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Elsewhere: Translingual Kundera.

While other translingual writers have seemed to blossom into a new, and often revelatory, aesthetic connected to their embrace of a second language, Milan Kundera's novels have become shorter, more circumspect, and less obviously new in their form and aesthetic as he has moved into a second language. The urgency of his middle period--with the critically acclaimed and bestselling novels Kniha smichu a zapomneni / The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Nesnesitelnd lehkost byti/ The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and Nesmrtelnost/Immortality--seems to have petered out into small, novella-like diversions that seem to display an unremarkable encounter with the second language he has embraced: no obvious shaving of words down to their core like Beckett, or capacious playfulness like Nabokov. Has the translingual Kundera been disappointing, or is there more to his embrace of the French language than meets the eye?

Kundera went into exile in France in 1975, and for the first twenty years wrote his novels in Czech knowing that the vast majority of his readers would only read him, because of Czechoslovak censorship of his work, in translation; translation, he wrote, was everything. According to one of his translators, Peter Kussi, his awareness of a non-Czech readership made him self-conscious about his Czech language. Kundera worried that he was overly clarifying his language, "that he washed out his [Czech] tongue to be absolutely crystal clear" (Kussi 1999). Yet Kussi also pointed out that Kundera's Czech was already "clear, formal, what you might call normal Czech," unlike the great Czech stylists he admired such as Vladislav VanCura, Bohumil Hrabal, even (in his use of street Czech) Jaroslav Hasek--a clarity possibly connected to Kundera's love of classic French literature (Kussi 1999). That love is apparent; from his first prose piece, "Ja, truchlivy buh" (1958), Kundera has kept returning, for instance, to Rostand's Cyrano in order to underline a central trope in his own work of misunderstanding and our tragicomic belief in language and symbols to overcome it.

Have Kundera's French novels been misunderstood, too? Or, more precisely, have Kundera's linguistic aesthetics been misunderstood paradoxically because of the apparent clarity, or straightforwardness, of his prose? French critics, such as Francois Ricard, have characterized Kundera's language as being solely instrumental: "simple," "classic," and only "entirely dedicated to the meaning it must transmit" (Ricard 165). In attributing a "classic" prose style to Kundera's work, critics like Ricard imply that Kundera was always, in spirit, a French writer; his translingualism is normalized into a certain tradition of French prose. After Kundera's work received one of the ultimate French literary accolades by being published as a two-volume Pleiade edition in 2011, Mohammed Aissaoui marveled at the "stylistic unity" of Kundera's Czech and French work. Aissaoui noted that "Kundera's translated French has the same traits of economy, precision and clarity as the French written directly by him" because "Kundera's natural diction, in Czech and in French, has always been in harmony with our classic prose."

In this article, however, 1 want to suggest that Kundera's French novels are in fact linguistically and thematically disruptive (in terms of French norms in language, national culture, and tradition). As a Czech writer in exile, intimately attuned to discrepancies in language and its untranslatability, Kundera became interested in what language does and how it works (and does not work). While retranslating the French translations of his Czech novels, he became cognizant of the trajectory of his aesthetics, and particularly how he used language. He articulates this discovery in his first French essays, published as L'art du roman (1986) and Les testaments trahis (1993), arguing that great writers have their own "style personnel de l'auteur" / "author's personal style" that transgresses the norms of their own language whether or not their personal style is obviously disruptive (Testaments trahis 134; Testaments 110). For Kundera, moving from one language to another often lays bare those transgressions, and it is in those transgressions that the originality of a given work lies. Translingual writers, working in between languages, are particularly self-aware of how language works, what it does in their writing, as opposed to simply what it is (i.e., an adopted language); they "represent an exaggerated instance of what the Russian formalists maintained is the distinctive quality of all imaginative literature: ostranenie, 'making it strange'" (Kellman 29).

Aissaoui is right to speak of the "stylistic unity" of Kundera's work in Czech and French. However, I want to suggest that Kundera's use of language in French (as in Czech) is a considered, personal, and transgressive one, specifically in his use of repetition, unusual syntax, and euphony. His personal style, rather than being "classic" (and thus normalized), is at times deliberately inelegant and in pointed conversation with the idea of classical prose and the misunderstandings of French classicism in a modern world. His linguistic aesthetics consistently estrange French and Frenchness, producing a kind of "elsewhere." Writing about another Czech emigre to France, the translingual writer Vera Linhartova, Kundera raises the question of what language she belongs to, whether French or Czech; neither, he writes: "Elle est ailleurs" / "She is elsewhere" (Rencontre 125, Encounter 104). Kundera's assertion that Linhartova writes from her own "elsewhere" suggests a view on his own translingualism: that authors write in their own particular form of language, their own aesthetic that should, in some way, change the language they are writing into. The language of another translingual author, Patrick Chamoiseau, Kundera notes (this time in Czech), "je francouzstina, i kdyz promenena; nikoli kreolizovana (zadny Martinican tak nemluvi), ale chamoisizovana"/ "is French, if altered; not so much creolized (no Martiniquan speaks like that) but Chamoiseau-ized" (Solibo 198, my translation). Let us look at how Kundera Kundera-izes French.

