The Unbearable Lightness of Being

In which I review The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera’s celebrated 1984 novel about a philandering doctor, his unhappy wife and free-spirited mistress, set against the 1968 Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia.

What it’s about: Prague, Czechoslovakia, the 1960s. The Narrator ponders the theory of eternal return, which Nietzsche called “the heaviest of burdens“, since a world in which life recurs indefinitely would “unbearable responsibility” on our actions. By contrast, lives which occur once carry a “splendid lightness“. Conversely, heavy burdens can represent “life’s most intense fulfilment” whereas the absence of burdens makes life “insignificant“. Which is best, the Narrator asks: lightness or weight?

The Narrator moves to the story of Tomas, a handsome young surgeon who travels to a small spa town to perform an operation and meets a naive young woman named Tereza. Tomas flirtatiously invites her to visit him in Prague. They become lovers, even sleeping together at night, something Tomas has previously avoided with other women. After several years they marry, though he continues to see other women, including his favourite mistress Sabina, a fiercely independent artist. Tereza becomes extremely distressed at Tomas’ serial infidelity, and experiences violent dreams in which he tortures or kills her. Tomas feels compassion for Tereza’s suffering but believes himself incapable of fidelity, and therefore unable to stop causing her pain.

After the Russian invasion of Prague in 1968, Tereza suddenly becomes energised, taking photos of the riots and arranging for them to be published overseas. Later, she regrets this when she realises her photos have been used by the Soviets to identify dissidents. Tomas and Tereza move to Zürich, though Tomas continues seeing Sabina who has moved to Geneva. After a few months, Tereza returns to Zurich, leaving Tomas a note saying she lacks the strength to live abroad and needs to return to “the country of the weak“. Initially elated at his new “lightness of being”, Tomas realises he misses Tereza and decides to return to Prague. He surrenders his passport at the border, knowing he is now permanently “weighted” to life with Tereza.

Sabina starts an affair with a married man named Franz, and accompanies him on lecture tours to European cities and New York. Franz imagines that he is in love, but their radically different world views lead them to misread each other’s intentions. Franz eventually leaves his wife and announces to Sabina that he is free. Horrified by the “weight” of Franz’s expectations and the public exposure of their relationship, Sabina vacates her apartment and moves quietly to Paris, covering her whereabouts so Franz cannot find her. Franz eventually falls in love with one of his students, but continues to fantasise about Sabina as his ideal lost love.

Back in Prague, Tomas writes a satirical piece for a left-wing political magazine, criticising Communist Party officials who colluded with the Russians, comparing them unfavourably with King Oedipus who plucked out his eyes in recognition of his crimes. His employers beg him to write a retraction, but Tomas refuses, and loses his job. Government officials try to persuade him to sign another retraction, and later suggest that he was misled by the magazine’s editor. Tomas refuses to comply, and is banned from practising medicine. He finds work as a window cleaner, allowing him more opportunity to have affairs with women. He is approached by a group of intellectual dissidents, including his adult son, who encourage him to sign a petition demanding democratic freedoms. Concerned that this will put Tereza under further surveillance, he refuses. Tereza suggests that they move to the country to work on a collective farm. Tomas reluctantly agrees, knowing this will bring an end to his erotic encounters.

The Narrator discusses the prevalence of kitsch in totalitarian regimes, and Sabina’s aversion to kitsch as a free-thinking woman. We learn that Sabina has moved to America and been informally adopted by an old man and his wife. She receives a letter from Tomas’ son informing her that Tomas and Tereza were killed in a car accident after returning from a provincial hotel where they spent the night. Meanwhile, Franz travels to to the Thai-Cambodian as part of an international campaign to allow doctors into war-torn Cambodia. His Socialist ideals are destroyed when he realises the campaign is nothing more than a photo opportunity for an American actress. Remembering Sabina’s contempt for his weakness, he gets into a street fight and is killed.

The story ends with Tomas and Tereza living on a collective farm in the countryside. Tereza feels guilty for “making a display of her suffering” and forcing Tomas to give up his career. Tereza’s beloved dog Karenin develops a tumour, and Tomas and Tereza make the difficult decision to euthanise her. Tomas helps reset a worker’s collarbone, and they go to a hotel in a neighbouring village for a night of drinking and dancing. Tomas and Tereza stay the night, apparently at peace, and unaware that they will die the following day.

Why it’s a classic: Kundera left his home country in 1975 in frustration at the Communist regime and settled permanently in France. The Unbearable Lightness of Being was written and first published in French and was published in English the following year, in a translation by Michael Henry Heim. The original Czech version was published by a Canadian company in 1985, but Kundera’s works were officially banned in Czechoslovakia until the end of the Cold War. I’m not sure exactly how the novel became a hit in the West – foreign-language books, even in translation, don’t tend to become bestsellers in English-speaking countries – but somehow this novel achieved cult status and huge international popularity.

