This is either a book of philosophy masquerading as a novel, or a novel about the lives of four or five characters with pretensions to be a book of philosophy. Either way, it's an amazing work. Since it is well-known and no doubt, well-reviewed, I might not be able to say anything new here. Kundera deals with his characters in a rather sketchy way, using them to pose a number of questions, rather than to go into great psychological depth. Yet, even there, the characters Tomas and Tereza do come through well. Their moods and motivations, even their dreams, hold a reader's attention. A couple of the others, Sabina and Franz, maybe Franz' wife, are very light indeed. Kundera is interested in sex and love, in the fact that they tie people down, in the fact that they are so fickle, so gosssamer light, yet so important. In a time when ideology and/or political oppression create craziness or stupidity and the common sense of daily life is overthrown---as in post-1968 Czechoslovakia and maybe pre-Gulf War II America---love and sex are more or less what is left for people to hang on to. Kundera also ponders the choices that people make, and the extremely haphazard way these choices come about, based perhaps on endless strings of coincidence.
This is not a novel long on plot. Rather it is a vehicle for some very intelligent musings. When living under oppressive rulers "is it better to shout and thereby hasten the end, or to keep silent and gain thereby a slower death ?" What is the nature of love ? Have you ever read the philosophy of excrement or kitsch ? You can find them here. Man is a cow parasite, he tells us, (though he's probably talking about a certain percent of humanity only) and goes on to say that attitude towards animals is a fundamental moral test of Man. We've failed. As you live, you write the story of your life. You don't get the chance to "write" an alternative story; there are no comparisons for you. History is the same, he says, as light as individual human life. There is no possibility of comparison of chances either in history or life. These are only a small sample of the interesting thoughts and ideas Kundera mulls over. If that sort of book is your bag, you're going to love this one. The choice you make by reading it, may evolve into something completely different in your life, have totally different repercussions sooner or later. Will you recognize that ? After all, each book of any consequence you read leaves an imprint. THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING will definitely do so.
on September 6, 2005
This novel represents the pinnacle of the career of a very talented and relevant writer. Kundera is a writer who can mix philosophy with satire, and humour with very accurate social observations.
In 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being' Kundera tries to determine whether our actions on this earth have significance and therefore weight, or whether our actions have no ramifications and are therefore light and are dead in advance. The question he deems more important however, is which of these two situations is preferrable. Should we attach importance and weight to our actions, or should we live a life without consequence, doing whatever we want, whenever we want and to whomever we want.
Thomas' life is the perfect example of a life lived without weight. He slips from one affair to another without a second thought because he cannot stand the 'ball and chain' effect of staying with one woman. There are those who would see Tomas as a callous womaniser, but for Kundera he is the perfect tool with which to demonstrate the "lighter" way of living. The doctrine of "Einmal ist keinmal" is one that torments Tomas. The idea that a life lived once may as well have never been lived at all, and he will not get to return to test his love for Tereza against his love for other women. Although Tomas feels restricted by this situation, he ultimately grows to accept and even enjoy the lightness of being.
While Tomas battles with lightness, Tereza battles with weight. She is worn down and frustrated by Tomas' philandering, and of the two she is the one who is much more in need of embracing lightness. Through the events of the story and the shifting attitudes and conceptions of the characters, both of them end up coming to the same conclusion with respect to lightness and weight. The debate over these two options is after all the general thrust of this magnificent novel.
on June 8, 2002
The world of Milan Kundera's writing is a special place. Long an admirer of his "Book of Laughter and Forgetting," I only recently sat back and read this marvelous novel of love and obsession, lust and oppression. "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" is primarily the tale of a Prague physician, Tomas, who escapes with his wife Tereza to Zurich after the Russian tanks roll over their country in 1968. When his infidelities drive her to leave him and return to Prague he follows her, knowing there will be no other chance to escape Communism. An editorial Tomas has published in an anti-Communist newspaper loses him his license to practice medicine and he soon becomes a window washer. Much to his surprise he's happier for a while in a job he doesn't have to think about ("it's a terrific relief to realize you're free, free of all missions"). Meanwhile, Tereza continues to play the martyr as his philandering increases. The reader is left to wonder whether it is weakness or strength that keeps them together, and how much the lack of political freedom affects the way men and women love each other. Kundera's narrator explores these and other vital questions of being, sometimes with gentle prodding, and others with sudden incisiveness.
