The Czech-born poet, dramatist, essayist and novelist Milan Kundera (b. 1929) is internationally best known for the two once hugely fashionable novels he published after emigrating from Czechoslovakia to France in 1975: The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (BLF, 1979) and The Unbearable Lightness of Being (ULB, 1984). Both are examples of what he calls ‘thinking novels’, in which the plot elements are interpolated with extended authorial reflections on themes often identified in the title of the novel. His novels both reflect and have helped him refine his understanding of the nature and history of the novel, which he expounds in a series of books written originally in French, beginning with The Art of the Novel (AN, 1986). His ideas resonate not so much because of their originality as because of the ‘anti-theoretical’ accessibility of their expression. Drawing above all on the writing of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) and twentieth-century thinkers influenced by him, including the Russian Formalists, José Ortega y Gasset (1883–1955), Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) and the French existentialists, Kundera sets out a retrospective ‘manifesto’ for the European novel, and attempts in both his fiction and non-fiction to describe and demonstrate an alternative to predictions of its imminent death.
Two ways of being
Throughout his fiction and non-fiction, Kundera suggests that the modern human being responds to existence in two distinct ways. The first response is marked by sentimental egocentrism and is associated with youth, romanticism and the placing of the intellect in the service of the emotions. The human being is consumed by an exhibitionist desire to be acknowledged, but also to belong, to participate in shared experiences, to be one with the shared destiny of humanity, resulting in conformity, homogeneity, mediocrity, superficiality and the ‘stupidity of received ideas’.