Tag Archives: Milan Kundera

A Last Note From Milan Kundera On Kafka

This post overlaps with, and serves as a complimentary fragment to the posts here and here. I quote so much from Milan Kundera because his investigations are so diligent, and his findings sound so truly. As always, this is from The Art of the Novel.

First, an anecdote:

In one of his books, my friend Josef Skvorecky tells this true story:

An engineer from Prague is invited to a professional conference in London. So he goes, takes part in the proceedings, and returns to Prague. Some hours after his return, sitting in his office, he picks up Rude Pravo – the official daily paper of the Party – and reads: A Czech engineer, attending a conference in London, has made a slanderous statement about his socialist homeland to the Western press and has decided to stay in the West.

Illegal emigration combined with a statement of that kind is no trifle. It would be worth twenty years in prison. Our engineer can’t believe his eyes. But there’s no doubt about it, the article refers to him. His secretary coming into his office, is shocked to see him: My God, she says, you’re back! I don’t understand – did you see what they wrote about you?

The engineer sees fear in his secretary’s eyes. What can he do? He rushes to the Rude Pravo office. He finds the editor responsible for the story. The editor apologizes; yes, it really is an awkward business, but he, the editor, has nothing to do with it, he got the text of the article direct from the Ministry of the Interior.

So the engineer goes off to the Ministry. There they say yes, of course, it’s all a mistake, but they, the Ministry, have nothing to do with it, they got the report on the engineer from the intelligence people at the London embassy. The engineer asks for a retraction. No, he’s told, they never retract, but nothing can happen to him, he has nothing to worry about.

But the engineer does worry. He soon realizes that all of a sudden he’s being closely watched, that his telephone is tapped, and that he’s being followed in the street. He sleeps poorly and has nightmares until, unable to bear the pressure any longer, he takes a lot of real risks to leave the country illegally. And so he actually becomes an émigré.

Then: a precise detailing of what might be meant by the “Kafkan”, and further notes on Kafka’s prophecies.

The story I’ve just told is one that would immediately call Kafkan…But what is the Kafkan?

Let’s try to describe some of its aspects:


The engineer is confronted by a power that has the character of a boundless labyrinth. He can never get to the end of its interminable corridors and will never succeed in finding out who issued the fateful verdict. He is therefore in the same situation as Joseph K. before the Court, or the Land-Surveyor K. before the Castle. All three are in a world that is nothing but a single, huge labyrinthine institution they cannot escape and cannot understand.

Novelists before Kafka often exposed institutions as areas where conflicts between different personal and public interests were played out. In Kafka the institution is a mechanism that obeys its own laws; no one knows now who programmed those laws or when; they have nothing to do with human concerns an are thus unintelligible.


In Chapter Five of The Castle, the village Mayor explains in detail to K. the long history of his file. Briefly: Years earlier, a proposal to engage a land-surveyor came down to the village from the Castle. The Mayor wrote a negative response (there was no need for any land-surveyor), but his reply went astray to the wrong office, and so after an intricate series of bureaucratic misunderstandings, stretching over many years, the job offer was inadvertently sent to K., at the very moment when all the offices involved were in the process of canceling the old obsolete proposal. After a long journey, K. thus arrived in the village by mistake. Still more: Given that for him there is no possible world other than the Castle and its village, his entire existence is a mistake.

In the Kafkan world, the file takes on the role of a Platonic idea. It represents a true reality, whereas man’s physical existence is only a shadow cast on the screen of illusion. Indeed, both the Land-Surveyor K. and the Prague engineer are but the shadows of their file cards; and they are even much less than that: they are the shadows of a mistake in the file, shadows without even the right to exist as shadows.


Raskolnikov cannot bear the weight of his guilt, and to find peace he consents to his punishment of his own free will. It’s the well-known situation where the offense seeks the punishment.

In Kafka the logic is reversed. The person punished does not know the reason for the punishment. The absurdity of the punishment is so unbearable that to find peace the accursed needs to find justification for his penalty: the punishment seeks the offense.


