The Unbearable Lightness of Being
The Unbearable Lightness of BeingIntroduction
First published in 1984 in both Paris and New York, Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a rich and complicated novel that is at once a love story, a metaphysical treatise, a political commentary, a psychological study, a lesson on kitsch, a musical composition in words, an aesthetic exploration, and a meditation on human existence. As an expatriate Czechoslovakian writer, Kundera draws upon his firsthand experience of the 1968 Prague Spring and subsequent Soviet occupation of his country to provide the backdrop for the story of four people whose lives are inextricably enmeshed. Because the work is so complex, there are many themes that intertwine throughout the novel, just as a theme in a musical composition will be introduced only to reappear later in a different key. Indeed there are several critics who focus their entire analysis on the way Kundera uses musical structure to put together his novel. At its most fundamental level, The Unbearable Lightness of Being is about the ambiguity and paradoxes of human existence, as each person teeters between lightness and weight; between the belief that all is eternal return and Nietzsche's concept that life is an ever-disappearing phenomenon; and between dream and reality.
Milan Kundera was born April 1, 1929, in Brno, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic), the son of Ludvik and Milada Kundera. He studied music
with Paul Haas and Vaclav Kapral and attended Charles University in Prague. He studied film at the Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts in Prague, where he later held a position as assistant professor from 1958 to 1969. He was a member of the central committee of the Czechoslovak Writers Union from 1963 to 1969.
In 1962 Kundera began writing his first novel, The Joke. The book caused problems with the national censors, and consequently it was not published until 1967 (the English edition was first published in 1969). Kundera's frustration with the censors climaxed with a speech he gave at the Fourth Czechoslovak Writers Congress. However, Kundera and others who followed his lead were subjected to even more oppression.
For a brief period in 1968 known as the "Prague Spring," the government eased restrictions on its writers and citizens. The Soviet Bloc countries, led by the Soviet Union, were nervous about the relaxation of the regime in Czechoslovakia, and in August 1968, Russian tanks and Soviet Bloc soldiers took control of Prague. The Soviets deposed Czech leader Alexander Dubcek and put Gustav Husak in his place, instituting a repressive regime that lasted for twenty-one years. During this time, Kundera's books and plays were banned, and his works could not be sold in bookstores or read in libraries. Kundera was forbidden to publish in Czechoslovakia, and he lost his teaching position.
In 1975 Kundera received permission to immigrate to France, where he became a professor. His 1979 novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (first published in English in 1980) led the Czech government to revoke his citizenship. In 1981 Kundera became a French citizen.
Although by 1984 Kundera was internationally respected as a writer, his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being secured his place in world literature. Since that time, Kundera has published widely, including the novels Immortality, published in French in 1990 and English in 1991; Slowness: A Novel, published in French in 1995, and English in 1996; Identity: A Novel, published in French in 1997 and in English in 1998; and Ignorance, published in English in 2002. Kundera's work has been well-received by critics and readers alike, and he has been awarded many prizes, including the Czechoslovak Writers Union prize in 1968 for The Joke; the Commonwealth Award for distinguished service in literature in 1981; a 1984 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for The Unbearable Lightness of Being; and the Academie Francaise critics prize in 1987.
Part 1: Lightness and Weight
The novel opens with a meditation on philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's idea of the eternal return, contrasted with the notion of einmal ist keinmal; that is, "what happens but once … might as well not have happened at all." According to Nietzsche, eternal return is the "heaviest of burdens." The absence of this burden, however, renders life inconsequential. The binary opposition of weight and lightness continues throughout the book.
Kundera next introduces Tomas, a surgeon who has fallen in love with a young woman named Tereza. Tomas has many mistresses, engaging in what he terms "erotic friendships." When Tereza discovers Tomas's many mistresses, she is distraught. It is this contrast between the weight of Tereza's love and the lightness of Tomas's love that provides much of the material for the book.
Eventually Tomas marries Tereza. He also buys Tereza a puppy they name Karenin. Although married, Tomas does not give up his mistresses. Notable among them is Sabina, an artist. Sabina clearly understands Tomas and even becomes a close friend of Tereza's.
In 1968 the Russian occupation of Czechoslovakia begins. Sabina immigrates to Switzerland, and Tomas begins receiving calls from a Swiss doctor who wants him to immigrate to Switzerland as well. Tomas and Tereza do well in Zurich for six or seven months, until Tereza learns that Tomas is once again seeing Sabina. Tereza returns to Prague, and within days Tomas follows her.
Part 2: Soul and Body
The story returns to the beginning, this time from Tereza's point of view. This section allows the reader to understand the family background and psychology that drive Tereza. Her father was a political prisoner who died in jail, and her mother is an abusive, vulgar woman who takes great delight in humiliating Tereza. Kundera reiterates Tereza's meeting with Tomas and her decision to go to Prague. Also in this section the reader learns of Tereza's troubling dreams, which often involve Tomas. Finally, the friendship between Sabina and Tereza grows; it is Sabina who has secured a position for Tereza at the magazine where Sabina works. In one particularly intense scene, Sabina and Tereza photograph each other nude at Sabina's studio.
Part 3: Words Misunderstood
In this section the reader meets Franz, a university professor in Geneva who is having an affair with Sabina. Franz is married to a woman named Marie-Claude, whom he does not love. Throughout this section, there are brief chapters of "misunderstood words" that illustrate the differences between Sabina and Franz. For example, in a section titled "Music," Franz tries to explain his love of music to Sabina. Kundera writes, "For Franz music was the art that comes closest to Dionysian beauty in the sense of intoxication." For Sabina, however, music is noise. Her early years at the Academy of Arts ruined her feelings for music, as the school played loud, cheerful music on speakers from early morning until night. While for Franz music is a liberating force, for Sabina music is an unpleasant reminder of her life in the totalitarian state. Likewise, in a short section titled "Light and Dark," the reader discovers that Franz is drawn to darkness and that he closes his eyes when he makes love to Sabina. For Sabina, however, "living … meant seeing."
Given the distance between the two lovers in their understanding of reality, it is not surprising that Franz chooses to tell his wife of their affair, the very thing Sabina does not want to happen. Consequently, Sabina leaves Franz and Switzerland, settling first in Paris and later in the United States. She receives a letter while in Paris from Tomas's son, informing her that Tomas and Tereza have been killed in a car accident. Franz becomes involved with a student and begins taking an active role in political dissension.
- The Unbearable Lightness of Being was adapted as a film in 1988. The film was directed by Phillip Kaufman, and stars Daniel Day-Lewis and Juliette Binoche. The film is available on DVD from Home Vision Entertainment.
- The Unbearable Lightness of Being was recorded on audiocassette in 1988 by Books on Tape (Newport Beach, CA). Christopher Hurt is the reader.
Part 4: Body and Soul
Tomas is working as a window washer in this section, having lost his position at the hospital. Tereza tends bar. Their schedules are very different from each other, and, by the time Tereza returns home from work each night, Tomas is asleep. When she crawls into bed beside him, she is aware of an odor coming from his hair, an odor she finally identifies as coming from the genitals of another woman. This weighs heavily on her, and she eventually has a sexual encounter with an engineer she meets at the bar. Only later does she realize that the engineer is probably a spy for the state. The atmosphere of this section is sad and heavy throughout, and the pressure of living in a totalitarian state, where there is little or no privacy, permeates the events. Perhaps the most moving part of this section is a dream Tereza has in which Tomas instructs her to go up Petrin Hill, which she does, only to find men with rifles killing those who want to die. It must be their choice, the men tell Tereza. At the last minute she says that being killed is not her choice. Although this is how the dream ends, it seems that Tereza truly does want to die.
Part 5: Lightness and Weight
In this section, the reader discovers why Tomas has been let go from his job at the hospital. It seems that he wrote a letter to an editor of a journal during the brief Prague Spring. Now, with the reinstatement of a more oppressive regime, he is called upon to recant. He refuses to do so and must consequently resign from his job. His friends and family think he is protesting the new regime. Thus, he is approached by his son Simon and the editor of the journal who published his letter. They want him to sign a petition demanding the release of Czech political prisoners. He refuses to sign this document. Finally, to get away from the intrigue and anxieties of the city, Tomas and Tereza move to a collective farm in the country, believing that this move will put them so far down on the social ladder that the state will no longer be concerned with them, since they have little else to lose.
