The unbearable lightness of being

by Milan Kundera

Other authorsMichael Henry Heim (Translator)
Paperback, 1984

Status

Available

Genres

Publication

New York : Harper Perennial, 1999, c1984.

Description

Interweaves story and dream, past and present, and philosophy and poetry in a sardonic and erotic tale of two couples--Tomas and Teresa, and Sabina and her Swiss lover, Gerhart.

Media reviews

A Son Of The Rock
This is a book to bring home how parochial and inward looking most fiction written in the English language is. There is no possible way that The Unbearable Lightness Of Being could have been written by a British or US author, or indeed any other anglophile. The mind set, the life experiences and especially the history it is written from are all too different. While the thrust of this book is by no means the same, I was reminded by its sensibility of the work of Bohumil Hrabal – not surprisingly also a Czech author. The book is unusual in another sense – it breaks most of the rules that aspiring writers are advised to adhere to. A lot of the action is told to us rather than shown, Kundera addresses the reader directly, inserts his opinions into the narrative, tells us his interpretations of the characters. He also messes with chronology (admittedly not a major drawback, if one at all) and parenthetically gives us important information about some characters in sections which ostensibly deal with others. In parts, especially in the author’s musings on kitsch as the denial of the existence of crap - in all its senses - in the world, it reads as a treatise rather than an exploration of the human condition. That is, at times it is not fiction at all. Kundera is highly regarded, so is this the essence of high art in fiction? That, as well as dealing with “important” subjects - or perhaps being considered to be circumscribed yet still endeavouring to tell truth to power (whatever truth may be) - the author should step beyond the bounds of narrative; of story? The problem with such an approach is that it tends to undermine suspension of disbelief. The characters become too obviously constructs; the reader is in danger of losing sympathy, or empathy, with them; or indeed to care. It is a fine line to tread. Where The Unbearable Lightness Of Being is not unusual is in its treatment of those novelistic eternals love, sex and death. Indeed at times it seems to be fixated on sex. While the exigencies of living in a totalitarian state do colour the narrative, the treatment is matter of fact, oblique, almost incidental. The choices the characters make merely fall within the constraints of such a system. It is true, however, that something similar could be said for characters in any milieu. There are constraints on us all. What I did find disappointing was that rather than finish, the book just seemed to stop. While the fates of the characters Kundera leaves us with are already known, this hardly seemed fair. "Leave them wanting more" may be an old showbiz adage but in the context of a one-off novel might be thought to be a failing.
4 more
The world, and particularly that part of the world we used to call, with fine carelessness, eastern Europe, has changed profoundly since 1984, but Kundera's novel seems as relevant now as it did when it was first published. Relevance, however, is nothing compared with that sense of felt life which the truly great novelists communicate.
The mind Mr. Kundera puts on display is truly formidable, and the subject of its concern is substantively alarming.
Moments of Olympian distance, in which the author shows his mortals ignorantly creeping toward oblivion, alternate with passages of stirring intimacy, with the novelist playing cheerleader, urging victories for everyone.
''The Unbearable Lightness of Being'' is a fairly straightforward inquiry into the intertwined fates of two pairs of lovers. The fact that it aspires to be a more conventional novel accounts for both its virtues and its flaws. If ''Lightness'' demonstrates a new capacity, on Mr. Kundera's part, to create sympathetic characters and sustain a lyrical story, the increased formality of its narrative design also tends to throw a harsher light on his penchant for philosophical digression.

User reviews

LibraryThing member M.Campanella
I am not so sure that this book is about as many things as some would like to claim. It struck me as being very thin.
First long ranting point, communism.
It would, if truly present, be a form of the setting. But it is not there as Paris is there in a Hemmingway novel, as the Sahara is there in Bowels. It seems more like a mechanism; something used to move the plot then discarded.
Why? Life, every day life, for the Prague characters is thinly described, before and after Communism moves in, that we simply have only the vaguest notion of the change. We do know that Tomas is a doctor, and it is hinted that he is well off. But just how well off is completely up to the reader’s best guess. Well off enough to maintain himself, Tereza, and an ex-wife somewhere. But is he, all that considered, barely making ends meet or still managing to roll in the dough? Various mistresses alluded to, and never do we find out the nature of those relationships, with the exception of a few. And to what extent, before communism kicks in, is money a factor in these dealings. If for no other reason than the fact that when Tomas is no longer a doctor his Mistresses change we become of the notion that indeed money was a factor in those affairs.
If you know nothing about communism, you probably think that his losing his job as a doctor due to what he wrote has something at all to do with communism. If that is the case, you know nothing about communism. And you are likely educated in the American propagandistic version. What happened to Tomas can be given many labels: totalitarianism, fascism, orwellianism. Fine. But it is not a characteristic of communism. (Monumental aside: Flawed educations hammered into students the following: “Under communism doctors were only paid 20$ a week.” And it is true. I met a Pole and asked him about. He said that indeed it was true, but you need to consider that that 20$ was absolute profit, considering the state [attempted to] provide everything for that individual needed. That 20$ was pocket money. Same Pole went on to say that a four course meal for two at a very nice restaurant went for about 1$ total.)
But I can oblige the point. While it was not communism, it was a reality for people living in Prague, and likely a scary one at that. Fine, but without life well described when they had capitalism, we have nothing to compare it to when the red menace goose steps in. And the description does not get much better after the transition. So we have no real way of knowing what this communist life was truly like.
People who want to beat the point about him having lost his job should consider that it is, at least as the novel is concerned, a somewhat isolated incident. If another doctor was richly described, who either did not run his trap about the government or apologized for it, then we would have a way of illustrating life under that form. But that doesn’t happen. Instead we have this notion of proud Tomas standing up for his beliefs, because it was at the end of the day only a misunderstanding. Point accepted, but again, that is not Communism (last time I harp about, I swear), and it could pretty much happen anywhere a government gets too much power. It does make for an interesting comparison with how Tomas lives with Teresa. But it is only interesting in passing. And then you move on.