The tale of the Prague engineer is in the nature of a funny story, a joke: it provokes laughter.

Two gentlemen, perfectly ordinary fellows (not “inspectors” as in the French translation), surprise Joseph K. in bed one morning, tell him he is under arrest, and eat up his breakfast. K. is a well-disciplined civil servant: instead of throwing the men out of his flat, he stands in his nightshirt and gives a lengthy self-defense. When Kafka read the first chapter of The Trial to his friends, everyone laughed, including the author.

In speaking of the microsocial practices that generate the Kafkan, I mean not only the family but alo the organization in which Kafka spent all his adult life: the office.

In the bureaucratic world of the functionary, first, there is no initiative, no invention, no freedom of action; thee are only orders and rules: it is the world of obedience.

Second, the functionary performs a small part of a large administrative activity whose aim and horizons he cannot see: it is the world where actions have become mechanical and people do not know the meaning of what they do.

Third, the functionary deals only with unknown persons and with files: it is the world of the abstract.

To place a novel in this world of obedience, of the mechanical, and of the abstract, where the only human adventure is to move from one office to another, seems to run counter to the very essence of epic poetry. Thus the question: How has Kafka managed to transform such gray, antipoetical material into fascinating novels?

The answer can be found in a letter he wrote to Milena: “The office is not a stupid institution; it belongs more to the realm of the fantastic than of the stupid.” The sentence contains one of Kafka’s greatest secrets. He saw what no one else could see: not only the enormous importance of the bureaucratic phenomenon for man, for his condition and for his future, but also (even more surprisingly) the poetic potential contained in the phantasmic nature of offices.

But what does it mean to say the office belongs to the realm of the fantastic?

The Prague engineer would understand: a mistake in his file projected him to London; so he wandered around Prague, a veritable phantom, seeking his lost body, while the offices he visited seemed to him a boundless labyrinth from some unknown mythology.

The quality of the fantastic that he perceived in the bureaucratic world allowed Kafka to do what had seemed unimaginable before: he transformed the profoundly antipoetic material of a highly bureaucratized society into the great poetry of the novel; he transformed a very ordinary story of a man who cannot obtain a promised job (which is actually the story of The Castle) into myth, into epic, into a kind of beauty never before seen.

By expanding a bureaucratic setting to the gigantic dimensions of a universe, Kafka unwittingly succeeded in creating an image that fascinates us by its resemblance to a society he never knew, that of today’s Prague [Art of the Novel was published in the 1980s, when the Soviet Union still existed, Czechoslovakia still existed, and Prague was behind the iron curtain].

A totalitarian state is in fact a single, immense administration: since all work in it is for the state, everyone of every occupation has become an employee. A worker is no longer a worker, a judge no longer a judge, a shopkeeper no longer a shopkeeper, a priest no longer a priest; they are all functionaries of the State. “I belong to the Court,” the priest says to Joseph K. in the Cathedral. In Kafka, the lawyers, too, work for the Court. A citizen in today’s Prague does not find that surprising. He would get no better legal defense than K. did. His lawyers don’t work for defendants either, but for the Court.

In a cycle of one hundred quatrains that sound the gravest and most complex depths with an almost childlike simplicity, the great Czech poet [Jan Skacel] writes:

Poets don’t invent poems
The poem is somewhere behind
It’s been there for a long long time
The poet merely discovers it.

For the poet, then, writing means breaking through a wall behind which something immutable (“the poem”) lies hidden in darkness. That’s why (because of this surprising and sudden unveiling) “the poem” strikes us first as a dazzlement.

Kafka made no prophecies. All he did was see what was “behind.” He did not know that his seeing was also a fore-seeing. He did not intend to unmask a social system. He shed light on the mechanisms he knew from private and microsocial human practice, not suspecting that later developments would put those mechanisms into action on the great stage of History.

The hypnotic eye of power, the desperate search for one’s own offense, exclusion and the anguish of being excluded, the condemnation to conformism, the phantasmic nature of reality and the magical reality of the file, the perpetual rape of private life, etc. – all these experiments that History has performed on man in its immense test tubes, Kafka performed (some years earlier) in his novels.

