The best books grow with us. Rather than presenting the same experience, each time we reread them they offer us newer, deeper, and broader rewards that connect to many different aspects of the lives we have been leading while we were away from them.
I read The Unbearable Lightness of Being the first time in the mid 1980s, not long after its initial publication. I imagine like most first-time readers I was moved by the complex and poignant love story between Tomas and Tereza, and by the devilish charm of Sabina. Being a sometime musician, I was also struck by the way Kundera worked into his plot the recurring theme of apparent fate as expressed in Beethoven’s “es muss sein.” The speculation on the souls of animals and the description of how the Communist regime used persecution of them as a training ground for turning citizens into a pool of paranoid informants and scapegoats made an impression too.
After seeing Philip Kaufman’s 1988 film version, I read the novel again and was moved even more by the pain of Tereza, who I think lost much of her depth as a character in the movie (even when played by the excellent Juliette Binoche) because so many of her experiences in the novel are interior. The film was drawn more to the flashy exterior of Lena Olin’s Sabina -- even to the neglect of the hollowness that results from her repeated betrayals and solitude. (For a particularly harsh assessment of the movie, see John Simon’s review in the March 18, 1988 issue of National Review, in which the Yugoslav-born commentator wrote: “… the absence of the authorial ‘I,’ – the compere, cicerone, and conscience of the book, the Vergil of this tragicomic Inferno – is what most causes the sinking of the film into what, in an access of benevolence, I shall call mediocrity.”)
Reading the book for a third or fourth time, a quarter century after its writing (and nearly a half century after the historical event that is the fulcrum of its structure -- the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia), I can appreciate its formal elements even more.
It’s a study of history and how large historical events (wars, diplomatic machinations, etc.), check and crush the arc and aspirations of individual lives. Though perhaps in a more indirect, less vivid manner, the Gulf and Iraq wars, the schemes of Enron, Wall Street, and mortgage lenders, the vote of a Supreme Court Justice or two in Bush v. Gore, have all affected our day-to-day lives. In these several instances, we have lost sons and fathers, our retirement funds (or homes or jobs), and have had to put up with a different chief executive than the one a majority of us had voted for. The relationship between vast historical events and our “little lives” is not as distant or hypothetical as we may sometimes believe.
It’s a philosophical meditation on cause and effect, chance and fate, and the souls of animals and how we choose to love or abuse them.
It’s an exercise in form. Far from offering a straightforward, beginning-to-end, linear tale, Kundera’s narrator mixes up the chronology, retelling the same events multiple times, sometimes from different perspectives.
For example, Tereza follows Tomas to Prague on pages 9 and 53; she leaves him in Zurich to return to Prague on pages 28 and 75-76; and Tomas follows her back to Prague on pages 33-34 and 76-77. They drive to the spa town where all the names have been changed to Russian on pages 165-169 (from Tereza’s point of view) and again on page 226 (as Tomas experienced it). The incident when Tereza rescues a half-buried crow and brings it home is related from her point of view on pages 158-160, and then Tomas recalls it on page 210.
There are dozens of other examples, large and small, but one of the most startling leaps in time occurs in the middle of the book, when Sabina is living in Paris and receives second-hand news (via a letter from Tomas’s son Simon) that Tomas and Tereza have been killed in a vehicle accident. We will read the rest of the novel -- most of which takes place in time before the event of their deaths -- with that knowledge more or less in the back of our heads.
I can imagine some readers were shocked, disappointed, or annoyed to be burdened with “the ending” before they’d gotten even halfway through the book. This is an unusual narrative ploy, but it’s not unique. Akira Kurosawa pulled the same trick in his 1952 film “Ikiru” (To Live), which opens with an X-ray of the hero’s stomach and the announcement that he has cancer, then casually tells us halfway through the movie that “our hero died six months later.” I have no idea whether Kundera was familiar with this film, but in its own way, it too addressed “the unbearable lightness of being” in the sense that its hero is forced by circumstances to face his mortality and assess the value of his life.
All the previous times I read Unbearable Lightness, I was puzzled by the references to Nietzsche’s “eternal return,” and couldn’t judge its place in this novel, or the “weight” the narrator (and by extension, Kundera) was inclined to give it.
Whether I had to reach the age I am, or it’s merely a function of having read the book multiple times and taken a long, hard look at it this time, I believe that while Kundera might agree intellectually with the hypothetical plausibility of the doctrine of eternal return, emotionally he rejects it.
During the narrator’s discussion of the vagaries of Czech history (section 15 of Part Five, page 222), he matter-of-factly comments that history is like individual lives, which are “not granted a second, third, or fourth life in which to compare various decisions.” Thus, “There is only one history of the Czechs. One day it will come to an end as surely as Tomas’s life, never to be repeated.”
The life of Tomas -- the love story of Tomas and Tereza -- illustrates the same point. The first time she comes to visit him in Prague, and they make love but she becomes sick, he has a moment, looking down at her feverish face, when he “fancied she had been with him for many years and was dying” and he has “a sudden clear feeling that he would not survive her death” (section 3 of Part One, page 8) -- which will turn out literally to be true.
He recognizes that this feeling could be “love declaring itself to him,” but he’s also afraid it could be just hysteria. Part of what fills him with doubt is the “unbearable lightness” of this love: that it could so easily not have happened, that “six improbable fortuities” had brought him together with Tereza (section 9 of Part Two, page 48).
It upsets Tomas that he can’t tell whether this is love or hysteria, because “a real man would instantly have known how to act.” But he also senses that “We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come.” Einmal ist keinmal (“once is not-once”; see Bookmark, page 8), Tomas says to himself: what happens but once might as well not have happened at all.
We might accept this in a vast, philosophical sense, but it is unacceptable as an emotional reality. If we were gods -- if were God Himself and had all eternity to watch, remake, and redo -- we might agree that what happens only once might as well not have happened at all. But we are ourselves the players at the center of the only show we shall ever know and that makes every step, every decision, a vital and never-to-be-repeated one.
Tomas has all he needs from the start: he really does love Tereza, but he can’t accept it fully, so he both loves her and torments her with his infidelities for more than a decade thereafter, until history beats him down, pushing him out of his beloved profession of surgery and driving him to labor as a window washer, then to a collective farm in a rural Czech town. But he has Tereza, Karenin, and the absence of other women to tempt him or spies and bugs to make his life a paranoid hell. When she realizes his “strength” was no match for her “weakness,” and that she forced him to give up his successful career as a surgeon in Zurich so that “everything bad that’s happened in your life is my fault,” he replies: “Haven’t you noticed I’ve been happy here, Tereza?”
Once is all we have, so we might as well choose, act, and accept, rather than hanging in the air for 12 or 14 years (let alone an entire lifetime). The unbearable lightness of being should not be allowed to terrify us into avoiding the voluntary weight of responsibility, firm choices, and love.
Michiko Kakutani's review, NY Times, April 2, 1984