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Fiction

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

Kundera’s novel of love and politics is set in communist-run Czechoslovakia between 1968 and the early 1980s. Tereza and Tomas, Tomas and Sabina, Sabina and Franz — four people, four relationships. The others are Tomas, a skilled surgeon who falls foul of the Czech regime and ends up as a window-washer; his wife Tereza, a barmaid who takes rolls of photographs of events in the streets of Prague during the 1968 Russian invasion, only to realise later that she has unwittingly served the secret police by supplying them with photographic identification of dissidents; Sabina is one of the quartet of main characters who perform the intricate set of variations, is a painter, and is Tomas long-time lover. The signature bow hat and black lingerie is Sabina’s; and the lecturer Franz, who takes part in a radical-chic protest against the Khmer Rouge, married and loves Sabina truly without reciprocal love from Sabina.

Milan Kundera’s masterful novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), tells the interlocking stories of these four relationships, with a primary focus on Tomas, a man torn between his love for Tereza, his wife, and his incorrigible “erotic adventures,” particularly his long-time affair with his painter lover, Sabina. The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a story of irreconcilable love and infidelities and offers a wide range of brilliant and amusing philosophical speculations, which made this book contains some of the most quotable quotes. It is an unusual mix of love story, eroticism, politics and philosophical musing, that I read this book without knowing what to expect but was pleasantly at awe at what is achieves. First published in 1984, Kundera’s novel encompasses the extremes of comedy and tragedy and was at once hailed as contemporary classic.

Coping with both the consequences of their own actions and desires and the intruding demands of society and the state, Kundera’s characters struggle to construct lives of individual value and lasting meaning. I didn’t warm up to Tomas, a maniacally dedicated womaniser, Tereza realises he is betraying her when she identifies the odd odour she has been detecting on his hair in bed every night as the smell of his many mistresses’ groins (he washes his body and bother not with his hair!).

Oedipus myth is mentioned again in this book. One day it occurs to Tomas that those old communists who acknowledge there will be no socialist heaven on Earth, but defend their former actions by insisting they did genuinely believe such an apotheosis to be possible, should by rights follow the example of Oedipus, who, although innocent of crime, nevertheless put out his eyes when he discovered what misfortunes he had unwittingly brought about. When this thesis is published in the letters column of a radical Prague newspaper, Tomas is forced out of his job and has to take up general practice in a provincial town; however, it is the nature of totalitarian regimes never to forget, and eventually he is driven out of medicine altogether and takes up window cleaning instead, which he finds surprisingly congenial, not only because of the sudden “lightness” of his new life, but because the job offers endless opportunities for philandering and womanizing.

Some of my favourite quote: 

If eternal return is the heaviest of burdens, then our lives can stand out against it in all their splendid lightness. 

But is heaviness truly deplorable and lightness splendid? 

The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the group. But in love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man’s body. The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life’s most intense fulfilment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the 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 significance and argument of weight and lightness remains central to the entire story.

  • To take pity on a woman’ means that we are better off than she, that we stoop to her level, lower ourselves. That is why the word ‘compassion’ generally inspires suspicion; it designates what is considered an inferior, second-rate sentiment that has little to do with love. To love someone out of compassion means not really to love.
  • Love meant the constant expectation of a blow.
  • The first betrayal is irreparable. It calls forth a chain reaction of further betrayals, each of which takes us farther and farther away from the point of our original betrayal.
  • What is flirtation? One might say that it is behaviour leading another to believe that sexual intimacy is possible, while preventing that possibility from becoming a certainty. In other words, flirting is a promise of sexual intercourse without a guarantee.
  • Men who pursue a multitude of women fit neatly into two categories. Some seek their own subjective and unchanging dream of a woman in all women. Others are prompted by a desire to possess the endless variety of the objective female world.
  • Missions are stupid, Thereza. I have no mission. No one has. And it’s a terrific relief to realise you’re free, free of all missions. – Tomas

Kundera explore “the irreconcilable duality of body and soul, that is fundamental human experience.” and also about fortuitous events and chance that brought people together “Chance and chance alone has a message for us” and operate –“On the surface, an intelligible lie; underneath, the unintelligible truth”. Many more great insights from where that came from. 

