He had a great gift for subversive humor. In “The Joke,” for example, a woman tries to kill herself by ingesting painkillers, only to find they were laxatives. Kundera’s humor had a deeper purpose. It was often irreverent and mocking; it had an underground quality, and it sprang from his innate distrust of authority.
“I learned the value of humor during the time of Stalinist terror,” he told Philip Roth in a 1980 interview that ran in The New York Times Book Review. “I was 20 then. I could always recognize a person who was not a Stalinist, a person whom I needn’t fear, by the way he smiled. A sense of humor was a trustworthy sign of recognition.”
The Communist government in Czechoslovakia, until the Velvet Revolution in 1989, banned Kundera’s books. He went into exile in France in 1975, and exile of various sorts was among his abiding themes. He ultimately saw himself as a French writer.
Kundera’s novels often felt essayistic; they were about whatever was on his mind: nostalgia, the absurdity of absolutes, music. Often enough though, what was on his mind was sex. Jonathan Rosen, in a 2015 piece for The Atlantic, recalled reading “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting” in high school, writing that the novel “featured orgies the way ‘Pride and Prejudice’ featured dinner parties.”
In that same novel, however, Kundera displayed his tactile and philosophical interest in memory, in what remains. Of Tamina, who cannot recall her dead husband’s face, he writes:
She developed her own special technique of calling him to mind. Whenever she sat across from a man, she would use his head as a kind of sculptor’s armature. She would concentrate all her attention on him and remodel his face inside her head, darkening the complexion, adding freckles and warts, scaling down the ears, and coloring the eyes blue. But all her efforts only went to show that her husband’s image had disappeared for good.
Kundera saw sex as an act of redemption and of liberation under repressive regimes, but his obsession came back to haunt him. Critics increasingly came to see his men as creepy womanizers. Geoff Dyer compared Kundera’s novels to the slapstick burlesque of “The Benny Hill Show,” with “the nurse in her bra and panties getting chased around by these horny doctors.”