‘Does Milan Kundera Still Matter?’ and ‘How important is Milan Kundera today?’ were two headlines from articles which appeared in 2015, when Kundera’s last novel, The Festival of Insignificance was published. Which is kind of funny, as he was all the rage in the ’80s, when you couldn’t go anywhere without seeing a copy of The Unbearable Lightness Of Being or The Art Of The Novel sticking out of people’s pockets. A critical and popular success, as they say.
Personally, I loved this novel, and I read everything else he had published up to that point (as I tend to do, when I find a writer I really like). When I used to teach Contemporary Fiction, I alternated all his novels on the syllabus from year to year, just to keep things interesting for myself. His essays are also informative and illuminating.
Like Beckett, he is something of a transitional figure between High Modernism and Postmodernism, in that he has all the scholarly knowledge of the European Classicist tradition behind him, but rather than (re)producing epics, realises he can only function as an artist through fragmentation – a radical remaking of everything that went before, which he still nevertheless holds dear. (Kundera’s declaration, ‘The history of music is mortal, but the idiocy of the guitar is eternal’, from The Book Of Laughter And Forgetting, has always struck me as especially fuddy-duddy, when juxtaposed with what was then regarded as his formal experimentation and innovation.)
If his reputation has taken a tumble in the intervening years, it is mostly at the hands of feminist critics who (quite accurately, if not entirely justifiably) take issue with his constant deployment of ‘the male gaze’. But what widely successful male novelist of that era (e.g. Mailer, Roth, Coetzee, Amis, Foster Wallace – hey, why not let’s go right back to Joyce and Beckett too?) has not come in for a retrospective bashing from the ladies? But all the young, straight white males who now signal solidarity with the sisterhood by disdaining these ‘problematic’ scribes will one day be Old White Guys themselves, if they live long enough, and inevitably Dead White Males sooner or later.
A not bad film adaptation directed by Philip Kaufman (1988) also exists. Not as good as the book, though.