Kundera and the Nobel Prize

Milan Kundera during an interview with Bernard Pivot on the French talk show Apostrophe, 1984.

After Milan Kundera’s death last July, I heard many people in different countries complaining that the writer will no longer be able to receive the Nobel Prize he so greatly deserved. Then I remembered that, during my meetings with Kundera in Paris in the 1980s and 1990s, the writer briefly mentioned, on several occasions and always with laughter, the lost prize. His wife Vera and a mutual friend, the Czech journalist exiled in Paris, Antonin Liehm, used to be more explicit about the events of the year 1984 and the writer’s relationship with Czech dissidents, led by the playwright and later president of the Czech Republic, Václav Havel. To begin to understand this relationship, I reread the polemic between Havel and Kundera that took place in 1968-1969, shortly after the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Russian tanks.  In his article, an optimistic Kundera stated that his country would be remembered for the courageous attitude it showed during the Prague Spring; a pessimistic Havel replied that being a victim of aggression is not enough reason to be admired and that a country must deserve international attention, a goal that the Czechs and Slovaks had not yet achieved.

My interest in what happened around the Nobel Prize led me, a couple of weeks ago, to do some research in Prague, where, during the whole summer and part of the autumn of this year, Czech magazines and newspapers have devoted pages and whole supplements to the Czech-French writer. Leafing through the press I came across a revealing article: “Milan Kundera and dissidence”, published in the Prague weekly Echo. Its author is Milan Uhde, a former dissident, playwright and politician in the democratic era, who was a personal friend of Kundera. Uhde’s ex-wife is the director of Atlantis, the Czech publishing house which used to publish Kundera’s books.

The author of the article sees the first sign of a rift (between Kundera and the dissidents) not so much in the Havel-Kundera controversy in itself, as in the fact that Kundera, from the late 1960s onward, having achieved recognition in his country and in France for his first novel The Joke (1967), decided to send his second novel, Life is Elsewhere (1969), to the French publisher Gallimard instead of publishing it with the clandestine Czech dissidents’ press, Petlice.

But what made the dissidents most uncomfortable was the fact that in 1980 (five years after Kundera went into exile in Paris and after the publication of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting) Kundera was interviewed by the writer Philip Roth and the Czech-French author chose to invent more than one mystification under which he concealed his true life: he said that in his country he had been an unknown person (when in fact he was a celebrity) and that there he had earned his living as a pianist in a bar (when in fact he earned it, as an author banned by the regime, by elaborating horoscopes under a fictitious name).  Those who are familiar with Kundera and his work know that irony, jokes and mystification are an essential part of his way of seeing the world. However, this explanation would have struck the dissidents as frivolous: they were opponents whom the totalitarian regime ghettoized on the edges of society and often jailed, and whose slogan was “truth against the totalitarian lie”. The dissidents took the interview badly. So badly that, when in 1984 the Swedish Academy put Kundera on the top of its list of candidates for the Nobel Prize in Literature, they, worried that Kundera would not mention them in his Nobel speech, proposed their own candidate: the poet Jaroslav Seifert, 83 years old, who at that time was in hospital.

Uhde recounts in his article that: “Václav Havel, at a meeting with his dissident colleagues, failed to inform them of the fact that, if they signed the petition in favor of Seifert, it would mean that Kundera would automatically be excluded as a Nobel candidate.” In addition to Uhde’s statement there is another testimony, that of writer Sylvie Richterová, who states the same thing: Havel at that time submitted a nomination recommending Seifert for the prize; in his proposal, the dissident claimed that the author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being (a novel that recounts the life of a couple annihilated by the totalitarian regime), “didn’t give a damn about anything” (meaning anything that had to do with dissidence and the regime).

The result is well known: in 1984, Jaroslav Seifert was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. When, after he was announced as the winner, the Spanish newspaper El País sent me to Prague to interview the poet, he confessed to me that he believed that other Czech writers would have deserved the prize more than he did and that, ailing as he was, he would not be able to make good use of the money he had received. Because of his illness, the award was collected in Stockholm by the poet’s daughter Jana, who also read the Nobel speech (written by a relative), a speech that did not mention the dissidents and did not help anyone.

In this way, the Czech dissidents wasted their chance to be mentioned before the entire world (a mention which, I dare say, Kundera would have made). And this is the reason why Kundera was left without the Nobel Prize.

Monika Zgustova is a writer. Her most recent book is Dressed for a Dance in the Snow: Women’s Voices from the Gulag. (Other Press 2020)