The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera [A Review]

The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a thoroughly philosophical and political novel. But if that makes it sound unappealing, there is the humanising story it contains that may still win you over.

One day Tomas, a single divorcee and surgeon living in Prague, meets Tereza, a waitress from a small Czech town. She comes back to his flat with him and they make love. Then, she comes down with the flu and ends up staying a week in Tomas’ flat before going home. She soon returns to Prague, with a copy of Anna Karenina, possibly to find a job and moves in with Tomas.

Tomas was married for two years and had a son. After the divorce, in order to continue seeing his son, he had to bribe his ex-wife. He comes to the conclusion that it is not worth it. His parents, outraged, disown him and Tomas finds himself without any family, or family obligations, at all. The divorce was now ten years ago and ever since he has been living as a promiscuous bachelor. Yet, now, with no plan or effort on his part, he finds himself with a live-in girlfriend. The situation makes him pensive and unsure what to do. Is he in love? How can he know? What does he want?

He remained annoyed with himself until he realised that not knowing what he wanted was actually quite natural.

We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come.

Tomas devises a system that will let him have his cake and eat it too. Not wanting to change his lifestyle, he asks one of his other lovers, Sabina, to get Tereza a job while he gets Tereza her own apartment. As Tomas and Tereza spend more time together, she becomes aware that she is not in a monogamous relationship, a fact that Tomas initially denies before confessing, rationalising and justifying.

But as this country girl begins to establish herself in the city, making her own friends, developing her own career; Tomas unexpectedly finds himself experiencing feelings of jealousy and possessiveness. As the years pass, Tomas continues to see other women even though he now finds it distasteful. The exception is Sabina with whom he still feels comfortable, but she is not one to let him take her for granted. Tereza, meanwhile, is tormented by nightmares, inspired by subconscious jealousy for the other women in Tomas’ life, anxiety over rejection, of growing old and unwanted.

Their lives are upended, however, when the Prague Spring of 1968 is ended by Russian tanks rolling in.

It is impossible to escape the fact that The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a philosophical novel; that Kundera is using the form of the novel to explore certain philosophical ideas. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, therefore, belongs in the company of Eliot’s Middlemarch, Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment or Voltaire’s Candide to name a few.

More specifically, the novel examines whether life has ‘weight’ and, if it does, is it real or is it a subjective feeling? Some of the characters, like Tomas, seem to live, or at least strive to live, a light life of pleasure and few responsibilities. Such a life, though, lacks meaning. Others, like Terza, are searching to add meaning to their lives through purpose and ambition. But such drive adds weight to their lives. In addition, they seem to burden themselves further with the weight of expectations, the oppression of social conformity, which may only exist in their own minds but ultimately restrains them and makes them incapable of being happy.

The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life’s most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to earth, the more real and truthful they become.

Conversely, the absolute absence of a burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into the heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant.

What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?

The story of The Unbearable Lightness of Being seems to be a vehicle for Kundera to refute ideas of the heaviness of life by Nietzsche, who in turn was arguing against ideas of earlier philosophers such as Parmenides. I don’t feel adequately equipped to delve into the philosophical message of the novel to any greater extent than I have already done here but I don’t think a reader needs to necessarily feel intimidated or disinterested by foreknowledge of the novel’s philosophical themes. There is much else to the story for the reader to enjoy and ponder.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being has an interesting structure. The introduction to the novel I give above is mostly from the first part. Part 2 tells Tereza’s story, beginning long before she meets Tomas. Tereza is an intelligent and ambitious young woman but her circumstances – growing up with a mother whose choices she can’t respect or admire, in a small town with few opportunities – leave her unfulfilled. She is drawn to Tomas because, when she first sees him, he is reading a book; therefore belonging to that subculture of readers. As the story continues, we revisit the events from Part 1 from her perspective. This revisiting via an alternative perspective was one of the things I enjoyed most in the novel. That and the often pretty writing.

I found the conflict between Tereza and her mother interesting too. Unlike Tereza, her mother lacks modesty and boundaries – is nude around the house, farts amongst company and openly discusses her sex life. Tereza rebels against this but one suspects it is not just out of embarrassment, but because she has her own issues of confidence and self-worth. Here, there is also the issue of female body image; a small but recurring theme in the book. In other words, Tereza’s mother is another person enjoying a ‘light’ life with few worries while Tereza burdens herself with life’s ‘weight’.