The book struggles structurally. Teresa is at some point hassled by someone at her job as a waitress. The person nominates the fact that her husband is a lowly window-washer. Except we had not learned that yet – it comes a little later in the book. So we write the guy off as a drunk. Out of the blue, Teresa suspects the guy of being some kind of informant, damned if we can figure why. When, later, Tomas is a window-washer, it makes more sense. But a lot of information is delivered that poorly in the book. The book opens more or less about Tomas. Then it moves on to Teresa. This was indeed interesting. It was still interesting when it switched again to Sabina, who was with us from the beginning, more or less. At the end of that section, we are told Teresa and Tomas are dead. The chronology then breaks with the next section and they are alive again. And it became very hard to care.
But I really had to draw the line when the story jumped to Franz. Who was this upstart and why should I care? I am at this point damn near done with the book, have only known him for a meager 50 pages (most of which were really about Sabina), and frankly don’t care. He was a secondary character earlier, why bring him up now? For comparisons sake – how we loved compared to Tomas, how he acted nobly for what he believed in compared to Tomas – it could work. But then why not flesh him out from page one and treat him like a character.
If it has to be about anything this book becomes about love and sex with a dash of philosophy. Frankly there is nothing at all interesting about how Tomas and Teresa love – or fuck. Their relationship seemed so very typical of so much else written about the difficulty of love. Only this one has the arrogance to think it can stretch into the notion of ‘being’ without taking into consideration education, social standing, class, race identity, gender, government, history, culture, taxes, nourishment, survival, and theology just to name a monumental few of the things that comprise our being.
So some people living in this story aren’t monogamous. Big fucking deal. Monogamy is not nearly as widely accepted we would all like to think. I genuinely think that if society as a whole were not so prudish works like this would be in the dust bin.

And of the book’s Philosophy?
“Before we are forgotten, we will be turned into kitsch. Kitsch is the stopover between being and oblivion”
Sure. But you might be a century or two late to make that statement. Art is subjective, and with that in mind there can be no bad art – no Kitsch (bullshit term if I ever encountered one). And with that in mind so many rants of the end of the book simply failed. Replace the word with its synonym.
“[Bad art] has its source in the categorical agreement with being”
No it does not. That doesn’t mean anything. It’s double talk.
“Franz was obviously not a devotee of [bad art].”
Who the fuck would be?
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LibraryThing member woodshopcowboy
Discussing this book in mixed company, and by that I mean men and women, libertines and conservatives, old and young, will get you very quickly into hot water. I've had to defend Tomas and Stanley outta Streetcar, and I'll say the same thing now. Get over yourself. If you wish to read a book about people who absolutely follow your conventions, read one of those novels with a genre attached. Walk into this one with open eyes and hearts, and remember, the dog is a symbol, but at the end, it's a moment of completeness for Kundera. I'll repeat it again. It's a dog, it ain't a person.
Kundera uses four characters - Tomas and Tereza, a womanizing husband and his (rightfully) jealous and needy wife, and Sabina and Franz, Tomas's mistress and her lover - to talk to the reader about about existence, duality and life under Communism - and I'm sure a few more things than that to other people. And specifically, how these things affect relationships.
Kundera asks himself, and the reader, a simple question: if we get one chance, then does this life matter? And, if we are reincarnated, doomed to return again and again to our mistakes in this life, then does this life matter? Kundera does a horrid job of answer this question, I'll admit. But he does do a great job of letting the reader reach some conclusion, and then using the characters to show where he finds his answer. It's between the troubled husband and wife, and somewhere between the sheets, but that's just my opinion. Find your own.
Duality - again, Kundera plays with the characters to showcase a rather philosophical point. There are a ton of good examples, but I'm going to focus on the most controversial. He uses Tomas's infidelity to show the duality of body and soul, of love and sex, uniqueness and similarity. I'll repeat what I said earlier, don't make a moral judgment on Tomas here, if you do, you miss out on Tomas's gentleness, his love for Tereza, and his need for connection to others. But hey, if all you see's the sex, it's all you see.
With that I'll end this review. There's others here that give a better overview of the plot. I just had to chime in and say this: This is not a book for the light reader. All you will read and remember are a few sex scenes, some claptrap philosophy and authorial intrusions and one dog's death, which I must say is apparently the most tearworthy moment according to other reviewers.
If that's all you read into Unbearable, then you miss the forest for the trees. There's a damn good book here, and some damn good characters.
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LibraryThing member MeditationesMartini
This book is basically an index of my self-loathing right now, so it's possible that this review isn't entirely objective. And I like the constant pedantic wordplay, which is endearing and not annoying, and he does manage to say some profound things about love. But what kind of plodder can't manage to say something profound about love? And the pomposity and misogyny are sort of . . . mutually repugnifying. The stuff about Karenin and treating animals right at the end touches the hears, but sooften you just get this grimy reptilian feeling, like you're reading something that was written on the toilet after five minutes of soul-searching. Still, it probably got Kundera laid. Or at least, I'm sure it got someone laid. Boo everybody. Not excluding me.… (more)
LibraryThing member lauralkeet
Before I'd read 50 pages of this book, I realized it was more about ideas than about character, setting, or plot. These ideas were presented through two couples: Tomas and Tereza; Franz and Sabina. The men were philanderers, sleeping with many different women and thinking nothing of it. The women were just "there," existing only in relationship to the men. And the ideas? I am afraid I just didn't "get" what Kundera was trying to say. I don't shy away from ideas: I enjoy thinking, debate, and reading that introduces me to new concepts. But this book just didn't do it for me. There were, however, a couple of interesting passages.

