Milan Kundera - The Unbearable Ligthness of Existence

When you think of famous Czech writers, Franz Kafka is perhaps the most well-known name. But he didn’t write in Czech. He wrote all his books in German. So technically he wasn’t a Czech writer. Then who is the most famous Czech writer?

8/28/202315 min read

Milan Kundera is perhaps the second most famous writer from the country. But here is the problem. He was technically French and wrote and published some of his books in French first. Not only that, he actually considered himself to be a French writer. But why?

I will answer that question later. But first let me tell you about his life, his novels, and style of writing and why he is considered one of the most important writers from central Europe.


Milan Kundera was born in 1929 and passed away in 2023. Although he was born in the Czech Republic, back then Czechoslovakia, he lived his last 50 years in France where became a French citizen in 1981.

He was born into a middle class family, his father being a pianist and his mother a teacher. Thanks for his father, the influence of music can be found in his writing. Despite his interest in music, when aged 18, instead of joining an orchestra, he joined the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia in 1947. A communist party is perhaps a bit similar to an orchestra led by one conductor and all the members act in uniformed fashion. However despite being a devout party member, his interest was in the creative endeavour so he enrolled to study film in the capital Prague. Perhaps his creative mind wasn’t much of a use at the party that relies on conformity, he was expelled from the Communist Party in 1950.

Two years later he started teaching world literature at the Prague Performing Arts Academy. Teaching literature is one thing, but being part of a group is another thing. Also he had a grand ambition of changing the party and who knows thinking he could also change the country . In 1956, he rejoined the Communist Party. A second marriage is said to last longer, but it didn’t. Four years later, he was divorced again. It wasn’t his height, because he was a tall man at 6 '1 or 185 cm. It was because he had some radical ideas and wanted to reform the Communist Party. For example, he wanted Czechoslovakia to have a uniquely different identity compared to other nations like Russia, Poland to the East and France and Germany to the West.

His dream of making Czechoslovakia stand strong and independent was crushed when the Soviet tanks rolled on the streets of Prague in 1968. It wasn’t Putin that time because he was only 16 back then. It was Leonid Brezhnev. He was worried that the Czechs and Slovaks were becoming too liberal in their ideas, and possibly leaving the Warsaw Pact and worse yet becoming a Nato sphere of influence, the Warsaw Pact members, led by Brezhnev, took a preemptive measure to stop it all.

Seeing his dream of reform crushed by the Soviet tanks and later the government banning his books, he made a trip to Paris to get away from all the drama and headaches. In Paris, instead of falling in love with the city, he made some friends. Among those friends one name stood out. It was Claude Gallimard from the publishing giant Gallimard who published the likes of Marcel Proust and Albert Camus. Incidentally, Claude’s cousin Michel Gallimard died in the same car crash that killed Albert Camus in 1960. Claude Gallimard being a shrewd businessman, saw a talent in Milan Kundera so persuaded him to move to Paris where he could publish freely. So in 1975, he moved to France. His earlier books were written in Czech but later, he exclusively wrote in French. He died in 2023, aged 94. He wrote 10 novels, 2 short story collections, 3 poetry collections and 7 books of nonfiction, mainly about literature and the art of writing. He also wrote numerous essays and newspaper articles.

Here I will discuss three of his best works.


The Joke

Kundera’s first novel, The Joke was published in 1967, in which he tells the story of his expulsion from the Communist Party over a silly joke he makes at school to impress a girl. Back then optimism about the future was the main selling point of communism, just like Christianity selling heaven in the afterlife. The protagonist Ludvik makes a joke comparing optimism to opium alluding to the famous quote by Karl Marx that religion is the opiate of the masses. In other words, the communist optimism is just another religion that promises a good future like heaven. However, his joke is betrayed by the girl who feels it her duty to report it to the party.

Now, no longer at school he is drafted to the military service, almost akin to a labour camp. Whenever he has a chance to take a leave, he tries to chat up girls. But his attempt to sleep with a girl fails at the very last minute. So his past life is nothing but a series of failures and betrayals.

Now years later he is a scientist, but he has not forgotten those days. He wants to take revenge. How? Well, the only way he can take revenge is to seduce his enemy’s wife. When he finally sleeps with her, she tells him that she is separated from her husband and now she’s ready to divorce him. Their sexual relationship has little or no impact on their marriage because it was over long before. So he fails in his attempt to take a “genuine" revenge. So his whole life seems like one big joke. The fact that he remembers all these years is funny itself. We all hold grudges, some for a long and some for a short time. But Ludvik has a long-term memory.