Writtten in 1984, five years before the Velvet Revolution would draw back the Iron Curtain from Kundera's Czech homeland, "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" is both a product of its era and a timeless work of art. It makes us wonder whether life is difficult because it is heavy, or because the fleetingness of it makes us too light to really make a mark. This novel of heavy concepts is written with such a light touch that the mark it makes cannot be denied. The narrator brings up the German phrase "Einmal ist keinmal": whatever happens once may as well not have happened at all-unlike many other books we read and forget as soon as we finish the last page, this one sticks, even as it cries out to be re-read.
on December 2, 2001
I had no idea what I was getting into when I bought this book. But it turned out that I enjoyed it, and although it was more tedious to read towards the end, I would recommend it to anyone who can speed read.
To me this book was written as one incredibly long train of thought. The train itself breaks off into other smaller trains of thought, but it always goes back to the principle story: that of Tomas and Tereza. While Kundera may turn off the reader who doesn't enjoy straight story-telling, he does tell a story here. It's not just a book of random musings and incoherent philosophizing.
That said, the stories of "Unbearable.."'s characters are simple enough. Tomas is a philanderer, torn between his lifestyle and his love for Tereza, who kind of fell into his life by chance. Tereza is his wife, who is tortured by his infidelity but cannot leave him. Other more minor characters include Sabina, a mistress of Tomas, and Franz, another married lover of Sabina.
These four characters are Kundera's chosen examples of the human experience. He reveals their inner desires and motives, and otherwise tells their psychological stories along with their real-life stories. They each have "issues", as does everyone in this world. But it's interesting how their personal philosophies, having been shaped by both their human experience and their intrinsic individuality, are so different from each other's. This in return shapes the experiences they have with each other. Tereza and Tomas lived for so long together, yet they never really thought alike. And because of this, they lived totally separate lives.
That, in full, is my take on the book. Kundera presents many other theories on the human experience, and I found them all interesting, but the one element that I found carried the book through was the variance in the characters' personal (as in mental, emotional, and psychological) life experience. This variance made a whole world of difference, because what is life, outside how we perceive it?
The real-life stories are also interesting, but I think they are meant to be in the background. The main story is mental, it's in their reactions to life, which drives their future actions. I say this because their lives end quite insignificantly, as though they might as well not have lived--a phrase in the book proves this "What happens but once might as well not have happened at all."
And yes, if our lives are perceived this way, we might as well rule them out as insignificant. Our lives can be taken so lightly that is in unbearable--the unbearable lightness of being. But Kundera makes this point in the beginning: his characters are merely that. Characters. He uses them to illustrate his theories on the human experience.
So is this book a negative commentary on life's insignificance? Is Kundera trying to tell us that life means nothing? I doubt that. I think viewed from the outside, our lives might seem like they mean nothing. But to each of us, our life is colored and perceived by what we bring to it: by our history, our philosophy, our dreams. Life is a personal experience, and if it means nothing to everyone else, it at least means something to us, for we are the ones who live it.
on June 16, 2003
This book is more of a philosophical prose poem than a real novel - the characters are simply embodiments of various attitudes and have little depth. The story itself is disjointed, jumping from the sexual relationships of four main characters at the core of the plot, to unrelated essays on politics, the psychology of kitsch, and other vaguely philosophical topics. The only really redeeming moments come from the intricate and fascinating depiction of the "Prague Spring" of which Kundera was a part. But with this book Kundera is one of those intellectuals who props up his light-weight curiosities with weighty metaphors and a pompous academic tone.
Kundera's intellectual meanderings leap over logical chasms with a single "therefore" or "it follows that" with little reason for us to follow him. He demands too much from an idea based on a single metaphor. For example, at the very beginning of the book he confidently asserts "In the love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighted down by the man's body. The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life's most intense fulfillment." It sounds profound until you actually think about it. Kundera exaggerates the weight of a man's body during sex into the "heaviest of burdens" - links it with a "therefore" - and makes that sexual weight into "life's most intense fulfillment." This is supposed to illustrate how weight, which is often taken to be a negative thing, can also be positive, but it's a very slipshod connection.
These kinds of rhetorical games, combined with recurrent references to Nietzsche and Beethoven, create an intellectual facade that seems much weightier than it really is. Built on many false presumptions and bolstered by an epic, scholarly tone, the novel is interesting in its musings, but should not be taken too seriously as a work of philosophical or psychological depth.
