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2 August 2023

Milan Kundera’s sexual revolutions

The misunderstood author cared more about skirt-chasing than power politics.

By Christopher Caldwell

Mere days after Milan Kundera’s death in France at the age of 94, the ghost of the Czech-born novelist was spotted on the front lines of the Russo-Ukrainian war. Writing in the German weekly Die Zeit under the title “The Man Who Knew the Russians”, Adam Soboczynski claimed the Ukrainian struggle as one Kundera would approve of: “a battle for enlightened central Europe against the irrationality of the east, comparable to the uprisings of Hungary and Poland in the time of communism”. Writing in Le Monde, the geo-strategist Jacques Rupnik opined that Ukraine faced the “Kunderian problem” of surviving in Russia’s shadow. At the foot of the same page, the American essayist Paul Berman held that “the largest conflict in Europe since the Second World War has proved a Kunderian war”, one that pits living against lying, and each day’s news from the Ukrainian front brings new proof that Kundera was “a man for our time, and even a visionary”.

 A strange posthumous role in the new Cold War has thus been assigned to a novelist who went awol from the old one. Kundera was a sex novelist. Until he left Czechoslovakia in his forties, he spent more of his career building communism than he did resisting it. In half a century of French exile, Kundera cared more about the Great Divide between the sexes than about the Iron Curtain that had fallen across Europe. His specific sexual ideas – which tightly link domination and arousal – come off today as repugnant, repugnant to the very Western “values” we claim are at stake in Ukraine. In exile, Kundera insisted again and again that he was a writer, not an ideologue. Is his posthumous politicisation a zealot’s misreading? Or are we missing something? 

Almost everyone who calls Kundera as a witness on behalf of the Western cause in Ukraine cites his essay “A Kidnapped West”, which appeared in the French journal Le Débat in 1983. There Kundera speaks of Europe as “une notion spirituelle”. It is often assumed that Kundera had a vision of the Cold War like that of Czesław Miłosz, for whom the whole Eastern Bloc was a prison house of nations. But this is wrong. The essay concerns the division of Europe into two cultural spheres – one Roman, using the Latin alphabet, the other Byzantine, using the Cyrillic. The problem is that three specific nations that had been more or less bound to the West by the Habsburg empire have wound up on the wrong side of the divide. Kundera refers to the world he is describing as “polono-hongro-tchèque”.  

It is an idiosyncratic and, Kundera admits, reactionary conception, this central Europe. By no means does Kundera think all the Eastern Bloc countries belong to it. The uprisings of Hungary in 1956, of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and of Poland in 1956, 1968, 1970 and the 1980s, for instance, would have been “unthinkable” in Bulgaria. Following Conrad, Kundera rejects the idea of a “Slavic soul”. For him, Bulgaria and Russia belong to a different civilisation. 

But he is equally vehement in calling the West a different civilisation, too. He even refers to central-European culture (baroque, drawn to the irrational, musical) as the “opposite pole” from that of France (classical, rational, literary). The problem, back when Kundera was writing, was that the USSR, on flimsy pretexts of pan-Slavism and anti-fascism, had trespassed into a “foreign” cultural area. Kundera did not envision that the United States, on flimsy pretexts of human rights and promoting democracy, would one day carry out this trespass in reverse, launching an invasion in 1999 to wrest territory from “Cyrillic” Serbia and, in this century, projecting power from the Cyrillic strongholds of Bulgaria and Ukraine.  

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It is striking in retrospect how perfect is the overlap between Kundera’s cultural map of central Europe and the roster of Eastern Bloc novelists that the American novelist Philip Roth assembled for Penguin in his Writers from the Other Europe series in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Writers from “an” Other Europe would have been more like it. Of the 17 titles in the series, only one – by the Serbian Danilo Kiš – came from the Cyrillosophere. All the others were from Kundera’s “polono-hongro-tchèque” island, and Kundera himself accounted for four of the titles, more than anyone. This was his introduction to a mass anglophone audience. 

The sex-focused Kundera came across as a sort of Czechoslovak incarnation of Philip Roth. There was an untapped hunger for Eastern Bloc novelists who were accessible in this way. The Nobel Prize winner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, living in curmudgeonly exile in Vermont, bestriding Slavic literature like a colossus, was wearing out his welcome. In excoriating American decadence at his Harvard commencement speech in 1978, he made it clear that, once his own country was freed of communism, he would drop the West and reaffirm all his homeland stood for. Western consumerism could build no pontoons of mutual understanding with such an interlocutor.

[See also: The West can no longer make war]

Kundera, by contrast, was what his adopted countrymen called an homme à femmes. Skirt-chasing was his private passion, his philosophical specialisation, his literary subject. He wrote the kind of novels that Americans had been groomed to like for a generation. Sex, in the hands of a fine observer like Kundera, was as good a means as any for showing the sad shabbiness of communism: in Life Is Elsewhere, the hero, Jaromil, foregoes an unrepeatable erotic adventure because it would require him to reveal his grubby underpants. Sex offered plenty of scope for Kundera’s gifts as an aphorist: “Every love relationship rests on an unwritten agreement unthinkingly concluded by the lovers in the first weeks of their love,” we learn in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.  

And sex is an occasion for bawdy scenes and gags: an exhausted womaniser likens his avid young mistress – forever shouting “Faster, faster”, “Gently, gently” and “Harder, harder” during sex – to a coxswain. A nude-obsessed muralist, having painted a woman turning her enormous rump towards the inmates of a government work camp, defends it as an allegory of “the bourgeoisie making its exit from the stage of history.”