The novel has a Slavic pessimistic tone. At the very start there is a quote: “Optimism is the opium of mankind! A healthy spirit stinks of stupidity.” People visiting eastern Europe would often notice that generally people don’t smile. Reading this novel, you understand why. Marxism inspired by a German, Karl Marx, advocated an optimistic future, took a strong root in eastern Europe and this novel shows that the root was very much artificial, imposed from above. In other words, it is a joke played on millions of people.

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Published in 1979, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is not your typical novel. It seems more like a collection of short stories than a cohesive novel. Part one, titled Lost Letters, tells the story of a man who dated an ugly woman. In an attempt to erase the memory, he destroys her love letters but in a Kafkaesque twist, he is arrested and jailed for years. Not just that, his family and friends also spend time in jail. The lesson is don’t try to erase the love you once had for an ugly woman. This part is basically trying to make fun of how we change. At times, we fall in love with an ugly woman, and years later, we laugh at ourselves. In the same way, a celebrity is loved by everyone, and then upon some revelation, they are banished.

In Part Four the lost letters again resurface. This time the letters belong to a woman who is desperate to get them. First, Tamina’s hopes rest on a female friend to bring the letters from Prague but the friend’s emotions get the better of her and she cancels the trip. Then Tamina uses her sexuality to recruit a man for the job. After the sex, clarity hits the man and he refuses to help. The letters remain lost.

Part five of this book is about Litost, a kind of misery-induced torment only known to the Czech people. You could see it is a Slavic thing. You can see this in the works of Dostoevsky too. The story is about a student who falls in love with a girl but despite his attempt, he is unable to rekindle his love. It’s the unrequited love present in many of Dostoevsky’s short stories. The same is true in some of Turgenev’s stories.

It’s hard to characterise the book as the book is a mix of many stories. The only theme that runs through the book is failure. The failure to get rid of bad memories, the failure to get your letters and diaries, the failure to consummate your love. In my video on Franz Kafka, I discussed that failure perhaps best characterises Kafka’s works and life and this book also depicts failure. In the face of utter failure, you cannot do anything, except either laugh or forget. Hence the title is the Book of Laughter and Forgetting.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Published in 1984, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, is Milan Kundera’s most well-known book. Set in the 60s and 70s in Prague, it tells the story of a Tomaš, a married surgeon who apart from cutting people’s bodies, sleeps with a lot of different women. He has turned womanising into an art form, or you could say he womanises with the precision of a brain surgeon. Also I should point out that Kundera wrote the book after living in France for almost 10 years. France is known for its great womanisers and its being as an art form, most famously depicted in the 1782 novel the Dangerous Liaisons by Laclos.

When the Soviets invade Prague in 1968, Tomaš has to stop his surgery and womanising so he flees to Switzerland. While there, he continues in his hobby of sleeping with a variety of women. When his wife is fed up with eating Swiss cheese every day and wants to return to Prague, because she used to find meaning in her job as a photographer, while now sitting and doing nothing. Tomaš has a difficult choice to make. Should he stay or follow her? Finally he realises he loves his wife too much, so he returns to Prague, thinking he can return to his surgeon job. But unfortunately the authorities strip him off his medical licence after he refuses to sign a document renouncing his past article he wrote against the regime. Now no longer a surgeon, but being a resourceful man, Tomaš gets a job as a window cleaner. Now, while unable to do surgery, he continues in his bedroom fun, if you get my terrible innuendo. Incidentally the English singer George Formby’s famous 1936 song is titled “When I’m cleaning windows” as an innuendo. It’s perhaps unlikely Kundera heard this song. Anyway, he uses window cleaning in order to sleep with women.

His wife, too, decides to have an affair, one to get a taste of it and two to get Tomaš stop his conquests. But it turns out, she feels worse after doing it. It’s not for her. And also the man she sleeps with turns out to be a spy. She then persuades Tomaš to move to the countryside. Just as the couple are getting their lives back together, the ultimate tragedy hits them. They both die in a car accident. Just like that.

At the heart of the novel is this idea that life is so insignificant and even meaningless in the face of how old the universe is. But more importantly that everything in the universe is repeated endlessly. In Nietzsche’s philosophy the eternal recurrence is the idea that while time is infinite, matter which we are part of is finite. In other words, since time is forever, matter must recur or repeat itself. As a life-form, our individual life becomes meaningless in the vastness of the universe and infinite time. I have discussed Nietzsche’s philosophy in great detail in a video on his book Thus Spoke Zarathustra. But Kundera argues against Nietzschean eternal recurrence. Quote: “Human life occurs only once, and the reason we cannot determine which of our decisions are good and which bad is that in a given situation we can make only one decision; we are not granted a second, third, or fourth life in which to compare various decisions.” Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Nietzsche was influenced by eastern philosophy of Hinduism so he accepted the cyclical nature of life. For Kundera, a proud European, however, time moves in a linear fashion so everything we do is unique and cannot be repeated. Quote: “And therein lies the whole of man's plight. Human time does not turn in a circle; it runs ahead in a straight line. That is why man cannot be happy: happiness is the longing for repetition.” Kundera (The Unbearable Lightness of Being). In other words, we only live once. So you might as well do what you love.

