Sparked by Words

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera is considered the Czech writer’s masterpiece. He is regarded as one of the world’s most important authors, having won numerous awards, commendations, international acclaim, and often short listed for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Being is one of the most unusual novels I’ve ever read. In fact, I couldn’t get through it the first two times I tried, so you’d be right if you’re questioning whether this is actually my favorite U book. I’m glad I finally completed it but it was a challenge from beginning to end.

I don’t think it’s possible to read Being without knowing something of the background of Kundera’s life and the history of Czechoslovakia. Kundera was born in Brno in 1929 and lived much of his adult life in Prague. The book reflects some of the events of his life. In fact, all of his books except for the very last describe life in Czechoslovakia. I’m no expert on this history, and what I do know I gleaned from the Internet and a bit of awareness of world issues as they happened.

Kundera’s first political association was with the Communist party but he eventually gave it up in favor of championing human rights, Czech political freedom, and support of the arts. He was one of many intellectuals who participated in the Prague Spring in 1968 in opposition to the Soviet invasion and takeover of his country. They banned his books. They reduced many of the intelligentsia and artistic community to second class citizenry and encouraged them to leave the country. Kundera and his wife emigrated to France where he taught at university, continued to write, and eventually became a French citizen. All of this is loosely exposed in Being, especially in the character of Tomas, Kundera’s alter ego.

The book begins with a lengthy discussion of human existence as a challenge between positive lightness, without emotional burden, and negative heaviness, requiring eternal return. Since we only get one life, we have no basis for comparison to determine which quality reflects life more accurately.* Many people take refuge in the aesthetic kitsch of religion or other distracting and sentimental activities to escape from Soviet oppression, a situation the author found deplorable and expressed within the viewpoints of characters. Kundera’s question about lightness versus heaviness is at the heart of living under a totalitarian government that destroyed the very nature of his country. Were I to be asked, I find the novel loaded with author intrusion, an absolute no-no according to modern writing standards (and many readers’ tastes.)

Ordinary writing rules don’t count under such circumstances. Throughout the book, philosophical arguments take more space than the activities of the characters. Most of the action revolves around their sexual relationships and betrayals, a kind of carousel of bed hopping, party attendance, and café sitting. Kundera devotes pages to definitions of words that later impact the characters. Words like “woman,” “cemetery,” and “the beauty of New York” create an internal dictionary of important ideas. Yeah, let’s you or I try that tactic in our novels and see how well it’s accepted by editors or readers.

Tomas, the primary character, is a brilliant surgeon who questions the quality and meaning of his life. He engages in an astonishing number of throwaway sexual liaisons, even while claiming to love only his wife, Tereza. At first a waitress escaping her vulgar mother, Tereza becomes a capable photo-journalist. She is always emotionally dependent on Tomas to the point that she is sickened and feels betrayed by his sexual exploits.

Tomas’ most important other sexual partner is Sabina, a talented painter and free spirit who even wins over Tereza. Sabina stays true to her values and eventually settles in America where she disavows her homeland and her past. The final significant character is Franz who becomes Sabina’s other lover. Franz lives a tragic life and dies abroad though he is essentially a kind person who recognizes his mistakes.

All four characters flee Czechoslovakia, though Tomas and Teresa return. Their lives take a difficult turn under the Communist occupation which demands slavish obeisance to party lines. They are forced to give up their previous professional identities. Their skills are wasted doing menial jobs, yet they accept this reduction in their status.

My most favorite character (actually, the only character I like) is the smiling dog, Kerenin. Tereza walks Kerenin every day to get a bun which he carries home in his mouth and does not eat until he roughhouses with Tomas. Though we know long before the end of the book that Tomas and Tereza die together in a car accident, for which no details are provided, it is Kerenin’s illness, death, and funeral that take up the final passages of the book. Other than anger at the heartlessness of the Soviet regime, only this section made me feel an emotional response to anything in the story.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a serious and important work for its depiction of the conflict of loyalty when one’s beloved country is invaded by an oppressive regime. It portrays the ways in which people tolerate and submit or flee and survive. Or rebel, as the author did. It doesn’t let you forget you’re reading a book the Communists hated. This is the distracting weight of the book for me, and it created a cleft between me and attachment to the story. As writers, we’ve learned that we must know the rules before we break them, and we better not break them unless we know how to do it so the entire story doesn’t shatter. Kundera knows how. I didn’t love this book but I will never forget it.

If you’ve read this book or any of his other works, I’d love to know your impression.

 

*My explanation of the basic conundrum of the book is poorly described here, but Kundera gives it plenty of space and makes it comprehensible.

I look forward to learning about your favorite U fiction books.

 

One other book that was a serious contender for U:

Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman

 

Book cover image courtesy: Google images and Harper Perennial

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Comments on: "U is for The Unbearable Lightness of Being" (25)

  1. Although I like philosophy, I do not think I could get into a story of this caliber. I vision it as a book required for a college philosophy course.

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  2. I’ve always meant to read ‘Being’ but never gotten around to it. Maybe one day. I enjoyed ‘Up the Down Staircase’ when I read it decades ago.

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    • Peggy, should you read The Unbearable Lightness of Being, please let me know what you think about it. I’ve never been able to discuss it with anyone as I don’t know anyone else who’s read it.

      I also read Staircase decades ago, long before I ever became a teacher.

