Alix’s comment about how the people in Unbearable are shallow made me think harder about the aesthetics of the book, especially vis-a-vis Kundera’s interrogation of the value of the “light” (shallow) vs. the “heavy” (deep). Kundera seems to want to flip this binary and show that the light is “weighty” (the ephemeral or mortal is what is important; “Einmal ist…” nicht keinmal aber alles). Or, this is what I assumed… that he wanted to show that the seemingly fleeting, shallow, light was heavy. And at this, I thought that he failed. In creating what I called “cardboard cut-out” characters who were both in terms of the story and in terms of their “real lives” shallow people, and in writing in a clear, nearly transparent style (in that one is never forced to think about the insufficiency of style to carry the weight of the complexity of Life), he failed to make me think that light was heavy. Of course, I already think that light is heavy. But I was unconvinced by Kundera’s argument, where I am quickly convinced by authors like Woolf, Duras, Proust, that the light is heavy.
But then I read the second half of the book, and I came to the following thoughts:
1. Kundera’s description of animals and specifically of Teresa’s love for Karenin is the strongest part of the book if one is looking for the light to become heavy.
2. Coming as it does on the foot of a discussion of kitsch (about which Kundera has a long definition that is separate from our American definition of the word), the emotions that one feels at Karenin’s death might not be heavy, they may just be kitsch.
3. Kundera may very well be saying that the way that literature works upon us to engage our emotions to consider the light to be heavy, is just a form of kitsch.
4. Thus, Kundera’s objective is to deconstruct kitsch and to write a book that is not kitsch.
I came to respect the book in this “light” (forgive the pun). If Kundera is indeed trying to make the reader feel nothing about his characters, to understand them as cardboard cut-outs, as fabrications (he has a page about how they are not real people, but just fabrications), then he succeeds (I think). And if he succeeds in this, it is to undermine what he thinks of as “kitsch” in culture/society, that is, what makes one feel overly sentimental and naive rather than realistic and besmirched. He is, I would argue, trying to make a literature that is only “light,” that doesn’t pretend to be or ever fall into “kitsch.” That cannot be co-opted for a regime or purpose.
You will probably have to reread the book at this point to understand what I’m talking about. Pay particular attention to the discussion of heavy/light in the first pages and to the discussion of kitsch.
The question that follows, and which Kundera himself asks in the course of the book, is whether a book that is not kitsch, i.e. that makes no impact, that is not “heavy,” is of value. Is the “light” valuable? It becomes a kind of vicious circle of questioning. Is Unbearable light? Is “light” literature valuable? Is Kundera attempting to write “light” literature? Does he succeed? Is that success “light”? Is that success “valuable”? Is the valuable light or heavy? Etc.
Personally, I think that Kundera’s novel tries so hard to be a philosophical investigation that Kundera probably did not mean for it to be “light.” Or, he meant for to turn the “light” into heaviness, as I spoke of Woolf and Duras doing. If that is the case then I think the book fails as a project. Rather, it does not succeed in the same way that great works of literature do. But if the book uses these philosophical inquiries to deconstruct the reader’s expectation that the “light” will be made “heavy,” if the characters are two-dimensional, if the style is simple and linear, all in an effort to create a “light” that absolutely never becomes “kitsch” (i.e. can never be co-opted as “heavy”), then the book is utterly remarkable.
It is like the question of “bad poetry” asked in recent years by people like German poet Franz Josef Czernin and the American Flarfists, but Flarf, at least, is “kitsch” (according to every definition). Kundera seems to be asking, “what if it isn’t serious, isn’t immortal, isn’t tragic, isn’t comic, and isn’t kitsch? then what?” And that is a very interesting question.