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The Unbearable Lightness of Being: A Novel Paperback – Deckle Edge, October 27, 2009
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"Brilliant . . . A work of high modernist playfulness and deep pathos."-- Janet Malcolm, "New York Review of Books""Kundera has raised the novel of ideas to a new level of dreamlike lyricism and emotional intensity." -- Jim Miller, "Newsweek""Kundera is a virtuoso . . . A work of the boldest mastery, originality, and richness."-- Elizabeth Hardwick, "Vanity Fair"
From the Back Cover
A young woman is in love with a successful surgeon, a man torn between his love for her and his incorrigible womanizing. His mistress, a free-spirited artist, lives her life as a series of betrayals—while her other lover, earnest, faithful, and good, stands to lose everything because of his noble qualities. In a world where lives are shaped by irrevocable choices and fortuitous events, and everything occurs but once, existence seems to lose its substance, its weight. Hence we feel "the unbearable lightness of being."
A major achievement from one of the world's truly great writers, Milan Kundera's magnificent novel of passion and politics, infidelity and ideas, encompasses the extremes of comedy and tragedy, illuminating all aspects of human existence.
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I liked almost nothing else about it. It was so intellectual and foreign it was as emotionally dry as a sterile desert or as a dictionary of words. This is one of those books which was hard for me to grasp because of the underlying messages and the ugly (intentional? - I have no idea) surface imagery, yet I can see it is a product of an intelligent, educated and thoughtful writer.
When I was a young, and even middle-aged, lass, if a book was praised by the New York Times, the New Yorker and other esteemed organs of literary knowledge, and given accolades, awards, and acclaimed status, and I also, in the reading of the book, could clearly see the obvious erudition of the author, I would have swallowed hard and joined the crowds clapping in ovation. Now, I feel free to admit I think this a bit overwritten and a lot disgustingly weird. If it is supposed to be 'post-modern', well, ok, then. I actually believe the author was making fun of modernism. If I'm right, then I 'got' it, but geesh. This was such an unpleasant book!
Do or did Europeans think like this? I felt as if these characters (and the intended reading audience) might be of the type of people who could get intellectually stimulated and artistically ecstatic over the discovery, while eating a bowl of soup served by a deformed undefinable person dressed in colorful wallpaper remnants whose hands smell of poop, of a genital hair floating in the soup, because of some kind of intellectualized romantic Art significance. Sorry, but I can't even pretend to a New York City or European intellectual cool at this level of artifice.
I want to write about something I liked: the dog. I disliked every single character, with the exception of Karenin, the dog. The dog was cute and dog-like, a natural crowd pleaser, but unfortunately, s/he was only peripheral to the action. However, there is more to the eye about Karenin than being a lovable fictional pet. The name is a homage to a famous novel, Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. The dog is female, but the couple who own the dog, Tereza and Tomas, decided to ignore its sex and Karenin is referred to as a male throughout the book. This kind of sex obfuscation, and the naming after an important character created by a famous author with an equally fascinating real life history is never done as an accident. There are literally hundreds of books analyzing and critiquing the book 'Anna Karenina', as well as hundreds of biographies about Leo Tolstoy. Tereza was carrying the book 'Anna Karenina' when she meets Tomas. But eventually, I didn't care about whatever meaning that was supposed to be in the renaming and sexing of this dog. Karenin ended up being the only likeable element for me as a breathing character. So what if s/he is a joke or reference on the endless deconstruction, symbolism and analysis of literary ideas and tropes? I liked the dog, and only the dog.
This book is entirely an ick, even if I think the book deserves a high-ish rating. I also thought the movie 'Animal House' was ick, and now some people consider the movie a life changer or a movie that defines a generation. I suppose it does. I still think it is stupid and ick. Whatever message(s) is here in 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being', which is perhaps a sarcastic one on an artistic style popular in literary history, as well as genuine angst about love, relationships and the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, it did not reach me except to cause distaste.
