Milan Kundera

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Milan Kundera (1980)
Chance and chance alone has a message for us... Only chance can speak to us.

Milan Kundera (1 April 192911 July 2023) was a Franco-Czech novelist born in Brno, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic).


You can understand nothing about art, particularly modern art, if you do not understand that imagination is a value in itself.
  • Do you realize that people don't know how to read Kafka simply because they want to decipher him? Instead of letting themselves be carried away by his unequaled imagination, they look for allegories — and come up with nothing but clichés: life is absurd (or it is not absurd), God is beyond reach (or within reach), etc. You can understand nothing about art, particularly modern art, if you do not understand that imagination is a value in itself.
    • Interview with Christian Salmon (Fall 1983), Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, Series Seven (Viking, 1988, ISBN 0-14-008500-9), pp. 217-218
  • A novel that does not uncover a hitherto unknown segment of existence is immoral. Knowledge is the novel's only morality.
  • The light that radiates from the great novels time can never dim, for human existence is perpetually being forgotten by man and thus the novelists' discoveries, however old they may be, will never cease to astonish.
    • From The Art of the Novel, as quoted in "Here Be Dragons" The Daily Telegraph (4 June 1988)
  • Dogs are our link to paradise. They don't know evil or jealousy or discontent. To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring — it was peace.
    • As quoted in The Canine Hiker's Bible (2000) by Doug Gelbert, p. 8
  • Suspending moral judgment is not the immorality of the novel; it is its morality. The morality that stands against the ineradicable human habit of judging instantly, ceaselessly, and everyone; of judging before, and in the absence of, understanding. From the view­point of the novel’s wisdom, that fervid readiness to judge is the most detestable stupidity, the most pernicious evil.
    • Testaments Betrayed (1995), p. 7
  • True human goodness, in all its purity and freedom, can come to the fore only when its recipient has no power. Mankind's true moral test, its fundamental test (which lies deeply buried from view), consists of its attitude toward those who are at its mercy: animals. And in this respect mankind has suffered a fundamental debacle, a debacle so fundamental that all others stem from it.
    • The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), as quoted in Milan Kundera (2003) by Harold Bloom, p. 91

The Joke (1967)[edit]

  • Nothing is more repugnant to me than brotherly feelings grounded in the common baseness people see in one another.
  • Žádné pocínání není samo o sobe dohré ani zlé. Teprve jeho místo v rádu ciní je dobrým ci zlým.
    • No act is of itself either good or bad. Only its place in the order of things makes it good or bad.
  • No great movement designed to change the world can bear to be laughed at or belittled. Mockery is a rust that corrodes all it touches.

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1979)[edit]

Viking, ISBN 0-14-009693-0, trans. Michael Henry Heim
  • The bloody massacre in Bangladesh quickly covered over the memory of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, the assassination of Allende drowned out the groans of Bangladesh, the war in the Sinai Desert made people forget Allende, the Cambodian massacre made people forget Sinai, and so on and so forth until ultimately everyone lets everything be forgotten.
    In times when history still moved slowly, events were few and far between and easily committed to memory. They formed a commonly accepted backdrop for thrilling scenes of adventure in private life. Nowadays, history moves at a brisk clip. A historical event, though soon forgotten, sparkles the morning after with the dew of novelty. No longer a backdrop, it is now the adventure itself, an adventure enacted before the backdrop of the commonly accepted banality of private life.
    • Part I: Lost Letters (p. 7)
  • People are always shouting they want to create a better future. It's not true. The future is an apathetic void of no interest to anyone. The past is full of life, eager to irritate us, provoke and insult us, tempt us to destroy or repaint it. The only reason people want to be masters of the future is to change the past. They are fighting for access to the laboratories where photographs are retouched and biographies and histories rewritten.
    • Part I: Lost Letters (p. 22)
  • The proliferation of mass graphomania among politicians, cab drivers, women on the delivery table, mistresses, murderers, criminals, prostitutes, police chiefs, doctors, and patients proves to me that every individual without exception bears a potential writer within himself and that all mankind has every right to rush out into the streets with a cry of "We are all writers!"
    The reason is that everyone has trouble accepting the fact that he will disappear unheard of and unnoticed in an indifferent universe, and everyone wants to make himself into a universe of words before it's too late.
    Once the writer in every individual comes to life (and that time is not far off), we are in for an age of universal deafness and lack of understanding.
    • Part Four: Lost Letters (p. 106)

The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984)[edit]

As translated by Michael Henry Heim

Part One: Lightness and Weight[edit]

  • "...[O]f a world that rests essentially on the nonexistence of return, [...] everything is pardoned in advance and therefore everything cynically permitted."
  • In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia.
  • In the love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man's body.
  • And what can life be worth if the first rehearsal for life is life itself?
  • We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come.
  • Metaphors are not to be trifled with. A single metaphor can give birth to love.
  • To love someone out of compassion means not really to love.
  • A person who longs to leave the place where he lives is an unhappy person.
  • He had spent seven years of his life with Tereza, and now he realised that those years were more attractive in retrospect than they were when he was living them.
  • For there is nothing heavier than compassion. Not even one's own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes.
  • Necessity, weight, and value are three concepts inextricably bound: only necessity is heavy, and only what is heavy has value.

