The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
Book Review / Love Story / Political Novel

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

Book: The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Author: Milan Kundera

Publication:  Faber & Faber; Main edition (21 August 2000)

Pages:320

Price: Buy from this link

 

Milan Kundera:

Born in 1929 April, in Czechoslovakia, Milan Kundera is a towering pen in 20th-century Literature. The Joke published in 1969 in English, was his first novel. It faced severe censorship issues. When in 1968, Russia took control over Prague, Kundera’s books were banned. He lost his teaching job. In 1975 Kundera immigrated to France and joined as a professor. In 1979 Czech Govt. cancelled his citizenship. In 1981 he became a French citizen.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a 1984 novel by Milan Kundera that secured his seat in world literature. It was written at the backdrop of the 1968 Prague Spring. Milan Kundera himself spent a significant part of his life in Prague as a professor at Prague’s Academy of Performing Arts. This book was written originally in the Czech language but published first in French in 1984 and then in Czech the next year. The novel is also adapted in a film by Philip Kaufman, an American film director and screenwriter.

“We constantly re-write our `own biographies…”

The protagonist of this novel, Tomas,  is somewhat the self-portrayal of Kundera himself in their introspection and attitude towards life.

The Binary Contrast of Lightness and Weight:

The Unbearable Lightness of Being begins with the philosophical idea of Nietzsche’s ideologies on eternal return and the contradictory lingering between lightness and the weight of life. Everything in our life happens an infinite number of times and this return makes our life heavy:

“…everything recurs as we once experienced it and that the recurrence itself recurs ad infinitum! What does this mad myth signify?”

The platitudinous nature of this eternal return is emphasized by the example of Robespierre.

“There is an infinite difference between a Robespierre who occurs only once in history and a Robespierre who eternally returns, chopping off French heads.”

I am just fascinated with this interplay of thoughts.

This clash of binary opposition recounts throughout the novel…through the characters and their way of living.

Tomas is the character of this novel who oscillates between this lightness and weight. When Tereza left him at first he ‘felt a sweet lightness of being rise up to him out of the depths of the future.” But within two days, “he was hit by a weight the likes of which he had never known.”

He feels “there is nothing heavier than compassion. Not even one’s own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone…”

The Story:

 We met Tomas plunged in deep contemplation whether to call back Tereza or not. He is confused with the idea of whether his feelings for her is real or not…is it love or sudden exuberance of emotion.

“Was it simply the hysteria of a man who, aware deep down of his inaptitude for love, felt the self-deluding need to simulate it?”

“Looking out over the courtyard at the dirty walls, he realized he had no idea whether it was hysteria or love.”

Thomas is a womaniser by the heart whose only vocation in life is to explore his own sexuality through different women. He believes in the theory of lightness in life and relation. He feels women’s idiosyncrasies can only be perceived through sex and every woman is different and unique in their intimate relationships. For him, love and sex are two different entities. They are not synonyms. They belong to two opposite fenced areas.

 His love for Tereza is distinguished from his clandestine quests with other women as well as for Sabina.

Tereza is a simple lady who falls in deep love and dependence on Tomas. She comes to Prague to meet him and stay in his room. Tomas never allowed any woman to stay with him. He dropped every woman after midnight as he could not sleep when someone shared his bed.

“He did not want word to get out that Tereza was sleeping at his place: spending the night together was the corpus delicti of love.”

But for the first time, he feels comfortable and easy with Tereza. He spends his week sharing his bed with her. And it seems too natural and loving for him the way Tereza uses to clutch his hands tightly in her sleep, not to let him go.

So when Tereza leaves him he feels something for her…

“She seemed a child to him, a child someone had put in a bulrush basket daubed with pitch and sent downstream for Tomas to fetch at the riverbank of his bed.”

Tomas is a widower with a son whom his wife never allowed to meet him with lame excuses, keeping him away from him at the time of every meeting date. After this repeated incident, he gets irritated and decides,

“He would be scrupulous about paying support.”

And he always avoids commitment.  He has a tremendous fear of commitment. For him, commitment towards a particular relationship means losing the power of womanizing.

“He would tell his mistresses: the only relationship that can make both partners happy is one in which sentimentality has no place and neither partner makes any claim on the life and freedom of the other.”

He is afraid of any serious relationship with the woman. The relationship he wants with the women will be without any thread of commitment.

Tomas calls it ‘erotic friendship’. And to keep this erotic friendship on proper track he follows the rule of threes-

“Either you see a woman three times in quick succession and then never again, or you maintain relations over the years but make sure that the rendezvouses are at least three weeks apart.”