All in all, I feel that "Unbearable" can be an interesting diversion if you want to know Milan Kundera's opinions about sex and society, but it's ultimately rather irrelevant and not deserving of its reputation.
on December 28, 2003
Milan Kundera is an intellectual author of several books of fiction and poetry, plays, and essays. He is even considered by some to be a philosopher. So if you are looking for light reading or erotic literature, then look elsewhere. Even though it is a fairly easy read and it does have a lot of sex, you will be disappointed with this novel. If, however, you are a thinker who loves ideas, a student of philosophy, or a fan of philosophical fiction, then this "book of ideas" is a must read.
In this book "lightness" is living superficially, uncommitted, and selfishly without purpose. Weight or "heaviness" is living committed to and loving a spouse, burdened with adherence to and sacrifice for principles that are greater than oneself. In this novel Kundera tells a story of how living a life of lightness is inevitably unbearable, untenable, and that in order to find meaning and peace and happiness in this life, we must take on the weight of commitment and purpose outside ourselves.
The philosophy of the novel is essentially existential, and the reader will find many of its concepts operating in the lives of the novel's characters: Life is a series of unique, chance events that the individual experiences in isolation (even though surrounded by people, no one can truly understand the experience of another in the same way); that the universe is indifferent; and that human existence is unexplainable and essentially meaningless; the importance of freedom of choice and responsibility for the consequences of one's actions. But there is a lot more in this novel than just these few concepts - much, much more.
I say this novel is flawed because it seems to me to cry out for more rewriting and editing. As it is I call it "near great". It is somewhat disordered, overly sexual, and overly ambitious. It contains too many "philosophical" ideas that are left undeveloped. And it includes a lot of discussion and criticism about Communism and the Soviet "invasion" of Czechoslovakia in the Spring of 1968 (although this does have a profound impact on the main characters in the novel). All of this made the book hard to read and follow, and left me confused as to the intended meaning of the novel.
Of course great literature is hardly ever easy, and some brainpower is usually required to "put it all together". And in the case of a great novel like Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury" figuring out what is going on is half the fun! But in the case of The U. L. of B. I don't think Kundera was trying to write just a great novel. He didn't intend to tell a story that we could figure out completely. His purpose was to engender thought. Not to answer all of life's questions, but to raise some of his own for our consideration and reflection. And at the same time to give us some ideas that may help us to find meaning and happiness and purpose in our own lives.
But, even with all the philosophical and intellectual stuff, the novel is still poignant and tender. It even made me cry at one point near the end of the book.
Here are a few questions / ideas to keep in mind while reading the novel: What is the significance of sexual lust and promiscuity in our lives, and how do they relate to love, happiness, and contentment? How do commitment and betrayal relate to love, happiness, and contentment? How much do we really control in our lives, and how much are we victims of circumstance? Can we cope with lack of control and "randomness" (perhaps even absurdity) in our lives and still find happiness and peace of mind? Can we find any truth in a world full of lies, deceit, phoniness, manipulation, scheming, propaganda, and kitsch? In this regard, how does our modern, urban lifestyle compare with a natural, idyllic Garden of Eden life that is without guile? Is our human existence better than that of animals? What can we learn about love from the difference in the way we love animals and people?
After you finish the novel, be sure to watch the movie. It is beautifully done. It stays close to the main plot of the novel, and the screenplay writer did a very good job of clarifying the novel's principal philosophical message.
on August 17, 2001
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera is the uncanny, carefully structured, multi-layered love story I greatly cherished. More than a love story, the Unbearable Lightness is a full exploration into love and human relationships including disappointment, guilt, devotion and how lovers can grow to hate one another. Tomas is a respected surgeon in Prague, Czechoslovakia, with a die-hard habit of womanizing. Tereza an unhappy, mistreated girl from a small town outside of Prague, is one of his women. Tomas marries her out of a combination of love and pity. Tomas' desire to be a responsible husband creates a conflict with his lifestyle as Tereza's need and adulation of Tomas conflicts with her guilt of changing his lifestyle with Sabina, Tomas's favorite mistress intruding and enjoying it, all creating a spectrum of emotions, all studied and explained from several angles by Kundera, our gentle narrator who simultaneously presents Freudian, metaphysical and historical perspectives. Meanwhile, the book is given a political layer as Communist Russia takes hold of the books' backdrop of Prague. The Unbearable Lightness of Being is unlike any other book I have read. Kundera dissects emotions with the care of a surgeon and the grace of a maestro. Unbearable Lightness is an unforgettable, lyrical and life-altering novel.