The first half of the book provided insight to the title:
- Parmenides posed this very question in the sixth century before Christ. he saw the world divided into pairs of opposites: light/darkness, fineness/coarseness, warmth/cold, being/non-being. One half of the opposition he called positive (light, fineness, warmth, being), the other negative. We might find this division into positive and negative poles childishly simple except for one difficulty: which one is positive, weight or lightness? (p 5)
- And Sabina -- what had come over her? Nothing ... Her drama was not of heaviness but of lightness. What fell to her lot was not the burden but the unbearable lightness of being. (p. 122)


And I found a couple of nuggets worth pondering:
- Our day-to-day life is bombarded with fortuities or, to be more precise, with the accidental meetings of people and events we call coincidences. (p.51)
- From that time on she had known that beauty is a world betrayed. The only way we can encounter it is if its persecutors have overlooked it somewhere. (p. 110)


But that's about it. I guess this just wasn't my cup of tea.
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LibraryThing member TheLostEntwife
About half-way through this book I had an abrupt change of opinion. When I began the book I was captivated by the language, the ideas, the ways my imagination was being sparked (and no, I'm not talking about the raunchy scenes - even though there were oh so many of them. ugh) and the gradual unfolding of the lives of the two couples involved in the story.

But then I started to get depressed. And then even more depressed. Soon I dreaded picking up the book and I wondered how in the world I could have gone to loving the book to dreading it so much.

I thought I understood what Milan Kundera was saying (even though I readily admit to much of it just going right over my head), but I think I got an idea. I understand what he's talking about when mentioning the "Unbearable Lightness of Being" - or at least I think I do. What I don't understand is why there couldn't be just one character we could fall in love with, just one! Instead, I felt as if he approached this in a clinical, hands-off manner as if saying, "Sure I thought them up, but now they are your responsibility!".

I've never read a book that's flipped me from one side to the other like this, so it's a new experience for me and one I'm hoping to not have happen again anytime soon. I haven't given up on Kundera though and do plan to check his other works out. I just hope I will end them able to at least smile instead of feeling as if I should tear up the book and cry crocodile tears on its corpse.
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LibraryThing member mattviews
Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being explores the significance of existence and life responsibility (burdens and obligations) through characters' carefree attitude toward sex. However graphically and saliently Kundera writes about sex, the book is far from salacious and offensive.
A prominent surgeon from Prague, Tomas was torn between his love Tereza whom he had met through six fortuities and his many mistresses. His failed marriage had bequeathed to him fear of responsibility and attachment. He lived a life of "lightness" through no-strings-attached "erotic friendships" which stipulated his complete withdrawal of love in his life. Portrayed as a libertine, Tomas claims he was not obsessed with women, but what in each of them was unimaginable during intimacy the thrill of the gap between an approximation of idea and precision of reality.

Tereza, who throws herself into Tomas' embrace, seeks to escape from her mother all her life. In 1968, Russians invaded the country, which forced Tomas and Tereza to relocate in Zurich. When Tomas' outrageous infidelities (sexual exploits) galled her, Tereza left and returned to Prague. Realized he had no chance to evade the Communists, Tomas wrote a denouncement of the Russians that exterminated his license to practice medicine. Tomas felt much "lighter" though being a surgeon was his deep-seated desire. Tomas abased to be a window washer but continued his sexual exploits.

