The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Tonight I started The Unbearable Lightness of Being. It was that or Everything is Illuminated. I realized on the second page of the book I started that the title of the book I did not start was probably an allusion to this book. So Everything is Illuminated will be next. I only got halfway through Lightness tonight.

Lightness was recommended to me by a friend during one of our many conversations. Although we have many conversations they tend to fall into ridges, ruts, of subject matter: birds, travel, relationships, the Adirondaks, our common past, our common friends, design, and understanding. By understanding I mean that sometimes we speak about something within us, common to us both. The book came up in conversation so it may have just been a book recommendation. But because our friendship is predicated upon our common knowledge of a friend with whom I had a relationship, and about whom we sometimes speak, I think the book recommendation also has to do with this relationship. It may or may not. As Kundera points out, it may just be a coincidence with which I’m imbuing special significance because my personal life narrative has aesthetic value to me.

I am not overly impressed with the book. I think the character descriptions are accurate but overly simplified, and the “deep thoughts” have somewhat of a “Book of Quotations” feel to them. I don’t like the clear style. Everything is too easily explained, like a textbook. I like Duras and Woolf. I like the complexity, the translucency of human relationships to be reproduced in complex, translucent ways. Kundera’s lightness (of hand, stylistically) results in language that is too transparent for the weightiness, the opacity of the subject.

I identify with the character Sabina, and the friend described above is like Tomas (though I see myself in Tereza too, and former lovers in Franz). If every book that portrays characters or tells about people (tales, biographies, historical and religious documents, fiction) could be said to be an approximation of something real, so that all that written information is like a vast archive of possibilities for People none of which are Quite Like the Real Thing, then The Unbearable Lightness of Being is another piece of that database. But from the halfway point of the book I have not found something that puts it into a more interesting category than fodder for that archive. Again, I think it is partly because of the style. It is too clear. People are fuzzy.

I was talking to my boss recently about OFC and I was explaining that part of the reason that things are all broken up is that memory does not work in nice clear grammatical trajectories. There is a grammar to memory, but it is not the same as the grammar to which I constrain myself in this blog post. Relationships are similar. There is always so much to convey at once that time and space do not correspond. To try to convey multiple, competing claims at once as well as all the spin-offs, memories, projections, etc. protruding from the claims is impossible in what (in a grammatical sentence) is essentially two-dimensional space (or to be more precise, nacheinander). This (and not the blankness of the page) is what makes writing like painting: it is a way of constraining 4D life to 2D space. It’s certainly an interesting quandary and gives rise to many experiments, even experiments that claim that they are not trying to represent anything (but even in doing so are commenting upon reality, or recording or leaving a trace of reality, as in Pollock’s paintings). To me this challenge of representation is much more interesting than what is represented, since what is represented is never really real anyway. Kundera has chosen to try to explain things very neatly, very clearly in his book although he obviously wants to report in-depth on the complexities of his characters, and that strategy doesn’t appeal to me as a way of answering to the problem of representing the (unbearably light) complexity of life.

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17 Responses to The Unbearable Lightness of Being

  1. deanjbaker says:

    this is good to see, thanks

  2. Matt says:

    Thank you for articulating the very reason I was annoyed with this book. “Book of Quotations”–that’s right on the head of the nail. I was always thinking, “Ooh, nice insight, Mr. Smart Guy, I’m real impressed.” Which is a problem I run into with a lot of fiction writers–a lot of them (okay, I guess I should say, a lot of “narrators”) seem very settled–they “know what they’re doing”. They’re so authoritative. (No wonder we call them “authors”.) Woolf, like you mentioned, is different–she’s not settled–she doesn’t know what’s around every corner before we do. She’s there with us rather than being ahead of us, dragging us along like kids on leashes at a crowded amusement park. Huh. I just realized that this also may be the difference between the kind of poetry I like and the kind I don’t like. I don’t like Know-It-Alls. (Of course I don’t like Know-Nothings either.) I like Know-It-Somewhats.