Part 6: The Grand March
In this section Kundera explores the notion of kitsch, particularly communist kitsch. The story also returns to Franz, who decides to go to Thailand with a group of intellectuals to protest human-rights violations in Cambodia. While there, he is senselessly mugged by some street thugs and ends up dying in a hospital shortly after his return to Switzerland.
Part 7: Karenin's Smile
In this final section, the reader learns more about Tomas and Tereza's life on the farm. Their dog Karenin is very old and dying of cancer. This death affects both of them deeply. At the collective, Tomas has finally given up womanizing, and Tereza asks for forgiveness for her role in his unhappiness in life. Tomas replies that he has been happy these last years at the farm. Thus in the hours before their deaths, Tomas and Tereza are happy together.
Franz is a professor who lives in Geneva, Switzerland. He enters the book in the third part, where he is introduced as Sabina's lover of nine months. Franz is married to Marie-Claude, a woman he does not love but whom he married because she loved him so much. He also has a daughter, Marie-Anne, who is the carbon copy of her mother. For twenty-three years, Franz has been a loyal, if unhappy, husband. Now, however, he finds he is in love with Sabina. Throughout the months of their affair, he has taken trouble to separate his lover and his wife, refusing to make love to Sabina in Geneva, choosing rather to take her on trips all over the world. He is constantly unsure of Sabina, however, and always seems to expect she will leave him. As the narrator informs the reader, for Franz love "meant a longing to put himself at the mercy of his partner….love meant the constant expectation of a blow."
Thus, although Franz is a physically strong man, he is an emotionally weak man. He places no demands on Sabina, nor does he use his strength against her. Instead he chooses to be weak. Sabina does not find this quality attractive.
A turning point in Franz's life occurs when his wife holds a gallery opening and invites Sabina, whose pictures have been shown in her gallery. When Marie-Claude insults Sabina by telling her that her pendant is ugly, Franz decides he must tell Marie-Claude about the affair in order to protect Sabina. The situation backfires: Marie-Claude throws Franz out of the house but will not grant him a divorce, and Sabina leaves him.
This turn of events underscores a fundamental quality in Franz, namely his inability to understand women—particularly Sabina. The chapters of the book that involve Franz and Sabina are written like a dictionary, with definitions of "misunderstood words." Ultimately, it becomes clear that Franz is more in love with the idea of Sabina than with Sabina herself, and, thus, her physical absence is less of a problem than one might expect. Throughout the rest of his life, Franz always imagines Sabina is watching him, although he never sees her again.
In the sixth part of the book, Franz decides to join a group of Western intellectuals who travel to Thailand to protest Cambodian human rights violations. In an utterly senseless act, he is killed by muggers in the streets of Thailand, yet another indication of Franz's fundamental misunderstanding of humankind and reality. The final irony is that "in death, Franz at last belonged to his wife….Marie-Claude took care of everything: she saw to the funeral, sent out the announcements, bought the wreaths, and had a black dress made—a wedding dress, in reality. Yes, a husband's funeral is a wife's true wedding! The climax of her life's work! The reward for her suffering!" Franz's death serves to underscore the futility of his life.
Sabina is a Czech painter and one of Tomas's many lovers. The product of the Communist system of education, she is an artist who detests kitsch, noise, social realism, and music. It is through Sabina that Kundera comments on the influence of politics on art and music, as well as on the life of the political exile.
Ironically, Sabina is the character that has relationships with all of the other characters, although she is by far the most distant and distancing of all of the characters. Her affair with Tomas in Prague is a good representation of the kind of relationship she desires, one of sex and friendship without emotional commitment. When Sabina and Tomas meet in Switzerland to make love, it is their last such encounter. She wears nothing but her lingerie and a bowler hat that belonged to her grandfather, someone she never actually knew. The scene is both emotionally and sexually charged and clearly touches Sabina emotionally in a place where she does not want to be touched.
Likewise, Sabina enjoys being with Franz so long as there is little commitment. As soon as Franz tells his wife he is having an affair with Sabina, Sabina disappears from Franz's life. However, it is Sabina's scene with Tereza which is perhaps the most sexually and emotionally charged scene of the book. Tereza comes to take photographs of Sabina in her studio and suggests that she photograph Sabina nude. Sabina, for all her sexual libertinism, cannot comply immediately. Rather, Sabina first drinks three glasses of wine and talks about her grandfather's bowler hat. It is not until Tereza distances herself by picking up her camera and looking through the lens that Sabina throws open her robe. After both women take pictures of each other and find themselves enchanted by the situation, Sabina "almost frightened by the enchantment and eager to dispel it … burst[s] into loud laughter." Clearly the situation with Tereza is fraught with emotional content, something Sabina will not allow herself to feel.
Tereza is a young woman from a small village who, through a whole series of coincidences, becomes Tomas's lover and later his wife. Tereza's father was a political prisoner who died in jail, leaving Tereza in the care of her vulgar, loud mother, who took great delight in embarrassing Tereza. This abuse led to Tereza's radical split between body and soul; as much as possible she rejects everything about her body. It is her soul she gives to Tomas, and thus she represents heaviness in the burden of love she places on Tomas.
Tereza loves Tomas ferociously and, although she cannot tolerate his philandering, she cannot leave him. It seems as if her role in the book is to bear suffering. Her dreams are particularly painful. In one, she must parade nude around a swimming pool with other nude women. Tomas sits on a high chair and shoots any woman who does not perform proper knee bends. Later in the book, Tereza dreams that Tomas takes her to Petrin Hill, where he has arranged for men with guns to shoot her if she so chooses. When Tereza shares these dreams with Tomas, he finds himself ever more deeply enmeshed with his wife. Although through much of the book the two of them make each other unhappy, they nonetheless are unable to part from each other.
A turning point comes for Tereza when she returns home from work one night and smells another woman on her sleeping husband. In an act of rebellion, she ends up having a one-time sexual encounter with an engineer. Later she comes to believe this engineer is really a member of the secret police sent to entrap her for prostitution. After this event, Tereza tries to persuade Tomas to move to a collective farm in the country. When Tomas asks Tereza what has been bothering her these past months, she tells him of the odor his hair has been emitting. This revelation is enough to convince Tomas they must move to the country. Tereza finally achieves what she wants—Tomas's fidelity.
Tomas is a successful Czech surgeon who lives in Prague. In addition to being a fine surgeon, Tomas is also an inveterate womanizer. He has many affairs and has constructed a set of rules for preventing these affairs from becoming anything other than occasions for sex.
While on a conference to a small town, he meets Tereza, a barmaid. He tells Tereza to look him up if she is ever in Prague, which she does. Tomas finds himself in love with Tereza when she comes down with influenza during her visit. However, he also finds these feelings "inexplicable." He ponders the question, is this love? Or, he wonders, "[Is] it simply the hysteria of a man who, aware deep down of his inaptitude for love, [feels] the self-deluding need to simulate it?" Tomas does not have the answer to this question, but nonetheless he feels drawn to marry Tereza. Marriage, however, does not stop Tomas from pursuing affairs with a variety of women.
For Tomas, sexual intercourse and love are not necessarily connected. He discovers this when he realizes how much he loves to sleep with Tereza, something he never does with his lovers. Tomas concludes, "Making love with a woman and sleeping with a woman are two separate passions, not merely different but opposite. Love does not make itself felt in the desire for copulation (a desire that extends to an infinite number of women) but in the desire for shared sleep (a desire limited to one woman)."
Tomas's career suffers after the Soviet occupation of Prague. When he is offered the opportunity of immigrating to Switzerland, he takes it. In Switzerland he takes up with one of his former lovers, Sabina, who has also immigrated there. However, after just a few months in Switzerland, Tereza leaves him to return to Prague. Tomas chooses to follow her after a few days, and, from the time of his return to Prague, his career goes downhill. In the repressive atmosphere of the new government, he loses his job and begins working as a window washer. Even as a window washer, however, he finds opportunities to make love to many women.
Tomas is, in many ways, an enigma. Although he loves Tereza with all his heart, he is unable to put an end to his philandering in spite of the pain it causes his wife. If he feels strongly the idea of es muss sein (it must be) applies to his relationship with his wife, he feels likewise about his relation-ship with other women. It is not until confronted with the odor emanating from his hair that he realizes he must give up all other women. He moves to the country with Tereza.
