Writer Milan Kundera died between glory and secrets

The year Stalin died – it was 1953 and Czechoslovakia was under the strictest communism – Milan Kundera published his first book of poetry. was called Clovík, Zahrada Širá, “Man’s Wide Garden”, collected texts written between 1949 and the year of publication, some more catchy, others bordering on cliché; The book was a young poet’s homage to the character of Stalin: “Always higher, higher and higher with Stalin / Behind him towards the future,” he reads a line from those poems. Reflecting on those times, Milan Jungman, an important literary critic who died in Prague in 2012, wrote: «Clovík, Zahrada Širá He stirred passionate polemics, and Kundera’s third collection, Monologues (1957), had a hurricane effect on Czech literature … Today – Jungman continued vehemently – re-reading this frivolous poem, we will be amazed that it stimulated us at that time so much and that it gave us a magical feeling of an exceptional work of art. But it only shows how pathetic the standard of Czech poetry was… ».

The poems of those years, which Kundera defined as the Age of Idyll, or, as we say, of ideological infatuation, have never been translated, either in France or elsewhere, and Kundera did everything to hide them. Now that the Moravian writer (not Bohemian, as it has long been repeated: he was born in 1929, on April 1, in Brno) has died in Paris at the age of 94, it is the hiding and, at times, obscurity that has marked his life even when he arrived To France in 1975 – with the help of intellectuals like François Fouret and Pierre Nora, who made him a professorship (and also had Houellebecq among his students) – he seems forever buried inside a kind of hyperbaric chamber where the world is excluded, only the illusory universe that Kundera has built Around himself, like a shrine, with his literary work is significant.

To tell the truth, it was he who repeated many times that it was not the author who should find immortality, but his work. And when I speak of the mausoleum, I do not play with a fancy metaphor, but refer to this monument built by Kundera while editing the two volumes of Pléiade released in 2011, collecting works according to the worthy author. From surviving, and in place of a biography of the author, he presents selections of quotations from his books under the title C’est l’oeuvre qui parle. Not only did he choose what would end up in the two volumes, but he retranslated everything he had written in Czech and also rewrote the French translations that others had made with which he was never too happy. Many viewed this process with suspicion, but translation is a central theme in Kundera’s literary theory, who already noted in 1967, at a Congress of Czechoslovak Writers, that “in general, the greatest literary figures of the century before Montana Bianca were translators, … from Through literary translation, the Czechs established their European literature in the Czech language, and literature has shaped European readers who read the Czech language ». Lexical accuracy, one might say, is the foundation of culture. But the writer also adds: «Czech literature is very little aristocratic. It is general literature strongly associated with its broad national audience. In short, language is the soul of a nation. In 1983, in one of the last interviews before Eternal Silence, Kundera outlined the effects of Soviet communism in denying the nation its purging of the Czech intelligentsia.

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The last fifteen or twenty years for Kundera were a period of silence and misanthropy. His wife, Vera, who had been his literary director for a long time, explained her husband’s concealment: “He is like an old Indian who fears his soul will be stolen.” Regarding the indiscretion of the journalists who were posting in front of their house in Paris to try to break this isolation, Vera spoke with Le Monde journalist Ariane Chemin, Vera declared: “The journalists’ sniffer dogs should be hanged.” A phrase that recalls the harsh and merciless frankness with which Louis-Ferdinand Céline received the journalists who came to his house in Midoun after the war. In fact, Kundera showed towards Western journalists, guilty according to him of misrepresenting the meaning of his words, the same irritation he blamed on the spies of the Soviet regime who, starting in 1968, began to monitor him by creating various files. Thus, Kundera suffered, from the Prague Spring onwards, less violently, forcing other opponents of the regime with imprisonment or with their lives, for example Havel and Batoca even after Kundera’s departure to France.

After 1968, the writer came to carry a socialist idea with a human face. Of course, Moscow did not like this. He will thus be gradually denied his university assignments, his books will be rejected and his wife, Vera, will lose her job on state television. To make ends meet, Milan would also be a taxi driver and write horoscopes under a pseudonym. However, according to another now 92-year-old but very prominent Czech writer of the time, Ivan Klima, Kundera enjoyed privileges dictated by his “status as Enfant SherryFrom the favorite son of the communist regime until 1968 ».

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When did this idealistic association with Soviet Communism begin? At the age of sixteen, in 1945, he read Milan Marx deeply, and two years later he joined the Communist Youth. Referring to the 1948 Moscow-orchestrated coup, Kundera told Liberation: “I, too, applauded the revolution.” And three years later in “Le Monde des Livres” he would explain that “Communism fascinated me as much as Stravinsky, Picasso and Surrealism.” Throughout the 1950s, even after Stalin’s death, Kundera enjoyed a certain amount of confidence: he taught the history of world literature and “theory of the novel” at the Film College in Prague, where he also held a seminar on screenwriting. When a conference of communist literary critics was convened in Prague in 1963 to “rehabilitate” Kafka—Moscow considered the symposium to be the seed of spring—Kundera would not be among the speakers (and yet Kafka was one of the cornerstones of his theory of the novel). He received the award in the name of Clement Gottwald, the head of Czech communism, an ardent executor of the Stalinist campaign of purges and assassinations.

We’ll have to highlight those Kundera years, which he tried in every possible way to cleanse himself of his past. In 2020, Czech critic Jan Novak edited a 900-page monograph on the Czech years by the author of The unbearable lightness of being where he writes, alluding to various suspicions, that in the 1990s in Paris, Kundera had borrowed a shredder from his publisher, Gallimard, and “destroyed all his manuscripts, unpublished scripts, and all radio plays and television scripts (which he had sold under someone else’s name) in Prague during neo-Stalinist “normalization” of the 70s), all his notebooks and all his correspondence ». Philosopher Alan Finkelkraut, an admirer of Kundera, says he is convinced that Milan and Vera also destroyed the correspondence between them ».

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What could be so embarrassing? In 2008, a document kept in the archives of totalitarian regimes emerged accusing a young man named Milan Kundera of denouncing a Czech in the service of the British as a spy in 1950, Miroslav Dvoracek. There was talk of Kundera’s informant, Bushemisi was nearby as his latest book was to be presented: Sensation and Endless Suspicion. A lot of the details seem to match, even the place and date of birth of the “informant”. It is the beginning of a slow “death” for Kundera who has in fact also since then lost the possibility of the Nobel Prize he had been awarded as a candidate for so long. It is also the beginning of Kundera’s alienation from France, which had begun in part with the reviewers’ criticism of his later novels, From Identity to A Feast of Banality (Philippe Solers writes that “his books gain in translation”).

Indeed, Kundera lived the last part of his life as a wandering Jew. If the regime had robbed him of his citizenship in 1977, then on November 28, 2019, Prague returned it to him, and the following year awarded him the Kafka Prize. The 2008 affair had left the Kundera couple desperate for reconciliation with the Czechs. The past few years have been difficult for Kundera, also due to a broken femur and possibly illness. The writer died yesterday in Paris, where, in fact, he was not loved more and more, and did not have time to return to his homeland, as he had so recently wished. History has some of its own insidious deaths.

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