Author Milan Kundera, seen here in 1963, died in his Paris apartment on Tuesday at the age of 94. Photo: CTK Photo/Frantisek Nesvadba via Reuters
Milan Kundera, Author of ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’, Dies at 94
Kundera won global accolades for the way he depicted themes and characters that floated between the mundane reality of everyday life and the lofty world of ideas. / BY Reuters / July 12th, 2023
Czech-born writer Milan Kundera, author of the novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being who lived nearly five decades in Paris after emigrating in disillusionment from his Communist-ruled homeland, has died at the age of 94.
The Moravian Library (MZK) in the Czech city of Brno, which houses Kundera’s personal collection, said he died in his Paris apartment on Tuesday after a long illness.
Kundera won global accolades for the way he depicted themes and characters that floated between the mundane reality of everyday life and the lofty world of ideas.
Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala said his works “reached whole generations of readers across all continents” while President Petr Pavel called him a “world-class writer.”
“With his fate in life, he symbolized the eventful history of our country in the 20th century,” Pavel said. “Kundera’s legacy will live on in his works.”
French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said Kundera was “a writer and a voice that we will miss.”
“Milan Kundera’s work is at the same time a deep, human, intimate and distant exploration,” she added.
Kundera was born in Brno in 1929 but emigrated to France in 1975 after being ostracized for criticizing the 1968 Soviet invasion of Communist Czechoslovakia that crushed the Prague Spring liberal reform movement.
He rarely gave interviews, believing writers should speak through their work, and lived out of the public eye.
Fellow Czech writer Karel Hvizdala told Czech Television he saw his friend last November and he was already in poor health.
“I remember that on his hospital bed, which he had at home, he only had one book — The Plague by Albert Camus,” he said.
Kundera’s first novel, The Joke, was published in 1967 and offered a scathing portrayal of the Czechoslovak Communist regime and the ruling party of which he was still a member.
He ultimately abandoned hopes that the party could be reformed in a democratic direction, and moved to France. Four years later, he was stripped of his Czechoslovak citizenship.
He told the French daily Le Monde in 1976 that to call his works political was to oversimplify, and therefore obscure their true significance, but his books often took a political tone.
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1979) was a story written in seven parts that showed the power of totalitarian regimes to erase parts of history and create an alternative past — a work that the New York Times called “genius” in its review.
His best known book, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), focused on the Prague Spring and its turbulent demise with Czechs despairing of totalitarianism’s grip retreating into obscure private lives or emigrating to the West.
It was made into a film starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Juliette Binoche and directed by Philip Kaufman in 1988, earning two Academy Award nominations.
Oxford University professor Timothy Garton Ash, author and historian focused on central Europe, said Kundera “did so much to implant the idea and culture of Central Europe into the imagination of the world.”
Kundera once told an interviewer he considered himself French rather than an emigre. He wrote later novels in French.
Le Monde called him a “tireless defender of the novel” in reporting his death.
“Undoubtedly the most European of writers, he impersonated the subtle contrasts of our world,” Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo said.
After the 1989 Velvet Revolution that peacefully overthrew Czechoslovakia’s Communist regime and ushered in pro-Western democracy, Kundera only rarely made public visits home but would quietly visit friends and family.
He regained Czech citizenship in 2019.
(Reporting by Jan Lopatka and Robert Muller in Prague and Elizabeth Pineau and Tassilo Hummel in Paris; Writing by Michael Kahn and Jason Hovet; Editing by Toby Chopra, Kevin Liffey, Mark Heinrich and Nick Macfie)