THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING, Milan Kundera

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What was once light, has now become heavy.

I’m continuing to reread from the list of The Most Important Novels in My Life. I just finished THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING, by Milan Kundera.

This novel was published in English in the mid-eighties when I was just starting out as a writer. I wrote and read voraciously and when I discovered Kundera’s unique, philosophical novel I was, to put it less-than-elegantly, completely blown away.

The novel is anchored by a love story between Tomas, a Czech doctor, and his wife, Tereza, a photographer, along with one of many of Tomas’ mistresses, Sabina, and one of her lovers, Franz. The characters operate during the Prague Spring when the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia and its aftermath.

The beauty of the novel, the significance and impact for me, was Kundera’s philosophical and existential musings, the brilliance of the novel’s form, and the author’s insertion of himself into the narrative.

What do I mean by the author inserting himself? Here is a passage:

And once more I see him [Tomas] the way he appeared to me at the very beginning of the novel: standing at the window and staring across the courtyard at the walls opposite.

This is the image from which he was born. As I have pointed out before, characters are not born of people, of woman; they are born of a situation, a sentence, a metaphor containing in a nutshell a basic human possibility that the author thinks no one else has discovered or said something essential about . . . The characters in my novels are my own unrealized possibilities.

For a young writer searching for his own voice and grappling with his own unrealized possibilities as a writer, this was like discovering a treasure. And right in the middle of the story! I folded back many pages, I underlined passages and took notes in the margins, I recommended the novel to anyone I knew who could read. Naturally, I imitated (poorly) Kundera in my own writing.

I’m sure I read the novel several times back then. I saw and appreciated the film when it came out. I pondered the meaning of lightness and weight in my own existence.

Oh, but the passage of time. If time is nothing else, it is change.

In rereading the novel, I found myself distracted at first. Somewhat unengaged. Tomas and his justifications for having mistress after mistress—which seemed enviable back when I was a single twenty-something—now struck me as misogynistic. Sabina’s need to betray others didn’t make as much sense. Only Tereza, victimized by her husband’s philandering, felt authentic to me.

And what I once devoured as brilliant philosophical asides by Kundera now tasted a little preachy, as if the author were lecturing the reader.

But as I read on, I became more absorbed in the novel and when I finished reading I could still appreciate its importance in my personal canon.

Still, maybe I should be more judicious about visiting my past and some of those novels. Maybe some memories should be left alone. It might be asking too much for a novel not only to stand the test of time, but also to sustain personal relevance across decades. A novel’s most devoted readers might change; the novel itself might not keep up.   

By David Klein

David Klein

Published novelist, creative writer, avid reader, discriminating screen watcher.

Novels

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