Kundera has written in both Czech and French. He revises the French translations of all his books; these therefore are not considered translations but original works. Due to censorship by the Communist government of Czechoslovakia, his books were banned from his native country, and that remained the case until the downfall of this government in the Velvet Revolution in 1989.
Kundera completed his secondary school studies in Brno in 1948. He studied literature and aesthetics at the Faculty of Arts at Charles University in Prague. After two terms, he transferred to the Film Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, where he first attended lectures in film direction and script writing. In 1950, his studies were briefly interrupted by political interference. After graduating in 1952, the Film Faculty appointed him a lecturer in world literature. Kundera belonged to the generation of young Czechs who had had little or no experience of the pre-war democratic Czechoslovak Republic. Their ideology was greatly influenced by the experiences of World War II and the German occupation. Still in his teens, Kundera joined the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia which seized power in 1948. In 1950, he and another writer, Jan Trefulka, were expelled from the party for "anti-party activities".
Trefulka described the incident in his novella Pršelo jim štěstí (Happiness Rained On Them, 1962). Kundera also used the incident as an inspiration for the main theme of his novel Žert (The Joke, 1967). In 1956 Milan Kundera was readmitted into the Party. He was expelled for the second time in 1970. Kundera, along with other Czech artists and writers such as Václav Havel, was involved in the 1968 Prague Spring. This brief period of reformist activities was crushed by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968.
Kundera remained committed to reforming Czech communism, and argued vehemently in print with Havel, saying, essentially, that everyone should remain calm and that "nobody is being locked up for his opinions yet", and "the significance of the Prague Autumn may ultimately be greater than that of the Prague Spring". Finally, however, Kundera relinquished his reformist dreams and moved to France in 1975. He has been a French citizen since 1981..
In his first novel, The Joke, he gave a satirical account of the nature of totalitarianism in the Communist era. Kundera had been quick to criticize the Soviet invasion. This led to his blacklisting and his works being banned. In 1975, Kundera moved to France. There he published The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1979) which told of Czech citizens opposing the communist regime in various ways. An unusual mixture of novel, short story collection and author's musings, the book set the tone for his works in exile.
In 1984, he published The Unbearable Lightness of Being, his most famous work. The book chronicled the fragile nature of the fate of the individual and how a life lived once may as well have never been lived at all, as there is no possibility for repetition, experiment, and trial and error. In 1988, American director Philip Kaufman released a film version of the novel.
Although the film was considered moderately successful, Kundera was upset about it. He has since forbidden any adaptations of his novels. In 1990, Kundera published Immortality. The novel, his last in Czech, was more cosmopolitan than its predecessors. Its content was more explicitly philosophical, as well as less political. It would set the tone for his later novels.
Kundera has repeatedly insisted on being considered a novelist in general, rather than a political or dissident writer. Political commentary has all but disappeared from his novels (starting specifically from The Book of Laughter and Forgetting) except in relation to broader philosophical themes. Kundera's style of fiction, interlaced with philosophical digression, greatly inspired by Robert Musil's novels and Nietzsche's prose, is also used by authors Alain de Botton and Adam Thirlwell. Kundera takes his inspiration, as he notes often enough, not only from the Renaissance authors Giovanni Boccaccio and Rabelais, but also from Laurence Sterne, Fielding, Denis Diderot, Robert Musil, Witold Gombrowicz, Hermann Broch, Franz Kafka and Martin Heidegger.
He also digresses into musical matters, analyzing Czech folk music, quoting from Bartok and Leoš Janáček. Further in this vein, he interpolates musical excerpts into the text (for example, in The Joke), or discusses Schoenberg and atonality.
Originally, he wrote in Czech. From 1993 on, he has written his novels in French. Between 1985 and 1987 he undertook the revision of the French translations of his earlier works. As a result, all of his books exist in French with the authority of the original. His books have been translated into many languages.
Kundera's characters are often explicitly identified as figments of his own imagination, commenting in the first-person on the characters in entirely third-person stories. Kundera is more concerned with the words that shape or mould his characters than with the characters' physical appearance. In his non-fiction work, The Art of the Novel, he says that the reader's imagination automatically completes the writer's vision. He, as the writer, wishes to focus on the essential. For him the essential does not include the physical appearance or even the interior world (the psychological world) of his characters.
François Ricard suggested that Kundera conceives with regard to an overall oeuvre, rather than limiting his ideas to the scope of just one novel at a time. His themes and meta-themes exist across the entire oeuvre. Each new book manifests the latest stage of his personal philosophy. Some of these meta-themes are exile, identity, life beyond the border (beyond love, beyond art, beyond seriousness), history as continual return, and the pleasure of a less "important" life. (Francois Ricard, 2003)
Many of Kundera's characters are intended as expositions of one of these themes at the expense of their fully developed humanity. Specifics in regard to the characters tend to be rather vague. Often, more than one main character is used in a novel, even to the extent of completely discontinuing a character and resuming the plot with a brand new character.
He has been quoted as saying, "Betrayal is an inevitable part of life. In order to survive, you must entrust others which leaves you susceptible to betrayal. However, learning from what has happened will inevitably make you stronger."