The convergence of the real world of totalitarian states with Kafka’s “poem” will always be somewhat uncanny, and it will always bear witness that the poet’s act, in its very essence, is incalculable; and paradoxical: the enormous social, political, and “prophetic” import of Kafka’s novels lies precisely in their “nonengagement,” that is to say, in their total autonomy from all political programs, ideological concepts, and futurological prognoses.

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Milan Kundera on Kafka’s Prophecies

Again, from the essential The Art of the Novel.

Mystifications and legends aside, there is no significant trace anywhere of Franz Kafka’s political interests; in that sense, he is different from all his Prague friends, from Max Brod, Franz Werfel, Egon Erwin Kisch, and from all the avant-gardes that, claiming to know the direction of History, indulged in conjuring up the face of the future.

So how is it that not their works but those of their solitary, introverted companion, immersed in his own life and his art, are recognized today as a sociopolitical prophecy, and are for that very reason banned in a large part of the world?

The famous letter Kafka write and never sent to his father demonstrates that it was from the family, from the relationship between the child and the deified power of the parents, that Kafka drew his knowledge of the technique of culpabilization, which became a major theme of his fiction. In “The Judgement,” a short story intimately bound up with the author’s family experience, the father accuses the son and commands him to drown himself. The son accepts his fictitious guilt and throws himself into the river as docilely as, in a later work, his successor Joseph K., indicted by a mysterious organization, goes to be slaughtered. The similarity between the two accusations, the two culpabilizations, and the two executions reveals the link, in Kafka’s work, between the family’s private “totalitarianism” and that in his great social visions.

Totalitarian society, especially in its more extreme versions, tends to abolish the boundary between the public and the private; power, as it grows ever more opaque, requires the lives of citizens to be entirely transparent. The ideal of life without secrets corresponds to the ideal of the exemplary family: a citizen does not have the right to hide anything at all from the Party or the State, just as a child has no right to keep a secret from his father or his mother. In their propaganda, totalitarian societies project an idyllic smile; they want to be seen as “one big family.”

It’s often said that Kafka’s novels express a passionate desire for community and human contact, that the rootless being who is K. has only one goal: to overcome the curse of solitude. Now, this is not only a clichĂ©, a reductive interpretation, it is a misinterpretation.

The Land-Surveyor K. is not in the least pursuing people and their warmth, he is not trying to become “a man among men: like Sartre’s Orestes; he wants acceptance not from a community but from an institution. To have it, he must pay dearly: he must renounce his solitude. And this is his hell: he is never alone, the two assistants sent by the Castle follow him always. When he first makes love with Frieda, the two men are there, sitting on the cafĂ© counter over the lovers, and from then on they are never absent from their bed.

Not the curse of solitude but the violation of solitude is Kafka’s obsession!

Lyrical souls who like to preach the abolition of secrets and the transparency of private life do not realize the nature of the process they are unleashing. The starting point of totalitarianism resembles the beginning of The Trial: you’ll be taken unawares in your bed. They’ll come just as your father and mother used to.

People often wonder whether Kafka’s novels are projections of the author’s most personal and private conflicts or descriptions of an objective “social machine.”

The Kafkan is not restricted to either the private or the public domain; it encompasses both. The public is the mirror of the private; the private reflects the public.

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Milan Kundera on Kafka’s Horror of the Comic

Fragments from the essential The Art of the Novel.

On the horror of the comic:

When Kafka read the first chapter of The Trial to his friends, everyone laughed, including the author.

Philip Roth’s imagined film version of The Castle: Groucho Marx plays the Land-Surveyor K., with Chico and Harpo as the two assistants. Yes, Roth is quite right: The comic is inseparable from the very essence of the Kafkan…[A] joke is only a joke if you’re outside the bowl; by contrast, the Kafkan takes us inside, into the guts of a joke, into the horror of the comic

In the world of the Kafkan, the comic is not a counterpoint to the tragic (the tragi-comic) as in Shakespeare; it’s not there to make the tragic more bearable by lightening the tone; it doesn’t accompany the tragic, not at all, it destroys in the egg and thus deprives the victims of the only consolation they could hope for: the consolation to be found in the (real or supposed) grandeur of tragedy.

