In the 1980s, everyone was into The Unbearable Lightness of Being and other Kundera works, trying to understand what was happening inside the genius’s head. What is the Czech author's place in the world of today – and has it been harmed by his depiction of women?
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera tells the story of a young lady’s relationship with a man torn between his affection for her and his hopeless womanizing. The novel juxtaposes various geographical locations, splendid reflections, and an assortment of styles to take its place as Milan Kundera’s most significant accomplishment.
“Just imagine living in a world without mirrors. You’d dream about your face and imagine it as an outer reflection of what is inside you. And then, when you reached forty, someone put a mirror before you for the first time in your life. Imagine your fright! You’d see the face of a stranger. And you’d know quite clearly what you are unable to grasp: your face is not you.”
Kundera watches the processes that go on among the characters, intellectualizing them, and enlightening your concerns about them. He’s very philosophical, and makes you feel like the storyteller is conversing with you, offering insightful perceptions about the lives of the characters, when all is said and done. There is one motivation that explains why reading is always more important than sitting in front of a TV: when perusing a decent book, you get immediate mental clarifications, and you get the opportunity to go inside the characters’ heads.
This novel is quite significant, but in surprising ways. It’s not an explicit type of a novel, but rather one that speaks to you, and gives you a chance to feel, connect, and come to differing conclusions about what the author has given you. What’s more, it is not a smooth novel. In any case, the sections are short, which fits its vibe, and furthermore gives the opportunity to consider the thoughts Kundera develops.
“She had an overwhelming desire to tell him, like the most banal of women. Don’t let me go, hold me tight, make me your plaything, your slave, be strong!” But they were words she could not say.
The only thing she said when he released her from his embrace was, “You don’t know how happy I am to be with you.” That was the most her reserved nature allowed her to express.
Kundera leaves the impression that he is one of the great craftsmen of his profession. He switches the course of events deftly and clearly – even as the reader thinks it should be impossible to do this. When it feels as if he moves the climax of the novel towards its center, he proves the reader wrong. He demonstrates that he knew exactly what he was doing all along.
This novel isn’t loaded with clear, impactful, soul-searing, philosophical profundity, yet rather presents consistent impressions: chunks of realistic perceptions on practically every page, that when taken together, reveal a noteworthy, sincere, and genuine work.
“Anyone whose goal is ‘something higher’ must expect someday to suffer vertigo. What is vertigo? Fear of falling? No, Vertigo is something other than fear of falling. It is the voice of the emptiness below us which tempts and lures us, it is the desire to fall, against which, terrified, we defend ourselves.”
“To be mortal is the most basic human experience, and yet man has never been able to accept it, grasp it, and behave accordingly. Man doesn’t know how to be mortal. And when he dies, he doesn’t even know how to be dead.”
In this stunning survey of uncovered human instincts, Kundera endeavors to work out the significance of existence without losing his comical inclination. It is one of those extraordinary, unclassifiable, perfect works of art that show up uniquely, at regular intervals.
To end up plainly connected with a book’s initial pages is always a positive indicator. Nonetheless, at the back of any serious reader’s mind, there is the awareness that many books have begun in the stratosphere and then plunged back to earth. Milan Kundera’s Immortality, begins amazingly, then shows signs of improvement, and finishes with a lump in the throat as the reader is struck by a chord. Actually, the effect is similar to an Orchestra going at full tilt.
“The basis of shame is not some personal mistake of ours, but the ignominy, the humiliation we feel that we must be what we are without any choice in the matter, and that this humiliation is seen by everyone.”
There are some superbly written passages, evoking a philosophical journey to Heaven, and there is a brilliantly exquisite and provocative story hiding in the subtext. A second reading of this work of art may help unravel the vulnerabilities, as Kundera provokes the reader with mysteries that require deep thinking.
“Living, there is no happiness in that. Living: carrying one’s painful self through the world.
But being, being is happiness. Being: Becoming a fountain, a fountain on which the universe falls like warm rain.”
Very frequently, this splendid novel of love and vengeance has been referred to for its political ramifications. Today, a quarter of a century after The Joke was first published and quite a long while after the collapse of the pre-1990 Czechoslovak regime, it seems less challenging to put such ramifications into perspective and to esteem the book (and all of Kundera’s work) as what it really seems to be: incredible achievements, mixing writing that reveals new insight into the endless subject of the human experience.
“The psychological and physiological mechanism of love is so complex that at a certain period in his life a young man must concentrate all his energy on coming to grips with it, and in this way he misses the actual content of the love: the woman he loves. (In this he is much like a young violinist who cannot concentrate on the emotional content of a piece until the technique required to play it comes automatically.)”
The book plays out like a tense round of chess. Each move is exactly arranged. Kundera sets the characters off on their adventure, and follows them with his camera. Furthermore, we actually follow him. Some of the time the work seems like a film or a play. It depicts precisely what we see. No word goes wasted.
The greatest comic in the story, however, is Destiny, who makes a joke of the characters in the book, hence giving a theme to all of their stories.
“Most people willingly deceive themselves with a doubly false faith; they believe in eternal memory (of men, things, deeds, peoples) and in rectification (of deeds, errors, sins, injustice). Both are sham. The truth lies at the opposite end of the scale: everything will be forgotten and nothing will be rectified. All rectification (both vengeance and forgiveness) will be taken over by oblivion.”
Plus, there’s the character of the mysterious Lucie.
“A great deal has been said about love at first sight; I am perfectly aware of love’s retrospective tendency to make a legend of itself, turn its beginnings into myth; so I don’t want to assert that it was love; but I have no doubt there was a kind of clairvoyance at work: I immediately felt, sensed, grasped the essence of Lucie’s being or, to be more precise, the essence of what she was later to become for me; Lucie had revealed herself to me the way religious truth reveals itself.”
All your donations will be used to pay the magazine’s journalists and to support the ongoing costs of maintaining the site.