Book review – “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” by Milan Kundera

This was my choice for September in my Facebook Reading Challenge, the theme of which was a novel by an Eastern European writer. The Unbearable Lightness of Being is considered a classic in that particular category; it was first published in 1984, in French translation, and not in the original Czech until 1985, but outside the then Soviet controlled Czechoslovakia. This was for political reasons as the novel is set against the background of the so-called ‘Prague Spring’ of 1968, when the Soviet Army occupied the country.

The main protagonists are Tomáš, a surgeon, his wife Tereza, and their dog Karenin. Other characters are Sabina, an artist, and Tomáš’s lover (one of them!), and Sabina’s lover Franz. Tomáš is a womaniser, I’d even go so far as to say a sex addict, whom I did not warm to. Despite his genuine love for Tereza, he is serially unfaithful. After he is relieved of his post as a surgeon, after getting into difficulties with the government about a critical letter he wrote that was published in a newspaper, he is employed as a window-cleaner, and seems to spend his work days having sex with his clients. Tereza is aware of his infidelities, but tolerates them, for reasons that are not quite apparent – yes, she loves him, but it seems mainly to be fear and vulnerability that keep her with him. I did not warm to Tereza either; she is a damaged person, body-dysmorphic, which seems to have been caused by her challenging relationship with her mother. Tereza is a talented photographer, but she never manages to exploit her abilities, working instead in a series of dead-end jobs. Tereza is perpetually sad, quite a depressing character.

Sabina and Franz are more marginal characters and I struggled to fully understand their relevance; Sabina, an artist, is Tomáš’s lover when he begins his relationship with Tereza. She represents cheer, lightness and ease when Tomáš is concerned that Tereza is going to tie him down. Sabina is his way of convincing himself that he is still free to pursue his erotic interests. Later, in Geneva, Sabina becomes the mistress of an academic, Franz, who leaves his wife for her, although a permanent domestic life with him was not really what she was seeking so they part and he settles down with one of his students.

This is a clever book and the political backdrop interested me. The philosophy did not, however, and so I found it difficult to get into. I did not enjoy Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World when I read it in the early 1990s, for much the same reason. In Sophie’s World, the story is almost entirely subjugated to the history of philosophy, which I’m afraid rather bored me. That is less the case here in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, where there is just about a story to hang onto, but still, for me, it was not enough. I am a lover of literature, a lifelong student of it, but I am also a lover of a good story and this one just did not do it for me.

It has an interesting narrative voice; the author is self-consciously present and takes the reader on philosophical digressions, commenting on his characters’ actions as we go along. Essentially, the author’s position is in opposition to Nietzsche’s concept of ‘eternal recurrence’ – that all events that have ever happened are repeated endlessly. This means everything we do has huge eternal significance. What Kundera is exploring here is the very opposite, that each event occurs once only, making all events and choices essentially without great import, thus ‘light’. He therefore reflects throughout on the extent to which the character’s are experiencing ‘lightness’ in their lives or not.

It’s okay not to like a ‘classic’ isn’t it? Life is pretty hectic at the moment and grounded in much more prosaic matters, namely, finally, the (fingers-crossed) sale of my late mother’s house, the winding-up of her affairs and interment of her ashes. Bogged down with all this earthly detail I was probably not in the best frame of mind to ponder big issues of philosophy! I also found myself reading it in shortish bursts, which is never how I best enjoy a book.

So, all in all, not a great read for me.

I’d love to hear anyone else’s thoughts on this book.