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Poor Alonzo Quijada

From The Curtain by Milan Kundera:

Poor Alonzo Quijada meant to elevate himself into the legendary figure of a knight-errant. Instead, for all of literary history, Cervantes succeeded in doing just the opposite: he cast a legendary figure down: into the world of prose. “Prose”: the word signifies not only a nonversified language; it also signifies the concrete, everyday, corporeal nature of life. So to say that the novel is the art of prose is not to state the obvious; the word defines the deep sense of that art. Homer never wondered whether, after their many hand-to-hand struggles, Achilles or Ajax still had all their teeth. But for Don Quixote and Sancho teeth are perpetual concern – hurting teeth, missing teeth. “You must know, Sancho, that no diamond is so precious as a tooth.”

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Milan Kundera “Beyond Causality”

From The Art of the Novel:

Beyond Causality

On Levin’s estate, a man and a woman meet – two melancholy, lonely people. They like one another and secretly hope to join their lives together. All they need is the chance to be alone for a moment and say so. Finally one day they find themselves unobserved in a wood where they have come to gather mushrooms. Ill at ease, they are silent, knowing that the moment is upon them and they must not let it slip by. The silence has already lasted rather a long while when the woman suddenly, “involuntarily, reflexively,” starts to talk about mushrooms. Then silence again, and the man casts about for a way to declare himself, but instead of speaking of love, “on some unexpected impulse” he too talks about mushrooms. On the way home they go on discussing mushrooms, powerless and desperate, for never, they know it, never will they speak of love.

Back at the house, the man tells himself that he did not declare his love because of the memory of his dead mistress, which he cannot betray. But we know perfectly well: It is a false excuse he invokes only to console himself. Console himself? Yes. Because we can resign ourselves to losing a love for a reason. We would never forgive ourselves for losing it for no reason at all.

This very beautiful little episode is a kind of parable for one of Anna Karenina‘s great feats: bringing to light the causeless incalculable, even mysterious aspect of human action.

What is action? – the eternal question of the novel, its constitutive question, so to speak. How is a decision born? How is it transformed into an act, and how do acts connect to make an adventure?

Out of the mysterious and chaotic fabric of life, the old novelists tried to tease the thread of a limpid rationality; in their vie, the rationally accessible motive gives birth to an act, and that act provokes another. An adventure is a luminously causal chain of acts.

Werther loves his friend’s wife. He cannot betray his friend, he cannot give up his love, so he kills himself. Suicide with the transparent clarity of a mathematical equation.

But why does Anna Karenina kill herself?

The man who talked about mushrooms instead of love wants to believe that he did so out of loyalty to his vanished mistress. The reasons we might give for Anna’s act would be worth just as little. True, people are treating her with contempt, but can she not do the same to them? She is barred from seeing her son, but is that a situation beyond appeal and beyond of change? Vronsky is already a little less infatuated, but after all, doesn’t he still love her?

Besides, Anna did not come to the station to kill herself. She came to meet Vronsky. She throws herself beneath the train without having taken the decision to do so. It is rather the decision that takes Anna. That overtakes her. Like the man who talked about mushrooms, Anna acts “on some unexpected impulse.” Which does not mean that her act is senseless. But its sense lies outside rationally apprehensible causality. Tolstoy had to use (for the first time in the history of the novel) an almost Joycean interior monologue to reconstruct the subtle fabric of fleeting impulses, transient feelings, fragmentary thoughts, to show us the suicidal journey of Anna’s soul.

Dostoyevsky grasped the madness of reason stubbornly determined to carry its logic through to the end. The terrain Tolstoy explores is the opposite: he uncovers the intrusions of illogic, of the irrational.