“The Unbearable Lightness of Being” by Milan Kundera

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 knew “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 his ideas. 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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