  3. Matt says:

    (unintentional smiley above)

  4. Amelia says:

    A friend of mine in college adored that irksome novel, so I read it on recommendation, as you did. I was hesitant to damn Unbearable for its grammatical style because I thought it might have to do with the translation; but yes, there was something about the way Kundera seems to condescend to his characters that annoyed me. The prose was so engraved and clear-cut that it never left the page. I never managed to make it play in real-time.

  5. Alixandra says:

    I perceived Kundera’s narrative style somewhat differently.

    For me, his assured descriptions don’t simplify the characters, but strip them naked of their own self-deceptions. We see, then, where they are pathetic; where their justifications are weak; where their perceptions are altered by ignorance, or innocence; where their motivations are questionable, or based on misconception.

    They are described transparently because the Narrator, in not being one of them, sees through them, and so do we. And this is upsetting — it makes me uncomfortable to think I might be stripped this way.

    In this I found his style appealing (or peeling).

  6. But Alix, the idea that he’s seeing through them is also false. Yes, to a certain extent he has– or takes– the right to judge them, externally, as if he knows them better than they know themselves. But the stripped method you point to also strips the fragile multitude of contingencies– the spiderwebs of feeling and memory. Take Woolf’s portrayal of Mrs. Dalloway as a counterexample (as well as all the other characters in that book). They are, in the same way, “stripped,” but they are also left with all the integrity derived from the complexity of circumstances. Woolf gets down into the characters, even criticizes them, without taking away the complexity of each individual’s precious singularity.

    I’m glad you brought up the word “Strip,” which is what one of the characters says to his lovers. To tell his lovers to do this entails a certain aggressive (if passive, since he’s not actually disrobing them) authority. It assumes that they won’t defy him. This authority turns on these women. It would not turn me on, as a lover or as a reader. I don’t like the idea that Kundera is “stripping” the characters. I don’t even really like the idea that I can so easily refer to them as “characters,” but that is what they are, they are like cardboard cut-outs.

    I would say this was a gender issue, but I don’t get the same feeling (as I do with Kundera’s stripped characters) reading Joyce. Since they were almost contemporaries, and since Irish Catholicism is or was probably comparable in its patriarchal oppression to Eastern European attitudes towards women (which are quickly understood if one is a woman walking around over there), I don’t think it’s a matter of one author being more enlightened on those terms than the other. So I don’t think it’s a gender issue– I don’t think that men growing up in a patriarchal society necessarily bring this authoritarian “strip” method to their characters and write in pared-down prose, covering the complexity of Life. I think it’s just a matter of style, of the mistake of using such a clear style to try to convey something that isn’t clear. Of using a grammatical style to convey something that isn’t grammatical (or, not non-grammatical, because everything has a syntax– but not grammatical on a linear plane deprived of the forking paths of human existence in Time).

    It is a bit like lepidoptery. Where Woolf tries to study them as they are, tries to capture their graceful fluttering as well as their agonizing and sometimes fatal emergence from the chrysalis, wonders at their ephemerality, and describes their colors in terms of the waving sea, bringing to the fore questions of mortality with a light hand, it is like Kundera sees a butterfly, captures and kills and pins it, and announces, “That butterfly is blue. Butterflies are ephemeral. Is ephemerality good or bad?” it is not much. It doesn’t make me really have to think about mortality, unless of course this were the very first book I’d read that made me think about such a thing. I can imagine a young student getting excited about it– I can imagine my freshmen liking it better than when I made them read Mrs. Dalloway. I imagine that my friend read it a long time ago and that it brought these things to her mind for the first time, then, and that she thus has a sentimental attachment to it. And there is something to be said for the value of such a book. Hesse’s Steppenwolf has survived as a classic for much the same reason– it’s an important book for budding intellectuals. But for my taste, for my need for the author to try as s/he might to convey everything about the butterfly, for his/her style to be warped by the inefficiency of grammatical language to portray something that exists in space and time when grammatical prose exists mostly in time (i.e. linearly), the book is insufficient.

  7. Alixandra says:

    You have a lot of points here, and I haven’t read Mrs. Dalloway, so it’s difficult to respond to my own satisfaction. Maybe if I read Mrs. Dalloway I would agree with you completely. Perhaps they are aspiring to similar ends, and the contrast of the two attempts makes Unbearable look weakly conceived.