Part of the book’s appeal to Western audiences was what Tom Wolfe once described as “radical chic”. A novel by a well-regarded exile that openly criticized the Communist and had been banned has always been catnip for well-intentioned liberals, anxious to oppose censorship and align themselves with modern democratic ideals. Other works in this sub-genre include Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago, Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and Arenas’ Before Night Falls, all of which found cult status in the West. Kundera’s novels “seemed to open a unique window [on Soviet-era Communism]” Jonathan Coe wrote, “bringing its complexities to life with unmatched irony, melancholy and intellectual rigour.”

Politics aside, The Unbearable Lightness of Being also slotted neatly into the 1980s fashion for postmodern novels, in which an “intrusive” narrator commented on the act of storytelling, and narrative was read through the prism of wider moral or philosophical ideas. Other contemporary examples included Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, Don DeLillo’s White Noise and Julian Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot (all of whom, interestingly, have since been subject to the same feminist critique as Kundera).

The Unbearable Lightness of Being enjoyed a surge in popularity with the release of Philip Kaufman’s 1988 film adaptation, starring the stunningly beautiful trio of Daniel Day-Lewis as Tomas, Juliette Binoche as Tereza and Lena Olin as Sabina. The film was a critical and commercial hit, earning Oscar nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay and Cinematography and developed a cult following as a sexy, sophisticated watch for grown-ups. Kundera acted as a consultant on the film, but apparently wasn’t impressed with the result. In a 2008 Czech edition of the novel, he wrote that Kaufman’s film had little to do with the spirit of the book or its characters, and that he will no longer allow his work to be filmed. It’s a misanthropic and rather ungenerous attitude, given the boost the film gave his international reputation, and perhaps further evidence that one shouldn’t meet one’s literary heroes.

Kundera is still alive and publishing work, though appears to have lost much of his cultural relevance. The Unbearable Lightness of Being is still in print (published by Faber & Faber in the UK) and still hailed as a contemporary classic, with celebrity author fans including Ian McEwan and Victoria Glendenning.

Bouquet or Brickbat: A bouquet – perhaps a wreath from one of Sabina’s despised May Day parades. When I was a student in the mid-1990s, The Unbearable Lightness of Being was one of the books that liberal arts students read – or at least kept on their bookshelf – as a marker of one’s sophisticated taste and enlightened attitude to “dirty books”. This fad was parodied quite well in David Nicholls’ novel One Day, in which the protagonist describes the bedroom of a woman he wants to go to bed with: “In his last four years he had seen any number of bedrooms like this, dotted round the city like crime scenes, rooms where you were never more than six feet from a Nina Simone album, and though he’d rarely seen the same bedroom twice, it was all too familiar…. Feeling for an ashtray, he found a book at the side of the bed. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, spine creased at the ‘erotic’ bits. The problem with these fiercely individualistic girls was that they were all exactly the same.

Reading these words now, I’m both amused by the accuracy of Nicholls’ observation and wince slightly at its cynicism. It’s far too easy to critique the affectations of youth or condemn our own fumbling attempts to define our taste. To that end, part of me will always defend The Unbearable Lightness of Being as one of the first “grown up” books I read and loved. Even now the dusky red of the Faber & Faber paperback cover can transform me, like Proust’s soggy tea-dunked madeleine, back to my late teens, reminding me of the intense pleasure I experienced reading Kundera and the plans I made to visit Prague one day.

That said, the particular sting of Nicholls’ observations suggests that he’s onto something. Perhaps writers like Kundera are best enjoyed by young people, who can revel in its formalist structure and portentous philosophical meanderings. On re-reading The Unbearable Reading for this review, I was struck both by the elegance of Kundera’s writing and the strong element of pomposity in his narration, making me more sympathetic to to its many detractors.

Like Thoreau’s Walden, there are stunning lines and aphorisms aplenty, many of which have no doubt ended up being quoted on blackboards outside coffee shops. Case in point: “It is right to chide man for being blind to such coincidences in his daily life. For he thereby deprives his life of a dimension of beauty.” However, as these insights accumulate, you realise that Kundera (or at least his Narrator) doesn’t find his characters quite as compelling as he finds himself.

All characters in fiction exist according to rules prescribed by the author, and are moved around like chess pieces in service of the author’s aims. However, there’s something about the blantancy with which Kundera controls his characters, and the overly-programmed way in which every plot point circles back to the lightness/weight question, that frustrates our emotional investment in their story. The Narrator describes his characters as “my own unrealised possibilities” whom he is equally “fond of” and “horrified by“. However, they feel less like human beings and more ciphers for a prolonged philosophical debate (Tereza represents heaviness, Sabina lightness, and so on). Our emotional experience depends almost entirely on the Narrator’s ability to explain the characters’ struggles to us, extracting aphorisms. As a result, they never acquire the messy visceral qualities of real people, despite all that athletic sex in front of mirrors while wearing bowler hats. It’s this lack of what John Banville called “a sense of felt life” that can make The Unbearable Lightness of Being, for all its wit and erudition, quite an airless reading experience.

