He had a great gift for subversive humor. In “The Joke,” for example, a woman tries to kill herself by taking painkillers, only to find they were laxatives. Kundera’s humor had a deeper purpose. It was often disrespectful and mocking; it had a subterranean 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 appeared in The New York Times Book Review. “I was 20 years old then. I could always recognize a man who was not a Stalinist, a man I need not fear, by the way he smiled. A sense of humor was a reliable 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 various types of exile were among his constant themes. He finally saw himself as a French writer.
Kundera’s novels often felt like essays; they were about whatever was on his mind: nostalgia, the absurdity of absolutes, music. Often though, what was on his mind was sex. Jonathan Rosen, in a 2015 piece for the Atlanticremembered reading “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting” in high school, writing that the novel “had orgies like ‘Pride and Prejudice’ had dinner parties.”
In that same novel, on the other hand, Kundera exhibited his tactile and philosophical interest in memory, in what remains. About Tamina, who cannot remember the face of her dead husband, he writes:
She developed her own special technique of calling him to mind. Whenever she sat opposite a man, she would use his head as a kind of sculptor’s armature. She would focus all her attention on him and remodel his face inside her head, darkening the complexion, adding freckles and warts, making the ears smaller and turning the eyes blue. But all her efforts went only to show that the image of her husband was definitely gone.
Kundera saw sex as an act of redemption and liberation under oppressive regimes, but his obsession came back to haunt him. Critics increasingly saw his men as intimidating swashbucklers. Geoff Dyer compared Kundera’s novels to the slapstick burlesque of “The Benny Hill Show,” with “the nurse in her bra and panties being chased by these horny doctors.”