He tries his best to avoid Tereza. But she is his destiny.

“Don’t think about her! Don’t think about her!… I’m sick with compassion. It’s good that she’s gone…it’s not Tereza I need to be free of – it’s that sickness, compassion, which I thought I was immune to until she infected me with it.”

He marries Tereza as he feels emotionally engaged with her but he cannot change his way of life.

“Accordingly, he rented a room for Tereza and her heavy suitcase. He wanted to be able to watch over her, protect her, enjoy her presence, but felt no need to change his way of life.”

Tomas feels he is emotionally faithful to his wife. But if he remains physically faithful it will destroy control over himself.

That’s why even when he loses his job as a doctor and degrades to the position of a window washer his womanising habit does not diminish.

Teresa with a battered heart witnesses his husband’s betrayal and immortality. But she can’t leave him. She tries to taste the same life as Tomas indulges, by involving in meaningless sex with a person. But she cannot enjoy it.

She tries to seek her solace within the dog- Karenin, but the dog gets cancer and finally died.

The novel revolves around another plot- Sabina and Franz.

Sabina is one of Tomas’s mistresses. She is a painter. Her life is an extreme example of lightness. She is easy with Tomas as well as Franz. Franz is Sabina’s lover. He is an intellectual professor in Geneva. He is married to Marie-Claude. Franz gets disturbed by the thought of his infidelity to his wife by creating a relationship with Sabina. Franz takes it as a betrayal, but for Sabina betrayal is another name of freedom ….lightness.

Franz leaves his wife and determines to live his life with Sabina. But Sabina leaves him. Both Sabina and Tomas fear commitment.

Devastated and frantic Franz gradually bows down to his normal life and accepts the reality. In his new apartment, he furnishes his new life. He feels he is not so sad. Sabina’s sudden departure blows hard on him. But he realizes:

“Sabina’s physical presence was much less important than he had suspected. What was important was the golden footprint, the magic footprint she had left on his life and no one could ever remove.”

He engages in a relationship with one of his students who loves him in a mundane way.

In the meantime, Tomas’s son from his early wife contacted him and tries to manipulate him in his political ideology of him. But Tomas denies amiably. Finally, Tomas and Teresa disturbed by the political turmoil, move to a countryside farm and there they lost their dog Karenin due to cancer. This affects the couple as they try hard to save the dog. In the end, Teresa and Tomas die in a car accident.

The eternal quest for love and possession through the characters:

The novel centres around four main characters and a dog- Tomas, Tereza, Sabina, Franz and the dog Karenin.

Everyone in this novel tries desperately to claim his or her love and right over the other character. Tomas tries to claim his freedom over everything even beyond his love for Tereza. Tereza wants Tomas to stop his clandestine affairs and be faithful to her.

Sabina is the counterpart or clone of Thomas. Like Thomas, she also believes in the lightness of existence. That’s why no one’s love can ever pull her behind be it, Tomas or Franz. Her wish after her death, that she will be cremated and scattered to the winds signifies her freedom. Tomas and Tereza die on weight but Sabina wants to die on lightness.

“Conversely, the absolute absence of a burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into the heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant.”

This is her theory. She is a free soul whom no one can bind or fretter even in the name of love.

Franz wants Sabina over his wife Marie-Claude. But ultimately Marie-Claude claimed Franz’s dead body and termed his digression only as a mid-life crisis. He lives her. This confirmation soothes her.

Every character is running behind the other to get fulfilled…as if they are the crippled soul wishing to get completed by others. Even Tereza tries to find her solace in the dog Karenin, who is named after Anna Karenina, the great book of Tolstoy.

Some striking ideas explored in this novel:

Only one life, one option:

As we live only one life we are not sure what is better for us. It reminds me of a novel by Matt Haig, The Midnight Library where the protagonist Nora had the opportunity to live multiple lives and to finalize among them. But in reality, we don’t have such kind of privilege.

“We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come.”

There is no way by which we can compare the options of our life…as we are provided only one life- only one option.

“And what can life be worth if the first rehearsal for life is life itself?”

Hercules’s Broom:

”Just before disappearing from his horizon, she had slipped him Hercules’ broom, and he had used it to sweep everything he despised out of his life. Sudden happiness, a feeling of bliss, the joy that came of freedom”.

Sabina leaves Franz, betrays him one way. But she provides him with Hercules’s broom with which he swipes away the unnecessary burdens of his life. Hercules’s broom is the power that helps you to be determined and resolute.