For some readers – including me – this type of storytelling can be intensely pleasurable, in the manner of a great 19th century novel. At times, though, it can feel overly authoritarian, since Kundera leaves us little room to make up our own minds about the characters. (It’s an interesting irony that a writer so famously critical of totalitarian politics should himself become a dictator in the world of his books).

Kundera’s tendency to explain his characters and themes feels especially pertinent when considered alongside the very fair accusations of misogyny (or at least chauvinism) in his work. From its opening pages, women of The Unbearable Lightness of Being exist solely in relation to men. Even the opening discussion about lightness and weight uses an image of a woman longing to be weighed down by her male lover’s body. There’s also a startling difference in the way he writes and imagines his male and female characters, that feels, for all the book’s stylistic innovations, like the wearingly familiar voyeuristic gaze of a Great White Male Writer.

Despite their apparent differences, Tereza and Sabina exist as two versions of a well-worn sexual cliché. Tereza is the the modest submissive wife who leaves her own life to exist solely for Thomas, and whose possessiveness, while exhausting, is proof of her unfailing devotion to him. Sabina appears to be more independent, but she too represents a fantasy – the nubile sexpot in a bowler hat and sexy lingerie who fulfils Tomas’ desires while never demanding everything from him. Like Tereza, her life revolves entirely around men (first Tomas, then Franz) and she emerges as a tragic figure, whose distrust of authority and fear of intimacy leads her to an existence of “unbearable lightness“.

By contrast, Tomas is granted much more agency, both in terms of his action and in what he represents in Kundera’s universe. Whereas Tereza and Sabina have their behaviour explained via heavy-handed Freudian analysis of their childhoods, Tomas is relieved of the same critical examination – we know little of his background, other than a brief mention of his first marriage and his reasons for becoming a doctor – and so he exists as a free agent rather than a case study. In keeping with Kundera’s relentlessly male gaze, Tomas’ many infidelities are treated as a jolly romp, a fact of life as normal as eating or sleeping, whereas Tereza’s and Sabina’s sexual behaviour is either a pathology or a symptom of existential crisis.

Feminist critiques of Kundera have focused on the recurrence of rape fantasies in his writing, and his presentation of women as masochists who enjoy (or at least to submit to) male domination. In her 1989 book Misogynies, Joan Smith argued that “hostility is the common factor in all Kundera’s writing about women”.

Looking more closely at the women of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, it’s hard to disagree. There’s an erotic charge to Tereza’s continual dreams of being stripped naked, tortured and killed that makes me wonder if Kundera got a boner imagining her naked and abused body. Even when conscious, she rarely has control over her own body or desires: screaming during sex with Tomas to obliterate her sense of self, and being coerced into an affair with the engineer (who of course gives her an orgasm).

Sabina, a supposedly liberated woman, is also something of a masochist. At one point she realises that her performative sex play with Tomas is not “good clean fun” but a “humiliation“. But in the tradition of all Playboy Bunny feminists, “instead of spurning it, she proudly, provocatively played it for all it was worth, as if submitting of her own will to public rape“, and pulls Tomas down to the floor for yet another round of athletic sex. Later, she expresses dissatisfaction at Franz’s unwillingness to use his strength on her and give her orders during sex, as Tomas once did. “There are things that can only be accomplished by violence,” the Narrator helpfully reminds us. “Physical love is unthinkable without violence.”

I’m all for writers exploring transgressive sexuality, and it’s likely that Kundera intended this scene to push the envelope, in the manner of Henry Miller’s crazy cocks and killer vaginas in Tropic of Cancer. The Narrator says that each of his characters “has crossed a border that I myself have circumvented.” That said, it’s true that these words and ideas land very differently in 2022, a culture in which we’re more attuned to and critical of the casual sexualisation of woman and the equating of sex with violence. The problem with Kundera, I think, is that he’s on the outside looking in. Sabina’s humiliation feels less like something he has circumvented, and more likely a old man’s fantasy involving see-through lingerie and bowler hats, dressed up with some philosophical frippery to make it appear intellectually acceptable.

I finished this reading of The Unbearable Lightness of Being feeling slightly heartbroken that a beloved book of my early adulthood wasn’t quite the wondrous experience I’d remembered. It appears I’m not alone in this – when John Banville revisited the book in 2004, he realised that, “true to its title, the book had floated out of my mind like a hot-air balloon come adrift from its tethers”, and found himself unable to remember even the characters’ names.

Kundera’s book, of course, hasn’t changed a bit in all that time. I’m the one who’s changed – older, a little wiser, more cynical, less inclined to worship or rapture, much closer to death. It sounds like the type of existential crisis one of Kundera’s characters might go through. Unlike them, though, I’m now fully dressed and no longer in possession of a bowler hat.

Quotable Quote: “The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in the 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.”

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