Kundera, Milan: The Unbearable Lightness of Being

We began with the proposer’s revelation that he had first been led to the book by a friend who was a womanizer.  Perhaps the friend had found a kindred spirit in one of the book’s central characters, Tomas.  He revealed that Milan Kundera  has just had another book published (The Festival of Insignificance)– last year- at the age of 85.  This was considered admirable, although the book had not been well-received by critics apparently.

Our first commentator mentioned the disjointed nature of the narrative – for example the early revelation of the ultimate death of Tomas and Tereza in a car crash, which lent a poignancy to their relationship.  We followed up with some debate about the dreams in the book – and in particular whether or not the Petrin Hill incident was a dream, since unlike the other dreams it was not explicitly revealed to be such – only the nature of the events seemed unreal.

A general ignorance of Nietzche’s writings was acknowledged among the group, although this did not prevent us discussing the concept of multiple lives.

It was suggested  that the characters in the book were primarily pegs on which to hang philosophical ideas.  Kundera explicitly rejects the notion that his characters are anything other than artefacts of his imagination.  The book perhaps falls into a grey area between novel and philosophy – occasionally Kundera takes us off at a tangent (for example his discussion of kitsch).  However, we were nonetheless engaged by the four main characters as believable human beings going through a variety of life events.  It was also pointed out that Tereza’s dog Karenin was dealt with seriously.  Among the more overtly profound exploration of themes such as betrayal and love there was also attention paid to the relationships between people and dogs.

One of our group had just watched the film adaptation of the book, which Kundera had disliked and disowned.  The film had more or less jettisoned the philosophical material, but still, in the viewer’s opinion, created an interesting portrait of the characters and their lives.

Someone described The Unbearable Lightness of Being as curate’s egg of a book (i.e. ‘good in parts’)  They had found it quite difficult to read, and had not been as fully engaged by the characters as most of us. Tereza was widely agreed to be the most appealing character, with her vulnerability and dependency on Tomas’s love.

Returning to the philosophical content of the book, one reader suggested that it was like a firework show, with lots of colourful and interesting ideas thrown up into the air.  Unlike a philosopher, a novelist has no obligation to follow his ideas through to a logical conclusion.  He can simply scintillate.

We turned to the historical context of the book and talked about Eastern Europe in general and the current Syrian refugee crisis of 2015.  After this digression, we wondered if the nature of the book itself encouraged digression (a clever excuse for going off the point).  A member of the group brought us back on track, saying that the section of the book that particularly engaged him was the part dealing with Russian surveillance and their attempts to destroy Czech national feeling.  The operations of the secret police were well described.  It was pointed out that at the time Kundera was writing, there was no certainty that the communist bloc would ever come to an end.  Another reader found some of the most dramatic material in the book in this context – for example the conversations around Tomas’s possible retraction of his Oedipus article.

We were all amused by the remarks on academic dissertations on obscure topics, their pages unvisited “even on All Souls’ Day”.

It was mentioned that feminists had frequently objected to Kundera’s work .  We wondered if Tomas was a kind of male wish-fulfillment figure.  It was pointed out that he seemed easy to please, being contented as a surgeon, a window-cleaner, and latterly a country-dweller.  Window-cleaning, with its frequent opportunities for philandering, seemed to be best of all for him.

From this point, our conversational route became more of a spaghetti junction.  We got onto the nature of happiness, and the influence of climate.  All other things being equal, it was suggested that living within the tropics was conducive to happiness.  We then got onto the early youth of the proposer, and then to his proposal that in his experience Eastern Europeans were more intellectual that the British – ‘more thinkers than doers’.  We had insufficient statistical information to debate this further, but it took us onto the results of a supposed survey (probably mythical) of the IQs of American presidents (high score for Barack Obama here) and then onto the nature of Ghanaian Christian beliefs.  Having visited the west coast of Africa, by way of the Czech Republic and the United States, it was but a small further step into the Edinburgh night, as all the beer bottles were now emptied.