The unbearable lightness of being

The unbearable lightness of being / Milan Kundera. Originally published 1984.

“Behind all occupations and invasions lurks a more basic, pervasive evil and that the image of that evil was a parade of people marching by with raised fists and shouting identical syllables in unison”

The unbearable lightness of being is Kundera’s classic philosophical novel about the intertwined lives of several people during the period surrounding the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. It falls somewhere between Vonnegut and Camus, being more concerned with  philosophy and the characters and their relationships than with telling a story.

In fact, if it actually told a defined story with beginning, middle, and end it would kind of defeat the book’s philosophical premise.

Originally written in Czech and first published in French, I read it in English. For various reasons, it was published in English before it was published in Czech and I’ve never seen any significant criticisms of the translation.

“Plot” summary

As I mentioned above, there’s no plot as such. Tomáš is a doctor and habitual womanizer. Tereza is Tomáš’s wife, struggling with accepting her body and with her husband’s infidelity. Sabina is an artist and one of Tomáš’s regular lovers. Franz is a professor in an unhappy marriage who is in love with Sabina.

So how is it?

As I mentioned above, it’s one of my favorite books. The novel’s basic premise is that life occurs only once, and there are no do-overs. Kundera regularly uses the German phrase “Einmal ist Keinmal“, roughly meaning “once is nothing”.  The novel is an extended rumination on the idea that, as Sartre put it, humans are “condemned to be free”. Our lives are, in the grand scheme of things, totally irrelevent. We can choose to do whatever we want, but those choices are ultimately meaningless.

This makes the book sound way more depressing than it actually is. It’s not a sad book, even if it deals with potentially depressing concepts. It’s also a book that examines love and its significance to humans. At various points, characters realize that the reason they love the people they do is because of a long string of improbable coincidences that they attached significant meaning to. This ties in with the idea that life happens only once, as coincidence and significance become functionally indestinguishable.

Throughout the novel, Kundera contrasts “heaviness” and “lightness” in various ways, comparing how different philosophers have used the terms, the values placed on each quality, and the events of the novel. Kundera is totally up front about the philosophical significance of what is going on.*

It’s hard to describe how Kundera deals with these issues without becoming insufferably pessimistic, but he does. More than anything, it feels like a work of capital-A Art. That’s not to say it’s pretentious, which it isn’t, but that it feels significant in a way that’s hard to pin down. I hate to use the word “uplifting” but it really is an uplifting book. The unbearable lightness of being and The club Dumas are really my two go-to “fight back against existential angst” books.

*While I initially checked this book out of the library, I ended up buying a copy secondhand at the library’s booksale once I decided I wanted to own it. The copy I got was filled with marginalia, as the previous owner was TOTALLY CONVINCED that the book was an allegory about Eastern European politics. They remarked repeatedly how Sabina was obviously Poland, as her sexual relationships with men were symbolic of the “rape” of Poland by the Soviet Union.

Not only does this interpretation fly in the face of the fact that Kundera explicitly states what the book is about in the text itself, it also mischaracterizes Sabina’s relationships with men. Her liasons are entirely consensual, and she never expresses any negativity about the fact that her sexual relationships are entirely “no strings attached”. Sabina is a fascinating character and reducing her to a stand-in for Poland (and why Poland? The author is Czech, and the book deals heavily with the Prague Spring. Why would the biggest female character in the book symbolize Poland?) does her a grave disservice.

Strengths

Beautifully written

Strong characterization

Examines moral issues from a nonjudgmental perspective

Weaknesses

It’s not a plot-driven novel

The fact that it’s approximately an even split between narrative and philosophical ruminations might not be fun for some readers

Occasionally subscribes to an overly patriarchal view of male-female relationships

Recommendation

It’s a must-read for fans of Literary Fiction(tm). Fans of Camus, Vonnegut, and other writers of “philosophical novels” should like this one as well. It’s such a classic that most of the people I’d recommend it to have already read it. Occasionally I would (back in my “public services at a public library” days) recommended it to humanities undergrads, who generally enjoyed it.

It’s in no way sf/fantasy, so don’t read it if you’re opposed to “regular” fiction. I’d recommend giving it a chance regardless, but as a librarian I wouldn’t say “hey you should read this” unless I knew the patron really well.

Cross-recommendations:
The fall / Albert Camus
Breakfast of champions / Kurt Vonnegut
Mother, come home / Paul Hornschemeier (Fair warning: be prepared to cry)

 

As an aside, for somebody who reads far more sf/fantasy than any other genre, I find it interesting that my favorite books tend to fall outside that genre.

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