Posted by: Jeff | March 2, 2010

The Unbearable Lightness of Reading Kundera

Coincidences are funny occurrences.  One could go months without hearing any reference to Milan Kundera in everyday conversation – he’s a fantastic writer, but hardly one on the New York Times best-seller list these days.  Yet, seemingly the moment I started his The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, references to Kundera (frequently in the form of praise for The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a book I read last year) are everywhere, peppering conversation with friends, co-workers, and frequently read blogs.

Kundera is a difficult author.  His prose is beautiful, but the subject matter dense, which makes up for the remarkable shallow and one-dimensional characters he often employs to make points about the complexity metaphysical reality.  Reading The Book of Laughter and hearing references to The Unbearable Lightness have me re-thinking my position on the latter book.  I read it almost non-stop, devouring pages like few books compel me to do.  Yet in the end, looking back upon what I’d read, I found the characters revolting, the plot heavy-handed, but the prose beautiful.

Kundera’s prose is poetic, but even described in beauty, the ugliness of the characters shines through constantly. The four protagonists – Sabina, Franz, Tomas, and Tereza – are each worthy of pity and disdain frequently throughout the novel, and only very rarely respect. Kundera explores human weakness in each of its manifestations – Tereza’s helplessness, Tomas’ selfishness, Franz’s whimsical convictions, Sabina’s constant betrayals – each makes empathy difficult to share.

In the end Kundera’s philosophical treatise on the meaning of life is bleak and depressing. Casting aside the weight of human decisions, Kundera utilizes the pain dominant in each of the relationships between characters to show that it is nothing more than fate that drives our actions. All actions taken with conviction lead only to unhappiness – and in more than one case, imminent death.

Using Beethoven and Nietzsche, Kundera depicts choice as imperative – fate forces Tomas’ hand to act as he does. Even Tomas does not know why he stays with Tereza, telling himself simply, “es muss sein.” In this way, the lives of each character drag on in a straight line, eluding the complete circle that each of them seek. Kundera’s philosophy seems to be one of nihilism – that each man should live life a moment at a time and abandon all pretense of caring for the future – the unbearable lightness of our being is that each moment, and indeed each life, carries very little significance.

The ending redeems Tereza and Tomas somewhat. While Franz and Sabina are left alone, having failed to add any real purpose to their lives, Tomas and Tereza’s retreat to the countryside seems to have given some significance to their lives. Alone with one another and their faithful dog Karenin, Tomas and Tereza find significance in their own relationship, leading the rest of their lives content with a mundane existence of solitude together. Both realize that their relationship with Karenin is more meaningful and satisfactory than anything accomplished in their lifetime. The end leaves neither happy – but both are resigned to a life of little meaning; it is pointless to live life with the future in mind when all that matters is the relationships one forms with others.

If life is devoid of occurrence and the actions of man happen in a void, all that remains is that one can make the best of the moment in which he finds himself. To that end, Tereza and Tomas attempt to find happiness in the countryside, knowing that their life on earth can only be defined in the present.

The novel’s conclusion is highly unsatisfactory to the reader – life lived in the moment is free of burdensome constraints that weigh one down, but surely there’s some higher purpose or reality in which one can find meaning. Relationships, politics, humanity – all of these things, to Kundera, are fleeting and the source of all betrayal.  The Book of Laughter and Forgetting addresses this philosophy head-on, utilizing autobiographical anecdotes to flavor Kundera’s story-telling.  The experience of Prague Spring and the later Soviet reprisal dashed hopes and dimmed dreams throughout Czechoslovakia – for Kundera and thousands of other Czechs, life under the Soviet shadow had a profound impact on their state of mind.  Perhaps in this personal experience there will be answers as to why Kundera believes the world is a bleak and oppressive place.


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