An unauthorised biography of Milan Kundera that hits the shelves on Friday casts the celebrated Czech-born writer in a decidedly unflattering light – as an undeniably gifted novelist whose obsessive need to control his image stems in part from a desire to whitewash some very dark chapters of his personal history. Award-winning author Jan Novák spent four years working on the 900-page biography, which some critics have slammed as a biased, politically motivated attack – in short, a hatchet job. Novák says he approached his subject with an open mind but was “shocked” by what he discovered and is “absolutely convinced” Kundera denounced a Czech agent for Western intelligence in 1950.
Milan Kundera, who stopped giving interviews decades ago, began his literary journey as a Stalinist poet, was long a reform-minded communist and despite seeing his works banned and going into exile never considered himself a “dissident” writer. His writing is “subversive”, Kundera once said, in that it raises questions of moral and social uncertainty, anathema to the ideological faithful of any stripe, be they Communist or Christian.
Jan Novák’s new book ‘Kundera: Český život a doba (a Czech life in its time) covers the author’s life before he immigrated to France in 1975. In fleshing out Kundera’s life story, he says he found ample evidence of “moral relativism” – ethical shortcomings – and communist leanings to this day. The biography relies heavily on interviews with a handful of key figures in Kundera’s life willing to talk, above all psychoanalyst and sexologist Ivo Pondělíček, a willing “accomplice” in Kundera’s decades of sexual conquest who wrote case studies about him. Novák also carefully traced what he calls the autobiographical elements in Kundera’s fiction and unearthed a trove of texts he wrote under pseudonyms.
The author’s official biography famously, simply states: “Milan Kundera was born in Czechoslovakia in 1929 and since 1975 has been living in France.” For decades, he’s refused to give interviews, he’s sworn his friends to silence, and long championed this public-private distinction between the art and the artist. So, you must have had your work cut out for you. How did you go about it?
“It was challenging with some people. It was not as challenging with, for example, the classmates of Kundera, who perceived him as just another kid growing up with them and spoke about him quite freely. Some literary people with whom he had a long relationship going back to the fifties didn’t want to talk, but luckily enough I could come up with some new information.”
When did the idea [to write the biography] come to you, and what was the impetus?
“I happened to pick up a copy of his long poem called Poslední máj, The Last May, which is a reference to the Communist holiday, which he wrote in 1955 for a contest. It’s a real Stalinist, social realist poem. I saw that the version I had in my hand in that bookstore had been published in 1963, a time when Stalinism was passé in Czechoslovakia. The Prague Spring was already brewing, in a sense; it was a time when it would be almost embarrassing to publish such poetry.
“I realized that I didn’t know all that much about him although I’d read his books. I was curious what had happened, and when I started looking for answers, I realized that there was nothing much known about Kundera still. That was the first impetus.”
You visited the psychiatrist and sexologist Ivo Pondělíček many times and managed to convince him to share his correspondence with Kundera, who you have described as his ‘accomplice in sexual escapades’. What did you learn from those letters and discussions?
“Well, he gave me a sense of Kundera’s rather mysterious sexual behaviour in the late ‘50s, the ‘60s and ‘70s, when he has was prowling around, I would say, with Pondělíček. They had kind of a competitive relationship as two great seducers. Kundera was also using Pondělíček to get prescriptions for his mother, which he could do as a psychoanalyst without any trouble. It’s something that would have been lost had he not talked to me about it, had he not shown me the letters where you see this relationship.”
I understand that he used Kundera as a stand-in some essays, in ‘Don Juan and Other Types’ [Donchuáni a ti druzí] and other books on sexuality – that Kundera was Pondělíček’s unidentified, anonymous patient in various case studies.
“Yes, that’s what he told me. And when I read the essay and his description of a kind of totally hesitant type of a person, everything tracked with what I knew. Kundera’s life was obviously used in [case studies] and interpreted by Pondělíček. He said he had never met as complex a personality as Kundera. He frequently used people around him for his case studies. Pondělíček’s books were quite popular in Czechoslovakia, selling many editions and tens of thousands of copies.”