Of all the characters in the book, Tomas is the one who undergoes the most radical change from beginning to end. Just hours before his death, he dances with Tereza and tells her that he has been happy with her in the country, a happiness that seemed to have eluded him for much of his life.
Love and Sex
For all of its other concerns, The Unbearable Lightness of Being is first an exploration of the many facets of love. In his or her own way, each of the four main characters confronts and wrestles with the notion of love. Tomas, for example, never equates sex with love. Before Tereza comes into his life, he is very happy with his "erotic friend-ships." Because these affairs do not pretend to be "love" affairs, he is able to move among many women without betraying any of them. When Tereza arrives at his apartment and becomes ill, he realizes that he feels compassion for her, and that compassion itself is love. In spite of his many affairs, he does not leave Tereza, nor is there any doubt he loves her deeply.
For Tereza, however, love carries a very different connotation. While she does not equate love and sex, when she offers her body to Tomas, she does so out of love. Indeed for Tereza love is an offering of everything. That Tomas does not reciprocate in kind is a source of bitter sorrow to Tereza. Her love is of the "heavy" kind, a burden for both Tomas and Tereza herself.
Sabina, like Tomas, has many affairs and refuses to commit to one person. Of all the characters in the book, she is the one who seems least able to love and connect emotionally with another human being. Kundera is connecting her emotional damage to her upbringing within the Soviet system. As a child, Sabina found herself constantly under the barrage of the state, in the form of the music that was played all day at the Academy for Fine Arts; the parades in which the students were forced to march; and the strict aesthetic rules of social realism. To be an artist in Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia required complete compliance with state doctrine. For an artist, it also required a complete dampening of the creative forces and emotional responses, creating an individual who is always wary of revealing what is under the surface.
Franz too is emotionally incompetent and unable to engage in a loving relationship, although he believes himself to be in love with Sabina. As the book continues, it becomes clear that Franz loves his idea of Sabina, not Sabina herself. Tellingly, Franz closes his eyes as he makes love to Sabina, effectively erasing the woman in bed with him and substituting his own idea of Sabina in her place. In addition, when Franz misguidedly chooses to tell his wife about his affair with Sabina, he demonstrates how poorly he knows either woman. His wife does not respond at all as he imagines she will. Even worse, Sabina leaves him. After Sabina's departure, Franz in many ways is happier than when she was present. Because his idea of Sabina is somehow stronger in her absence, Franz no longer needs to square his idea of Sabina with the physical reality of Sabina.
Politics and Government
The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a political novel. It not only describes politics within the Soviet bloc, it takes as its subject political and governmental oppression. None of the characters in the book can escape from the tentacles of totalitarianism that threaten to strangle each one. When Tomas, for example, during the brief Prague Spring writes an essay critical of the Communist Party, he opens himself to a series of damaging responses. After the Soviet invasion and the reinstitution of a repressive regime, Tomas is asked to recant his statement in order to keep his job as a surgeon. Tomas refuses, a stance that signals to his countrymen that he is a dissident himself. Tomas chooses to resign from the hospital and take a job as a window washer, thinking that in this way he can escape from governmental observation. However, when his son and the editor of the journal that published his essay ask him to sign a petition calling for the release of political prisoners, Tomas refuses. What both the government and the dissidents miss about Tomas is that he is largely apolitical; that is, he is someone who wants to carry on his life as a doctor without the intrusion of either government or politics. Such a stance is completely untenable, however. As a public figure, the government uses its strength to attack Tomas in the public sphere, by not allowing him to pursue the one thing at which he excels—practicing surgery.
In contrast, Tereza is a very private person, and the claustrophobia of totalitarianism affects her in a very private way. She finds herself working as a barmaid as the result of Tomas's published essay. The bar is both seedy and disreputable; even so, there are patrons who try to bring the power of the state down on Tereza. Most notably, when she has a brief affair with an engineer, she does not consider until later that, in all likelihood, the engineer is really a member of the secret police. For Tereza, the worst kind of governmental intrusion would be into her sexual life. She imagines that photographs have been taken of her with the engineer and that these pictures will later be used against her. Thus, for the private Tereza, the invasion of her personal space signifies the ultimate victory of the state over the person.
Topics For Further Study
- In part six of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kundera writes at length about the notion of "kitsch." Define kitsch. Find examples in magazines of kitsch from twenty-first-century American culture. Create a collage using these images that gives the viewer insight as to the role of kitsch in the United States.
- Reread the sections of The Unbearable Lightness of Being that describe Tereza's dreams. Read several entries on dreams from psychology textbooks or reference works. What do these books indicate that Tereza's dreams reveal about her?
- Research the literary history of Czechoslovakia in the twentieth century. Who are some notable writers and their subjects? Create a timeline to locate these writers historically and to connect them with important events of their time. On your timeline, be sure to include illustrations, note major works, and identify important historical events.
- Define social realism. Using art-history books, encyclopedias, and reference works, identify the underpinning principles of social realism. Write a report explaining what you have discovered. Use images you find on the World Wide Web to illustrate your points.
- Research the lives of Alexander Dubcek and Vaclav Havel. What roles did these two important Czechs play in the history of their country?
Just as the state intrudes on Tomas's public work life and Tereza's private sex life, the state intrudes on Sabina in her most vulnerable area—her art. In response to the Soviet invasion, Sabina leaves Czechoslovakia. She has already experienced what the state can do to art and has no desire to experience it again. Ironically, the tentacles of the state follow her into exile. She finds herself uncomfortably lumped together with all exiled Czech intellectuals; her work receives notice and praise not for the work itself but for her status as a dissident. Even within the émigré community, she finds herself surrounded with politics that will destroy her by forcing her to conform to some ideal other than her own. As Sabina wanders farther and farther away from her homeland, the political situation she left behind continues to shape her.
Kundera spends considerable energy to define, describe, and investigate the role of kitsch in communist society. "Kitsch" is a German word that loosely means inferior, sentimental, and/or vulgar art. Although kitsch claims to have an aesthetic purpose, it tends to simplify complicated ideas and thoughts into stereotypical and easily marketable forms. Kitsch appeals to the masses and to the lowest common denominator. It is the world of greeting-card poetry and velvet Elvis. For kitsch to be kitsch, it must be able to evoke an emotional response that according to the book "the multitudes can share."
Kitsch then is essential for the emotional and intellectual control of a populace in a totalitarian culture. In a system that requires all people to feel the same way about a particular event or state of being, kitsch works its magic. As Kundera writes, "Those of us who live in a society where various political tendencies exist side by side and competing influences cancel or limit one another can manage more or less to escape the kitsch inquisition: the individual can preserve his individuality; the artists can create unusual works. But whenever a single political movement corners power, we find ourselves in the realm of totalitarian kitsch." Kitsch, according to Kundera, is devoid of irony, since "in the realm of kitsch everything must be taken quite seriously."
Understanding kitsch brings the reader to an understanding of Sabina: it is not communism that repels her; it is communist kitsch such as the May Day parades and the art of social realism. And those who criticize kitsch, or for that matter call it kitsch, must be banned for life because it is the expression of individualism that poses the greatest threat to the totalitarian regime. Kundera concludes, "In this light, we can regard the gulag as a septic tank used by totalitarian kitsch to dispose of its refuse."
One of the most interesting devices that Kundera uses in The Unbearable Lightness of Being is his creation of a narrator. When the book opens, the reader encounters a meditation on the ideas of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and classical Greek philosopher Parmenides. What soon becomes clear is that there is a narrative voice undertaking this meditation, a voice that is creating and participating in the story while remaining somehow outside the story: "Not long ago, I caught myself experiencing a most incredible sensation. Leafing through a book on Hitler, I was touched by some of his portraits: they reminded me of my childhood. I grew up during the war; several members of my family perished in Hitler's concentration camps; but what were their deaths compared with the memories of a lost period in my life, a period that would never return?" Many readers will conclude the narrator is Kundera himself. Later in the story, the narrator tells the reader he has "been thinking about Tomas for many years," implying it is the author-as-narrator who has given Tomas his fictional existence. Likewise, the narrator tells the reader that Tereza began as a rumbling in his stomach.