In the meantime, one of Tomas' most favored mistresses Sabina, hit it off with a professor Franz. Out of his conscience and the volition to live in the truth, Franz divulged his affair to his wife and lived an unbearable lightness of being. On the other hand, Sabina felt the burden as her love became public.

The question becomes whether this "weightness" of life is laudable or despicable. If, like Kundera has asserted in passing at the beginning, the heaviest burden is an image of life's most intense fulfillment, then women shall desire a sexual orgasm in which they are weighted down by a man's body?

It's interesting to relate the notion of "weightness" to Kundera's another book, Slowness, which deals with the slowness with which pleasure (sexual pleasure perhaps?) should be attained. In an audacious statement, Kundera asserted that sexual intimacy being subdued to some obstacle to be overcome as quickly as possible in order to reach an ecstatic explosion. If such obstacle refers to the "weightness" of man that women try to get over, then the ultimate fulfillment of sex is forfeited and compromised.

Another interesting notion is lightness. What is lightness? How is it unbearable? Tereza wanted to learn about "lightness" after she moved back to Prague. Some readers might have accused her of taking revenge on Tomas' infidelities, inveigling him to return to the Communist reign and thus ruining his career, while she was exploiting the lightness and insignificance of physical love. So lightness becomes a euphemism of infidelity?

Political overtones and the pretentious rhetorical references to Beethoven and Nietzsche (and the obscure German phrase of which I have no knowledge) might take a native Czech to comprehend. What is it about a lack of political freedom that affects the sexual behavior of men and women I have no intention to understand. Such pretentious gestures only aggravate readers' confusion. The best way to approach this book, besides with an open mind, is to read it as is. The musings of individuals are far more appealing than Kundera's arduous attempt to psychoanalyze the characters.

The different parts of the book tend to overlap a little bit, especially true for the sections on Tomas and Tereza, whose lives are closely intertwined. The section titled "The Grand March" is filled with political and rhetorical references, which leave my scalp itchy. Through a third party in Sabina, readers will find out about the end of the couple's story. So what's the hype about this book besides the explicit and unrestrained affairs?
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LibraryThing member LynnB
Incredibly interesting to read. This book tells the story of Tomas and Tereza, Tomas's lover, Sabina and her lover Franz. It also tells the story of political repression. It opens with a discussion of Nietzche's theories (I almost gave up after a few pages); tells a beautifully written story of love, and the author inserts himself and speaks directly to the reader at times. All this makes for a complex book, but one that nonetheless flows well and provides both dramatic stories and historical and philosophical context.… (more)
LibraryThing member kaminariman
From the outset, this novel breaks from traditional narrative, interspersing insightful bits of the author's philosophies and insights into the lives of his characters throughout the story, making this one of the most original reading experiences I have had. Characters and author alike ponder and explore just how "light" human existence can be. Intimate insight into the social, sexual and political lives of Tereza, Tomas, Sabina and Franz displays the author's deep care for his characters, and it wasn't difficult to share his love.… (more)
LibraryThing member kaionvin
A 'novel of ideas' indeed, but I had a lot of problems with the presentation of those ideas. A straightforward philosophy book would've been a better platform for the author, providing a more easily focusable structure and taking away the need for better characterization. The fact that the characters are fictional and contrived paper-thin cutouts made solely to represent ideologies is lampshaded by the author, that doesn't doesn't make it excusable.