Kundera’s protagonist, Tomaš uses his time to sow his seeds as far and wide as possible by sleeping with many women. The idea that everything happens once and you cannot return to that same thing gives him the freedom to do what he enjoys, which is having multiple sex partners, which is a male imperative from a biological perspective. Because of human sexual dimorphism, the two genders must meet and copulate to continue the species. This sexual imperative gives rise to concepts such as love. Quote: “He suddenly recalled from Plato's Symposium: People were hermaphrodites until God split them in two, and now all the halves wander the world seeking one another. Love is the longing for the half of ourselves we have lost.” ―Kundera (The Unbearable Lightness of Being).

Tomas’s wife, however, has no such imperative to spread his eggs around. Instead she loves raising cattle, reading books and surprisingly feels disgusted by her own body. She even accepts that men are wired to be the conquerors because the imperative to find a mate falls on a male’s shoulders, not females. It’s no surprise that women prefer commitment while men prefer casual relationships. Tomaš would have been lethal in the age of tinder. At one point a conversation between a couple reveals the differences between the sexes. The woman says love is a battle and she’s prepared to fight to the end. The man says he is not willing to fight such a battle. The old adage that women love to have love while men love to have sex.

But there is a paradox here. While love and sex might be two different things, here even sex has a story itself. Before sex and after sex, Tomaš is like two different people. He loves the promise of freedom sex offers. It’s a release, both mentally and physically. But after the act, there seems to be a heaviness he feels. This reminded me of the Japanese classic, The Tale of Genji in which the womanising prince feels a kind of anguish after every sexual conquest. Despite this anguish, Genji cannot stop chasing more women. Tomaš is a bit similar here. Sex offers him freedom, release from the heaviness of life, but post-sex clarity brings the heaviness back. So it is a paradox.

Apart from Nietzsche’s philosophy, you can also see Jean-Paul Sartre’s assertion that life has no meaning or essence. At the heart of existence is nothingness. For Sartre, this nothingness is an opportunity for each individual to carve a unique meaning for himself or herself. But for Kundera, this nothingness can be unbearable. To distract himself, Tomaš uses sex or chasing a multitude of women as an escape from this unbearable lightness of existence. From a purely evolutionary perspective, we have one job: to survive until puberty in order to reproduce. Since men don’t have to deal with pregnancy and child-birth, they can have an endless number of partners. But not all men can do this, so Tomaš is in a way an exceptional man: smart, educated, has a prestigious job, good income, dashingly handsome etc, so women are attracted to him.

Leo Tolstoy’s influence can also be seen in the novel. First, there is a female dog named Karenin, perhaps named after the husband of Anna Karenina who is a creature of habit and hates change. Ironically, in Tolstoy’s novel, his wife left him because he was too boring. Here, however, Tomaš’s wife is going nowhere despite his endless infidelity. I guess perhaps because he is entertaining other women, while Karenin was a faithful and devout husband. The second influence is the title of this novel may have come from Tolstoy’s War and Peace, this phrase is uttered after the death of Prince Andrey Bolknosky. In War and Peace, the scene of countless people dying for no good reason is depicted to show the insignificance of human life in the face of history. When wars are over, people talk about victory, not the countless dead soldiers. It’s history that is significant, not the individual men who die.

Ultimately, Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being is about freedom versus responsibility. Freedom is lightness and responsibility is heaviness. But when we try to avoid all responsibility, it brings its own heaviness. So life is just a paradox. For example freedom is not freedom without responsibility. As soon as you take responsibility for one thing, or make one choice, you free yourself from all other responsibilities or choices. You’re stuck with one decision, one choice and one responsibility. That is a form of freedom as well as unfreedom.


Tragic comedy

In most of his novels, tragedy is a common theme. The biggest tragedy is of course authoritarianism that doesn’t allow people to breathe freely. In the face of such darkness, as we saw in the works of his fellow countryman Franz Kafka, the reaction is often to laugh. In Kundera’s works, it is tragedy that triggers comedy.

Individual vs collective

Another important theme is individual freedom against the regime. When it comes to the battle between individuals and the authorities, there is only one winner. Prison stares at anyone who dares to challenge the regime. In Kundera’s work, an individual life is significant, valuable, and important despite the fact that history doesn’t think so. Totalitarianism doesn’t care about the individual as it focuses on the totality, the collective, and the group.

