Saturday, 11 April 2009

The Unbearable Lightness of Being - Milan Kundera

Read July 2002

I first read The Unbearable Lightness of Being when I was nineteen and on holiday in Menorca. I had just finished the third book in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy and didn’t think anything I read would compare to it. Little did I realise the genius of Milan Kundera. Within ten pages I was stuck by the certainty that what I was reading was absolutely nothing like anything I had ever read before. Milan Kundera has a style which is truly unique. Instead of constructing a linear plot with characters illuminated by the things they experience, Kundera subjects his characters to psychoanalysis, completely gets into their minds to elucidate everything about them. When you read a Milan Kundera book you are suddenly aware of how complex and fascinating individuals are, and how they fit into wider philosophical ideas. As he explains their actions and thoughts you get to know them in a intensely intimate manner, not as a friend or lover or colleague but as someone who you have almost been, someone whose mind you have actually lived in. You begin to think as they do, consider the world through their eyes, understand what makes them tick.

Kundera’s writing is like the lecture you always wanted to listen to: enlightening, funny, and full of personal significance. When you read Kundera, you don’t only learn something of the world around you, but something of yourself as well. Reading your first Milan Kundera novel, like your first kiss, first day of university, or the day you first realised how great music could be, is an experience that will remain with you throughout your life.

In this, his most celebrated work, Kundera subjects life in newly Communist Prague to the post-modern novels favourite topics: love, sex, politics and philosophy. There are two couples, Tomas and Tereza, Sabina and Franz. It is 1968, the year of the Prague Spring, artists and intellectuals are suddenly free. Then, a few months later, the Soviet army has moved in and crushed the revolution. The book centres on this freedom, this lightness of being, and how it is paralleled in our everyday experience of life. Since we are all, ultimately, insignificant, existence is unencumbered by weighty decisions which could transform life forever. It is light, airy, irrelevant. But this is not an easily bearable idea to accompany life. Emotions, desires, beauty all get in the way, making our lives feel heavy even through this lightness. Hence the title, The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

Like much European literature, Kundera’s work is rife with real sexuality, not pornographic but intimate, natural, enjoyable and fun. It is erotic in a relatable way, down-to-earth and human. And the same is true of other sensory concepts. A love of music dances throughout this novel, wafting on the breeze of the character’s obsession. How often do you find a stave and written music in a novel? Indeed one of the most sumptuous of all lines I have read in literature comes from this fabulous novel on the subject of music:

He considered music a liberating force: it liberated him from loneliness, introversion, the dust of the library; it opened the door of his body and allowed his soul to step out into the world to make friends.”

As Kundera says, “a song is a beautiful lie.” If the same is true for fiction, then this is one of the most beautiful of lies ever told. And there are many, many other such quotes. But I will limit myself to just one, the sentence which inspired Jonathan Safran Foer’s equally resplendent novel, Everything is Illuminated.

“In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine.”

It would be so easy to write a review of The Unbearable Lightness of Being as a list of glorious quotes. You can open the book at any page and find one staring back at you. It is difficult to stop the sort of chin-on-the-floor type dazed amazement from infiltrating this writing. You absolutely have to read this book. Just put down whatever you were about to read and buy this instead. You will not be disappointed.

10 out of 10

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