There is probably one novel that is the most responsible for the direction of my post-graduation European backpacking trip ten years ago which landed me in Prague for two solid weeks. Shortly before my friend Chad and I departed, he mailed me a letter and directed me to get my hands on a copy of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Just read it, he wrote. Whatever else you do, just read this book. It is about everything in the world.
Being already a Kafka fan of some long-standing, I was quite open to another absurdly minded Czech telling the story of his city and by extension the rest of the world. The title itself was familiar, though not the author’s name, and I rather innocently mistook Kundera for a woman at first glance at the cover.
Suffice to say, Kundera had me at the very first paragraph. Has any other modern novel had such a wonderfully philosophical opening than this one?
The idea of eternal return is a mysterious one, and Nietzsche has often perplexed other philosophers with it: to think that everything recurs as we once experienced it, and that the recurrence itself recurs ad infinitum! What does this mad myth signify?
In two sentences, the very first two, Kundera not only manages to break several writing rules of style (an exclamation mark, followed by a direct address to the reader being the most obvious), but he also succinctly sums up one of the most challenging philosophical concepts, yet is wise enough to address it on its own terms: as a “mad myth.”
From the earliest possible chance, the author is telling us that he is indeed an intellectual, that he writes energetically, playfully, and that serious Ideas with the full timbre basso profundo tolling out that capital “I” are the very pith and marrow of novels and are not to be stuffed, labeled, and set up high on a shelf reserved for great thoughts too refined and delicate to mingle among the common rabble of characters and dialogue and action.
Needless to say, this is a heady mix, the kind of thing to go straight to a recent college graduate with literature and philosophy on the brain. And we haven’t even touched on the sex yet. Kundera’s books are rife with sex, sex is the other engine driving this dually powered writer, sex both passionate and routine, sex filled up with deep emotional meaning and sex stripped down to its tangible physicality, sex as recurring motif in one’s life illuminating greater insights into one’s personality and sex as secret door into the aesthetics of our time.
To write, as some have, that the book is primarily about erotic encounters is as much as to say that Beethoven was a guy who played piano. Instead it is a book about tyranny, the large and the small, the ones we endure and the ones we resist, the ones we submit to for love and the ones that always rankle silently. The tyranny of kitsch, as understood by the novel, kitsch to mean a subjective, sentimental folding screen that hides away the sight of death. The questions that the book seeks to explore circle around the ideas of polar opposites, truth and lies, love and hate (or indifference), freedom and slavery, heaviness and lightness.
The Kundera style is a very delightful bit and piecework manner. We focus on one character, that character’s perceptions, that character’s perspectives, in little miniatures, some essay-like, that elaborate on the character’s psychology or history. Then we shift to another character and learn new things about that person, sometimes touching on the same pieces we’ve seen already. It’s like Rashomon but more expansive, drawing circles around lives and eras instead of merely one night’s events.
Part of what Kundera does is move the story along through first one person, then go back in time and retell only some of that story focused on a second person and demonstrate how our best attempts at comprehending each other remains woefully inadequate. There will always be layers fathoms below our drilling. Yet at the same time, Kundera moves the story forward, stops, switches character again and in this third instance either goes back to person number one or switches to person number three and repeats the process, and repeats again. What emerges is rather like conflicting court testimony, multiple moving parts simultaneously illuminating their own motivations and obscuring others’.
If there is a weakness to all of this it is that Kundera’s novels sometimes develop the quality of theoretical exercises between characters embodying certain philosophical conceits. While the author may touch the mind and the libido, the heart often remains chilly. There is a sense of artificiality when you stare too longly at the book’s constructs, as though the author were merely embodying an essay with puppets for illustrative purposes. Though what precisely does lie behind our disagreements and disconnections from others than differing mental states? We fall out of love with someone not because of the size of her bottom or his new haircut, but because our lives shift in differing directions and we can no longer think in the same cohesive manner with the other person. Our ideas become different. What are our wants but our ideas given concrete form and targets?
“Metaphors are dangerous,” the author writes more than once throughout the novel. “Metaphors are not be trifled with. A single metaphor can give birth to love.” So thinks the novel’s “hero” Tomas, the epic womanizer, as he reflects on how he came to love Tereza who is soon his wife. This couple, a marriage dancing around secrets and each of the partner’s inability to communicate finally the truth about who they are to their spouse, is used for comparison and contrast with Franz, a middle aged married professor in Switzerland who is in love with one of Tomas’ exiled Czech mistresses, the artist Sabine. Their stories are told against the backdrop of the Russian invasion and subjugation of Czechoslovakia during the Cold War.
Kundera twines their two stories together examining how love can either lift us up to heights of ecstasy or weigh us down with its solidity and unchangeable reality — then poses the surprising question: which condition should we view as the negative in binary opposition? Is it the uncentered lack of gravity that makes love real and powerful or does that quality make us too airy and flighty, unserious when we most need it? Or rather can it be love’s grounding quality that allows us to feel with stability the other’s existence — or does that weight merely pin us down, smother us with its heft? Can it be both? Can it be that when couples part it is because what is lighter than a breeze for one has become a leaden drag on the other?
This is push and pull of ideas and language and sentiments is beautifully illustrated in the novel’s third part, titled “Words Misunderstood,” in which Kundera examines how Sabina and Franz’s inability to understand the terms the other uses leads to their separation. This is done through a sort of anecdotal dictionary that allows each character to demonstrate their grasp of an idea. The shortest bluntly captures some of the magic of this portion:
Cemeteries in Bohemia are like gardens. The graves are covered with grass and colorful flowers. Modest tombstones are lost in the greenery. When the sun goes down, the cemetery sparkles with tiny candles. It looks as though the dead are dancing at a children’s ball. Yes, a children’s ball, because the dead are as innocent as children. No matter how brutal life becomes, peace always reigns in the cemetery. Even in wartime, in Hitler’s time, in Stalin’s time, through all occupations. When she felt low, [Sabina] would get into the car, leave Prague far behind, and walk through one or another of the country cemeteries she loved so well. Against a backdrop of blue hills, they were as beautiful as a lullaby.
For Franz a cemetery was an ugly dump of stones and bones.
And this too is part of the novel’s recurring genius. At every stage, there is an elegiac note to happiness as though all these dances have been gone through before, as though all love affairs, even should Nietzsche be wrong, carry within them the seeds of their own endings. Franz and Sabina’s inability to even understand each other on very basic levels dooms their romance from the beginning. Their tragedy is commonplace and follows a pattern as though ritualized.
Tereza and Tomas’ marriage we see is held together only by each other’s willingness to commit to it and to some third greater thing than either of themselves, though what that third thing is neither of them understand. For each of them separately, it is a kind of death to be together and a kind of death to be apart, and together their momentary happinesses are a kind of staving off of this specter.
Kundera nicely ends The Unbearable Lightness of Being, foreshadowing what happens later after the closing scenes, which gives the novel a sadly sweet tone instead of merely tragic. Instead of simply ending with death, as a kind of negation, the book closes with sleep, part of the circling motif, the cycle we go through, our lives one passing hoop.
After my initial reading of the novel, I found myself rereading it immediately, going through all of it again, underlining passages, committing certain ones to memory. Over the years, I have returned again and again to this novel, more than many others, much more than Kundera’s other novels despite my having read them repeatedly as well. To return to Kundera’s world is like reliving your best relationships (and maybe your worst ones as well), but reliving them as though you had been smarter, wiser, deeper at the time than you really were. It is a kind of exorcism and a kind of nostalgia and it is a beautiful example of writing that matters, beyond all else, writing that matters.