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The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan…
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The Unbearable Lightness of Being (original 1984; edition 1984)

by Milan Kundera

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17,089196103 (4.03)2 / 337
Member:sturlington
Title:The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Authors:Milan Kundera
Info:
Collections:Unowned
Rating:**1/2
Tags:setting - Czech Republic, cities - Prague

Work details

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (1984)

  1. 30
    Il Gattopardo by Giuseppe Di Lampedusa (Eustrabirbeonne)
  2. 30
    Sophie's Choice by William Styron (rretzler)
  3. 00
    Love by Angela Carter (Ludi_Ling)
    Ludi_Ling: Both treatments on the intricacies of love and romantic/sexual relationships. Kundera's is the more readable of the two, but the themes running through them are very similar.
  4. 00
    Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar (olonec)
    olonec: I'd call this one The Unbearable Heaviness of Being
  5. 01
    In Praise of Older Women by Stephen Vizinczey (soylentgreen23)
    soylentgreen23: The perfect companion piece, since it deals with a lot of sex, women, affairs, and surviving in Communist Eastern Europe.
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Showing 1-5 of 159 (next | show all)
So, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you see a book with a title “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”? Well, it does sound ostentatious, doesn't it? You could actually take some pride reading a book bearing such a title! And the “pride” might easily outshine the feeling of “How did the read go?” You can see, I have to be really careful now answering this same question (For I am very likely to be asked. Of course, it’s The title that raises the curiosity). It’s a bit of a tricky question to answer and here I will bring the contrasts between European and South Asian social life for expressing myself (Pretty ostentatious right? But I can’t help much, I am only writing a review of a novel having an “ostentatious” title, sitting at one corner of South Asia!)

The novel starts with an analysis of Friedrich Nietzsche's idea of eternal return that “everything recurs as we once experienced it, and that the recurrence itself recurs ad infinitum!” Kundera stands opposite to this idea of eternal return and tries to establish that every individual experiences a life of his/ her own which will never come back, making the individual’s life ridiculously insignificant. Thus comes the lightness, the unbearable lightness of being. There is a lot lovemaking (sex) and tension between the characters' love life and sex life in the story and standing behind the curtain, Kundera points his finger towards the lightness of love and sex. Indeed, love is a fortuitous event and it lands on your shoulders like a fluttering bird, but what's its significance?, it’s unbearably light; that’s what Kundera’s argument. The characters in the novel engage themselves in sexual adventures quite rapidly. Tomas, the protagonist, when asked, very reluctantly (and shyly too) answers that he had made love to 200 women (give or take some more). Tomas is a doctor (a surgeon more precisely) and it’s his profession that inspires him to go for these sexual adventures, not the lust. On the surgery table, Tomas has to dissect human bodies which is his passion and likewise, he loves to dissect women nature while making love to them for each woman has her very own way to take part in the act of copulation; Tomas enjoys the variety and exploring the variation is his need. He often refers to Beethoven’s string quartet no. 16 for explaining himself. In the last movement of the quartet, named Der schwer gefasste Entschluss (The difficult decision) Beethoven asks “Muss es sein?” (Must it be?) and responds to himself saying “Es muss sein!” (It must be!). Each time Tomas enters into a new ‘erotic friendship’ he asks himself “Muss es sein?”, to which, the obvious answer he gives is, “Es muss sein!” In contrast to Tomas’s promiscous behavior, his wife Tereza is very resolute to love her husband (even though every night she gets the smell of other woman’s groin coming from Tomas’s hair). Apparently, it seems that Tomas doesn't love Tereza but to readers, gradually it becomes clear that Tomas had made the greatest sacrifice in his life for Tereza. Hadn't he done so, he would've lived a much fuller and happier life. Is that love really weightless? Well, maybe, it's too subtle an argument to analyze and no precise conclusion can be drawn. Does Tomas really have to make Tereza cry? Oh Yes, Es muss sein!

Though the plot of the novel circumambulates the idea of lightness of love and sex, it is written with a vivid backdrop of Soviet occupation of former Czechoslovakia. In Gorky, Gaidar or Ostrovsky, we see a tortured, battered, poor Russia. A crying Russia. Kundera rather shows an invading Soviet Russia that makes the Czechs cry, leave their country and lose their jobs. While I found the philosophical arguments to be superficial, the description of the occupation really shook me. It’s a grim and depressing novel and it appears that the sun never rises at the venues where this novel takes place. The Soviet occupation chapters made the tone even graver.