You write that Kundera was almost cripplingly hesitant to make decisions and trace that back in part to his childhood, to his tutelage under his father, a musicologist and pianist who demanded perfection. You also read his father’s letters and writing. What did you learn about Kundera’s early childhood from that?
“Well, his father, during the war, when he couldn’t perform as a pianist, wrote several books. One was a kind of short treatise called The Art of Listening to Music. In this treatise, he describes the ideal concert, which, first of all, has to be beautiful music. The concert must take place in darkness, or the performer should be behind a screen so the audience, the listener, would not be distracted by any visual perception. And the audience should come in with a perfect command of the composition, so they can appreciate the interpretation of the work.
“It was a total, absolutist kind of demand, and I think these are the kind of values that Kundera imbibed like mother’s milk, so to speak, this influence from his father. I think it shaped him, and the hesitancy, in my interpretation, come from this. I feel sorry for a person who has to live up to standards like this that are impossible to live up to. I imagine it was frustrating for his father, as this was an ideal concert never given.”
The Czech literary scholar and translator Peter Kussi wrote that “self-deception is such a striking element in Kundera’s stories and novels that his protagonists could really be divided into two moral types: those who are satisfied to remain self-deluded and those struggling for a measure of self-awareness.” You talk about the wilful ‘mystification’ of Kundera’s life, that he deliberately painted a more flattering picture of himself, as I suppose we all do on some level. But is it your feeling that he was truly conflicted, that he was self-delusional?
“I think he availed himself of the opportunity to construct a completely different past for himself when he immigrated to France.
“In several interviews, and in an article for Le Monde, he said he had been expelled from university, which he wasn’t; that he worked a demanding physical job in the mining regions, which he didn’t; that he was practically unknown in Czechoslovakia until 1967 [with the publication of The Joke], when he was among the youngest recipients of the State Prize for Literature already in 1963, opening writers’ congresses, and a literary star.
“When he came to France, he didn’t want to deal with questions about his Stalinist poetry, I guess. I lived in Chicago and saw this happen time and time again with émigrés; they have a chance to construct a different past and they seize it. And that’s what he did.”
So, he simply reinvented himself…
“Yes, but his ‘mystifications’ also include some extreme acts. For example, during his second marriage in 1962, he switched places with his best man right before the act, so that Věra Hrabánková married Vojtěch Jestřáb and not Kundera – he stood during the ceremony in the spot of the best man.
“Later, they described it as a kind of a joke, but I know from Pondělíček that he was really struggling with this. He didn’t want to marry Hrabánková, and he was trying to get out of it. Then he switches places and calls it a ‘mystification’. It’s really bizarre.”
In some of his essays – The Art of the Novel and also in Testaments Betrayed – he talks a great deal about believing that a novelist should not be a public persona. Quoting Flaubert, he says a novelist “should seek to disappear behind his work”. Also, that Kundera has always “deeply, violently, detested those who look for a position (political, philosophical, religious, whatever) in a work of art rather than searching it for an effort to know, to understand, to grasp this or that aspect of reality.” So, my question is, how genuine do you think this belief is? Do you feel he came to that as kind of this reinvention of the self, that he didn’t want people looking into his past?
“I think he came to it late in life because he had been enthusiastically in the public eye. He opened the famous Fourth Congress of the Czechoslovak Writers’ Union in 1967, which some people consider as the beginning of the Prague Spring. He was in the newspapers…
“In late 1968 and early 1969, he got into a literary and media debate with Václav Havel [over the Prague Spring], in which he was completely wrong in his prognosis while Havel almost clairvoyantly right. I think, eventually, when he realised this --along with his tendency to be ashamed of anything that was less than perfect – he decided not to enter the public arena again and started withdrawing from it.