The end product is a novel that is unaffecting, rambly, and soulless. Furthermore, the artificial manner within a supposed real-life context trivializes the genuine struggles of people: in love, in tense political strife, in living.
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LibraryThing member jwhenderson
How often do you find a novel starting with a discussion of Nietzsche's idea of eternal return? This is how Milan Kundera's novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, begins, and it becomes more complex and interesting as the novel continues into a tale of loves and lovers set against the background of Communist Czechoslovakia in the days before the fall of the iron curtain. Particularly important is the contrast of lightness and heaviness of this life as we ponder the nature of fortuity and fate in the lives of the characters. As always with Kundera, music and literature play an important role in the development of the themes with references to Beethoven's last quartets, the nature of fate as informed by Oedipus, and a pet dog named Karenin. It all comes together in the countryside as we see Tomas, the Doctor, give up his profession for love or for his principles, or for both. Challenging the reader, this author has created a puzzle of a book that is a delight to the reader who cherishes the world of ideas and their meaning for man.… (more)
LibraryThing member thatotter
Operative word "unbearable." I had high hopes, but found the characters unlikeable and the writing very formal and academic.
LibraryThing member RhysBans
By far the best book I had read over the summer. It magnifies the topics of lives philosophically and socially during a time of upheaval and how that shapes a person's day to day life as well as the days that emphatically create your life's "purpose". I have so much that I want to say about this book, but I am not old enough to share the bath of knowledge that it has, and so I will say just this: I will reread it, now, and continue to do so at least once a personal shift has happened in my life. I feel like it will take on different lives that will succeed in showing me dryness as well as moisture. Heaviness as well as lightness. Stalin's son's shit as well as Jesus, the son of the mightiest being that a human could face. The last metaphor, which I definitely get from the book, but does it little justice, is more Secular than it may seem (which is why I know I am not doing it God's Reasoning [justice]). Again, that last analogy may seem befuddled when trying to convice you that this book has nothing to do with religion, but just a man's thought compared to thoughts of many men, whom were compared to by Kundera: A very intelligent man.… (more)
LibraryThing member sanddancer
I rarely re-read books but I've read this one twice and I will definitely re-read it again. Kundera easily mixes philosophical ideas with a story of a relationship. It is about life, politics, love and infidelity. It is profound, but still easily readable. A beautiful book.
LibraryThing member TraciD
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera is a beautifully written novel that slowly unravels by showing the perspective of a man who wishes to keep emotion and physical relationships seperate.Tomas, a surgeon who lives in Prague, believes that sex and love can be seperate. That is until he meets Tereza, a young waitress, who eventually becomes his wife. Tereza believes that sex and love go hand in hand. While Tomas and Tereza are together, Tomas still has physical relations with a woman, Sabina, and although Tereza is well-aware she stays with him because of the "love" they share. I enjoyed reading this novel because the author shows the extremes of both sides. He leaves it up to the reader to decide the pros and cons of relationships, and what is the best way to handle it. Kundera reflects on why we need relations with other people, and why we can't live happily on our own. He conveys the message that we will always sacrifice for what we desire. I definitely suggest this book to those who don't know where they stand on relationships.… (more)
LibraryThing member glade1
I expected this book to blow me away, but it didn't. It was interesting enough, and the author certainly takes on some immense themes: love, sex, and fidelity; Communism; war; art and its purpose; religion; and life's purpose.

Tomas and Tereza meet and fall in love suddenly. Tomas has been a habitual womanizer and is conflicted and puzzled by this newfound emotional bond, though his love for Tereza does not prevent him from continuing to have sex with any other woman who crosses his path. Sabina, one of his mistresses, seems to be in love with him too but is not willing or able to commit, even if Tomas were free. Franz, who falls in love with Sabina after they start an affair, searches for great meaning in a mundane life.

I think one of the best points the author makes is the fact of vastly different interpretations different individuals can have for the same events, places, or symbols. He even has a section in which he defines certain things from the points of view of Sabina and Franz, and we can see how one's upbringing and world view can slant the meaning of even the most commonplace thing.

Kundera seems to believe that the soul and the body can operate nearly independently of one another, that it is entirely possible to be emotionally committed to one person while having no physical/sexual fidelity. I can see that is a possibility and an explanation for humankind's tendency to have "meaningless" affairs, but still had difficulty accepting the premise. I wanted to throttle all these promiscuous people!

The entire story occurs with the backdrop of the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia, and the characters must deal with political unrest, questions of civic duty and loyalty, and fear of government reprisal in addition to their romantic dramas.

The book is thought provoking and reasonably engrossing, but I found it bleak and a bit disjointed. I did not find myself attracted to or sympathetic to any of the characters. Not my best read of the year, but not a waste of time either :)
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LibraryThing member gwoodrow
This was a beautiful book. Kundera's language is hypnotic, which amazed me considering the chasm between the languages of his homeland and English (the latter being the language I read it in). The story moves less than smoothly, as Kundera jumps around between varying perspectives of each character. You know the fates of several of the characters before knowing the path they took to get there.

But though it moves with fits and starts, it works well in this case. Which is probably only because of Kundera's aforementioned control of language. In the hands of a lesser writer, such a story would've been a schizophrenic mess.

Though it was a wonderful read, it did frustrate me to no end, as well. If you haven't read the book, you may want to stop reading here. Because though I wouldn't classify what I'm about to say as a "spoiler," I will say that it may change your expectations for the story.

Okay, so I was frustrated because I feel as if the book is entirely devoid of redemption. There are all of these flawed characters and Kundera repeatedly highlights their biggest flaws -- Tomas and his womanizing, Sabina and her running away to not let anyone near her, Tereza and her nervous neediness -- and yet none of the characters seem to ever overcome their problems, or really even make a concerted effort to do so. As the story progresses I got the feeling that the characters were not growing up, they were just getting old.