The Joke, which sold 100,000 copies in Czechoslovakia when it was published in 1967, did all these things in a taut and disturbing way. Ludvik Jahn, a budding academic, has a crush on Marketa, a beautiful but overly earnest colleague. When she attends a two-week party training course and gushes in a letter to Ludvik over the “healthy atmosphere” of the place, Ludvik, writes back, in a fit of jealousy and loneliness: “Optimism is the opium of the people! A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky!” And that joke destroys his life.  

Ludvik feels he has lucked out when he discovers he will be tried by Zemanek, the party chairman at his university, a man who knows him well, knows his sense of humour, and knows his feelings about awkward Marketa. But Zemanek arranges to have Ludvik expelled not only from the party but also from his profession.

Kundera was in and out of favour with the Czechoslovak regime. Zealous backer of the Stalinist takeover in the late 1940s. Expelled from the Communist Party (rather like the protagonist of The Joke) for some ill-considered remark in the early 1950s. Readmitted a few years later. Publication of several social-realist and pro-regime plays, poems and stories. Increasing independence in the years leading up to the Prague Spring and the Soviet invasion of 1968. Officially in good standing until the early 1970s.  

[See also: Simone de Beauvoir and the art of loss]

There is a dissident feel to his fiction, but Kundera was an ambiguous kind of dissident. In an autobiographical (presumably non-fictional) section of the Book of Laughter and Forgetting, he remembers the day in 1950 when the regime hanged four opponents of the regime, including a Socialist deputy and the critic Zavis Kalandra. Young Stalinists danced in the streets. “I knew that I did not belong to them but belonged to Kalandra, who had also come loose from the circular trajectory and had fallen, fallen, to end his fall in a condemned man’s coffin,” Kundera recalls, “but even though I didn’t belong to them, I nonetheless watched the dancing with envy and yearning, unable to take my eyes off them.”

It is one of the appealing things about Kundera that he did not claim to have been a historical protagonist. He is a more controversial figure in post-communist Czechia than he is in the West. Václav Havel, Ivan Klíma and other more engaged dissidents thought him a trimmer. In 2008 the historian Adam Hradilek accused him of having informed on a young man staying in a university dorm in 1950. The story is probably true in fact, but untrue in spirit. The man Kundera gave up appears to have been an American agent on a mission.

Given Kundera’s Stalinist sympathies at the time, it can be argued that his course was the patriotic one. But it won’t do to cast Kundera – the way Berman does – as a defender of memory and truth against oblivion and lies. He was an indefatigable and aggressive manager of his own reputation, silent as a clam about his life in Czechoslovakia, lawyerly in negotiating interviews, and severe with longstanding friends and girlfriends who possessed old letters he had sent them. “To publish what an author has chosen suppressed,” he wrote in 1993, “is as much a violation as suppressing what he has chosen to publish.”

The Joke does not end with Ludvik’s disgrace. The latter, “comic” part of the novel concerns Ludvik’s attempt to avenge himself on Zemanek by ravaging Zemanek’s wife, though Ludvik feels “revulsion” for her. She has, as he sees it, a “vocation as sexual prey”.

Here we arrive at an unavoidable complication when we talk about enlisting Kundera in various humanitarian crusades. Western ideas about sex have changed since the 20th century. Kundera’s vision of sexuality is about as distant from the new one as it could possibly be. Sometimes it is just a matter of his having libertine ideas which jar in our more puritan time: the one principle that is firmly asserted somewhere or other in almost every Kundera book is that a woman who complains about being two-timed by her husband or boyfriends is being unreasonable.  

“The management of a woman’s mind has its own inexorable rules,” muses Ludvik: 

“anyone who decides to persuade a woman or to refute her point of view with rational arguments is hardly likely to get anywhere. It is much wiser to grasp her basic self-image (her basic principles, ideals, convictions) and contrive to establish (with the aid of sophistry, illogical demagoguery and the like) a harmonious relation between that self-image and the desired conduct on her part.”

The problem with Kundera is not just a matter of the characters he draws or the ideas they express – which, it should go without saying, a fiction-writer need neither avow nor disavow. The problem is rather Kundera’s entire conception of what sex is, and of what can be found out by exploring sexual interaction. 

It was a literary assumption of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s that sexuality was an insufficiently examined interstice of human character where all sorts of liberating and terrifying truths about humankind could be found out. Kundera was a brilliant discoverer and dazzling imparter of paradoxes about sexual desire, nowhere more concisely than in his story “The Hitchhiking Game.” In it, two lovers on a long drive brutalize and wound each other by fantasizing that they are strangers, but cannot stop because it thrills and arouses them so much. One of the characters towards the end of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, who believes that “rape is part of eroticism,” mentions discussing with friends what the most common thing women say during sex is. By common agreement, it is “No.”

What does this mean? Does it mean men are heartless to women? Or does it mean women enjoy being overpowered? These are the kinds of questions that motivated people to read Kundera in the 1980s. Whether because we have become more decent or less free, people don’t think this way any more, or are less willing to tolerate speculation on such matters. It turns out that a very thin line separates the brave “explorer of sexualities” and the contemptible brute, and many who live as sexual pioneers will be remembered as reactionaries and deviants. Love is love, we say, but we never believe it for long.  

Westerners today have a harder time than those of half a century ago in understanding Kundera’s vision of sex. But they will at least find familiar the power structures of 1960s Czechoslovakia. No contemporary Westerner would say: “Imagine being hounded from your job for an ill-considered joke!” Today, because the Czechoslovak government banned Kundera’s books 50 years ago, we wave them around as a symbol of Western freedom and the justice of the Ukrainian cause. We’re wrong to. If these books didn’t already have the status of classics, the chance they’d be published today by a reputable house in New York would be nil.  

[See also: Milan Kundera’s identity crisis]

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This article appears in the 16 Aug 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s War on the Future