100 Novels: The Unbearable Lightness of Being

1991. The year handwritten on the Contents page of my copy of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

I must have read the novel for the first time before entering grad school to learn about postmodernism and its ironic awareness that a work of fiction is exactly that — a work of imagined people and places bearing no resemblance to reality, built of language — and perhaps nothing more. As I think about it, I know for a fact I read the novel before I left for grad school.

I read the novel yearning for an erotic adventure with a woman to whom I will give the name Sabina as a tribute to one of fiction’s sexiest women, a fictional construct, indeed, of Kundera’s imagination, or rather the fictional construct of the “I” narrator, a writer, who narrates (can we really call a pronoun “who”?) the novel, perhaps a persona of Kundera himself. How can we know, however, given this “I” is a construct of language?

Anyway, real or not, who can forget the image of Sabina parading around in nothing but panties and her grandfather’s bowler hat? And so, inspired by the hopes of erotic adventure, I read the novel.

A little plot summary first (always, though, recall plot is a fictional construct): The novel is essentially about four couples — Tomas, a unrepentent womanizer; his wife, Tereza; Sabina, one of Tomas’ former mistresses; and Franz, Sabina’s lover — as they endure in various ways the Russian occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968 (the year of my birth; the Russians, in fact, rolled their tanks into Prague right around the day I was born). Sabina emigrates to Geneva, Switzerland where she meets Franz, who gets involved with left wing activism, and dies accidentally during a protest against the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia. Tomas and Tereza leave for Geneva themselves just after the Russian invasion, but return to their country once the occupation takes root. Both are harrassed by the secret police until they eventually seek refuge on a collective farm in the Czech countryside. The two eventually die in a car crash, though not before they discover they truly love each other.

Now, as you may recall (a thousand pardons for the long plot summary), I first decided to read the novel because I thought reading the novel would somehow lead to an erotic adventure, and who’s not for erotic adventures? But, as I read the novel, I discovered Kundera was delving into another of my interests — existentialism.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” writes Jane Smiley in an essay on this novel, “is openly a novel of ideas.”

And when I read this novel the first time, as my underlinings and marginalia indicate, I was almost exclusively interested in Kundera’s ideas over the story — the narrative, such as it is. At the time I was on a spiritual/intellectual hejira, obsessively trying to understand exactly what I believed, my head still reeling from my basic philosophy class a few years earlier.

 When I recently reread this novel as part of my 100-novels reading project, I was sometimes distracted by my underlinings and marginalia. They revealed something about my reading — in the past, I was looking for answers in novels to the great questions: The Unbearable Lightness of Being was supposed to teach me something about life, the universe and everything, as if the novel itself were a Zen master.

I wanted to make Kundera’s insights my own. I was drawn to his existential meditations on love and eros, his insights about life under a communist regime.

Now, however, I tried to sort out the story from the philosophy (some of which is dense), and then reconcile the ideas with the story — how did Kundera fit the characters into his themes, because clearly the characters serve the ideas more than the ideas serve them? It also seems clear from this reading Kundera was, indeed, much more interested in the ideas than the story, and this reading left me cold.

Even when Kundera is playful — when he’s the postmodernist novelist at once treating his characters as fictional constructs and involving the reader in a compelling narrative as if the characters are real — he comes off as humorless, as Jane Smiley observes in her essay.

 Which is revealing perhaps about the postmodernist sensibility. It is a sensibility that seems wrapped too snuggly in the coldness of ideas, too smug in its desire to deconstruct stories for the edification of its audience.

 In the last hundred pages or so, when Kundera lets the characters be people, when he stops for the most part jazzing around, the novel becomes moving — Tomas and Tereza, in a touching moment, for instance, are caring for their dog Karenin, and both realize they love each other. Kundera may be at his best, then, when he pursues character over ideas, or has the ideas serve the characters as they interact with the imagined world they live in.

 Of course, as Smiley writes, one problem with Kundera’s ideas or themes in this particular novel is that they’ve lost some of their currency, especially since the collapse of communism . “As the themes lose currency,” she writes, “the narrator’s authoritative tone comes to seem egotistical rather than insightful, and seems to prevail at the expense of his characters rahter than support them.”


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