Arts: Being an icon is almost unbearable

Milan Kundera doesn't welcome celebrity. Where has the reclusive author been hiding? Jasper Rees tracked him down
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Each year in Prague, the Czech Republic's two Houses of Congress vote to honour outstanding figures in public life. In December, there was an award for Karel Capek, another for Milos Forman, and a third for Milan Kundera. Only Forman turned up. Capek died in 1938, while Kundera sent his wife Vera and a sick-note. A shame, because in a tidy historic echo, the award ceremony took place 30 years almost to the day since Kundera handed his first novel, The Joke, into a publisher.

Kundera's non-appearance prevented a handshake with President Vaclav Havel that would have been replete with significance. Havel and Kundera had a famous spat in 1969, when they publicly differed on how Czechs should respond to the Russian invasion the year before. The Unbearable Lightness of Being went on to include a none-too-coded criticism of Havel's activities as a petitioner for political prisoners.

But the meeting did not take place, because Kundera has slowly turned into the Macavity of Czech literature. Sightings are infrequent, photographs almost as rare. He stopped giving interviews in 1985. When Immortality won this newspaper's inaugural prize for foreign fiction four years ago, he didn't show. Even his friends don't claim to know him deeply. Forman, who attended Kundera's lectures in the Fifties at the Prague Institute for Cinematographic Studies, is as well acquainted as anyone. But invited to run off a quick character sketch, he could only concede that, "The better I know Milan Kundera, the less I understand the mystery and the enigma of this great writer and wonderful man."

Kundera's new work finds him beating a retreat out of his native language as a novelist. Slowness is the first novel begun by Kundera since his homeland began its democratic experiment in 1989. Some of his old cronies called for him to reflect the sea-change in his fiction, but instead we find him truffling through 18th-century France, the time and place where he finds reflected his own obsession with the link between cogitation and copulation.

The novel is set in a chateau, now a hotel, where Vivant Denon once set his own novel, Point de lendemain, and slithers between Denon's menage a trois and an assortment of comical media types gathered at a conference two centuries on. Denon, an early curator of the Louvre, was known as the author of Point de lendemain by only a few intimates: "The work's own history thus bears an odd resemblance to the story it tells," says Kundera. "It was hidden by the penumbra of secrecy, of discretion, of mystification, of anonymity." Is it fanciful to ascribe to Kundera a yearning for the same facelessness?

The facts any future biographer has to go on are skeletal. Milan Kundera was born in Brno, the capital of Moravia, in 1929. His father was a distinguished pianist and rector of the city's state music conservatory. His early years are a closed book; he was a jazz musician and, like a lot of his generation, joined the Communist party after the war. The Fifties found him writing poetry - a politically orthodox volume about a war resistance hero, but also the much less orthodox collection of monologues by women describing lovers.

By then, he was teaching film. One pupil he sponsored for entry to the course was Havel, who didn't get in. He also wrote plays - The Owner of the Keys won the highest state prize for literature in 1963. A year before, at 33, he began working on The Joke. He had already written an essay entitled The Art of the Novel, initiating a career in highly idiosyncratic criticism matched among novelists only by James and Nabokov. The novel, about a man whose life is farcically ruined by a nugatory political joke, was published in 1967 as the thaw in Czechoslovakia gathered pace. Each of its three print runs sold out in days. The film of The Joke, directed by Jaromil Jires, was released in 1968 after the Prague Spring and seen by two million within a year.

Kundera finished the last of the stories in Laughable Loves (which also sold more than 100,000 copies) three days before the Russian tanks entered Czechoslovakia. Three days after it, he was stopped in his car at a Soviet checkpoint. After a search, one soldier told him: "All this is a big misunderstanding, but it will sort itself out. You'll see that we love Czechs. We love you!"

Kundera later said Laughable Loves is his favourite book "because it reflects the happiest period of my life". That period was plainly over. In Paris for the publication of The Joke in late 1968, he bumped into Josef Skvorecky, who recounts in The Engineer of Human Souls: "We were standing in front of Les Deux Magots like poor relations whose house had just burned down, and Milan Kundera said, `I only hope I die soon.' "

And yet the act of writing, without hope of reaching a domestic readership, Kundera actually found liberating. At the time, he thought of The Farewell Party as his fictional adieu. He had lost his teaching job, moved back to Brno and was living off foreign royalties greatly whittled down by a series of confiscatory taxes set up to penalise dissident writers. Then Life Is Elsewhere won the Prix Medicis as the best foreign novel published in France in 1973, and he was allowed to accept it. Realising that the regime would not get in the way of his emigration, he accepted a teaching post at Rennes University in 1975, threw books and baggage in the car and went into exile.

The intervening years have been much less eventful. The author has kept his head down and tried to parry prurient interest from those who see him merely as a dissident. In 1977, the Kunderas moved into the apartment off the Rue de Rennes that they still occupy. When Gallimard published The Book of Laughter and Forgetting in 1979, the Czechoslovak regime revoked his citizenship. He was granted French nationality two years later, and now tends to regard the French translations of his novels as official versions. He speaks of his defection to French as an affair of the heart. "In my relations with it, I imagine myself as a boy of 14, desperately in love with Greta Garbo." Between 1985 and 1987, he revised personally all French translations of his works. Driven by the same avian instinct to protect his body of work, after 1989 he soberly republished one novel a year in Czech, unlike most other unbanned authors who hastily flooded the market.

Kundera chose exile in France because, he has written, "It is here that I was understood earlier and better than elsewhere." After 1968, the majority of supportive letters he received had a French postmark. And it's his Frenchness that makes him so enigmatic to readers in this country where, among living authors, the Czechs sell much better than the French. Kundera gives no sign of having read anyone English apart from Sterne and Rushdie - hardly our most characteristic novelists. It was in this country that translation's original sin was committed on The Joke, when a publisher reorganised and cut chapters; in a rip-snorting letter to the TLS, Kundera renounced his authorship, and the publisher promptly made good its error.

The last uncertainty of Kundera's biography is the manner of his passing. Of one thing we can be sure: he won't go the way his main characters do in The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Immortality, casually killed off by the author in a chance car crash. Slowness begins with the Kunderas motoring to the chateau. Kundera is at the wheel and Vera is pointing out, "Every 50 minutes, someone dies on the road in France." A car broils and curses behind them, unable to overtake. Kundera is still a fearless writer, utterly contemptuous of the novelist's highway code. But on the road, he's safe as houses.

n `Slowness' is published by Faber & Faber, pounds 12.99 on Monday