“We should welcome the context Kundera gives for the struggles between Russia and Europe, and the plight of those caught between them. His defense of small languages, small cultures, and small nations feels pressing.”—Claire Messud, Harper's Magazine
“Kundera focuses on the relationship of Europe’s central ‘small nations’ like Czechoslovakia and Ukraine to Western culture and argues that their cultural identities were increasingly threatened.”—New York Book Review
A short collection of brilliant early essays that offers a fascinating context for Milan Kundera’s subsequent career and holds a mirror to much recent European history. It is also remarkably prescient with regard to Russia’s current aggression in Ukraine and its threat to the rest of Europe.
Milan Kundera’s early nonfiction work feels especially resonant in our own time. In these pieces, Kundera pleads the case of the “small nations” of Europe who, by culture, are Western with deep roots in Europe, despite Russia imposing its own Communist political regimes in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Ukraine, and elsewhere. Kundera warns that the real tragedy here is not Russia but Europe, whose own identity and culture are directly challenged and threatened in a way that could lead to their destruction. He is sounding the alarm, which chimes loud and clear in our own twenty-first century.
The 1983 essay translated by Edmund White (“The Tragedy of Central Europe”), and the 1967 lecture delivered to the Czech Writers’ Union in the middle of the Prague Spring by the young Milan Kundera (“Literature and the Small Nations”), translated for the first time by Linda Asher, are both written in a voice that is at once personal, vehement, and anguished. Here, Kundera appears already as one of our great European writers and truly our contemporary. Each piece is prefaced by a short presentation by French historian Pierre Nora and Czech-born French political scientist Jacques Rupnik.
The Franco-Czech novelist Milan Kundera (1929 - 2023) was born in Brno and lived in France, his second homeland, since 1975. He is the author of the novels The Joke, Life Is Elsewhere, Farewell Waltz, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and Immortality, and the short story collection Laughable Loves—all originally in Czech. His later novels, Slowness, Identity, Ignorance, and The Festival of Insignificance, as well as his nonfiction works, The Art of the Novel, Testaments Betrayed, The Curtain, and Encounter, were originally written in French.
“Lovely. . . these essays have fresh resonance as Ukraine remains under siege by Russia…Kundera is characteristically incisive.” — Kirkus Reviews
“Kundera focuses on the relationship of Europe’s central ‘small nations’ like Czechoslovakia and Ukraine to Western culture and argues that their cultural identities were increasingly threatened.” — New York Times Book Review
“Offer[s] insight into contemporary debates. . . . We should welcome the context Kundera gives for the struggles between Russia and Europe, and the plight of those caught between them. His defense of small languages, small cultures, and small nations feels pressing.” — Claire Messud, Harper's Magazine