Ideology wants to convince you that its truth is absolute. A novel shows you that everything is relative

milan kundera


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After the first episode of my September readings, here is #2!

To already bend the rules: I am not going to talk about a book in particular, but about an author: Kundera. And, I’m not going to focus solely on September, but on my summer’s readings as a whole.

// Little disclaimer // I had to translate some of the quotes myself (my book is in French and I couldn’t find all I wanted online). Sorry in advance for the lack of literary style

How you wrote it doesn’t matter. Whether it was in a haste or slowly, on you knee or on a table: you only wrote what was in your heart

the joke


A little bibliography

why / how

Let me explain: I bought, by chance, on one of his novels back in July (The joke). I read it, re-read it, and re-re-read it over and over again for a month. It wasn’t that I particularly liked the book to be honest, but since I was backpacking, I couldn’t change the lecture I brought with me in the first place.

Once I finished my trip aka the book for good, I got curious. After all, of Kundera’s work, I only knew the classics (The unbearable lightness of being, Immortality, and his essay The Art of the Novel). Its kitschy dark universe fascinated me (how could one mix so easily tragedy and lightness?), but it didn’t seem to appear as sharp in The Joke. It is only later in my researches that I learned The Joke was actually the first book he published.


This particular discovery got me even more intrigued. As some love to watch a director’s filmography to see how he affined his signature style over the years, I love reading an author’s bibliography. I had already done it years ago for Camus, Chateaubriand and Roland Barthes – three of my favorite authors – and really wanted to discover more about Kundera.


BUT having binge-read Kundera is no reason to drown you under a plethora of reviews. This is why I chose to focus on three books in particular that represent– in my opinion – his work of art.

Accepting life as it is is accepting the unpredictable

the farewell waltz

Three of my Kundera's readings

Some of Kundera’s novels

1 - The joke


I couldn’t pass on the book which started it all – both my madness and Kundera’s career. The Joke is the first novel published by the author in 1967. It tells the intriguing multi-layered story of Ludvik, a young man whose life unexpectedly changed after… a joke. We discover through three other character’s voices Ludvik’s past and future plans, as his universe – filled with communism.


Even after two months and several re-readings, I can’t really figure out what the novel is about: vengeance or love?

I rarely get the opportunity to read an author’s first piece of work, and I was surprised to see that every element we “identify” as Kundera’s were already in germ in The Joke. Namely: the polyphony, the light humor contrasting with a somewhat dark situation and characters whose lives are in doom.

I bought a postcard and (to hurt, shock, and confuse her) wrote: Optimism is the opium of the people! A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky! Ludvik.”



2 - The farewell waltz


A little – tragic – vaudeville built like a classic play. Time, place and action are united, as prescripted. In 24 hours, eight characters concentrated in a little spa town experiment accidents, treason, love, among other things.


Having just finished The Joke, I was excepting a similar story; or at least, a similar tone. No need to say I was surprised by the story. Its shorter format condenses everything, which somehow ends up in strongly highlighting life’s irony. The author’s light dark humor even adds up to the situation’s gloominess and left me a bit shaken.

What happens to people whose alarm clock daily gives them a small electric shock? Each day they become more used to violence and less used to pleasure

3 - Testaments betrayed


This last one is an essay divided in nine parts. The main topic Kundera explores in his Testaments betrayed is the art of the novel (which he wrote about in a previous essay).

Through different pieces, we manage to have a glimpse at Kundera’s book philosophy.


The essay provides a great source to understand further Kundera. However, I did have a hard time reading it / concentrate thoroughly.

I do recommend the book however, just not in any reading conditions. For instance, don’t mistake it for “train-book”. Find a quiet place, and be ready to focus.

The novel is a game with invented characters. You see the world through their eyes, and thus you see it from various angles. The more differentiated the characters, the more the author and the reader have to step outside themselves and try to understand

Milan kundera



A little word to go

As I mentioned, Kundera’s perfect blend between tragedy and apparent lightheartedness creates a darkish, gloomy universe I love.

The polyphony is, to me, one of the core elements that adds to the creation of this particular atmosphere. Characters’ stories resonate with each other, intertwine, part ways, and dive us -readers- into an exhilarating / tragically ironic whirlwind.

Depending on the lectures, I wouldn’t qualify Kundera as a “page-turner author” – pretty much for the same reasons Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov isn’t. 

Some more next month. Until then: good reading!


  • Immortality
  • The Unbearable Lightness of Being
  • An interview on literature with Kundera – the nystimes


Not only was I unencumbered with inner sorrows; I was blessed with a considerable sense of fun. And even so I can’t say I wore the joyous physiognomy of the times: my sense of fun was too frivolous. No, the joy in vogue was devoid of irony and practical jokes; it was, as I have said, of a highly serious variety, the self-proclaimed historical optimism of the victorious class, a solemn and ascetic joy–in short, Joy with a capital J.



I began to keep tabs on my smiles, and soon I felt a tiny crack opening up between the person I’d been and the person I should be (according to the spirit of the times) and tried to be.

But which was the real me? Let me be perfectly honest: I was a man of many faces.



I always have had crazy thoughts. I was born like this. But, unlike others, I realize my crazy thoughts. Believe me, nothing is more beautiful than realizing crazy thoughts. I wish my life was a string of crazy ideas


I [ also ] have to ask myself what sort of world I’d be sending my child into. School soon takes him away to stuff his head with the falsehoods I’ve fought in vain against all my life. Should I see my son become a conformist fool? Or should I instill my own ideas into him and see him suffer because he’ll be dragged into the same conflicts I was?



Having a child is like telling the world: I was born, had a taste of what life is and realized it was good to the point of being worth repeating


What about you? What are you reading those days?


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