The Unbearable Lightness of Being

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

When Milan Kundera’s fourth novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, appeared in English translation in 1980, few American readers were familiar with his work; indeed, few had so much as heard his name. By the time The Unbearable Lightness of Being was published, three and a half years later, Kundera had become one of the most visible figures on the international literary scene, the subject of many feature articles, interviews, and even (in France and England at least) television programs. The Unbearable Lightness of Being was a number-one best-seller in France (where Czech exile Kundera has lived for ten years) and appeared on best-seller lists in the United States. Kundera’s novel was a critical success as well, widely and favorably reviewed, and was the winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Award for fiction in 1984.

Two striking features distinguish The Unbearable Lightness of Being. First, it is a novel in which reflective thought plays an unusually prominent role. Kundera offers not only many arresting “ideas” (aphorisms, pensées) but also extended exercises in thinking (arguments, “thought experiments,” even brief essays). The second feature, related to the first, is what Kundera has referred to as the novel’s “polyphonic” structure. Polyphony, as Kundera defines it, is the fusion of “philosophy, narrative, and dream” and “the specifically novelistic essay” into “a single music.”

Ironically, the very features that give The Unbearable Lightness of Being its distinctive character have been ignored, downplayed, or misrepresented in most reviews of the novel. There are two reasons for this failure, one trivial and one not. The former is simply a matter of space; it is possible to do only so much in a short review. The latter, however, is a matter of widely held and generally unexamined assumptions concerning the role of ideas in fiction. While such issues cannot be pursued here, it must be noted that Anglo-American modernism (as opposed to the Central European modernism of Robert Musil and Hermann Broch) has as one of its ten commandments a prohibition against ideas in the novel. Many reviewers, like many critics and indeed many novelists, accept this dogma without question.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being is divided into seven parts: part 1, “Lightness and Weight”; part 2, “Soul and Body”; part 3, “Words Misunderstood”; part 4, “Soul and Body”; part 5, “Lightness and Weight”; part 6, “The Grand March”; and part 7, “Karenin’s Smile.” In turn, each part is divided into numbered subsections of varying length. (In a Paris Review interview, Kundera refers to these subsections as “chapters”; accordingly, that usage will be employed here.)

This structure, with its suggestion of theme and variation, seems to invite the reader to find a musical analogy—an invitation confirmed in Kundera’s remarks on the novel:The chapters themselves mustcreate a little world of their own; they must be relatively independent. That is why I keep pestering my publishers to make sure that the numbers are clearly visible and that the chapters are well separated. The chapters are like the measures of a musical score!Each part could have a musical tempo indication.

Such musical analogies, insofar as they are supposed to correspond to the reader’s experience of the text in more than the most general fashion, are notoriously dubious. Nevertheless, Kundera’s remarks help to convey the feel of his novel in a way that most of the reviews have failed to do. As one reads the book, one is always aware of its intellectual structure. This is not a submerged symbolic structure such as students are taught to recognize in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness; it is quite explicit. To summarize the “action” of Kundera’s novel within the scope of a review, one must abstract the narrative from its structural context. The effect, whatever the reviewer’s intentions, is to imply that what really matters in the novel is “the story.”

Surely, however, what “really matters” in a novel that calls itself The Unbearable Lightness of Being is its illumination of being. In a brilliant essay in The New York Review of Books entitled “The Novel and Europe,” Kundera suggests that the rise of science—“which, in reducing the world to an object of technical and mathematical investigation,put die Lebenswelt, the world of concrete living, beyond its pale”—has been paralleled by the development of the novel: “Cervantes gave birth to a great European art which is nothing other than the perpetual investigation of the being ignored by science.” The phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, Heidegger’s diagnosis of “the forgetting of being,” was anticipated, Kundera says, in “four centuries of novel-writing.”

While unhesitatingly affirming the cognitive authority of the novel to “shed light on existence” (he defines the history of the novel as “the sequence of [its] discoveries”), Kundera is, however, equally emphatic in his seemingly contradictory insistence that “The novelis a territory where one does not make assertions; it is a territory of play and of hypotheses. Reflection within the novel is hypothetical by its very essence.” In practice, though, what does this mean? In what sense is the reader of Kundera’s novel intended to regard its various reflections as “hypothetical”? These questions are not extrinsic to the novel, imported from the classroom; rather, they are the very questions that must arise in any responsible reading of Kundera’s text. It is not merely a matter of extracting the novel’s ideas.

To read The Unbearable Lightness of Being, one must (whatever one makes of his paeans to Laurence Sterne, Denis Diderot, and the novel as play) take seriously Kundera’s project for the novel as a form. To do so, one is not required to share Kundera’s vision of human life and its place in the universe—not at all; one must,...

(The entire section is 2510 words.)