by Milan Kundera
Originally Published November 1984
In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera tells the story of a young woman in love with a man torn between his love for her and his incorrigible womanizing and one of his mistresses and her humbly faithful lover. This magnificent novel juxtaposes geographically distant places, brilliant and playful reflections, and a variety of styles to take its place as perhaps the major achievement of one of the world’s truly great writers.
“When the heart speaks, the mind finds it indecent to object.”
This is a story about four characters and a dog during the invasion of Czechoslovakia in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Kundera explores each character deeply, their struggles against communism, their pasts, their lovers and themselves. It’s an outsiders view of the characters and Kundera takes his time to try and understand why they are the way they are. It was such an insightful narration. The whole time I felt like Kundera was philosophically explaining these characters and their choices, it almost felt like I was inside their heads.
“He suddenly recalled from Plato’s Symposium: People were hermaphrodites until God split then in two, and now all the halves wander the world over seeking one another. Love is the longing for the half of ourselves we have lost.”
The first character is Tomas, a Czech surgeon who is a notorious womanizer. He is divorced and keeps away from commitments with women. But then he meets Tereza and he is drawn to her, enough to marry her. He loves her and cannot imagine being without her but it still doesn’t stop him from his womanizing ways. He finds her a burden to his way of life with her constant questions about his infidelity yet he believes the infidelity does not mean he doesn’t love her. Tereza may be much younger than him but she is also a talented photographer. She sees herself as weak because she tolerates her husband’s infidelity. Her self-image and body issues also play a role in this and it’s clear from her dreams what she thinks of herself.
“She had an overwhelming desire to tell him, like the most banal of women. Don’t let me go, hold me tight, make me your plaything, your slave, be strong! But they were words she could not say.
The only thing she said when he released her from his embrace was, “You don’t know how happy I am to be with you.” That was the most her reserved nature allowed her to express.”
Sabina is a mistress to Tomas and he also considers her a close friend. She is an artist and lives her life as freely as she can, without feelings of being restrained. There was also Franz, Sabina’s lover when she lived in Geneva. He is a professor who falls in love with her but she was not one to be tied down by that. He has lived most of his life dedicating his time to academia but he eventually decides to find a life outside his boundaries. Karenin is the dog that belonged to Tereza and Tomas. Tomas got her as a gift for Tereza to make her happy and they named her Karenin after Anna’s husband in Anna Karenina.
From the characters, Tomas and Sabina’s lives portray the lightness and Tereza is seen to lead the heaviest life. Tereza has too many things that weigh her down and has no ability to experience life just as it is but rather she reads into everything that happens. Franz was also held down but he made the choice to seek the lightness in life by freeing himself from just the life of academia. Then again the weight of life can be seen as being too much of a burden or as a benefit subjectively. While lightness is seen as a sense of freedom, it can also be fleeting and haphazard.
Listen to Lana Del Rey Born To Die and Ultraviolence while reading this. I think they fit well, not the exact story but the pain is there.
I have not watched the movie yet but if you are interested, there is one starring Juliette Binoche Lena Olin and Daniel Day‑Lewis.