Part Two: Soul and Body[edit]

  • When we ignore the body, we are more easily victimized by it.
  • But is not an event in fact more significant and noteworthy the greater the number of fortuities necessary to bring it about?
  • Chance and chance alone has a message for us... Only chance can speak to us.
  • If a love is to be unforgettable, fortuities must immediately start fluttering down to it like birds to Francis of Assisi's shoulders.
  • It was the call of all those fortuities... which gave her the courage to leave home and change her fate.
  • It is right to chide man for being blind to such coincidences in his daily life. For he thereby deprives his life of a dimension of beauty.
  • For the first few seconds, she was afraid he would throw her out because of the crude noises she was making, but then he put his arms around her. She was grateful to him for ignoring her rumbles, and she kissed him passionately, her eyes misting.
  • Early in the novel [Anna Karenina], Anna meets Vronsky in curious circumstances: they are at the railway station when someone is run over by a train. At the end of the novel, Anna throws herself under a train. This symmetrical composition — the same motif appears at the beginning and the end — may seem quite “novelistic” to you, and I am willing to agree, but only on condition that you refrain from reading such notions as “fictive,” “fabricated,” and “untrue to life” into the word “novelistic.” Because human lives are composed in precisely such a fashion. They are composed like music. Guided by his sense of beauty, an individual transforms a fortuitous occurrence (Beethoven’s music, death under a train) into a motif, which then assumes a permanent place in the composition of the individual’s life. Anna could have chosen another way to take her life. But the motif of death and the railway station, unforgettably bound to the birth of love, enticed her in her hour of despair with its dark beauty. Without realizing it, the individual composes his life according to the laws of beauty even in times of greatest distress. It is wrong, then, to chide the novel for being fascinated by mysterious coincidences. … But it is right to chide man for being blind to such coincidences in his daily life. For he thereby deprives his life of a dimension of beauty.
  • Anyone whose goal is 'something higher' must expect some day to suffer vertigo.
  • No, vertigo is something other than the fear of falling. It is the voice of emptiness below us which tempts and lures us, it is the desire to fall, against which, terrified, we defend ourselves.
  • But when the strong were too weak to hurt the weak, the weak had to be strong enough to leave.

Part Three: Words Misunderstood[edit]

  • Physical love is unthinkable without violence.
  • "Why don't you ever use your strength on me?" she said.
    "Because love means renouncing strength," said Franz softly.
  • "Love is a battle," said Marie-Claude, still smiling. "And I plan to go on fighting. To the end."
  • The goals we pursue are always veiled. A girl who longs for marriage longs for something she knows nothing about. The boy who hankers after fame has no idea what fame is. The thing that gives our every move its meaning is always totally unknown to us.
    • Ch. 10

Part Four: Soul and Body[edit]

  • The moment love is born: the woman cannot resist the voice calling forth her terrified soul; the man cannot resist the woman whose soul thus responds to his voice.

Part Five: Lightness and Weight[edit]

  • What is unique about the "I" hides itself exactly in what is unimaginable about a person. All we are able to imagine is what makes everyone like everyone else, what people have in common. The individual "I" is what differs from the common stock, that is, what cannot be guessed at or calculated, what must be unveiled, uncovered, conquered.
  • The brain appears to possess a special area which we might call poetic memory and which records everything that charms or touches us, that makes our lives beautiful.
  • Love begins at the point when a woman enters her first word into our poetic memory.
  • Love is the longing for the half of ourselves we have lost.
  • When the heart speaks, the mind finds it indecent to object. In the realm of kitsch, the dictatorship of the heart reigns supreme.
  • Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.
  • Sabina’s initial inner revolt against Communism was aesthetic rather than ethical in character. What repelled her was not nearly so much the ugliness of the Communist world (ruined castles transformed into cow sheds) as the mask of beauty it tried to wear — in other words, Communist kitsch.
  • Whenever a single political movement corners power, we find ourselves in the realm of totalitarian kitsch. When I say “totalitarian,” what I mean is that everything that infringes on kitsch must be banished for life: every display of individualism (because a deviation from the collective is a spit in the eye of the smiling brotherhood); every doubt (because anyone who starts doubting details will end by doubting life itself); all irony (because in the realm of kitsch everything must be taken quite seriously); and the mother who abandons her family or the man who prefers men to women, thereby calling into question the holy decree “Be fruitful and multiply.”
  • We can regard the gulag as a septic tank used by totalitarian kitsch to dispose of its refuse.
  • In the realm of totalitarian kitsch, all answers are given in advance and preclude any questions. It follows, then, that the true opponent of totalitarian kitsch is the person who asks questions. A question is like a knife that slices through the stage backdrop and gives us a look at what lies hidden behind it.
  • What makes a leftist a leftist is not this or that theory but his ability to integrate any theory into the kitsch called the Grand March.