She knew that she had become a burden to him: she took things too seriously, turning everything into a tragedy, and failed to grasp the lightness and amusing insignificance of physical love. How she wished she could learn lightness! She yearned for someone to help her out of her anachronistic shell.

The structural experimentation continues. At one point the narrative is suspended while Kundera provides a ‘short dictionary of misunderstood words’. Elsewhere, Kundera employs explicit metafiction as he reminds the reader that they are reading a fiction.

It would be senseless for the author to ty to convince the reader that his characters once actually lived. They were not born of a mother’s womb; they were born of a stimulating phrase or two from a basic situation. Tomas was born of the saying ‘Einmal ist keinmal’ [Once is never]. Tereza was born of the rumbling of a stomach.

If the philosophical underpinnings of the novel feel a little impenetrable, you can still see the book as having much to say about personal relationships. In the relationships between characters the reader witnesses dynamics that will be familiar though told in a different way and in different circumstances. Those dynamics include feelings of jealousy and possessiveness, both hypocritical and justified; the nature of flirtation; failures of communication and their consequences; contrasts of loving support and anxious dependency, of fidelity and betrayal. Kundera frequently provides commentary on interpersonal behaviour and its interpretations.

Is the novel also about events in Czechoslovakia of this period? About life under communism, the Prague Spring movement, the Russian Invasion and life for Czechs in exile? Early in the novel I would have said no. Later in the novel I still would have said the book is not really about these events but that the changing circumstances do have the effect of revealing aspects of each character’s nature in their differing reactions to them. Character’s feelings of their country’s humiliation and its betrayal mirror emotions in their own lives, for instance. It takes a while, but in the end the setting and period does come to life and does have a role. But I hesitate to call The Unbearable Lightness of Being an overtly political or historical novel, if only because, like much else, you come away feeling it deals with it lightly. Like the philosophical aspects of the novel, I can’t really say much more about the role of the historical events in the novel without a better understanding of them.

Even alongside the philosophical, personal relationship and political aspects of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, there is much else examined in this relatively short book. To give an example – art under communism and Kundera’s thoughts on kitsch, told with the aid of Sabina, who is an artist, and Tereza, who becomes a photographer, give the reader even more to ponder. Like Nietzsche, Beethoven’s ideas are referred to in the novel. Theology also makes a late appearance in the novel. The treatment of animals, and our relationships and attachment to them, is also an aspect that gets small but powerful treatment.

My main criticism of The Unbearable Lightness of Being is in regard to its storytelling aspect. For all its pretty language and cleverness; its philosophical examination and structural invention; the empathy is draws from the psychology and humanity of its characters; I still wanted more of a story. I did not feel there was much driving me onward towards an ending and I have to admit I found the last fifth or so of the book a bit boring.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being was first published in English in 1984 and became a bestseller. I was far too young to feel its impact first hand but, judging by its cultural references, it seems to have become a byword for something easy to access but difficult to penetrate. Which more or less summarises my experience with it as well.

“I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but I’m certainly not the dumbest. I mean, I’ve read books like “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” and “Love in the Time of Cholera”, and I think I’ve understood them. They’re about girls, right? Just kidding.”

From High Fidelity by Nick Hornby

2 comments

  1. Good review – I think you covered the main themes concisely.

    The unbearable lightness of being meets my criteria of a great book which is that it has something to say about life generally and therefore allows the reader to learn something about themselves; the book is a good teacher as all great books are.
    My big takeaway was the idea of a spectrum of weight and lightness. Some people occupy the weight side of the spectrum and others the lightness side. It isn’t that one is better than the other but it is important to know where you are on the spectrum and where others might be. For me this can provide insights into the course your life will take, why you make the choices you do and so on.

    For me I am firmly on the weight side. Lightness seems very appealing but it just isn’t in me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It certainly belongs in that genre of ‘philosophical novels’ and leaves a lot for the reader to think about long after finishing reading it. I’ve only scratched the surface. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

      Like

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