The Unbearable Lightness of Being

May 7, 2007 at 3:14 pm 4 comments

I interrupt the Randolph Stow fest to bring you a little Milan Kundera. I read The Unbearable Lightness of Being last weekend, and found it very beautiful. The first time I tried to read it, I read the first hundred pages then gave it up in disgust. This was five years ago. The heartless promiscuity, combined with the detached treatment of the characters, and a particularly shocking image of the former, were enough to make me put it down. I won’t repeat that image here, it’s pretty revolting (though, as I now see, also quite amusing).

I tried again because it’s the favourite novel of many people I respect, and also because I have read and enjoyed some of his other novels. This time, I wasn’t surprised that so many people love it. I think it is partly the way it combines lightness and playfulness with an awareness of the darker sides of human nature, and its fragility. There is something lovely about its flawed, irresistible love story. The title refers to the fleeting nature of life in this world – its impermanence, its randomness, the way we build meaning into our lives by interpreting coincidence. Kundera asks: which is better, lightness or heaviness?

Set against the backdrop of the 1968 Russian invasion and occupation of Czechoslovakia, it focuses on ordinary people trying to go about their lives. It’s quite scathing about the Western tendency to make heroes of Czechs. What is beautiful about it is the way it combines philosophical detachment with real gentleness. The characters are constructions to explore and embody ideas – Kundera points this out and doesn’t pretend otherwise. But he is gentle with them. He shows how fragile and ridiculous it is to build a life on coincidence, but then he also shows how beautiful it is, and how it is practically impossible to do anything else.

I can’t quote you anything from it because Michael’s copy (which I read) is in Norway, and my copy (which I abandoned) is in Adelaide, and the usually wonderful Brotherton library here in Leeds inexplicably doesn’t have one. Which brings me to an aside: why is it almost impossible to study literature in translation in Australian and English universities?

But back to Kundera. I also recently read and enjoyed Ignorance, which is all about nostalgia for one’s language and ones homeland, and Slowness, which isn’t quite as successful. These two more recent novels were originally written in French while his earlier works were written in Czech. Three years ago I read Immortality, which I still love (and not just because I read it in the Museum Gardens in York in the sunshine with an icecream, and it had been recommended by my soon-to-be boyfriend, which gave it an urgent and beautiful aura). Immortality, set in Paris, is along the same lines as The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but is even more playful and exuberant. It meditates on (among other things) the immortality of gestures. Kundera is something special. I am glad to have discovered him.


Entry filed under: Milan Kundera.

The Bystander Asleep in a book

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Ariel  |  May 24, 2007 at 9:34 am

    I love Kundera, and was mildly obsessed with ‘Immortality’ some years ago. (Also loved ‘Unbearbale Lightness of Being’). His last two books didn’t quite appeal to me, though. I love the way that his books are intricate puzzles with layers of menaing that become apparent as you read. And yes, his characters are always a device for what he wants to say – but somehow it works. This post reminded me some of what I loved about the book, many years ago.

  • 2. Siew  |  May 25, 2007 at 9:01 am

    Hi there, I came upon your blog through Literary Acquisitionist’s site. I found this post particularly interesting because I’d posted semi-nonsensically about how books are made for certain times in our lives, etc. I wonder, could you comment on why you found you weren’t able to get into ‘Unbearable Lightness of Being’ 5 years ago?

    I read it a few years back myself, and I found the writing fluid and beautiful. Regretfully, I haven’t read any other Kundera works since then. It looks, from your post that I’m missing out, I will have to add him to my wishlist!

  • 3. meli  |  May 25, 2007 at 9:49 am

    Thanks for the comments! It’s always good to hear about other people who appreciate Kundera. Okay, five years ago… I was at the point of emerging from (or broadening) a certain religious outlook, but I wasn’t quite there yet. I also tried to read it when I was house-sitting and quite lonely, and it seemed heartless and detached (I also tried to read 100 years of Solitude at the time, which failed for similar reasons).

    Yes yes yes, read more! Immortality is still my favourite, and if you liked The Unbearable Lightness of Being, you’ll love it. I agree with Ariel that the recent ones aren’t as good, though I’ve heard good things about The Joke, an earlier one, and mean to have a go at that at some point.

  • 4. Siew  |  May 25, 2007 at 11:53 pm

    Interesting…I read it at a period when I was getting over a high school sweetheart; it seemed to click for some reason.

    Immortality it is!

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