On Our Bookshelves — The Unbearable Lightness of Being


NOVEL: The Unbearable Lightness of Being

AUTHOR: Milan Kundera


I first encountered this book as a college student, still in my teenage years. It wasn’t my first introduction to Kundera; I’d read, quite by chance, his short story, “The Hitchhiking Game,” in an anthology, and found its psychological insight fascinating. When I picked up The Unbearable Lightness of Being, I was again fascinated. Here was more of the same psychological insight: the characters, frustrating as they could be at times, seemed fully human, their struggles and conflicts real. But more than that, here was philosophy: Nietzsche, Descartes, Plato, Parmenides. Descriptions of life behind the Iron Curtain and compromises made, and unmade. The male gaze. Bohemian artists and intellectuals. Unhappy love. Existentialism. A non-linear plotline with frequent digressions and narrative intrusions, a playful narrative and a serious story. And passages of astonishingly beautiful writing. I’d never encountered anything like it before. Perhaps there wasn’t anything like it before; popular with both critics and the public right away, it became an instant classic.


I didn’t love the 1988 film, although many people did. (The author himself, although he worked on it as a consultant, stated that the movie had little to do with the spirit of the novel or the characters in it, and has not permitted any subsequent adaptions of his writing.)


The specifics of its time and place are now much further away; the Velvet Revolution deposed the repressive government and restored democracy, and now Czechoslovakia itself is no more, having peacefully split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. But Kundera’s concerns about authoritarianism and its intrusiveness into private lives is, sadly, still very politically relevant today; when I read Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny recently, I found myself wishing that we knew our history better, and learned better lessons from it, and that was one of the reasons I revisited The Unbearable Lightness of Being.


I did find that I have a bit less patience than I once had for the love affairs which doomed their participants to so much unhappiness; what then seemed very romantic and painfully beautiful now makes me wish the lovers would develop their communication skills and make some better life choices. But perhaps having some more lived experience hasn’t made me wiser, just more judgmental. I’m not quite sure. Tomas, the womanizer, is certainly harder to sympathize with in these days of #MeToo, but really, there’s no indication here that Kundera intends us to find his actions admirable, or his self-serving justifications of his behavior convincing.


While rereading it, I was struck by this passage, a riff on Nietzsche’s concept of eternal return:

Somewhere out in space there was a planet where all people would be born again. They would be fully aware of the life they had spent on earth and of all the experiences they had amassed here.

And perhaps there was still another planet, where we would all be born a third time with the experience of our first two lives.

And perhaps there were yet more and more planets, where mankind would be born one degree (one life) more mature.

That was Tomas’s version of eternal return.

Of course we here on earth (planet number one, the planet of inexperience) can only fabricate vague fantasies of what will happen to man on those other planets. Will he be wiser? Is maturity within man’s power? Can he attain it through repetition?

Only from the perspective of such a utopia is it possible to use the concepts of pessimism and optimism with full justification: an optimist is someone who thinks that on planet number five the history of mankind will be less bloody. A pessimist is one who thinks otherwise.


There’s no clear answer here, of course; if the author steers us in any direction at all, it is towards compassion. Some of the most moving passages are about the loss of a beloved pet, the dog Karenin. Clever, at times enlightening, at times repulsive, at times exquisite: for better or for worse, there’s still nothing else like The Unbearable Lightness of Being.


RATING (one to five whistles, with five being the best: 4 1/2 Whistles




Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.

Laura can be contacted at laura@newswhistle.com.


Book Cover Courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers



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