Where to start with: Milan Kundera | Books

Where to start with: Milan Kundera | Books

That people love to ask novelists to name their favourite novel has always struck me as odd – a bit like asking a passionate traveller to pick a single favourite destination or an accomplished gardener just one flower. Still, the question is inescapable. And so, some time ago, I decided to answer it early and often, flashing a convincing smile while reciting, “My favourite book is The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” It is true: Almost everything that I love and have ever loved about reading can be found within the pages of the English translation of Milan Kundera’s greatest hit, first published 40 years ago. But it’s a trick answer. I love too many novels too much to have a favourite.

What I really mean is that of all the things that a novelist can do – of all the games it can play, all the truths it can seek, all the depths it can plumb, all the jokes it can crack — this novel does all the things I love most: examining human relationships, braiding humour into philosophy, turning prose into poetry. If you love these things too, here’s a guide to the work of the late Czech author.

If you’re in a rush

The Festival of Insignificance is one of Kundera’s last and leanest novels, a novella length meditation on the lives of two middle-aged men: Alain and Roman. Though the narrative takes place in Paris, Alain and Roman could easily be from London, New York or Miami. They are men nearing retirement and questioning their virility, their sexuality and their mortality. Perhaps because much of the narrative unfolds in the Luxembourg Garden, and because the book can be read in a single sitting, I’ve thrice read this bright yellow paperback on a park bench. Spare, ironic and thoughtful: this is Kundera in concentrate.

Kundera in 1963. Photograph: Nesvadba Frantisek/AP

The sexiest one

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is told in seven parts, moving freely between third person narration and first person exposition, between conventional plotting and philosophical digressions. The main cast of characters includes Mirek, a man unjustly imprisoned; Karel and Marketa, a married couple who are prevented from sleeping with their long-term throuple partner Eva when Karel’s mother extends her stay; Tamina, a bright young woman who works at a cafe outside of Prague and Kristyna, the object of a young philosophy student’s desire. If these characters sound disjointed, that’s because they are: Laughter and Forgetting is wandering, probing, insightful – and bawdy.

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If you hate novels

I cannot say I understand people who say “I only read nonfiction.” But Kundera’s 2009 essay collection Encounter is for you strange and lovely humans. This is nonfiction about novels, and rendered in the lyrical prose of a novel – but it is nonfiction indeed. Kundera’s focus is on male novelists (Roth, García Márquez, Dostoevsky), but he also considers artists in other genres (Bacon, Fellini, Curzio Malaparte). The essays read a bit like book reviews enlivened with pithy anecdotes and salient political observations. Best of all, they read like Kundera: devious, distractible and delightful.

If you only read one

The Unbearable Lightness of Being is billed as a book about “two men, two women, and one dog” – but that might be too coy by half. For my money, Kundera’s 1984 classic is about one man: A Czech surgeon named Tomáš who, against the backdrop of the 1968 Prague Spring, tries to sell his wife on the merits of polyamory. I first read the book in secondary school (only 10 years after it was published, I realise now) and fell immediately and irrevocably in love with Kundera’s writing style. But it was 10 years after that, when I was leaving university, that the novel became a kind of lifestyle guide – and so it has remained. In the most elegiac prose, Kundera presents a protagonist (Tomáš) who deeply cherishes his wife (Tereza) while equally cherishing his lovers, above all his long-term “erotic friend” (Sabina). In granting me unfiltered access to Tomáš’s mind, Kundera gave me (then a twentysomething woman) an entirely new perspective on the mechanics of heterosexual marriage. For me, as for so many friends, the question of whether to aspire to be Tereza or Sabina was a pressing one. All these years later the book raises the best questions I’ve ever found in prose about the project of monogamy.

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