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