Get all your news in one place.
100’s of premium titles.
One app.
Start reading
Evening Standard
Evening Standard
Charlie Duffield

What did Milan Kundera write? Author dies aged 94

The Czech writer Milan Kundera has died aged 94 after a prolonged illness.

The death of the poetic and satirical author was confirmed by Anna Mrazova, a spokeswoman for the Milan Kundera Library in his home city of Brno in the Czech Republic.

He once said: “The wisdom of the novel comes from having a question for everything.”

But what were his best-known books and who was he? Here’s what you need to know.

What was his early life like?

Kundera was born in 1929 into an elite Czech family where he received advanced musical training.

He studied in Prague and became a lecturer in world literature and was a member of the Communist Party.

He wrote in The New York Times Book Review: “Communism enthralled me in much the way Stravinsky, Picasso and surrealism had. It promised a great, miraculous metamorphosis, a totally new and different world.”

Then his writing got him in trouble, and after speaking in support of the Prague Spring movement he was asked to leave the party in 1970.

Kundera’s activism prompted his dismissal from his teaching post, his novels were removed from public libraries and the sale of his work was banned until the fall of the Communist government in 1989.

What books did Milan Kundera write?

His first novel The Joke – a black comedy published in 1967 – led to a ban on his writing in Czechoslovakia.

Kundera described it in part as about “the schism between body and soul”.

But it also explored the impact of communism on his country and how characters “end up in the trap of the joke history has played on them: lured on by the voice of utopia, they have squeezed their way through the gates of paradise, only to find, when the doors slam shut behind them, that they are in hell”.

In the mid-1970s he wrote the novels Life is Elsewhere and The Farewell Party, which were published in translation.

In 1979 he wrote The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, which spans seven narratives and contains elements of the magic realism genre.

Kundera wrote his most famous works – including The Unbearable Lightness of Being – while living in exile in Paris, after his Czech citizenship was revoked in 1979.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being is set in Prague in 1968 and follows the story of two couples as they grapple with infidelity and politics, exploring the tension between responsibility and freedom.

The book was made into a film by Philip Kaufman and features Daniel Day-Lewis and Juliette Binoche. Kundera was not a fan of the 1988 film and developed a mistrust of the media henceforward.

He said: “An author, once quoted by a journalist, is no longer master of his word … And this, of course, is unacceptable.”

Regarding The Unbearable Lightness of Being, when speaking to novelist Philip Roth in 1980 in the New York Times, he complained that he felt “the novel has no place” in the world, adding that “the totalitarian world, whether founded on Marx, Islam or anything else, is a world of answers rather than questions”.

He continued: “It seems to me that all over the world people nowadays prefer to judge rather than to understand, to answer rather than to ask, so that the voice of the novel can hardly be heard over the noisy foolishness of human certainties.”

It was translated into Czech and ended up as a bestseller in his homeland in 2006.

In 1990, he wrote his final novel in the Czech language, Nesmrtelnost (Immortality).

Later, he went on to write three short novels in French; La Lenteur in 1995, L’Identité in 1998 and L’Ignorance in 2000.

These short pieces focused on nostalgia, memory and the chance of a homecoming, before his final novel, The Festival of Insignificance, came out in 2014.

He was frequently thought of as a worthy Nobel Prize in Literature recipient but was never awarded the prize. However, he was awarded the Jerusalem Prize in 1985, which is given to writers whose works have dealt with themes of human freedom in society.

Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala said his work reached “whole generations of readers across all continents and achieved global fame”.

“He leaves behind not only notable fiction, but also significant essay work,” he added.

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.