“But when he was trying to sell his books in the West -- The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1979), the first book that he wrote abroad, and The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), he was giving interviews all over the place because it was part of a writer’s job, and he was honouring that. So when it suited him, he was very much in the public eye.”
Back in 2008, a researcher at the Czech Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes (ÚSTR) discovered evidence from police and state security files that Milan Kundera had provided information that led to the arrest of a 21-year-old pilot named Miroslav Dvořáček who after the 1948 Communist coup had fled to Germany, where he was recruited by the Czech émigré intelligence network to work as a spy.
On 14 March 1950, while Dvořáček was on an undercover visit to Prague, Kundera is alleged to have reported his whereabouts to police. Dvořáček was sentenced to 22 years in jail and served 14, mostly in a hard labour camp, where he worked in a uranium mine and often kept in solitary confinement.
Kundera denied the charge, accusing ÚSTR and the magazine Respekt, which published the account, of “the assassination of an author”. Denunciation is the driving force of the plot of Kundera’s first novel The Joke (1967), the story of a university student denounced by a friend on account of an ironic message hastily written in jest on a postcard, and in his second, Life is Elsewhere (written in 1969 and published in French in 1973). Biographer Jan Novák believes this is not coincidental.
Let’s turn to the most controversial case. In 2008, when Respekt published an article based on the findings of the researcher at ÚSTR. Are you absolutely convinced that he did turn in this person knowingly?
“Yes, I personally am absolutely convinced. There are two more pieces of evidence that back up the original report, written by a normal, everyday cop on the beat on duty that day. People called it an StB [Secret Police] forgery and all kinds of things but it couldn’t have been because right at that time, a deputy Interior Minister had a speech published later in 20,000 copies where he is praising student ‘MK’ for turning in Dvořáček.
“Also, Iva Militká, the woman who Dvořáček gave his suitcase to and in whose room he was eventually arrested, said later in an interview that she told her boyfriend Miroslav Dlask, and he told Kundera. When denying it, Kundera said he didn’t known Militká or Dlask. But they produced the first edition of Man Is a Vast Garden, a collection of his Stalinist poetry, and dedicated it to them.”
“Back when it broke – when there was only one piece of evidence, for which Respekt got an incredible beating in the whole media – I immediately thought of a really suggestive scene in Kundera’s most autobiographical book, Life is Elsewhere (1969), which is also his masterpiece, in my opinion.
“In it this autobiographical figure of a Stalinist poet, Jaromil – to whom in the book Kundera attributed his own poems that he had published under his own name as if the character had written those verses – goes to report a ‘class enemy’ to the police station. And he feels that he’s finally stopped being this irresolute artist and is becoming a man of steel of the revolution.
“It’s very suggestive and wonderfully written, which in my opinion is written from his experience. And he himself state repeatedly, or repeats several times, Proust’s assertion that the writer’s true self is to be found in his books only.”
In one of his rare interviews, Milan Kundera once said, “We constantly re-write our own biographies and continually give matters new meanings. To re-write history in this sense – indeed, in an Orwellian sense – is not at all inhuman. On the contrary, it is very human.” Kundera also said that great novels are born of historical events that cast people into situations that unmask their flaws and reveal their true character – along with the absurdity of any certitude. In the end, what we know for certain, is, as his official biography states, “Milan Kundera was born in Czechoslovakia in 1929 and since 1975 has been living in France.”
Jan Novák has worked closely with such figures as Václav Havel and Miloš Forman but is perhaps best known for his award-winning novelistic treatment of the story of the Mašín brothers, members of the anti-communist resistance whose dramatic escape to the West in 1953 left six people dead, including Czech secret policemen. His literary prizes include the Magnesia Litera Book of the Year, the Josef Škvorecký Award and the Carl Sandburg Award for authors with ties to Chicago, the US city to where his family emigrated a year after the Prague Spring, when he was a teenager.