Amazing but frustrating
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LibraryThing member Lisa.Johnson.James
This book is on the 1001 Books challenge list, so I read it. Now, the story of Tomas & Tereza is the central story, with the satellite characters Sabina(one of Tomas' mistresses), & Franz(one of Sabina's other lovers) also having storylines of their own. This rather tangled web of love is interspersed with the author's own musings on philosophy as it pertains to himself & his characters. It gave the characters a bit more depth, but I could have done without so MUCH of it....all in all, not a bad read, if you don't mind the divergence off on the musings...… (more)
LibraryThing member wendyrey
It was a bit of a slog to read and now some time later I could not remember much about the plot until I looked at the other reviews.
Didn't enjoy it.
LibraryThing member gbill
What I liked:
- The central existential point - the difficulty of finding meaning in a life that is transient.
- The description of life as a Czech under the Russians; I spend a couple of weeks this past summary in the Czech Republic and this was of personal interest

What I disliked:
- The plot, it's all over the map and spirals towards the end. Yes, it's part of the point, life is meaningless blah blah blah, but it doesn't make for interesting reading once that point has been made.

- The sex. It doesn't ring true and seems likes it's in there to sell the book. Bowler hat? Tereza and Sabina photographing each other nude? Tomas going through women like Wilt Chamberlain? Anal fingering? Please. It seems like Kundera was writing fantasies for letters to Playboy, but in this case none of it was erotic.

- Reconciliation with Hitler??? Comparison to life in concentration camps??? Kundera way off-base in his extrapolation of the philosophy.

Muss es sein? Es muss sein!

Quotes:

On the heaviness/lightness of being:
"Unlike Parmenides, Beethoven apparently viewed weight as something positive. ....necessity, weight, and value are three concepts inextricably bound: only necessity is heavy, and only what is heavy has value."

"When we want to give expression to a dramatic situation in our lives, we tend to use metaphors of heaviness. We say that something has become a great burden to us. We either bear the burden or fail and go down with it, we struggle with it, win or lose. And Sabina - what had come over her? Nothing. She had left a man because she felt like leaving him. Had he persecuted her? No. Had he tried to take revenge on her? No. Her drama was a drama not of heaviness but of lightness. What fell to her lot was not the burden but the unbearable lightness of being."

On the meaninglessness of life:
"We live everything as it comes, without warning, like an actor going on cold. And what can life be worth if the first rehearsal for life is life itself? That is why life is always like a sketch. No, "sketch" is not quite the word, because a sketch is an outline of something, the groundwork for a picture, whereas the sketch that is our life is a sketch for nothing, an outline with no picture.
Einmal ist kleinmal, says Tomas to himself. What happens but once, says the German adage, might as well not have happened at all. If we have only one life to live, we might as well not have lived at all."

Related, on randomness:
"...now he realized it was only a matter of chance that Tereza loved him and not his friend Z. Apart from her consummated love for Tomas, there were, in the realm of possibility, an infinite number of unconsummated loves for other men.
We all reject out of hand the idea that the love of our life may be something light or weightless; we presume our love is what must be, that without it our life would no longer be the same; we feel that Beethoven himself, gloomy and awe-inspiring, is playing the 'Es muss sein!' to our own great love.
Tomas often thought of Tereza's remark about his friend Z. and came to the conclusion that the love story of his life exemplified not 'Ex muss sein!' (It must be so), but rather 'Es Konte auch anders sein' (It could just as well be otherwise)."

And:
"She wanted to see the Vltava. She wanted to stand on its banks and look long and hard into its waters, because the sight of the flow was soothing and healing. The river flowed from century to century, and human affairs play themselves out on its banks. Play themselves out to be forgotten the next day, while the river flows on."

On love:
"Tomas came to this conclusion: Making love with a woman and sleeping with a woman are two separate passions, not merely different but opposite. Love does not make itself felt in the desire for copulation (a desire that extends to an infinite number of women) but in the desire for shared sleep (a desire limited to one woman)."

On the Russians:
"All previous crimes of the Russian empire had been committed under the cover of a discreet shadow. The deportation of a million Lithuanians, the murder of hundreds of thousands of Poles, the liquidation of the Crimean Tatars remain in our memory, but no photographic documentation exists; sooner or later they will therefore be proclaimed as fabrications. Not so the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, of which both stills and motion pictures are stored in archives throughout the world."

And further on Czech history (and history in general):
"In 1618, the Czech estates took courage and vented their ire on the emperor reining in Vienna by pitching two of his high officials out of a window in the Prague Castle. Their defiance led to the Thirty Years War, which in turn led to the almost complete destruction of the Czech nation. Should the Czechs have shown more caution than courage? The answer may seem simple; it is not.
Three hundred and twenty eight years later, after the Munich Conference of 1938, the entire world decided to sacrifice the Czechs' country to Hitler. Should the Czechs have tried to stand up to a power eight times their size? In contrast to 1618, they opted for caution. Their capitulation led to the Second World War, which in turn led to the forfeit of their nation's freedom for many decades or even centuries.
...
History is as light as individual human life, unbearably light, light as a feather, as dust swirling into the air, as whatever will no longer exist tomorrow."

On mob mentality:
"She would have liked to tell them that behind Communism, Fascism, behind all occupations and invasions lurks a more basic, pervasive evil and that the image of that evil was a parade of people marching by with raised fists and shouting identical syllables in unison."