    I would like to add, however, that the problem of simplicity is part of my argument — that I didn’t like his treatment of his characters is part of the reason I defend it.
    These people think that they are deep, complicated. He thinks that they are at least somewhat mistaken there. I think that I am deep, complicated. I don’t like to think that I am mistaken.
    Do you see what I’m driving at? He could be right. Who are we to say that we know human nature better than he does? That the way we perceive people (and ourselves) is correct?

    That said, I’m glad his books aren’t the only ones out there, and I’m not going to read them repeatedly. Because I got what I came for. (I did not contemplate mortality, interestingly, while the film Shaun of the Dead caused me to contemplate mortality).

    You are also questioning the novel’s literary importance, which I am not arguing for. To quote your paraphrase of Kundera, I ascribe to it (as evidenced by the poem I wrote when I first read it, which can still be found on my website) “special significance because my personal life-narrative has aesthetic value to me,” and it is by this criteria that I judge all my reading (and everything else).

    addendum: Just a point of interest. In the film, the phrase “strip” is replaced by “take off your clothes.” (I believe — at least something quite similar). Had Tomas said either to me, I would not have been wooed, but I found “take off your clothes” less obnoxious.

  8. marcys says:

    Wow, this is so surprising to me, cuz I really loved The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I read it too long ago, though, to intelligently defend anything about it–but I do remember loving Kundera’s writing in general, and his characters are not at all cardboard.

    I also love Mrs. Dalloway, which I remember better, since I read it a few times and wrote a paper on Virginia Woolf. But I would never compare these two books, or these two writers. They’re like apples and oranges, and I’m not sure why they’re being compared.

  9. Marcy, did you read the reasons why I think his characters are two-dimensional? You can’t just say “they aren’t.” That’s not an argument. Maybe you should review the book on your own blog?

    I am comparing the two writers because I am trying to articulate why I don’t think The Unbearable Lightness of Being is as good as other works–or, more precisely, why it doesn’t appeal to me as much as other works do. TULOB has similar aesthetic goals as Mrs. D in terms of wanting to portray characters and question the value of mortal lives. They’re not that different– and apples and oranges aren’t that different either.

    Alix, I guess perhaps I disagree with Kundera’s argument, then. I do think people are deep. Everyone. All people are deep. All people act in interesting ways. They are constantly facing situations in which they have to change or act or not act or not change and how they decide to do whatever they do interests me. Plus, I think that no matter how deep they are, or how deep they think they are (which is often out of joint with how deep they actually are), there is the deep tragedy of only living once and for a comparatively short time. That’s what I like about Woolf. Her characters aren’t “special” either. It’s precisely their ordinariness that makes them tragic. That is why I don’t think it’s a stretch to compare Kundera and Woolf. Both are dealing with the question of the value of a life when the life is ordinary and fleeting.

    Of course, Alix, I’m just discussing this with you– I certainly don’t mean to make you defend Kundera beyond your desire to do so, and you make a good point. Similarly, it’s not like I hate the book or anything. It’s good. It’s fine. It’s interesting. I just want to try to assess its weak points, or what I think are its aesthetic weak points. (To such an end, referring back to Marcy, I am comparing it to books that I think are successful in doing what this book seems to want to do and is not, in my opinion, managing to do as well.)

  10. Lydia says:

    Jessica,
    What a brilliant review that set off one of the best comment strings I’ve read in a blog. I’ve read both of these books. I read ULOB probably 14 years ago and I don’t remember it. Mrs. Dalloway was a summer read two years ago and I can easily move right into that day when I think of it.
    This is disturbing me presently. My regular reading pattern has been disrupted with blogging, yard work, animal issues, and a major shift in sleeping pattern. But those excuses aside, I wonder why it’s taking me so long (going on a month) to complete Reading Lolita in Tehran. I like the book, I’m happy to be there when I get back to it, but I can’t think of another book that’s bogged me down like this. It’s just hard to spend this much emotional time in the world’s powderkeg; that must be it.

