The Unbearable Lightness of Being

November 3, 2009 at 8:01 pm (Czech, Literary Fiction, Philosophy) ()

unbearable lightness of being

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
translated by Michael Henry Heim
originally published 1984
Perennial Classics, 1st printing, 1999
314 pages
Genre: philosophy, Czech literature

Synopsis & Review: The novel begins just before the Prauge Spring of 1968 through the Soviet Union’s invasion and is aftermath to 1984. The story centers on Tomáš, a successful surgeon, Tereza, an accidental photographer and first his lover, then his wife, and on of Tomáš’ mistresses, Sabina, a painter. At times the novels also focuses on secondary characters, such as Franz, one of Sabina’s lovers in switzerland, Simon, Tomáš’ long-estranged son, and even Karenin, Tereza’s dog.

I had a nice, long, detailed explanation of the rather inconsequential plot, and then Comcast decided to have an outage in our area. And frankly, I don’t feel like writing it out again. Wikipedia it. Simply, it’s the story of Tomáš and Tereza’s relationship. And it’s also about life, the soul, being and everything in the between.

There’s a lot to cover in the way of intersecting relationships, different narrative paths, self-awareness and irony, and even humor. But, I just have no interest in doing so.

When i worked at Hollywood Video, I always used to walk past this movie, and it just seemed like something I ought to watch. Well, I haven’t yet gotten around to watching it, but I did finally finish reading it. It took me forever to read The Unbearable Lightness of Being for a couple of reasons: the opening chapter is rather ponderous, I suddenly feared being an existentialist about a third of the way through it which made me reluctant to continue reading, and under other circumstances, the novel would have driven me mad. If I had read it say, five years ago, smack dab in the middle of my long-term relationship with an abusive philanderer, it would have made me even crazier. In the context of that relationship, I would have taken the novel and everything in it very personally, and every single sentence would have been imbued with massive amounts of profundity. And it would have devastated me. (If you’ve ever been in a severely physical and emotionally abusive relationship, you probably understand the kinds of cognitive dissonance and mindfucks you experience in them.)

But Tomáš is not my asshole. Nor is he simply an asshole, or Tereza simply a martyr or a fool. If there is anything that became clear by the novel’s end, it is that each character was weighed down by their own choices, by their own decisions. Any blame assigned must be self-directed, and everyone must assume responsibility for the paths their lives have taken. (Well, except for Karenin, who ends up bringing an adult-oriented Where the Red Fern Grows/The Yearling/Old Yeller experience to the table.)

One of my favorite parts of the novel were the many digressions into apparently barely related subjects, such as the Grand March of life, the meaning of kitsch, the etymology of “cemetery.” I can see how such passages would be irritating for someone who prefers a plot-driven novel, but this simply is not that kind of narrative. It’s insightful, and thought-provoking, something to be quietly contemplated.

Read also: Nana by Emile Zola, Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers

Cover: It’s Sabina’s grandfather’s bowler hat! Which I honestly didn’t see as such an important symbol for the novel, but whatever. It seems really crowded, by both the text and the limits fo the cover.

Tomas came to this conclusion: Making love with a woman and sleeping with a woman are two separate passions, not merely different but opposite. Love does not make itself felt in the desire for copulation (a desire that extends to an infinite number of women) but in the desire for shared sleep (a desire limited to one woman).

20 August – 29 October

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