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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Adam Thirlwell

Milan Kundera: ‘funny, experimental, worldly’

Milan Kundera.
Elsewhere … Milan Kundera in 1981. Photograph: Louis MONIER/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

In many ways Milan Kundera formed how I think about novels. I first discovered him at about 17, when I read his essay The Art of the Novel followed by his novel Slowness, which had just come out. (A book I ended up stealing from a friend’s apartment, I loved it so much.) He had been dramatically famous in the 1980s, so I associated him with the bookshelves of my parents’ generation, but these two almost miniature books were so funny and lucid and experimental and worldly that they seduced me entirely. This sensation of excitement and the contemporary never left me.

He came, of course, out of a specific historical moment. When he was young in the 1950s he was a member of the Communist party in Prague, but the horror of the Russian invasion of what was then Czechoslovakia in 1968, and the realisation that whatever utopian ideal of society he had envisaged would never be possible, led to his exclusion first from any form of work – banned by the totalitarian Communist authorities, he was eventually forced to live in the woods for a period – and then, ultimately, from his country. In 1975 he left Czechoslovakia for France, where he lived with his wife Vera until his death, becoming a Franco-Czech hybrid: a cross-border phenomenon.

It was in France that he wrote the two novels that made him famous: The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, and The Unbearable Lightness of Being. These novels represented new forms the novel could take: a flow of novelistic thinking that refused the limits of showing and telling, or fiction and essay. That liberated intelligence is what first attracted me – his writing was always marked by a unique clarity. But now I wonder if that clarity – combined with his fame as a dissident in exile – created a strange invisibility. A public image of his fluency gradually hid the restlessness, ardour and fragility of his writing.

Maybe there’s a way to rewrite that cold war public image and its authority. We are now in a new era of Russian colonial invasion, and it was Kundera’s experience of that earlier Russian invasion - of suddenly being forced to believe in the “eternity of the Russian night” – that was for him indelible. His defence of his small country became a defence of an ideal Europe as a collage or ecosystem of small elements, a Europe to which he once gave the wonderful definition: “maximum diversity in minimum space”. And the art of the novel he defended was therefore also based on maximum diversity: an international bricolage that could link Martinique and Colombia to Prague or London. It meant that he found a way of defending the international while in no way dissolving the local, and could at the same time refuse the idea that a writer’s identity should exist in a single language. Famously he eventually stopped writing in Czech and wrote in French instead. And in a short piece on the exiled Czech poet Věra Linhartová – who also left Prague for Paris, and also began writing in French – he gave a description of the new territory they had discovered: “When Linhartová writes in French, is she still a Czech writer? No. Does she become a French writer? No, not that either. She is elsewhere.”

That “elsewhere” was the territory he was forced into by the Russian invasion, where all forms of identity were revealed as potentially fluid. It was from that place of radical instability that he once described himself as a “hedonist trapped in a world politicised to extremes”. But perhaps this isn’t entirely precise. It was more that his disillusion at the human capacity for cruelty and self-deception was so absolute that his ideal became a definition of pleasure as a space of pure playfulness and tenderness. This space, in his eyes, was also precarious, so precarious that Kundera’s deepest fidelity, perhaps, was to the non-human world of animals and forests.

My wife and I once took a trip with our two-year-old dog to visit him and Vera at their apartment on the northern French coast. Our dog was a whippet, and therefore basically wild. After a walk on the wet beach, back in the apartment, he leapt all over the elegant sofas and coffee table. Mortified, I tried to restrain him. And Milan happily said: “But the sofas are all for him! Let him go wherever he likes!”

It’s that image of delighted wildness that I keep remembering. I always loved the way he found new possibilities in past literature, how he was always pointing out still unexplored paths for the novel: of play, of dream, of thought, of time. There was no end to the art of the novel, it was inexhaustible. His own writing, too, vibrates with energy. Out of a demented past, in our demented present, it offers new futures.

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