Milan Kundera: The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Here’s another book I’ve often pulled from the bookstore shelf, only to put it back, sometimes even after I’ve already gotten in line to purchase it. There just always seemed to be another book that felt more urgent and more likely to be missed if not purchased instead. Consequently, I’ve read the first small section dozens of times but knew little about the rest of the book. Now, with Harper Perennial’s limited edition, I finally found that The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Nesnesitelná lehkost bytí, 1985; tr. from the Czech by Michael Henry Heim, 1984) was the book I couldn’t pass up at the bookstore.

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A quick word about the limited edition, which I knew about only because I saw an advertisement in the New York Review of Books. Apparently at this point there are three titles available: The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated (the title of which comes from that first small section of The Unbearable Lightness of Being that I mentioned above), and Michael Chabon’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (does this one have anything to do with the other titles?). They are compact and sturdy, the size of a mass-market paperback but the feel of a trade paperback. They seem to be widely available (I’ve seen all three at several local bookstores). And the best part: they cost only $10. The worst part: these titles don’t seem to need a reissue at this moment, and there are so many others we’re on the fringe of losing that could use a good marketing campaign. Perhaps Harper Perrenial can use these three to get some interest in the series (should it turn out to be a series) and release more deserving books later.

Much of my joy with this novel came right away, in that first of many extremely short sections I had already read so many times. So perhaps I was right to just read it in the line and then put it back. But not so fast — I’ll explain more later about how I felt about this book. Back to that first section, though: there Kundera explains the fundamental philosophy of the novel, which plays with lightness and heaviness.

Putting it negatively, the myth of eternal return states that a life which disappears once and for all, which does not return, is like a shadow, without weight, dead in advance, and whether it was horrible, beautiful, or sublime, its horror, sublimity, and beauty mean nothing.

Basically, what we do has no real significance — in other words, there is no weight attached to us. The passage of time nullifies our life and death, and we are basically “dead in advance.” As an example he brings up a battle in Africa in the 1500s that killed thousands of Africans. To him, this has no significance today, so no matter how well they lived or how horribly they died, it doesn’t matter now. Looked at another way, it didn’t matter then. They could have died peacefully in bed or violently on the battlefield; either way, it’s over and will never return. This applies to us today as well. And this knowledge of how truly light our being is somewhat unbearable.

Then Kundera takes us into the story, with four principal characters: Tomas, his wife Tereza, his lover Sabine, and her lover Franz. In the first part (which is very short), we get to know how Tomas and Tereza met, fell in love, and married. Tomas represents lightness. He does not want to get attached to anyone or anything, and he attaches little significance to anything that happens. A prolific philanderer, Tomas has a rule of three about his mistresses: you either see them over a long period of time but must allow three weeks to pass between encounters, or you see them up to three times in quick succession but then never again. Tereza changes all of this. After their first encounter, just as he’s about to send her on her way, she becomes ill and must stay with him for a week. During that time he realizes he loves her, and going against his rules he allows her to sleep with him after sex. He realizes that love is not a desire to have sex with someone; rather, it is a desire to sleep with someone. But to maintain his reputation and the pretext of freedom, he purchases Tereza her own apartment (which she never uses). He also continues his many affairs. Realizing, however, that Tereza is hurt and jealous and might leave him, he decides to marry her . . .but not stop his affairs.

In Part II (also very short) we see much of the same story as above but from the perspective of Tereza. She represents heaviness; indeed, the first time she meets Tomas she attaches significance to almost everything that goes on: the book he carries (Anna Karenina), the music playing (Beethoven), and the number six. The speak for only an hour, but a week later Teresa visits Tomas. She brings her heavy suitcase, and Kundera frequently makes sure that he describes the weight of things when she’s around. As different as she and Tomas are, they love each other, though they don’t necessarily make each other happy.

In the backdrop of this novel is Prague, a city about to be taken by the Soviets. When the Soviets threaten to take over Prague, Tomas and Tereza move to Switzerland, where Sabina has also moved. After a while, Tereza leaves to go back to Prague. Tomas realizes he will never be able to talk to her again now that Prague has been taken over, and he begins to enjoy his new freedom. But the weight has become comfortable, and after just a few days he also travels back to Prague to find Tereza, knowing they will not be able to leave again. This brings around one of the fundamental philosophies of the novel:

Was it better to be with Tereza or to remain alone?

There is no means of testing which decision is better, because there is no basis for comparison. We live everything as it comes, without warning, like an actor going on cold. And what can life be worth if the first rehearsal for life is life itself?