Now comes the Europe-South Asia contrasting part. The west is much less conservative about sex, relative to the eastern part of the world. By no means, I am indicating that the westerns are more promiscuous than the Asians. It’s just the cultural difference. One part of the world allows the open relations, while the other part dubs it to be a taboo. Good or bad, it’s a very open question. But, open relationships and sexual promiscuity is something that make The East frown (surely it makes anyone from any part of the world frown, but remember? It’s a taboo here). When it seems that the characters in the unbearable, deep down, regret for their promiscuity, it appears that after all, the eastern view of sexual fidelity prevails! Another point I’d like to pick. In the novel Tomas buys Tereza a female dog with the hope that this dog will back him up in healing Tereza’s depression since he can’t give her much time. While naming the dog, Tomas suggests that they should give it a male name (Karenin). A female dog with a male name will develop a lesbian attraction to her female master, Tomas conjectured. In this relatively "backward" part of the world, such open discussions between lovers and husbands and wives are not very likely to take place. Sex has just been another regular need and the necessity of seeing it from a completely different point of view had never really occurred, well, until now! (I might add that Hinduism and Buddhism, two of the most important religions indigenous to South Asia, remain silent about this "other form" of sex. A religion is a set of rules and no matter religion is Divine or not, a lot of people abide by them. These rules are "created" based on human nature. The silence of the scriptures on this matter raise two possibilities. Either the practice of homosexuality was not introduced here at all, or they didn't bother noticing this behavior. Both ways, attraction between same sexes here, is much less a familiar idea than the west). So, in conclusion, I can only surmise that the cultural and religious differences between Europe and Asia might play a vital role in judging the capability of the novel.

Finally, it would be an injustice if I do not thank Michael Henry Heim, the translator. I do not know Czech but his English rendition is just too brilliant. Applaud for Michael.
( )
  Shaker07 | May 18, 2017 |
Despite the philosophical nature of this novel, I found it easy to read and was never bored. However, I would have appreciated it more in my 20s when I was more interested in this style of book. ( )
  leslie.98 | May 6, 2017 |
Beautiful. It felt very familiar and human and I'm going to read it again. ( )
  Brinlie.Jill.Searle | Nov 22, 2016 |
5 ( )
  ronchan | Nov 14, 2016 |
At its simplest level, this is merely a short novel about attitudes to love and the meanings of fidelity. The main characters approaches to love are almost diametric opposites, the surgeon Tomas, a promiscuous conqueror of women, and his wife Tereza, ashamed of her very body and unable to reconcile her husband's habits with her view of married fidelity. While the events unfold in front of the backdrop of the Prague Spring and the difficult years that follow, this is a novel focussed on the smaller, personal image, albeit no less profound in scope.

Despite this concentration on the characters, this is a novel bound to disappoint anyone looking for character and plot development. Various scenes are revisited from different perspectives, but there is no real plot to speak of, certainly the novel ends rather abruptly without any hint of a conclusion. Instead, we are treated to a philosophical tour of what it means to 'be' at all. The characters are explored for who they are and how they deal with people and with the world around them, their approach to love, sex, relationships, work. The principal dichotomy on display is that between the weight of responsibility and the lightness of inconsequence, but there is plenty of musing in other fields. Kundera fleetingly touches on many areas of life, from the meaning of words and their role in (mis)communication, to the position of kitsch in art, and our treatment of animals.

For all its philosophising, this is an eminently readable book. The prose is straight-forward and the interspersed author's comments on his creations provide plenty of food for thought, though this constant interruption might annoy some readers. Even its chapters are very short, which may have been Kundera's intention to give the reader plenty of time to pause and reflect. ( )
  Fips | Oct 30, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 159 (next | show all)
This is a book to bring home how parochial and inward looking most fiction written in the English language is. There is no possible way that The Unbearable Lightness Of Being could have been written by a British or US author, or indeed any other anglophile. The mind set, the life experiences and especially the history it is written from are all too different. While the thrust of this book is by no means the same, I was reminded by its sensibility of the work of Bohumil Hrabal – not surprisingly also a Czech author.

The book is unusual in another sense – it breaks most of the rules that aspiring writers are advised to adhere to. A lot of the action is told to us rather than shown, Kundera addresses the reader directly, inserts his opinions into the narrative, tells us his interpretations of the characters. He also messes with chronology (admittedly not a major drawback, if one at all) and parenthetically gives us important information about some characters in sections which ostensibly deal with others. In parts, especially in the author’s musings on kitsch as the denial of the existence of crap - in all its senses - in the world, it reads as a treatise rather than an exploration of the human condition. That is, at times it is not fiction at all.

