Jan Novák (b. 1953) is a prominent Czech-American author, translator and documentary filmmaker. His family emigrated to the U.S. in 1969, nowadays he lives in Prague and Berlin. He gained recognition for his first novel The Wyllis Dream Kit (1985), which won the Carl Sandburg Prize and was in the wider nomination for the Pulitzer Prize. He later co-authored Miloš Forman’s autobiography Co já vím? (Turnaround, 1994), which was translated into 22 languages, while his “true novel” Zatím dobrý (2004, published in English as So Far So Good, 2018) was awarded the Magnesia Litera, the main literary prize in Czechia.
Novák collaborated with Jaromír 99 on two graphic novels Zátopek (2016) and Zatím dobrý (2018). Both have been translated into six languages.
June 2020, 896 pages
Available material: English sample
A masterpiece. Literary biography of Milan Kundera – perhaps the most famous living writer with Czech roots
Rather than a conventional scholarly biography, this book on Milan Kundera is an openly personal one – although it is indeed based on rigorous research of archival materials, contemporary documents, individual witness testimonies and Kundera’s published texts. Novák is not intimidated by the topic, and does not shy away from formulating direct and daring judgments. Where there is insufficient evidence in the original sources, he poses questions and hypotheses about the possible motives for Kundera’s actions and artistic choices.
Novák’s work is an extraordinary achievement, both as a piece of original research and an unconventionally framed portrait. Milan Kundera’s image here is that of an author who has always strived to completely control his public image. However, as Jan Novák eloquently reveals, this effort is both futile and foolish: it makes one lose himself and forces the artist to increasingly perceive himself as identical with the image originally meant to be imposed only on the public.
With this new book, also written in Czech, Novák enters the genre of literary biography, turning his attention to Milan Kundera – perhaps the most famous living writer with Czech roots.
“Novák’s critical, meticulously researched book will certainly create controversy. And that is a good thing. This book is a valuable contribution to the development of critical biography as a genre in the world of Czech literature. Novák goes beyond a dry, “objective” recounting of facts, but also beyond simply narrating the story which the subject and his loved ones would like to tell; this is a biography which complies with the requirement to support every claim with rigorous evidence, yet manages to preserve some of the author’s own personality in the text.”
– Ladislav Nagy, Denik N
“Certain books leave the reader with a lingering uneasy sensation, an almost physical discomfort: they had known little about the painful topic at the center of their attention, and now, suddenly, they know more than they really wanted to know.”
– Jan H. Vitvar, Respekt
“Novák approaches the topic of Milan Kundera with ‘American’ professionalism. He dedicated ample time to researching written sources and interviewing a long list of eyewitnesses. He wrote a large book intended primarily for the ‘informed layman’ type of reader, for whom neither literature nor history is the subject of professional inquiry. (…) Novák’s book is engaging, lively (…) Novák’s protagonist really is more of an antihero than a hero; his biographer does not hide his irritation at Kundera’s behavior or attitudes in certain situations.”
– Ondřej Štindl, Echo
“Kundera has finally been approached in a way which is not completely under his baton, yet is professional, well-written and rigorously argued. (…) This is the kind of book we needed, among other things for its demystifying nature. It is a shame that Novák ends his narration with Kundera’s emigration to France in 1975; we can only hope he brings it all the way to the present in some kind of sequel.”
– Josef Rauvolf, ČT 24
“Novák has written a biography of the Western type, in the style which, strangely, has not been mastered on the Czech literary scene: Simple. Straightforward. To the point. Condensed, brisk, stylistically adept – and with an opinion, for which he of course takes full responsibility.”
– Michal Bystrov, Deník
In Kundera’s writing since 1980’s, the image of a biographer as a parasite keeps returning, a parasite that lives off the work of other artists, belaboring insignificant matters and completely missing all that is essential. Kundera scolds and mocks biographers, as if he wanted preventively to drive them away. In his view, all writers, composers, painters, sculptors, filmmakers should completely disappear behind their work and no one should explore how their experience shaped their art and how it is reflected in it.
In his second Art of the Novel, written in French and published in 1986 (very different from his first Art of the Novel, written in Czech and published in 1960) Kundera borrows „one metaphor from Kafka“, according to which „the novelist tears down the house of his life to build from its bricks a different house: the house of his novel“. According to Kundera, the biographers knock down what the author has built to foolishly erect again what he had torn down.
The great pleasure which Kundera offers the reader in stories like The Hitch-hiking Game and novels like Life is Elsewhere, engenders an interest in what part of his life their author had torn down and what did he build out of the material he obtained in the process. Did he tear down a castle to put up a shed in its place or was it the other way around? Did he obtain enough material from a dugout to build a skyscraper? Did he leave a large part of his spacious villa intact merely to construct a glass house behind it? Or a chapel? A brothel? A watch tower?
Kundera’s experiences are not particularly wide-ranging; he is the only son of a school teacher and a music professor; the only job he ever performed was to teach literature in colleges, so it is no surprise that his basic approach to writing is explication, that he prefers to speak from a position of authority, to talk down from behind a lectern.