way, the novel becomes a space for experimentation that reveals something of human nature to us, something we did not want to know. He should have got the Nobel prize.

When he left Czechoslovakia in 1975, to teach in Rennes, he thought it was just for a few years. But even after the fall of the Berlin Wall, he never returned to live in his country of origin. This weighed on him towards the end of his life. He wanted to go back to Brno, but knew that he wouldn’t necessarily be welcome there. First, he’d gone into exile, then he’d changed language, abandoning Czech to write in French. A double betrayal in the eyes of his compatriots, particularly Václav Havel and his entourage, who didn’t much like him.

Sometimes I would visit Milan and Vera in Le Touquet, in the Pas-de-Calais, where they had an apartment facing the sea. We would head to the countryside nearby to chew – “Allons mastiquer!”, Vera would say – on the frogs’ legs at a gourmet restaurant Milan loved, La Grenouillère. We would talk of all that Mitteleuropa had brought to the rest of Europe. And already, just as he had in his little book A Kidnapped West (1983), he would draw attention to Russia’s eternally expansionist aims.

Milan always drew a lot. Before his death, he sent me and my husband a drawing of a gangling creature dancing on the surface of the globe, with the caption: “Florence, Martin, au revoir!” His drawings are often enigmatic and mischievous. Like his writings, they reflect the laughable complexity of the world. A generalised joke. When I think of him, I think of one of his favourite sayings, the French version of the Yiddish proverb “Man plans, God laughs”, which he’d often fall back on: “L’homme pense, Dieu rit.

  • Florence Noiville is the foreign-fiction editor of Le Monde’s literary supplement and the author of Milan Kundera: ‘Ecrire, Quelle Drôle d’Idée!(Gallimard)

Sign up to read this article
Read news from 100’s of titles, curated specifically for you.
Already a member? Sign in here
Related Stories
Top stories on inkl right now
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Already a member? Sign in here
Our Picks
Fourteen days free
Download the app
One app. One membership.
100+ trusted global sources.