However, while it may be easy to make the assumption that the "I" in the story is Kundera, it also does not take much of a stretch to consider the narrator as yet another character in the story itself, somehow a part of Kundera yet also separate from him. This technique is not new; Geoffrey Chaucer uses it in The Canterbury Tales, the famous fourteenth-century classic, when he creates a persona for himself as one of the pilgrims.
Why would a writer do such a thing? Kundera's narrator serves the function of setting up the philosophical structure of the novel. Because he is separate from the story, he is able to comment on each of the characters outside the knowledge of the characters themselves. This distance allows the reader to share privileged knowledge with the narrator that is hidden from the characters. It also leads the reader to trust that the narrator is reliable.
A second reason Kundera may choose to create a narrator is as a device to continually remind the reader that what he or she is reading is fiction, not reality. Authorial intrusions such as those made by the narrator serve to place the story in the realm of fiction, while making the author seem more present to the reader. It seems that the author is speaking directly to the reader in a kind of conversation.
However, a closer examination of this second purpose complicates the role of the narrator even further. While it may seem that the author is engaging the reader in conversation, what is really happening is that the reader is looking at black marks on paper, black marks the writer set down a number of years ago. The words on the page, no matter how much they recall the spoken voice, remain carefully crafted traces of some human creator. When the reader is forced to confront the essential artificiality of fiction itself, the narrator out of necessity becomes a character himself. While the words revealing his thoughts about the characters and about human existence may indeed coincide with Kundera's own thoughts, once Kundera has chosen to write himself into the book, he has created a fictional persona who will tell the story as best he is able.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being is set during the 1960s in Czechoslovakia. The fact that Kundera himself experienced the Prague Spring as well as the Soviet takeover lends special poignancy to the story. Kundera uses his setting for several important purposes. The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a love story and juxtaposing the love affairs of the four main characters with the upheaval of the Russian invasion throws the issues of love into sharp contrast with the issues of hate. In addition, it is the setting that allows Kundera to use his novel as a vehicle for a consideration of the effects of the totalitarian regime on the creation of art and, by extension, on the creation of life itself.
Compare & Contrast
- 1960s: Czechoslovakia is firmly part of the Warsaw Pact, a military alliance that includes the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc countries.
Today: The Czech Republic has joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a military alliance that includes the United States and western European Nations.
- 1960s: Beginning in 1962, the Czechoslovakian government begins to make movements toward reform, easing the restrictions on its citizens. In 1968, during what is known as the Prague Spring, several writers and artists speak out against totalitarianism. Within months, Soviet tanks invade Czechoslovakia, and the country is forcibly brought back within Soviet domination. It is a time of great repression.
Today: The Czech Republic, after a period of economic reform, applies for membership in the European Union in 1996 and expects to be granted admission in 2004. At the same time, the country has maintained its close ties with some of the former Warsaw Pact nations. The Social Democratic party, under the leadership of Vladimir Spidla, wins the general election in June 2002.
- 1960s: Writers and artists in Czechoslovakia are forced to submit their work to state-sponsored censors. All works are subjected to the aesthetic of "social realism." Works that do not conform are banned. Nevertheless, there is an active underground of writers and artists who continue to produce high quality work, although it cannot be published or shown in Czechoslovakia. Many writers and artists are forced to leave their homes and are subjected to severe oppression in their homeland.
Today: Works by dissident Czech writers now circulate in Czechoslovakia. Vaclav Havel, himself a noted dissident writer who spent four years in prison under the old regime, is elected president of the Czech Republic in 1993. Many exiled Czech writers are able to return to their homeland for visits.
The History of Czechoslovakia
The land that became Czechoslovakia was actually separate regions within the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the end of World War I. The Czech people made their homes in Bohemia and Moravia, parts of Austria, while the Slovaks resided in Slovakia, part of Hungary. While quite different in their interests, concerns, and industrialization, after World War I the two regions declared independence as the Republic of Czechoslovakia. They were briefly democratic in the years between the two world wars; however, in 1938 Adolph Hitler invaded the new nation, occupying Prague.
After the defeat of the Germans, Czechoslovakia was reestablished; however, the Soviet Union exerted its influence on the young nation, and in 1948 the Communists seized power, establishing a government much like Joseph Stalin's in the Soviet Union. During the 1950s and early 1960s, the Communist Party ruled all areas of life, including the government, art, education, and culture.
The Prague Spring, 1968
In the 1960s, leaders such as Alexander Dubcek attempted to introduce modest political reforms. In this atmosphere of lessening repression, writers and artists came forward and asked for even more reforms to be quickly undertaken. In June 1967 Kundera himself addressed the Fourth Czechoslovak Writers Congress and called for open discussion and an end to repression and censorship. Many who spoke up at this meeting were punished.
This punishment did not put a stop to the push for reform. In January 1968, Dubcek became secretary of the party and attempted to make Czechoslovakian socialism more humane. The movement did not sit well with the Warsaw Pact nations, particularly the Soviet Union, which did not want any of its satellite nations to shift their orbits significantly.
The Soviet Invasion, August 1968
Consequently, in August 1968, troops from the U.S.S.R. and other Eastern Bloc nations invaded Czechoslovakia. The occupation resulted in Dubcek's removal and the end of the reform movement. The Soviets instituted a new Czechoslovakian regime that was both harsh and repressive. Writers such as Kundera lost their jobs and were prohibited from speaking publicly or publishing their works. For some seven years, Kundera was not allowed to travel to the West.
Conditions in Czechoslovakia remained largely the same until 1989, in spite of the growing reform movement in the Soviet Union inspired by President Mikhail Gorbachev. However, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 opened the floodgates in Czechoslovakia as well. Ultimately, democracy was restored in Czechoslovakia but not without trouble. In the early 1990s, Slovakia, the eastern part of the country, wanted greater autonomy. Many Slovakians called for complete independence. At the same time, Czech nationalists also wanted their own country. Although President Havel strongly opposed the split, the people of the country voted in 1992 for candidates in favor of dividing the country. Consequently, in January 1993, Czechoslovakia became two independent nations, now known as the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
When The Unbearable Lightness of Being appeared in 1984, it immediately became an international bestseller, garnering awards throughout the world, including a Los Angeles Times Book Award. Contemporary reviews of the novel were largely positive. Paul Gray, in a Time review, calls The Unbearable Lightness of Being "a triumph of wisdom over bitterness, hope over despair." Maureen Howard in the Yale Review writes, "The Unbearable Lightness of Being is the most rewarding new novel I've read in years." Thomas DePietro in Commonweal hones in on the heart of the book. He observes that The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a book of "burning compassion, extraordinary intelligence, and dazzling artistry." DePietro also notes the book "leaves us with many questions, questions about love and death, about love and transcendence. These are our burdens, the existential questions that never change but need to be asked anew."
Not all reviewers were enchanted with the book, however. Christopher Hawtree, in a Spectator review, faults Kundera for a "most off-putting" title and finds irksome the "elliptical structure" of the work. With faint praise, however, he acknowledges the novel is "a self-referential whole that manages not to alienate the reader." Wendy Lesser in the Hudson Review is even blunter, calling The Unbearable Lightness of Being "a bad novel." She particularly finds fault with Kundera's characterizations:
The mistake Kundera makes is to treat his characters like pets. He thinks what he feels for them is love, whereas it's merely an excess of self. If it were really love, we would be able to push aside that gigantic authorial face that looms out of the pages of Kundera's novel … and find behind it the tiny, human, flawed faces of real novelistic characters. But they aren't there. Behind that leering, all-obliterating mask is nothing.
Scholarly interest in The Unbearable Lightness of Being continues unabated. Literary critics have found a variety of ways to read the novel. For example, John O'Brien in his book Milan Kundera and Feminism focuses on Kundera's representation of woman. He most notably studies the relationship between Tereza and Sabina, suggesting that Tereza
represents "weight" and Sabina represents "lightness." O'Brien next demonstrates how Kundera undermines such an easy dichotomy. Finally, he argues that it is in Sabina's painting that Kundera reveals his true focal point.
In Terminal Paradox, scholar Maria Nemcová Banerjee takes another tact, reading the novel as if it were a piece of music. Just as Tereza introduces Tomas to Beethoven's quartets, and thus to the seminal phrase Es muss sein, Kundera introduces the reader to a quartet of characters: "The four leading characters perform their parts in concert, like instruments in a musical quartet, each playing his or her existential code in strict relation to those of the others, often spatially separated but never imaginatively isolated in the reader's mind."
