Back in the 1990's, in the wake of the Communist regimes' demise in Eastern Europe, we had a chance to discover the literatures of a number of very interesting countries. Milan Kundera, long exiled in France for his opposition to the Soviet puppets, became a cultural icon, an immensely popular writer, and for good reasons. His surprising blend of novel-essays was refreshing, and for some reason, I didn't read TULOB back then, but "The Immortality" which I liked even better than this one. I saw the movie, though, and liked it a lot as well.
However, I'm not sure that his books are ageing so gracefully. The novel is certainly interesting, analyzing in depth the phenomenon of infidelity and the fact that some persons are easily able to distinguish between sexual desire and love (Thomas, Sabina), while others find it extremely difficult (Theresa). It is a mistery what determines this fact. The other deep discussion, of course, is the basic existential dilemma: to have to choose between mutually exclusive options in a unique, irrepeatable, life. Oh, and the "lightness" or "heavinness" of being. I totally agree with you, Sterling, in disagreeing with Kundera and Nietzsche (whom I have just started to read) on this issue, although I had it in my mind as a diffuse feeling, before you put it into precise words: it is exactly the irrepeatability (does the word exist?) of human life which gives it its heavinness, its life-or-death substantiality: you have just one chance, that's it. Otherwise, if one were to have multiple lives, Life would become lightweight, frivolous, almost irrelevant: what's the problem with dying young while trying to skydive off the Everest summitt, if a few moments later you would wake up again, only to become a degenerate, hedonistic rock star who could comfortably die at 27, then to be born again and try becoming a Nobel Prize in something? Sounds like fun, but it's a pipe dream and would probably becoming boring after a few iterations.
In fact, Kundera implicitly acknowledges this when he says that the lack of life's recurrence is in itself a stimulus for an attentive, reflective life: to be blind to life's coincidences in everyday life is to lose the dimension of Beauty that lies hidden in it, if only we open our eyes and minds to detect it.
The characters DO have a problem in not being likable, not in the sense of "nice" or "endearing" (many of the most literarily liekable characters are despicable, perverse, twisted beings), but in that they take their obsessions to sick extremes, without grace: Thomas's womanizing has nothing of the adventure, sexinness, transgression of moral codes, and sheer fun of, say, Casanova's or other XVIII Century French transgressors, but feels like desperate, sordid attempts at finding something that isn't there because it is not in the seducer's heart. They sound lamentable, rather than enviable. And Theresa's pathetism reaches a nauseating point, the point when fidelity stops being admirable and becomes exasperating (remember Lily Dale?).
(An aside: Arthur Schnitzler's marvelous novella, "The Return of Casanova", portrays the great seducer's decadence and last dance, in grand style, but no less pathetic).
Franz's journey is interesting because it depicts the uneasiness of the sixties with the liberal, capitalistic order of the post-WWII world, especially acute in France. The irony here, to Kundera's merit, is that the whole novel is permeated by Soviet oppression, the permanent and irresoluble tension between freedom and security, pulling us humans all the time in dfiferent directions and forcing us to make painful choices (AH, if only one could freely love and be loved by all women one has ever desired!!), whose consequences we simply will never know, but for one.
TULOB is then, not a frivolous or irrelevant work, but also not a great novel: perhaps it fails just to show the essential failure of life.
Okay, guys. I finished The Unbearable Lightness of Being on Friday night. When I posted 2Ż weeks ago that I would be through in a few days, I had zipped rapidly through the first half of the novel, enjoying it immensely. Shortly thereafter, I dropped to a crawl. Many nights I could only make myself read one or two of the very short chapters. What happened to me? I'll see if I can explain.
Much of it has to do with the structure of the novel. Kundera tells the whole story in outline early in the novel. He then goes back and fills in details in subsequent sections. This removes any of the "page-turning, what comes next?" pleasure from the novel. Kundera is almost Brechtian in his desire to withhold conventional pleasures from the reader. Brecht, of course, attempted to remove the conventional pleasure from theatre to distance the audience so that they would focus on the didactic lesson rather than becoming involved in the story. Unfortunately for Brecht's aims, he was too much of a natural showman to pull this off. They may be more fortunate than Brecht would have realized since he would no longer be read or performed today if he had not written powerful plays.
I, personally, have the disadvantage of knowing the film version of TULoB. I own the DVD. It's one of my favorite films. It was written by Jean-Claude CarriŔre (screenwriter for most of Bu˝uel's most famous films, among others) and starring the marvelous Daniel Day-Lewis, Juliette Binoche, and Lena Olin. These actors have so much presence, charisma, and emotional weight that it is no wonder that Kundera, who was involved in the production, was disappointed with the final result. The "light" characters, Tomas and Sabina, acquire the presence of Tereza (the "heavy" character, if my reading of the novel is correct.) It's a wonderful film, but the "lightness of being" is not really dramatized. In fact, in the film it seems to be involved with the relative "weight" of people under Eastern Communism as opposed to Western Democracy. Which either isn't present, or doesn't seem very important, in the novel.
Because the actors are so attractive, it is possible to enjoy spending time with all three (plus the luckless Franz). In the novel, the characters are so unappealing that I became very tired of them. Tomas' relentless womanizing is unpleasant, to say the least. While I was interested in Sabina as an artist (I would have loved to actually see her paintings), she's barely there as a character, except in contrast to poor old Franz. And Tereza's dependence and neediness is off-putting to me as well. (It is a bit in the film, too, but Binoche is so lovely that I can tolerate her character.)
In my opinion, if Nietzsche's eternal recurrence were true, it would make our actions less weighty, not more. Either we are automatons condemned to make the same choices eternally, which removes all agency and makes life pointless, or we can make new choices, which would inevitably cause the recurrence to veer so far from the previous time that it could not be called a recurrence. Our lives are more "weighty," more important, because they only happen once. It does not make things "unbearably light," in my opinion. Kundera's thesis fails to convince me. His philosophical musings were of little interest to me, for the most part. Predictably, for a psychologist, my favorite section was Words Misunderstood, because miscommunication is at the heart of what I do on a daily basis.
In summary, I'm glad I read it, but it did not lead me to wish to read more Kundera.
I look forward to your comments, Guillermo, and I hope that Joffre will rejoin us for this discussion. I know that you like Kundera very much, Joffre. I would like to read your comments.