Slow Tomorrow

Kundera writes his "dictionnaire personnel" / "personal dictionary" for the "mots-cles" / "key words," "mots-problemes" / "problem words," and "mots-amours" / "words you love" as an essay, "Soixante-treize mots," collected in L'art du roman (published in shorter form in English as "Sixty-Three Words") and intended as a guide to reading the language and linguistic aesthetics of his novels (L'art 146, Art 122). Under the entry "Repetitions," he notes that repetition lends real beauty to Vivant Denon's novella Point de lendemain I No Tomorrow (L'art 174, Art 147). Denon utilizes repetition to set a tone, a melody, and a thematic stance on memory and distance:
J'aimais eperdument la Comtesse de...; j'avais vingt ans, et j'etais
ingenu; elle me trompa, je me fachai, elle me quitta. J'etais ingenu,
je la regrettai; j'avais vingt ans, elle me pardonna: et comme j'avais
vingt ans, que j'etais ingdnu, toujours trompe, mais plus quitted je me
croyais l'amant le mieux aime, partant le plus heureux des hommes....
(L'art 174)

I was madly in love with the Countess of--; I was twenty, and I was
naive; she cuckolded me, I protested, she deserted me. I was naive, I
longed for her; I was twenty, she forgave me; and because I was twenty,
was naive, was still cuckolded but no longer deserted, I thought myself
the best-beloved of her lovers, and thus the happiest man alive....
(Art 147)

We hear the beautiful insistence of his memory, returning again and again to his youth and inexperience, "j'avais vingt ans, et j'etais ingenu," and the melody of the repeated to and fro of memory and individuality, the movement between "je" and "elle" that shows his perspective beyond youthful subjectivity. Despite being hurt by the Comtesse, he learns from Madame de T.'s slow, night-long seduction that courtship and love can be a momentary unselfish gift (even as he serves as a decoy for Madame de T.'s real lover, yet still has a beautiful night with her, which in its slowness imprints itself forever on his memory). The oscillating clauses also suggest the slow movement of a carriage and are redolent of the seduction that takes place, a give and take that the older man realizes opened up the young man's awareness to the actions and needs--however apparently deceitful--of his lover. As Kundera notes, there is "l'amour fou" / "mad love" here; but Madame de T. "est la reine de la raison" / "is the queen of reason" (Lenteur 41, Slowness 31). She carefully structures their night together at her husband's chateau so that the young man will learn about reason and love, and so that he will remember the night. In that one night, Kundera argues, she provides:
...une petite architecture merveilleuse, comme une forme. Imprimer la
forme a une duree, c'est l'exigence de la beaute mais aussi celle de la
memoire. Car ce qui est informe est insaisissable, immemorisable.
Concevoir leur rencontre comme une forme flit tout particulierement
precieux pour eux vu que leur nuit devait rester sans lendemain et ne
pourrait se repeter que dans le souvenir. II y a un lien secret entre
la lenteur et la memoire, entre la vitesse et l'oubli. (Lenteur 44)

...a marvelous little architecture, of a form. Imposing form on a
period of time is what beauty demands, but so does memory. For what is
formless cannot be grasped, or committed to memory. Conceiving their
encounter as a form was especially precious for them, since their night
was to have no tomorrow and could be repeated only through
There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and
forgetting. (Slowness 34)

The artfulness of form allows the retention of momentary beauty by people and by writers. The more the Countess slows the night down, the more it imprints itself on the young man's memory. Kundera comments on her use of form to create memory by using form himself, notably in the repetition of the words "forme" and "memoire." She knows their love affair will only last the night, as we might only read a novel once, but she imposes her architecture and form so that it will "be repeated only through recollection" as Kundera's use of repetition might stay and repeat in ours. Kundera is fascinated by form: the beauty of Denon's first sentence, the architecture of Madame de T.'s seduction, and the idea of form itself. The repetition of a term, he writes in "A Sentence," can have "the quality of a key notion, a concept. If the author develops a lengthy line of thought from this word, repeating the word is necessary from the semantic and logical viewpoint" (Testaments Betrayed 112). (1) He notes how we accept this in philosophical rhetoric but observes that it is true of novelistic rhetoric also. Repetition allows us to weigh and consider a key term, while also affecting us melodically. Kundera's repetition of "forme" and "memoire" is not elegant, it is not of the eighteenth-century rhetoric that Kundera admires, but it is borne of it. He provides a contemporary version of and commentary on what lies at the heart of the beauty of that rhetoric.

That the modern world is in thrall to speed rather than slowness is not a particularly original argument, but the connection of form and language with memory and forgetting uses and interrogates the past as represented by Denon's novella: "le degre de la lenteur," Kundera writes, "est directement proportionnel a l'intensite de la memoire; le degre de la vitesse est directement proportionnel a l'intensite de Poubli" (Lenteur 45). (2) Kundera's chiastic sentence sound references Denon's opening sentence, but also the theme of Denon's novella, while also referencing the key themes in Kundera's own (Czech language) work of memory and forgetting. He is re-membering his own work and Denon's.