Finally, Kamila Kinyon in Critique uses the French critical theory of Michel Foucault and the notion of the "panopticon" to analyze the book. Panopticon literally means "all-seeing," and it suggests a kind of surveillance mechanism. As Kinyon argues, "Within Kundera's novel, in a system of totalitarian Marxism where 'God is dead,' [the terrifying mystery] of God's gaze is replaced by [the terrifying mystery] of the panopticon camera, which may be directed at the individual at any time and which thus controls behavior even at those times when it is physically absent."
Diane Andrews Henningfeld
Henningfeld is a professor of English literature and composition who writes widely for educational and reference publishers. In this essay, Henningfeld argues that Sabina's paintings and Tereza's photographs call into question the "truth" of representational art.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a novel that functions on many different levels and consequently offers the scholar a host of literary theoretical positions to argue. The sheer number of ways the book has been read indicates this complexity. There are those who see it primarily as an exploration into the notion of love. Others see it as a dramatic account of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia. It is also possible to read the novel as a philosophical study, starting with Kundera's fascination with Fredriech Nietzsche and Parmenides. Still other literary critics focus on the novel's structure in that it emulates a musical composition such as a fugue or symphony, with its introduction and reintroduction of themes and events. Finally, many scholars find the oppositions in the novel worthy of close attention.
In his book Milan Kundera and Feminism: Dangerous Intersections, John O'Brien chooses to develop yet another reading, one asserting that
Sabina's painting offers a clear alternative to oppositional thinking, and in this respect I believe Kundera presents Sabina's theory and practice of painting not only as a focal point of this novel, but also as a paradigm for understanding his work in general. Instead of reproducing surfaces that insist on a totalizing "intelligible lie," Kundera's novels, like Sabina's paintings, turn our attention to the deeper paradoxes, but … at the expense of the surface representations. In this insistence on and dramatization/staging of double vision, Kundera's novels do not just invite a deconstructionist perspective, but incorporate deconstructionist theory at the level of content.
Such a statement requires some unpacking. O'Brien's critical approach is to see Sabina's painting as metaphor for the entire structure of the novel. In so doing, he asserts that the novel is essentially "deconstructionist." Deconstruction is a critical theory that closely reads texts in order to demonstrate that texts do not generally mean what they appear to mean. In fact, deconstruction would argue that it is the nature of written language to both present and undermine "truth." Deconstructive writing often uses the device of metafiction (or fiction about fiction itself) to call attention to itself as a piece of writing, as opposed to reality. While these concepts may seem complicated, looking carefully at how Kundera uses Sabina's paintings as a metaphor may shed light on both the novel and the theory.
Sabina finds her characteristic style by accident. As an artist in a socialist country, she is both expected and required to embody social realism in her work. As the narrator notes, "art that was not realistic was said to sap the foundations of socialism … she had painted in a style concealing the brush strokes and closely resembling color photography." One day, Sabina spills red paint on a picture of a building site. She tells Tereza,
At first I was terribly upset, but then I started enjoying it. The trickle looked like a crack; it turned the building site into a battered old backdrop, a backdrop with a building site painted on it. I began playing with the crack, filling it out, wondering what might be visible behind it…. On the surface, there was always an impeccably realistic world, but underneath, behind the backdrop's cracked canvas, lurked something different, something mysterious or abstract.
Sabina thus accidentally discovers the world behind the apparent world. While her paintings look superficially realistic, and appear to be of building sites and steelworks, they are really about the life hidden behind this realistic facade.
Eva Le Grand, in Kundera: Or the Memory of Desire, offers an idea that may prove useful in this exploration. She suggests that Kundera follows an "esthetic of the palimpsest." The word "palimpsest" is particularly apt. In the Middle Ages, because writing materials were so scarce, scribes would often wash the writing off a piece of parchment and use the parchment again and again. With new techniques of reading, contemporary scholars are able to read each level of the manuscript. Thus, while a manuscript will appear to be of a particular text, in reality there are many texts hidden behind the apparent one. Sabina's paintings then call to mind the notion of the palimpsest, the idea that there are other meanings hiding behind the apparent ones.
What Sabina accidentally discovers points to the essential problem of realistic representative art. It is dishonest in an insidious way. "Realistic" painting is not real; rather, it covers, hides, tricks the viewer through artifice to believe that what he or she sees is truth. For example, an artist will use the idea of perspective to create what seems to be a three-dimensional world. Thus, one object might appear to be farther away from the viewer than another object. In reality, both objects are exactly the same distance from the viewer. Modernist painters rebelled against realistic art for just this reason. In a very famous painting (The Treason of Pictures), the artist Rene Magritte painted a picture of a pipe with the words below it, "This is not a pipe." At first, this seems silly to the viewer: of course it is a pipe! Anyone would recognize it as such. At second thought, however, the viewer must admit that, no, what he or she is seeing is a picture, not a pipe at all. Thus, even the most realistic of paintings hides a host of other possible meanings behind its surface.
If painting is unable to depict the truth, what then of photography? Does it not faithfully capture the moment, preserving what really happened in the past? Kundera also explores this question in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, using Tereza's photography of the 1968 Soviet invasion as his example. He seems to be telling his reader that photographs do offer a way of revealing the truth of a situation. He writes,
All previous crimes of the Russian Empire had been committed under the cover of a discreet shadow. The deportation of a million Lithuanians, the murder of hundreds of thousands of Poles…. remain in ourmemory, but no photographic documentation exists; sooner or later they will therefore be proclaimed as fabrications. Not so the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, of which both stills and motion pictures are stored in archives throughout the world.
Kundera continues by describing the bravery of the Czech photographers, and their awareness of their responsibility of preserving this moment for the future. Nevertheless, later in the book Kundera reveals that even photographs are much more complicated than they might first appear. They serve to cover complexity rather than reveal it. Many chapters after the invasion, Tereza realizes that photographs of the invasion are being used by the new repressive regime to identify the dissidents and thus provide evidence for their punishment. What this reveals is the irrelevance of intention in the creation of an image. The truth the Czech photographers intend to preserve is not the same truth the government derives from the photos. All the good intentions in the world cannot change the fact that these same photographs become the primary means through which people are betrayed.
How then should a reader approach The Unbearable Lightness of Being? Sabina's paintings and Tereza's photographs reveal that Kundera's intentions for his novel are probably irrelevant. They also suggest that the smooth surface of the love story hides and distorts what happens beneath that story. Like a drip of red paint, Kundera's authorial intrusions constantly remind readers that the book in front of them is a book, not reality.
It would be comforting to stop here, to simply acknowledge that Kundera is warning his audience to look past the superficial kitsch of culture to ask the essential questions of existence. Deconstruction is not a comfortable theory, however, in that it reveals that all representation is just representation, not truth. In the case of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kundera provides so many levels that the reader thinks he or she must finally have arrived at meaning, if nowhere else than in the authorial intrusion, in which Kundera speaks directly to the reader. But is this Kundera speaking to the reader? Or is it yet just another representation, a representation of Kundera written by Kundera nearly two decades ago? And what of Sabina's paintings? Certainly the reader believes that the world revealed in the crack is the truth. But again, even the world behind the surface of Sabina's paintings is still more representation. Even more unsettling is this: Sabina's paintings do not exist in reality, no matter how clearly the reader envisions them. The surface painting and the painting below the surface are not paintings at all but black ink on white paper, words on the page, just as Magritte's pipe is not a pipe and Sabina's bowler hat is not a bowler hat. Kundera playfully reminds his reader with this enigmatic symbol that all representation is just representation, and, as it attempts to reveal, it necessarily conceals.
Source: Diane Andrews Henningfeld, Critical Essay on The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in Novels for Students, Gale, 2003.
In the following essay, Čulik examines Kundera's work in the context of his life.
Milan Kundera is a major contemporary French/Czech writer who has succeeded in communicating the East European experience of life under totalitarian communism to a wide international public. Most recently, he has used his experience of life both in the East and in the West for commenting on contemporary Western civilization. Milan Kundera's knowledge of life in Czechoslovakia under Soviet rule has led him to important insights regarding the human condition of people living both in the East and in the West. Since Kundera moved to France in 1975, he has become an author of considerable international renown.
