Kundera revisited: all mysteries revealed!

For those of you playing along at home, I did seek out as much biographical information about Milan Kundera as I could find, to see if my theories about The Unbearable Lightness of Being held up (you can read the original post here). What I found was an object lesson in how to do biographical criticism, and also in how not to do it.

My bad guesses all stemmed from the same mistake: namely, being too literal about the relationship between character and author. Since Tomas had been a doctor, I decided Kundera must also have been a doctor. Since Tomas was divorced, I guessed Kundera was divorced, too. Finally, I claimed Switzerland in the novel = Switzerland in real life.

Tomas, the doctor who washes windows: well, I was right that Kundera equates washing windows with political commentary. Prior to his controversial success as a novelist, Kundera was an aesthete, doing scholarly work on literature, film, and music. After The Unbearable Lightness of Being, he renounced political fiction, and began writing on other themes. Being a doctor gives Tomas the same satisfaction that Kundera takes in scholarship and aesthetic theories. He had in fact been derailed, from his own perspective, by the perceived need to write books with a political message. I should have been able to deduce this ironic situation from Franz, of whom Kundera writes that scholarship was his “real life,” while politics seemed real, but was mere pageantry. The description of Franz’s “real life” as a scholar is exactly the same as the description of Tomas’s work near the end of the book.

I can’t believe I actually thought Kundera was divorced. What’s the one thing that kept coming up, again and again, as I analyzed Marie-Claude, Sabina, and Tereza? Precisely that they were all versions of the same person, with Sabina representing a young lover or wife, and Tereza/Marie-Claude standing in for that same woman, years later. Furthermore, the husbands never leave: Franz is killed before he can leave Marie-Claude, and Tomas ultimately resigns himself to Tereza. I might have understood the hastily described — but all-important — divorce the same way as we might understand Tomas’s impressive tally of conquests: namely, as wishful thinking on Kundera’s part.

Why “Switzerland”? Well, for its obvious symbolic importance as a symbol of neutrality, which is exactly what Kundera craves: a space where he can be a politically neutral writer, free to choose what he writes about.

With these caveats, however, the rest holds up. Based on my reading, we would expect Kundera to have married in Czechoslovakia, and to have lost his father a few years later. We would expect Kundera to have sought asylum somewhere outside Czechoslovakia relatively soon thereafter, wife in tow, never to return. Only then could Kundera’s work on this particular novel have begun.

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Milan Kundera married the musician and composer Vera Hrabankova in Czechoslovakia, in 1967. His father, the pianist and musicologist Ludvik Kundera, died four years later in 1971.

In 1975, Kundera and Hrabankova moved to France. Kundera began teaching Comparative Literature, and wrote The Unbearable Lightness of Being over the next five or so years. The novel was first published in 1982.

Kundera did not return to Czechoslovakia until after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc. In fact, in 1979, he was stripped of his Czech citizenship. Today, Milan Kundera and his wife are French citizens. They currently reside in Paris.

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