‘He mirrored the laughable complexity of the world’: Milan Kundera remembered by Florence Noiville

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‘He mirrored the laughable complexity of the world’: Milan Kundera remembered by Florence Noiville

Milan Kundera would typically repeat to me that life is “a conspiracy of coincidences”. In his case, destiny had seen him born on 1 April, and he was satisfied that this had had “a profound metaphysical affect” on him. Certainly, one solely has to take a look at his oeuvre: from his first novel, The Joke, to his final, The Pageant of Insignificance, all of his books characteristic the jocular, the lighthearted. Which doesn’t cease them from combining mischievousness with nice depth and nice lucidity – to not point out melancholy, the famend Czech lítost!

He will need to have thought it was a joke, that day I invited him to look in a TV programme I used to be presenting, alongside my work at Le Monde. He’d laughed in my face. Tv? No method. After the worldwide success of The Insufferable Lightness of Being (1984), he had stopped showing in public. He used to say that he’d “had an overdose of himself”. In Encounter, a group of his essays, he describes a ghastly media spectacle wherein self-satisfied celebrities snort very loudly for no cause. Stupidity, vulgarity: Milan couldn’t bear them. Being discreet was his model of magnificence.

So, no TV. “However I might provide you with some items, every now and then, for Le Monde des Livres,” he’d informed me. And that’s what he did. We’d typically drink vodka on the Lutetia lodge, near his dwelling in Paris. That’s how we turned pals – first Milan, then Vera, his spouse (previously a well known journalist in Czechoslovakia: it was she who, in 1968, introduced, reside, the arrival of Russian tanks in Prague).

Kundera didn’t like speaking about his life. “It’s all in my books,” he would say. He was born in 1929, in Brno, the standard capital of Moravia. His father was a pianist, the pupil and good friend of the composer Leoš Janáček, whom Milan adored, as he did all the good avant garde artists. Milan acquired a strong musical training, and will have develop into a pianist himself, however he additionally wrote (poems, performs), and, in the long run, he selected to pursue writing. However music nonetheless irrigated all that he wrote, from fugues to sonatas: “After I consider a guide, my first concept is at all times rhythmical,” he mentioned. Most of his novels are variations on his favorite themes: relations between women and men, reminiscence, forgetting, and historical past, after all… He typically informed me that communism had captivated him “as a lot as Picasso and surrealism”. Within the 60s, he had believed within the Prague Spring. He remained ceaselessly wounded by its crushing by the USSR, satisfied {that a} “socialism with a human face”, primarily based on tradition because the social glue of the Czech folks, might have been, ought to have been doable.

Kundera in Paris, 1975. {Photograph}: AFP/Getty Pictures

In his essays The Artwork of the Novel and Testaments Betrayed, Kundera mirrored on the artwork of the novel since Cervantes. So as to add his personal contribution, he invented what he referred to as the “archiroman”, a malleable type of the novel that embraced fragments of all different genres (nonfiction, philosophy, musical scores…) On this method, the novel turns into an area for experimentation that reveals one thing of human nature to us, one thing we didn’t wish to know. He ought to have gotten the Nobel prize.

When he left Czechoslovakia in 1975, to show in Rennes, he thought it was only for just a few years. However even after the autumn of the Berlin Wall, he by no means returned to reside in his nation of origin. This weighed on him in direction of the top of his life. He needed to return to Brno, however knew that he wouldn’t essentially be welcome there. First, he’d gone into exile, then he’d modified language, abandoning Czech to put in writing in French. A double betrayal within the eyes of his compatriots, notably Václav Havel and his entourage, who didn’t very like him.

Typically I’d go to Milan and Vera in Le Touquet, within the Pas-de-Calais, the place that they had an house going through the ocean. We’d head to the countryside close by to chew – “Allons mastiquer!”, Vera would say – on the frogs’ legs at a connoisseur restaurant Milan liked, La Grenouillère. We’d discuss of all that Mitteleuropa had delivered to the remainder of Europe. And already, simply as he had in his little guide A Kidnapped West (1983), he would draw consideration to Russia’s eternally expansionist goals.

Milan at all times drew loads. Earlier than his dying, he despatched me and my husband a drawing of a gangling creature dancing on the floor of the globe, with the caption: “Florence, Martin, au revoir!” His drawings are sometimes enigmatic and mischievous. Like his writings, they mirror the laughable complexity of the world. A generalised joke. After I consider him, I consider certainly one of his favorite sayings, the French model of the Yiddish proverb “Man plans, God laughs”, which he’d typically fall again on: “L’homme pense, Dieu rit.


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