In Czechoslovakia after World War II, Kundera was a member of the young, idealist communist generation who were trying to bring about a "paradise on Earth," a communist utopia. It was not until their middle age that they realised that the communist regime had abused their idealism and that they had brought their nation into subjugation. This realisation resulted in a feeling of guilt which Milan Kundera has been trying to exorcise by his literary work in which, especially after leaving for the West, he has been able, by contrasting the Western and the East European experience, to elucidate important aspects of contemporary human existence. Kundera's mature work serves as a warning: the author argues that human perception is flawed and that human beings fall prey to false interpretations of reality. The primary impulse for this cognitive scepticism is undoubtedly Kundera's traumatic experience of his younger years when he uncritically supported communist ideology.
While he lived in Czechoslovakia, Kundera was always in the forefront of indigenous public debate on cultural issues. In the 1950s, he published lyrical poetry which while conforming to the demands of official communist literary style of "socialist realism" highlighted the importance of individual personal experience. Later, Kundera came to abhor lyricism and sentimentality.
In his own words, he "found himself" as a writer when, in the mid-1960s, he wrote short stories, later gathered in Laughable Loves. These are miniature dramas of intimate human relationships. Most of these short stories are based on bittersweet anecdotes which deal with sexual relations of two or three characters. Kundera believes that looking at people through the prism of erotic relationships reveals much about human nature. Sex and love-making is an important instrument for Kundera which enables him to delve into the minds of his characters in all his mature works.
Many Czech critics regard Kundera's first novel, Žert (The Joke) as his finest achievement. Here Kundera develops for the first time his most important theme: the warning that it is impossible to understand and control reality. The novel is a story of a young communist student, Ludvík Jahn, who, out of frustration that he cannot get a female-fellow student into bed, sends her a postcard in which he mocks her political beliefs. The postcard is intercepted and Ludvík is punished by being expelled from university and sent to work in the mines. Throughout his later life, Ludvík bears a grudge against all his former fellow students who voted for his expulsion. He plans an intricate revenge. However, it is impossible to enter the same river twice and Ludvík's plan misfires: although he prides himself on his intellectual capacity, his perception of reality is just as flawed as the perception of the "emotional" and "lyrical" women whom he despises. The structure of the novel is pluralist and polyphonic: the author compares and contrasts the testimonies of a number of different protagonists, thus forcing the reader to come to the conclusion that reality is unknowable. Most Western critics saw The Joke primarily as a criticism of Stalinist communism, yet Kundera rightly rejected such a simplistic interpretation.
Kundera further developed his writing style particularly in his novels Kniha smíchu a zapomnění (The Book of Laughter and Forgetting) and Nesnesitelná lehkost bytí (The Unbearable Lightness of Being), which made his name in the West in the 1980s. He argues that he has invented
a new method of writing a novel. His major works written since the 1980s consist of a series of texts which are bound together by a number of salient themes rather than by the narrative itself. These themes are examined and analysed by means of variations, like in a musical composition.
In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, a major theme when analysing people's insufficiences in perceiving reality, is forgetting. One of the main characters of the novel, Czech emigré Tamina, who leads a meaningless and isolated existence in France, is trying desperately and unsuccessfully to reconstruct her life in Czechoslovakia with her now dead husband. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a work which was hailed in the West as a masterpiece, Kundera's preoccupations with insufficiencies of perception, lyricism, privacy and misunderstanding are re-examined in a polyphonic structure with a more traditional narrative line. It is a story of two Czech emigrés, Tomáš and Tereza who return to communist Czechoslovakia on an impulse and suffer the consequences.
In his later works, Kundera deals with various frustrating features of human behaviour, and again returns to the themes of privacy, individuality, perception and herd behaviour. Immortality, "a novel of debate," is—among other things—a strong criticism of contemporary, superficial, Western civilisation in which commercial media and advertising images rule supreme and reduce everything to manipulated, meaningless drivel. Kundera here stands in awe over the mystery and authenticity of life and protests with all his might against its trite, consumerist simplification.
Source: Jan Čulik, "Kundera, Milan," in Reference Guide to World Literature, 3d ed., edited by Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast, Vol. 1, St. James Press, 2003, pp. 572–74.
In the following essay, Day gives an overview of Kundera's work.
Milan Kundera's development as a writer has been strongly influenced by historical events. During World War II and in the brief, dynamic years which followed he was committed to the Communist cause; he later justified his enthusiasm with the explanation, "Communism enthralled me in much the way Stravinsky, Picasso and Surrealism had. It promised a great, miraculous metamorphosis, a totally new and different world" (New York Times Book Review). But in the 1960s, while still a member of the Communist Party, he became uneasy about its actual practice, including the policy concerning censorship. Kundera was one of a number of writers who refused to make changes in the articles they wrote and so ran the risk of remaining unpublished, but who eventually won greater freedom in the material which they did succeed in publishing.
The predominant theme in Kundera's writing is that of identity: not simply the identity of the inner self, but with whom and with what a person identifies his or her self. In the work Kundera completed while living in Czechoslovakia this theme has three strands: identification with (or commitment to) an ideology; identification with (or desire for) an idealised self-image; and identification with a history and a tradition.
In the mid-1950s Kundera was known to the Czech reading public as a poet, author of three collections: Člověk zahrada širá (Man: A Broad Garden), Poslední máj (The Last May), and Monology (Monologues). Poslední máj is particularly remarkable as an apparent sanctification of the Communist journalist Julius Fučík, who was executed by the Nazis.
Kundera's first published fiction, the short stories Směšné lásky (Laughable Loves), deal with the idealised self-image. The characters in the stories pride themselves on being able to manipulate the world around them and live out their self-images. In reality, however, they have no control over their lives; they can be humiliated by a simple chain of events or by another victim of chance. These hedonists are very different from the subject of Kundera's first full-scale work, Umění románu: cesta Vladislava Vančury za velkou epikou (The Art of the Novel: Vladislav Vančura's Road in Search of the Great Epic). (This is a different book from his 1987 work, L'Art du roman). Vančura had been a member of the pre-war avant-garde, a writer and a Communist, who was executed by the Nazis at the end of the war. Kundera placed Vančura's work in the context of the world novel: of Henry Fielding, Sir Walter Scott, Leo Tolstoy, Honoré de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, and Anatole France. Vančura, both in his commitment to Communism and his place in European culture, represented the antithesis of the ephemeral subjects of Laughable Loves.
Kundera's first play, Majitelé kličç (The Owners of the Keys), also presents a contrast between material comfort and a commitment to history. The setting is a provincial town during the German occupation; the (positive) hero has to decide whether he will rejoin the (Communist) resistance—a decision which will mean the betrayal of his wife and her petit bourgeois parents to the Nazis. However, although the play was effective in dramatic terms, its content was conventional Socialist Realism. More significant was Kundera's first novel, Žert (The Joke), which tells the story of Communism in Czechoslovakia between the years 1948 and 1965. Through the experiences of its characters it traces the loss of idealism, the hopeless reliance on hollow images. Paradoxically, the character who remains inwardly most loyal to Communist ideals also values the folk traditions of the country's past.
Before August 1968, the Theatre on the Balustrade in Prague had commissioned a play from Kundera which was produced there in May 1969. Ptákovina (Cock-a-Doodle-Do) is set in a school staffed by cringing or sadistic teachers; the action is triggered by a crude practical joke played by the headmaster that eventually rebounds on him. The theme of the play is moral degradation in a society which has lost its values. Jakub a pán (Jacques and His Master), on the other hand, was written as an "homage to Diderot," a variation on Diderot's Jacques le fataliste. Kundera later claimed that when he wrote it, he saw the shadow of encroaching Asian hordes falling across the western world, and felt that he was trying to hold on to the disappearing civilisation of Diderot's world.
The subject of the novel La Vie est ailleurs (Life Is Elsewhere) is the degeneration which brought the West close to disintegration. The young poet, Jaromil—a precocious surrealist and Party hack poet—thinks of himself as an intellectual descendant of Arthur Rimbaud; to Kundera, he is a forerunner of the pretentious students revolting in the streets of Paris in May 1968. In La Valse aux adieux (The Farewell Party) the theme is death. The action follows five days in the life of a popular jazz trumpeter who tries to persuade a young nurse to abort the child which she claims is his; it is a picture of a society in the grip of a life-denying force which seeks to suppress and condemn every natural, irrational or "mystical" experience.
