The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Unbearable Lightness of Beingbook by Milan Kundera

annotation by Tina Rubin

Kundera’s portrayal of four characters in the years after the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 piqued my interest in the metafictional style of writing, in which the author speaks directly to the reader, breaking the spell, as it were, of fiction. We are reminded throughout the novel that the two pairs of lovers, Tomas and Tereza, Sabina and Franz, are creations of the author’s imagination and are not to be believed. As their stories unfold, we are also told, in no uncertain terms, what each symbol or event signifies. In the end I found the style rather disconcerting—it caused me to remember why I enjoy “regular” fiction so much. I wanted the author to give me, the reader, more credit. To let me figure out the meaning for myself.

However, that said, Kundera writes beautifully and evocatively. He weaves his philosophy through the story with thought-provoking discussions of concepts ranging from the myth of eternal return and the longing to fall to the basic question of the book, whether lightness or heaviness is the positive trait that Parmenides referred to in the sixth century B.C. His chapters are carefully crafted so that the beginnings and the endings relate. One section of the book struck me as particularly clever, “Words Misunderstood” (eleven chapters): the concept was a brilliant vehicle for expressing the nature of the two pairs of opposite characters, their complete misunderstandings, and the futility of their choices, regardless of what they were. The theme of futility, illustrated through these opposites, came through very well.

The story underlying the novel, though, that of the invasion of Czechoslovakia, was the real truth of the book for me—because that’s where the author was present on the page. Not as much so in the contrived style with which he presented the characters. This is something I have been working to achieve as well, being present on the page. The Unbearable Lightness of Being is an excellent lesson, I feel, in both how to attain that presence and how not to.

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