Kundera: His Czech Life and Times

June 2020, 896 pages

Available material: English sample

A masterful 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 integrates the author’s personal insights with rigorous research of archival materials, contemporary documents, individual witness testimonies and Kundera’s published texts. Novák 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 for complete control of his public image. However, as Jan Novák eloquently reveals, this effort is both futile and foolish: Kundera loses grasp and increasingly perceives himself as identical to the image originally only meant to be imposed on the public.

“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

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