On work:
"Here he was, doing things he didn't care a damn about, and enjoying it. Now he understood what made people (people he always pitied) happy when they took a job without feeling the compulsion of an internal 'Es muss sein!' and forgot it the moment they left for home every evening. This was the first time he had felt that blissful indifference."

On Genesis telling us that God gave man dominion over the earth:
"The reason we take that right for granted is that we stand at the top of the hierarchy. But let a third party enter the game - a visitor from another planet, for example, someone to whom God says, 'Thou shalt have dominion over creatures of all other stars' - and all at once taking Genesis for granted becomes problematical."

On love of animals:
"True human goodness, in all its purity and freedom, can come to the fore only when its recipient has no power. Mankind's true moral test, its fundamental test (which lies deeply buried from view), consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals."
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LibraryThing member stephxsu
THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING is not quite a novel, not quite a philosophical treatise, not quite political commentary. It has fictional characters and a “plot,” if you want to call it that…but the plot is hardly the most important part of the book. It is chock full of interesting philosophical ideas. Perhaps the thing to say about THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING is that it is an incredible experience that cannot be fully understood and appreciated in just one go.

Perhaps what astounded me most about this book was how nuanced the characters are. Like real human beings, no one is perfect: in fact, Tereza, Tomas, and the others are often aggravatingly flawed, to the point where you kind of want to throw down the book in frustration, or else reach into the story and single-handedly plunk them in psychotherapy.

The real and frightful thing about such a reaction, however, is that, in certain ways, Tereza and Tomas are eerily canny reflections of ourselves, and what our pithy and ultimately futile internal struggles would look like at the hands of a literary genius. Tomas’ perpetual womanizing and his guilt over his inability to make Tereza happy, Tereza’s hopelessness over her own feelings of jealousy—it reflects some of the ugliest parts of ourselves, the parts that we’re afraid to see in literature, for fear that we may recognize them as being part of ourselves.

It is because of this discomfort that Kundera creates in the relationship between reader and creation that I both admire and fear this book and Kundera’s writings. I admire it because I see the possibilities for what I can do with my own thoughts and writings; I fear it because Kundera’s thorough, everyone-yet-no-one portrayal of his characters could so easily be me or any one of us, despite evidence to the contrary (i.e. we are not perpetual womanizers or guilty jealous snakes). But Kundera’s omniscient narration helps us understand the mentality of flawed characters, and if you apply that to real life, it’s hard to not not think of things in black and white afterwards.

There are things that I didn’t like about this book: the political stuff (it’s just not my thing), and the fact that Kundera often rejects typical literary conventions such as introductions and climaxes and denouements. I think, however, that the experience of reading THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING, the ideas about living and existing and worth that it contains, and the things it makes me think about the potential of writing, make everything worth it. I am already looking forward to the next time I can reread this, pencil in hand to mark the things I missed before.
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LibraryThing member AndrewBlackman
I’ve listed Milan Kundera as one of my favourite authors for a while now, but oddly I’d never read his most famous book until now. It was definitely no letdown – the same philosophical style I’ve come to expect, but sustained over a longer time and with characters that I felt closer to than in other books I’ve read by him.

The story is of Tomas and Tereza, and whether they will stay together despite Tomas’s constant infidelity. Branching out from this central story are other stories, following the lives, for example, of Tomas’s mistress Sabina and her new lover Franz. The central theme is explored through the lives of the various characters. Is it better to be light or heavy? Lives full of responsibility and attachment are heavy and burdensome, but “closer to the earth”, “more real and truthful.” Lives that are light contain no burdens and allow a person to soar, “his movements as free as they are insignificant”.

Sabina abandons her family and everyone who means anything to her, and ends up in America selling her paintings, making money, doing well and feeling empty. She has no burdens, no attachments, no real meaning or purpose. She composes a will saying she wants to be cremated and her ashes scattered on the winds. “She wanted to die under the sign of lightness”. Tomas, on the other hand, chooses heaviness. He has opportunities to escape from his burdens – he gets out of Czechoslovakia and is living in Vienna, for example, but goes back to find Tereza. He loses his job as a doctor because of writing an article critical of the regime, and is offered several chances at redemption by renouncing his article. But he chooses not to, and so his life becomes harder and harder, heavier and heavier.

By the end of the book, the heavier life comes to seem preferable, to me anyway. It has more sorrow, but that’s because there is more to care about. Lightness, the absence of ties or emotional attachments, is easier on the surface, but ultimately meaningless, and therefore unbearable.

Apart from the main thematic development, there were some wonderful side discussions. I loved the way he talked about “kitsch”, for example. I only new “kitsch” as meaning “bad taste” or “cheesy”, but Kundera uses a very different definition, from the original German so he says: “kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.” Or as he puts it more directly, “Kitsch is the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and figurative senses of the word.” Kitsch is life without the shit, it’s the pretense that there’s nothing unseemly or unpleasant, it’s erasing anything that doesn’t fit. Communist kitsch is all the parades and the positive, uplifting art that denies the existence of any societal problems. Epitaphs are often kitsch under this definition, denying the existence of pain or suffering or even death itself, concealing it behind euphemisms. As Kundera says, “Before we are forgotten, we will be turned into kitsch. Kitsch is the stopover between being and oblivion.”