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  3. Oh Shari, you know how terrible I am about reading ‘important’ books. Can’t we find more like “The Art of Racing in the Rain”. I still miss that one.

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    • This is just an A to Z reading list, not an order for anyone to read anything. Since there is, to the best of my knowledge, not a single book similar to The Art of Racing in the Rain that begins with the letter U, you know what that means.

      Too bad the movie The Umbrellas of Cherbourg was not first a book – I would have reviewed that in half a heartbeat.

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  4. U books are tough. However, I just finished a book this year by the name of Uglies. It’s a dystopian post-apocalypse story about a young girl who cannot wait to turn 16 and become “pretty”. Basically a coming of age situation where life suddenly becomes amazing. The twist sets in when the young girl’s BF leaves the night before the change, which is a tough process. Anyway, my daughter wanted to read it, so I read it with her knowing many questions would arise. A good story and I’d recommend it to teenagers looking for a summer read.

    I plan on picking up your selection, Shari. Sounds good. Once again, you’ve done a great job of explaining, contrary to your thought. 🙂

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    • Audrey, what a terrific thing to do with your daughter – read a book together. I’ve heard of Uglies; I’ll add that to my ever lengthening TBR list.

      I often read my sons’ reading assignments if I wasn’t already familiar, and got introduced to some wonderful literature. It was how I read The Once and Future King, which we all loved. My sons also got me hooked on Douglas Adams.

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  5. I read this book to impress my boyfriend in college. I think he liked all the sexual liaisons. He was too promiscuous and a jerk (my boyfriend). I couldn’t like any of the characters in the book which is a real problem for me. I admired the writing style (sort of) but as a whole it left me cold and a little annoyed even. The title is great though and randomly pops into my head as a nice phrase to mull over.

    Ulysses by James Joyce is a book I tried to read after reading Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man which I liked. I did listen to Ulysses being read dramatically and it came alive for me though I still didn’t finish it. 🙂

    Ukelele and Her New Doll, a Golden Book from my childhood was one of my favorites–about an island girl who gets a “white” doll but realizes her own “primitive” doll is much better suited for island living.

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    • I agree with you, Adrienne, the characters are hard to like except for Kerenin, the dog. I hope I made clear that this review was a challenge for me.

      I could never get into Joyce at all, but I think I’d love Ukelele and Her New Doll which I’ve never heard of – and I lived in Hawaii in the early 1050’s. I’ll have to see if it’s still being printed. Lots of Golden Book titles were charming – I still have a huge box of them from when my sons were little.

      OMG – I just looked up the Ukelele book – it’s available for between $32 and $500 for collector’s editions. If you still have your copy, maybe you should frame it. I think I’m going to drag my box of Golden Books from the garage and see if any of them are valuable – who knew? Antiques Roadshow, here I come.

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  6. Thank you for the background which I did not have when I read this. I must reread it again. I love the character of Isabel Dalhousie, an Edinburghphilosopher and sleuth in Alexander McCall Smith’s Sunday Philosophers’ Club Series. The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds is a mystery set around an art theft but the book also further develops Isabel’s relationship with her younger husband Jamie and their 3-year-old son Charlie.

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    • I just looked up The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds, a book I’d never heard about, but I’m intrigued by the Kirkus review. I’ve read a few of Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books and found them enjoyable. Clouds seems like a very different story, and as an artist, I’m inclined to add it to my TBR list. I just finished Dominic Smith’s The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, also a story about a stolen painting. Smith is an outstanding writer and I’m going to read his other books as well. Isn’t it interesting how one author or one book or one review opens the door to so many other books to be read? Thanks for your suggestion, Clare.

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  7. I’ve only read three U books, I think: An Untamed State by Roxane Gay, which is probably the most harrowing book I’ve ever read; a non-traditional fairy tale called Uprooted by Naomi Novik; and The Unquiet Dead by Ausma Zehanat Khan, the first in a new mystery series about a Canadian Muslim detective. Of the three, the mystery is my favorite.

    But I don’t like any of the above as much as I do my favorite V book. 🙂

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    • U is a tough letter for this series but I’ve gotten some decent suggestions from other readers. Thank you for yours, Ilene. I will probably pass on An Untamed State but The Unquiet Dead sounds very interesting.

      Now I’m really wondering what your V book is – guess we’ll both have to wait till next Thursday to find out, when I reveal my choice.

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  8. Sharon, thank you! I saw the film of this dubbed into bad German when I was in East Germany and I never ever got what it was about. Just seeing moving images was a treat! You’ve done a super job summing it up and it sounds like a worthwhile read but not one I’d try soon.

    I always enjoy your posts, learning about often unexpected books but also love the way you send me scouring my bookshevles! U is a tricky one but found Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled. I read it but can’t remember it at all but sounds interesting.

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    • I haven’t seen the film made from The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and frankly I just can’t imagine anyone being able to translate the book into a movie. I don’t think it’s possible to grasp the essence of the story because it’s under the surface of the action. (But I’m a bit unfair here, as I haven’t seen the film.)

      Other friends have recommended The Unconsoled to me but I haven’t read it yet – another one on my very long TBR list. Nearly all the last letters of the alphabet were tough to find books I wanted to write about. I’m pleased with the way the final reviews turned out, partly because I really had to be inventive. If you read them, you’ll see what I mean. I bet you won’t be surprised at the Z choice. Thank you, Annika, for your kind comment.

      Liked by 1 person

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