Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

Memorial to victims of 1968 Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia, via

 Reviewed by Susanna Allred

Published: English translation, 1984

It's about: A quartet of European intellectuals attempt to understand the upheaval and oppression of Soviet-era Czechoslovakia through marriage and erotic encounters. Tomas, a brilliant surgeon, is also a dedicated womanizer, driven by a desire to find that which is unique and essential in his female conquests through sexual intercourse. His wife, Tereza, an amateur photographer and auto-didact is despairingly faithful to him. A consummate dualist, Tereza blames her body for failing to capture Tomas' marital fidelity and privately desires to cut her soul free from it, believing that the metaphysical amputation would also free her from sexual jealousy. Sabina, Tomas' mistress and a painter, has come to view betrayal as the guiding principle in her life. In order to establish her own autonomy, Sabina resolutely refuses to be loyal to any political principle, lover, or nation. By contrast, her Austrian lover Franz is a true idealist. He sees his love for Sabina as a gesture of solidarity with the repressed Czech people; in fact, he derives his entire sense of identity from making similar futile gestures that, in his imagination, are full of nobility.

I thought: The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a post-modern novel. As such, it plays unpredictably with structure and delights in peeling back the curtains that more traditional novels draw over real phenomena (such as marriage, infidelity, and sexual intercourse) in order to make their fictitious renderings more appealing. Kundera eschews a linear narrative in order to skip back and forth through time and switch points of view, often discussing the same event multiple times. For example, he describes Tereza gripping Tomas hand tightly on their first night together two different ways, first from Tomas' point of view, and then Tereza's.
He never spent the night with the others....That is why he was so surprised to wake up and find Tereza squeezing his hand tightly. Lying there looking at her, he could not quite understand what had happened. But as he ran through the previous few hours in his mind, he began to sense an aura of hitherto unknown happiness emanating from them. 
Tereza, who is eager for self-improvement, believes the urbane Tomas is a passport into a life softened by high culture and refined emotions, a step forward from her vulgar family.
Even at the age of eight she would fall asleep by pressing one hand into the other and making believe she was holding the hand of the man whom she loved, the man of her life. So if in her sleep she pressed Tomas' hand with such tenacity, we can understand why: she had been training for it since childhood.  
Neither Tomas nor Tereza view the event exactly the same way, though both allow it have a profound influence on the years that they will spend together as a married couple. Tomas comes to believe that love (as opposed to sexual desire) is wanting to sleep with another in the same bed, and being happy to do so. Love, essentially, is contented cohabitation, something quite separate from erotic fascination. For Tereza, love is an irrevocable, all-consuming destiny. While both feel and, at times, resent the difference in their personal erotic philosophies, neither can quite articulate it to the other.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a graceful, nuanced work. In spite of its thoroughly post-modern sensibility, it unifies its quartet's geographic and sensual wanderings by setting up and exploring paralleled thematic opposites. The "unbearable lightness" of the title refers to Sabina's refusal to be tied idealogically, romantically, or erotically to anything. Tomas shares her philosophy to some extent, while Tereza and Franz, who long for idealized love, prefer the heaviness of fidelity and well-defined purpose. This heaviness versus lightness is the central philosophical concern of the novel, and to some extent, the four characters who perform the bulk of the novels action are created to be representations of the tension between weight and lightness. Nevertheless, the characterization of all four remains vivid, touching, and life-like.

Verdict: Stick it on the shelf.or Rubbish Bin? Stick it on the shelf.

Reading Recommendations: Doctor Zhivago explores similar philosophical territory through similar political terrain.

Warnings: Fairly explicit sexual and scatological passages. If you avoid R-rated movies, this book isn't for you. 

What I'm reading next: Sagas of the Icelanders.