  11. Lydia,
    Thanks… but just to point out that none of my comments on books are reviews. It’s just a personal blog. They’re just personal comments.

    Should I read Reading Lolita? I keep seeing it on the shelf at the bookstore…

  12. Lydia says:

    That was me too, kept seeing it at the bookstore but buying other books instead. My sister sent it to me (wants it returned) because she thinks it’s an important read for women. Maybe she wasn’t aware, prior to reading the book, what womens’ lives were like in Iran before and then after revolution/war. However, even for those of us who followed the goings on in that part of the world as best we could through news sources I must say that this book is a remarkable personal account that exceeds descriptions I’d read/seen up to now.

    That she weaves literature throughout, juxtaposing novels against the changing academic and societal landscapes in Iran is powerful. Reading Lolita is not the only novel presented here (it makes for a great title). I’ve read Nabokov’s Lolita so when that book is discussed I was totally there. Having not read some of the other novels treated in Reading Lolita probably has lessened my experience of the book, but in no way has that been a deterrence in reading it.
    I do believe I’ll finish the book in a day or so and my sis will be happy to have it back.

  13. ian says:

    Kundera champions various types of characterization (Broch, Gombrowicz, Tolstoy) but the narrative structure and characterization of Unbearable is modeled after Kafka and Diderot. What Kundera takes from Kafka to Unbearable is the pared down characterization and story line which only that which contributes to the themes of the novel, organizing his characters around a psychological shorthand rather than passively imbue them with complexity. Later novels like Immortality go on with the thematic threads and show the act of concocting the character.. Sort of indulgently dispensing of the traditional devices of suspension of disbelief.. If we don’t know where Tereza came from in Kundera’s mind then we can assume she’s at lease modeled after a real person.

    The most realistic character study I’ve come across of late btw is called “Looktouch”.. So impulsive it must be all true!! When I first read it I didn’t want to disagree with anything!

    One book of Kundera’s with a narrative structure that you’d like more is The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. That’s my favorite of his by far because I have some of the same reservations about Unbearable.

    I like the Kundera’s direct statements outside the narrative .. A structure he took from a lot of great predecessors in Modernism. This is not what holds sway in American prose workshops partially because it would be “unbearable,” but also for other cultural reasons.

    Joyce and Kundera have much different views on women and Kundera has been criticized by feminists. It would be unimaginable for Kundera to write first person as a woman as Joyce does.. Both Joyce and Kundera exiled in Paris and elsewhere but Joyce married an Irish girl and I can’t imagine Kundera happily married to a Czech girl. Kundera can say what he likes in my book though as I like honesty more than any mandatory attitude.

  14. Ian… It’s true that I feel something of the “pared-down” coming from Czech lit, from Kafka and from Neruda. Although I don’t feel like Kundera is anything like Kafka in terms of tightness, at least in Unbearable. And I think the style is different. Kafka’s style could be characterized as clear/short/precise but I don’t ever think of it as “light.” Where I felt that Kundera’s style itself was too “light,” too didactic.

    Someone else also recommended Laughter and Forgetting and Immortality as better Kundera. If I decide to give Kundera another chance I will look into them.

  15. Ian points out that I should clarify that I mean Jan, not Pablo, Neruda.

  16. marcys says:

    Jessica, As I said in my post, I read Unbearable Lightness too long ago to be able to now illustrate why the characters aren’t cardboard; but so many years later, I still remember all three of them clearly (hm…maybe it’s because of the movie!). I couldn’t review it now, either, without re-reading it, and I share some of Lydia’s obstacles to reading–mainly my sleep patterns: I don’t sleep enough, so whenever I sit still to read, I immediately nod off.

    Lydia, I felt the same way about Reading Lolita in Tehran: had to force myself to keep going back to it, and I finally gave up about midway thru. A better book about women’s lives under Islam, IMO–and I prefer reading novels anyway–is A Thousand Splendid Suns–it was wonderful/awful (awful meaning painful) and I recommend it highly.

    This is one of the liveliest most interesting and informed comment threads I’ve ever seen on WordPress–congratulations, Jessica!

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