Kundera is highly regarded, so is this the essence of high art in fiction? That, as well as dealing with “important” subjects - or perhaps being considered to be circumscribed yet still endeavouring to tell truth to power (whatever truth may be) - the author should step beyond the bounds of narrative; of story?

The problem with such an approach is that it tends to undermine suspension of disbelief. The characters become too obviously constructs; the reader is in danger of losing sympathy, or empathy, with them; or indeed to care. It is a fine line to tread.

Where The Unbearable Lightness Of Being is not unusual is in its treatment of those novelistic eternals love, sex and death. Indeed at times it seems to be fixated on sex.

While the exigencies of living in a totalitarian state do colour the narrative, the treatment is matter of fact, oblique, almost incidental. The choices the characters make merely fall within the constraints of such a system. It is true, however, that something similar could be said for characters in any milieu. There are constraints on us all.

What I did find disappointing was that rather than finish, the book just seemed to stop. While the fates of the characters Kundera leaves us with are already known, this hardly seemed fair. "Leave them wanting more" may be an old showbiz adage but in the context of a one-off novel might be thought to be a failing.
added by jackdeighton | editA Son Of The Rock, Jack Deighton (Jan 17, 2011)
 
The world, and particularly that part of the world we used to call, with fine carelessness, eastern Europe, has changed profoundly since 1984, but Kundera's novel seems as relevant now as it did when it was first published. Relevance, however, is nothing compared with that sense of felt life which the truly great novelists communicate.
 
The mind Mr. Kundera puts on display is truly formidable, and the subject of its concern is substantively alarming.
 
Moments of Olympian distance, in which the author shows his mortals ignorantly creeping toward oblivion, alternate with passages of stirring intimacy, with the novelist playing cheerleader, urging victories for everyone.
added by Shortride | editTime, Paul Gray (Apr 16, 1984)
 
''The Unbearable Lightness of Being'' is a fairly straightforward inquiry into the intertwined fates of two pairs of lovers. The fact that it aspires to be a more conventional novel accounts for both its virtues and its flaws. If ''Lightness'' demonstrates a new capacity, on Mr. Kundera's part, to create sympathetic characters and sustain a lyrical story, the increased formality of its narrative design also tends to throw a harsher light on his penchant for philosophical digression.
 

» Add other authors (56 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Kundera, Milanprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Barbato, AntonioTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
de Valenzuela, FernandoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Heim, Michael HenryTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Marcellino, FredCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Oliver, JonathanNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Roth, SusannaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Siraste, KirstiTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
V., Fernando ValenzuelaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Valenzuela, FernandoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Valenzuela, Fernando deTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Zgustová, MonikaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Шульгина, НинаTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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La idea del eterno retorno es misteriosa y con ella Nietzsche dejó perplejo a los demás filósofos...
The idea of eternal return is a mysterious one, and Nietzsche has often perplexed other philosophers with it: to think that everything recurs as we once experienced it, and that the recurrence itself recurs ad infinitum! What does this mad myth signify?
Die Ewige Wiederkehr ist ein geheimnisvoller Gedanke, und Nietzsche hat damit manchen Philosophen in Verlegenheit gebracht: alles wird sich irgendwann so wiederholen, wie man es schon einmal erlebt hat, und auch diese Wiederholung wird sich unendlich wiederholen!
Quotations
When the heart speaks, the mind finds it indecent to object.
Tomas did not realize at the time that metaphors are dangerous. Metaphors are not to be trifled with. A single metaphor can give birth to love.
...vertigo is something other than the fear of falling.  It is the voice of the emptiness below us which tempts us and lures us, it is the desire to fall, against which, terrified, we defend ourselves.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0060932139, Paperback)

A young woman in love with a man torn between his love for her and his incorrigible womanizing; one of his mistresses and her humbly faithful lover—these are the two couples whose story is told in this masterful novel. In a world in which lives are shaped by irrevocable choices and by fortuitous events, a world in which everything occurs but once, existence seems to lose its substance, its weight. Hence, we feel "the unbearable lightness of being" not only as the consequence of our pristine actions but also in the public sphere, and the two inevitably intertwine.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:02:30 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

Interweaves story and dream, past and present, and philosophy and poetry in the sardonic and erotic tale of two couples--Tomas and Teresa, and Sabina and her Swiss lover, Gerhart.

(summary from another edition)

» see all 10 descriptions

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