Suspended in space-time

Another theme common in Kundera’s work is existentialism. Martin Heidegger’s philosophy posits that life is between two lines: birth and death. In other words we have a finite amount of space and time so Kundera takes this idea on board. A lot of his characters are displaced, torn between two different places. This makes sense because he was exiled to France after living half of his life in Czechoslovakia. Quote: “Being in a foreign country means walking a tightrope high above the ground without the net afforded a person by the country where he has his family, colleagues, and friends, and where he can easily say what he has to say in a language he has known from childhood.” Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

Politically too he wrote about the plight of central Europe somehow suspended between the liberal west and the communist east. He wished he could put central Europe on its own pedestal.

Suspended in space is one element but suspended in time is another common theme in his writing. A lot of his characters are torn between past and present. In the Joke, Ludvik cannot escape his past mistreatment and even tries to take revenge on those who did him wrong. In the Book of Laughter and Forgetting the same is true about Tamina who is desperate to get back her letters and diaries of her past but somehow all her attempts fail, which brings me to another common theme in his work.


Kundera admired Franz Kafka. If one thing they have in common, apart from their country of birth, it is the theme of failure. Kafka failed to marry, failed to have kids, and failed as a writer in his lifetime. In his novels too, individuals fail against the authorities. He even failed to destroy his books as he instructed his friend to burn them. In Kundera’s work, failure is everywhere. Tamina fails to get her letters. Ludvik fails to take revenge. Tomaš fails to love his wife and his wife fails to convince him to stop womanising. Despite the pessimism that permeates in his works, he sheds light into the psyche of our shared human condition that life is not a Disney fairy tale.

His Best work

While The Unbearable Lightness of Being is his most famous novel, I personally think the Joke is his best work, simply because it is his first novel. It has a unique voice and is written in a very honest way.

I think Kundera’s style is to have an idea, topic or concept and then mould a character that fits that idea, concept or topic. In other words, he writes like a philosopher or a historian rather than a creative novelist. Greatest novelists or storytellers start with a character and then try to expose their ideas and concepts through difficulties and challenges in their life journey. In other words, humans come first and ideas come second in literature. While in philosophy ideas tend to be first and characters tend to be secondary. I think Kundera was stuck in a philosophical, rational skin rather than in an emotional, creative skin. I think The Joke is his best character-driven novel, perhaps he wrote it to just tell a story that was raw, honest and unique and later he told stories of primarily ideas and less of people.

I think he was a better philosopher than storyteller. Even he was a better critic than fiction writer. I think Kundera felt more liberated in his non-fiction than fiction. I think his fiction feels very restricted, constrained and his characters are boxed to represent an idea or concept. In his fiction, Kundera appears more like a puppeteer than a free-flowing creative writer like Dostoevsky or Murakami.

If you want to be a writer or if you like literature and art in general, you will enjoy his essays more than his novels. Two of my favourite collections are Encounter and The Curtain. The essays are short and often very insightful on European writers and artists. Kundera was a proud European and in his essays he celebrates that.

Why French

Now back to the question I posed at the beginning. Why did he want to be known as a French writer, not a Czech writer? The first reason is a bit technical. Between 1981 and 2019, he only held a French citizenship, because Czechoslovakia revoked his citizenship in 1979, as a result for two years between 1979 and 1981, he was stateless until he was granted French citizenship in 1981. But his reasoning, I think, went deeper than just the issue of citizenship. For decades his books were banned in his country of birth, so he mainly wrote and published in French. From what I have heard, his French was of high quality so if one didn’t know, by just reading his books, they wouldn’t consider him not to be French. Of course, when he spoke, his accent showed up. He spoke in a thick Czech accent.

I think the main reason he considered himself to be a French writer was more literary as well as cultural. He considered not only his own writing, but the entire central European literature to be more in line with western European mould, not eastern European. Western Europe tends to be more individualistic while eastern Europe tends to be more communitarian. Throughout his writing career he wanted to show how close Czech literature was to French literature. Not just that, he wanted to push central Europe away from communism towards liberalism, which was the case in France.

He wasn’t alone. Many eastern European writers, including the Russian giants such as Ivan Turgenev, Leo Tolstoy and more were influenced by French literature. So Milan Kundera wanted to be part of a richer history which is French literature. He was also politically more liberal. But above all, he benefited from the freedom that France offered him, to live and write whatever he wanted. You cannot discount that freedom. France allowed him to flourish as a writer and intellectual. In France, he could sip coffee, intellectualise, womanise, go on strike, write highly sexual novels, and eat cheese. But in Czechoslovakia he could only drink beer and get hammered. And when not hammered, he would have to watch out for StB, the Czechoslovakian version of the Stasi. So freedom of expression is a precious thing. When you suppress a bird from singing, they fly to another tree, another forest and nest in a cafe in Paris. Milan Kundera was surpassed in his home country and he found France where he could write freely.