In July 1967, during the run-up to the Prague Spring, Kundera, together with Ivan Klíma, Václav Havel, and Ludvík Vaculík (qq.v.), made a speech at the Congress of the Czechoslovak Writers' Union which was regarded by Party functionaries as a political outrage. Kundera appealed to writers to consider the role of literature in the wider context of Czech history. He described how the writers of the 19th century had helped to shape Czechoslovakia's destiny, and asked whether today's writers were prepared to let the decline into provincialism and officially sanctioned vandalism continue.
In Spring 1970, 18 months after the Russian occupation, the Communists embarked on a systematic humiliation of those considered to be in any way responsible. Early in 1970 Kundera lost his lectureship in world literature at the Prague Film Academy. At this time he did not expect to be published again in Czechoslovakia in his lifetime, and in 1975 accepted the post of Professor of comparative literature at the University of Rennes in France. Soon afterwards he was notified of the confiscation of his Czechoslovak citizenship. Ironically, the exile and the loss of his nationality led him to reassess his position, and to consider himself as a European rather than a Czechoslovak writer.
It was in France that Kundera wrote the two novels that enhanced his international fame—Le Livre du rire et de l'oubli (The Book of Laughter and Forgetting) and L'Insoutenable Légéreté de l'être (The Unbearable Lightness of Being). In these novels he abandons continuous narrative for a structure which resembles film collage. He juxtaposes one narrative with another, moves backward and forward in time, fictionalises historical characters, and treats fictional characters as real by bringing them into dialogue with the author-narrator. In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting the central character is Tamina, an exiled Czech working as a waitress in a provincial French town, who tries to remember her dead husband and to regain the diary and letters she left behind in Prague. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being Kundera contrasts the fate of two exiles, Tereza and Sabina: the one drawn back to her homeland and her death; the other who floats free and drifts to America. The novel weaves a web of chance encounters, uncertainties, and betrayals, both political and personal. The third member of the triangle is Tomas, husband of Tereza and lover of (among many other women) Sabina. Tomas is a surgeon who returns with Tereza to "normalised" Prague where, harassed by the secret police, he becomes a window cleaner. He and Tereza take "the only escape open to them," life in the countryside, where those who no longer have anything to lose have nothing to fear. They die together, when the weight of Tomas's badly main-tained truck crushes their bodies into the earth. Sabina, abandoning one lover in Geneva on her way to Paris, with a final destination of America, is aware of emptiness all around her: "Until that time, her betrayals had filled her with excite-ment and joy, because they opened up new paths to new adventures of betrayal. But what if the paths came to an end? One could betray one's parents, husband, country, love, but when parents, husband, country and love were gone—what was left to betray?"
The theme of identity powerfully re-emerges in Kundera's most recent novel, L'Immortalité (Immortality). It is not the immortal soul that Kundera is thinking of, but earthly immortality; as Laura says: "After all, we want to leave something behind!" only to be challenged by her sister Agnes's "sceptical astonishment." Although Agnes's life forms the axis of the novel, around it revolve other stories, fantasies, and feuilletons. Central to the theme is the story of Bettina von Arnim, who created her own immortality out of two or three meetings and an exchange of letters with Goethe. The structure of Immortality is built on echo and reflection, gesture and memory. Kundera contrasts the reality experienced by his grandmother in her Moravian village community with the "reality" seen by the average Parisian businessman on his evening TV news. Immortality is not in the roles we create for ourselves, the images we set up for posterity, but in the continuity of life and the fragile survival of our culture.
History is for Kundera the land and its traditions, which have shaped lives for generations. His exile from his country has shaped his awareness of the disintegration of European society. In his writing he tries to recapture and hold on to the last remnants of a vanishing western civilisation.
Source: Barbara Day, "Kundera, Milan," in Contemporary World Writers, 2d ed., edited by Tracy Chevalier, St. James Press, 1993, pp. 301–03.
In the following essay, Calvino explores how Kundera's "characters' stories are his first interest" in The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
When he was twelve, she suddenly found herself alone, abandoned by Franz's father. The boy suspected something serious had happened, but his mother muted the drama with mild, insipid words so as not to upset him. The day his father left, Franz and his mother went into town together, and as they left home Franz noticed that she was wearing a different shoe on each foot. He was in a quandry: he wanted to point out her mistake, but was afraid he would hurt her. So during the two hours they spent walking through the city together he kept his eyes fixed on her feet. It was then that he had his first inkling of what it means to suffer.
This passage from The Unbearable Lightness of Being illustrates well Milan Kundera's art of storytelling—its concreteness, its finesse—and brings us closer to understanding the secret due to which, in his last novel, the pleasure of reading is continuously rekindled. Among so many writers of novels, Kundera is a true novelist in the sense that the characters' stories are his first interest: private stories, stories, above all, of couples, in their singularity and unpredictability. His manner of storytelling progresses by successive waves (most of the action develops within the first thirty pages; the conclusion is already announced halfway through; every story is completed and illuminated layer by layer) and by means of digressions and remarks that transform the private problem into a universal problem and, thereby, one that is ours. But this overall development, rather than increasing the seriousness of the situation, functions as an ironic filter lightening its pathos. Among Kundera's readers, there will be those taken more with the goings-on and those (I, for example) more with the digressions. But even these become the tale. Like his eighteenth-century masters Sterne and Diderot, Kundera makes of his extemporaneous reflections almost a diary of his thoughts and moods.
The universal-existential problematic also involves that which, given that we are dealing with Czechoslovakia, cannot be forgotten even for a minute: that ensemble of shame and folly that once was called history and that now can only be called the cursed misfortune of being born in one country rather than another. But Kundera, making of this not "the problem" but merely one more complication of life's inconveniences, eliminates that dutiful, distancing respect that every literature of the oppressed rouses within us, the undeserving privileged, thereby involving us in the daily despair of Communist regimes much more than if he were to appeal to pathos.
The nucleus of the book resides in a truth as simple as it is ineludible: It is impossible to act according to experience because every situation we face is unique and presents itself to us for the first time. "Any schoolboy can do experiments in the physics laboratory to test various scientific hypotheses. But man, because he has only one life to live, cannot conduct experiments to test whether to follow his passion (compassion) or not."
Kundera links this fundamental axiom with corollaries not as solid: the lightness of living for him resides in the fact that things only happen once, fleetingly, and it is therefore as if they had not happened. Weight, instead, is to be found in the "eternal recurrence" hypothesized by Nietzsche: every fact becomes dreadful if we know that it will repeat itself infinitely. But (I would object) if the "eternal recurrence"—the possible meaning of which has never been agreed upon—is the return of the same, a unique and unrepeatable life is precisely equal to a life infinitely repeated: every act is irrevocable, non-modifiable for eternity. If the "eternal recurrence" is, instead, a repetition of rhythms, patterns, structures, hieroglyphics of fate that leave room for infinite little variants in detail, then one could consider the possible as an ensemble of statistical fluctuations in which every event would not exclude better or worse alternatives and the finality of every gesture would end up lightened.
Lightness of living, for Kundera, is that which is opposed to irrevocability, to exclusive univocity: as much in love (the Prague doctor Tomas likes to practice only "erotic friendships" avoiding passionate involvements and conjugal cohabitation) as in politics (this is not explicitly said, but the tongue hits where the tooth hurts, and the tooth is, naturally, the impossibility of Eastern Europe's changing—or at least alleviating—a destiny it never dreamed of choosing).
But Tomas ends up taking in and marrying Tereza, a waitress in a country restaurant, out of "compassion." Not just that: after the Russian invasion of '68, Tomas succeeds in escaping from Prague and emigrating to Switzerland with Tereza who, after a few months, is overcome by a nostalgia that manifests itself as a vertigo of weakness over the weakness of her country without hope, and she returns. Here it is then that Tomas, who would have every reason, ideal and practical, to remain in Zurich, also decides to return to Prague, despite an awareness that he is entrapping himself, and to face persecutions and humiliations (he will no longer be able to practice medicine and will end up a window washer).
Why does he do it? Because, despite his professing the ideal of the lightness of living, and despite the practical example of his relationship with his friend, the painter Sabina, he has always suspected that truth lies in the opposing idea, in weight, in necessity. "Es muss sein!" / "It must be" says the last movement of Beethoven's last quartet. And Tereza, love nourished by compassion, love not chosen but imposed by fate, assumes in his eyes the meaning of this burden of the ineluctable, of the "Es muss sein!"