La lenteur opens with speed: the protagonist, a young twenty-year-old called Vincent, speeds past "Milan" and "Vera" on a motorcycle. Vera is surprised he is not afraid of dying, but Milan replies that Vincent is so caught up in the present that he has no sense of either the past or his future (and his mortality): s'accroche a un fragment de temps coupe et du passe et de
l'avenir; il est arrache a la continuite du temps; il est en dehors du
temps; autrement dit, il est dans un etat d'extase; dans cet etat, il
ne sait rien de son age, rien de sa femme, rien de ses enfants, rien de
ses soucis et, partant, il n'a pas peur, car la source de la peur et
dans l'avenir, et qui est libeie de l'avenir n'a rien a craindre.
(Lenteur 10)

...he is caught in a fragment of time cut off from both the past and
the future; he is wrenched from the continuity of time; he is outside
time; in other words he is in a state of ecstasy. In that state he is
unaware of his age, his wife, his children, his worries, and so he has
no fear, because the source of fear is in the future, and a person
freed of the future has nothing to fear. (Slowness 3-4)

Kundera is in direct conversation here with Denon's opening sentence: instead of the carriage we have a motorbike and so the syntax changes. With each clause we can hear the accelerator being pressed as he shoots forward, in his mind liberated from the future (and death). The repetition shows how Vincent is caught up only in himself ("il... il... il"), as opposed to the beautiful oscillating movement of Denon's "je... elle," and he is caught up in the present ("il est... il est") with none of the mature perspective of Denon's protagonist thinking back to the age that Vincent now inhabits ("j'avais vingt ans, et j'etais ingenu"). Vincent thinks he is liberated from the future because he knows nothing: "rien dc.rien dc.rien de... rien de... n'a rien a craindre"; you can hear the engine and the engine of Vincent's misguided ecstasy (Linda Asher, in her English translation, creates euphony with the "h" alliteration and, in the last sentence, the "f' alliteration). Taken on face value, this is not beautiful prose; what the language does is gorgeous.

Vincent himself is a repetition, another character in Kundera's oeuvre emblematic of what Kundera calls the "lyric age": the age of youth, inexperience, and innocent self-conscious stupidity that can turn dangerous (as with Jaromil the poet and protagonist of Zivot je jinde / Life is Elsewhere). In Denon's novella, the night of love at the chateau brings the protagonist into the adult world of experience, of compassionate knowledge and reason. In La lenteur Vincent speeds to the chateau to prove himself, to impress others, and, unexpectedly, (when laughed at) to an encounter with a young woman, Julie, that ends in impotence and forgetting. Vincent is in love with ecstasy, de Sade, and Apollinaire. When he registers Julie's fairy-like beauty, an image from Apollinaire's erotic poem "Les neuf portes de ton corps" comes to him of the ninth orifice, and he thinks of Julie's "trou du cul" / "asshole" (Lenteur 91):
II voudrait lui dire: repete apres moi, le trou du cul, le trou du cul,
le trou du cul, mais il n'ose pas. Au lieu de cela, piege par son
eloquence, il s'enlise de plus en plus dans sa metaphore: "Le trou du
cul d'ou sort une lumiere blafarde qui remplit les entrailles de
l'univers!" Et il tend le bras vers la lune: "En avant, dans le trou du
cul de l'infini!" (Lenteur 100) (3)

It is a very funny moment; Vincent loves the idea of the eighteenth-century libertine, but he is too afraid to order Julie to repeat with him the taboo "trou du cul." Instead the repeated phrase "ass hole" flutters around young Vincent's head, turning him, of course, into one. Thanks to the sheer toe-curling awfulness, we end up feeling some empathy for Vincent's wish to be daring and sympathy for his utter, miserable failure. Kundera achieves a real sleight of hand in displaying Vincent's puerile pronouncements, by repeating an ugly term and yet, at the same time, underscoring its polysemy. The tone becomes oddly beautiful, humorous and strangely tender.

Haunted House

"Ce chateau est hante," Vera tells Milan in La lenteur, "et je ne veux pas rester ici une minute de plus" (Lenteur 138). (4) The events of her husband's novel have invaded her sleep and the chateau is haunted not only by the characters but also by the ghosts of French literature; indeed it is stuffed with them: de Sade, d'Artagnan and Dumas, Denon, Laclos, Apollinaire, Rousseau, Sartre, Camus. You cannot turn in the chateau without bumping into a reference to one of them. Yet, when Vincent does literally bump into Denon's protagonist, the Chevalier, at the end of the novel, he fails to recognize him. Vincent has no interest in listening to the Chevalier's account of his strange and beautiful night of love; instead Vincent wants to bombard him with a fake account of his own night of love (an act that was not consummated). The Chevalier disengages. He has been shocked, too, to bump into such a strange being with a strange (motorcycle) helmet and even stranger French. To the ears of the Chevalier, Vincent speaks "with a strange intonation, as if he were a messenger come from a foreign kingdom and had learned his French at court without knowing France" (Slowness 127). (5) Kundera could be speaking of himself, a messenger from a foreign kingdom with an accented French. He also suggests a fissure in the notion of a French language and a French tradition, seeing it as a language and a place that has changed across time and that expresses a different world: the conference hotel rather than the chateau. It is a world that does not recognize its own illustrious, if fictional, past.

Instead, Vincent is enamored with the Marquis de Sade and orgies, or at least the image of them. Julie has not read de Sade and answers almost monosyllabically as Vincent inelegantly and reductively tells her what happens in de Sade's La Philosophic dans le boudoir.
Tu connais ce bouquin?
- Non.
- II faut le connaitre. Je te le preterai. C'est la conversation au
milieu d'une orgie entre deux hommes et deux femmes.
- Oui, dit-elle.
- Tous les quatre sont nus, en train de faire l'amour, tous ensemble.
- Oui.
- Cela te plairait, n'est-ce pas?
- Je ne sais pas. (Lenteur 90-91) (6)