Rating: 4.5/5

It is a novel of ideas, a provocative look at the ways in which history impinges on individual lives, it is a book that forces one to reflect and think about our relationship. It doesn’t have a chronological plot as it hopped from the past to the future, but you will soon understand the entire sequence of what’s happening at the end. A lot of aberration from Kundera about what a word means in his own interpretation and I welcomed it eagerly. I saw snippets of the movie in Youtube.com and surprised to find Daniel Day-Lewis as Tomas, and an unknown to me Juliette Binoche (as you may expect the movie contains a lot of sex scenes). There are some bits and bobs of the books which I think may be out-of-my-depth to comprehend it, it is a book you should read at different point of your life I guess. I think the book is better than the film, it is an examination of relationships amidst the turmoil of living in the era of iron curtain, an unusual novel much talked about after 26 years, this is a classic beyond a doubt and so I understand why. 

First line: 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? 

Last line: The strains of the piano and violin rose up weakly from below.

I am reading this for A to Z challenge, K for Kundera and Classics Challenge.

Hardback. Publisher: Faber & Faber 1984, 2004; Length: 305 pages; Setting: 1968 Prague. Source: Library. Finished reading at:  2 July 2010

About the writer:

Milan Kundera; born April 1, 1929, in Brno, Czechoslovakia) is a writer of Czech origin who has lived in exile in France since 1975, where he became a naturalized citizen in 1981. He is best known as the author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, and The Joke.

Kundera has written in both Czech and French. He revises the French translations of all his books; these therefore are not considered translations but original works. His books were banned by the Communist regimes of Czechoslovakia until the downfall of the regime in the Velvet Revolution in 1989.

In 1985, Kundera received the Jerusalem Prize. His acceptance address is printed in his essay collection The Art of the Novel. He has also been mentioned as a contender for the Nobel Prize for literature. He won The Austrian State Prize for European Literature in 1987. In 2000, he was awarded the international Herder Prize. In 2007, he was awarded the Czech State Literature Prize

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About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books.

Discussion

15 thoughts on “The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

  1. You know, I had to read this in school, and had until then never resented a book this much! But this edition looks very pretty, and most people seem to like the book :D

    Posted by Bina | July 19, 2010, 10:19 am
    • @Bina, how old were you when you had to read this in school? I suppose it takes one to have a few grey hairs to appreciate this one? like me. LOL… :D

      Posted by JoV | July 19, 2010, 4:55 pm
      • Haha, I think I was 18 or 19. I just hated it, especially the weird dream of the female character at the beginning somewhere! Not sure I´ll ever be brave enough to pick it up again :)

        Posted by Bina | July 20, 2010, 8:25 am
  2. I read this last year and really enjoyed it. Sadly, I didn’t blog about reading it, so I can’t really remember any of my thoughts on the novel. This leads to me leaving a really crap comment!!

    Posted by sherby57 | August 7, 2010, 9:07 am
  3. Oh I’ve been interested about this novel for a long time and now I think it’s finally time to pick it up! I have heard that Kundera’s works are very philosophical, and while I have this inkling that I won’t agree with some of his book’s philosophies, I have little doubt that I’ll enjoy these “masterful” novels :)

    THanks JoV!

    Posted by Mark David | August 8, 2010, 4:02 am
  4. Not always flirtation means ‘leading people on’. Human beings are flirtatious by nature, some more, some less.

    I did like your analysis of a book I’ve read more times than I care to remember. The first time in my mother tongue, Spanish, the second time in French and I had to wait until I relocated to the UK to read it in English. By the way, in both Spanish and French the title translates as ‘The Unbearable Lightness of the Being’, not ‘Of Being’. Go figure! :-) It gives the novel a whole new meaning.

    Greetings from London.

    Posted by A Cuban In London | November 8, 2010, 4:22 pm
    • Thanks for dropping by Cuban in London. Greetings from Near London too, I live in a place call “Reading”. It always amazes me how things can lost in translation, big things and little things! ;)

      Posted by JoV | November 9, 2010, 12:45 pm

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Pingback: Milan Kundera: Identity « Bibliojunkie - September 20, 2010

  2. Pingback: Classic Reading Challenge : Wrap-up post « Bibliojunkie - October 29, 2010

  3. Pingback: Bookie Mee | The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera - November 13, 2010

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

Books Read

JoV's bookshelf: read
Hold Tight
The Fault in Our Stars
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Thief
Mockingjay
Catching Fire
A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City


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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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