The Art of Memory in Exile: Vladimir Nabokov & Milan Kundera

The Art of Memory in Exile: Vladimir Nabokov & Milan Kundera

The Art of Memory in Exile: Vladimir Nabokov & Milan Kundera

The Art of Memory in Exile: Vladimir Nabokov & Milan Kundera


In The Art of Memory in Exile, Hana Pichova explores the themes of memory and exile in selected novels of Vladimir Nabokov and Milan Kundera. Both writers, Pichova argues, stress how personal and cultural memory serves as a creative means of overcoming the artist's and exile's loss of homeland. In their virtuoso displays of literary talent, Nabokov and Kundera showcase the strategies that allow their protagonists to succeed as emigres: a creative fusing of past and present through the prism of the imagination.

Pichova closely analyzes two novels by each author: the first written in exile (Nabokov's Mary and Kundera's The Book of Laughter and Forgetting) and a later, pivotal novel in each writer's career (Nabokov's The Gift and Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being). In all four texts, these authors explore how the kaleidoscope of personal and cultural memory confronts a fragmented and untenable present, contrasting the lives of fictional emigres who fail to bridge the gap between past andpresent with those emigres whose rich artistic vision allows them to transcend the trials of homelessness.

By juxtaposing these novels and their authors, Pichova provides a unique perspective on each writer's vast appeal and success. She finds that in the work of Nabokov and Kundera, the most successful exiles express a vision that transcends both national and temporal boundaries.


The Book of Laughter and Forgetting opens with Kundera's portrayal of a fateful moment in Czech history. In February 1948, Klement Gottwald stepped out on the balcony of a baroque palace in Prague to address the nation. Surrounded by his comrades, Gottwald announced the beginning of a new era, the establishment of communist Czechoslovakia. Kundera tells us that it was a cold and snowy day, that the Communist leader was hatless, and that Vladimir Clementis, standing right next to Gottwald, graciously took off his fur cap and placed it on the leader's head. Kundera goes on to explain that both the historical speech and the act of human kindness promptly became immortalized in a photograph that was subsequently disseminated by the propaganda section of the Czechoslovak Communist Party in thousands of copies. This image of a historical photograph, one of the earliest in Kundera's fiction, reveals what proves to be a topic of incessant reflection in his work: the role of photographic documentation in cultural memory.

Photography becomes the focus of Kundera's exploration of the importance of cultural memory, of the necessity of holding on to memories of the history of one's nation, as well as the rich culture one inherits. This bridge to the past is at risk when a writer is forced into exile, far from the sustenance of his native shore; it is equally jeopardized within a totalitarian regime, where questioning the versions of the past that are promoted by those in power, although dangerous, is crucial. We encounter this with the Gottwald and Clementis photograph, which, as subject to various manipulations and distortions motivated by the ever-shifting political atmosphere, keeps changing meaning and function. Initially, the photograph appears as a symbol of remembering or, more precisely, the Party's modus operandi for glorifying the depicted historical moment but also, and more important, for inscribing it on each and every individual's consciousness. This . . .

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