Kundera takes a quiet risk here that readers might just assume this conversation to be Kundera's hackneyed writing in his adopted language; but he is deliberately rejecting any lexical and semantic elegance or sophistication in a provocation to the French themselves. Without knowing their own heritage, or only having a kitsch awareness of it, the lovers no longer have a language in which to conduct love. We can see this in the ironic banality of these two young French lovers (conversing about de Sade's eighteenth-century conversation of love), which suggests that they have lost their cultural language of seduction and love. The structured conversation led by Madame de T. in Denon's novella that embedded the memory of one night of love so strongly is entirely missing from Vincent and Julie's trite conversation. They kiss in the gardens of the chateau to the murmur of the river, without knowing that the river helps to transport them because of its connection to Denon's Point de Lendemain. Kundera knows the slow seduction through language and movement in Denon's novella, but Vincent and Julie do not. Nor do they seem aware of Julie's literary ancestor from the same century as Denon and de Sade, Rousseau's Julie who, with wit and rejoinder, sends her putative lover into exile after their first kiss, thus deferring and detaining seduction. (7)

Kundera retells the story of Point de Lendemain and reminds French readers of the epistolary form of Les liaisons dangereuses and the publication history of Apollinaire's poem in a stylistically unadorned French; he is not trying to copy their elegance or lyricism but to interrogate it from a contemporary perspective. His strategy makes sense once we reach the end of the novel: Vincent may not recognize the Chevalier, but the readers do. Kundera has resurrected classics his French readers may not have read. He is perhaps nostalgic for the world of secrecy and discretion in Point de Lendemain and in Les liaisons dangereuses, as opposed to the politicians and others who crave the limelight, but there is a more urgent undercurrent here: these novels of discretion are becoming only totemic texts, half-forgotten in a world only looking, like Vincent on his motorbike, to the future. "Vincent adore ce siecle," Kundera writes, referring to the eighteenth century, "je partage son admiration mais j'ajoute (sans etre vraiment entendu) que la vraie grandeur de cet art ne consiste pas dans quelconque propaganda de l'hedonisme mais dans son analyse" (Lenteur 16). (8)

Kundera's nostalgia for the world of the eighteenth-century novels, unlike Vincent's, is tempered by an acceptance of modernity, shown in the very style of his novel. Tjiana Miletic astutely argues that La lenteur's narrative style of "digression, variation, narration, stopping and recommencing... has so much in common with the libertine method of seduction" (232). However, Kundera enacts this slowness through a style of language that consciously rewrites the elegance and effortless sophistication of Denon and Laclos. Kundera, in a somewhat cheeky critique, makes some of his use of language deliberately awkward and banal in direct contradistinction to the valorization of elegant eighteenth-century French prose. Vincent meets his mentor Pontevin at the Cafe Gascon; the name suggests an identification by Kundera with the Gascon as a comedic character in French literature, in Dumas's work and elsewhere, known for his odd ungrammatical, accented French, les gasconismes.

Speaking in Tongues

Kundera turns to another Gascon, Cyrano de Bergerac, in two of his French novels: L 'identite (1997) and La fete del'insignifiance (2014). In some ways, it is a return to this iconic eighteenth-century character, as Kundera's very first piece of prose, the short story "Ja, truchlivy buh" / "I, the Mournful God" (1958), is a retelling of the Cyrano story. The title of Kundera's second French novel, L'identite, signals Kundera's interest in how identity is masked even to those we love the most, with the protagonist, Jean-Marc, taking on Cyrano's identity to show his love for his partner. Masked identity is a telling interest for a translingual writer, writing under an assumed language, but it also flags the disconnect between how we see ourselves and how others see us (a preoccupation of much of Kundera's fiction).

To cheer his lover up, Jean-Marc writes her pseudonymous letters signed "CdB": "Je vous suis comme un espion, vous etes belle, tres belle" / "I follow you around like a spy--you are beautiful, very beautiful," Jean-Marc writes, having decided to correspond "disguised as a stranger" {L'identite 121, Identity 88). He decides to do so because of a misunderstanding; he sees his lover, Chantal, blush, and she tells him that men no longer look at her. However, the remark is not at the heart of the two physical reasons for the blush--a hot flash and the unwanted attention and putative attack by two men in a cafe. Chantal, an advertising executive, has to wear two faces, she says, one commercial and one her own, bifurcating her identity (as Ludvik has to do in Kundera's first novel, Zert / The Joke [1967], under Communism). Yet even the notion of a personal identity is in question, as Chantal cannot admit to herself that she is menopausal, and that her physical identity is changing. Jean-Marc, the person who most clearly knows her, thus also consistently misinterprets her blushes. For him, her blush is the lodestone of their relationship, and it is Kundera's return to this motif that provides the original reading of identity and the relationship between language, misunderstanding, and love.

In complete contrast to Cyrano, Jean-Marc's language of seduction is banal and inexpressive. He decides to take on the CdB moniker to liberate his eloquence {L'identite 122, Identity 89), but the irony is that he cannot convey Cyrano's level of articulacy. For him, her blush "brillait comme un rubis d'ineffable prix" {L'identite 121), which he has inscribed "au tout debut du livre d'or de leur amour" (L 'identite 119); the priceless ruby and the golden book of their love are hackneyed poetic metaphors, deliberately empty and cliched. However, Kundera also turns Jean-Marc's banality into a strangely beautiful and pulsing prose, once again through the use of repetition (which is potentially inelegant). For instance, Jean-Marc's memory of seeing Chantal for the first time sustains a real honesty of emotion, at least through his own desire for her (in the repetition of various words: "rouge"; "elle"; "fut"; "sur" and the emphatic "de lui et pour lui"):
...elle rougit. Elle fut rouge non seulement sur ses joues, mais sur
son cou, et encore plus bas, sur tout son decollete, elle fut
magnifiquement rouge aux yeux de tous, rouge a cause de lui et pour
lui. Cette rougeur fut sa declaration d'amour, cette rougeur decida de
tout. (L'identite 120) (9)