The Suitcase:

The Suitcase of Tereza has great importance in this novel. It contains the world of Tereza: “It was large and enormously heavy.”

And that heaviness permeates in Tomas as he welcomes Tereza into his life.

Tereza’s Dreams:

 “During the day, she tried (though with only partial success) to believe what Tomas told her and to be as cheerful as she had been before. But her jealousy thus tamed by day burst forth all the more savagely in her dreams, each of which ended in a wail he could silence”

Teresa’s dreams are horrible and painstaking. Their horrendous reality even in the dream makes Tereza tremble and shatter Tomas. It aches his heart, plunge in the sea of agony. He takes her in his arms tightly and tries to soothe her to sleep. She sleeps but he cannot…his love becomes unbearable to him and he feels like a heart attack.

again Teresa’s dreams indicate her insecurity and fear. She finds her solace and shelter in Tomas. But Tomas’s frivolous nature haunts her. She feels insecure. In her dream she finds herself buried when Tomas is out for another woman. Under the grave, her beauty is diminishing as she is spending months on sleepless nights. In her unconscious mind, she visions Tomas with his mistresses, Sabina and the unanimous ones.

Parmenides v/s Beethoven:

Parmenides, the pre-Socratic Greek Philosopher believes in lightness:  “lightness is positive, weight is negative.”

Beethoven considered weight as something positive: “Es muss sein. Es muss sein.” That’s why Tomas has to step back for Teresa. It is Teresa who forces him to buy Beethoven’s records.

Themes:

Control and Power:

Tomas always wants to control his life. His theory of love and sex is his own conception that does not match with Tereza. ” Making love with a woman and sleeping with a woman are two separate passions, not merely different but opposite. Tomas has the power to philander with other women but he has no control over his own habit. he is afraid that if he remains faithful to only Tereza then he will lose power over relationships.

Love, an Illusion:

Kundera breaks the illusion, the hallow surrounding ‘love’. The metaphors are dangerous as well as the hypothetical assumptions of romantic encounters, heavenly bonds etc. Love is fleeting. The emotion related to love as we name it or celebrate it in our song or show is nothing but an ephemeral fleeting moment.

Sex vs Love:

The novel encounters a very serious issue that is otherwise tabooed or not discussed. For Tomas love and sex are two different things. Love demands mental attachment, responsibility, commitment, whereas sex is easy and free. He can take part in sex without bothering for love. But for Teresa sex is a part of love. As she loves Tomas she enjoys sex with him, otherwise not. Being disgusted and frustrated with Tomas’s debauchery she tries to make a relationship with a man. But she fails in her attempt. For Sabina boundless sex is freedom. But at the same time when Franz is with her, she feels disgusted by his closed eyes. As she does not feel the connection with Franz she remains frigid and Franz weeps at the end of their intercourse realising her refraining in the process.

Lightness v/s Weight:

The quintessence of the novel exists on the uncertain elusive nature of meaning and the opposition of lightness and heaviness. It is more a novel of ideas than a love story. Every character broods in some ideas and contemplation. While Tomas and Sabina want to take life as light, Franz and Tereza are prone to heaviness…with their serious emotional attachments with other characters.

The Plot and the Tone:

The plot is tricky…ever elusive. The fragmented storyline is infused with interludes of philosophical introspection. Through this deep contemplative style of magic realism Kundera explores his characters and their conflicts. The plot is not linear and it is hard to keep the connection between past and present. The novel focuses on different plots connected with ideas and introspections. A brooding melancholy of unattainable expedition overshadowed the plots of the novel.

Alvina’s Verdict:

What I have learnt from this novel I am not sure about. But something keeps me on track, in deep contemplation. The ideas, the conflicting, the notions of being the crisis of existence the elusive …for power among the interacting characters.

One thing is not clear to me why does Sabina leave Franz in abysmal confusion even when he left his wife for her? Is this her theory of lightness that she does not want to get involved with other characters? The novel seems to be a string of flimsy, shadowy, flowers which we cannot touch but feel…like the novelist the eternal ambiguity haunts me…the perpetual pair of difference…dark and night, lightness and weight. And if lightness is positive weight is negative. In this respect Sabina is positive and the others who get entangled in the cobweb of commitment, relationship, coming and going… recurrent activities of life are living negative lives.

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Author

munu.ruku2020@gmail.com
Hi, I'm Munmun here and welcome to my book review blog. I'm an English Teacher. But more than that I love to read books and write down my thoughts. I feel we can change the world by circulating the introspections of great columnists throughout the world. You are free to contact me at munu.ruku2020@gmail.com.

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