The Storyteller.

When I heard that the novelist Milan Kundera had died the first thing I thought of was the time I met his wife. It was partly a chance encounter. I was in Paris and I’d gotten his home address from a writers’ directory. After a lot of wandering and checking the map—his street was short and narrow, almost an alley—I found his apartment building. There was an intercom next to the door and someone had just pressed the buzzer and gone in so I could see a courtyard, but I stood there, realizing I didn’t have any plan beyond just finding his home. After a few minutes a dark-haired woman came out and I said, “Pardon, je ne parle Francais. Parlez vous Anglais?” And she said, “Yes, I do.” We both laughed and I said, “I’m looking for Mr. Kundera. I’m a great fan of his work and I was hoping to meet him.” She softened a bit and said, “I’m so sorry. He’s out of the country right now. I’d invite you in but I have to go as well. Do you have a note or something I could give him?” She probably saw I was holding a copy of his novel Life Is Elsewhere, fitting, since he was elsewhere. I didn’t have anything but I said, “Could you please just tell him a young poet came to pay his respects?”

I realize now that she might have been politely saying, “My husband doesn’t get a lot of stalkers but I’m seriously thinking about calling the police.” But I still took the hint and, after saying it was nice to have met her, I went to explore the rest of Paris as it should be explored: without any plan.

At home I wrote him a letter saying I was that young poet and I was sorry to have missed him. I don’t think I apologized for showing up unannounced at his home, but I did say I’d read all his novels except his latest one, Immortality. About a month later I got a package from him: a copy of Immortality, inscribed to me with a message and a weird picture of a hand. Why a hand? In my edition of Life Is Elsewhere, translated from Czech, there was a forward by Kundera about how the translator had gone back and redone his original translation, making it better. Kundera said he was grateful and added, “I offer him my hand as a friend.” It was his own personal signature and he was offering me his hand as well. At least that’s how I interpret it.

Of course I sat down and read Immortality immediately, enjoying all its rambling strangeness. There’s a character in it named Mr. Kundera and he talks about how he’s writing a novel. Someone asks him what the title of his novel will be and he says, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” When the other person says, “I think someone’s already written that,” Mr. Kundera replies “I did! But it should be the title of the novel I’m writing now.”

I’d always approached Kundera as A Very Serious Writer, a preeminent example of postmodern fiction, who wove deep philosophy—Neitzsche, Heidegger, Sartre—into his work. But I’d never thought of him as funny until then. I went back and reread all his other books. I’d always understood that, as a postmodern author, he played with fiction and the power of stories to make anything happen. Stories can shape history, or even invent things that never happened, and everyone is a character. Parts of Immortality imagine what Goethe is up to in Heaven. I realized what I’d been missing when I reread The Book Of Laughter And Forgetting which includes a story about his own life when he was labelled a dissident in Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia. He had a set of astrology books that he kept on his desk where friends could see them and he even told them he’d been an assistant to a French astrologer—which wasn’t true. As a dissident he couldn’t get work as a writer but based on his “experience” an editor gave him a job writing an astrology column under a pseudonym. Then a high-ranking government official contacted the editor, discreetly, and asked if the astrologer could—just for fun, you understand, because it wasn’t something any rational person took seriously, you know—do some horoscopes for him. Kundera said he wondered how many government decisions his “horoscopes” influenced.

It’s a funny story but the first time around I was too busy trying to understand the meaning in the context of people who fly when they dance in a circle. What I realized the second time around—weight replaced by lightness–was that there was a deep vein of humor running through all his work. Hey, his first novel is called The Joke and while it’s not exactly funny he did understand the power—and danger—of satire. Life Is Elsewhere is a tragicomedy that pokes fun at the pretentiousness and naivete of young poets and as I write that now my twenty-year old self feels attacked. But also amused.

Back at college I was taking an Eighteenth Century Literature class and one day, sitting in the student lounge, one of my classmates and I got into a discussion of how much the novels of Henry Fielding, Swift, even Samuel Johnson, and especially Laurence Sterne, resembled postmodern novels, with rambling, sometimes bizarre plots, and asides where the authors directly address the reader.

“The difference,” my classmate said, “is postmodern novels just aren’t funny!”

I proceeded to open up a whole can of Kundera right there. Humor is subjective thing, but I pointed out several scenes from his books I thought were pretty funny, ending with the short story “Symposium” and a young doctor who sneaks out to the garden at night. He hears someone he thinks is a woman he thinks is in love with him. When he says, “I knew you’d come,” he’s greeted by the voice of an older male doctor who replies, “Yes, I prefer peeing outside.”

The classmate faded away into the wallpaper and I was sitting by myself when I heard a heavily accented voice say, “That was quite the speech.”

I looked over and immediately recognized the gray hair, the heavy brow, the strong chin from his author photos. It was Milan Kundera, sitting right across from me! He must have known I couldn’t speak Czech so he spoke French which I couldn’t speak either but understood anyway.

“You know,” he went on, “all these critics, they focus on my characters, their relationships, philosophy in my work. Sometimes I think I know how Kafka would have felt if he’d known Max Brod turned him into some kind of ascetic who suffered for his art, rather than a person who just loved telling stories.”

Completely stumped I came out with the most irrelevant question I could think of. “So what brought you here?”

“A plane. A smart young man like you should know you can’t drive to Indiana from France.”

Facebook Comments


  1. BarbaraM

    That was wonderful!

    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Thanks so much! Meeting Mrs. Kundera was such a fun experience. And meeting Mr. Kundera was…post-modern.

  2. Anonymous

    I’m so grateful for your storytelling talent, my friend.


      Pssst! “Anonymous” is me!

    2. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      It seems like a post-modern twist that you appear anonymous here, Ann, but I recognize your style.


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