However, when Jean-Marc sees Chantal blush later in the novel (in reality, because of a hot flash), he completely misreads it through the semiotics of their love. Throughout L 'identite, Kundera repeats the verb and adjective "rougir" and "rouge": it is the heart of Chantal's identity but it reflects an identity that is constantly in flux; Chantal blushes sometimes because she thinks she has discovered who "CdB" is; sometimes because she is having a hot flash; sometimes because she feels ashamed. Jean-Marc insistently romanticizes the flush and thus misinterprets Chantal's identity. In one of his Cyrano letters, he overly romanticizes her blush and again we see an entropic, even kitsch attempt at eloquence:
je jette sur votre corps nu un manteaux cousu de flames. Je voile votre
corps blanc d'un manteaux carmin de cardinal. Et, ainsi drapee, je vous
envoie dans une chambre rouge, sur un lit rouge, ma cardinale rouge,
bellissime cardinale!(L'identite 93) (10)

He wants to control this identity ("je jette"; "je voile"; "je vous envoie"), but Chantal knows what the hot flashes augur, and that change is a fundamental one to her female identity, yet "she has always refused to call it by its real name" even though she no longer has any doubts as to what it means, and for that very reason she will not, she cannot, speak of it (Identity 23)." Whereas Jean-Marc consistently misreads her body's signifier, she is all too certain that menopause brings her mortality (and non-identity) closer: "Le feu crematoire me presente sa carte de visite" / "The crematory fire is leaving me its visiting card" (L'identite 73, Identity 52) she thinks as she struggles up the stairs, sweating.

Reviewing L'identite for Liberation, Antoine de Gaudemar suggested that the incongruity of that last sentence, alongside the cliched metaphors of Chantal and Jean-Marc, showed Kundera's limitations as a translingual author, wondering if the "half-atonal" language showed a writer "who still feels stifled in his new language." De Gaudemar suggested that such bare language was good enough for nonfiction but that it made Kundera's novels almost unrecognizable from their Czech language predecessors. He lamented what he saw as the loss of Kundera's humor and playfulness in his French language novels, which he saw as being "as barren as a crossword puzzle." "Where are you, Milan Kundera?" he concludes. "Dans quelle crise d'identite?" / "Is it some kind of identity crisis?" For Kundera, though, language is implicitly tied into the inevitable misunderstanding of identity, our own and others'. Kundera is being both playful and deadly serious; the metaphors that the lovers, Jean-Marc and Chantal, use define their misunderstandings and our own attempts at articulacy that are inevitably flawed and mortal.

In Kundera's most recent novel, La fete de I'insignifiance (2014), one of the protagonists, Charles, "interprets" for his friend Caliban, who wants to seduce a Portuguese maid; Caliban (a Frenchman pretending to be Pakistani) has invented a nonsense language and yet still connects to her, as they both are seen as outside the French sphere in quite expressly colonial terms. Kundera's combination of Cyrano with Shakespeare's The Tempest, and specifically the figure of Caliban, questions and interrogates Frenchness, francocentrism, and language in Kundera's particular style (and referencing his own, Czech language, work).

Caliban and his friend Charles make a living as caterers; Charles introduces him to Madame D'Ardelo who has hired them, apologizing because Caliban "ne connait pas un seul mot de francais" / "doesn't speak a word of French" (Fete 70, Festival 53). It is a game for the two of them, with Charles as the Cyrano figure translating for a "Pakistani," an inherently ridiculous appropriated identity, since Caliban is white and French. Caliban had willfully othered himself on stage in The Tempest (and thus gained his nickname), his "peau couverte d'une pomade brune, une perruque noire sur la tete" / "skin smeared with brown makeup, a black wig on his head" (Fete 67, Festival 51). However, at this party, even without the blackface, Caliban is made aware of French indifference to any kind of other, especially a linguistic other. The guests at the party have no interest in his identity because of class (he is just a waiter) and because they assume him to be somehow foreign: they "showed no interest in him" and because of his "incomprehensible language" they "did not listen to him" (Festival 53).

Caliban has in fact--and just for fun, to make the job more interesting and to have an audience (he is an underworked actor)--invented his own language with its own phonetics, grammar, and euphony: it is performance art at these bourgeois parties (Fete 69, Festival 52). The guests' lack of interest shows a linguistic and aural ethnocentrism that Kundera identifies and satirizes. There is also perhaps some self-reflection, too, as Kundera considers his own translingual art and translingual aesthetics: he has been accepted by using French (via translation or writing directly in French) but the way in which he uses French in his own aesthetic style (with its own sound and stylistic grammar) echoes Caliban's invented language. "Choisir un pays natal, rien n'est plus facile," Caliban thinks. "Mais inventer sa langue, voila qui est difficile" / "Choosing a homeland--nothing easier. But inventing its language, that is difficult" (Fete 68, Festival 52).

Caliban is not the only "other" at the party; Madame d'Ardelo's daughter aggressively others their Portuguese maid (who is left unnamed, reflecting how she is identified within the family) by insulting the maid's lipstick that makes her look like "some African bird! A parrot from Bourenbouboubou!" (Festival 55). The Portuguese maid does not speak French well (or at all) and the French daughter's negative exoticization of her mouth suggests again the trope of linguistic ethnocentrism. Caliban and the maid are both white Europeans (like Kundera himself), but their respective tongues (invented and real) that are not French result in negative racialized othering and in a strange concomitant invisibility and inaudibility to the French guests at the party. The maid and the waiter find succor in each other as they try to communicate in languages other than French, "in two languages neither understood," which "brought them close" (Festival 54).

