The Unbearable Lightness of Being

UnbearableLightnessThe third part of this 1984 novel by Milan Kundera, titled “Words Misunderstood,” includes something called “A Short Dictionary of Misunderstood Words.” This dictionary is an attempt on the part of the author to catalog some of the many misunderstandings between two lovers, Sabina and Franz. These two first met as adults, after the musical composition that is their lives has already been written, and so “although they had a clear understanding of the logical meaning of the words exchanged, they failed to hear the semantic susurrus of the river flowing through them.” For example, Franz considers fidelity to be the highest of virtues, but for Sabina, the word implies the worst sorts of puritanism. She prefers betrayal—“breaking ranks and going off into the unknown.”

Sabina and Franz aren’t the only couple to suffer from different ideas about love. Tereza and Tomas, the book’s central characters, have a similar problem. Tomas feels driven to have sex with many women, and Tereza is tormented by his infidelities. She has nightmares about his betrayals, nightmares often tied in with her own fear of exposure, yet she remains loyal to Tomas. And Tomas is loyal to Tereza—in his way. The two feel bound together by destiny. They’ve concocted a story of their meeting, turning a series of coincidences into a sign of fate, perhaps because that’s more comforting than acknowledging their relationship is a mistake. Because they can’t know that it’s a mistake, as the author himself tells us:

There is no means of testing which decision is better, because there is no basis for comparison. 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 keinmal, says Tomas to himself. What happens but once, says the German adage, might as well not have happened at all. If we only have one life to live, we might as well not have lived at all.

This novel is filled with images and moments of weighing and testing. Testing out different paths, weighing the value of a life, testing a lover, weighing a political decision. Some characters, like Tereza, are weighed down by it all, and others, like Sabina, bear no more burdens than they have to. No one choice is depicted as more correct than another, whether it’s the choice of which lover to be faithful to, or which political position to openly espouse (the latter being a particularly serious decision in Soviet-dominated Czechoslovakia, where most of the novel is set).

Kundera tells us that

The characters in my novels are my own unrealized possibilities. That is why I am equally fond of them all and equally horrified by them. Each one has crossed a border that I myself have circumvented. It is that crossed border (the border beyond which my own “I” ends) which attracts me most. For beyond that border begins the secret the novel is about. The novel is not the author’s confession; it is an investigation of human life in the trap the world has become.

Hmm… I suppose I could get frustrated that Kundera has just interpreted the novel for me. All this weighing and measuring is him weighing his own choices. But this novel is overflowing with ideas, and there are lots more questions to ask.

For example, what is that secret the novel is about? There’s a lot of talk about repetition, and each character could be said to be Kundera’s way of living life more than once and thus escaping the “einmal ist keinmal” (once is nothing) problem. (That’s one way of dealing with it—another way is noting that repeated patterns characterize a life. Tomas is unfaithful because of the pattern of unfaithfulness. Tereza has one brief affair—that once is nothing.)

The novel opens with a sort of meditation on this question:

Putting it negatively, the myth of eternal return states that a life which disappears once and for all, which does not return, is like a shadow, without weight, dead in advance, and whether it was horrible, beautiful, or sublime, its horror, sublimity, and beauty mean nothing. We need take no more note of it than of a war between two African kingdoms in the fourteenth century, a war that altered nothing in the destiny of the world, even if a hundred thousand blacks perished in excruciating torment.

Certainly the story in the novel gives us reason to think that a life that doesn’t return (and what life does?) doesn’t matter. In the end, a story of that life is crafted and emblazoned on a tombstone, but that story is what Sabina would call kitsch, an appeal to the emotions that covers up the truth of life and with all its shit and death. Everything is simplified and made to conform to a pattern, so that it isn’t true at all. And so no life can truly return; all we’ll ever get are shadows. Even Sabina, who is determined not to be reduced to kitsch, lives in Franz’s heart as a guiding angel who determines his steps—and those steps lead him to actions that the real Sabina would not be likely to support. She has become the story he’s made up about her.