on December 10, 1998
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera is a book which is difficult to describe, as one does not know how to label it. The novel provides many topics to which readers will react in various ways. They will also differ in their opinions about the most important topic. To me, the topics love, sex and friendship are the most important. In his novel Kundera gives a description of how deep emotions can express themselves, as for example by nightmares. He not only gives psychological insight in emotions, such as love, but gives philosophical information on them, too. Kundera for example tells in the book the story of Aristophanes by Platon. As the novel is set at the time of the Prague Spring, one also gets historical information. Although the story evolves around different fictional topics it could just as well be the story of real people, which for me is an attractive factor. Tomas, the male protagonist, falls in love with Teresa and marries her, while still having several one-night stands. Moreover, he maintains a love-affair with Sabina, who herself has one with Franz. Teresa is aware of Tomas' adulteries and can hardly bear the situation. For Teresa, love and sex go together, whereas Tomas believes that having sex without being in love is possible. The female protagonist therefore suffers from the heaviness of life, while her male counterpart feels the unbearable lightness of being. Teresa later tries to gain this lightness for herself. The description of emotions given by the omniscient narrator is not alien to me and I suspect will not be to other people either. Most of us carry the heavy and also the light, the expression of either part depending on character and circumstances. For that reason, one can identify with Teresa as well as Tomas and Sabina, too. I like the novel because the deepest emotions are frankly talked about. When I read the book for the first time the thoughts expressed on the three main topics resembled what I called the truth. As truth is subjective, not everyone will find his or hers in this novel. Still it is a book worth reading for it provides a stimulus for further thoughts on the topics, which for me are the essential ones of life.
on April 14, 1998
I read this book a few years ago when what was happening in my life at that time made me think about the nature of romantic love, the nature of affection, and the nature of emotions in general. Reading this book gave me a vocabulary to express the things that had been crystallizing in my mind. What I concluded was that emotions are essentially 'light' (not in the sense of being trivial but in the sense of being fleeting, body-based and not amenable to concepts such as morality) and by their very nature, any discourse that assumes any permanence is irrelevent while talking or thinking about them. This was a huge discovery and it significantly changed my world view. I further concluded that to be happy one needs to keep in mind this essential 'lightness' of things. But of course, the 'lightness' is 'unbearable', by our very nature we are susceptible to 'vertigo' (another Kundera concept - I don't remember if he talks about it in this book or one of his later books) - a need to define things, make them solid, make them heavy. It is this paradox that defines most of the human experience. The experience of reading this book too is an essentially 'light' experience and very enjoyable.
on January 15, 2006
Being my first but certainly not my last Kundera novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, exposed a great power of language; its ability to effortlessly move the reader. Kundera's novel holds meaning on three levels: the historical, the philosophical, and the romanctic. The intellectual reader and the everyday simpleton (of which category I shamelessly fall into) can both extract something valuable from this mature work of fiction.
There are the philosophical connections as Kundera dives into Nietzche's philosophy on eternal return or offers a German adage or an application of "kitsch". For those that might not completely grasp these concepts, Kundera writes in a third person omniscient style that allows hims to both stick to the the story line of Tomas, Tereza, Sabina, Franz, and Karenin but also go off on retrospective tangents.
Even by setting his novel in a Communist run Czech, Kundera succeeds in creating a timeless piece but fails to make it feel "autonomous":independent of any system of political beilef, because the lives of the characters are so affected and shaped by what is happening in their world. As the love story progresses, the reader finds so many symbols and questions for instance, about jealousy, the body and the soul, nakedness, misunderstood words, and dreams. Kundera plays with these ambiguious structures of signs to show the innate essence of human existence.
By far, I was moved by the realistic portrayal of human weaknesses and faults through his intertwined love stories. Not your typical "boy meets girl, they date, they marry, they work and have kids, and then ultimately die" love story, Tomas's scandolous affairs, Tereza's insecurites, Sabina's never ending betrayals, and so on keep the plot interesting. Man versus Man, Man vs. Himself, and Man vs. Animal are all themes that come together through Kundera's humor, skepticism, and fundamental pessimism. Warning at times the novel got heavy and depressing, but Kundera's vivid imagery and subtle injections of light and reflection created a perfect balance of meaning.
I would recommend this novel to anyone who wants "art for the sake of art". Anyone who truly wants to be moved into self-reflection and wants to take a journey through Kundera's infinite ways of interpereting the presented facts. The story doesn't hold a lot of suspense and action but is like a slow long walk that the reader never wants to end. This novel conveys an experience that is almost untangible as well as indescribable because Kundera dishes it in a way that each person must accommodate the meaning into their own existing schemas. Far from unbearable, this novel is sensual, reflective, and indeniably honest about the most essential themes concerning Man; motivation, purpose, and love.