The Grand Return

In Kundera's third French novel, L'ignorance (2003), two Czech exiles, Josef and Irena, return to Prague, but both are sure that their homes are respectively in Denmark and France. Postcommunist Prague is no longer the Prague of their youth (the 1960s) and thus they cannot truly return home; there is no "Grand Retour" / "Great Return" (L'ignorance 10, Ignorance 5). At the end of the novel, Josef, leaving Prague, looks down from the plane and sees through the porthole, "au fond du ciel, une cloture basse en bois et, devant une maison en brique, un sapin svelte tel un bras leve" / "far off in the sky, a low wooden fence and a brick house with a slender fir tree like a lifted arm before it" (L 'ignorance 181, Ignorance 195). It seems a farewell to Prague; the beauty in Josef's observation is not only in the image but also in the euphony of the metaphor, in the play between the plosive "b" alliteration and the melancholy sibilance. Just before this end, Josef had been thinking of his return to Prague after many years of exile in Denmark, and of how the Czech language seemed to have changed, to have become monotonous, flat, "an unknown language" (Ignorance 195).

Listening to Czech being spoken in his hometown, earlier in the novel, he thinks:
C'etait la musique d'une langue inconnue. Que s'etait-il passe avec le
tcheque pendant ces deux pauvres decennies? Etait-ce l'accent qui avait
change? Apparemment. Jadis fermement pose sur la premiere syllable, il
s'etait affaibli; l'intonation en etait comme desossee. La melodie
paraissait plus monotone qu'autrefois. trainante. Et le timbre! II
etait devenu nasal, ce qui donnait a la parole quelque chose de
desagreablement blase. Probablement, au cours des siecles, la musique
de toutes les langues se transforme-t-elle imperceptiblement, mais
celui qui revient apres une longue absence en est deconcertd: penche
au-dessus de son assiette, Josef ecoutait une langue inconnue dont il
comprenait chaque mot. (L'ignorance 55-56)

It was the music of some unknown language. What had happened to Czech
during those two sorry decades? Was it the stresses that had changed?
Apparently. Hitherto set firmly on the first syllable, they had grown
weaker; the intonation seemed boneless. The melody sounded more
monotone than before--drawling. And the timbre! It had turned nasal,
which gave the speech an unpleasantly blase quality. Over the centuries
the music of any language probably does change imperceptibly, but to a
person returning after an absence it can be disconcerting: bent over
his plate, Josef was listening to an unknown language whose every word
he understood. (Ignorance 54-55)

Josef's hyperawareness of sound is matched by Kundera's use of euphony in describing Josef's alienation to it (for example, the bass note of "etait" in the past tense or as an auxiliary verb for the pluperfect, and the use of alliteration or consonance, so we can hear Josef's frustration and a monotonous sound). We can hear in his own words how he hews (in Kundera's French) to the old rhythm of Czech.

Only twice in the novel does Josef feel in tune with the Czech language. First, when, after an awkward beginning, he converses with an old friend, N. (a Communist who stayed), and, secondly, when he is in bed with Irena (another returned exile whom he knew slightly in the 1960s). In both cases, Josef finds his joy in speaking Czech "unexpected" and implicitly tied to a sense of connection: to the common experience of Czechness of a certain time.

When he meets N. it is the first time since his return that Josef feels happy speaking Czech; it is "an unexpected joy" (Ignorance 157). Speaking Czech with N. is like "flying" (Ignorance 158), and in complete distinction to the weight he still feels speaking Danish, when he is constantly self-conscious about word choice and accent. As Kundera portrays him speaking Czech, the sound of Kundera's language softens (from hard consonants when he thinks of Danish to sibilance when he's aware of his happiness speaking Czech). The fluency of their conversation is portrayed in the syntactical rhythm, with Kundera's use of adverbs, litany, and an emphatic use of "c" consonance: "leur conversation demarra, librement, agreablement, une causerie entre deux vieux copains: souvenirs epars, nouvelles d'amis communs, commentaires marrants, paradoxes, blagues" / "their conversation took off, freely and agreeably, a chat between two old pals: a few scattered memories, news of mutual friends, funny comments, and paradoxes and jokes" (L'ignorance 146, Ignorance 157).

Irena remembers Josef from an encounter in Prague in the 1960s; he does not. They meet by chance at the airport and although Josef has no memory of her, he agrees to see her, suspecting it will turn into an erotic encounter. In some sense, he profoundly recognizes her: not only have they experienced exile, but they are also experiencing the same alienation upon their return to the Czech Republic, and the same lack of interest from other Czechs in their life abroad. Their real communion comes at a moment when Irena utters an obscene sentence in Czech--one that is not in the French text, or even translated into French. Yet, we are told that it is a translation by Irena, who is, by profession, a translator from Russian to French of Josef's joke about Penelope, Odysseus's wife, who has waited patiently for Odysseus to return. Both admit to having thought about The Odyssey; like both of them, Odysseus had not seen Ithaca for twenty years. Irena wonders if Penelope was really faithful.