We come to know a little later (and here is how the digressions form almost a parallel novel) that the pretext that led Beethoven to write "Es muss sein!" was in no way sublime, but a banal story of loaned money to be repaid, just as the fate that had brought Tereza into Tomas's life was only a series of fortuitous coincidences.
In reality, this novel dedicated to lightness speaks to us above all of constraint: the web of public and private constraints that envelops people, that exercises its weight over every human relationship (and does not even spare those that Tomas would consider passing couchages). Even the Don Juanism, on which Kundera gives us a page of original definitions, has entirely other than "light" motivations: whether it be when it answers to a "lyrical obsession," which is to say it seeks among many women the unique and ideal woman, or when it is motivated by an "epic obsession," which is to say it seeks a universal knowledge in diversity.
Among the parallel stories, the most notable is that of Sabina and Franz. Sabina, as the representative of lightness and the bearer of the meanings of the book, is more persuasive than the character with whom she is contrasted, that is, Tereza. (I would say that Tereza does not succeed in having the "weight" necessary to justify a decision as self-destructive as that of Tomas.) It is through Sabina that lightness is shown to be a "semantic river," that is to say, a web of associations and images and words on which is based her amorous agreement with Tomas, a complicity that Tomas cannot find again with Tereza, or Sabina with Franz. Franz, the Swiss scientist, is the Western progressive intellectual, as can be seen by he who, from Eastern Europe, considers him with the impassive objectivity of the ethnologist studying the customs of an inhabitant of the antipodes. The vertigo of indetermination that has sustained the leftist passions of the last twenty years is indicated by Kundera with the maximum of precision compatible with so elusive an object: "The dictatorship of the proletariat or democracy? Rejection of the consumer society or demands for increased productivity? The guillotine or an end to the death penalty? It is all beside the point." What characterizes the Western left, according to Kundera, is what he calls the Grand March, which develops with the same vagueness of purpose and emotion:
… yesterday against the American occupation of Vietnam, today against the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia; yesterday for Israel, today for the Palestinians; yesterday for Cuba, tomorrow against Cuba—and always against America; at times against massacres and at times in support of other massacres; Europe marches on, and to keep up with events, to leave none of them out, its pace grows faster and faster, until finally the Grand March is a procession of rushing, galloping people and the platform is shrinking and shrinking until one day it will be reduced to a mere dimensionless dot.
In accordance with the agonized imperatives of Franz's sense of duty, Kundera brings us to the threshold of the most monstrous hell generated by ideological abstractions become reality, Cambodia, and describes an international humanitarian march in pages that are a masterpiece of political satire.
At the opposite extreme of Franz, his temporary partner Sabina, by virtue of her lucid mind, acts as the author's mouthpiece, establishing comparisons and contrasts and parallels between the experience of the Communist society in which she grew up and the Western experience. One of the pivotal bases for these comparisons is the category of kitsch. Kundera explores kitsch in the sense of edulcorated, edifying, "Victorian" representation, and he thinks naturally of "socialist realism" and of political propaganda, the hypocritical mask of all horrors. Sabina, who, having established herself in the United States, loves New York for what there is there of "non-intentional beauty," "beauty by error," is upset when she sees American kitsch, Coca-Cola-like publicity, surface to remind her of the radiant images of virtue and health in which she grew up. But Kundera justly specifies:
Kitsch is the aesthetic idea of all politicians and all political parties and movements. Those of us who live in a society where various political tendencies exist side by side and competing influences cancel or limit one another can manage more or less to escape the kitsch inquisition … But whenever a single political movement corners power, we find ourselves in the realm of totalitarian kitsch.
The step that remains to be taken is to free oneself of the fear of kitsch, once having saved oneself from its totalitarianism, and to be able to see it as an element among others, an image that quickly loses its own mystifying power to conserve only the color of passing time, evidence of mediocrity or of yesterday's naïveté. This is what seems to me to happen to Sabina, in whose story we can recognize a spiritual itinerary of reconciliation with the world. At the sight, typical of the American idyll, of windows lit in a white clapboard house on a lawn, Sabina is surprised by an emotional realization. And nothing remains but for her to conclude: "No matter how we scorn it, kitsch is an integral part of the human condition."
A much sadder conclusion is that of the story of Tereza and Tomas; but here, through the death of a dog, and the obliteration of their own selves in a lost site in the country, there is almost an absorption into the cycle of nature, into an idea of the world that not only does not have man at its center, but that is absolutely not made for man.
My objections to Kundera are twofold; one terminological and one metaphysical. The terminological concerns the category of kitsch within which Kundera takes into consideration only one among many meanings. But the kitsch that claims to represent the most audacious and "cursed" broadmindedness with facile and banal effects is also part of the bad taste of mass culture. Indeed, it is less dangerous than the other, but it must be taken into account to avoid our believing it an antidote. For example, to see the absolute contrast with kitsch in the image of a naked woman wearing a man's bowler hat does not seem to me totally convincing.
The metaphysical objection takes us farther. It regards the "categorical agreement with being," an attitude that, for Kundera, is the basis of kitsch as an aesthetic ideal. "The line separating those who doubt being as it is granted to man (no matter how or by whom) from those who accept it without reservation" resides in the fact that adherence imposes the illusion of a world in which defecation does not exist because, according to Kundera, s—t is absolute metaphysical negativity. I would object that for pantheists and for the constipated (I belong to one of these two categories, though I will not specify which) defecation is one of the greatest proofs of the generosity of the universe (of nature or providence or necessity or what have you). That s—t is to be considered of value and not worthless is for me a matter of principle.
From this some fundamental consequences derive. In order not to fall either into vague sentiments of a universal redemption that end up by producing monstrous police states or into generalized and temperamental pseudo-rebellions that are resolved in sheepish obedience, it is necessary to recognize how things are, whether we like them or not, both within the realm of the great, against which it is useless to struggle, and that of the small, which can be modified by our will. I believe then that a certain degree of agreement with the existent (s—t included) is necessary precisely because it is incompatible with the kitsch that Kundera justly detests.
Source: Italo Calvino, "On Kundera," in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 9, No. 2, Summer 1989, pp. 53–57.
Banerjee, Maria Nemcová, Terminal Paradox: The Novels of Milan Kundera, Grove Press, 1990, p. 206.
Bayley, John, Review of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in London Review of Books, Vol. 6, No. 10, June 7–20, 1984, pp. 18–19.
DePietro, Thomas, "Weighting for Kundera," in Commonweal, May 18, 1984, pp. 297–300.
Doctorow, E. L., Review of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in New York Times Book Review, April 29, 1984, p. 1.
Gray, Paul, "Songs of Exile and Return," in Time, April 16, 1984, p. 77.
Hawtree, Christopher, "Bottom Rung," in Spectator, June 23, 1984, pp. 29–30.
Howard, Maureen, "Fiction in Review," in Yale Review, Vol. 74, No. 2, January 1985, pp. xxi–xxiii.
Kinyon, Kamila, "The Panopticon Gaze in Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being," in Critique, Vol. 42, No. 3, Spring 2001, pp. 243–51.
Le Grand, Eva, Kundera; or, the Memory of Desire, translated by Lin Burman, Wilfred Laurier University Press, 1999, p. 3.
Lesser, Wendy, "The Character as Victim," in Hudson Review, Vol. XXXVII, No. 3, Autumn 1984, pp. 468–82.
O'Brien, John, Milan Kundera and Feminism: Dangerous Intersections, St. Martin's Press, 1995, p. 116.
Brink, André, The Novel: Language and Narrative from Cervantes to Calvino, New York University Press, 1998.
Brink's book provides chapter-length analyses of a chronologically arranged series of novels. His chapter on The Unbearable Lightness of Being uses reader-response criticism to "explore the gaps."
Misurella, Fred, Understanding Milan Kundera: Public Events, Private Affairs, University of South Carolina Press, 1993.
Misurella's book is an excellent, accessible starting point for the student wanting to further study Kundera.
Petro, Peter, ed., Critical Essays on Milan Kundera, G. K. Hall, 1999.
This excellent collection of scholarly analyses and interviews with Kundera should prove valuable to those studying Kundera's work.