As the novel progresses, we meet Franz, who has become Sabina’s lover now that Tomas is gone. Franz also represents weight; Sabina, lightness. The amusingly sad section that introduces their relationship is called “Words Misunderstood.” In this section, Kundera provides a dictionary of some words which mean to Franz different things than to Sabina: woman, fidelity and betrayal, music, lightness and darkness, the beauty of New York, etc. Their relationship is a great failure, in contrast to the relative success of Tomas and Tereza.

We follow these characters to the end of their lives as they struggle in their relationships with each other and with the political climate of the time. It is a very interesting story, and with the philosophy always in the foreground, it’s quite the exercise of the mind.

As I said above, though, much of my joy came at the first of the novel, and I truly mean that I did not experience as much satisfaction while reading this book as I usually do when reading other books. It was engaging, well written, provocative — not in the least unbearable — but for some reason it didn’t satisfy me as much in the act of reading. I think this was principally due to the fact that the book is very much a book of ideas. The basic facts of the novel are fairly simple, so the joy comes in the act of thinking about the novel. Thankfully, there was much to think about, and as I did that I found that reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being was very worthwhile, even if it is heavy material.

But that’s not the only good thing. The symbols and dream sequences are excellently rendered and hauntingly erotic. I particularly enjoyed the fact that toward the end, as Tereza slips around the fringe of losing her mind, Kundera does nothing stylistically to separate her dreams from reality. The absence of transitions disorients the reader, and in this book that disorientation is part of the quality.

9 thoughts on “Milan Kundera: The Unbearable Lightness of Being

  1. Laura says:

    This was an excellent review. I’m planning to read “something by Kundera” in December. I am not sure what, yet, but this book is a strong contender. It’s good to know what I’ll be getting into. It sounds like a good book, but not my usual type of read.

  2. Andy says:

    Well done Trevor. It is great to see Milan Kundera getting a review on your site. It
    seems that you took a lot from this book. It certainly had a big influence on me when
    I read it 15 years ago, as I could not put Kundera down until I had finished all of his works. And I have continued to enjoy his novels since. Hopefully there will be more to come. There is so much to enjoy with this work (ideas, structure, style, story). For me it is almost the perfect novel and you have encouraged me
    to get it back off the shelf. Wonderful stuff. He has, of course, been back in the news recently and it is great to
    see that he receiving the full support of his literary peers.
    http://news.yahoo.com/s/afp/20081103/en_afp/czechfranceliteraturecommunism

  3. Thanks, Laura. I’m anxious to see what Kundera you choose. I know next to nothing about his other books, so maybe Andy or someone else who has read more of his work can recommend something other than The Unbearable Lightness of Being if there is a better starting place. Either way, I hope you’ll return and share your thoughts!

    Andy, thanks also! And thanks for the link. I’m not sure I’m going to get to more Kundera any time soon, but your thoughts have helped me realize that his work doesn’t stop with this title. I’ll have to see what else there is to get whet my appetite.

  4. KevinfromCanada says:

    I will admit that Kundera is one of those authors who absolutely defeats me. I have read this book twice and cannot remember anything about that. Having said that, we don’t all have to like every book and I enjoy the comments from those who appreciate this author.

    It is indeed strange that Chabon’s Pittsburgh book gets to be part of this series. I can’t imagine what the publishers were thinking.

  5. _lethe_ says:

    Beautiful review for another great book.

    I saw the film first, and because I loved it, I borrowed the Dutch translation from the library. I remember reading very slowly to savour every word. Later on I bought the English translation in a lovely Faber & Faber hardcover.

    I have Immortality on my to-be-read list, recommended by a friend of mine.

  6. Stewart says:

    I’ve only read one Kundera myself, Ignorance, and it was certainly a memorable experience at the time. I don’t think I’d ever come across a book that, aside from its main thread, digressed so much in unusual and interesting ways. I don’t know why I’ve never returned to him, although I do have The Unbearable Lightness Of Being and Immortality sitting there on my shelves.

  7. Fascinating writeup Trevor, I found it very interesting. I’m still not sure about this one, but I may now take a look whereas before I had no intention of doing so.

  8. Curses, that was me at post 7.

  9. I’m not sure I would push you into reading this one, Max. I both liked and didn’t like it. It was a quick read, and it did pay off, but I can’t see myself getting much out of it on a second read. If you do decide to read it, I’m anxious for your thoughts.

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