This is the second time that Josef feels at one with the Czech language, because only obscene language has "power over him in his native language (in the language of Ithaca)" (Ignorance 178).(12) Because of this culturally specific language (left unspecified and unwritten in the French text) Josef and Irena have come to an "entente totale'7 "total accord" (L'ignorance 166, Ignorance 179) that they have not discovered elsewhere in their old homeland, and it is through an illicit, or taboo, form of language. However, in two successive paragraphs, both of which start with the phrase "Leur entente est totale..." / "Their accord is total" (L 'ignorance 166-67, Ignorance 179), Kundera casts doubt on the very statement. In the first paragraph, he shows what these obscenities mean for Irena: an erotic life she has missed out on (L'ignorance 166-67, Ignorance 179); in the second, what they mean for Josef: that his erotic life has ended (L'ignorance 167, Ignorance 179). While Irena and Josef find what they think is full understanding in their mother tongue, the reader realizes that the words open up and close down different worlds for each of them: there is, finally, no full understanding even in the deepest roots (according to Kundera) of the mother tongue.

For Josef, the homeland is not a grand, patriotic idea, the Ithaca of Western literature, or a particular mother tongue, to which he must make some "Grand Retour" (10); rather, it is the home we find with one another: dyadic and discretely different, perhaps finalized only in death. On Kundera's mind is Calypso: "Je pense souvent a elle" / "I often think about her" he writes, wondering why she had to be left behind (L 'ignorance 15, Ignorance 9). Josef's Calypso is his dead, Danish wife, the woman who, even in death, keeps him in Denmark. The fir tree, which seemed to represent a farewell to Prague at the end of the book, is in fact a recurrent motif, and representative of Josef's house in Denmark. It is a wave of welcome, of home. As he cannot keep tangible memories of his wife alive, Josef tends to their house, loves it more: "the low wooden fence with its little gate; the garden; the fir tree in front of the dark-red brick house"; the two facing armchairs; the window with a pot of flowers and "a lamp... they would leave that lamp on while they were out so they could see it from afar as they came down the street back to the house" {Ignorance 130-31). The sentimentality of this vision (underlined by the soft "1" consonance in French) (13) is undercut by the profound sadness of Josefs true vision of home being, at its heart, a "cohabitation avec la morte" / a life "with the dead woman," his late wife (L'ignorance 122, Ignorance 130).

Une Grande Betise Pour Ton Plaisir

Kundera is at home in the novel as a form and outlook in the world; he insistently returns to this idea in his essays written in French. The native language of that homeland is his poetics. We see him learning his own language, developing it, evolving it through his Czech and French novels. Reviewers tend to see a dilution of subject and form in the French language novels: their slightness, the sense they are not as weighty as his Czech novels. Yet, there is a real depth to them if you speak his language: the recurring linguistic style, themes, motifs, words, and specific Kunderian terms through the Czech and French novels.

The other important factor in Kundera's use of language is humor, the element of his work that Kundera feels is most misunderstood. In his first French novel, La lenteur, "Milan" is admonished by his wife, "Vera": "Tu m'as souvent dit vouloir ecrire un jour un roman ou aucun mot ne serait serieux. Une Grande Betise Pour Ton Plaisir" (93). (14) Kundera is giving a signpost to his readers, having shrugged off the Cold War that reductively framed the reading of his Czech work. Writing after the fall of Communism and in French, he is taking pleasure in playfulness. The question is whether anyone is interested: "I just want to warn you: be careful," Vera says:
Te rappelles-tu ce que te disait ta maman? J'entends sa voix comme si
c'etait hier: Milanku, cesse de faire des plaisanteries. Personne ne te
comprendra. Tu offenseras tout le monde et tout le monde finira par te
detester. Te rappelles-tu?
- Oui, dis-je.
- Je te preViens. Le serieux te protdgeait. Le manque de serieux te
laissera nu devant les loups. Et tu sais qu'ils t'attendent, les loups.
(La lenteur 93-94)

"You remember what your mother used to tell you? I can hear her voice
as if it were yesterday: 'Milanku, stop making jokes. No one will
understand you. You will offend everyone, and everyone will end up
hating you.' Remember?"
"Yes," I say.
"I'm warning you. Seriousness kept you safe. The lack of seriousness
will leave you naked to the wolves. And you know they're waiting for
you, the wolves are." (Slowness 78)

Kundera's funny self-characterization, called by the diminutive "Milanku" and only able to squeak "Oui" to his wife reminding him of his mother's warning not to tell jokes, is written in his particular style (the repetition, the chiastic sentence structure, and the euphony: here, the sonorous sibilance as Vera remembers Kundera's mother's voice). What stands out in the last example, of course, is Kundera's name, his first name in its Czech diminutive form, "Milanku." It seems a stubborn trace of the mother tongue that Vera and Milan are speaking with each other at the point at which she remembers his mother's voice: "Even though I speak only Czech with my wife," Kundera said in an interview, "I am surrounded by French books, I react to the French world, to French sentences" (Sedlacek 14). Milanku's funny inarticulacy in this French world, these French sentences ("Oui"), is rendered in the midst of this other voice, a mischievous and utterly serious Kunderization of language that asserts and doubts all at once.



(1) "le caractere d'une notion-cle, d'un concept. Si l'auteur, a partir de ce mot, developpe une longue reflexion, la repetition du meme mot est necessaire du point de vue semantique et logique" (Testaments trahis 136).

(2) "the degree of slowness is directly proportional to the intensity of memory; the degree of speed is directly proportional to the intensity of forgetting" (Slowness 34-35).

(3) "He would like to tell her: 'Say it with me: ass hole, ass hole, ass hole,' but he does not dare. Instead, ensnared by his own eloquence, he gets more and more tangled up in his metaphor: 'The ass hole giving off a lurid light that floods the guts of the universe!'And he stretches an arm to the moon: 'Onward, into the ass hole of infinity!'" (Slowness 83-84).

