Posts filed under ‘Milan Kundera’

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

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.

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May 7, 2007 at 3:14 pm 4 comments


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