Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Milan Kundera)

My Quest for Good Literature continues. How exciting. I was wary about The Unbearable Lightness of Being, because a lot of the positive reviews have said things along the lines of "this book changed my life/my outlook on life/my perspective on the universe" and so on.
I am not a fan of people saying things like this. The concept of art changing someone's life sort of frightens me: why isn't your life more stable? Why are you so easily manipulated? I am all for books providing a new understanding or a different way of looking at something, because good art can sometimes achieve this. Maybe it's just the phrasing of this concept that bothers me. I don't know. Regardless, I was concerned that I would hate this book because it's too "life-changing" for me to appreciate (like The Alchemist).

Milan Kundera's book is about Sabina, an artist/mistress, her lover Franz, another lover Tomas and Tomas' wife, Tereza, before, during and after the Prague Spring. Tomas is a man who loves to sleep around (at one point in the novel, he claims to have slept with over 200 women), and after his disastrous first marriage, he develops a serious fear of commitment, vowing to never sleep in bed with anyone next to him ever again. Unfortunately, one of his "conquests", a waitress named Tereza, feels unwell and ends up staying the night sleeping next to Tomas. When he wakes up, she is still sleeping, his hand firmly enlaced with her own.

And here is where the book, in my opinion, does not work. The reason that this book is so "life-changing" is because of all of the philosophy that Kundera (over)stuffs the book with. Every time something happens, every time a character dreams something, every time something symbolizes something, the author/narrator (it's unclear if the first-person narrator is the author) jumps in to give a few paragraphs (or even pages) of philosophical explanation. In the case of the enlaced hands, we get a musing on how this is symbolic of Tomas' greatest fear, commitment, along with an explanation of why it represents commitment. I found these ramblings (although that isn't the right word, as they're more purposeful than ramblings) occasionally insulting, because I felt like I should have been able to pick up on the secondary meaning on my own (and I almost always did). There is a lot of philosophy about "lightness of being", which is without a doubt an interesting concept. However, I got tired of it by the end of the book because of how often it was explained and represented over and over again in various dreams and symbols and events of the characters' lives.

But back to the plot. Tomas marries Tereza and then continues to see all of his mistresses (including Sabina), and the marriage between the two is generally unhappy (one of the main points of the book focuses on love vs. sex and in Tomas' life we see both). They move away from the Czech Republic, back to the Czech Republic, get in trouble with the government, move to the countryside and eventually die when they are crushed (by something heavy, because heaviness and lightness are important). Sabina, one of Tomas' lovers, eventually meets Franz and leaves him just as he plans to leave his wife for her. She goes to America to paint freely without censorship (which leads to a terribly overwrought discussion about "kitsch"). Franz winds up with a young student and marches in protest in Vietnam and ends up paralyzed and dead in the arms of his original wife.

Kundera does a great job of portraying his characters. They are perfectly flawed, and it can be frustrating to watch them screw up again and again, but in the end it is so satisfying because they are exactly like real people. As a historical novel, too, this is wonderful, because Kundera's overexplanation comes in handy when he's providing background information about life in the Czech Republic during Soviet times, making readers genuinely understand the sort of fear and oppression that a Communist regime imposed upon its people.

The philosophical tangents were for me the only bad part of the book, but did not overpower those things about the novel that made it great: the historical representation and the engaging character development. While I'm not sure if I will ever read another Kundera novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being is certainly interesting enough to recommend to anyone brave enough to try it.

My rating: 4/5
The Unbearable Lightness of Being on Goodreads
See what I've been reading lately!

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