The book describes graphic body functions, so the rest of my review may be skipped by sensitive readers since I refer to these.
The inner dialogues of Tereze and Tomas (the heroes) were icky icky icky. Who thinks like these two? For instance, genitals having itches or smells or being used in sex isn't news to me, but paragraphs of personal neurotic obsessional thoughts which circle around and around (anal pun is intended - Tomas has a constant anus fixation and one of the women has to have sex immediately after picturing herself emptying her bowels), especially about women's bodies (not so much about men's bodies), encompassing obviously some sort of interior symbolic but completely off-the-wall weirdness, while solemnly pontificating on the meaning of their relationships and their love lives and how female body images (by the males, too) determines life choices was more like using an outdoor toilet instead of a deep-thought thinking. I finally understand why most literature in restrooms tend to be joke books, even if scatological - much more palatable than serious bowel-inspired philosophical desperation.
I think overtly this was a book of philosophical musings about the meanings of life, love, politics, the body/mind duality, whether the body is beautiful or ugly, happiness, fidelity, loyalty, historical significance, sex, the tangible and intangible, communism, art, metaphysical symmetry, and people as Muses (which may seem flattering) that result in meh or meaningless or unjustified outcomes. It encompasses a lot, and perhaps does so smartly in terms of Literary Modernism. Subconsciously, I suspect the author was constipated.
The 'plot' consists of characters, who are created for purposes of pure intellectual illustration (not entertainment or affection), that live and act through the Russian takeover of Czechoslovakia. Various Czech characters respond to the Communist regime in a bloodless philosophical two-dimensional fictional world, except when thinking about naked women or having sex, in which case they get spacey like people having a psychotic episode. They lose jobs, undergo social victimization, loss of freedoms of speech and respect, yet they find some meaning in loving each other. At least Tereza and Tomas do. Two other characters, Franz and Sabina have a bit of success, too, but perhaps arguably, and they seem to self-realize more realistically, if still too philosophically, unless having sex. Much of Kundera's philosophical angst happens to apply to other circumstances beyond the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, at least accordingly to other reviews, especially about love (?!?) and sex (?!?), so, many readers have become ecstatic over another possible Great Book for the Canon - but not me.
Since Kundera's characters were mostly symbolic creatures either built from mental existential angst or as demonstration pieces artfully carved out from philosophical concepts made flesh (and perhaps the author's being derisively critical of Literary Modernism?), the characters appeared like aliens from another galaxy in their responses to sex, bodies, relationships, marriage, etc. Or are Eastern Europeans of the 1970's so intellectually different in language, culture and Art that their mental/sexual strategies are beyond my American, lower-middle-class, interpretation? It definitely reminded me of some art French films made in the 1950's and 1960's that I've seen on TCM with subtitles. Or is it simply culturally different in the general sense similar to how we Americans hear cats 'Meow' but the Russians hear cats 'Myau'. I don't know.
Did you think that's an actual passage from this book? It could have been because every page is full of this pseudo psychological, existential, philosophical rubbish. If I'd wanted a badly executed lecture on these topics, I would have taken a Philosophy course at a community college in Burnt Corn, Alabama.
I might have better tolerated the ridiculous pontificating in this "novel" if it had any redeeming qualities other than its lovely title, but the characters are unlikable caricatures of people, created by the author to illustrate his opinions. And based on their interactions, I'm fairly certain that the author himself lives a miserable life of staring at himself in the mirror and questioning every thought, feeling or bodily function he must suffer through as a human being. There is also an excruciating disproportion between narration and dialogue, with the author frequently breaking the fourth wall to insert more lecturing. And the author's disdain for those of us not gifted with his brilliant insights into mankind is demonstrated by repetition to the point of redundancy, sometimes within paragraphs.
This was a book club selection that I read out of loyalty to the group. They now owe me big time, so I'd better get cookies at the next meeting.
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