I also enjoyed the “Short dictionary of misunderstood words”, a series of chapters in which Kundera shows how Franz and Sabina think they understand each other but don’t, because they are using the same words to mean different things. They have met relatively late in life, and are old enough to have accumulated their own meanings and associations and memories, of which the other person is not a part. Whereas Tomas and Sabina were young and could create their own meanings together, Franz and Sabina are too old to do this. Or as Kundera more poetically puts it:

While people are fairly young and the musical composition of their lives is still in its opening bars, they can go about writing it together and exchange motifs (the way Tomas and Sabina exchanged the motif of the bowler hat), but if they meet when they are older, like Franz and Sabina, their musical compositions are more or less complete, and every motif, every object, every word means something different to them.

I thought this was a great insight, and the book was full of them. Kundera is a close observer of the human condition, and always finds fresh, innovative ways of expressing them. I’m glad that I’ve finally read his most famous book, and glad that it lived up to my high expectations. I’ll keep exploring his lesser-known books now.
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LibraryThing member LisaMaria_C
The story begins with philosophical musings on the theme from which the book takes its title: we have only one life, so we leave no impact, no weight. This is the "unbearable lightness of being"--life is meaningless and how we act has no consequences. But there are other ways in the novel that "lightness" is also opposed to "weight:" Sexual pleasure, freedom and choice versus love, responsibility, commitment. That thread intertwines with the impact on the characters of life in the "Prague Spring" of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and the aftermath of the ensuing Soviet crackdown: of heavy oppression of the totalitarian state.

Tomas, the story's main protagonist, seems to be trying to live "light" in terms of personal relationships--without repetition as an unabashed libertine. He had been living by the rule of threes: if he sees a woman three times in close succession he breaks things off. Or he can have a long-term "erotic friendship," but then can only see a woman once every three weeks. But then Tereza comes into his life--and he does marry her, loves her--but can't stand the "weight" of committing fully and solely to her, which causes in her a corresponding heaviness she can't bear.

The thing is Tomas only does find happiness when he acts as if his choices have weight--for him and Tereza if no one else. Tereza for her part has to live "lighter"--become more her own person, lay down psychological baggage, to find her own equilibrium. Other characters in the novel are variations on this theme of a balance between lightness and weight.

It's an unusual book. The philosophical and political themes and authorial digressions intertwine intimately with the characters and plot so that at times the characters seem mere illustrations of those principles, except I did care bout Tomas and Tereza--they're more than abstractions. (And hey, their dog, Karenin, is an important character!) But there's also wit and humor to be found, often with a satiric edge, and the style, even in translation (or because of the translation), is luminous. The novel feels light, lyrical despite the heaviness of theme and non-linear narrative.

I first read this novel decades ago. What I remembered of it wasn't the philosophical underpinnings though but the emotional impact the book had on me--sharp and poignant and one of those few books that have moved me to tears.
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LibraryThing member oldblack
Too much philosophical musing and not enough character development for my liking. I'm too old for this - I don't have time to waste.
LibraryThing member cestovatela
A readable, original work with a lot to say about sex, kitsch, relationships and living under Communism. Mentally, I divide the story into two parts. The first is the story of a deeply in love and deeply troubled couple. The man is simply unable to remain faithful and his girlfriend struggles to find a way to cope. The second part is the story of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia after a local attempt to liberalize the Czech government. What I like about this book is that it communicates about so many different things on so many different levels -- not only the small matters of sex, love and kitsch but also the big picture of social change, violence, oppression and repression. This is a complex work that I'd probably need to re-read several times to fully understand, but even a superficial reading leaves a deep impression. Highly recommended.… (more)
LibraryThing member ShauneReed
"True human goodness, in all its purity and freedom, can come to the fore only when its recipient has no power. Mankind's true moral test, its fundamental test (which lies deeply buried from view), consists in its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals. And in this respect mankind has suffered a fundamental débcle, a débcle so fundamental that all others stem from it."

It is insights such as this that give The Unbearable Lightness of Being its significance. A novel, even a novel by so engagé a writer as Kundera, must be judged in terms of art, and not of its moral, social or political weight. There is too much spilt politics in The Unbearable Lightness for its own good. What is remarkable, however, is that a work so firmly rooted in its time has not dated. The world, and particularly that part of the world we used to call, with fine carelessness, eastern Europe, has changed profoundly since 1984, but Kundera's novel seems as relevant now as it did when it was first published. Relevance, however, is nothing compared with that sense of felt life which the truly great novelists communicate. And lightness, in art, more often seems like slightness.
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Language

Original language

Czech

Barcode

3240
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