Part Six: The Grand March[edit]

  • Kitsch is the stopover between being and oblivion.
  • The fact that until recently the word “shit” appeared in print as s— has nothing to do with moral considerations. You can’t claim that shit is immoral, after all! The objection to shit is a metaphysical one. The daily defecation session is daily proof of the unacceptability of Creation. … The aesthetic ideal of the categorical agreement with being is a world in which shit is denied and everyone acts as though it did not exist. This aesthetic ideal is called kitsch. … Kitsch is the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and the figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.

Slowness (1995)[edit]

As translated by Linda Asher
  • Any new possibility that existence acquires, even the least likely, transforms everything about existence.

Identity (1998)[edit]

The eye... the point where a person's identity is concentrated.
  • I can't shake off the idea that after death you keep being alive. That to be dead is to live an endless nightmare.
  • This is the real and the only reason for friendship: to provide a mirror so the other person can contemplate his image from the past, which, without the eternal blah-blah of memories between pals, would long ago have disappeared.
  • It is always that way: between the moment he meets her again and the moment he recognizes her for the woman he loves, he has some distance to go.
  • How could she feel nostalgia when he was right in front of her? How can you suffer from the absence of a person who is present?
  • You can suffer nostalgia in the presence of the beloved if you glimpse a future where the beloved is no more.
  • The eye... the point where a person's identity is concentrated.
  • You can't measure the mutual affection of two human beings by the number of words they exchange.
  • Today we're all alike, all of us bound together by our shared apathy toward work. That very apathy has become a passion. The one great collective passion of our time.
  • Two people in love, alone, isolated from the world, that's very beautiful. But what would they nourish their intimate talk with? However contemptible the world may be, they still need it to be able to talk together.
  • No love can survive muteness.
  • Pain doesn't listen to reason, it has its own reason, which is not reasonable.
  • He felt as if she no longer existed for him, had gone off somewhere, into some other life where, if he should meet her, he would no longer recognize her.
  • As you live out your desolation, you can be either unhappy or happy. Having that choice is what constitutes your freedom.
  • Since the insignificance of all things is our lot, we should not bear it as an affliction but learn to enjoy it.
  • She said: "I get scared when my eye blinks. Scared that during that second when my gaze is switched off, a snake or a rat or another man could slip into your place."

Quotes about Milan Kundera[edit]

  • (For Milan Kundera, "the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting". Are we losing this battle?) NG: One of the most truthful and profound insights ever made.
  • Kundera sees writers and artists as vital witnesses of the twentieth century as an age marked by tyranny, saying: 'People regard those days as an era of political trials, persecutions, forbidden books and legalised murder. But we who remember must bear witness; it was not only an epoch of terror, but also an epoch of lyricism, ruled hand in hand by the hangman and the poet.'
  • To remember, if my Latin is correct, actually means to put the parts together. So that implies there are ways of losing parts. Kundera talks about this aspect of storytelling, too. In fact, he says that history, which is another kind of story, is often deliberately falsified in order to make a people forget who they are or who they were. He calls that "the method of organizing forgetting."
  • He writes about his prick too much. Excuse me, boys. (What do you mean by that?) I happen to like The Book of Laughter and Forgetting very much. But this last book (The Unbearable Lightness of Being), it's really, it's as though he's been consumed by Western concerns. I think it's a corrupt book, I really do. I mean I really read it with great hopes because I really liked Laughter and Forgetting, I thought it was great. But I'm so disgusted. I mean who the fuck does he think he is? It's not that I don't think that a person can write about sexual obsession. I think there's not much more interesting than that in a way. I'm all for it. But it's so egocentrical and false, admiring her so much for this idiotic loyalty. (At the same time he's trying to use sex as a political metaphor.) Yeah, but so obviously. But I still like the other book.

External links[edit]

Wikipedia has an article about:
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Book reviews
Open letters
  • "Two Messages". Article by Václav Havel in Salon October 2008. Retrieved 2010-09-25
  • "The Flawed Defence" Article by Milan Kundera in Salon November 2008. Retrieved 2010-09-25
  • "Informing und Terror", by Ivan Klíma, about the Kundera controversy Salon October 2008. Retrieved 2010-09-25
  • Leprosy by Jiří Stránský, about the Kundera controversy, Salon October 2008. Retrieved 2010-09-25