Still, I can’t accept that it is returning that makes a life matter. Life matters as it’s lived, for the living—and that’s true in this novel. One character, Karenin the dog, is wholly unconcerned with these big questions. Karenin, a female dog with a male name (referred to as he in the book), isn’t exploring alternatives. Karenin just is. And Karenin’s life and death matter tremendously, both to his owners and to the narrative. And his owners’ death matters, as small and meaningless as it turns out to be, given the other possibilities. The lives that could have been, the lives that echo through history may matter, but they are no more real than a couple in the country with a dog. And what’s real is what matters.

I read this book for a book group that I’ve just recently joined; it’s one of those rare book groups that discusses the book for the entire two-hour meeting. We probably could have discussed it for another two hours; it’s a rich book, that turns in on itself again and again, never letting itself get pinned down, even when the author himself pipes in with his interpretations. Before discussing the book, I could see bits of what Kundera was trying to do, but talking about it enabled me to see even more—and to be more impressed with it. It also made it more difficult not to write an epically long post. I’ve noticed too much now, and I want to share it. This post is my attempt to pull together my own thoughts about the many observations people in the group made into a semi-coherent reading of the novel. Semi-coherent is the best I can do; there’s a lot going on in this book. And I’ve only read it once, so perhaps my musings don’t mean a thing: Einmal ist keinmal, after all. But I have only one life and only so much time to give to putting my thoughts into words. Muss es sein? Es muss sein!

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12 Responses to The Unbearable Lightness of Being

  1. Boy, it has been a long time since I read this – 25 years. That dog! Kundera really turned the screws in that scene, didn’t he?

    Congratulations on finding that book club.

    • Teresa says:

      The intensity of the scene with the dog is what convinced me that whatever Kundera as narrator may say, Einmal ist not necessarily keinmal in this novel. (Then again, that could be me succumbing to kitsch, thus illustrating that point.)

      I found the group on Meetup. It’s been around for a while and is pretty popular. They limit the discussions to 20 people and have a waiting list most months. Good book selections, too, White Noise last month; Babbitt next month.

    • Both, both simultaneously. That is the brilliance of that scene.

      • Teresa says:

        Yes, yes, I think so. And it also puts the whole idea of kitsch into question. Is it such a bad thing if it gives meaning even to a dog’s life? Or does it elevate it too much? All readings are possible all at one, and we can’t trust even what Kundera the narrator says about it.

  2. Stefanie says:

    I remember seeing the movie and being so confused but at the same time awed by the story that I decided I had to read the book. But as these things go I still have not read the book and it’s been how long since the movie? But you remind me that I still want to read the book and why. So thanks! And let me just say how awesome your book group sounds!

    • Teresa says:

      I can’t imagine this working as a film. A couple of people in the group had seen it and said it focused on the love story, but from what you say, it must not have taken a straightforward approach to that story. I’ll have to see it one day–the cast is enough to make me think it’s worth a look, even if it doesn’t capture the book well.

  3. Alex says:

    I am lucky enough to belong to a group that can discuss a book for two hours as well and this sounds as though it might well be something we should read. I’ll put it to the others and see what they think. Thank you.

    • Teresa says:

      There’s lot of food for conversation here–and lots of levels of conversation, too. If your group does read it, I’d love to hear how it goes. Lots of people in my group didn’t like the book, but everyone seemed to enjoy talking about it.

  4. Perhaps peculiarly, what drew me into this book by Kundera was the intriguing title, and then I stuck with it, but as you point out, it is a particularly difficult book to read and assess. I enjoyed much more Kundera’s “The Joke,” which in its own way is dark, but not so sweepingly as “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.”

    • Teresa says:

      I love the title and the way he talks about unbearable lightness. I’m interested in reading more of his work, but this is the only of his books I’ve heard anything about, so I appreciate the suggestion of The Joke. I’ll look it up!

  5. Jeanne says:

    I also read this 25 years ago, during graduate school. I enjoyed it but have never felt the urge to reread it, partly because I thought the tone–the parts about how real sentiment can turn over and be revealed as kitsch–veered between what felt like truth and what felt like pretentiousness.

    • Teresa says:

      I know what you mean about it seeming pretentious at times but the more I think about it, the more I think we’re meant to question all those big declarations. Does the story make them seem true? Not always. At least they don’t convince me.

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