(4) "This chateau is haunted, and I don't want to stay here another minute" (Slowness 118).

(5) "avec une intonation inconnue, comme s'il etait un messager venu d'un royaume etranger et qui aurait appris le francais a la cour sans connaltre la France" (Lenteur 149).

(6) "You know that book?"


"You should read it. I'll lend it to you. It's a conversation between two men and two women in the middle of an orgy."

"Yes," she says.

"All four of them are naked, making love, all together."


"You'd like that, wouldn't you?"

"I don't know," she says. (Slowness 75)

(7) Early in the novel, Kundera stops the narrative to tell his readers that he considers another eighteenth-century French novel of seduction, Les liaisons dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, "l'un des plus grands romans de tous les temps" / "one of the greatest novels of all time" (Lenteur 16, Slowness 9), largely because of its epistolary form. The epistolary novel offers a variety of perspectives, reflecting Kundera's pursuance of the variation form in his novels. In La lenteur, the politician, Berck, has to face an old lover, Immaculata, whom he has no interest in meeting. Berck hankered after her when he was young and wrote her endless love letters (Lenteur 48, Slowness 37). She tells everyone of their love, and the unbearably pompous Berck cannot get rid of Immaculata and her memories of him, however much he tries. The privacy and sensibility of Laclos's world has become a modern public panopticon, an "immense coquille sonore" only hinted at in Laclos's novel (Lenteur 17). There are resonating echoes also of Kundera's own work here: Immaculata wants to be part of the world of the elect, a notion Kundera explored in Zivot je jinde / Life is Elsewhere and Nesmrtelnost / Immortality; in Kniha smichu a zapomneni / The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, the dissident Mirek, caught in the panopticon of the communist regime, attempts to airbrush a similar lover, Zdena.

(8) "Vincent adores that century... I share his admiration, but I add (without being really heard) that the true greatness of that art consists not in some propaganda or other for hedonism but in its analysis" (Slowness 9).

'"...she flushed. She was red not only on her cheeks, but on her neck, and lower still, down to the low neckline of her dress, she turned magnificently red for all to see, red because of him and for him. That flush was her declaration of love, that flush decided everything" (Identity 88).

(10) "I fling a mantle stitched of flame over your naked body. I swathe your white body in a cardinal's crimson mantle. And then I put you, draped like that, into a red room on a red bed, my red cardinal, most gorgeous cardinal!" (Identity 66-67).

(11) ...elle le connait depuis un certain temps deja; elle a toujours refuse de lui donner son vrai nom mais, cette fois-ci, elle ne doute plus de ce qu'il signifie et, pour cette raison meme, elle ne veut, elle ne peut en parler" (L "tdentite 36).

(12) In Kundera's dictionary-essay on words central to his fiction (and aimed at his translators and readers), "Soixante-treize mots," one of the entries is "Obscenite" / "Obscenity": "Le mot obscene, prononce avec un accent, devient comique.... Obscenite: la racine la plus profonde qui nous rattache a notre patrie" / "An obscenity pronounced with an accent becomes comical.... Obscenity: the root that attaches us most deeply to our homeland" (L 'art 170, Art 145).

(13) "la cloture basse en bois avec une petite porte; le jardin; le sapin devant lamaison en brique rouge fonce...une lampe; cette lampe, ils laissaient allumde pendant leur absence pour l'apercevoir de loin, dans la rue, lors de leur retour a la maison" (L 'ignorance 123).

(14) "You've often told me you wanted to write a novel someday with not a single serious word in it. A Big Piece of Nonsense for Your Own Pleasure" (Slowness 7).


Aissaoui, Mohammed. "Milan Kundera entre dans La Pleiade." Le Figaro 14 Mar. 2011. Web. N.p.

Chamoiseau. Patrick. Solibo Ohromny, Brno: Atlantis, 1993.

De Gaudemar, Antoine. "Ratage de Milan. L'auteur de 'La Plaisanterie' a-t-il perdu le sens de l'humour?" Liberation 15 Jan. 1998. Web. N.p.

Kellman, Steven. The Translingual Imagination. Lincoln and London: U of Nebraska P, 2000.

Kundera, Milan. Encounter. Trans. Linda Asher. New York: Harper, 2010.

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--. La fete de I'insignifiance. Paris: Gallimard. 2014.

--. La lenteur. Paris: Gallimard, 1995.

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--. Slowness. Trans. Linda Asher. London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1996.

--. Testaments Betrayed. Trans. Linda Asher. London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1995.

--. The Art of the Novel. Trans. Linda Asher. New York: HarperPerennial, 1988.

--. The Festival of Insignificance. Trans. Linda Asher. New York: Harper, 2015.

--. Une rencontre. Paris: Gallimard, 2009.

Kussi, Peter. Personal interview. 4 Aug. 1999.

Miletic, Tjiana. European Literary Immigration into the French Language: Readings of Gary, Kristof, Kundera and Semprun. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2008.

Ricard, Francois. Agnes s Final Afternoon: An Essay on the Work of Milan Kundera. Trans. Aaron Asher. New York: HarperPerennial, 2004.

Sedlacek, Tomas. "Vsechno bylo pro mne jedine pfekvapeni." Lidove noviny 30 Oct. 1995. Web. N.p.
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Author:Woods, Michelle
Publication:Studies in the Novel
Article Type:Essay
Date:Jan 1, 2016
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